Cardplay, a New Textual Instrument

  1. 1. David Durand

    Brown University

  2. 2. Noah Wardrip-Fruin

    Brown University

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Introduction: What is textual play?
We are exploring what it means to 'play' textual literature.
We don't mean, by this, playing games that incorporate
textual material within their structure but rather textual and
literary structures for which play is a primary means of
interaction. We are conducting our exploration both as creators
and scholars of digital media. This paper discusses a number
of related issues — including the notion of "instrumental texts"
discussed by electronic literature authors, the critical games
proposed by Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker, and what
Markku Eskelinen has characterized as the challenge of
ludology (the study of games) to traditional literary study. This
discussion then becomes the background for describing a system
we are building — Cardplay — its design goals, our authoring
work within it, and its relationship to prior work in the hypertext
and artificial intelligence communities.
Texts and instruments
I n the electronic writing community there has been
increasing talk, in the last few of years, about the idea of
instrumental texts (Cayley, Moulthrop, Wardrip-Fruin). An
instrumental text is meant to be played, and provides
affordances for such play, much as folk musical instruments
do (as the frets on a guitar invite the production of the notes of
the scale). Such texts can and should provide opportunities for
practice and reward mastery. What is practiced and mastered
— again, the analogy is drawn with musical instruments — is
often presented as a physical discipline. Instrumental texts also
show close resemblances to computer games in these ways.
Given that most works presented as examples of instrumental
texts always use the same material for their play (always, so to
speak, 'play the same tune') the analogy with games may be the
more accurate of the two. However, the type of engagement
that authors hope to produce with instrumental texts may be
more musical than game-like.
A textual instrument, on the other hand, is a tool for textual
performance which may be used to play a variety of
compositions. In this sense it is evocative of Thalia Field's
figure of the "language piano" — something that one learns to
play, and which may produce a much wider variety of texts
than is the case for those projects normally discussed as
instrumental texts. However, a textual instrument need not be
like a prepared piano. The direct selection of text, rather than
the manipulation of a non-linguistic device, can be its interface.
And the relationship between a textual instrument's interface
affordances and the possible textual outcomes need not be
one-to-one at all levels (as it is with a piano's keys, though they
may be played in many combinations). Gaining an intuitive
understanding of how a textual instrument will react for a given
composition is part of learning to play that piece. Compositions,
here, consist of a body of text (and/or a means of acquiring
text) and a set of tunings for the instrument(s) used, where a
tuning is a particular configuration of the interaction
mechanisms and settings for the procedures (along with any
instructions on how these change over time).
We have previously built two1 textual instruments — one, for
performing local pre-parsed texts (and for which currently there
is one composition, Regime Change), the other for playing live
network RSS feeds of current news. Both of these operate using
the logic of n-gram statistical models of text (first used in
textual play by Claude Shannon) and exhibited strengths and
weaknesses that might be expected from such a purely statistical
approach. An intuitive understanding of how to get 'good' results
from both works is possible, however, despite the fact that there
is no pre-set goal to the interaction. Because of the aleatoric
nature of the automatic processes in both works, and the size
and opaqueness of a statistical model of even a short text, these
instruments are easy to compose for, but relatively resistant to
precise control, by author or reader. Cardplay, on the other
hand, is designed to operate more directly out of human
authorship (of texts and rules), with interaction techniques and
infrastructural motifs more typical of hypertexts or rule-based
artificial intelligence systems. The aim is a blend of these
parallel (non-intersecting) but closely related sets of techniques.
Playing with games
I nterest in games has a long history within the literary
community. The work of the Oulipo, for example, could be
seen as a relatively recent entry in a series of authoring games
stretching back through literary history. (Amusingly, the Oulipo
have referred to those employing difficult authoring constraints
before them as "anticipatory plagiarists" — and characterized
themselves as rats who design the mazes from which they
propose to escape.) Critical interpretation has also been
characterized as a game. Warren Motte has done important
work on 'playtexts'. However there has been little attention to games in a more formal sense — games involving rules, moves,
and outcomes. Perhaps this is because few literal games have,
before the last couple of decades, contained much of literary
Now this is changing, and rapidly. Critics from literary
backgrounds are among the most active in the formation of the
rising field of 'game studies' (or 'ludology'). Meanwhile, other
critics have proposed means by which the metaphorical game
of literary interpretation can be literalized — via the
introduction of rules, moves, and outcomes into public acts of
interpretation carried out in a computational media environment.
Among those from a literary background who are now helping
