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A Political Value Schema for Functions of Electronic Art & Literature

For this blog, I have attempted to outline a value schema for functions in digital ergodic art & literature. This proposed schema, although admittedly patchy at this point, can help us think about how to move beyond the typologies of Aarseth and Waldrip-Fruin. It may also be treated as a tongue-in-cheek parody of Aarseth’s typology. So here’s how it works: I created 6 function categories operating at the surface level of a work and 2 operating at the processing level. Each function category is broken down into a range of possibilities. Those possibilities are paired with corresponding political valuations. The idea is to take an ergodic work, think through its functions, and see what political values the schema suggests. Then, try to locate some overarching themes or overlapping values among all of the proposed values; begin to develop a political criticism. Good luck!

A Political Value Schema for the Functions of Electronic Art & Literature

Surface Level
CATEGORY 1: THE ORIENTATION OF PLAY
Centralized System (my actions make no difference; I’m a spectator)
Political values: This art/literature suggests a belief in authoritative control; may suggest a deterministic worldview; may suggest that the masses need a guided experience; may express a belief in institutional organization; limitation is likely seen as a positive value.
Limited Interactive Play (my actions can only alter some parts/aspects of this work; I have limited control)
Political values: This work may suggest that guided interaction is best; may suggest the masses need some freedom to be happy but need some control to avoid emergent chaos.
Decentralized/ Interactive Play (my actions determine everything; without my actions, there is no progression in the work)
Political values: This work expresses a belief in pure democracy and open expression; may suggest a belief in free-will; may suggest the people, not institutions, should/do determine the course of the world through their actions.

CATEGORY 2: THE NEED FOR USERS

Individual-Driven (the work can be effectively accomplished or engaged with/by only 1 person)
Political values: A belief that the individual is what matters; Implies the power of an individual’s work; Suggests the world revolves around each individual, at least from his/her perspective; May imply individuals don’t need others to move or get-along in the world; May foster a spirit of American Capitalism; May imply that in this world, you’re really all alone; Suggests everyone is on his/her own journey, alone.
Option-Driven (the work can be can be accomplished or engaged with either one or many players; the work does not require just one person)
Choice is what matters; you can live alone or in a group; implies a level of relativity; suggests great tasks can be accomplished by single individuals or large groups; may want users to be pleased in any situation in which they find themselves.
Collaboration-Driven (for the apparent end or implied purpose to be accomplished, participants must work together)
Groups matter more than individuals; the world revolves around group actions; individuals need each other to accomplish tasks; in this world, we’re really all in the same boat; we’re all walking hand-in-hand; implies we all wield the same amount of power, and the worlds we create only work if we all cooperate.

CATEGORY 3: THE POINT OF VIEW
Character/Identity Led
Whether hero or villain, this art/literature suggests it’s important that you see who is acting in this world; every action should be witnessed; it’s important to understand a character’s journey, to walk in someone else’s shoes; it suggests that feeling new experiences through the realm of a guided fantasy is what makes this art or story fantastic and fun.
Screen Led
Seeing new perspectives require that you go bravely out into a world and take a look around; first-hand experience is highly valuable; suggests that feeling new experiences directly is what makes this art or story fantastic and fun.

CATEGORY 4: THE MODES
Uni-Modal
This work values precision; this work considers the body as segmented into parts; reveals the dominant sense for conducting this particular activity; reveals how one sense can be highly persuasive; may value hypermediacy over immediacy.
Multi-Modal
Values bodily immersion; considers the body as a collective; reveals how senses work in collaboration toward persuasion; may value immediacy over hypermediacy.

CATEGORY 5: THE MANIFESTATION OF ELEMENTS
Repeated Elements for every use (no matter what I do or when I play, I always work with all of the same elements)
Political values: This art/literature suggests a belief that repetition is required; may imply that the world does not change; suggests user(s) actions do not change the underlying state of the world; may suggest we all have the same experience.
Some Elements repeated across uses (no matter what I do or when I play, I always see some of the same elements)
Political values: A belief in some message rising above the noise–the repetition sends/speaks a message to the user (depending on what is repeated); implies the world that only changes sometimes; suggests user(s) actions only have a limited effect on the world; suggests some stability exists in the world or in identity; may suggest experience is both unique and shared.
Different Elements for every use (every action I make causes me to see new elements each time I play)
Political values: A belief in the fluidity of the world; suggests instability in its realm of concern; implies the world is able to be greatly influenced by those conditions present in the work; emphasized uniqueness of experience.

CATEGORY 6: THE RECOGNIZABILITY OF ELEMENTS
Recognizable Elements (the work contains only elements that can be felt, held, smelt, etc. in the material world)
This work emphasizes realism, not idealism; seeing “the truth” of existence on this planet is what matters; suggests we can’t really imagine anything beyond what we know, and maybe if we did, it would just be speculation, so why even try?; implies people should get excited about the material world; suggests what is recognizable in the materials world is what is most powerful and/or pertinent.
Some Recognizable Elements (the work contains some elements found in the material world or contains elements based on material objects, even though they have been altered to look slightly different for some reason)
This work suggests, by its hybridity, imagining “the new” requires some attachment to the material world; implies it’s important to stay rooted in what is known, but it’s also important to imagine what could be.
Non-recognizable Elements (this work only contains shapes and forms, textures and sounds, not found at all in any known material world experience)
This work suggests that we should always imagine beyond the familiar; people should get excited about the never-before-seen; the work suggests a high value in escapism and imagination; implies people need to be exposed to the new and wild and be free from normal constraints; may ask us to re-think what we “know.”

