Digital Humanities in Gaming: Can Mario, Dr. Ford, and Charlie Brooker Act as Futuristic Gaming Digital Humanists?

Features Image in Digital Humanities in Video Games with text and an arcade gaming station

Is there anything more powerfully immersive in culturally relevant stories, than video games?

I still remember my childhood summer holidays consumed by Age of Empires games. I spent hours on monuments building, taking Joan of Arc safely from place to place, building train tracks across civilization to the unchartered territory at the edges of a dark void. It flared my interest in History into a full-blown obsession with becoming a historian/ archaeologist. I later realized that the Age of Empires and Assassin’s Creed addressed and explored post-colonialism. The very objective of the games ranged from conquest to leading a revolt for the free people. Age of Empire III: The Asian Dynasties particularly, set under the Mughal Dynasty, Tokugawa Shogunate, or Ming Empire demonstrated the Global South history.

The Red Fort in Age of Empire 3. Image courtesy: https://www.ageofempires.com/media/

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Are Westworld, Black Mirror, and Russian Dolls relevant to Digital Humanities?

Image courtesy: Westworld

In the TV show Westworld, the Westworld park is basically a real-live-action MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game) where the hosts cannot harm the humans, and the humans can do as they please. It is a Jurassic World scenario, unsurprisingly from the same creator – Michael Crichton is the author of both Jurassic Park and the writer-director of Westworld. We get a brief look into the tech used in the creation of the park and its various components. It was undoubtedly, a huge venture and repurposed existent discoveries like 3D printing,  Image Recognition, Terraforming in different advanced states. The Uncanny Valley for the Hosts is almost unbelievably non-existent. Uncanny Valley is an influential concept by Masahiro Mori from 1970 where he hypothesized that humans would feel revolted as opposed to empathy when sitting across a robot.

Image courtesy: IEEE.org

Westworld’s Show creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy side step this by using actual human actors of course, but what are the technological advancements depicted in the show? They explore the nuances of human-computer interaction (HCI) and even the mechanical malfunctions deeply. The hosts are thoroughly programmed to go through the motions of their storyline loops.

They are seemingly more complex than a simple chat interface like the one I will be mentioning in regard to Microsoft’s LUIS. It brings to mind IBM Watson which is a result of pattern recognition and the intelligent understanding of various complex subtleties in human linguistics like sarcasm, puns, riddles, overtones, subtext, etc. for the game show Jeopardy.

Image courtesy: tech2025.com

Each Westworld host has their own storyline to play out over a loop, to reach to completion, realistically. Any variation, based on humans within the park lending to greater unpredictability factor, must also be accounted for. Hence, there is a need for improvisation. The tension in the story are the malfunctions which, are blamed on the addition of Dr. Ford’s “reveries”, which are about the smallest realistic behavioral ticks that make hosts more believably human. They definitely do pass the Turing test. But since this is a TV show, the focus is not on the tech in the world, but on the very human emotions, connections, character growth of everyone involved – humans and hosts alike. There is a lot to unpack in those small moments. What kind of data was collected from humans in the park?

Many Black Mirror episodes often feel like a study in Digital Humanities. USS Callister recreated Star Trek for the fans with VR gaming. Hang the DJ took online dating literally. Playtest used the subject’s perceived fears against them in a virtual-reality game. San Junipero placed the characters in their own nostalgic false reality. Then there’s Bandersnatch. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is a possible near future of our world. It questions the ramifications of the ever-evolving tech around us. How much and what kind of data was required to work on the technologies mentioned here? What was the technology used really? More importantly, where were all the morality and ethics scholars in those worlds?

Image courtesy: Reddit.com

Another currently buzzy show, Russian Doll parodies video games by having the main character, Nadia, dying in ways reminiscent of a video game. Falling down stairs, plummeting into urban portals to hell, open metal doors in front of storefronts for basement deliveries – All in a life’s work. If New York were the video game setting, it would make a tough level. Incidentally, Nadia is a talented video game programmer who designed one of those “almost impossible-to-win” games. She dies and dies and dies. She ends up actually living the coding error or glitch in the matrix that she fixes so easily at her work meeting. Nadia explains the philosophy of their weird predicament to her partner-in-loop, Alan thus, “This is like the game!” Co-creator Leslye Headland describes the analogy, “What if life treated you way that a video game treats you, which is that you can’t move forward until you accomplish this thing, and you’re just not allowed to until you accomplish this thing?”

