[This post is a reading reflection written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. This week’s readings were Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality, Geoffery Rockwell’s “What is Text Analysis, Really?”, Steve Ramsay’s “Algorithmic Criticism“, and Matthew Kirschenbaum’s piece in the Companion to the Digital Humanities.]
Perhaps tension is the wrong word, but there is an peculiar rhetorical tension between one of the driving questions behind Jerome McGann’s book and his answer. McGann, correctly, points out that “the general field of humanities education and scholarship will not take the use of digital technology seriously until…they expand our interpretational procedures” (xii). However, in order to have the academic community take digital technology “seriously,” he creates a “game.” As a scholar of texts, I find it fair to assume that “game” was a conscious choice when he created “The Ivanhoe Game.” McGann is not alone in his choice of words, either. Geoffrey Rockwell, in particular, discusses text analysis in the terms of creating “disciplined play” (8) and a “playpen” for “casual use” (11).
This focus on games, gaming, and play, I argue, comes from a recognition of the digital medium’s promise, interactivity. Videogames in particular have been the most successful industry in exploiting the digital medium’s interactive abilities. This success in the gaming industry makes the use of “game” or “play” a desirable description, even for serious scholarship.
These authors see the promise in large-scale text analysis. However, they also look beyond simply moving a well established practice from manual labor to the computer. These scholars are careful to point out that moving text analysis onto the computer can and should fundamentally change the nature of the analysis. Specifically, the user should be involved in the creation of analysis.
Involving the user in the analysis of a text seems to also be part of a larger goal to make scholarship, particularly digital scholarship, accessible. McGann talks about how research drives what happens in the classroom (7) and what better way to attract interested scholars and students to digital research than a game? The Google Books N-Gram Viewer, though not a game per se, is the best current example of an interactive tool that attracts a great deal of new users. With its superior user interface, the viewer drew a large amount of attention to text analysis as a tool.
The hyper-interactivity of a “game” holds the ability to draw scholars, who otherwise may not engage with technology, into digital research. Though perhaps counter-intuitive, “games” are a good way to promote the serious scholarship being done in the digital humanities. Interactivity is a defining aspect of the digital medium and the best way to highlight interactivity is to simply let users play.