Month: September 2016

Joe Goodkin’s Odyssey is coming 9/29 – and it has everything to do with digital games and digital humanities, by Roger Travis

You may well be surprised to hear that the way towards finally welcoming the study of videogames into the fold of digital humanities lies through Homeric epic and Platonic philosophy. I’m hoping, though, that a marvelous recomposition of the Odyssey by classicist-musician Joe Goodkin, in Schenker Hall at 4pm on Thursday, 29 September, will help me convince you. You might as well come just for the outlandishness of my proposal!



First of all, Joe’s work, of which you can find a sample here at his website, charms above all because of how honestly and straightforwardly it reawakens the bardic tradition that gave us the Odyssey (as well as the Iliad, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, and the Homeric hymns in which are found some of your favorite stories about the Greek gods). All the things I’ll try to suggest in the talkback Joe is kindly allowing me to inflict upon him, about how digital games provide their players with the opportunity to do what Joe does on a gamepad rather than a guitar, shouldn’t get in the way of the simple observation that Joe has done it in the same way the bards did: he learned the rules and he played the epic game the old-fashioned way, alone with a lyre in front of an audience with a right to expect to hear something relevant to their own lives.

That’s mythmaking at its finest, purest, and most moving. I don’t want digital concerns to get in the way of that act of performance any more than any practitioner of digital humanities wants to obscure the ancient, fundamental questions that only humanists can ask. Joe’s Odyssey, like the Homeric one, concerns the struggle to learn what it is to be a person. The most dramatic of returns home from war emblematizes the essential problems of identity we all face every day—how do we present ourselves on Facebook? In a department meeting? At our own homes after a long day of battling our instructors, our students, our colleagues? It’s not for nothing that Plato, trying to solve those problems another way, had a love/hate relationship with Odysseus.

To find someone like Joe recomposing the Odyssey according to his new version of the Homeric ruleset, however, seems to me too good an opportunity to pass up, to share with students and colleagues here at UConn the essential connection I’m always on about—the thing that makes the interactivity of digital games, as well as that of the many digital-rule-based practices in which we engage these days, like social media on the one hand and experimental forms of art and literature on the other, a way to use digital means to study our traditional humanistic domains.

Plato saw that the political performances of his peers in classical Athens were like meaningless contests in a cave full of shadows. Videogames and social media encode the rules of those contests in digital form: posting on Facebook is a performance within the same cave, just like killing virtual aliens. The works of the Homeric bards, the works of Joe Goodkin, our Facebook posts, and our videogame playthroughs all become susceptible to a new, digital kind of reading in which we examine them as performances within the possibility-spaces created by their rulesets. In the terms of the questions of identity I posed above, how many different ways do the rules of Facebook or World of Warcraft let us present ourselves? How does the encoded digital portion of their rulesets make the choices they present differ from the choices Plato gave his cave-dwellers?


My own current work concerns the affordances of interactive storytelling, and what we can learn about them from the way Homeric epic got transformed by the famous authors of the Athenian Golden Age—Aeschylus, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato. My point is that they played the Homer game just as Joe Goodkin plays it now, and I’m hoping we’ll all be able to hear more about how to keep doing that, whether by analog or by digital means.





Roger Travis is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Literatures, Cultures & Languages and of Digital Media and Design in the University of Connecticut. He is a founder of and contributor to the collaborative blog Play the Past. Roger also works on developing and studying a form of game-based learning, practomimetic learning, in which learners play the curriculum as a role-playing game wrapped in an alternate-reality game. He has published on Homeric epic, Greek tragedy, Greek historiography, the 19th C. British novel, and digital role-playing games and first-person shooters including Halo, BioShock, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and World of Warcraft.

As We Think: Designing Knowledge in a Maze of Hardware, Software, Middleware and Wetware

computerlibTwo weeks ago, I featured Jeffrey Schnapp’s video on Digital Humanities where he mentions emerging genres within DH that “don’t look like anything we are familiar with.” The go-to concept here has become knowledge design, a kind of humanist merging of information design, graphic design, and communication design. In truth, the more conventional – and boring – term would be scholarly communication. There’s no debate, however, that the changes communication is undergoing are profound.

Seriously: we are at the point of an epistemological turn in our digitized cultures. How do we gain, analyze, and disseminate knowledge? How is knowledge curated and archived? How do we translate ideas? How do (not only Western) notions of creativity, imagination, and production evolve and change in a multi-media environment? It is the task of the humanities to contribute to the shaping of new knowledge that is not accessible only in print and linear forms.

Ok, then. How do we do that? This scholarly-communication-cum-knowledge-design question presents, actually, a poignant issue for DHMS perspectives. Media studies scholars have engaged these design challenges for a while now, with Katherine Hayles’ how we think (2012) announcing that the “Age of Print is passing” and that we better acknowledge the accompanying changes in our wetware (aka neuro-network). Her title, of course, is a play on a much older piece by Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think” (1945), in which he describes the concept of the “Memex.”

The Memex, then, foreshadows Ted Nelson’s “hypertext,” coined in 1965. And his Computer Lib/Dream Machines already in 1974 emphasized the use of computers for knowledge design, decidedly a creative process in collaboration with audiences and through open access.memex

So knowledge design is not new. The end of books is not near. The humanities aren’t dead. But we are finding ourselves in the non-linear, multi-media, digitized universe of scholarly communication that appears to scream Nelson’s “You can and must understand computers NOW” at us. So as we may scramble somewhere between hardware, software and wetware, reaching for the comforting book or printout, it’s the middleware I find particularly interesting.

