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Learning to Write at a Distance

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 4 Let us dispense with the idea that there are such things as ‘digital natives’. 1 The phrase has outlived whatever usefulness it may once have had, the reason being: “magic”.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 4 Arthur C. Clarke once said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. 2 Unless you can build and program an iPad from scratch, it is magic. Unless you can build the algorithms that populate your browser (indeed, even the browser, the OS itself) with content, the web and associated technologies are again: magic. In this essay, I recount a classroom experience where  learning to write for the web, learning how the web writes, included learning how algorithms create the content and the experiences that we have online.  Writing at a distance turns our students into modern day mages by teaching them to write algorithmically.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 I am talking, of course, about video games.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 William Urrichio writing in 2005 pointed out the ways that video games represented history. He was not overly concerned with the graphical representation of the past (period-correct clothing and architecture) but rather with the ways that the rule-sets of the games allowed for different understandings of history itself to be represented. He suggested that historians should engage with history, and the point of intersection was historiography, that the rule-sets of games directly correspond with the historiographic traditions within which historians write. 3

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 6 In 2007, Ian Bogost coined the phrase, ‘procedural rhetoric’ to express much the same thought. 4 The idea that the processes of computation themselves embody a kind of rhetoric and representation of how the world works is also a kind of cosmology. One can learn a lot about how game designers view the world by closely reading their code. 5 In the spring of 2013 I set out to explore these ideas with a seminar called #hist3812 video games and simulations for historians. 6

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 How can one teach this? Let us agree that the rules of games represent something of how the game-makers/players view the world’s workings. I opened the seminar with a consideration of games and rituals in the Greco-Roman world. We looked at everything from bull-leaping in Bronze Age Knossos to the games of death in the Etruscan and early Roman worlds. Some have seen in the plan of the middle Minoan phase of this palace (towards the end of the 2nd millennium BC) a replication in architecture of a broader cosmology, that its very layout reflects the way the Minoans saw the world (this is partly also because this plan seems to replicate in other Minoan centres around the Aegean). Jeffrey Soles, pointing to the architectural play of light and shadow throughout the various levels of Knossos argues that this maze-like structure was all part of the ecstatic journey, and ties shamanism directly to the agonies of sport and game in this location. 7 Thus these game and their associated architectural elements were more about restoring the balance to the world, of expunging defilement, of purification. In later Etruscan and Roman society, gladiatorial games for instance were not about entertainment but rather about cleansing society of disruptive elements, about bringing everything into balance again, hence the elaborate theatre of death that developed. 8

