April 25, 2004

Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling 2/2

by Nick Montfort · , 8:09 am

Reflections on day two (Friday, April 23) of Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling, by Noah, Nick, and conference co-organizer Jeremy Douglass. The conference was at UCLA in the Hammer Museum. Noah has the master copy of this document, but I’ll go ahead and post the version I have and he can update it later if he likes Minor updates from Noah’s version of the document have been made…

The keynote address, “Topsight and Pattern Recognition,” was offered by Rita Raley. Works cited included William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and the conspiracy-diagram art of Mark Lombardi; the talk took up the relationship between surveillance and digital narrative…

The obsession with the footage in Pattern Recognition — from print and film critical perspectives, not new media ones; and also from code-cracking ones — provided a view of several new ways that works in digital media are experiences, even when they don’t do computation, select from a database, or otherwise act interactively. Nick: In response to William Gibson’s surveillance-art-creating Nora, Rita offers our own Noah, and The Impermanence Agent, as an example of real surveillance-based art, although localized and voluntary. Noah: She also comments on the conference-surveillance in which Nick and I are currently engaged, as well as discussing the fan community around “the footage” in Gibson’s novel and (in response to Jeremy’s question) contrasting it with our own new media reading and discussion community. Nick: One point that came to mind: the more “new media ecology” perspective is important, I think, both for its own sake and because, if we look at non-interactive works, we can better figure out what qualities of digital media afford what sorts of experiences. In other words, we should look at non-interactive works as a control group, so we can better understand what qualities are essential to those that are interactive. Not a new idea — that’s what Cybertext does — but it could inform the study of non-interactive digital media, too.

Zabet Patterson spoke about the database as a narrative and cultural form, describing a collaborative art project that purchased the rights to an anime face and encouraged artists, rather than manga producers, to work with it, finally transferring copyright to a foundation and prohibiting the use of the face. Nick: So these slides that show images of the face are copyright violations! Aiee! I think the term “database” is being used here simply to refer to persistent computer memory of any sort, not a relational database, as the term is usually used in academia and industry. Also, isn’t the project mainly about taking a piece of “intellectual property” away from low-cultural artists and only allowing high-cultural artists to use it? Jeremy:It would be interesting to consider what would happen if the image had been given into a creative commons open license instead. Perhaps what is happening is simulating death — Ann Lee lives through image commerce, when it ends she dies… but perhaps it is requiring illegal activity — activity which it knows will occur in order to discuss the piece. Noah: Interestingly, this presentation makes some moves that are similar to Rita’s — looking at a “digital film” (in this case, “One Million Kingdoms”) as both digital and nostalgically connected to earlier media eras, and also a connection to conspiracy theories and interpretive community. Nick: I think it’s quite important to study such things, and the images from this project are compelling. But I think looking for “the new” in “new media” by examining pieces of video art, or novels, for that matter, is deeply problematic. We’re sure to miss what computation can do, and focus on all the comfortable things that old media can do, as they appear in their new incarnation on the computer. This discussion about the malleability of information seems to apply just as well to how poems existed in the early modern era of manuscript-based dissemination. Noah: Yes, but it seems that the impetus for the project comes out of our current digital moment, and the transmission process for the initial image began with the creation of a 3D model of the character.

John Phillips and Patrick Deegan handed out copies of Scale to begin their presentation about distributive writing and open source software, a presentation named after the (kludgey) Concurrent Versioning System (CVS). Their book, an essay collection, is called Concurrency, Versioning, and Systems. Nick: Hey! We’re using free-as-in-beer software to do distributed writing RIGHT NOW. Noah: No doubt. And someone just said “database as possibility space” — the unified field theory of Lev and Kate. Nick: Perhaps I’ll put an interface on that database of possibility space and end up 0wnz1ng all your base! Noah: It’s interesting that they argue that the humanities have a lot to learn from the sciences about collaborative authorship. I have the impression that the collaborative authorship model in some science labs is “I’ve designed this experiment. You do it, write it up, and then add my name.” Nick: My experience has been quite different, and has involved two to five people standing around a whiteboard working through algebra, coming up with ideas about what are interesting directions to pursue, and discussing the relevance of results. But collaboration/multiple authorship means something different in high-energy physics, where papers can have (no joke) 1000 authors. Noah: John breaks into the presentation to bring up SubEthaEdit and the process Nick and I are undertaking at this moment. Nick responds by inviting others to join his computer-to-computer network, get the program from his public folder, and join in the process. Nick: But not this text! They’ll have to wait to comment on GTxA. Noah: contradicts Nick, having control of the document, and allows Jeremy access. Nick: Ah well, as long as you are going to get online and post this, you can have the conch (or share the conch.) Noah: I see Jeremy is commenting above, upsetting the linear flow of our document! As narrative time and event time are shown to diverge in our blognotes, how will we maintain that sense of gritty real-time reporting? Nick: It’s a Wikipedia-style edit war! Jeremy:: Not war, just my lack of socialization in this writing space. As I come to understand the conventions (rather than rules) I have a desire to auto-socialize. No punishments necc.! Noah: During the Q&A Lev points out that multiple authorship might need some economics to take hold in the humanities, as it has in the sciences. And he asks, given that just about every field of endeavor is collaborative now, maybe it’s nice that the humanities holds a space for individual work. Maybe it’s a differentiation worth preserving. The presenters respond by saying they don’t want to advocate for eliminating single authorship, and they don’t think that the science or open-source models are “solutions” for the humanities — they want to open the question of why we don’t see more group authorship in the humanities and how we might experiment. Meanwhile, the energy of group authorship has moved into a chat-like file being projected at the front of the room during the rest of the questions:

