The Rules of the Text
This post serves two purposes: first, to review the posts of the Rules of the Text series and to recapitulate their argument and its relation to the two examples that have dominated the series: A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) and Mass Effect; second, to prepare for the next series of posts, which will take me back to the roots of my game-criticism in homeric epic, and integrate the rules of the text argument with everything from “Bungie’s Epic Achievement” on.
I’m going to call that next series “Epic Life” because in it I think I may finally be prepared to propose a way of doing humanities that puts the great chain of practomime at the center not just of the disciplines of the humanities but of their claim to be essential to the good life. Rather than trying to pretend that the humanities have some unmeasurable yet transcendent–and even self-evident–value, I’m going to propose that their value can be measured according to their practitioners’ ability to perform within the ruleset created by their objects of study–objects whose own value can likewise be measured according to their own performances, whose rulesets give humanists the opportunity to redesign them through those performances.
I’m going to try to suggest that as Plato played, and redesigned, the ruleset of homeric epic, a view of the operation of practomime in culture can allow us to redesign the humanities, and our lives, and to help others learn to do the same.
A necessary precursor to that project is to marshal the critical forces I’ve developed over the eight parts of the Rules of the Text series. Here’s what I think I’ve demonstrated in the series:
A thorough working out of the idea that games and stories are two kinds of play-performance (what I have taken to calling “practomime“) into a thick description of play-practices demonstrates that 1) the narrow understanding of rulesets within which critics of games have been working is untenable. It’s untenable because 2) texts function as rulesets. If texts function as rulesets, 3) every play-performance is the instantiation of a new ruleset. Conversely, 4) game-design is itself a play-performance as is 5) storytelling in any form. This seamless joining of games to stories allows us to describe 6) transmedia storytelling as the development of differential rulesets and, for my purposes most importantly, all play-performances as belonging to a “great chain of practomime.”
Both A Song of Ice and Fire and Mass Effect are transmedia practomimes. The former began its distinct, identifiable life as a series of fantasy novels; the latter as a series of digital role-playing games. By the phrase “distinct, identifiable life” I mean to suggest the fluidity of the boundaries of practomimetic works. A Song of Ice and Fire could be described as a re-telling of events of medieval history and of narrative elements from many other fantasy novels. Publishing conventions dictated that the first novel of A Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones was given its outward existence (that is, its existence as the thing we call a book) as a distinct performance within the ruleset of the fantasy genre, but rules-of-the-text theory lets look beyond the arbitary constraints of those conventions, and see that GRR Martin’s textual performance of that novel is no different, in its coming-into-existence as a play-performance framed within the play-practice of fantasy-storytelling, from a homeric bard’s performance of “The Embassy to Achilles” or a gamer’s performance of Mass Effect 3.
A Song of Ice and Fire, as a ruleset, has afforded players play-performances, that function as iterated rulesets, such as (a non-exhaustive list) old-fashioned silent-readings by old-fashioned book-readers, audiobooks, listenings to those audiobooks, an HBO series, tabletop games, videogames, player-playthroughs of those videogames, videos of those player-playthroughs of those videogames, several wikis, fan-fiction, and fan-fiction.
Mass Effect, as a ruleset, has afforded players play-performances, that function as iterated rulesets, such as (a non-exhaustive list) novels, old-fashioned silent-reading of novels by old-fashioned book-readers. audiobooks, listenings to those audiobooks, tabletop games, videogames, player-playthroughs of theose videogames, videos of those player-playthoughs of those videogames, several wikis, and fan-fiction.
Players enact all these performances within the broad ruleset of A Song of Ice and Fire, as the homeric bards enacted “The Embassy to Achilles” within the ruleset of “The Wrath of Achilles”–that is, what we call the Iliad. Each one affords its own players the same opportunity to play, as, when I listen to Roy Dotrice read A Game of Thrones, my listening-performance is related to Martin’s novel in much the same as playing a mod of a game is related to the underlying game.
Should we describe A Song of Ice and Fire and Mass Effect as stories? as franchises? as games? I suggest that the word practomime may be useful, but the terminology is unimportant so long as we gain theoretical purchase on the dynamic working of these play-practices between ruleset and performance, wherein for example practices that maintain the boundary of the playspace (aka the “Magic Circle”) become an essential part of the propagation of the ruleset in the form of such play-practices as debates over whether something in a particular performance is “canonical” or not, and whether performances at a certain difficulty level in a game are admissible as authentic experiences of the game’s ruleset.
I see the task of my next series, “Epic Life,” as demonstrating that these same dynamic processes are at the root of Western culture in homeric epic and its affordance of history, tragedy, and philosophy. That demonstration, I hope, will let us see that playing the past is an absolutely essential part of living the present: we can’t help doing it, so perhaps there’s an argument to be made for learning to figure out how to do it well–you know, studying the humanities.