So, what am I arguing again?

In trying to sort out where the gap in knowledge is, the one that I’ll be aiming to fill as my “contribution to knowledge” in my field, I’ve had a bit of a hard time. Part of it is that I think I keep missing the mark with my searches (though my Google-fu is usually sufficient). Part of it is that I’m intimidated. I can’t possibly be coming up with somethign that no one else in the whole wide world hasn’t come up with before.

Literature Review

Literature Review (Photo credit: Caro Wallis)

Which makes my literature review … difficult for me to tackle. I’m already behind the 8-ball reacquainting and just plain old acquainting myself with all kinds of terminology and methods in fields I’m familiar with intuitively, but not rigorously academically. In class today the idea given to me was this: find dudes who are talking about things related enough to your field, but with whom you disagree.

Blindingly smart. This forces me to defend my arguments. I have to articulate why I feel things. It’s confronting, and confrontations often leave me in anxious states. But today, after reading a Henry Jenkins article (“Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” here), I’ve found my first source.

Greg Costikyan. I do not agree with his notions on story, nor do I agree with his assertion that “story is the antithesis of game” (from “Where Stories End and Games Begin,” which is available online from Costikyan’s site, but which seems to be plagued with some malware troubles, so click at your own risk.)

Yes. There certainly are games that contain no story element to them, no narrative (I’m still having a bugger of a time understanding the mechanical/academic differences between story and narrative, though James Phelan is helping), and that’s absolutely fine. Checkers, Tetris. I enjoy them, and have no difficulty admitting they’re games.

But so is Mass Effect.

While my final project will not likely have an interactive element that’s as direct as the audience controlling a character in the story, there are still very important issues being brought up at the intersection of games studies and narratology that I need to own.

Gah, my reading list never ends.

I should be writing a paper (or, a BA in Advanced Storytelling)

So, I had an awesome meeting on Monday with one of my instructors. –I say instructor because in Australia and the UK, the term “professor” has a very specific meaning and is not a title easily gained. I’ve heard it equated to tenure in US university terms, but I’m not sure I understand the matter either way.

I say this so you understand if I use the wrong term for someone — no slight is intended.

Anyway. I’m angling to add this instructor as a second academic advisor (she comes from a narrative and prose writing background, while my current advisor comes from a music and production background — combining advice from the two would be, in my mind, ideal), and we sat down to have a chat about things in general. We talked about my project, why I have an interest in transmedia, why I have an interest in the story I’m planning to tell.

When I did my undergrad degree, it was at Gallatin, at NYU. A place where you get to create your own major. I called it “multimedia communications” for purposes of resumes, but when I described it to my instructor (I’ll name names eventually), she smiled and said “sounds very transmedia to me.”

To me, story is king. If you’re telling a story, it’ll tell you how it wants to be told. Sometimes you can shoehorn it into something else, but that often doesn’t end well. My thesis play for my MFA is proof of this. That degree I got from Gallatin, I earned it by taking literature courses, photography, film criticism, video art production, and in my spare time learned how to use Photoshop and Quark. –I may have just dated myself with that remark.

I did all of those things because they’re all legitimate ways to tell a story. I saw myself as a bit of a jack of all trades. This hurt me in the job market because not many people look for jacks of all trades. But it prepped me for what I’m aiming to do now. I’ve always had a holistic view of things, that a thing can’t exist independent of the context surrounding it. Everything informs everything else. I saw it when my plays were performed. I see it when I GM a table top RPG, or I play in one.

The philosophy’s there, has been for years — I used to joke that my degree was a BA in Advanced Storytelling. And it feels as if I’ve accidentally ended up in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.


People are internally self-contradictory. We’re not the same from day to day. You might catch me on a bad day and I’ll growl at a kitten. Most of the time I’m rendered a speechless wibble of goo.

Take a given event, get a bunch of people to watch it, and then ask them afterwards what happened. Forgo meaning for now, just ask for the passage from moment to moment, reasonable amount of detail.

