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Final Thoughts on Ivanhoe & Gaming Readings

**(Apologies for the lengthy post, but I’m hoping to make up for 1-2 blog posts here)**

After the completion of our Ivanhoe projects, I’m most struck by the questioning of how can players engage in conversations of experiences towards a particular game when an individual player’s cultural experience determines how they can identify with the notion of escapism as we embodied different places and characters in our Ivanhoe platforms. Aside from the idea of escapism as a mental mode of disengaging with one’s reality, escapism can also be understood as fantasy, meaning an escape to radical and dystopian virtual realities that can be wishfully and longingly applied to our societal sense of what is or could be real. Essentially this would be the inverse to games such as Southpark and GTA that capitalize on the presumed experience of a singular type of player and draw on addressing issues in popular American culture at the expense of stereotyping marginalized groups. Specifically, I turn to a rare AAA title developed by Hangar 13—Mafia 3 (https://mafiagame.com/), that invites players to play through the experience of a Black Vietnam war veteran set in 1968, New Bordeux (fictional New Orleans). Everything about the themes and setting of this game engrosses the player in the racial setting and landscape of the time period, drawing heavily from the likes of James Baldwin and Jim Brown to inform the political voices of the time. From uncomfortable moments such as being racially profiled by police while open roaming in the game, to moments of social justice when main protagonist Lincoln Clay straps a corrupt (white supremacist) politician’s body to a statue of Andrew Jackson to send a message to the Italian mob, while extreme in dramatism and violence, offer an immersive experience that can draw people from many different experiences to engage in what Mary Flanagan describes as “subversion”. Subversion as a creative act can be thought as an example of a game that can stimulate conversations that question the reality of our political structures in a meaningful way, I would argue is a form of escapism. Despite this, certain aspects are draining from the perspective of people who live through the many real-world instances of racial inequality. While being reminded of the racism in American culture may be counter to the idea of escapism, how can we find more balance in using games to challenge our sense of societal reality while honoring the accuracy of history?

Considering that the majority of the dialogue I’m concerned has been been studying centers around diversity and representation of characters in video games, I found Ian Bogost’s article for the Atlantic to be a rather fresh and stimulating viewpoint. I actually get the sense that Bogost’s work seems to somewhat resent the pervasiveness of identity politics in the modern-day video game debate. He seems to think that the reason why identity politics has become such a potent force in the conversation is that it is rooted in a selfish obsession for personal identification and representation. Now, while he evidently has a decent awareness and concern for the ubiquity of social issues and inequality, I think he is still coming from a place of privilege in perhaps not understanding how valuable representation can be for typically underrepresented groups. And perhaps he takes for granted that he’s had to wrestle less with his own personal identification. Thus, it seems unfair that he perceives gamers desire for self-identification as a strictly a selfish indulgence. That said, his argument is still a valid one worth reflecting upon. The notion that we must have characters in games in order to achieve diversity and sophistication is one that should be challenged, and I really enjoyed working with my team to think out of the box in turning places into characters in our Quicksand game. The representations of systems and circumstances over individuals can be an incredibly formidable tool in both understanding complex issues of social justice as well as attempting to separate ourselves from our need for personal identification. There is something hauntingly powerful at the thought of abdicating our individual desires in the interest of systems bigger than ourselves. Again, while I think Bogost does occupy a relatively privileged space, his point that it is a luxury to worry about self-representation when there are grander and powerfully destructive forces at work—climate change, wealth inequality, automation, etc. –is a fair critique. Maybe he’s right, that while we are focused on self-expression, and playing a game of identities, billionaires are off playing the game of systems. Given the current state of things in today’s world, we have reason to worry. As Bogost points out, the threat of automation, privatization, surveillance, etc., are all very real. It might be uncomfortable to hear, but there is definitely truth in that to strive for a more promising future, we may need to address the systems themselves rather than the faces of its operators. Otherwise, we will continue to be the Sims “meandering aimlessly in the streets of power broker’s cities.”

