May 19th, 2010 | zach whalen
You know how when you have an assignment for students to post regularly to a blog throughout the semester, there’s always a couple who wait until the last minute to post a bunch of comments to make it look like they’ve been posting all along? Apparently, I am that student. I’ve spent most of the day reading everyone else’s proposals, trying to find the best way to frame my own proposal within that context, so here goes:
I’m interested in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), and lately I’ve been especially interested in saying things about ARGs in scholarly and pedagogical contexts that do more than explain what ARGs are and why anyone should care. As a textual scholar (technically), I’m trying to find ways to stabilize and document an ARG as a text; this is difficult because the artifacts which comprise an ARG experience might be as diverse as an email, a twitter update, TV commercial, or a personal conversation with someone who turns out to be a character in a fictional universe. For most of these things, Zotero is pretty good at capturing the data and metadata, and in a recent semester, I had students build ARGHives as Zotero collections. This worked pretty well on the input side, but not so great on the output side, wherein lies the problem I’m trying to get at. Since ARGs are temporally constrained, a Zotero-powered ARGHive is useful only for those who were in the right place at the right time to have experienced it. ARGHives aren’t good at conveying the text of an ARG to everyone else, and this is a problem for ARG scholarship. (The imaginary ideal for an ARGhive would have to be some kind of reality emulator, and that doesn’t make sense.)
When I write some deep, scholarly thoughts about a novel or a videogame, I address that to a community that can assess the value of my deep thoughts by reading them against the text in question. Not so with ARGs, where the textuality that matters comes to bear within the diverse experiences of a specific community of players.
Lest it sound too much like I’m just crowdsourcing my own research project for public, I should clarify that this problem has implications, I think, for many of the threads already emerging in session proposals. When Rob Nelson writes about arguing digitally, when Alex Jarvis looks to whatever comes after paper as a design problem, and when Dave Parry implies that collaboration is a key characteristic of digital sophistication (both for pedagogy and scholarship), it occurs to me that what’s at stake in all of these is the terms through which we negotiate digital authority. (And I’d probably add a number of other posts into this mix, especially.)
Now, by raising the question of authority (and, implicitly, identity), I don’t necessarily want to go all ontological. (“Less yak,” after all.) Rather, I want to suggest that ARGs are a good case study in textuality because participation in an ARG consistents (usually) in players’ negotiating textual authority through examining various texts to determine what’s significant and what’s ephemeral. So if we can have a conversation about best practices in transmedia scholarship (and in that conversation, I’d probably argue that such scholarship should itself probably be at least transmodal in some way), we’d be dealing with an automatically self-reflective archive that makes meaning in an inherently digital way — by identifying differences between randomness and pattern.
This also hints at what I think a truly digital scholarship might start to look like. In my own digital-scholarly project, www.thevideogametext.com, I’m so far just putting a dissertation (which is comprised of words, images, and some animation) onto a website. The only thing “digital” about it is that it’s stored in a MySQL database, hosted on a web server somewhere, and that I access it through my computer thanks to the magic of a series of protocols.
This post is already way too long, so I’ll just close by acknowledging that many (if not all) of the hurdles I’m raising here about ARGs are likely well-trodden by my fellow campers who identify themselves as digital historians. That is, from an archival point of view, creating a historical narrative by putting an event into context is different than putting a document into that context — I’m sure that’s a conversation that already exists, and I look forward to seeing how it all plays out in the weirdly textual realm of ARGs.
TL:DR – ARGs are neat. I want to have a session hashing out how to deal with them in scholarly ways. This has interesting implications for what we mean by terms like “digital scholarship.” Alternatively, I’d be very happy bringing an ARG/transmedia angle to any number of sessions already proposed.