Author Archives: Alex Pieschel

Project Review: Global Shakespeares

Project Team: MIT (and others)
Reviewed By: Alex Pieschel
Review Presentation Date: March 20, 2013
Expertise Required: ??? (Presumably none, but this is not entirely clear)

I found navigating the Global Shakespeares website to be a puzzling experience. The site’s purpose is implied but never explicitly stated. It seems to be a site that aspires to include and tag Shakespeare performances that can be categorized as “international” in some way. I see a lot of problems with the site, and I’m not sure what to make of its intended trajectory.

The About page, full of vague academy-speak, doesn’t really tell me anything. Shakespeare is referred to as a “global author.” The page purports to “nourish the remarkable array of new forms of cultural exchange that the digital age has made possible.” None of this tells me about the site’s specific goals and how it means to achieve them. That said, the site’s goals do appear to be ambitious. Included are videos of full productions from around the world, scripts translated into multiple languages, critical essays, interviews, a bibliography, and a list of theater companies. The About section links to a separate portal, entitled “Shakespeare Performance in Asia,” which appears to have been last updated in 2008. The About section implies that more portals will be provided for other regions, but it is not clear when this is meant to be achieved.

Global Shakespeares’ function appears to be curatorial. The site includes a catalog of videos depicting specific performances with attached metadata, which includes the date of performance, theater company, director, language, and location. The criteria for entry is described as “International performances that are changing how we understand Shakespeare’s plays and the world,” which still leaves me with the following questions: What are the standards for an appropriate or professional performance? Does recording quality play into whether or not a video is included? Could I contribute a production at the University of Alabama recorded on my iPhone? The ambiguity of the site’s curatorial standards might discourage users from contributing. The site needs a clearer mission statement.

Metadata seems to be an important aspect of the project. It’s apparent that the site aspires to present performances with clear contextual descriptions. That said, the Productions tab is full of holes; most of its entries consist of pages that include only metadata and a message that reads “No video is currently available for this production.” The Videos & Clips section contains everything from two-minute film trailers to two-hour live productions with no clear organization to distinguish those categories from one another. This makes for an aesthetically inferior experience. It also makes me think the site’s ambition is not matched by its execution. As is, navigating the site feels like rummaging through pieces of a failed project, and this might not be the case if the blank entries were simply not included, or if the site’s projected goals and timetables were more explicitly stated.

The Glossary page s one of the stranger sections of the site. It consists of a bulleted list of terms, each of which links to a separate page. The definitions of said terms consist of paragraphs copied and pasted from Wikipedia. The definitions are cited as “from Wikipedia,” which invokes the academic convention of quoting and offering citations but also the non-academic convention of citing Wikipedia. The effect is one of weird dissonance. Why is this list of terms even included? Why does each term have to be on its own separate page? If the site is set on using Wikipedia, why aren’t links to Wikipedia pages simply included in the essays whenever the appropriate terms appear?

In addition, Global Shakespeares links its videos through Youtube, which means a collection of related links are included at the end of each video. The problem with this is that the Youtube player is external to the Global Shakespeares site, so that Youtube (as opposed to MIT) is suggesting related videos. Furthermore, if you click on a linked video, the metadata on the site’s page does not change. This feature sort of undermines the entire curatorial purpose of the site, and in class, I was given the impression that this is a feature that can be turned off.

Overall, the site looks professional, but there are several aesthetic details I find jarring at worst, unnecessary at best. In my opinion, it’s pretty tacky to feature “share” buttons prominently on almost every page of the site, especially when those buttons display zero “Tweets” or “Likes.” The “Open Access” descriptor at the top is also unnecessary. Of course it’s open access because we’re talking about Youtube videos and paragraphs from Wikipedia! Essays and interviews are presented in bland, nondescript lists, as are the Glossary and Links pages.

Navigating this site made me wonder if the problem with some DH projects is that they are too collaborative for their own good. The team listed for this site is a large one with many prominent members. If a mission of DH is to facilitate open access to scholarly materials, then what is the point of a bulleted list of Wikipedia paragraphs? Should we consider this scholarship? Parts of the site seem very much scholarly and useful. It’s fantastic to have access, even if the content is not vast, to cut scripts in multiple languages. It is wonderful that I can watch a full link production of Richard III and know that it is performed by an Arab theater company in Athens, Greece.  I guess the main problem with the site is that it is indeed ambitious and apparently unfinished. Another problem is that it almost certainly lacks grant money. As is, Global Shakespeares feels like an exciting project idea that lacks execution, or at least lacks a transparent plan or timetable that would reassure curious, perhaps skeptical, visitors of the site’s value.