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 We looked at the difference between magicians and priests in the ancient world. The magician of course was a figure of some disrepute, for unlike the priest (who read the signs, who did the rituals in the correct order, who fulfilled the obligations to the gods) the magician dragged the spirits from the world of the dead, to compel them to tell the future. The figure of the magician was also often a necromancer (or in the styling of Terry Pratchett, a practitioner of post-mortem communications). Straddling this divide is the Oracle. The oracle had both elements of revelation and compulsion. Any decent oracle worth its salt would not give a straight-up answer, either, but rather required layers of revelation and interpretation. At Delphi, the God spoke to the Pythia, the priestess, who sat on the stool over the crack in the earth. When the god spoke, the fumes from below would overcome her, causing her to babble and writhe uncontrollably. Priests would then ‘interpret’ the prophecy, in form of a riddle.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Why riddles? Riddles are ancient. They appear on cuneiform texts. Even Gollum knew what a true riddle should look like – a kind of lyric poem asking a question that guards the right answer in hints and wordplay. (Bilbo cheated). We looked at games of divination in the ancient world and of course, the I-Ching. The I-Ching, a collection of texts that depending on dice throws can be combined and read in particular ways, is essentially a machine for producing riddles. But they also create a simulation, of how the world can come to be, of how it can be controlled.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 4 I put it to the students that what we were engaged upon, in learning to write history-through-algorithms, was akin to a kind of oracle or riddle building, a way of describing the world that the player – the reader – needs to explore.   In this way, the reader may construct or build their own understandings not by reading and intellectually understanding arguments, but through experience. 9 Because we are engaged with the human past, it is also a kind of necromancy in that we might summon the spirits of the past forward, recreated and re-substantiated in digital form.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 There was a bit of attrition during these first few weeks of the class.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Assignment
The students had one major project to complete over the duration of this course, to design what the ideal game would look/feel/behave like. (I am grateful to Mark Sample for posting his teaching materials on video game criticism, 10 to which this assignment owes a debt). The assignment prompt was:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In small groups (assigned by the instructor), you will produce a 40 – 50 page game design document for an ideal history game (or meta game; a game about games) that distills what you have learned about telling history through interactive media. This document will also demonstrate in passing what you have learned as a result of this course. You will need to reference the appropriate games, history learning, games and history, design, psychology, cognitive science or other literatures to explain and show how your game/simulation would achieve its desired ends. For the purposes of this course you do not need to produce the actual game. Although, you may wish to create a playable mock-up or ‘beta’ of what the game might look like; it should demonstrate key concepts or gameplay mechanics, and be about 10 minutes worth of play. If you create a mockup along those lines, your written document can be correspondingly shorter.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 6 Such a big project holds much potential for running off the rails. Numerous checkpoints were established throughout the term to combat this. The students also had to blog weekly, reacting to not just the readings and the class discussion, but also to what was happening in their groups. These posts may be read at 3812.graeworks.net. 11 There is an interesting thread that runs through all of them, of ‘accuracy’. In the earliest posts, ‘accuracy’ is conceived in terms of visual fidelity to the props of history such as proper uniforms; correctly rendered architecture; period-appropriate speech. Roughly halfway through the course there is a pivot. I had the students play ‘Depression Quest’, an interactive fiction (text adventure).

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression. You are given a series of everyday life events and have to attempt to manage your illness, relationships, job, and possible treatment. This game aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.
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15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 3 Working through how interactive fiction can produce emotional impact wrought a change in the idea of ‘accuracy’ held by the class. By removing the graphics, by confronting them with a story generated by their own choices that focused on the experience of an illness, the earlier lessons of the course began to click with the students. Subsequent discussions in class were richer and nuanced (and the video game fan-boy element receded somewhat). One student put it during the class discussion, “the strength of video games like this is that they create empathy; they’re more like what we’re used to reading when we read history, but because our interests and choices make a difference, we care more about what’s happening to the characters.”

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 3 Outcomes
At the end of the course, there were six group projects submitted. Did students learn to be magicians? Did they see how algorithmic writing could produce knowledge, understanding, and empathy for actors in the past? Did they make the connection between what they were doing, and the way information on the web is presented to them? As is usually the case, the answer is ‘you win some, you lose some’. Chad Black, who has tried a related tack in one of his courses, wrote,

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The students essentially turned the classic document collection Victors and Vanquished into text games, and conveniently one group chose the Spanish perspective and the other chose the Mexicans. Click through those links to see the finished products.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 One note on doing this– the process of writing such a story lends itself to reproducing the myth of exceptional men, in which individual decisions and actions are preeminent in making the conquest. 13

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 I found this to be true also in this class to greater or lesser extents in the projects. However, one project, “The Medic’s War”, exceeded all my expectations. Its creators wrote,

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Our [world war I] game looks to broaden the emotional range of video games and the players. We strive to illuminate the tragedy of war by creating an empathy with a group that has not been explored yet – the field medic. Many games that show history are focused colonizing, on conquering, about playing at war […] Our game doesn’t rely on domination but rather attempting to show the true nature of war; no matter which side you’re playing on, there will be casualties, soldiers who are following orders, that need aid. 14

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 A screenshot from the game prototype, ‘The Medic’s War’. It combined role-playing game elements (as in the left panel) with code-words that unlocked interactive fiction texts (as in the right panel) to create empathy and an algorithmic experience of the pity of war.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 7 Written at a distance, written not at the level of narrative but in the construction of possible outcomes, these students designed an emergent narrative to evoke the pity of war.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Conclusion
Our last few sessions included a discussion about how the lessons that this course taught translated into other digital media, including Google Scholar, Wikipedia, and even the robots who are starting to write the sporting news. 15 Brittney, a self-described non-gamer, wrote on the course blog,