In 1986, the media theorist Friedrich Kittler declared that “media determine our situation.” Johanna Drucker and Patrik O. Svensson, based on their just published “The Why and How of Middleware” (2016), would argue that “middleware determine our knowledge design.” Whether it’s PowerPoint or Scalar or Zotero, middleware presents a “set of mediating and remediating protocols,” compelling us to look under the hood of the platforms we use as their design is set up to structure our thoughts. “At stake is how we may think as well as what we may think as we struggle to design environments that contain tools for thinking in arguments.”

Information Overload in Network Time II: How to Find Your Media Studies Community

Remember how last week I described trying to find the DH crowd that speaks your (disciplinary) language – only in “digital” – as getting lost in network time? Unsurprisingly, the same applies to trying to look for aspects of your work that overlap or integrate with media studies. Here, too, I predict you will need perspectives and platforms to rest upon. But “rest upon” becomes more like a balancing act on a tiny pole that struts out and may disappear again, should you linger too long. That’s because DH communities seem to be a lot more organized and structured compared to media studies folk. Which, of course, is part of media studies folk characteristics, what with interests in virtual reality here, cyberpunk lit (WHA???) there, game studies over yonder, and media theory as cultural theory way up back there. As maddening and disorienting as that may be, here are some coordinates to start with:


As Mitchell and Hansen, in their Critical Terms for Media Studies introduction, pointed out (see Blog #1), there are really two sides to media studies, empirical and interpretive. One is primarily focused on mass media, the other on the constitution of media and on knowledge design (see video in Blog #2), based on pretty classic humanities questions: how do media and technology change us over time? How do we change ourselves using media and technology? Here’s how media archeologist Erkki Huhtamo approaches these questions (think materialist anthropology by way of media studies):




Or watch DJ Spooky present The Secret Song and walk us through the mediation and remixes of music by way of – who’d have thunk it – Dziga Vertov:





How did I get to Paul Miller? By way of Martin Irvine’s ever-evolving introduction to Media Theory and Meaning Systems. For those with less time but in need of some basic terminology, the Keyword Glossary from the University of Chicago remains helpful. You could also get into the 7-volume International Encyclopedia of Media Studies, but, nah… not so much. Just saying.


I often find my vantage points by looking at the medium itself. What are some developments in books and literature and our reading habits? Visit the ELO and decide for yourself. The video essay, as mentioned by Miller above, is gaining traction for creative and scholarly communication, and there are different ways to explore it, for example, with media commons, especially [in]Transition, or by pinning down what it actually is. Interestingly, you will find most of them on vimeo, not youtube. For someone else to analyze… Then there is media art and a great many variations on the theme, including Leonardo, or ISEA. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies is the largest scholarly organization in the US to promote and study these different forms of media. Their site includes a long list of media studies journals. However, SCMS does not including really interesting works like ADA or Imaginations or Game Studies or Vectors, or… These gems you have to find on your own!


Information Overload in Network Time I: How to Find Your DH Community

As definitional efforts in Digital Humanities and Media Studies are ongoing – which better be the case in any field deeming itself vibrant (see last week’s post) – news items in these fields become a maze of hyperlinks. So you want to find out what’s going on? Where the workshops, conferences, unconferences, not-so-much-talks and virtual happenings are? This requires some structuring. Which topics do you seek to learn more about, which skills should YOU like to acquire, organizations to tap into? Or, for now, finding the crowd that speaks your language, only in “digital”? Not so user friendly. Because once you get lost in network time (I roughly define that as a virtual dangling off vines: you swing from one link to the next, working the rhythm of however fast your wifi allows, while utterly losing connection to a world that hosts material objects or human needs; just read Kenneth Goldsmith’s new book, Wasting Time on the Internet, he knows )… Because once you get lost in network time, I predict you will need perspectives and platforms to rest upon. Here are some:


DH organizations and tools exist aplenty, with the global network of institutes a good bet for basic information. Their publication initiative, DHCommons, provides a plethora of information on “how to”, “with whom,” “where,” including peer reviews of projects in progress or completed. Ditto for the ADHO, who also offer all kinds of resources. If playing with tools is your thing, a good place to start remains the DIRTdirectory. It pretty much provides a list of what you can do in DH with links between your desired task and the program that may help you accomplish it. Experimenters welcome. Alan Liu’s DH Toychest is another collection worth exploring, with clear connections between task and tool. Alert for your calendar: Alan Liu will join us at the UConn Humanities Institute in February 2017!


Individual clearing-house-type news outlets exist abundantly as well. I usually benefit from MIT’s Hyperstudio mailing, “h+d insights,” to which you can subscribe on their site. Info galore on conferences, blogs of interest, hot topics and more. DH Now is another informative outlet for digital scholarship. This week I applaud the Editor’s Choice on selecting Jason Heppler’s syllabus for Teaching Digital Public History. He has some great pointers, including a list by the untiring Beth Nowviskie, director of the Digital Library Federation, on how to start your digital project without incurring immediate headaches…


Then there is HASTAC, “reputed to be the world’s first and oldest academic social network.” ‘Nough said. Just visit and click, join a group, follow your interests. Especially graduate students are invited to become HASTAC scholars and benefit from the enormous network the organization makes available. A great teaching resource is also Hybrid Pedagogy, a journal that offers info on conferences, tools, critical perspectives on teaching with tech, and professional development.


Phew… This just a quick intro from my own vantage point to some DH resources out there, but this virtual dangling off vines can be exhausting. I invite you to take a break and view this lucid narrative by Jeffrey Schnapp, founder and director of Harvard’s metaLAB, on how computers and the digital realm entered the traditional humanities and move us beyond print knowledge into ‘knowledge design’: