Rituals, Cheating, and The Dream of Possibility

2019-02-01 · by Sharang Biswas
tagged Blog / Columns

The first time I took up a pencil and underlined a sentence in a novel, my hands shook. The line winked at me cheekily, sat smug and brazen under the typography. Outrageous and provocative, it wanted its own label:

Marks in a Novel
Biswas (2012)
Graphite on Paper

It chuckled.

One did not write in that kind of book. One wrote in notebooks, and perhaps textbooks—but only those specifically designed to be written in. I had been taught at a young age that books were sacred to the Goddess Saraswathi, Patron of Knowledge and Learning (majuscule included). One must never destroy a book, write in one, or even touch one with one’s feet. A book was to be read, ideally with reverence.

* * *

Above the lobby of the Public Theatre in Manhattan soars a fan of thirty-seven rigid metal blades, like the feathers of some sort of giant mechanical bird, each embedded with 3000-odd white LED lights. This is artist Ben Rubin’s The Shakespeare Machine, and each blade digitally contains the text of a complete play, and displays fragments of it in various patterns [1]. One moment each blade might show a different “You + Noun” phrase, creating a curious litany of insults and honorifics: “You King. You Fool. You Whoreson. You Sir.” At another time, they might each display a descriptor The Bard employed: “Rose-cheeked. Sharp-quilled. Wall-eyed.”

The first time I beheld the sculpture—because you really do behold, rather than merely see it—I lingered under it for a while, taking in its shape, exploring its space, scanning the words, delighting at the linguistic patterns and associations. Kate D. Levin, who commissioned the piece as Cultural Affairs Commissioner for New York City, said that it “reminds us how juicy and exciting language can be.” [2]

Notice that this text is not meant to be read, per se, the same way you might read a book. Of course, in their original form, neither were Shakespeare’s plays.

* * *

I didn’t matter that I’d read a certain ending. Reading it didn’t fix it in the personal story I was constructing in my psyche.

“READER BEWARE: YOU CHOOSE THE SCARE,” the book promised a 4th-grade me. It was one of R.L.Stine’s Give Yourself Goosebumps titles—I think it was Toy Terror: Batteries Included [3]—and it was my first game book. Naturally, as every game-book-lover can guess, I dug into the branched narrative with my fingers as much as with my imagination. Every choice-fork meant I’d place my finger on the page, and skip ahead to see which pathway I wanted to take. Sometimes, I did this three or four choices deep, my digits twisting and mapping out a convoluted, fleshy decision tree within the book’s pages. I didn’t matter that I’d read a certain ending. Reading it didn’t fix it in the personal story I was constructing in my psyche. Only releasing the held pages collapsed the waveform into one linear path, my “true” narrative.

I did this with every other game book I ever played. Because that is how I thought one must interact with that sort of text.

* * *

In his article Nonlinearity and Literary Theory, Espen Aarseth talks about how we use and consume texts differently [4]:

“A text includes a practice, a structure or ritual of use. Different practices adhere to different texts. We do not read Peanuts (the comic strip) the way we read the Bible.”

And while Aarseth, in this discussion, is talking about the mechanics of reading, the “algorithm, and choreography that conducts the script from the text to the mind of the reader” (such as my complex finger-dance for the Goosebumps game book), one can extend this argument to interpretation and comprehension, à la Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim, “The medium is the message” [5]. Not only do we have different cultural practices for specific types of text, but different media inherently conjure different ways of reading. As an example, scholars Mary Flanagan and Geoff Kaufman proposed in a 2016 study that electronic and paper texts are absorbed differently by the brain, and promote different types of cognition using the information captured [6].

In most interactive texts, you rarely see all of the constituent parts in one go, and doing so is, moreover, unhelpful.

This means that “interactive fiction” is much more than a simple agglutination of two buzzwords. Somewhere along the line, something changes. A synergy emerges, a transfiguration that introduces wholly new aspects that neither mere “fiction” nor “interactive” can account for. Perhaps we even need a new verb; “Read” is far too limiting, and “play” doesn’t fit perfectly either.

Consider the fact that in most interactive texts, you rarely see all of the constituent parts in one go, and doing so is, moreover, unhelpful. As Aarseth puts colourfully puts it [4]:

“When we look at the whole of a nonlinear text, we cannot read it; and when we read it, we cannot see the whole text… The text, far from yielding its riches to our critical gaze, appears to seduce us, but it remains immaculate, recedes, and we are left with our partial and impure thoughts, like unworthy pilgrims beseeching an absent deity.”