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 If games [read, ‘digital media’] allow the player to immerse themselves into the game in a natural manner, the choices and actions in the game become a sort of digital extension of the player’s mind. This way, it is not just the never ending question of the accuracy of the facts and what is included or excluded […] the player is left to their own devices and the more engaged they become, the more they take away from the game. THIS is what I consider good history.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 1 A person can engage with the storyline, the events of the past reconstructed in the game, and when they are able to immerse themselves into the game, they absorb the facts and repercussions of the past without having to be consciously aware of all of the minute details. Thus engaging them on a personal level with the past. Learning to play WHILE they are playing to learn. 16

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 4 This is the value of trying to turn our students into magicians, of teaching how algorithmic knowledge can be created, of learning to write distantly.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 2 About the author: Shawn Graham is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of History at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada. He blogs at electricarchaeology.ca, posts materials for his tenure portfolio at graeworks.net, and is all over twitter at @electricarchaeo.  Currently, he’s working on experiencing place-based history algorithmically via something he calls ‘Historical Friction‘, with Stuart Eve.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Notes:

  1. 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0
  2. A phrase heavily overused to excuse many ills. On the far more restricted original use of the term, see Marc Prensky, ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1’. On the Horizon 9, no. 5 (1 September 2001): 1–6, http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/10748120110424816.
  3. Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future. (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 21.
  4. William Urrichio, “Simulation, History, and Computer Games” in Handbook of Computer Game Studies ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein (Cambridge MA: MIT Press Press, 2005), 336.
  5. Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2007).
  6. As for instance, Mark Sample, ‘Rebooting counterfactual history with JFK Reloaded’ Play the Past May 19, 2011, http://www.playthepast.org/?p=1392.
  7. Shawn Graham, ‘History3812 Winter 2013’, Carleton University. Course blog at http://3812.graeworks.net.
  8. Jeffrey Soles, “The Functions of a Cosmological Center: Knossos in Palatial Crete” in Politeia: Society and State in the Aegean Bronze Age. Proceedings of the 5th International Aegean Conference / 5e Rencontre égéenne internationale, University of Heidelberg, Archäologisches Institut, 10-13 April 1994, ed. R. Laffineur and W-D Niemeier, Aegaeum 12.2:1995, 405-414.
  9. Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 1998), 10.
  10. Kevin Kee, Shawn Graham, Pat Dunae, John Lutz, Andrew Large, Michel Blondeau, and Mike Clare, ‘Towards a Theory of Good History through Gaming’ The Canadian Historical Review 90.9 (2009): 303-326, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/can/summary/v090/90.2.kee.html.
  11. Mark Sample, ‘Videogames in Critical Contexts, HNRS 353-002 (Spring 2012)’. George Mason University, http://samplereality.com/gmu/hnrs353-002/
  12. Shawn Graham, #hist3812 Digital History: Games & Simulations for Historians, Winter 2013, course blog, http://3812.graeworks.net.
  13. Zoe Quinn, Depression Quest 2013, http://www.depressionquest.com/.
  14. Chad Black, ‘Choose your own conquest!’ Parezco y digo May 5, 2013, http://parezcoydigo.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/chose-your-own-conquest/
  15. Mingarelli, Tucciarone, Bhandal and Lemieux, ‘The Medic’s War: final assignment for HIST3812’ April 4, 2013: 20.
  16. On news writing robots see S. Levy, ”Can an algorithm write a better news story than a human reporter?” Wired: Gadget Lab April 4, 2012, http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/04/can-an-algorithm-write-a-better-news-story-than-a-human-reporter/
  17. Brittney, ‘Wait…it’s not an actual sandbox? Or is it?’ #hist3812 March 20, 2013, http://www.3812.graeworks.net/2013/03/20/group-g7-r-brittney-wait-its-not-an-actual-sandbox-or-is-it/
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Source: http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/rethinking/graham-2013/