A modest proposal for viewing literary texts as rulesets, and for making game studies beneficial to the publick (rules of the text 1)

In this post, I want to try to open a new direction in my own thinking about play and art. As you may have gathered from previous posts here at Play the Past, I see games and other works of art as part of a continuum of μίμησις–or, in my own terminology, of practomime: that is, literally, the doing of playing pretend. I want to see if I can open a conversation about a radical hypothesis that actually occurred to me a couple of years ago, and about which I’ve nearly gotten into fights, but which I’ve never yet found time and opportunity to put on a firm theoretical footing (not that I’ll be able to do that in this post!–but you have to start somewhere).

I’ve been engulfed (not to say “immersed”) in the audiobook versions of GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire for what seems like forever and is in fact at least six months. It may well be a consequence of listening to them rather than materially, textually reading them that I’ve become fascinated by the way Martin plays with medieval history on the one hand and high fantasy on the other.

What I’m listening to when I listen to these books is a performance of the wonderful Roy Dotrice of a performance by GRR Martin of materials afforded by historical and literary tradition. (There’s the tedious business of A Feast for Crows having originally been voiced by the vastly-inferior-to-Dotrice but probably fine-on-his-own-merits John Lee, and then it seems re-voiced by Dotrice, and I suppose the implications for differential performance are interesting, but though I feel bound to record it to show that I’m not unaware of these matters, it’s not germane to my point.)

The relationship between Martin’s performance, Dotrice’s performance, and my own receptive performance seems to me to be made much clearer when we think less in terms of literature and more in terms of play, especially when there are also such things as HBO series to work into a growing transmedia tapestry (tapestries, as you’ll see below, being good to think with).

I want to suggest that it can be interpretatively helpful to see Martin as the designer and first player of a mod of a game called “fantasy fiction,” and Roy Dotrice as the player of that game designed by Martin. The text of the novels is the ruleset of Martin’s game; the nearly infinite texts of medieval history and fantasy literature are the rulesets of the undesigned one Martin modded and then played to create it. As Martin’s scope for creativity was vast, a literary sandbox of almost unlimited dimensions, Dotrice’s scope for creativity and virtuosity was by comparison very narrow–yet at the same time infinite, in the same way that the performance-scope of a 2D sidescroller–or of a level of HALO, or of a given book of the Iliad–is both limited and infinite.

Call it the great chain of practomime: from Tolkien and the Bayeux Tapestry to Martin to Dotrice to me, just as we might draw it from Beowulf to Tolkien to Turbine to my students now playing The Lord of the Rings Online in my Homer course. Socrates proposes something very similar in Plato’s Ion: the rhapsode is the final link in a chain of magnetic rings that begins with “Homer.”Rulesets and game-mechanics are perhaps not exactly what we think they are: perhaps, like more traditional forms of metaphor, they both constrain and release our creativity, and give us in that double-motion the opportunity for immersive, transformative virtuosity that can enliven us and connect us to our communities.

If this idea has merit, not only may it be possible to read transmedia artifacts both as discourse and as game, and to read them across their various media while preserving both their totalizing pretensions and the individuality of their component practices (that is, we could for example read graphic Batman, the film The Dark Knight, and the game Arkham Asylum isomorphically both separately and together), but it may be possible to find the essential complementarity we have been searching for between player-experience and game-design in a corresponding complementarity between literary criticism and game-design criticism. Among other things, this complementarity would put behind us the distinction between content and rules forever, since we would at last be able to see that content is a form of rule, as the Bayeux Tapestry is a part of the ruleset of A Song of Ice and Fire, given that it controlled the relation between Martin’s input and the text he produced; as the text of A Song Ice and Fire is a part of the ruleset of A Song of Ice and Fire, given that it controlled the relation between Roy Dotrice’s input and the audiobook he produced; as the sound of the audiobook is a part of the ruleset of the audiobook I listen to, given that it controls the relation between the state of mind I bring to it and that state of mind in which I leave it.

It would in short mean that we could on the one hand read rulesets as literature and on the other critique the design of discursive artifacts like texts. It would mean that we could find new ways to appreciate and to critique the playfulness of novels like Ulysses and epics like the Iliad, and new ways to appreciate and to critique the lapidary literary qualities of games like Skyrim. Next time, I’ll try do just that in the specific case of Martin’s unfinished-as-yet transmedia juggernaut: what are the rules of this game he plays with history and horror, chronicle and fantasy, and how can an analysis of them help us locate and evaluate its contribution to our culture?

The great chain of practomime: peace in our time between GDC and MLA.

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