DH Final Project: Weird Romance Game Thing

So I just sent a message to one of my undergrad professors (Look! DH networking!). I wanted to consult with him on some of the issues I’m envisioning for the project that Joe and I will be working on for the rest of the semester. I’m gonna post a version of that message here. If you guys have any feedback/gut reactions/whatever, we would be super appreciative.

Recently, a friend and former professor asked me this question: “Could there be a game that allowed you to travel through different literary traditions?” My immediate reaction was “yep, and it would be pretty easy to make, if it were a text game.

Well, now that I’m actually thinking about how to make the thing and considering what the finished thing would actually look like, my brain feels pretty twisted up.

First of all, here’s what I think such a game should aspire to achieve:

  1. To allow the player to trace literary archetypes through the chivalric Romance tradition. In other words, the game should try to make players think about where figures like knights and wizards come from and how these figures might change or be upended, according to where they are in the literary tradition. I would try to keep it simple and allow the player to choose “knight” or “wizard.”
  2. To allow the player to interact with different characters in that tradition.
  3. To combine literary fiction (by offering its own narrative) with literary analysis (through the archetypal abstraction of fictional characters into playable protagonists and non-playable characters).
  4. To use a really accessible tool to create a really accessible finished product. No coding or downloads or purchases required. Just a link that can be played in a browser window.

Here are some of the problems I am envisioning in trying to achieve the above goals:

  1. So, obviously, I need to make this thing interactive, and I also need to highlight how literary archetypes can shift or change. Should this element be illustrated in the player’s choices or in the conversations with other characters that the player meets along the way? Does the player develop into a different kind of knight or wizard throughout his/her journey, or do the non-playable characters reflect different kinds of knights or wizards? Or both?
  2. How can I make these different literary environments and archetypes distinct from one another without simply copying and pasting from Mallory or Ariosto or Spenser or Shakespeare? What makes an Ariosto knight different from a Spenser knight? How can I illustrate tonal shifts between different literary traditions? How do I tell the player where the characters are coming from? It’s clear how Don Quixote reads differently than Morte d’Arthur, but differences between other Romance works aren’t as explicit. Can I abstract these differences into fictional characters in a way that suggests they stem from specific traditions? In other words, how do I make it clear that I’m not just blowing smoke?
  3. I kind of view this project as a continuum between how academic/educational (boring?) I can make this game and how subtle/abstract/stylized (entertaining?) I can try to make it. To what extent should I be trying to create a literary piece of interactive fiction? To what extent should this project be a dry piece of academic work that attempts to reproduce or make sense of chunks of literary history? Should there be footnotes? If so, should they be prominent? I hate most edutainment games, so I don’t want that. Ideally, the game would be funny and thought provoking. Ideally, it would make the player think about the origins and development of knights and wizards, figures that are so pervasive in western culture. On the other hand, the game is coming from a place of trying to teach the player, so perhaps it would be disingenuous to try and obfuscate or downplay its educational elements too much.

Sorry if none of this makes much sense. Just trying to brainstorm and move towards something tangible. The finished product would probably look something like a Choose Your Own Adventure Story that you click through. There’s a tool, called Varytale, that would allow us to track player choices in a way that gives concrete feedback on skills and relationships with other characters. For example, one Varytale story I’ve played tells you how good your character is at spelling at any given point in the narrative. This tool would be more difficult to use than Twine, which is used to make straight up hypertext fiction.

If anyone is interested in playtesting whatever we come up with, let me know.

Sound Familiar?

From Ian Bogost’s “This is a Blog Post About the Digital Humanities

Let’s go over that again. At the MLA and in a new book, digital humanists debated the role of computer media like blogs in the practice of humanism. In the wake of the MLA, a famous and controversial literary theorist notes that the MLA featured debates about the use of media like blogs in scholarship, and raises concern about the nature of media like blogs in scholarship, largely through discussion of a book by an MLA officer about the ways scholarship is changing when done on blogs, which was first a blog and then became a book. Digital humanities advocates respond in blogs and blog comments about blogging, arguing, among other things, that digital humanities are not really postmodernist. Ahem.

