Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker

[INTRODUCTORY NOTE] What follows is a brief historical account of "The Ivanhoe Game" in its first period of development (April-August 2000). The account describes our own "emergent consciousness" of how we might build an emergent consciousness machine that would be useful for purposes of interpretation in aesthetic space. Such an instrument, we believe, would have applicability for other types of interpretational activities as well.

After we had completed playing the first two rounds of the game we generated a synthetic summary of our ideas about the game as they stood at that point in its development stage (September 2000).


I. Initial Phase

The game began out of a critical exchange between myself and my colleague Johanna Drucker on the subject of literary-critical methods and procedures and our dissatisfaction with the limitations inherent in received forms of interpretation. We wanted to develop a more imaginative form of critical methodology, a form closer in spirit and method to original works of poetry and literature.

The game consists of interventions, changes, additions, and commentaries in the dicourse field of an imaginative work (like Walter Scott's romance Ivanhoe)..

The emphasis is on making explicit the assumptions about critical practice, textual interpretation, and reading (in the most fundamental sense) that remain unacknowledged, or at least irregularly explored, in a conventional approach to literary studies.

To achieve this goal, the game uses a game strategy for approaching a literary work as a field of interrelated textual, visual, cultural, and critical artifacts. The game is to be played in digital writing space in which every "move" involves production of text as a performative act of interpretation. The game is fundamentally interactive and dialogical in nature, though its procedures include exposition and narrative. The motivation to play comes through engagement with the unfolding of critical and creative processes in an intertextual field. Crucial to the undertaking is the central principle of making explicit the logic or rationale that drives any act of text production; or, to put it another way, formalizing the knowledge representation within the field of interpretive practice. The game encourages the widest possible spectrum of interpretive activities (creative writing, critical analysis, scholarly gloss, visual response, use of other media) all of which are seen as possibilities for interpretive and critical practice.

The premise of the game -- and of our critical ideas in general -- is that works of imagination contain within themselves, as it were, multiple versions of themselves: not just many meanings, but many (often divergent and even contradictory) lines of possibility and development that appear to us (perhaps) only in latent or relatively undeveloped forms (for various reasons). The game is to expose and develop those lines.

The game is played by two or more players. It is called "The Ivanhoe Game" because in its first instantiation, Johanna and I played it with Ivanhoe. That initial game involved replaying the discourse field of the book Scott wrote. (By discourse field we understand the entirety of the work=s reception histories and transmission histories.) The players engage with this discourse field in the same way as in any critical exercise, by making use of primary or secondary bibliographic and historical texts. The object was (is) to explore and elaborate significant features of the materials that constitute the discourse of Ivanhoe and explore these as a means to uncovering "latent" texts within this field or the work itself. It is in other words a game of literary criticism and appreciation, and perforce a game of cultural criticism as well. In contrast to the preponderant body (in several senses) of received literary exegesis, its critical method is procedural rather than expository.

The point of the game is for players to hypothesize and then extrapolate ideas about Ivanhoe within a performative and dynamic intellectual space. The point is not to develop readings or interpretations of Ivanhoe but to refashion and reshape its materials in ways that replicate the explanatory operations played out in the original story and in the material works that transmit the story to us. The game encourages and expects from the players a conscious and purposive involvement with Ivanhoe, and it constructs a controlled playing space occupied by various dynamic forces, both sympathetic and resistant. The game -- along with its emergent trains of self-awareness -- unfolds through the players' continuous encounters with unforeseen texts that appear in a known discourse field. The players produce text in response to the opportunities and problems raised by the texts generated by other players.

Round 1 of the game, the initial experiment with the game's dynamics, was played by Johanna Drucker and Jerome McGann (May-June 2000). The textual exchanges were all made via e-mail -- a venue that added to the game's masquerade theatricality.

Phase II.

The most enlightening result of the first round of play was the exposure of the inexplicit asumptions that were driving our game play. I had not thought to inquire, for example, the point of view that was governing my moves. This obscurity led us to realize that our moves were constellating around a more or less coherent "role" that we were playing as we made our moves. In discussing my moves I saw quite clearly that they were emerging from a kind of Byronic reading of Scott's fiction. I also saw how closely related was this reading strategy to one of the dominant early "readings" of the book. Many "Victorian readers" were dismayed that Rowena rather than Rebecca married Ivanhoe at the end.

Reflection on this matter exposed how frequently interpretive "readings" are developed without any serious attention to the motivation driving the interpretation. This lack of attention is especially apparent in learned and scholarly discourse, where critics and readers assume a generic posture of "critical objectivity", as it is sometimes called. We decided that players ought to be required by a game-rule to assume a specific role when making their moves. The requirement would force the critic, or reader, to pay continuous attention to the issue of motivation, and at the same time locate his/er interpretational activity within the work's discourse field. This decision led to several others, and thence to the sketch of the game's basic structure, as follows: 1. players make moves in a "public" space inhabited by all the players; 2. every player keeps a (private) "player file" that contains, first, the identity of his/her assumed role in the game, and second, a running reflective account explaining the player's understanding of the rationale of his/her game moves. These player files would be opened only at the end of the gameplay. In a computerized play environment, however, all texts would be open to the computer's processing operations -- that is to say, to its involvement as a player in the game.

These discussions about game rules and the computerized environment continued through the summer and the early fall. They were carried forward while two further rounds -- also organized in e-mail exchanges -- were planned and undertaken. Out of this process came a summary description of our basic ideas about how to set up the initial computerized form for the game.