Kate: I wondered if you could indicate to us what kinds of
projects or products this would be most useful for

Jon: YES, (any form of writing)... WHERE'S MY DONGLE?

Kate: Could you be more specific?

Jon: Let's go back to code. In an open source community ... you have
header files, make files, etc. That's (required) for this system to be
used for making creative works — allowing them to used for text,
graphics.

All previous versions are saved.

Lev: Examples are different. Synchronized vs. Collabor-

Mark: Annotation of Ulysses — everyone is keeping track of versions.

Nick: Complexity! Combinatoric explosion! Confusion! William Gibson's
the difference engine: Collaboratively authored — not ghost writing,
drafting and revising — a different process than (that). Artists with
specifications that technologists implement vs. true collaboration. 
CVS: there doesn't appear to be any mechanism for organizing work, only
for looking at past differences in files.

Jon: put the user back into the position of having to make the decision
themselves.  In CVS, people are forced to resolve the conflict.

Lunch: nourishing and collaborative!

Mark Marino was the first after-lunch speaker: “Chatbots and Performative Citation.” His gender-performing chatterbots were mentioned here on GTxA of late. He showed Weizenbaum’s famous example transcript from Eliza/Doctor, then showed his results when he tried to reproduce this using the program at http://www.nu-woman.com/eliza.htm He said it probably took Weizenbaum a while to find a good transcript. Nick: This is no doubt true — but I also wonder if he used a faithful implementation of the program he’s discussing. Weizenabum’s original isn’t available. Noah: He shows P.a.u.l.a., which comes with male and female faces, and Virtual Woman. These are both chatbots that are quite prepared to discuss sexual topics, but the second is actually a “competition” between the player and the woman. In order to win the competition the player must perform “sensitive” heterosexual male behavior in order to get the virtual woman to remove her poorly-rendered clothes. Nick: I think of Japanese “sim games” and (in the U.S.) Virtual Valerie rather than chatterbots. I must say, when I hear references to the program’s “database” cropping up every other sentence, I begin to think it’s about as useful as referring to the program’s “pixels.” But I suppose it connects a body of pre-prepared text to the computer program … Noah: Yes, these are all conversational characters, but perhaps not all chatbots as generally understood. Nick: Aha, cookies are used to store state across conversations, to do something similar to Racter. Some amusing narratological banter transpires… Noah: He says he’s embedded an elaborate family backstory, but when he watches his students interact with the characters the students only want the bots to talk about them (that is, talk about the students, rather than themselves). While he thinks they do a good job of engaging with Butler’s performance of gender, he thinks they’re a very difficult platform for narrative.

The talk “Angel Babies” was then given by Kris Nesbitt, about “vernacular, homemade” websites made by women who lost their babies near the time of birth. Women who invested emotion in the possibility of the child, then faced a traumatic event, find themselves unable to discuss the subject or even have their loss acknowledged in normal social circles. Seven of 1000 women (28,042 in 2002) face this situation in the U.S. Ultrasound images, foot and handprints, empty nursery photos are shown on the sites; part of elaborate communities. Noah: Connection with Bakhtin’s genre theory — the angel babies genre allows the mothers to construct a place in which their experience is real and can be discussed with other women who have had this experience. (The first site is for triplets, one named Noah.) As the genre has grown, more recent websites have reported that they were created because the existing websites were so helpful to them. The sites often include advice for women who are going in to have labor induced so that they may give birth to babies already known to be dead. It’s hard for people to listen to her talk about it, which gives us some insight into how hard it must be for these mothers to find people to talk with. Nick: Rather difficult to watch some of the images from websites, and I know it certainly is much easier to deal with an academic presentation of this sort than a social situation in which someone needs support.