 I was also thinking about “ragdoll” physics and how video games might desensitize gamers to violence, and specifically death, so I looked more in detail at Phillips’s article on “Headshots, Twitch Responses and the Desensitization of Performed Violence”, who was referenced in one of Jeff’s readings as a DH scholar in game studies at Georgetown University! Ragdoll physics, as Phillips says, simulates the moment of death and allow for the deceased character to be animated and manipulated to provide “a theoretically endless supply of unique death animations” (4). This animation changes the way we kill in video games, so that it becomes less about simply killing the target and fulfilling some goal of the game, and more about the entertainment of killing another character or creature. The deceased character loses any agency over its body and is subject to the ragdoll physics of the game world, which often means the body can be manipulated by forces of the game or other players. This creates a shocking disparity between the game world and the real world. While it would be highly offensive and disrespectful to manipulate a real-life body, in the game world it is not only possible but encouraged, like practices such as “teabagging” that Phillips mentions.

When Phillips mentioned ragdoll physics, I immediately thought of the game Goat Simulator, which was a game that became very popular online because of its ragdoll physics, in that the goat you play as could be thrown around the map and manipulated countless ways. This was the appeal of the game, but that would certainly not hold true if transferred to reality. There seems to be a large disconnect between the game world and the actual world, and it begs the question of whether players can make sure their game actions don’t negatively impact their real-life decision making, and if game designers have a responsibility to keep a limit on what you can do inside a game universe (move-set). Ragdoll physics brings attention to just another way in which our experience inside a game does not, and should not, match up with our expectations and actions in the real world, and makes me wonder if gamers can keep the two realms reasonably separate, or if they are being desensitized to violence, race, gender, sexuality, and other representations of experience.

Gaming Collaborative Proposal (Raven & Anthony)

For the proposal assignment, Anthony and I have decided to collaborate utilizing prompts 8 & 9 to envision a gaming based project partly inspired by our upcoming Ivanhoe project. It will attempt to address the intersections of online spaces, education, representation, and equity/accessibility through digital tools in learning spaces.

This work will attempt to challenge the Digital Humanities to further the importance of expanded representation of perspectives of marginalized voices outside of the traditional westernized cannon of scholarly essay writing. Excluding race and intersections of gender, culture, ableism, disability and sexuality from public discussions through erasure and acceptance of larger discourses of colorblindness contribute to problematic understandings of video games as a cultural medium, and their significance in contemporary social, political, economic and cultural organization.

In reference to the Ivanhoe readings “Play”, and “Ivanhoe:Education in a New Key”| Romantic Circles, I’m interested in drawing from Amanda Phillips’ syllabus and her critical work in finding the connections between written and game based narrative expressions. I’m also intrigued by point 5 of the second text explaining the significance of resisting the traditional assumptions of self-identity of a particular text or cultural work through re-thinking the field of “texuality” and its interdisciplinary possibilities in how we can work with source material. (Ivanhoe, 2) We will also be looking at Kishonna Gray’s “Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live:Theoretical Perspectives from the Virtual Margins” & “Live in Your World, Play in Ours’: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other” by David Leonard as a contextual approach to understanding the cultural approaches to avoid and utilize in our own gaming project.

Specifically, I want to focus on the power of identity and aims to provide a perspective of what is possible in using games to expand the pedagogical scope of interactive mediums as a tool for learning and re-creating the standards of knowledge production in higher education. To do this Anthony and I will be referencing small-scale games made via Twine and Unity which explores various perspectives/themes that can spark inquiry in imagining how games can be a tool for individualized expression. For the purposes of my side of the proposal I will be emphasizing the gaming content, and related source material and Anthony (see his blog proposal) will be referencing DH pedagogical practices that can be theorized into game-building strategies to structure equality and dismantle power-dynamics in traditional classroom settings. Our larger goal being to also create a Twine game reflecting some of our own experiences as Latin(x), students in college settings and how game creation can be a cathartic experience in our own education.