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll (2019)
Image courtesy: IMDB.com

Side note: A self-correcting universe which will pick up the character from their last saved point. Sounds just like a video game, right? A self-correcting universe which reveals itself to those perceptive of it. The concept is also thousands of years old. A Talmudic scholar would tell you it was originally packaged in Jewish Theology (which also features heavily in the show.)

Are Video Games relevant to Digital Humanities?

In their Digital Humanities podcast, First Draft, Elijah Meeks, Jason Heppler, and Paul Zenke discuss a hugely popular and addictive game A Dark Game. They try to navigate the quality of art in games and critique the pernicious use of psychology and sociology in justifying the games’ success. In other ways, games are not art. They only exploit my intense desire to get to the next level to waste my time and energy. The adrenaline rush of a gameplay is well emulated even when just witnessed via YouTube, Twitch or Steam. They have the potential to become art but are not yet there. Roger Ebert also agrees –  all that creates an emotion is not art.

Digital Humanities is one of the most multidisciplinary fields out there. Literature, arts, sociology, culture studies, are all viewed through the microscope of technology. Video Games are already interdisciplinary since they bring together the interplay between code, visuals, graphics, storytelling, representation, data collection, and such skills. Nothing in humanities is half as commercially lucrative as video games. Viral games are a constant in our collective lives. Video games include archiving, electronic texts, and other random Digital Humanities disciplines despite the kind of content the video game might hold.

There is a wealth of information lying uncharted, un-analyzed, un-visualized, and left untapped by academicians. Gaming is a powerful tool for representation, diversity, entertainment, virtual immersion, and it has taken the AR/VR world by storm. Since scholars find it hard to peg Digital Humanities down specific to its definition, role, and application, it is easy to see why video games were overlooked or dismissed as ‘silly’ vastly in the field which deals with almost the same kind of subjects as video games. For example, cinema and video games are clubbed together for their visual appeal.

Image courtesy: thewrap.com

Nevertheless, video games have a transmedia storytelling quality that almost never translates well on-screen. Take the case of Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia or Need for Speed. It is impeded by the distinct immersive culture in a game universe vs what works in a film universe.

The cultural shift towards memes, inside nods, references, or jokes, relevant easter eggs, has that players are free to follow up on.

Andrew Mactavish suggests that the game scholars’ analysis should be guided by such creative practices, giving way to the social, cultural, and economic factors that result in them.

Gaming has always been an interdisciplinary field. A game designer alone makes not a game. The creation of a video game involves the blood, sweat, and tears of many artists, programmers, designers,  producers, sound designers, marketers, and business people at the very least. Games are a hybrid visual, material, and digital objects. They very well deserve a spot under the Digital Humanities research interests umbrella.

Yet many scholars, humanities scholars, graphic designers, Digital Humanities scholars pursue the study of video games at a superficial level. They are the most commercially viable media with massively complex finance structures. Gaming companies are even hiring economists to handle “virtual money”  (not to be confused with cryptocurrency.)

Related image

What do Academicians Think of Gaming?

In academia, a journal-based scholarship is passive while gaming seems more active.

It places the player in a unique position to actually go through the narrative and interpret their reality accordingly. For example, in The Good Place, Chidi Anagonye is a life-long believer in careful consideration of all his knowledge on moral and ethical philosophy. He even wrote 3600 pages on the subject, which he spent 18 years working on. Yet, when Michael pushes him into a split decision moment by recreating the actual Trolley problem in The Good Place for him. Despite his academic immersion, Chidi is unable to make the decision, thereby refusing to answer the question in its conclusion.

Chidi (center) contemplates the trolley problem from within an actual trolley. Image courtesy: nbc.com.