No one person will ever completely agree with another. Like the men groping an elephant anc oming to different conclusions, human experience can only capture so much. We have environmental factors that stop us — maybe an obscured line of sight, maybe we’re at the epicenter and are too dazed to get the whole picture. We have internal factors, too. Culture, personal philosophies, perhaps a nasty break-up the night before.

This prism of perception of experience, it’s not a feature, it’s a bug.

Using more than one medium to tell a story is just like this. You got the trunk storyline, you got the foot storyline, you got the tail. And one person — the audience, the reader, the watcher, whatever — that person gets the joy of discovering things. They get to poke around, find something, gain some clarity. Or maybe muddy the waters.

In my mind, this is a great way to get around preconceived notions.

My project will have a broad audience, and it includes people who are going to have some very solidly formed opinions on immigrants. Opinions which aren’t very, let’s say, compassionate toward them. I think, if I do things right, transmedia vectors will keep them around. Because invariably someone will share their point of view.

This is also a challenge for me. Because I’m going to have to think like people that make me very, very itchy. Well. Empathy goes both ways, I suppose.

Studies and Resolutions

So, as I think I’ve said before somewhere around here, I’m currently a doctoral student at Queensland University of Technology. It’s not precisely a PhD (in fact, it’s called a Doctorate of Creative Industries).

I have never had to think like this before. It’s a completely new plane of thought. I like it, I do, but it’s exhausting in the same way a new exercise regimen is.

I am also thoroughly unaccustomed to being considered, and treated as, an expert (at least in a professional sense). I’m so constantly on the edge of putting my metaphorical dukes up, ready to defend my position on just about anything, that having a slew of very intelligent, insightful, and supportive people being nice to me and acknowledging the value in what I say is just bewildering.

And it’s a wonderful rush to get questioned not to knock me down, but to actually query my ideas. Mush ’em around a bit. Find new leads, close off old ones, or develop them further. Help other folks bolster theirs, or bring focus, or contrast.

I am just not used to this.

And it’s great.

My only problem, as it always is, is time management. I’m eating better mainly because it keeps the brain-fog sleepies at bay. But sleep deprivation is a beast that can’t be tamed by staying off the sweets.

Again, as I mentioned somewhere in a tweet or Facebook or something, I have learned that blogs are a perfect acceptable, and even encouraged, form of qualitative research. This provides a nifty solution to two things at once: one, I’ll actually write things here on a regular basis. I’ll have to; a lot of the stuff boiling up in my head gets lost in the slew of notebooks I have lying around. (Speaking of which: is Evernote worth it? Reviews and personal anecdotes welcome in the comments.)

Two, I’ll have a chronological breakdown of the thought processes surrounding the research and practice going into making Project 1. I’ll cover just what Project 1 (and the subsequent Project 2) is in a follow-up post.

This said, I have some caveats. Well, I have one for now, reserving the right to add more as I see fit. This place will be a bit of a mess. I am not, by nature, an organized person. You’ll see blather show up in here that may have very little relation to a well-thought out idea. Feel free to skip those; I’ll find a way to tag them, or mark them in the title of the post. But I recommend you actually read them. I expect they’ll be fairly short — I tend to think in bursts of static — and they may have insights that you might find useful, even if the first thing you think of is how strongly you disagree.

Because that’s okay. What matters is that it got you thinking in the first place.

Words that stopped me

So, in vague connection with my doctoral work, I stumbled upon game writing. Blogs, mainly, talking about games, being a gamer, the big things at the moment like the unacceptable ending to Mass Effect 3 and the enormous disappointment of the rape-as-tougherning-up strategem in the Tomb Raider reboot.

I have to think about these things critically, now. I’m mining them for direction, for hints, intuition. There are answers out there that will help me sharpen up my final project. And I need to wade through this stuff, good and bad.

Now, before I started reading up on these things, I never knew the name Tim Rogers. He’s a video game developer (and founder and director of action button entertainment — not a member of You Am I) who writes the occasional entry for Kotaku. He rambles — and when I say “rambles,” it’s not in the pejorative. He ties every aside with a gossamer thread like spider silk; subtle, invisible, but strong as a mofo. As I read through his articles, I found myself sharing many of his viewpoints. But what got me completely was the heart in his written thoughts.

