Digital Studies:
the Field

ENGL668K Final Essay

Edmond Y. Chang

Written for
ENGL 668k: Digital Studies
with Matthew G. Kirschenbaum,
Department of English,
University of Maryland,
Spring 2004.*

*Rediscovered, recovered from the annals of my graduate school days at the University of Maryland. Now rehosted, republished with minor changes: a slightly larger font, updated links, but otherwise preserved in digital amber. Rejoice, reread!
--Edmond Y. Chang, Ph.D.
September 25, 2019

New media is play. Play is the bright thread that wends its way through the woof and warp of digital studies and ties together ideas of textuality and intertextuality, of literacy and secondary orality, of new "literature" (in all of its senses, some adequate and others inaccurate), of digitization, of representation, and most importantly, about imagination (human and post-human, codexical and cybertextual). New media studies must (continue to) learn the play in language, in data and database, in the garden of forking paths, in interface, in paradigms and syntagms, in flickering signifiers, in metrons and logons, in simulation, and in all the twisty little passages. Play is vital. To reiterate and reinscribe Jerome McGann, "ludic intelligence is (so to say) no joking matter" but play is "an algorithmic form of scholarly method that should be seriously entertained (so to say)." Play is for me and for McGann "the only method adequate to the [cyber]textual condition we now see clearly unfolding before us" in new media studies.

New media-ists, scholars and cyber cowboys alike, have been thinking about and writing about and digitizing about cybertexts as kinds of play and how through play the differences and commonalities between traditional texts and new media texts are illuminated, interrogated. For Espen Aarseth, the cybertext reader "is a player, a gambler; the cybertext is a game-world or a world-game; it is possible to explore, get lost, and discover secret paths in these texts, not metaphorically, but through the topological structures of the textual machinery" (4). Questions about cybertextuality are raised, wrestled with, and tentatively aligned or bridged through play: What does orality + writing mean or writing + printing mean or text + cyber mean? Can we write media? Can we read new media? Are cybertexts narratives? How does the body "fit" the cybertext or the cybertext change the body? Are cybertexts stories or games or virtual realities? In a deep sense, play is thinking, is thought.

The multiplicity of questions (and their answers) demonstrates the variability of cybertexts, one of the most important differences between traditional texts and new media. It is this variability, this multifacetedness or multilayeredness, which N. Katherine Hayles calls "seriation" or "a pattern of overlapping replication and innovation" (14), that encourages play, investigation, iteration, and flaneurism. Variability is one Lev Manovich's principles of new media: "A new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions" (36). Whereas a handwritten sea scroll (live or dead or scanned) or printed codex exists as a single creation, a single material thing, new media can be cloned, mutated, iterated to the nth degree. Though scrolls and codexes (or paintings or piano music or blueprints) can be copied (bestsellers, you say, reach millions), the texts are fixed, at times revised, but editions stay generally the same. New media texts are not just about duplications but about complications, refractions, variations on a theme, a gene, a meme. Lev Manovich sees "variability as a basic condition of all new media" (42). Ultimately, a cybertext is "something that can exist in numerous versions and numerous incarnations" (134), often at the same time and the same (cyber)place.

Playing in such variability is precisely one strategy and method of negotiating and reading a cybertext. Aarseth describes, "[W]hen you read a cybertext, you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some part of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed" (3). Dipping into the database of The William Blake Archive, navigating the links in Joyce's afternoon, a story, bumping your way in the dark maze in Adventure, or flipping, tripping, flapping, flowing, falling through OuLiPo poems and artifacts are all ways of playing the text, the information.

Play then is (inter)action. It is making choices, marking places (and pages and pixels), changing lines of code, mapping pathways, surfing the web, solving, reading, feeling, writing, archiving, and dancing with electrons. It is doing the math -- since for Manovich "a new media object can be described formally (mathematically)" (27) -- and stepping through the algorithm. New media-ists would argue that another important quality of cybertexts is that they are done, they are doable, not just read or viewed, but they are manipulated, moved, modulated, broken, fixed, tinkered. Ultimately, new media are artifacts like "graphics, moving images, sounds, shapes, spaces, and texts that have become computable" (Manovich 20). Play and interaction are more than just pointing, clicking, typing, and looking.