Ludology (Latin for the study of playing; ludere ‘to play’ + -ology) is the practice of game studies, which includes the study of all kinds of cultural studies in all types of games throughout history. There has been some conversation between the art of playing vs the art of narration playing a bigger factor in the player’s agency in the gaming world. It is commonly referred to as the ludology vs. narratology debate.

In the A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, ed. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens essay Licensed to Play: Digital Games, Player Modifications, and Authorized Production, Andrew Mactavish wonders of the role that scholars have taken in the study of the gaming field.

Do scholars attribute the same kind of importance to gaming analysis the way they tend to, for literature, music, film, theatre, or forms of art? Even if they are willing to, the approach taken is to be more practical and pro-active because gaming by nature is a physically and mentally immersive experience. In every gaming experience, the player impacts the changes in a game. The closest a book can get to this is in one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books where you are directed to particular pages based on the choices you make. They were popular as books. I remember finding one such Famous Five book in a dusty small library. Depending on the actions I wished one of the Famous Five to take, I was directed to skip to a page or continue. I became an active character in the story. 12 year old me loved it. This was also possible with Instagram stories. Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch was one such transmedia TV show gaming episode.

The psychological interaction with a medium affects the way we interpret it. Every film, book, song, and game, of course, engages us differently. Games have tremendous visual power in our minds. There is no denying that the relationship between games and public culture has become strongly intertwined. Game studies, game-based learning and media studies blend. Games, however, in the recent past have taken a more serious turn towards reaching for the variables that are not conforming to a rigid set of rules.

What are these game studies, game-based learning, and game theory? We need a DeLorean right about now….

history of video games
The history of video games, created by HistoryDegree.net and RN Public Relations
Image courtesy: forbes.com
Video Game Statistics Infographic

Video Game Statistics
Image courtesy: visual.ly

What was the History of Gaming in Digital Humanities?

What does Video gaming, TCP/IP, and Digital Humanities have in common?

One man – Ray Siemens.

In an interview with Ray Siemens, Anne Welsh, Julianne Nyhan, and Jessica Salmon titled Video-gaming, Paradise Lost and TCP/IP: an Oral History Conversation between Ray Siemens and Anne Welsh, we find out what Digital Humanities was like before it was called so, and known innocuously as Humanities Computing.

Even in the early 2000s, the idea that video gaming should be a part of Digital Humanities was prevalent, even if among the few scholars engaged in this field. Siemens’ professor in undergrad was a gaming professor who taught computer games as a narrative, within the English department.

Humanities computing was also known as computational literary studies back then, but it was a growing field in academic circles, especially in educational centers like the University of Alberta, University of Toronto, Oxford, University of British Columbia. Even if a bit unstructured in the type of formal learning received by them in those days of the mid-eighties, at IBM Toronto, where he came across the tome of Telecommunication Protocol/Internet Protocol, and eventually helped revise the manual, back in 1989.

As it turns out, Digital Humanities had a role even in the making of the internet! Not only that but someone whose field of study was actually early Tudor Renaissance English literature played an important role in the formation of the all-important TCP/IP.  

Siemens said, “In the English department I was taking courses about computer gaming, I was taking courses about computer-assisted learning and what we would now call Digital Humanities. It wasn’t until grad school that I found that I was separating things out more, so during my master’s degree, what I began to realize with the help of all the wonderful people I worked with, was that I was [in my interests] really separating content from [the] method. That, I think, is a pretty standard observation these days, and I was happy to have had it in graduate school during my master’s degree in the late eighties to early nineties, 89–91.”

Siemens, R., Welsh, A., Nyhan, J., & Salmon, J. (2012). Video-gaming, Paradise Lost and TCP/IP: An oral history conversation between Ray Siemens and Anne Welsh. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 6(3).

He was supposed to read Paradise Lost for class and presented the seminar on this long poem via text analysis computing tools (TACT by University of Toronto), which was extremely unique for then. Siemens reflects on the DH culture as a teenager who loved gaming to an adult who participated in the creation games and other important  artifacts in computer science history along the way, and concludes by saying that the vast importance to be placed on Digital Humanities is an opportunity in every which way for the scholarship “that can only exist because we’re doing things that ensure that academia and the business community at large understand each other.”