When I lived in Los Angeles and worked in the entertainment industry, I remember coming to a realization: a great deal of Hollywood entertainment is about the entertainment industry. Think about it. Fame, Barton Fink, Super 8, Tropic Thunder, Party Down, Adaptation, Full Frontal, Peeping Tom, Ed Wood, The Truman Show, Sunset Blvd., The Barefoot Contessa, Somewhere, Hollywood Ending, Seinfeld. I guess it makes sense. Write what you know, the aphorism goes. At first, that means heartbreak or black heartedness, but eventually, with success, what one knows is what one does. And currently, what one does in the humanities is talk about the humanities. This is particularly true of the digital humanities, some of whose proponents are actually using computers to do new kinds of humanistic scholarly work in breaks between debates about the potential to use computers for new kinds of humanistic scholarly work.

And now I’ve written a blog post about it.

Twitter Tool Review

In my review I will include some discussion of Twitter’s practical usefulness and usability, but I will not dwell on it because I think the conversation has moved beyond whether or not Twitter is useful. In its first few years of activity, we might have called Twitter a “tool.” Now, we might say that Twitter is how we process cultural moments. Whether or not I think its interface is “intuitive” feels kind of irrelevant.

Launched: July 2006
Cost: Free
Requirements: Any computing device
Rival Tool:  Facebook
Pros: Fast-paced, powerful networking and information tool
Cons: Cluttered and potentially overwhelming
Other Reviews: This is a good example of the binary conversation (Waste of time or best thing ever?!) that has been presented in conversations about Twitter for years. This piece on “The Twitter Explosion” is aging but potentially useful.
Reviewed by: Alex Pieschel
Review Date: 27 February 2013

In “Stuff Digital Humanists Like,” Tom Scheinfeldt argues that Twitter is “more open” than Facebook, and it “allows for the collaboration and non-hierarchy that the Internet and digital humanities values.” I agree with this statement to an extent, but I also think we should be skeptical of Scheinfeldt’s use of the term “non-hierarchy.”

Twitter’s About page states, “You don’t have to build a web page to surf the web, and you don’t have to tweet to enjoy Twitter.” I agree and think this an apt comparison. That said, Twitter, like any other kind of social media, has its own embedded hierarchy. Though one can “follow” most anyone on Twitter, one cannot expect prominent political figures, artists, and academics to “follow back” and engage with one’s ideas. For some, Twitter can feel less like collaboration and conversation and more like anonymity and irrelevance.

One might call Twitter a minimalist networking tool. It lets you do a lot with what at first appears to be severely limited agency. Twitter allows users to employ eight basic functions:

Tweet: is Twitter’s word for hurling truncated thoughts into the digital void. We might consider Twitter’s 140-character limit its most distinguishing feature. Even if we remove replies, retweets, and hashtags from the equation, the character limit in itself asks for a very specific kind of writing. This limited form of micro-blogging encourages an author of tweets to be concise, nonsensical, or perhaps even poetic.

It’s worth noting that some people prefer to get around the character limit by numbering tweets (1/3, 2/3, 3/3), by tweeting a link and then offering commentary in the following tweet, or by expressing a complete thought one broken piece at a time.

Favorite: is interesting because a tension has developed between its practical use and its social connotations. You might favorite a series of tweets because they contain links you don’t have time to read now but want to read later. Or you might favorite a series of tweets because you want to retweet them periodically throughout the next week. (I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve done this before with @fanfiction_txt). Or you might favorite a tweet simply because you want to inform the user of your approval. On Valentine’s Day, I remember someone tweeting something to the effect of, “Favoriting is the ‘I like you, but I just want to be friends’ of Twitter.” This multiplicity sometimes makes it difficult to discern the motivations of one who frequently favorites. The tweet below seems to play with the ambiguity between social intent and practicality.

Retweet: is more powerful than Favorite because it repeats the circulation of an idea, increasing its longevity. A retweet allows you to reaffirm and act in solidarity with another. A tweet that is tweeted once is fleeting, but a tweet that is tweeted a thousand times has potential staying power. TweetDeck makes retweeting more powerful because it enables editing, which allows you to not only share an idea, but to explain what you think about it and leave a more personal digital imprint. Adding your critical, curatorial voice to someone else’s ideas gives people a reason to follow you. In the example below, I give my own summary of a blog post in one word: “Poetic.” I then include the quote I found most powerful in said blog post, and the original tweet follows my own framing.

Reply: initiates a conversation that involves performance because followers can observe your “replies,” which appear stacked on top of each other in a conversation ladder.

