Meaningful Intersections in Trendy Humanities

Summer is almost gone, and it seems a good time to reflect on the exciting opportunities it brought. To briefly introduce my reflection (though many of you already know me): my name is Cody Mejeur, and I am a PhD student in English working on video game narrative–particularly the interrelationship of narrative and play as cognitive processes. In June I had the honor and pleasure to take part in the Cognitive Futures in the Humanities 2016 conference in Helsinki, Finland, and to present my work at the “Cognition and Digitisation: Joint Future for the Humanities?” workshop that preceded the conference. The workshop was led by Anne Mangen (University of Stavenger) and Caroline Bassett (University of Sussex), and explored the question how cognitive and digital studies could relate to one another in current humanities work.

The discussion at the workshop focused around cognition and the digital as trendy topics in the humanities, with all of the exciting opportunities and blindspots that come with that territory. Many of the participants expressed concern with how uncritically we sometimes engage with technology, accepting it as part of “progress” that we are unable or unwilling to alter. Similarly, cognitive studies can easily be seen as the humanities kowtowing to the sciences and giving into the need to be more objective and measurable. Such concerns are serious and necessary, and we should neither hand-wave them nor use them to avoid engaging with cognitive and digital studies.

My own presentation shared my design for a fMRI experiment with games and narrative that aims to test common assumptions about narrative and play. In game studies (and more generally) we still often think of narrative and play as separate elements of games, or at most we gesture towards their interrelationship. But what are the actual sites of the relationship? And what do we miss when we treat them as separate entities? I hypothesize that narrative and play are interwoven processes, and a study of them in games and other texts will reveal surprising insights for how we think and make meaning. New colleagues at the workshop helped me think through a number of important questions for my study, such as: 

  • What games are usable for the study? Would the findings translate to other types of games?
  • What can fMRI actually show us about play and narrative, without being reductive?
  • How can a fMRI study account for important haptic elements of experience? In other words, where’s the physical part of the play in relation to the cognitive?

I look forward to taking these questions with me into my future work. The workshop topics have already helped me cultivate an awareness of the limitations of both digital and cognitive work, and I think that awareness is essential for those of us who work in the digital humanities. We have to continually challenge what our own tools and methodologies mean, especially when they are new or trendy. It’s actually that challenging that keeps us rooted in the best tradition of the humanities–being critical.

 

Slideshare:

 
Presentation:

Conference Report – Seeing Differently: ImagePlot, Playthroughs, and Narrative Variation

One of the things I appreciate most about HASTAC is how it challenges me to think and work in new ways. I don’t think that’s to be underestimated either–too often the structures of higher education force us into habits and assumptions that reenforce the status quo rather than challenge it, to the detriment of our work and our students. HASTAC pushes against these trends, however, and provides a unique opportunity to reconsider what we do in the light of new perspectives from across the many fields of the Digital Humanities.

My presentation for HASTAC 2016 was directly related to those new perspectives, and focused on finding different ways of viewing video games. The existing paradigm of video game research largely focuses on either the communities around games or the content within them, and with the latter scholars have focused almost exclusively on close analysis of particular characters, scenes, or game mechanics. The method I proposed at HASTAC builds on ongoing work with Lev Manovich’s ImagePlot (with/advised by David Bering-Porter and Scott Schopieray), and uses distance analysis of game playthroughs to highlight similarity and difference in players’ experiences with games. Ultimately I believe this gets us to a more concrete and specific sense of interactivity in games, particularly the effects of interactivity on game narrative. If we can measure variance in game narrative (however imperfectly), then we can account for difference in player experience in more than just the abstract. I am including a link to my slides from the conference at the end of this post, in case you’re interested in seeing more.

The importance of networking at HASTAC goes without saying, and as usual HASTAC 2016 brought together brilliant scholars and teachers from institutions like the CUNY Graduate School, UNC Chapel Hill, Yale, UC Berkely, UC Santa Cruz, and many others. When I introduced myself as a Ph.D. student in English at MSU, almost without fail I was met with some variation of: “Oh Michigan State! They’re doing wonderful Digital Humanities work.” I don’t mention this to brag about MSU–though I suppose I’m doing that on some level–but rather to acknowledge the awesome work people in our DH community have done and continue to do. This included great presentations at HASTAC by Mirabeth Braude and Howard Fooksman in WRAC, and you can find more on those presentations in the other HASTAC blogs here. The DH work at MSU is being noticed, and it certainly made me feel honored to call MSU home. I hope we continue to support our DH networks, both in-house at MSU and with other institutions through HASTAC and other organizations.