Category Archives: Simulation

Prelim rationale v 1.1

I’m working on a v 2.0 of my rationale, but thought I’d post this second version for the sake of posterity/transparency.

I’ve opted with the 1.1, as though it dose contain some substantial changes, I don’t feel as though it is necessarily more than a small departure from the first draft. Mostly, I’ve added some explication and connections.

In the upcoming (in a few days) v 2.0, I’ll largely try to do the opposite: discretize these blended areas in order to more clearly define them. I’ll also be following up with a reorganization of my booklist, which is currently on Evernote. I’ve been reluctant to match the list to my areas, as I personally cannot not see many texts applying to more than a single area. Alas, it is time to try!

Rationale after the break… And, as always, comments welcome!

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Preliminary Exams Rationale

The following is the first version of my Preliminary Exam Rationale, including: the major area of transmedia narratives, production, and aesthetics; a minor area on ergodic and nonlinear literature; a minor area on ludology and simulation.

Jay Johnson
Preliminary Exam Rationale
Plan C
Fall 2011

My major area of focus is on the production, aesthetics, and analysis of transmedia narratives, with a specific focus on Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). In Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture, he explores transmedia storytelling–“entertainment for the age of media convergence, integrating multiple texts to create a narrative so large that it cannot be contained within a single medium”–in terms of the eponymous media convergence, which “represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections amongst dispersed media content” (97, 3). Therefore, in order to explore transmedia, my foci will concentrate on media studies, with a specific focus on “new media” aesthetics and production, as well as transmedia narratives and traditional narratives that explore the notion of “alternate reality.” Some of these texts include: Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, Waldrip-Fruin and Montfort’s New Media Reader, and Mitchell and Hansen’s Critical Terms for Media Studies for media studies; texts, message boards, and other paratexts from ARGs, such as The Beast, I Love Bees, The Lost Experience, Year Zero, and Push, Nevada; narratives that represent “alternate realities” of a dystopian, science fictional, and magical realist variety, such as the works of Borges, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and VALIS trilogy, Robinson’s The Wild Shore, Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades, and Link’s Magic for Beginners.

Complicit with Jenkins’s understanding of transmedia narrative–and perhaps new media, at large–is the engaged reader/viewer, or, in Jenkins’s words, “participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands” (3). As such, I’m interested in exploring the boundary between reader and author as found in metafiction, an area with which my own creative work often intersects. I’m also interested in exploring the breakdown of this boundary as a print medium example of the superimposition of the virtual and the non-virtual (or “real”) in order to create a different (or “alternate”) experience of reality, what Virilio refers to in Information Bomb as a “field effect” view of reality that is a result of the collapse of time and distance facilitated by light-speed digital networked communication technology (43). Texts that explore this metafictional boundary include many short works of Borges, Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), and Marias’s All Souls and Dark Back of Time.

My first minor area, ergodic literature, is both an extension of my interest in transmedia narrative as well as a reflection of the desire in my own creative work to incorporate a more active, participatory reader. In Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Espen Aarseth defines ergodic literature as a form which requires the reader to “[effectuate] a semiotic sequence,” or order the text in a nontrivial, self-selected manner. This active role for the reader can also be seen in what Manovich describes as the “database logic” of new media, which requires a reader to sort narrative elements, much like players in ARGs sort narrative clues in to a narrative. Some representative examples I will explore include both non-electronic ergodic literature, such as Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and the electronic, including Joyce’s afternoon and Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.

My remaining minor area of interest is ludology and simulation, which is, again, related to my main interest in transmedia. The theoretical intersection of ludology and narratology is a turbulent space, as evidenced in Waldrip-Fruin and Harrigan’s First Person. Transmedia narratives that incorporate video games, such as Star Wars or The Matrix, blur this boundary; moreover, ARGs are definitionally positioned as games, yet are frequently presented as transmedia stories, as they lack the interface of the screen and controller and purposely confuse gamespace with “real,” everyday spaces. Similarly, Aarseth asserts, in “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory,” that “simulations are somewhere in between reality and fiction” (79). I will explore this transliminal space between reality and fiction in terms of “alternate realities” and as a dominant form of representation in post-modernity, through the visual representation of computational and dynamic rules. Some texts that will be applicable to this area include Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx & Crake, the films Run Lola Run and The War Game, the reality television show The Colony, and the critical texts The Order of Things, by Michel Foucault, and Suspensions of Perception, by Jonathan Crary.

