Literary scholars face a new and often baffling reality in the classroom: students spend more time looking at glowing screens than reading printed text. The social lives of these students take place in cyberspace instead of the student pub. Their favorite narratives exist in video games, not books. How do teachers who grew up in a different world engage these students without watering down pedagogy? Clint Burnham and Paul Budra have assembled a group of specialists in visual poetry, graphic novels, digital humanities, role-playing games, television studies, and, yes, even the middle-brow novel, to address this question. Contributors give a brief description of their subject, investigate how it confronts traditional notions of the literary, and ask what contemporary literary theory can illuminate about their text before explaining how their subject can be taught in the 21st-century classroom.
|Publisher:||Indiana University Press|
|Product dimensions:||8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Paul Budra is author of A Mirror for Magistrates and the de casibus Tradition and co-editor of Part Two: Reflections on the Sequel and Soldier Talk: The Vietnam War in Oral Narrative (IUP, 2004). He is Associate Professor of English and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Simon Fraser University.
Clint Burnham is the author of The Jamesonian Unconscious, The Benjamin Sonnets, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, and other works of criticism, fiction, and poetry. He is Associate Professor of English at Simon Fraser University.
Read an Excerpt
From Text to Txting
New Media in the Classroom
By Paul Budra, Clint Burnham
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2012 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Roll a D20 and the Author Dies
Some years ago a friend of mine would drive downtown every Sunday afternoon to play Dungeons and Dragons. The "dungeonmaster," the person running the game, was a professor of literature at a prestigious university. All the other players had at least one graduate degree, and several were doctors of law or literature. They would spend up to six hours at a time pretending to be elves, half-elves, gnomes, halflings, or exotic humans negotiating the complicated fantasy world that the dungeonmaster described. My friend played a "dark" elf, a character who, though both a warrior and a magic user, was shunned by the society in which she was raised and so fled to the woods to commune with animals. My friend is an animal lover in real life, and the characters the other participants played were often reflections of their own personalities or professions: for instance, the characters played by lawyers almost never chose to battle monsters; they would attempt to negotiate with them. All the players became deeply involved with their characters. It was not uncommon for a player to leave the game sobbing if her character "died" during the game. And sometimes it was difficult to return to reality when the game was over for the day. At the conclusion of one of these sessions, the band of characters that the participants were playing "found" a treasure of gold and exotic jewels, a pleasing conclusion to an imaginary adventure. But after the session had dispersed for the day, one of the players got in her car and thought to herself, "Thank God. Now I can pay the phone bill."
My friend's adventure with, and in, Dungeons and Dragons sheds light on a gaming subculture that is rarely discussed and yet has a pedigree that is over a hundred years old. "In 1811, Herr von Reiswitz and his son, a Prussian artillery officer, modified a version of a game called War Chess, which had been created some thirty years before.... Herr von Reiswitz conceived the new version of the war-strategy game, christened Kreigsspiel, as an aid to educate young Prussian military officers" (Mackay 13). This game used counters to represent troop formations. The counters were moved on a miniature battlefield and the outcome of a battle was settled through the rolling of dice and the adjudication of an impartial referee. In the early twentieth century, H. G. Wells adapted this concept in his game book Little Wars. By the mid-twentieth century, many complex, commercially produced war games, most played on elaborate cardboard terrain maps, were available. In 1971 E. Gary Gygax produced a war game called Chainmail that capitalized on the popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy by including nonhuman combatant characters – dwarves, elves, monsters, etc. – in such a war game. Shortly after, Gygax teamed up with Dave Arneson, a game designer who proposed having game players take on the roles of individual combatants – characters – rather than troops. Their collaboration resulted in Dungeons and Dragons, the first of the "tabletop role-playing games," so designated to differentiate them from video role-playing games.
Unlike most games, Dungeons and Dragons is collaborative rather than competitive. The group that sits down to play works together to create a story for the characters they perform. Daniel Mackay has called the game "an episodic and participatory creation system that includes a set of quantified rules that assist a group of players and a gamemaster in determining how their fictional characters' spontaneous interactions are resolved" (4–5). Those interactions create the story. The gamemaster not only adjudicates the rules of the game, but also performs minor characters and fills in any necessary description. An individual role-playing game can continue literally for years: "players can continue to play the same character through many role-playing game sessions. These many sessions, when considered together, form a continuous, often complex narrative concerning a stable cast of characters in a consistent, interactive, fictional environment controlled and created by the gamemaster" (Mackay 7).
The logic of the game world and characters is determined by rule-books and mathematical formulas applied to complex dice rolls. While the original Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks enabled the gamemaster to create a fantasy world that resembled that in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, many role-playing games set in other fictional worlds have appeared since the 1970s. There are games set in the Star Wars universe and that of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The game Call of Cthulhu is based on the horror fiction of American writer H. P. Lovecraft while the game Cyberpunk draws on the science fiction imaginings of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Not only are the imaginary environments of each game different, each game has its own rules for the creation of the characters that the players perform. Most follow the basic Dungeons and Dragons formula and describe the characters through a set of characteristics: strength, wisdom, charisma, agility, etc. Each of these categories is given a numeric value that influences game play. So, a character with a high strength number will have an advantage when he "performs" certain strength-related deeds in the fictional environment. In addition to these basic characteristics, characters can have specific skills (say, lock picking) and be capable of performing certain feats ("battle frenzy," perhaps). As the game progresses, characters also (in most games) acquire "experience points." These points accrue and allow the character to evolve, gaining new skills or increasing the numeric advantage of a characteristic. But there are many other systems, including one called the generic universal role-playing system (GURPS) that is designed to be compatible with any gaming environment.
What little scholarly work that has been done on role-playing games has tended to be sociological. Gary Alan Fine has studied role-playing games as a "contemporary urban leisure subculture" (1) in which the gamers create alternate, usually fantastic, imaginary cultural systems. The majority of the essays in the collection Gaming as Culture, edited by Williams, Hendricks, and Winkler, have a sociological bent, focusing on social reality and questions of identity. The closest thing to a literary study of the game can be found in Daniel Mackay's The Fantasy Role-Playing Game. Mackay calls role-playing games "anew kind of performance" (3) and draws on the language of drama and theater to understand the gaming experience. His analysis is, in his own words, "cultural, formal, and social" (121), but the last section of his book does explore the aesthetic possibilities of the role-playing experience, the "cathartic structure that encourages identification with its content and persists after the performance has disappeared" (122). According to Mackay, "The story has its own structure, narrative arc, tensions, conflicts, resolutions, mysteries, characterizations, themes, and denouements that are independent of the players, who have created it but, having done so, are only associated with it in the same biographical sense that artists are often associated with their work" (126). He arrives at this conclusion after retelling the narrative that emerged in a years-long role-playing game in which he participated with a group of close friends. He concludes that "performance [that is, the actual playing of the game], while quite possibly aesthetic in character, is not the aesthetic object. Rather, it is the interface to both the imaginary-entertainment environment and, ultimately, the distilled narrative" (129). In other words, the "aesthetic object is the residue left behind in the memories of the players" (129); it is the memory of the story that the game generated.
This is an important point, and I believe it is correct if we assume and apply standard definitions of what constitutes the literary and the literary aesthetic experience. But let us note, however, that the dynamic which Mackay describes reverses the one associated with the performative arts that he invokes. Dramatic literature traditionally moves from the page to the stage, and this transition generates a specific aesthetic experience: "The movement from script to performance liberates the play from its exclusively linguistic embodiment: language becomes speech, directions become mise-en-scène, implied presence becomes performance reality" (Garner xiv). That performance reality, as Stanton Garner has convincingly argued, is not passively received by the theater audience but is created through a complex "conceptual process designed to transform the stage and its activities into structured fiction" (xvii).