Processing Level
CATEGORY 1: THE CODE
Closed code
Says “stay the hell away!”; suggests a belief in protectionism; centralized mechanisms are required for this piece to work the way the designers want it to work or needed for it to work for Capitalistic reasons; may suggest a belief in the power of the “author/designer” to control his/her creation.
Open code
Says “come on in!”; implies a belief in democratic mechanisms; participation is required for this work to flourish; there’s a belief in the power of individual action; implies an inherent trust of people; there’s a belief in the co-progress of humanity here; suggests we all should be or can be “authors/designers.”

CATEGORY 2: THE OPERATION
Intentional Operation (the surface structure performs a certain way because the code seems to have been intended for it to perform this way)
Hold fast to your previous conclusions.
Mistaken Operation (the surface structure performs a certain way because there is an apparent design flaw in the code)
Re-think your previous conclusions. Specifically, reverse as necessary the conclusion that is most pertinent to the place where the code reveals its flaw. For example, if the elements in category 5 seemed repetitious on the surface but are only repetitious due to an odd coding phenomenon, then go back and re-apply/re-address the schema.

NOTES ON THIS VALUE SCHEMA:
As the reader has likely discerned at this point, this schema has been a tongue-in-cheek exercise. The world of literary criticism is much more complex than these simple categories admit. Nevertheless, I have attempted to point out here that we, as readers and participants in new electronic art and literature, do make value judgments based on a work’s functions. In fact, although I may have overlooked some functions, I would venture to say that most of our political value judgments are in some way determined by the functions listed here. That is to say that even though Aarseth’s elaborate typology (in Cybertext) allows us to categorize types of ergodic works and even though Waldrip-Fruin’s expansion of Aarseth’s typology (in Reading Digital Literature) allows us to examine the processing level to re-think our own judgments of those works, they say nothing about the literary value of a work, unless the function itself is a carrier of meaning. And I have argued here that functions are carriers of meanings. But we always knew they were.


But more than that, I have argued that functions carry culturally recognizable meanings. In attempting to match meanings with functions, I have elucidated what I believe, from my Western point of view, to be the meaning of certain functions. And I suspect that many viewers will be able to agree with my characterizations. Further, I have argued (and will argue) that when multiple functions are considered collectively, they create a constellation of meanings that pushes the general meaning of any sole function into the realm of the less general.  But that’s as far as it goes. Nevertheless, I hope to try to make the point that multiple functions, taken together, might reveal overlapping meanings that are not, then, too general to be useless toward informing quality criticism. Indeed, I believe that an art or literary critic can, simply by thinking through the functions that I have laid our here, look at an ergodic work and begin to compose a well-argued political evaluation of it.  Allow me to offer an example.


Consider “Text Rain” by Camille Utterback. According to my political value schema, this work would be categorized in the following way:
1) Limited Interactive Play (Your bodily actions impact what happens on the screen but what you can do and change is quite limited.)
2) Collaboration-Driven (To effectively see or read the text, you must work together as a group and hold up the falling letters.)
3) Screen-Led (The screen acts as a portal to a world of falling text to which the user enters; the world is not seen through the user’s point of view.)
4) Multi-Modal (The work involves vision and bodily movement—touching the air. The work can also be experienced with sound.)
5) Repeated Elements (The same text falls over and over again. There’s no variation.)
6) Some Recognizable Features (The idea of falling rain is based on the material world, but the rain does not look like rain drops. The work creates an alternate world where the rain looks like letters of the alphabet.)


* Taken together, the political value schema suggests a scope (a range of values) for this work. It reveals some of the interpretive claims that a critic could make about the work and reasonably support from drawing on the elements of the work itself. Those clams are as follows (prominent themes have been highlighted):
1) This work may suggest that guided interaction is best; may suggest the masses need some freedom to be happy but need some control to avoid emergent chaos.
2) Groups matter more than individuals; the world revolves around group actions; individuals need each other to accomplish tasks; in this world, we’re really all in the same boat; we’re all walking hand-in-hand; implies we all wield the same amount of power, and the worlds we create only work if we all cooperate.
3) Seeing new perspectives require that you go bravely out into a world and take a look around; first-hand experience is highly valuable; suggests that feeling new experiences directly is what makes this art or story fantastic and fun.
4) Values bodily immersion; considers the body as a collective; reveals how senses work in collaboration toward persuasion; may value immediacy over hypermediacy.
5) This art/literature suggests a belief that repetition is required; may imply that the world does not change; suggests user(s) actions do not change the underlying state of the world; may suggest we all have the same experience.
6) This work suggests, by its hybridity, imagining “the new” requires some attachment to the material world; implies it’s important to stay rooted in what is known, but it’s also important to imagine what could be.

-David Gruber

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