Siemens along with Susan Schreibman was the first generation of Humanities Computing converted Digital Humanists. In their paper from A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, they explore the nuances of cybertextuality as a precursor for interactive and dynamic texts.

Are Video Games Ergodic?

Cybertextuality is the theory of text, and mental, and physical functions based on Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. This includes any bi-directional conversational “hand-shake” mechanism consisting of receiver feedback or response to the sender’s message. In computer science, this is usually the situation in any server level network. But for gaming point of view, we are going to consider cybertextuality as a reference point for the difference between passively reading in literature and actively playing a game.

In Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature J. Espen Aarseth explains the meaning of ergodic literature as a derivative of the physics term, “ergodic” (Greek for work path; ergon ‘work’+hodos ‘path’), which was the quantitative way that a reader traverses a text. On the other hand, non-ergodic literature is the type where the reader makes only trivial or least effort to traverse the text.

This only means simple language = easier to read. Incidentally, every marketing guru’s first take on the subject of gaining customer traction will be this.

Adventure games, MMORPG, multi-user dungeons, etc., are also relative to the text. This is because they are to some extent:

  • Indeterminate
  • Non-linear
  • Sequential
  • Dependent on the reader’s choices in making sense of the text
  • Varied in every reading
Image result for inception maze drawing scene
Image courtesy: reddit.com

How can the story being played out be non-linear and sequential at the same time?

Here I will be using examples from pop culture to try and understand this phenomenon.

The Literary

This is an aporia that can be explained away thus: From the creator’s perspective will look non-linear to the player, while the line that the player traverses are sequential. The split is between the intention and the mental object. For example, the utility of reading Harry Potter series might be high the first forty-three times at least, so much so that there is every chance of finding new details during all those forty-three times (and then, diminishes as J. K. Rowling comes up with more fan-servicing tarnishing of the original material.) But J. K. Rowling apparently always meant for Dumbledore to be gay, Hermione to be POC, etc. etc.

Salman Rushdie did not mean for The Satanic Verses to be considered an attack against an entire religion, but that’s not how Ayatollah Khomeini saw it. The ambiguity is something most literary scholars are fond of arguing on. In cybertext, it makes a difference because of the nature of ergodic literature. If the reader (or player) is easily able to traverse the text, ergodic literature is achieved. Otherwise, it is a case of the non-ergodic. The didactical value of a textual Daedalus’ Labyrinth in a book is transformed into an actual one in an immersive form in a visual game medium.

To put it simply, in a book, the helpless feeling of being only a spectator to Albus Dumbledore’s murder just as Harry was petrified into his stance under the Invisibility cloak is overpowering, but what could be empowering is having that agency to actually run the risk of rejection of such safety. The reader has a voyeuristic pleasure, and the player has a potent proactive pleasure of being a part of his or her own story.

Let us see ergodic literature first by itself, then in the context of cybertextuality. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles also uniquely places the author as a character mulling over the fate of his characters while giving the entire story a minimum of three separate yet connected endings. Umberto Eco, author of books like The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum talks about three types of labyrinths. The linear, the maze, and the net. Our aporia is more of a maze than a net; like the Pandavas and the Chakravyuh maze from Mahabharata. Only one character knows the way out, only one other knows the way in to retrieve the weapons at the center of the maze. The Ariadne’s thread to the Minotaur in Daedalus’ maze for Theseus is similarly a multicursal labyrinth. Wall inscriptions on various temples around Egypt, Cambodia, India, etc. depict a variety of sculptures which can give rise to just as many nonlinear interpretations of the same. Visual poetic pieces known as calligrammes have different meanings based on their analysis. With the advent of the twentieth century’s hallmark digital computation, information storage, and retrieval system in databases also bears resemblance to the ergodic form of literature.