Noah Shenker spoke next, about the digitization of holocaust testimony. He discussed the problematic approach to searching in the Spielberg-sponsored Shoah archives, which can focus viewers on pre-set ideas of trauma and lead them to neglect in-depth testimonies for surfing.

(No break between panels, because John Kerry’s advance team is kicking us out of this space promptly at 5pm. In fact, a few Secret Service agents are sure to be attending the final panel on professionalization. Yes, our conference is situated right in between appearances by Janeane Garofalo and John Kerry in this space.)

On the next panel, Sean Fenty kicked things off with “Fear and Loathing in Raccoon City” — a reading of Resident Evil — Code: Veronica. It’s part of a panel with three presentations on “survival horror” games. It’s a bit jarring, coming without break after the previous panel, which touched on some truly horrifying topics. (Resident Evil — Code: Veronica. is also the game that Susana Tosca discussed interestingly at DAC around this time last year; a group of us went out afterwards and beat House of the Dead III in a local arcade.) Genre in video games is a bit more complex and different than in film, since the gameplay participates in it. Alone in the Dark as the first example of this survival horror genre. Dimly-lit environments, fighting zombies, resource management. Jeremy: Sean’s analysis of annoyance and the problem of inconsistent object use/usability in game designs surprises me. He remarks that some people find it to be a fundamental problem of trying to reconcile game design with narrative, but that he suspects emergent problems are the result of “lazy coding.” It would be interesting to expose him to dialog from the IF community about appropriate use design problems — to a certain extent they are almost intractable unless the number of objects is quite low or bottlenecked … perhaps it is because the genre he is describing is quite object and puzzle “thin” and highly linear? Nick: In thinking more about this genre, I’m reminded of the side-fighting, side-scrolling, survival horror conflation Gladiator arcade game. Sean’s comments about how different aspects (including ones related to film and narrative) contribute to the experience, contradicting the pure game theory perspective, seem right on target. Jeremy: I agree. In fact, his excitement about not having to start with an apologia for narrative game studies notwithstanding, it is sort of embarrassing that we still need to do the work in public talks of insisting on mixed analytics for mixed media — or rather, to defend the fact that our unified heterogeneous approach is a response to the difference of Codename: Veronica — it shouldn’t be read as just a book or a film. Could we invent a word that you can say at the beginning of a talk that indicates you’ve entered a new media “safe space” and then just get down to it? Sean deserves the right to use his time better.

Laurie Taylor then took up the baton, talking of siblings and doppelgangers (both in the character and play structures) in these games. Duplicating ninjas and other characters (e.g., Mario and Luigi) by duplicating the same object and modifying it slightly, as is efficient in code. Final Fantasy characters look similar, sibling-like. Nick: The tanks in Combat are long-last brothers! And the ostrich-jockeys in Joust! Actually, I think there is some explanation for this sibling phenomenon that draws on the similarity of opposing playing pieces — identical complements of chess pieces or checkers, tokens that all look the same except for color in the game Sorry!, etc. So, I think there may be something even earlier than programming that can explain this sort of sibling doubling, although it wouldn’t explain everything. Certainly not Sam & Max Hit the Road. Jeremy: Laurie mentions that we should adopt critical methods that are appropriate to our objects (games) of study rather than running everything through the (insertyourcriticaltheory) mill. This might also be an issue of respect — not to harp, but with most objects of study this should be given.

Zack Whalen talked about musical and aural landscapes in survival horror. Zack gave two examples of playing with the diagesis by playing with either the “sanity effect” of a sudden simulated turning on volume (on a console game) or unexpected muting. He stressed the importance if this effect and how it reemphasizes the centrality of sound to the game mechanic not just as an aesthetic but in that the game then becomes unplayable, you run around “and quickly die.” Is there a slight disjuncture in his movement to then emphasize music to the exclusion of game-mechanic effect sounds? Jeremy: Zack’s theoretical model is quite poetic/narratological, and he starts out discussing the metaphoric and metonymic in Super Mario Brothers. Comparing the overworld and underworld themes, he plays a clip and looks a piece of musical notation. I don’t know what “chromatic” means compared to being in a minor key, but I’m impressed already. Noah: He compares the opening Super Mario theme to peppy Vegas or Caribbean music. I wonder if he’s heard Lucky Dube’s album that begins with that sample. Jeremy: Remixing and sampling music cultures use video game samples … but I was sort of expecting him to talk about Dance Dance Revolution or other games which are a huge, interactive jukebox. Although I suppose these immediately flatten the difference between music made for and within video games as opposed to pop that happens to be interfaced through a game. Noah: It’s remarkable how bad the voice acting is in Silent Hill. Like it’s spoken by people who don’t actually understand the words, only know the phonemes they must mouth.