And this line in particular stopped me dead (see whole article here).

“Labeling anyone for any reason, in any capacity, is a misdemeanor of the heart.”

I — I just — this should be required learning for everyone. Honestly.

Engines of drama

I’m thinking of posting more fiction in here, vignettes, episodes, the like. I haven’t read or written much fiction since graduating from Columbia in 2001. There are a number of reasons for that, but one of the ones I came to grips with happened when I was home with family over March and April. When I was in high school, and angry with the world as high schoolers are, I chose to do things my way by writing things. Usually novel length things that may or may not have turned into anything publishable, which isn’t really the point, anyway.

The point is this: I read fiction to escape. It sounds obvious, yes, but that’s what it was. It was an escape, a way to bide time, a way to be in a place I preferred instead of the onerous real world with its minutiae and obligation.

I reverted to my 16 year old self for the length of April. Honest. Fortunately I was self-aware enough to watch it happen, and take the opportunity to understand it, because this turns out to be the sledge the rest of me rode when I really began writing.

Before Tom Waits married Kathleen Brennan, he was well on his way to becoming a drunken-sot stereotype who sang only one kind of song, regardless of how masterfully he wrote and rendered them. And the way he got there was by being that drunk, by doing some really unpleasant and horrible stuff. And he came to the conclusion that you don’t have to keep doing the awful things to know how they feel.

Well. I didn’t have to keep doing the awful things to know how they felt, or to write the damn things down with any semblance of versimilitude.

The problem with my 16-year-old methodology was that I went on the ride, completely and unreservedly. If I was reading something really devastating, I’d be devastated. No wish or desire to be in the real world at the dinner table having steak and potatoes. Same if I were in the middle of a hellacious scene. And I cracked that wide open while I was home, a world of sensation and hurt and awe that I hadn’t gotten near in decades because I couldn’t aford that kind of disconnection, not when rent and utilities were on the line.

The trick here, see is that these powerful feelings — they’re what make something real. They don’t have to be front and center (in fact, they’re less effective if they are), but they need to be there in the distance, casting a pallor or sepia wash over the scene they inform. A stage play scene is all emotion and the push-pull between two or more characters. A good scene, anyway. A compelling scene.

So what I’ve been learning, over the past few weeks, is how not to squelch that powerful emotionality. Instead I’m trying to find a way to harness it, or surf it, keep it from commanding me and still being able to let it do what it needs to and have it inform the work I create.

It’s friggin’ hard.

But these past weeks have been illuminating. I’ve had characters crop up that I really feel invested in, that I love no matter how rotten they are, and I find myself wanting to know just what they’re going to do next. This bodes well for the latter parts of my degree, but for now I need to be a bit more academic and things are getting a little out of hand.

Well, I can throw my arms up and drown, or I can learn from what’s happening. So off I go. And hence the little bits of fiction here and there. A safe outlet, small doses to relieve the pressure cooker without derailing the missions at hand.

Update from off-shore

That’s a metaphorical off-shore. I’m still here in the antipodes.

For those who know me, you won’t be at all surprised that despite being keenly aware of the work expected of me and the like, I’ve still managed to let school broadside me. I’m just frustrated at myself, really; I’m not completely a grown-up and am probably not capable of it anyway, but I tend to be pretty mature when it really counts.

And this is just soup all over the floor.

It’s a kind of manic, terrified joy, really, like that awful, vertiginous moment before the first drop on a roller coaster. Every nerve fiber is screaming that this is a very bad idea with all the falling and hurtling through space at alarming angles on a loud rickety machine, but this is seriously fun and astonishingly interesting and nothing short of thrilling.

I know I’m not saying anything new. But I hope it helps me somehow to say it.

Anyway, I’m back off to the grindstone or plasma screen or whatever’s the right metaphor now. Keyboard? Mouse? High speed wireless connection?

…Heh. I’ve managed to compare higher education to a loud rickety machine. Heh.

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