Likewise, machine learning clusters at an overarching level also are similarly ergodic. The information is not in linear fashion but with a simple lookup any number of keywords can be listed down with relevant metadata and data. There are so many new forms of textual medium emerging from the digital computation. The entire concept of programming languages used in programs, especially the longer ones, for developing anything can also arguably be considered non-linear and sequential. A program runs to its completion with line-by-line compiling. They are, after all, artificial languages, and imply new meaning to even known words or phrases. Then there are the interdependent methods, call-back functions, iterative loops, breaks, jumps, discontinuous parsing, etc., which have a poetic quality to them. Quite literally. Check out  Sharon Hopkin’s poem Listen is written in Perl programming language.

#!/usr/bin/perl

APPEAL:

listen (please, please);

  open yourself, wide;
       join (you, me),
  connect (us, together),

tell me.

  do something if distressed;

          @dawn, dance;
          @evening, sing;
          read (books, $poems, stories) until peaceful;
          study if able;

sort your feelings, reset goals, seek (friends, family, anyone);
         
           do*not*die (like this)
           if sin abounds;

keys (hidden), open (locks, doors), tell secrets;
 do not I-beg-you, close them, yet.

                                  accept (yourself, changes),
                                  bind (grief, despair);
    require truth, goodness if-you-will, each moment;
select (always), length(of-days)

#listen (a perl poem)
#Sharon Hopkins
#rev. June 19, 1995

More commonly, Nick Montfort has explored comparative media as a means for poetry.

The Linguistic

If you need to look any further for such evidence: programs have a syntactical and semantic structure that they all must adhere to just like linguistics. Digital Technology has radically changed the way the way we read and write now. Chatbots are a huge trend for all online stores, to simulate a real-world buyer-seller dynamic. Cleverbot was an early example of conversation simulations. They take into account the Turing test parameters and are perfectly delightful in their imitation. I became intimately acquainted with this process when I contributed to my final year Computer Science and Engineering project, “Phenobot—A Chatbot for Event Management”. Phenobot was built using Node.JS, JSON, and MongoDB. I contributed to the project by scripting and training Phenobot with user utterances by specifying intents and entities on LUIS. I also researched and documented the literature survey on IBM Watson, ELIZA, ALICE, etc. and the process used in the creation of Phenobot.

Microsoft’s Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS) offered an easy and smart language understanding of applications. It uses the power of machine learning to solve the difficult problem of extracting meaning from natural language input.

The NLP to be identified and differentiated between:

  1. Intents
  2. Entities

The intents are categorized as active, verb part of the sentence in a user utterance, and the entities are the keywords or the subject about which the user utterance is – the noun. While the structure had to be linear, the keywords and information extraction was unpredictable and thus, had many possible paths.

Thus, writing the script for the chatbot became primarily an exercise in human interaction, linguistics, psychology, and sociology. The randomness of the keywords, – intents and entities used – ensures these are examples for cyber textual ergodic literature. Now imagine this in a larger or big picture context. Westworld’s hosts converse with one another and humans with processes similar to this.

The Mathematical

Every action decided, has a reaction in the gaming universe. In the mathematical field, game theory is the study of rational decision making, its interaction, in the form of mathematical models. It is widely used in computer science, social sciences, and logic. When I came across this subject back in my undergrad, I did not understand this particular concept back then. I only knew the set of probabilistic equations and methods to get the right answer. It very obviously has important applications. One such is the zero-sum games – where one person’s gains result in losses for other participants. There are different strategies in which different parties involved are often interdependent – having similar, opposed, or mixed interests. The outcomes that may result from these decisions. Sounds a lot like Monopoly, Snake, and Ladders, or even Chess, doesn’t it?

What can Digital Humanities do with Video Games?

  1. Ian Bogost is a video game creator who has used Digital Media studies extensively in his work at Persuasive Games.
  2. Anthropology can be taught via gaming now.

Potentially, video games like Grand Theft Auto offer a keen insight into the themes of social, behavioral, and cultural theory such as gender, language, symbols, economic exchange, and power. So that checks off even sociology, psychology, economics, and could be stretched to fit even education.