Games: Homebound,  College Admissions Simulator, & Everything’s Fine

College Admissions Simulator

Homebound

Everything’s Fine

I wanted to use these three games as a positive examples of some student projects that  can be easily incorporated into a Cyborgian classroom. These in particular were created by students at an Amherst College course titled “Video Games and the Boundaries of Narrative”with Marisa Parham I took last semester. The first is a group collaboration I was involved in, the College Simulator is intended to allow the player to think critically about the desensitizing process involved in the college admissions process. In thinking of the differences between inclusivity and equity, the categorization of students based on class, race, gender, and economic standing greatly blurs the lines of how colleges interpret and sell the “diverse” college experience. I enjoy sharing this game with students because it allows them to think outside their own experience, and into an aspect of a perspective which has systematically determined and shaped the lives of many students of colors attempting to center an institution which has historically excluded them from being included into higher education. Alternatively, Everything’s Fine explores the usage of “Mechanics as Metaphors” which portrays the immersive experience of a 1st generation college student managing their mental health and cultural expectations of leaving home to pursue a college education.  

Contextualizing Slave Insurrections within Historical Fictions

As a group, I think it was clear we wanted to tackle the theme of contextualizing the historical elements of Melville’s short novella Benito Cereno, while respecting our own individual perspectives. Our unique approaches to the text reflect our own respective aspects of contextualizing a history of Slave Revolts in the Caribbean and a broader sense of the historical landscape Melville so elusively portrays. It was quite rewarding to be working with Anthony, Jenna, Lisa, Lauren, and myself and seeing each of own areas of “expertise” shine in illuminating various aspects to the text. Given the freedom in theme in relation to the novella, we took advantage of forming a consensus of theme and then going to independently annotate as we each gained a much broader understanding of the text through each other lens of knowledge. Aside the theme we also decided on splitting up the initial text into three parts given the limited time we had to critically engage with the text. We also decided to tie in all of our annotations under the hashtag #Bennythemap.

In the third section Anthony and I were assigned to annotate and frame our section around the themes of comparing other judicial and noted slave revolts to expand our understanding of why Melville chose to set his story surrounding the political turmoil of the Haitian Revolution. My process narrowed in to compare the most noted (similar) comparison to a fictional slave narrative, The Heroic Slave by Fredrick Douglas.

“Frederick Douglass wrote only one work of fiction: this novella, loosely based on a true incident, about a slave who leads a rebellion on board a slave ship. He published the story twice in 1853 — serially in his newspaper. But he clearly designed the tale to reach the larger white reading public: one of the most interesting aspects of the novella is the strategic way it tries to lead genteel readers not only to active engagement in the abolitionist cause, but also to grant black slaves the same right to rebel against tyranny that America enshrines in its founders. The novella, however, does not seem to have had many contemporary readers, although it was reissued at least once, in pamphlet form in 1863.”

With this notion of framing the context, I annotated several instances comparing the Creole and Haitian Insurrection and how each were historically respectively popularized in the media at the time. In comparison to the Haitian Uprising, the Creole case is relatively forgotten in history due to the tumultuous history between U.S and British relations which were strained under the negotiations of lost property upon liberating slaves in Nassau. By incorporating/annotating interactive maps of slave revolts in the Caribbean, it is interesting to ponder how much leniency can be afforded to authors such as Melville in making radical alterations in history for the sake of narrative plot. The distancing in reference to a revolt within the French Empire in comparison to U.S/British domination is also fascinating to think about in Melville’s illusive approach of subtly (with deep reading between the lines) making arguments for liberation and establishment of slavery. Would depicting a more contentions and politically sanctioned revolt be too controversial for Melville to tap into?

In summation, providing context to Melville’s novella was incredibly helpful in deciphering subtle text which attempts to make a moralistic argument grounded in a “real” historical setting. It would be incredibly interesting to continue this work in other 18-19th century style literature.