As these discussions were continuing, however, we decided it would be important to test our evolving ideas in another round of actual play. This time there would be more than two players. In August, then, we undertook Round 2 of the game and there were four players: Drucker, myself, and two graduate students (Bethany Nowviskie and Steve Ramsay). The game was played, this time, in the discourse field of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. In Round 2 the players all posted their moves to a common holding site we set up using BLOGGER. (This program organizes its postings by date from most recent backward; to follow the sequence of gameplays, begin at the bottom of the BLOGGER file and work your way up.)

(NOTE: Before we arrived at that summary view of the basic game, however, we spent some time trying to devise a game that would be organized as a system of elaborated game rules. We imagined a relatively tight system of internal rules and logics (as well as certain random elements) that might provide a mechanism for constraining or permitting moves, including move-challenges by one player to another, and regulations for allowing players to win or lose through a system of points and value. After much reflection and discussion, we decided that the game would work better with either minimal rules or with rules that were invented ad hoc by the players on any particular gameplay. (Because the set of rules we briefly formulated but then rejected figure in the early history of the game, I attach them here in case anyone is interested.)

Phase III.

In my undergraduate Romanticism course (fall term, 2000) I asked my class whether any group of students might not want to try playing "The Ivanhoe Game" for course credit. A group of 9 students volunteered and they played the game with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The point of this operation was to observe how a group of people interested in literary study, but with no background in the kinds of ideas that have driven Johanna and myself to undertake this game, might play the game and what they might get out of it. Most interesting to see was how the game spurred these young people to plunge into the discourse field of the novel -- to acquire a body of historical and contextual knowledge that would make their game play interesting and imaginative.



The game is fundamentally dialogical rather than narrative in nature, although its moves are all carried out in a narratological space. It is, and was initially, conceived as a game to be played in digital space, although the first experimental game-rounds have all been in textual space, except that we used BLOGGER to hold these materials (and except that Drucker once produced an image (see Round 1, "Move 7"), mostly to demonstrate that the materials produced by players can be of any kind textual, visual, oral, etc.). In other words, the discourse field is not constituted by textual materials alone.

The Ivanhoe game is distinguished from other computer games by its creation of a space of critical self-reflection. Even though sophisticated strategy games like SimCity encourage thoughtful reflection on the process of the game (effect of moves, impact of decisions that allocate the virtual resources within the game) they do not formalize the process of self-reflexive interpretation within the substance of the play. Ivanhoe makes this self-reflexive process the substantive core of the game.

In the game's fully realized form, the computer will be a player, and probably a player in two senses/ways: it will certainly function as kind of Demogorgon figure, thus overseeing all the players' actions, reading them, and intervening in the game in ways that the players will probably not be able to anticipate at least most of the time (eg, forbidding moves, constraining actions in various ways, etc.); and it should also be the case that the computer will play the game in the same sense that the human players will be playing (i.e., assuming roles and making textual moves). Each p lay of the game constructs a memory of that gameplay and the computer software is designed to intervene by studying and reacting to the gameplay. As a game to be played in a computer environment the game requires several higher level computational components to fulfill its potential.

1) The rules of the game have to be structured into a program that restricts, constrains, or otherwise forces self-consciousness on the players. To do this, the game program must be able to process natural language so that the computer becomes a player in the game.

2) The computer first becomes a player by introducing random elements into the game.

3) At the next level of processing the plays of other players, the game program should produce ongoing analyses of patterns within the game. The program should, in effect, produce its own interpretation of the ongoing play.

The program stores up the history of all plays of the game and intervenes in any particular gameplay by studying and using that global history. The program will push the players farther towards self-consciousness of their interpretive premises and practiceThe game can utilize any kind of digital environment or material; however, the object of the game is not simply to make moves that solve problems (whether pre-set or dynamically generated), but to make moves that elucidate the critical thinking of the players in relation to a given aesthetic discourse. This process of elucidation, moreover, is to be socially constructed, ie, carried out in the public space of the gameplay.

To reiterate earlier understandings: the game is played by two or more players within the discourse field of some particular aesthetic, cultural, or historical work/event. The discourse field available to the players as a resource for their play is comprised of the total documentary production and reception histories that pertain to that work/event, including hypothetical or imaginary ones. The only requirements (rules) are: 1. that all game moves by a player get executed under the auspices of a particular and explicit Arole@ to be assumed by the player (this role is like a mask that the player puts on, a Acharacter@ assumed for the purpose of shaping the intentional field of the player's acts and providing the player(s) with a form of objectivity by which to generate and assess player moves; 2. that all players keep a "player file" (unavailable to the other players) in which they explicate their understanding of their moves as well as their understanding of the moves made by the other players. Thus the game involves two lines of materials: the line represented by the player's moves (always a fully public line) and the line represented by the player-file, which documents the player's running understandings about the moves being played in the game.

NOTE: the computer overseeing the game and storing/reflecting on the gameplay makes ITS moves by studying the entirety of the field of play -- both the public field and the private (player-file) field. Its principal functions are: to make arbitrary interventions that affect the gameplay and the players; to make assessments and reports on the gameplay with respect to playpatterns it registers (patterns of sameness and patterns of difference).

FURTHER NOTE: players are free to expose --i.e., to put into public play -- as much of their own player-files as they choose. They are also free to invoke the computer (Demogorgon) and ask it to respond to requests for information.

Toward a Genealogical History of the Ivanhoe Game (supplied by Andrea Bobotis, Brian Glavey, Sarina Moore)