Hashtag: is an interactive metadata tag denoted by the symbol “#.” The hashtag is not an official function of Twitter, but Twitter is where the hashtag is most popular (but that could change). The first Twitter hashtag was used in 2007 by Chris Messina, who wanted to keep track of conversations at a tech conference.

Twitter doesn’t own the hashtag, which is why it can function outside of Twitter in Instagram or television advertisements. Employing an appropriately specific hashtag is a useful way to control and catalog a conversation, as illustrated in the tweet below, or to document a specific event (like a natural disaster or presidential election) in which information is changing quickly.

If you’re looking for something specific, hashtags can bring up a lot of tedious junk. They’re better for taking in snapshots than conducting directed research because a feed’s usefulness is unpredictable.

It’s worth noting that some people now consider the hashtag a tacky, overeager form of self-promotion. In addition, hashtags are sometimes used facetiously and self-referentially, “a metajoke about metadata — a bit like setting up an entire hanging file just to store a single Post-it,” as Julia Turner puts it. Most of the people in my feed don’t use hashtags, even though most of them probably know how they work: another useful reminder that most actions on Twitter carry social connotations that can either reinforce or contradict their practical function, depending on how they’re used.

The hashtag is less ambiguous than favoriting, but its mechanisms are more complex. Turner waxes philosophical on this point, illustrating how the hashtag has evolved beyond straight metadata:

But the hashtag, for the dexterous user, is a versatile tool — one that can be deployed in a host of linguistically complex ways. In addition to serving as metadata (#whatthetweetisabout), the hashtag gives the writer the opportunity to comment on his own emotional state, to sarcastically undercut his own tweet, to construct an extra layer of irony, to offer a flash of evocative imagery or to deliver metaphors with striking economy. It’s a device that allows the best writers to operate in multiple registers at once, in a compressed space. It’s the Tuvan throat singing of the Internet.

Follow: allows you to regularly monitor a specific user’s tweets.

List: lets you organize the people you’re following into manageable, logical groups. With this function, you can fashion imagined communities in which users express themselves alongside one another as if they were conversing.

Search: is most useful for pursuing conversations that arise from linked articles or specific events like The Oscars or the season premiere of Madmen. An appropriately specific, directed search term can be just as useful as a hashtag. With the right search, you can figure out who has circulated a specific link and what they’re saying about it. The search function, like the hashtag, potentially offers as much clutter as it does useful information.

I think Scheinfeldt is on point when he argues that Twitter is “mostly about sharing ideas whereas Facebook is about sharing relationships.” Twitter, because of its lack of visual emphasis, is more conducive to fashioning a digital identity that is entirely based on ideas. Furthermore, Twitter feels more fast-paced and immediate than Facebook. One might not expect or even aspire to keep up with everything in one’s feed, and I would venture to say that many people don’t.

It’s difficult to construct a digital identity in 140 characters or less. For this reason, I believe Twitter, when considered in the context of meaningful ideas, is most effective when attached to an outlet that features a longer form of writing. The different kinds of voice compliment one another, and embedding tweets in a blog post can prove especially useful, since every interactive element of the tweet is preserved. In this fashion, you can lend longevity to ideas that might be otherwise ephemeral.

Twitter seems to operate on a continuum between social networking tool and information feed; each user must carve out a space on that continuum. Perhaps this is why some find it confusing or overwhelming. One might be compelled to ask, “Why isn’t Twitter more than one thing?” I think it’s possible that Twitter is popular because its tensions and ambiguities produce interesting, unexpected results.

What Makes a Game Political

Screenshot from Cart Life

Since we’re discussing games today (Or more specifically, games that try to teach you something), I thought this New Statesman article might be useful. I think politically charged games, in their attempts to make arguments through the limitations of a designed system, face challenges similar to those faced by the Edutainment games we read about in the article assigned for class.

The New Statesman piece raises questions like “What makes a videogame political?” and “What happens when unforeseen consequences undermine a game’s intended argument?” The article highlights some games that have clear, political agendas and others that would probably prefer to be considered on the basis of artistic merit.

McDonald’s Video Game, mentioned in the title of the piece, is funny, dark, and disturbing. In this game, you play as CEO, and try to run the McDonald’s corporation successfully, which necessitates maltreatment of animals, injecting food with ambiguous drugs, regularly firing and rehiring employees, and strategically implementing devious ad campaigns. Though the game is effective and presents a persuasive case, an observation from Ian Bogost deftly addresses a hole in the game’s argument:

It’s very anti-corporation, but a lot of students play it and say, ‘wow, I really empathise with the CEOs of multinational companies now – they have such hard jobs!’”