Video games show a preternatural avenue for realizing social hierarchy, intergroup communication, and community over time. Video games place power-ups in the form of human essentials. Video games place an immense amount of importance on problem-solving. They make for control over a narrative, art direction, and game mechanics, and for games to actually send you into a rabbit hole of level-ups and finish multi-level missions for hours, nay, days together until you have the ultimate face-off with the Boss.

For this, the creator has to have an intricate knowledge of at least the superficial “hooks” over human psychology, which while vastly complex, is also easy to understand. It is what advertising, marketing, and sales aim to “get just right”.

Aesthetics, including appearance, presentation, sound, design, and other such production values are all-important in video games. The iconic Super Mario 64 jingle is instantly recognizable for its “new-age” graphics in 1993. Pac-man is a classic for its simple appeal in arcade games. But a long form based story arranged in pretty graphics, and intensely good music is of a different order.

In Privileging Form Over Content: Analyzing Historical Videogames, Adam Chapman juxtaposes the various elements of historical films, with those of historical video games. Analysis of such transmedia forms of storytelling requires an in-depth application of literary processing which Digital Humanities tools can help with.

In Historical Simulations as Problem Spaces: Some Guidelines for Criticism, Jeremiah McCall conceptualized simulation of historical games as spaces to improve our understanding of history and suggests this approach will be a more serious study of history rather than how gaming is considered frivolous pastime. When the accuracy of the facts is to be used to reconstruct the events from history, this in itself will help set the history straight and re-inform us of our past. Just like a dramatic reenactment can provide us with opportunities for new insights, this is an interesting exercise in not following the proverbial “Winner’s story”. In the process of the simulation, not only will we be watching history in the room where it happens, but also actually taking part in it. This will also dispel the notion that history is a boring subject for school students, filled with just facts and figures. Presently, video games are still in the beginning stage of thoughtfully engaging, configuring, and allowing the discourse about our past as an experience satisfactorily.

Jeremy Antley in Games and Historical Narratives mentions his paper Going Beyond the Textual in History that pushes the boundaries of the way games to operate with the influence of textual epistemologies. He also suggests that, since this is an actually proactive and evolving field, the practical should outweigh the theoretical practices. Hence the usage of Digital Humanities tools can enable flexible knowledge transitions within different overlapping spheres in both Digital Humanities and Video gaming. The study of gaming is an important path to this end, but it must not be the end all. Historians will do well to contribute their requirements in the creation of digital analytical tools for the furthering of the humanities, thus promulgating a broader effort.

Whatever way you slice it, games are yet another depiction of our humanity. There’s a madness to both living and gaming (apart from the cheat codes: Wololo!): It never feels like you can hack it the right way or immediately, yet you make it through the door to Princess Peach.

Further Reading

The Uncanny Valley: The Original Essay By Masahiro Mori.” IEEE Spectrum: Technology, Engineering, and Science News. N. p., 2019. Web. 12 Jun 2012.

Antley, Jeremy. “Games And Historical Narratives Journal Of Digital Humanities.Journalofdigitalhumanities.org. N. p., 2019. Web. 2012

Postcolonialism, Videogames, Souvik Mukherjee, and Palgrave Macmillan. “Videogames And Postcolonialism – Empire Plays Back | Souvik Mukherjee | Palgrave Macmillan.” Palgrave.com. N. p., 2019. Web. 2017.

Siemens, Ray & Schreibman, Susan. (2013). A Companion to Digital Literary Studies.

Aarseth, Espen J. (1997) Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. The John Hopkins University Press


1 Comment

  1. Very well done, this is your best one yet.

    One other thing about gaming, one that’s kind of close to my heart is modding, and it is an aspect of gaming that is uniquely it’s own as an art form. It allows not just interaction but lends itself to change. I can not only play as The Dragonborn or Geralt of Rivia I can (assuming I have the skillset for it) make new armour for them, make new animations for their combat, make their dialogues different, hell even add new content to the game itself in terms of quests and new lands and new dungeons.

    Liked by 1 person

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