"Can a Game Be Literature?"

Outline of our talk at the Richard Hugo House Sixth Annual Enquiry: Games, Seattle, October 4, 2003.

Gary Smith and Mark Phillips, SmartMonsters

  1. INTRO: Can a Game be Literature? Gary & Mark bios. [Mark]
  2. HISTORY OF RPGs [Gary]
    • D&D
    • Adventure
    • Zork
    • MUD/Diku/Circle
    • MOO/MUSH
    • MMOG
    • many of these have common features we wanted to keep or enhance:
      • interactive: you do more than read
      • multi-user, including international
      • constructed of words
      • playful
    • many of these have common features we wanted to move away from:
      • written for teenagers
      • violence is centric or privileged
      • written in English (which we haven't dealt with!)
    • multiple paths to character growth
    • written for adults (which doesn't mean sex)
    • extensible: infinite linked online worlds
    • subjectivity (Modernism!)
    • "rooms" and what's in 'em
    • three zones called "thirds" which differ in culture
      • NorthWest
        • communal/collective
        • hyper-democratic
        • ecologistic
        • non-violent
        • center of learning
        • "good"
        • governance: collective
        • cities: ancient Athens; medieval Baghdad; ancient Alexandria; the Paris Commune; the Russian Soviets of 1917; Paris, May 1968; utopian colonies of the 19th and 20th centuries; speculation by Engels on the breakdown of the division between city and country post-Capitalism
        • materials: wood, earth, paper, trees
      • NorthEast
        • individualistic/competitive
        • hierarchical (slavery)
        • industrial
        • violent
        • center of martial values, competition, acquisition
        • "evil"
        • governance: bureaucratic
        • cities: 19th century London; 1920s New York; ancient Rome; ancient Babylon; Terry Gilliam's Brazil
        • materials: steel, concrete, glass
      • South
        • technological
        • highly segmented
        • center of art and technology
        • "neutral"
        • governance: technocratic/technological
        • cities: Diaspar; 21st century San Francisco; 21st century Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Calcutta, and others; Terry Gilliam's Brazil
        • materials: nanopolymer
      • undifferentiated historical time: all times are simultaneously present
        • cowboys, hoplites, astronauts, knights ride together on a mag-lev subway
        • this is a Modernist convention (T.S. Eliot)
      • much literary/cultural allusiveness:
        • T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land: Tiresias, etc.
        • Joyce
        • Jarry
        • Gauguin
        • the Caballah
        • Oscar Wilde
        • way more
      • future plans:
        • intelligent NPCs
        • natural language processing
        • machine translation
        • bigger, more, faster, better
    • we answer the question re games as literature largely by reference to our technical practices
    • key constraints:
      • people don't like to read online
      • authors can't rely on deterministic causality; implications for "plot"
    • practices:
      • compression
        • allusiveness
        • juxtaposition
      • nondeterministic causality & "plot"
        • can't rely on the order of experience
        • spatial juxtaposition
        • probablistic causality. explanation: fork in the road w/two signs, a drab one and a sexy one.
        • "story" equals "plot" equals deterministic causality equals artifact of the codex book? Or, lack of codex constraint equals nondeterministic causality equals stories that are more like real life -- messy!
        • nondeterministic causality and Postmodernism
      • characterization
        • flat versus round characters: E.M. Forster
        • computer-based RPGs are especially good at flat characters. Mrs. Micawber everywhere!
        • human players provide the round characters
        • recycled characters -- another Modernist convention
    • RPGs as Postmodern poetics
    • Critique of the Novel as a One-Dimensional Form
    • answer: any imaginary experience constructed of words is inherently literary. whether it's literature or not depends on:
      • how conscious of its place in literary tradition, that is, evolution of form, its authors are
      • whether or not it's well-written
    • if this is a reasonable answer, we're a form in search of masters
  6. Q&A

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