The Mechanical Reproduction of Simulated Reality

“If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.”  — from section III, paragraph 2 of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin


Through the above excerpt, I see something of Benjamin’s concerns, approaches, and hints toward his conclusions regarding the function of art in his contemporary context. In this passage, I begin to see how mechanical reproduction effects the image and how this effect is of particular significance to the potential relationships between media and the masses. Through these concerns, the role of mediation in our every day life might be better understood as a way of shaping our perception of the world and our own reality.

One of Benjamin’s central claims is “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (II). This change, to Benjamin, seems to be the most important direct result of the processes of mechanical reproduction of images; in some way, all of the aspects of art in this age that are of concern to Benjamin in this essay seem to rely on this condition. From the quote atop this post, I understand the social significance (i.e. how art/image changes its relationship with the masses/proletariat) as being of two major points, both of which are clearly stated by Benjamin in this above passage, but not necessarily clearly presented upon first read. It is through these two “circumstances” that I wish to explore the relationship between mediation and “reality.”

Benjamin first talks of the masses’ “desire… to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly” (III). With respects to spatially, Benjamin’s concern with the accessibility of art/images to the masses becomes evident; (a member of) the masses can more readily experience a work of art, like a Picasso painting, or experience a physical space, such as the alpine scene used as the foundation for this writing. Mechanical reproduction simply means copies, copies that extend beyond the aural setting or ritual within which the art/image was originally displayed. To show how mechanical reproduction destroys aura, he later states “[t]o pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such as degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction” (III). From this, the importance of accessibility (“‘… the universal equality of things’” [though it is unclear is this is Benjamin’s term or if his quotation marks signal another original]) can be understood as a type of leveling of the social structure; art is no longer the exclusive realm of the bourgeoisie.

While the above may account for the spatial closeness, that of the humanly might be understood in a few ways. First, I’d like to suggest that a focus on the interface of the media technology might be an interesting avenue to pursue this human connection. This approach would focus on the human as the bodily connection between the viewer and the image, such as the paper or frame of a photograph. It might be concerned with questions of permanence and trace, or prosthesis and materiality.

Another potential understanding of the humanly might be through the concept of authorship. This, I think, converges with the notion of mechanical reproduction as equalizing. In a perfect copy, there is no human creator–or at least no obvious human creator that is part of the image’s aura (since there is no aura). There may be examples of human-made perfect copies, such as the works of Elmyr D’Hory as shown in F for Fake, in which case we might admire the virtuosity of the forger; there are also images with aura that have no discernible author, such as Chartres cathedral, also featured in Orson Welles’ film. The mechanical reproduction, however, removes the human author from the reproduction that is both accessible to the masses and now humanly closer, in that there is not an authorial ownership exerted over the image in the same way that a single, original painting by Cezanne when viewed in a museum might be subjected to that ownership. [Works by Duchamp or Warhol, to name two popular examples, problematize this last assertion.]

\”The Most Profound Moment in Movie History\”

Finally, I believe this closeness of the humanly can also be understood through “overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” (III). In this way, the human relation to reality is problematized: reality is not a singular possibility, but one potential, probabilistic iteration of a series of conditions and rules. (This fits nicely with both a Marxist view of history and the mention of “the increasing importance of statistics” later in the paragraph that helped to form this post.) The phenomenon of the moving picture, enabled by the mechanical technologies of the camera and the processing of film, reproduces a kind of reality that is immediate, able to approach the speed of speech (I). [It is also interesting that Benjamin notes that cinema only appears to be real through “the height of artifice”–a paradox of  hiding cameras, lighting, microphones, etc., from the viewer through the positioning of the lens (XI).]