Take interactive fiction, MUDs, and MOOs, for example. Such texts, such games, are all about play, all about doing, and all about actions and interactions. Interactive texts are all about "narrative actions and exploration" (Manovich 247) The reader becomes character, the viewer becomes doer, and the user takes on the full mantle of their title; they use in many ways: type, mouse, recall, narrate, role-play, search, and navigate as well as look, get, put, open, say, emote, kill, save, and go. Aarseth waxes on about interactive texts saying, "Instead of the predefined, finite set of actions in a plot-controlled cybertext, MUDs allow an infinite set of illusive quasi actions" (154). Though, some would argue that even plot-controlled texts can be infinite in different (path)ways depending on how the ergodic reader accesses, traverses, jumps around, imagines, and remembers the text. Aarseth further highlights the "most powerful mimetic device ... the pose," which allows MUDs the poetic freedom that "puts the MUD phenomenon closer to the tropes and figures of linear expression literature than many other types of cybertexts and establishes it as perhaps the ultimate ‘literary' game" (154). MUDs depend on action. Aarseth says, "Things happen quickly; events hatch, unfold, ‘intertwingle,' and scroll past in seconds" (156). Play is about all kinds of actions and reactions intertwingling. It is no wonder that Peter Gloor in Elements of Hypermedia Design lists seven design concepts for hypertexts and by extension cybertexts, many of which are verbs or evoke action: linking, searching, sequentialization, hierarchy, similarity, mapping, guides, and agents (Manovich 272).

Interaction (though not yet fully realized and digitized in a mind-to-artificial intelligence, body-to-circuit, real-to-virtual way) and play can also be imagined and constructed in other "genres" of cybertexts such as Harry Mathew's "Mathew's Algorithm" or "beast gaming" by the likes of or Stuart Moulthrop's Pax. In fact, Moulthrop describes his site, his cybertext, as an "instrumental text." The metaphor and analogy of playing a text, like Pax or Adventure or Andrew Plotkin's Shade, is iterated by Aarseth: "This is an interesting description of the relationship between an adventure game and its player. It is a good description of the normal relationship between a musician and a composition or between a building an its inhabitant" (49). Play and interactivity can be further extended, the boundary of what is text expanded, to the writing of such texts, to coding, to inventing. In another deep sense, play is creation. Play as creation is embodied in the programmer, in the artist, in the philosopher, and the engineer. It is John Conway's Game of Life or Ethan's Xs and Os in Ullman's The Bug. It is William Gibson's Burning Chrome or Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto. It is game theory, narrative theory, emergence theory. Play as creation is most material in cyberarchives, cyberlibraries, and cyberstudies as a burgeoning discipline.

To recall McGann, new media studies must embrace play to survive, to thrive. Digital studies is serious, but it cannot be too serious. Digital studies is about experimentation and entertainment, but it is also about evidence, history, technology, and education. It is no wonder that my graduate class on digital studies exhorted play and the investigation, close reading, earnest analysis, and further creation of "toys" -- both analog and digital, both scholarly and popular, both useful and playful. In a manner, then, even a seemingly frivolous site like can be illuminating, if not important. The badgers are algorithmic, rhythmic, iterative, illustrative, mathematical, communicative, evocative, narrative, and colorful; though linear (though the syncing of the sound and image does begin to slip creating a new text) and not playable, the badgers are definitely playful and intertextual and meaningful (badger as metaphor, folklore of the mushroom, and symbology of the snake). With a little time, the right technology, and imagination, the rolling loop and various pieces of the flash animation can be taken apart, reconfigured, exported, imported, and reassembled into a new digital text. In fact, the bouncing badgers have spawned a number of other texts. It is this transportability, this modularity, this encouraging borrowing and reimagining that is the heart and spirit of new media. It is the reason texts are made, made again, and studied. It is the heart and spirit of play.

Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2001.

McGann, Jerome. "Textonics." Jerome McGann. 14 May 2004. <>.

(c) 2004 Edmond Y. Chang