But this is not what happens in the role-playing game experience. If we continue with Mackay's performative arts analogy, we might say that the players collectively perform an improvised narrative for them-selves – there is no audience – that can then be simply remembered or recorded as a textual narrative. From stage to, maybe, page. We must insist on that "maybe" because in the majority of cases the improvised narrative of the game is not written down except, perhaps, in the form of a few notes the gamemaster takes in order to facilitate the next episode of the game. And while Mackay undertakes to reconstruct, with the help of his fellow players, the narrative of the game he has been playing over the years, this exercise is not typical of the role-playing game experience. Role-playing games are by nature ephemeral. They last only as long as they are being played and are forgotten when they are not. They exist briefly, under special conditions, for a small coterie of participants, who are the performers and consumers of the narrative, and then they disappear.
Does this ephemerality, this oral performance, automatically preclude role-playing games from the literary? The groundbreaking work that Albert Lord did on Yugoslavian oral epic poetry, in his pursuit of understanding the composition of the Homeric epics, suggests otherwise. Lord demonstrated that the "oral epic" tradition uses a complex, and perhaps spontaneous, arrangement of preexisting formulaic expressions: "in a very real sense every performance is a separate song; for every performance is unique, and every performance bears the signature of its poet singer" (4). No two performances are the same. This means that the version of the Iliad that was written down and attributed to Homer, the work we think of as the Iliad, may have been one version of thousands that were not written down. There is no reason to believe that it was the best version. Nor should we assume that textual embodiment somehow solidifies the oral epic tradition into literature. This is to privilege text, to assume a hierarchy of literary forms that was meaningless in Homeric times, that remains meaningless in oral traditions, and that is becoming increasingly meaningless in a world of voicemail and emoticons. As Lord argues, "oral tradition is as intricate and meaningful an art form as its derivative 'literary tradition.' In the extended sense of the word, oral tradition is as 'literary' as literary tradition. It is not simply a less polished, more haphazard, or cruder second cousin twice removed, to literature" (141).
In the oral epic tradition and the role-playing game, performance and composition are inseparable because they occur in the same instance. This makes evaluative criticism difficult. The standards for assessing performance are different from those for critiquing a literary narrative. We have all seen productions of great plays, say by Shakespeare, that were ruined by bad performances. And, obviously, a good performance can raise a bad play to the level of tolerability. As literary critics, we may have a passing interest in assessing individual performances because, at least with a preexisting dramatic text, we have opinions on how we think they ought to be performed. But our training is in the analysis of the literary component. If that literary component is ephemeral, if it is never written down for close reading, we have two options. One, we assess on the fly, judging the narrative that is performed as it is being performed or immediately after it is complete and still fresh in the memory. This happens automatically in role-playing games. Once a game is over, participants tend to assess the session: "That was a great game; we killed fifteen orcs and saved the unicorn. And Niraka was moved to tears"; or "That game was awful. We just wandered around the dungeon for three hours. Nothing happened." Clearly this is not a profound hermeneutic, and the assessment could be more detailed, though the question of critical distance remains. It is, as we will see, almost impossible to assess the narrative generated by a role-playing game without participating in the game. But this participation puts the critic in an untenable conflict of interest, negating critical distance because the critic is part of the collective creating the text she would critique. A player whose character has died during a game may feel outraged at the turn of narrative events that led to that death, but those events may have contributed to a satisfying narrative for the game session as a whole. How can anyone fairly, or with the appearance of fairness, assess the death of Little Nell if she is playing Little Nell? Two, we turn our attention to the formulas that allow for the performance. As Lord and Parry charted the formula that composed the langue of the oral epic's parole in performance, so we can turn to the rules and formulas that allow for the performance of the role-playing game. And these are written down. This latter approach makes more sense – a good set of rules will allow for rich, detailed, exciting performances or games; a simplistic, crude set of rules will lead to boring, predictable games – but a critical shift from the role-playing event to the rules that inform and define those events' individual utterances brings up the question: can rulebooks be literature? Let us begin by recognizing that all literature follows rules from the macroscopic (genre) to the microscopic (punctuation). Certainly many literary works became famous for breaking or abandoning those