The technology of mechanical reproduction and its media, such as photography and cinema, allow us to understand our reality in new ways. For instance, high-speed photography allowed us to see that all four legs of a horse simultaneously lose contract with the ground while running. If this mediation can reveal, I’d like to think that it can shape, as well, especially with our perception of reality.

With specific concern of bringing closer the human and understanding reality as a probability, one way of understanding the potential relationship between mediation and reality for the masses might be through the insertion of the individual into the work itself–an extreme closeness, in a way. Some possible veins to explore would be: alternate reality games and their employment of multiple media, interactive transmedia narratives/games; Marxist and recombinant theatre and their focus on the interactive and iterative, producing new simulations of power relationships blurring viewer and actor and author; digital database narrative and interactive fiction, whose output is influenced by the viwer’s input. All of these objects share an element of interactivity and immersion and those are what can bring the human closer to the work of art while emphasizing the equality of copied images. Specifically, perhaps as the name implies, alternate reality games can also blur the distinctions between “real” and “fictional” space, through the genre’s specific “this is not a game” aesthetic and strong immersive qualities, leading players to renegotiate the “real” and to manifest social and economic change through the conferring of narrative events from ARG to spaces outside the boundaries of the game.

What articles and reviews might tell us about media studies and culture

The four articles I read [Adrienne Shaw’s “What Is Video Game Culture? Cultural Studies and Game Studies”; Patrick Crogan’s “Tracing the Logics of Contemporary Digital Media Culture”; Gigi Durham’s review of Douglas Kellner’s Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern”; Bo Reimer’s review of Jostein Gripsrud’s Understanding Media Culture”] were more convergent than I may have expected, given their divergent objects of study. These articles converged in their focus on cultural studies and the common academic ethos, likely as part of that wide-ranging discipline, that could be found in the various interrogations.

To begin, let me first elaborate on the individual articles and approaches. Shaw examines how the term “video game culture” has been used, adopted, and challenged through a discourse analysis of popular and academic articles using the aforementioned phrase. Through this analysis, she sees “culture” as a combination of actions, identities, and values—particularly how individual texts and genres of games are valued. Crogan explores the relationship between the simulation technology—screen mediated virtualization and visualization of the real that leads to a potential shift in the role of history as data for simauthors and as a way to check the accuracy of simulations (SIMNET)—and the political, economic, and power influences of and on society. Durham sees Kellner as being concerned with alternate, combinatory approaches to the cultural studies of US mass media. Reimer reads Gripsrud as writing an exemplar and useful text book for introduction to media culture for students and for serving as a common touchstone text for faculty in the traditionally various humanistic and social science approaches that might be valued in a typical media studies department.

Throughout these texts, a search for a reflexive and complex understanding of the relationship of culture and media is a common concern. Shaw challenges academics to reflexively ask why some favorable stereotypes of video game culture (VGC) are blindly accepted in the field while the more unflattering assumptions of VGC are destabilized. Rather, she argues that we interrogate all aspects of VGC, whether perceived as favorable or not, in order to reflect an inclusive and diverse understanding of VGC.
Crogan seeks to unearth the connections between the post-WW2 state of “pure war” (Paul Virilio’s term for the condition of military build-up and mobilization that made peace time indistinguishable from war) and Eisenhower’s notion of the military-industrial complex that fed “pure war.” This connection can be seen in the development of the screen-mediated virtualization of reality, reified first through the command and control defense system the Semi-automated Ground Environment (SAGE)—used to manage a potential nuclear strike response—and then through the networked military simulation system SIMNET. In both cases, Crogan focuses on how the simulation technology is both shaped by the cultural expectations of graphical and cartographic representation and is a shaping force for those expectations, specifically through the films and video games associated with the Military-Entertainment complex. Furthermore, and perhaps of higher stakes, contemporary military simulation techniques use data gathered from real battles, such as those in Desert Storm, to develop conditions and systems, which can then be used to simulate alternate outcomes. Crogan argues that this might be a shift in the perception of history, from “historical discourse as a hermeneutic, critical processing of the past” to a set of conditions used to predict probable futures—and secure national interests against perceived future threats.

