by guest contributor Simon Ferrari
Simon Ferrari is a videogame researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he studies potential connections between videogames and the news. He is a straight, Jewish, cisgendered male. Simon also designs games in Flash and works as a freelance critic.
In 1997, Janet Murray published Hamlet on the Holodeck. It was one of the first attempts, from within the humanities, to gauge and classify the storytelling potential of the digital medium. Except for the notable influence of Brenda Laurel’s earlier research into computers as theatre, Murray drew primarily from the work of programmers and designers at Xerox PARC and DARPA. She combined technical knowledge with years of experience as a scholar of Victorian literature and science fiction. While recognizing a potential for the misuse of technology, she predicted a utopian future where we would co-create narratives of romance, danger, and exploration within a seamless virtual reality. This is considered a primary text of the “narratology” school of game studies, although Murray herself has always encouraged others to study games as distinct from their capacity to tell stories.
Murray explicated the four essential properties of the digital medium: it is procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic.
Procedurality refers to the computer’s ability to execute code.
The computer is participatory insofar as it responds to input.
Spatiality means that the computer can model space and time.
The encyclopedic capacity comes from the computer’s ability to store more information than any prior physical media.
Murray’s discussion recognizes that procedurality is the medium’s unique and defining trait, but she gives them all equal consideration. She pairs off these properties to explain where complex structures in computing come from. Procedurality and participation combine to form interactivity. Spatiality and participation together lead to the navigation of space following the advent of the graphical user interface. Encyclopedic capacity and spatiality give rise to the field of information design, primarily concerned with organizing data to make it more transparent, accessible, and compact.
Crowning these higher structures are the three characteristic pleasures of the medium: immersion, agency, and transformation. Much of game criticism focus on how well any given work manifests these pleasures. Were the graphics and character development conducive to a sense of immersing myself in a realistic, alternate world? Did mechanics combine with branching possibilities within the gamespace to give rise to a feeling of agency? Who or what did the game transform me into, and did my actions within the game make sense contextually? Murray ushered these terms into the new media lexicon, and it’s important to remember that all of these pleasures drive how we interact with all digital artifacts (not just games), from websites to word processors to 3D modeling software.
From the early 1970s until 1999, Murray worked as a research scientist and humanities professor at MIT. Now she serves as the head of the Digital Media program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a program that she formed with other prominent new media scholars such as Jay Bolter. The program is best known for its contributions to the burgeoning game studies discipline, but it also features an interactive television studio, a robotics and bricolage lab, digital puppetry and augmented reality programs, urban mapping and development projects, and educational software development. Last year, the program graduated its first successful doctoral candidates.
Janet takes a personal interest in the success of each of her students, helping Master’s students acquire paid internships in the summer between their first and second years. Even though her days are packed with teaching and organizing the department, her door is almost always open. When I found myself without an assistantship in my third semester, Murray cobbled together funds from the department to make a job for me. When I was formulating my Master’s thesis, she listened to my core argument and how each of the games I was studying in detail worked. And when I made the first interactive fiction that I was truly proud of, Janet tracked me down at a busy demo day to see how it worked. She takes great pride in the accomplishments of all her graduates (especially in the field of game design).
In many ways, it seems like every budding scholar’s first order of business in the field of game studies is to read Janet’s work and figure out a new way to expand it or reject it. Murray saw the videogames of the 1990s as incunabula—early forms in transition. She discussed experiences such as the arcade, Tetris, and Doom, but she mistakenly saw them as foils for early work into virtual reality. The next decade would prove the opposite, as intensely ludic (structured, goal-oriented) works dominated the game industry. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that we saw paidiac (free, creative) virtual worlds and games become popular and profitable. Many write off Murray’s utopian vision of the future as something that died with the virtual reality business, without realizing that it will take many decades more to decide if her predictions were accurate.
With the recent rise in popularity of interactive drama, 3D cinema, and motion controls, it seems possible that the notion of the holodeck is regaining its primacy. At the Art History of Games conference, Harvey Smith noted the influence of Murray’s writing on the creation of Deus Ex. During the same event, Jesper Juul connected two prominent designers to the holodeck paradigm: Chris Hecker and Clint Hocking. Juul typified them as approaching excellence in game design through hiding its very “gaminess.” Hocking’s own recent lecture series, “The Territory is not the Map,” suggests that only with the advent of a new generation of designers will the holodeck model of immersion be toppled within the industry.
This post is part of Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging (videologging, podcasting, comic drawing etc.!) to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science. You can read more about Ada Lovelace Day at the website.