Critical Gaming in the Arts and Humanities

multipaper session
  1. 1. Neil Fraistat

    Maryland Institute for Technology and Humanities (MITH) - University of Maryland, College Park

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Audiences in London during the summer of 2002 could participate in Chris Hardman's Euphorium, an interactive virtual-reality theatrical production based on Coleridge's visionary poem, "Kubla Khan." Constructed as a gamelike maze with ten interlinked "environmental chambers," this installation allowed one person to enter every three minutes, wearing a special helmet that projected images in the space before their eyes, images representing portions of the poetic text. [slide] These images moved, combined, and reshaped themselves, accompanied by sound effects, in a kaleidoscopic multimedia experience meant to embody something of the poem's hallucinatory language in a 3D physical and virtual environment: STC on Ecstasy, as it were.

Michael Heim and others have theorized such immersive spaces, including, for example, the surround-sound projective environment of the CAVE, created at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory of the University of Illinois, Chicago, which was created as a tool for extremely high-end scientific visualizations, but which provided a model that could bring a whole new meaning to the phrase "getting into the text," as the Cave at Brown University has recently demonstrated. Indeed, Robert Coover and a group of creative writers at Brown have already experimenting in this direction. An article in the New York Times for August 19, 2002 describes these experiments as "another step in electronic writing's evolution from a set of digitally interconnected words and sentences to an enveloping experience that augments the text with sound, video and nearly tangible 3-D imagery." As the article explains, "Viewers can watch as words materialize and swirl through the air around them, or they can step into a rotating cube to see an E. E. Cummings quotation that has been digitally inscribed on two of the walls." In one 3D short story, words on the wall peel away as they are clicked on by a mouse, floating through the air and returning into the text in random places, changing the meaning of a sentence, or making nonsense of it. Such experiments suggest that we may one day see literary VR theaters, for example, in which Shelley or Joyce scholars make and share discoveries about the text while standing inside of Prometheus Unbound or Ulysses.

Such experiments also invoke the kind of cinematic, imaginative immersion produced by the best videogames. The fact is that Virtual Reality chambers, installation art, and immersive games grew up together in the 80s and 90s, and all three have always arguably "remediated" and "intermediated" one another. That history is complex and has only begun to be explored by critics such as Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, Espen Aarseth, and Lev Manovich. For the most part, however, humanities scholars remain ignorant of the widely practiced medium of digital gaming. Many of us tend to collapse all of them into a vaguely aggregated genre, the "video game," rather than differentiating them, as we should, by technology platforms and narrative or other formal schemes.

This is not the place for a taxonomy of digital games, but the session I am proposing would take seriously Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker's recent claim that "Humanities scholarship without gameplay, even when the scholarship explicitly devotes itself to self-reflection, inevitably fails to engage with essential features of the works it means to study, including the workings of the mind engaged with such works." The three papers in this session will explore the new possibilities available to humanities scholars for structuring virtual game spaces that engage users and programmers in the kinds of critical self-reflection and performativity called for by McGann and Drucker, ranging from a paper by Geoffrey Rockwell on the Ivanhoe Game (designed by McGann and Drucker) and Rebecca (designed by Rockwell and Steve Ramsey), to papers by Ron Broglio and Steven E. Jones on experimental immersive games situated in the Villa Diodati MOO of Romantics Circle (>) that focus on the poetry of William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, respectively.

The proposed session is a follow up to a very successful one given by the same presenters at the Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism last August. It is also intentionally designed to serve as a complement to the one that Geoffrey Rockwell is proposing on "The Study of Games and their Culture." We are hoping that the two sessions, if accepted, could be run back to back.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Göteborg University (Gothenburg)

Gothenborg, Sweden

June 11, 2004 - June 16, 2004

105 works by 152 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (24), ALLC/EADH (31), ACH/ALLC (16)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None