 

 

Public Annotation as a Tool, not a Solution

For this week’s reading I centered my thoughts on Jason B. Jones, “There are No New Directions in Annotations”, with particular interest to how public/digital annotation carries on a tradition of learning pedagogy and comprehension of literary materials, whilst also balancing the responsibility of digital pedagogy, an action described by Jones as “the critical approach to canonical  work”. How can (if possible) these two polarizing notions meld and encourage students to feel more empowered in the classroom?

While idealistic in his argument, what Jones does not consider are the systemic silencers that have historically pushed marginalized voices away from feeling represented in the classroom and learning process. To collaborate in such formats might encourage deconstruction of texts within the traditional literary cannon, but does not consider students as independent creators of knowledge. It also does not consider the social construction involved in collaborating to offer bodies of knowledge that has historically been left out of consideration into academic settings. How do we being to plant the seeds to empower students to feel voiced in the classroom in an way that engages with positive deviance?  To be able to achieve the goals Jones describes, would require a radical deconstruction and social training that recognizes the disparity in cultural productions in academia, rather than pour down information and texts to students, with limited engagement and comparison that draws from other texts. While Hypothesis and other annotation tools are incredibly useful in engaging with material, it fails to cross-engage students across texts, and does not foster students to provide much outside of it’s contents unless provided by facilitators in the learning process. The concept of seeing one’s self in any cultural medium can have impact beyond which can motivate students to incorporate these digital tools into their learning process to create the change Jones explained, but they are also not required to achieve this.

Collaborative Close Reading, by Danica Savonick delves into what public annotation might look like in paper form within the classroom. As she describes, most of he students have not had experience in being expected to annotate in a traditional style, which makes this version of written/public annotation a way to introduce students without the intimidation of dropping a new tool on them with the expectation to produce thought in a specific matter. I was most struck by the use of handwriting, which is arguably a dying skill and expression of individuality, and the inherent practice of what it means to share a physical space with peers in the classroom. 

The beauty in this work in rooted in understanding the dismantling of power dynamics in the classroom, while providing a framework of direction to give students a foundational set of knowledge rooted in interdisciplinary and collaborative scholarship. She states, “In most of the classes I’ve taught, the first step is always teaching students how to annotate: how to notice the peculiarities and perplexities of literary language in its efforts to estrange readers and push us to think differently about the world”. This again reflects the structural process of engaging students with openly criticizing texts presented to them in the traditional literary cannon and the beauty that comes from students and educators fostering an equal production of wisdom and learning. Even in the simplest comprehension the vividness of colors, coding, written word, and community engagement are calling back to a history of oral tradition, and visual knowledge that is so often overclouded in the framework of the illusion-ed concept of what is traditional in any literary context.

Disrupting Literary Cannon Through AudioBooks

Going into this project, I couldn’t help but feel slightly insecure by the classes experience and knowledge with this type of literature. During my initial read, prior to this group project, I found the language and usage of words difficult to comprehend, which affected my ability to immerse myself with the text.

In thinking of one of my favorite librarian scholars, Pura Belpre, I constantly kept thinking of her words on how vital representation and seeing oneself in literature is so important to the immersive and imaginative experience of reading. As a librarian and archivist, it was her mission to provide books that reflected the experiences of Puerto Rican and LatinX children of the Bronx. When there weren’t any, she created them and made it her life’s work to change the perception of how language can he used to influence and inspire readers outside of the typical Westernized literary cannon. When I reflect on the Benjamin piece my heart goes back to writers like Belpre, who reach outside of the cannon to recover lost pieces of history and indigenous practices of visual knowledge in her work rather than compare the novel’s and audiobook’s origins in a Eurocentric linear perspective.

