The Ivanhoe Game



I. General Purposes and Design


To date, the digital technology used by humanities scholars has focused almost exclusively on methods of sorting, accessing, and disseminating large bodies of materials.  In this respect the work has not engaged the central questions and concerns of the disciplines.  It is largely seen as technical and pre-critical, the occupation of librarians, and archivists, and editors.  The general field of humanities education and scholarship will not take up the use of digital technology in any significant way until one can clearly demonstrate that these tools have important contributions to make to the exploration and explanation of aesthetic works.


The Ivanhoe Game has been developed to begin such a demonstration.  Its purpose is to use digital tools and space to reflect critically on received aesthetic works (like novels) and on the processes of critical reflection that one brings to such works.  Digital tools bring great advantages to these kinds of reflective goals.  First of all, because digital environments increase one’s resources for morphing and transforming aesthetic works,  they are apt for exploiting the inherently transformational character of such works. Second, the tools also foster acts of reflection by diversified persons and groups, and their storage mechanisms greatly augment the scale and number of interactive dynamic relations.  Third, the environment encourages a (so to speak) theatrical deployment of these operations.  Ivanhoe gameplayers will intervene and engage with aesthetic works in performative ways, and – equally important – they will act in spaces that put their critical and reflective operations on clear display.  If the game is thus, most immediately, a game of critical reflection/aesthetic interpretation, it is ultimately a game for studying and reflecting on those acts of critical reflection themselves.  Finally, that its critical reflection is executed in game form is crucial.  Humanities scholarship without gameplay, even when the scholarship explicitly devotes itself to self-reflection, inevitably fails to engage with essential features of the works it means to study, including the workings of the mind engaged with such works.



II. Methods and Procedures


The game requires a digital environment that can generate, store, and display a variety of textual and graphical materials, and perhaps connect with large bodies of materials sited elsewhere.  The software must have the capacity to read materials that have been created and input by human players – i.e., to mark them with identifying marks.  These markings should be dynamically generated from emergent learning protocols so that the computer can act on its own to (re)organize or intervene in the human-generated materials.  The point is to script the computer so that it can randomly, and perhaps on player-command as well, force the players to generate their own materials along lines they would not have chosen on their own, but on lines drawn out of the shared body of materials, including the materials the players themselves created.  The computer should be able to read and re-read its databases and keep a record of its own activities as well as the activities of all the players and all of their games.


A crucial problem lies in designing intelligent systems with the capacity for emergent self-awareness.  The systems will operate on large textual and graphical databases.  (Certain of the projects already underway at MIT offer interesting possibilities, as do the complex learning objects being developed by Thorny Staples’ and others in the library’s FEDORA project.)


WHY THE COMPUTER.  The game can clearly be played effectively on paper.  But to computerize the game is to introduce critical opportunities and capacities that one could not otherwise have.

  1. The crucial new element is the computer’s ability to store and reconfigure the textually-formed data generated by the human players: to process and reprocess the whole of that datafield as it continues to grow and develop; and to keep a record of this entire scene, including the digital reprocessings, for further search and analysis.
  2. The digital processing should involve a set of different chunking protocols that allow the computer to re-present the datafield (or any part of it, any chunk of it even) in different ways.  These retextualizations would then be introduced into the human gamespace as moves that the human players have to respond to, as constraints on the players or demands of different kinds (eg., players might be required to give an account/interpretation/playerfile for these retextualizations)
  3. In general, the point is to exploit the digitally processed textualizations for their differential qualities; to play the computer not as if it were a video game to be bested, but as a difference engine.


Jerome McGann