Game-o-matic and Oracular Thinking
This semester (Fall 2012), I’m teaching ENGL 202H: Writing through Media, a so-called “special topics in writing” seminar that has become one of my standby’s. The history of the course is actually kind of interesting, since it goes back to my graduate school experience teaching “ENG 1131: Writing through Media” at the University of Florida. Often taught by graduate students in Digital Media and related areas, 1131 is a course created by Gregory Ulmer. The general purposes and guidelines for the course reveal its commitment to rhetorical theory as well as Ulmer’s particular approach, an array of ideas anchored by the loose gravity of his term “electracy”.
Now, for the benefit of students — who often profess bamboozlement at what they perceive as the un-advertized digital inflection of my course — I’m considering changing my course title to something like Writing through New Media, and indeed my courses has drifted in some obvious ways from its abyssinian origins (let’s see if anyone catches that reference!), but I mention this curricular heritage because a recent experience in my 202H brought me back to its electrate roots through a surprising route.
Game-O-Matic (game-o-matic.com) is a curious, web-based game design tool that acts “like a point-and-shoot camera”. “No programming required.” It’s a matter of seconds to design a game and then play it right in your browser. The process is so simple it feels deceptive: all you have to do is describe your game idea through a set of nouns connected to other nouns by a appropriate, (pre-defined) verbs. Game-o-matic extrapolates a game mechanic from the verbs you’ve used and then generates your game. If you don’t like what you got, hit the big red button and try again.
Despite it’s bugs, my experiences with game-o-matic have been interesting, so much so that when I learned that it had switched on a public beta, I eagerly demoed it for my 202H students and invited them to try it out. We were just starting our unit on the rhetoric of process where students are tasked with designing a simple persuasive game, so it seemed a perfect opportunity to let them experiment with an interactive design process without having to write any code. After an exhausting unit on HTML/CSS, I was eager for something automatic.
As it turns out, Game-o-matic is still too fragile for students to use for this project, and really, it isn’t designed to support the kind of longer-term refinement and tweaking that I insist they undergo with their ideas. But in the process of playing with it myself, I hit upon what I think is it’s real, possibly unintended value as a source for oracular wisdom. See, I’d been positioning Game-o-matic as something you could use to produce a simple policy game. That’s kind of a cliche, but it’s an easy type of persuasion for students to get their minds around.
On a whim, though, I tried to make a more personal game. I consider myself a relatively accomplished runner. I’m modestly competitive at local road races, and above all, I really enjoy it. When I’m in shape, I run mileage that some might consider high. Earlier this year, for example, I was averaging over 50 miles a week. But then I got hurt, and achilles tendonitis has kept me basically run-less since July. It’s been frustrating, depressing, and everything in between.
So I decided to make a game about it. Here’s what I ended up with.
I honestly don’t know how well this communicates to anyone else, but to me, this does capture some of the back-and-forth elation/dejection that comes with managing a chronic injury. Regardless of the game’s efficacy, though, what I found cathartic was the actual design process.
What you see here took me several dozen tries in game-o-matic as opaque game mechanic after opaque game mechanic led me to return again and again to my diagram. Eventually, this process felt familiar to me, which leads me back to the Ulmerian roots of Writing through Media.
Back in grad school, I took two different seminars with Ulmer (or it may have been the same seminar twice, come to think of it), so while I didn’t work with him directly for my MA or PhD research, I got to experience his way of approaching media and culture. In one of those seminars, we spent a good deal of time studying the I Ching, an ancient work of aleatory literature that functions as a kind of oracle. There are different traditions and sets of interpretations, but the basic process for a reading is to pose a question to it, then use a randomized selection process to arrive at a group of trigrams (interpreted as images) that one then interprets in relation to the original question.
What I’ve found when consulting the I Ching is that it doesn’t provide definitive answers or predict the future. If anything, the answer it provides is often perplexing and opaque, so much so that I return again and again to my question to consider whether I’ve framed it appropriately to begin with. Inevitably, this return to the question is where I arrive at the deeper relationship to the original situation posed in my question. The trigrams simply act as a metaphorical relay pointing vaguely in the direction of something like an answer.
And it’s here, in this “wisdom of their stairs” orientation that I find some affinity with game-o-matic. By trying again and again and again to come up with the diagram that best expressed my situation in a way that game-o-matic could make playable, I was forced to confront questions like: what’s being lost or gained? Who is my antagonist here — my overtraining, my tendon, my doctor? What’s the difference between “increasing healing” vs “destroying injury”? I don’t know if I have any better answers, but I do feel like I have a deeper, better understanding of my situation. And this is what oracular wisdom is all about, as I understand it.
Now, I suspect this kind of introspection isn’t what the designers of Game-o-matic had in mind (I don’t know the full team working on it, but I heard about it via Bobby Schweizer, by the way), but the curious blend of transparency and opacity managed through a productively constrained interface that encourages rapid iteration accomplishes this for me. This was a refreshingly philosophical use of software in the context of a class that, from my point of view, has been evolving to be increasingly instrumental in nature, so I hope some of what I perceived as wisdom-orientation made its way to my students.
So what do you think? Depending on who you are — if you’re my student, did you get any of this vibe from your own experience? If you’re familiar with the I Ching, does this process sound at all similar? If you’ve worked with Game-o-matic, am I just way off base?