This pattern suggests to me that the game’s capacity to inspire empathy was underestimated by those who wished to harness its persuasive power. Before presenting McDonald’s Video Game as a persuasive tool, one assumes that the player’s response will be,  “I really hate all of these terrible things this corporation does to get ahead!” But instead, the player might think, “Wow it’s really hard to be a successful corporation!”

But perhaps it’s unfair to attribute this presumably unintended response to a flaw in the game’s design. Perhaps we should consider this response as one of the inherent complications of the society in which we live. After all, the game encourages its players to do terrible things by placing them in a situation in which they must do terrible things to succeed. This situation creates some level of empathy, whether it’s intended or not. In order to keep the company afloat, the player must exploit the system. When playing this game, morality isn’t just gray; it becomes invisible. One might argue that the cold, calculating numerical system underneath McDonald‘s Video Game doesn’t carry any political connotations; the manner in which the system is dressed up is what makes it political.

After playing McDonald’s Video Game, one might be compelled to ask: Can McDonald’s be “fixed?” Is it possible for something like McDonald’s to exist without most of us looking the other way when it’s convenient? Does focusing exclusively on the corrupt practices of a corporation like McDonald’s allow us to overlook more important, underlying, systemic issues that allow those problems to exist in the first place? Such questions, I think, mark an effective political game. No one likes to be preached at, and if a game is just an excuse to shout at people on the internet, then I think that game must resign itself to irrelevance.

It’s interesting to see McDonald’s Video Game, Sweatshop, and Darfur is Dying discussed alongside more personal works such as Cart Life, Lim, and The Castle Doctrine, which were presumably designed with artistic intentUsually people consider political games, educational games, and entertaining or artistic games as separate entities, but I think these categories are too easy, and they’re holding back people who are interested in games. This is probably why the designers of both Cart Life and The Castle Doctrine actively resist the labeling of their games as “political.” I think Richard Hofmeier’s reaction is more justified because I believe Cart Life is one of the most important, affecting games ever made. Until now, I hadn’t much considered its embedded political argument because I don’t think it’s as important to Cart Life‘s aesthetic.

I first played Cart Life last year, while I was working at Starbucks. For me, playing this game was a poignant, personal experience that spoke to working in a retail environment, repeating the same claustrophobic set of routines everyday, and trying to make a living while retaining emotional stability. But now that I think on it, it’s true that political statements are embedded in Cart Life. The game inspires empathy by evoking a feeling of constrictive repetition, which implies a political argument about the systemic problems of capitalism and bureaucracy. It’s not an easy argument that you can put in your pocket and save for your next political debate, but it is one that helped me try to become a better human.


This article was linked in the second post in Fish’s blog series (By the way, does Fish ever really say anything in any of those essays? I feel like he’s just getting paid to sit in his easy chair while he delivers self-satisfied prophesies of the end times). Anyway, I must thank Fish for linking Robert Coover’s “The End of Books” because it’s fascinating. Written in 1992, the essay implies, in its dramatic title and elsewhere, that books are ending because linear, authored narrative is becoming less useful to everyone and also because “hey, computers!” And of course, I mean OF COURSE, twenty years later hypertext fiction still hasn’t replaced the regular kind of fiction (whatever that is) because the regular kind of fiction is much easier for people to deal with. So print texts have simply become digitized.

But Coover’s article is also interesting because it’s pedagogical. He discusses how the hypertext form assists students in considering, dismantling, and undermining narrative structure. It facilitates a kind of experimental, collaborative authorship and also facilitates collaborative learning, which is theoretically the kind of learning upon which the academy is built. It seems like scholarship could benefit from a similar dismantling. What do we do when we do scholarship? We try to think of new ways to think about things. What do we do when we talk about something like intertextuality? We think about texts in a way that is boundless and nonlinear…like hypertext. Is writing a traditional academic paper in MLA style really the best vehicle for delivering ideas like intertextuality?

Twine is a free program that allows for quick, easy creation of hypertext documents. It seems like most people who use it are using it to write fiction/text games. On a similar note, Bee is a piece of interactive fiction by Emily Short about a young girl who is training for a spelling bee.