It’s precisely this blind spot created by interactive fiction that prompts the all-too-familiar fingers-in-pages behaviour for game books, or repetitive play in digital IF stories. My desire for a specific outcome is so strong that I’m willing to “cheat” my way to it, breaking the “rules” presented by the experience. It’s worth noting that the very act of introducing more rules to the system (as opposed to the simple rule of “read from beginning to end” that’s implicit in regular-old linear fiction), by adding choice and decisions and page-turning or hyperlinks, we encourage people to “cheat”.

“Because they primarily exist as rule systems, games are particularly ripe for subversive practices,” writes Flanagan in her book Critical Play, further asserting that, “A great deal of pleasure for players can be derived from subverting a set of interaction norms… no matter how structured that play is.” [7] Of course, this raises questions about whether “cheating” is really “cheating” if the designer knows it’s going to happen, and even designs for it. I recall Choose-You-Own-Adventure books which included sections that were impossible to reach by following any of the rules or prompts. These Easter eggs revealed themselves only to the most ardent hunters, and only when they strayed from the prescribed paths.

But that’s all “ritual of use”, “algorithm” and “choreography”. What of the cognitive?

When I recently read/played (see what I mean about a new verb?) Kyle Marquis’s Tower Behind the Moon [8], I decided early on that I wanted to try and hit most of the different ending listed in the “Achievements” page.. However, although I played the game multiple times, my first run, where I ascended (descended?) to demonhood, will always be my “true” run. Perhaps it’s because “you never forget your first”, or because large swathes of the game remain the same over different run-throughs, or even because of what Aarseth calls the “metaphysical belief in a transcendental text” [4] that we all cling too.

Even so, though I elevated one path over others, the fact remained that I was aware of my options, and the consequences they would entail. In a compelling video-argument on PBS Game/Show, Jamin Warren contends that it’s often the illusion of choice that matters more than the presence or absence of choice itself [9]. Rather than cleaving to the image of a duped reader, however, and especially since many IF stories offer more than just illusion, I prefer to wax effusive about the dream of possibility.

It’s nice that the medium and genre of interactive fiction allows me to do that, to dream that there are other options out there, that the decisions I make have the possibility of ripening into something different but wonderful, and that it’s my own damn decision whether or not I scribble in pencil in a book.

Works Cited

[1] B. Rubin, Artist, The Shakespeare Machine. [Art]. The Public Theater, 2012.

[2] R. Cembalest, “The Thing’s the Plays: Public Theater’s New Shakespeare Machine,” 16 October 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.artnews.com/2012/10/16/ben-rubin-shakespeare-machine/. [Accessed 5 January 2019].

[3] R. L. Stine, Toy Terror: Batteries Included, New York: Scholastic, 1997.

[4] E. J. Aarseth, “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory,” in The New Media Reader, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2003, pp. 762-780.

[5] M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

[6] G. K. Mary Flanagan, “High-Low Split: Divergent Cognitive Construal Levels Triggered by Digital and Non-digital Platforms,” in Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, San Jose, 2016.

[7] M. Flanagan, Critical Play, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013.

[8] K. Marquis, “Tower Behind the Moon,” Choice of Games, 20 December 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.choiceofgames.com/tower-behind-the-moon/#utm_medium=web&utm_source=ourgames.

[9] J. Warren, “Your Choices DON’T Matter,” PBS Game/Show, 7 April 2015. [Online]. Available: https://youtu.be/fdAos7stz7A.

Sharang Biswas

Sharang Biswas is an award-winning game designer, an internationally exhibited artist, and a published writer based in New York. He has exhibited work at numerous museums, galleries, and art fairs including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and the Toronto Reference Library. He has designed curricula for the Museum of the Moving Image, created learning games for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and written about games, interactivity, and culture for publications including Kill Screen, Sub Q, ZAM and First-Person Scholar. His two food-based games, “Feast” and “Verdure”, have garnered numerous accolades, including an IndieCade Award and and IGDN Indie Groundbreaker Award. Sharang has lectured or taught courses on game design at various universities and cultural institutions including Dartmouth, Columbia Teacher’s College, New York University, The International Center of Photography, and the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as spoken at conferences such as Game Devs of Color, GaymerX, Living Games, IndieCade and Boston FIG Talks.

Sharang holds a bachelor’s in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering from Dartmouth College and a master’s in Interactive Design from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is the Experience Designer for The Medici Group, a consulting firm focusing on diversity and innovation.

You can find on Twitter @SharangBiswas, his website https://astrolingus.itch.io/

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