Programming Interpretation; Playing with Texts with the Ivanhoe and Rebecca Games

  1. 1. Geoffrey Rockwell

    McMaster University

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"Although it stops short of approving the sheer fabrication of additional text, the notion that non-authorial readings are 'equally valid as aesthetic activities' expresses a nostalgic desire for the pre-Romantic freedom to choose ...." (Alford, "Improving the Text", English Romanticism: Preludes and Postludes, p. 19)
Textual games like the Ivanhoe Game developed by Johanna Drucker and Jerome McGann encourage the fabrication of text as a form of discovery. Such games that allow players to recreate a culture of textual editing, authoring, and adaptation deliberately raise questions about authority, criticism, and history. Following McGann from "Texts in N-Dimensions and Interpretation in a New Key", such games challenge the habit of separation between the object of interpretation and the interpreter, between the stable text and the critic. In Ivanhoe play the text is not stable; it is distorted by the moves of players as they perform roles like editor, critic, or madman.

But what is the place of the algorithm in the performance of textuality? What of the automatic fabrication that happens when we run programs on texts? In the Ivanhoe game the programming is a medium through which the players can interact with the each other and the text field. While you can play the game without a computer, a networked environment provides a gathering space for the play, facilitating the moves, and providing visualizations of the text field. The game engine, if you will, has a message of its own - it announces that this is a networked computer game and thereby authorizes play. In the Rebecca game, the topic of this paper, the only moves that can be made are programs that process some component of the text field. Thus the emphasis of the game is shifted from editorial or creative moves to algorithmic fabrication. Rebecca is therefore a character in the Ivanhoe game that privileges a particular type of move, though the spirit of the game is different as a result. Rebecca ends up being a site for the display of textual programming brilliance rather than wit, erudition, criticism and bibliographic play.

The Rebecca game grew out of conversations that we had as part of the team working on the Ivanhoe game. Ivanhoe could include algorithmic moves, though current implementations make the harder. It also has its roots in the game Core War (often called Core Wars) described by A. K. Dewdney in columns for Scientific American in the 1980s. (For HTML versions of those articles see Core War is a game where programmers create assembly language programs that play each other in battle until only one process is left running. (For more see

Rebecca, unlike Core War, is a collaborative game where programs are written to process text with an agreed upon goal in mind. Rebecca, like the character from Scott's novel, doesn't battle, she cures through the application of science and technology. The game starts with a Start.Text and a Goal. The goal could be to change all gendered words in the text or to answer an interpretative question about the text. Each player makes moves by writing a program that processes the Start.Text (or the Output.Text of a previous move) and outputs an OutPut.Text. Players can only make moves on the OutPut.Texts of the moves of other players. The programs written are themselves entered into the record and can be treated as text for moves, though we are not yet sure what that would yield. At any point a player can propose for a vote that the result of a move has met the goal and that the game is therefore over.

Rebecca is itself a move in an ongoing exploration of humanities computing games and algorithmic interpretation. It proposes a practice where programming can be done in community and be assessed both according to preset interpretative goals and by peers during the game. The game is a form of peer-review. First, the players have to assess if a trajectory of moves can be said to meet the goal. Second, every player, when they chose to work with the output of another player is, in effect, affirming that the previous move helped toward the final goal. The end result is an inverted tree of moves in which one trajectory proved successful - the moves that contributed to that path constitute the successful evolution of code for the goal.

To return the Alford quotation above, what type of activity does Rebecca validate? What desires does Rebecca hold? While it is early in the game, Rebecca has been designed with the following community goals:

The development of a community of text programmers that collaborate in a fashion that advances our understanding of how computing can assist interpretation. Can we leverage a willingness to play, compete and show off to advance the field?
The development of reference models for solving hermeneutical problems through programming. Properly documented games should become accessible sources for projects with similar problems. For this reason the code and discussion of a game should be open and accessible. Can we leverage the creative programmers desire for recognition for their work by documenting it in play?
The development of a practice that encourages and rewards excellence in programming in the humanities. As such, Rebecca as a practice, presents an alternative to peer-review in the form of playful exhibition towards an end. Can we imagine exhibition of programming skill as an alternative to other types of exhibition for review?
To conclude, in this presentation the authors will do the following:

Briefly demonstrate the game play of the Ivanhoe game as played with the James' story, "The Turn of the Screw".
Discuss the rules of the Rebecca game as played by the authors in its first iteration and show a summary of the moves and their results.
Discuss the potential for algorithmic games for collaborative development in the humanities.
1. Alford, John A. "Improving the Text", English Romanticism: Preludes and Postludes. Ed. Donald Shoonmaker and John A. Alford. East Lansing, Michigan: Colleagues Press. 1993. Pages 1-19.
2. Drucker and McGann. Ivanhoe Game. ( Accessed in November, 2003.
3. McGann, Jerome. "Texts in N-Dimensions and Interpretation in a New Key", in a forthcoming issue of Text Technology on the Ivanhoe Game.
4. James, Henry. "The Turn of the Screw", Charlottesville, Virginia: E-Text Centre, University of Virginia. (
5. "Corewars - King of the Hill", ( Accessed in November, 2003.

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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