rules, but the majority of literature does not. And, to a large extent, "literary evaluation depends in part on our appraisal of the manner in which a text conforms to what we understand (at least historically) to be literary rules" (Reeves 15). There is also an argument that the "literary" is, to use Wittgenstein's term, a specific sort of "language game" and to understand it, indeed to recognize it, we must know the rules. English departments have taught texts of literary criticism for years, usually in an upper-level seminar with the ominous title of "Literary Theory"; would teaching rulebooks for role-playing games be significantly different? This question leads to several others and, I think, points to the future of criticism in the digital age: a shift toward metacriticism may be historically inevitable. In 1967 Roland Barthes declared the death of the author. In 1970 Michel Foucault reduced authors to functions, "projections, in terms always more or less psychological, of our way of handling texts" (127). In the 1980s the New Historicism shifted critical emphasis away from the author to the dynamics of the culture which surrounded that author and in which literary texts circulated. These theoretical revelations had no immediate impact on the production of literary texts or, with the possible exception of Thomas Pynchon's attempt to render himself invisible, authorial status. It has been generally assumed that new technologies were required for these critical insights to become practice, and to a large extent this is true: the advent of hypertext allowed for texts that were defined by choices made by the reader, who clicked a path through the digital components of the works; blogs enabled anyone to become a "published" essayist; and Facebook made all young people into autobiographers. The advent of wiki technology has allowed for communal (and anonymous) authorship on a scale hitherto unimaginable. Digital technology has broken the author-text-press-reader formula asunder, but it has made its users dependent upon, and restricted by, the formal rules of software applications – that is, the actual computer programs – in ways that are not often recognized. Wikipedia and Facebook have been successful, while other such applications have not, because they have elegant interfaces that allow their users to easily enter their writings, pictures, etc. But that elegance comes at the cost of choice. Wikipedia and Facebook users must work within the preset, and largely immutable, parameters of those applications' codes. Because of this, all Wikipedia entries and Facebook pages look more or less the same and present their content in more or less the same ways. That content varies from user to user, but in the end the individual contributors, the "authors," are less important than the specific digital interface they employ, and they are regulated by its rules. Those interfaces are, de facto, manifestos; they have defined and spawned new genres.
Excerpted from From Text to Txting by Paul Budra, Clint Burnham. Copyright © 2012 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Paul Budra and Clint Burnham
1. Roll a D20 and the Author Dies Paul Budra
2. Consider the Source: Critical Considerations of the Medium of Social Media Kirsten C. Uszkalo and Darren James Harkness
3. Voice of the Gutter: Comics in the Academy Tanis MacDonald
4. Television: The Extra Literary Device Daniel Keyes
5. Hypertext in the Attic: The Past, Present and Future of Digital Writing Andreas Kitzmann
6. The ABCs of Viewing: Material Poetics and the Literary Screen Philip A. Klobucar
7. "Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em": Hip-Hop, Prosody, and Meaning Alessandro Porco
8. Thinking Inside the Box: A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of Television Studies C.W. Marshall and Tiffany Potter
9. Middle Brow Lit and the End of Postmodernism, Clint Burnham
What People are Saying About This
The essays in Budra and Burnham’s book successfully map out the range of new mediating instances and issues that will define a contemporary role for English studiesand that mapping is both stimulating and innovative!
There is a growing need for a deep and nuanced conversation between literary studies and media studies; each discipline knows things that the other doesn't, but should. The situation is particularly pressing for literary studies, which has ceded much of its cultural capital to communication studies, cultural studies and media studies over the last few decades. Like Marshall McLuhan, who uttered the same warning decades before them, Budra and Burnham are all too aware that 'Academic literary critics who do not engage with the profound shifts in the delivery of narrative, verse, and argument stand on the cusp of becoming curators of an outdated print culture, antiquarians of the book.' Their anthology 'From Text to Txting' is a welcome contribution to the conversation, offering many starting places for re-imagining literary studies for a new century,
It is not just that this is a timely collection in response to the way in which the digital now wholly saturates our classrooms, our thinking, our reading and writing. It is also that the editors and contributors to From Text to Txting deeply understand the necessity for humanities teachers and scholars to stand firmly in the 21st century and look ahead to where teaching and scholarship ought to gotoward reading and writing the videogame as much as the play, parsing tweets as much as poems, making sense of the comic book as much as the novel.