Kellner and Gripsrud seem to approach their objects of study through more common understandings of media: mass media. These objects seem appropriate for their focus. Kellner is interested in a combinatory methodology of modernist and postmodernist theories of social science and cultural studies to excavate the connections between mass media and identity, ideology, race, gender, class, and politics, to name a few areas of concern. Through this “multicultural, multiperspective” (Kellner via Durham) approach, he seeks to open new opportunities for discussions of policy in the name of the grand project of the “democratization of society through media culture” (quoting Durham). Gripsrud, in composing a text book on media culture, offers a structured yet diverse approach to understanding media culture, through a audience-text-production context trichotomy. (neologism ftw…) The main critique of Reimer, the reviewer, however, is the lack of reflexivity in discussing why theories are included/excluded and what the historical influences on media culture theory might tell us about what theories have become privileged. Reimer’s critique, to me, seems very similar to Shaw’s critique of VGC: too little reflexivity, limited inclusiveness.

In these objects and methodologies I see at least two very specific echoes of what Mitchell and Hansen privilege in their introduction: interdisciplinary approaches and the concern with the “middle” position of media—its (at least) duality of being. Media is both influenced and influence; it occupies a complex role in the ecosystem of everyday (not ordinary, but ubiquitous) life.

Textual Simulation

Below is an attempt at converging two of my main interests, metafiction and simulation, with Alternate Reality Games, my main focus. Many of the ideas are rough, and the seams are jagged, but it is a first attempt!


Narratives and games have enjoyed a close, if contentious, relationship over the past decade.  With the increased adoption of digital technology into games—whether digital remediations of board games like checkers, chess, or Monopoly, or games developed solely for a digital platform, such as Asteroids, Pac-Man, or Grand Theft Auto 3—the convergence, as Henry Jenkins describes it, of what is more traditionally seen as narrative media (print, film, television, etc.) and interactive video games has led to many new possibilities.  With the increase in computing speed and power, more and more complex narrative elements, such as photo-realistic animated “cut scenes” that serve as interstitial narrative guideposts between the “playable” segments of many digital games, are appearing in video games.  Most recently, these cut scenes have been integrated into the playable interactive user interface. One such example is with Quantic Dream’s recent title Heavy Rain, which has been described in the New York Times as “a brilliantly engaging example of nonlinear storytelling” and compared, not unfavorably, to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch (Schiesel).  With the increasing convergence of games and narrative, it is no wonder that narratology is a popular tool for the academic study of video games.

The 2004 critical essay collection First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game showcases many of the narratological approaches to video games.  Janet Murray and Ken Perlin, in separate essays, situate interactive video games as an extension of narrative, applying the aesthetics of storytelling to games.  In the same volume, however, Espen Aarseth passionately argues against the narratological colonization of games, stating that “games are not ‘textual’ or at least not primarily textual,” questioning “why aesthetics would be the most relevant perspective” for the study of games, and finally, plainly stating that “games are games”—with the strong implication that games are not stories (“Genre Trouble” 46-9).  While this dialogue serves an important purpose for the foundation of video game studies as a distinct discipline, as well as a primer for constructive critical approaches to video games and storytelling in what Lev Manovich calls the “database logic” of new media in The Language of New Media, the particular question of whether games are narratives is not the central focus of this critical assessment.  Rather, Gonzalo Frasca’s response to this debate provides a framework from which I explore narrative text in terms of a specific type of game, the simulation—an approach that is perhaps a reversal of what Aarseth finds so polemical about narratologists infringing upon the field of ludology.  I will argue, that by considering the aesthetics of simulation and the shortcomings of hypertext, the metafiction of a group of Argentine writers—Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and, most importantly, Macedonio Fernandez—can be understood as offering readers an interactive, generative framework to realize the possibilities of narrative form. The aesthetics of this type of metafiction interrogate the distinction between the real and the fictional, a perspective that is increasingly relevant to an everyday life imbued with digital telecommunication technology.

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