create the field of game studies, we will primarily focus on
Markku Eskelinen's recent work. While we might also fruitfully
consider the work of Espen Aarseth, Lisbeth Klastrup, Susana
Tosca, and Torill Mortensen, it is Eskelinen who has most
clearly brought concepts from ludology into contact with the
notions of "instrumental text" and "textual instrument" . He
points out the importance of overcoming the "fear of variety"
in order to understand instruments fashioned precisely so that
each reading is different. We must find methods of reading not
only textual outcomes (which vary) but the systems that produce
them (which remain consistent).
In another sense, the creation of systems for 'playing literature'
— but for critical purposes, rather than artistic ones — has been
a focus of the Speculative Computing Laboratory at the
University of Virginia. Best known of these projects is The
Ivanhoe Game first proposed by Jerome McGann and Johanna
Drucker. Here some types of literary interpretation are
formalized in a manner that would be recognizable to
ludologists, even if they do not fully satisfy all formal
definitions of the term 'game'.
Playing cards for drama
I n Cardplay, we are trying to create a textual instrument
whose center of gravity is clearly literary, focused on the
creation of a work, a play, that is in some senses conventionally
literary, and yet to make the process of playing the work
simultaneously be the the process of playing a game in the most
literal sense. In Cardplay, players manipulate virtual cards
(each associated with text that is not fully visible to the players),
in an attempt to win the card game (Solitaire is also possible).
However, a successful play wins points when the card played
interacts with other cards played to advance the creation of the
script of a play, whose transcript accumulates and may be saved.
Copyright in the result may be automatically granted to the
winner of the game, by the program, on the successful
completion of the game. Players of the game are thus in
competition with each other to advance the story. Unlike many
interactive fictions, however, neither player is identified with
a character in the ongoing story, nor is the plot of the story
necessarily determinative of victory in the game.
Significant aspects of Cardplay are inspired by the description
of Mark Bernstein's systems Thespis and Card Shark. In
Berstein's Card Shark, players create texts by playing 'cards'
each containing a fragment of narrative. Each card may have
some named properties, which are active once the card is
played. Cards may also have preconditions which must match
the properties of active cards. Thespis extended this notion to
a self-composing drama system in which a number of artificial
agents try to play their own cards, with a similar condition
In neither of Bernstein's systems was the notion of a game used.
In Thespis, a number of standard AI techniques (Blackboard
systems, Agents) are used in a minimal way to create a reading
experience. Cardplay cards can be divided into two types:
Fundamental cards, which respresent aspects of events,
characters, places; and Master cards, which create textual
content in the transcript. There is no procedural aspect to
Cardplay cards, unlike Bernstein's Thespis agents, and the
conditions by which cards are matched are more complex than
those in Card Shark. A Cardplay card is more like a logical
rule in an AI system, which has variables that it can match in
the cards 'on deck', and results that it presents, to which other
cards can match. When played, a Master card, and the cards
that it has matched with, are all removed, and the transcript is
augmented with the results.
We believe that the methods of symbolic AI provide a fertile
area for exploration in the creation of literary systems and
games. The thorny AI issues of how the knowledge in such
systems is grounded are irrelevant to the creation of the
experience of irreal worlds, which by definition are not so
grounded. As authors, we find what has come to seem the
naivete of early AI methods quite attractive, because it means
that the resulting systems are relatively easy to understand and
control. Finally, we find it interesting that in our system the
reader will play a game whose issue will provide a soul for the
machine that is our text.
1. <
Bernstein, Mark. "Card Shark and Thespis: Exotic tools for
hypertext narrative." Proceedings of the twelfth ACM conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, Århus, Denmark.
New York, 2001. 41-50.
Cayley, John. From Byte to Inscription: An Interview with
John Cayley. Interviewed by Brian Kim Stefans. The Iowa
Review Web, February, 2003. Accessed 2005-03-21. <http
Eskelinen, Markku. "Six Problems in Search of a Solution: The
challenge of cybertext theory and ludology to literary theory."
Dichtung Digital (March 2004). <http://www.dichtun>
McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the
World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
Meehan, J.R. The Metanovel: Writing Stories by Computer.
Yale Computer Science Research Report 74. New Haven: Yale,
Moulthrop, Stuart. Interview with Stuart Moulthrop.
Interviewed by Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Accessed 2005-03-21.
ature/moulthrop/> The Iowa Review Web
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. "From Instrumental Texts to Textual
Instruments." Proceedings of Digital Arts and Culture.
Melbourne, Australia, May 2003.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

June 15, 2005 - June 18, 2005

139 works by 236 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double checked.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (25), ALLC/EADH (32), ACH/ALLC (17)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

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