The sequence of panels ended — save for the final panel, in which Noah and I are both taking part — with a presentation by the eTV (Extended Television) group at Georgia Tech, headed by Janet Murray. They discussed “Love and Diane,” lead film of PBS’s 2004 POV season. Jeremy: The group had previously worked with Celebrity Mole and … Microsoft. Talk about extremes — the PBS show talks about young mothers whose children are taken away, drug problems, and all kinds of familial trauma and social justice issues. No mention of what Microsoft wanted from TV. That seems to be part of the interest of this team — not only do they come from an incredibly diverse set of background disciplines, but their definition of eTV is extremely expansive — basically any new media or new technology on a television or on something else that works with a television signal. I’m assuming that game consoles are excluded from this. The began by focusing on the “explore the timeline by theme” interface, which was an arrangement of clips. Interesting how their approach to create an indexical dimension along topic or “theme” mirrors many of the Shoah Holocaust archive design principles and some of the subsequent working out of GUI. I wonder if Noah Shenker would feel that interrupts and does violence to this, or if it increases the coherence.

Well, since Noah & Nick (who have the document) are preparing to be empaneled, that’s a wrap. Nick: There’s a reading tonight, too, which I’ll attend, but I’ll fly to Vermont right afterwards, so I’ll drop off the document now…

6 Responses to “Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling 2/2”


  1. Ian Bogost Says:

    Thanks for your great coverage of this conference! I was sorry I wasn’t able to attend.

    Thanks too for singing the praises of SubEthaEdit, which deserves far more cred and attention than it gets.

  2. B. Rickman Says:

    re: the images from Patterson’s presentation, I believe they are basically press kit images free for use. The No Ghost Just a Shell project embraces some weird ideas of legal control, permission to view “One Million Kingdoms” is highly restricted, Annlee’s image can no longer be used. To me that just makes it attractive fruit for plunder.

  3. zach whalen Says:

    Zach here (of the Survival Horror panel). I just wanted to respond to Jeremy’s question about why I chose not to talk about games like DDR. I think you’re right on when you say they are “pop interfaced through a video game.” More than that, however, the phenomenon of “rhythm games,” which I understand are much bigger in Japan, might still offer the same basic complexities (is that an oxymoron?) of paradigmatic involvement and metonymic reward/failure encouragement. But with these rhythm games, the music is foregrounded rather than supporting the visual whereas the visual (of the simulated club or whatever) in DDR is in the background. I’ve even seen one that completely inverts the /SMB/ example I talked about because each beat you get right advances an animation forward one frame.

    I’m afraid the Super Mario Brothers stuff was a bit distracting, however, since my plan was to use the SMB as an example of a musical analysis that could then be applied to other games like Silent Hill or whatever else.

    Noah — I’d be interested if you see any connection between what I’m getting at with music and the ideas of “playable media” and “instrumental texts” you presented on. I’m ultimately situating my ideas within a context of the “Immersion, Engagement, and Flow” essay in First Person (with music being the Fifth Business or agent that ‘teaches’ engagement and ‘affords’ immersion), and it seems that “instrumentality” first well with the flow stage.

    By the way, we (sean, laurie, and i) have posted our visual/aural aids on our website at http://www.academic-gamers.org. We’ll also be posting our own notes and the full texts of our presentations as soon as we recover from our flight.

    –zach

  4. noah Says:

    Zach, one nice thing about calling media “playable” is that it turns our attention to the way in which it’s played. I think what you drew out about the relationship between music and play certainly is in line with this sort of approach. As for the idea of instrumental texts (and textual instruments) I probably should have been more clear. They’re both approaches to making text playable that come out of the electronic writing community — so not as applicable to your project. But that’s not to say that instrumental notions of play might not have a role in your thinking. It seems appropriate, after all, when in a musical/playable context.

  5. david slomovic Says:

    Noah Shenker: are you the brother of Amy Shenker, who went to U of Mich? Used to go out with her when we both lived in DC a million years ago. Came across your name and freaked. If so, respond.

    David Slomovic

  6. WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » SubEthaEdit Says:

    [...] one by the Coding Monkeys. (For another example of the program in opertation, see these notes.) When I mentioned this application to several suits (consult [...]

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