As a reader for our group, my insecurity persisted as I wondered how I would engage my own voice (and frankly enthusiasm) into a group of characters I in no way could identify with across the spectrum of race and gender. It was interesting to feminize these characters, and quickly I found myself enjoying what felt like a “disruption” of the common flow of the story. Somehow I had infiltrated the expectations of the demeanor and voices of these traditional characters, and I relished in the idea of being able to re-frame a story in a completely different context. The constant repetition that recording an audiobook requires also enabled me to immerse myself with the text in a way I wasn’t able to before. The thoughtfulness to the emphasis on each word alleviated the confusion I had in understanding many of the correspondences happening between the characters in what initially felt like a world with language that did not belong to me. It was influential scholars like Belpre that paved the way for me to gain these skills in deciphering literature across many genres, all starting with her classic stories such as Juan Bobo, a collection of folk- Taino tales which painted an illustrative literary experience I carry with me forever.

By the end of my recording, I had gained a new appreciation for Bartleby, and find myself making new connections to how the story connects with many social themes we could relate to today. I empathize with the narrator in many ways, and have had moments I feel myself unraveling under the constant “respectable” expectations of what is considered intellectual and respectable in an academic setting. The unspoken assumptions of etiquette, and expectation to perform under a specific cannon of knowledge. This assignment overall has helped me re-think what can be possible in engaging different audiences to texts through the use of collaborative audiobooks, and using this platform as a way to re-appropriate literature in the academic cannon.

Re-utilizing “Cumbersome Formats” of Literature

In thinking of our upcoming audiobook assignment, I was most struck by Mathew Rubery’s “Play it Again, Sam Weller: New Digital Audiobooks and Old Ways of Reading” reading for this week. Particularly, I am most interested in his notion of “cumbersome formats” (63) and how the notion of the audiobook has gained momentum with technological advances and the elimination of cassette and disk form audiobooks. Despite the small gains in the usage of audiobooks Rubery states that “… while relatively small in comparison with conventional book sales, (audiobooks) still account for a substantial number of readers as well as an upward trajectory. As the number of overal readers continues to decline, audiobook use is among the minority of reading continues to decline, audiobook use is among the minority of reading practices found to be increasing general literacy.” (63) It is fascinating to think that the increase of audiobook use comes down to more about convenience in an advancing technological world, versus reshaping how literature is absorbed or documented. Rubery describes the Victorian era ideal of the novel as a “..’talking book’, capable of preserving the voices of eminent Victorians” which now seems so far-fetched to the current reality of audiobook use. When I imagine the average person purchasing an audiobook off their phone I imagine it as an alternative to having to swipe page by page while commuting on the train/bus and listening to the book to tune out the hectic noises of daily life. In college, any audiobook I may have purchased was also out of more convenience or frankly laziness to to want to have a more passive experience of absorbing knowledge that required minimal following of texts on a line by line basis.

This generalized notion of the purpose of the audiobook however, goes entirely against my own exposure to audiobooks during my adolescence.  This group assignment has been a wonderful opportunity to re-engage with a series of audiobooks my mother created with me about 19 years ago of The Royal Raven by Hans Wilhem and The House on the Hill by Christin Couture, at around the age of 6 when I was learning how to read. With only a cassette player, tapes, and a recorder my mother thought it would be a sort of time-capsule/motivating project to inspire me to read knowing that my words would be documented to listen back to in adulthood. I’d like to say that I was able to have that moment of nostalgia and self-reflection once I finally found those tapes in my childhood things and was met with a very serious problem. I had no cassette player to listen to my audiobooks! I can’t quite express the disappointment in being so excited to listen to your childhood self and be denied it through lack of access to analog technology. I never realized how I took these forms of tools for granted. I’d like to think that platforming these audiobooks into more modern forms of technology to avoid this problem would be ideal, but now I find myself conflicted. When I think of Eurocentric models of learning like the Victorian era, my first response is to turn away and look instead to the indigenous values of oral tradition and preservation of knowledge through the passing down of ancestors. The form in which my mother chose to engage me with my imagination through reading became a bonding experience in which not only my reading skills improved, but my general sense of self was instilled through an oral tradition passed on through ancestral generations. In summary I’m conflicted as to how modern technology is a force moving us away from oral tradition or more towards it?