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The Victorianator, an iPhone Game: Thoughts on Design-Oriented Digital Humanities
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It has been a little over a year since my Concordia-based research team LudicVoice released its first digital game, The Victorianator.  This odd experiment in reading and game design received some unexpected attention in venues such as the New Yorker and Wired when it was released to the Apple store in August, and then updated in October,  2011.  While I can’t fully explain the interest that this ultra-niche-market app generated, I believe it had more to do with the idea of this project as an alternative, interactive “reading” application (the focus of the New Yorker review), and with the beautiful steampunk art style of the game (mentioned in the Wired article) that was developed by project artist Mohannad Al Khatib, than with any widespread contemporary interest in Victorian elocutionary practice.  Whatever may have drawn others to the game, a year later seems a good time for some public reflection upon the possible implications of this venture.  The following VPN post draws upon a paper I delivered at the NAVSA conference held at Vanderbilt University in Nashville from November 3-6, 2011, on the theme of Performance & Play, as well as from a brief talk I gave in a “Mash-up session” about “ludic engagement as ‘real’ research”, part of the GRAND NCE conference in Montreal from May 2-4, 2012.

My post-game-release thoughts are structured more as a report upon a research-creation project than as a formal argument about the two primary elements that informed this project, these being:

1) historical materials about Victorian elocution practices and

2) digital games

If I were to make an argument it would have to do with two things.  The first is the relationship between Victorian elocutionary practice as a remediating activity that functions at the intersection of manuscript composition, mechanical print and embodied performance, on the one hand, and screen-based mobile devices as multi-modal sites for the development of digital applications (apps) that explore the convergence of text, touch, motion and speech, on the other.  In short, this first category about which I will make some design-based observations, has to do with the status of interface as it relates to cultural and literary historical practice. The second area this project has forced me to think about is that of the possible role design, interactivity and ludic engagement can play in a practice-based branch of digital humanities research and creation.  By this, I’m asking, simply, what role can the design of an interactive interface have for literary historical research and pedagogy, alongside our more common uses of digital technologies for data mining, mapping, and other analytical purposes in our reseach?

Techniques and applications for interfacing with digital media are rapidly expanding.  Increasingly ubiquitous computing technologies in the marketplace and new kinds of interface controllers for popular entertainment (Wii, Kinect, the iPhone accelerometer/gyroscope) raise new questions about critical interface and software design, the cultural meanings of technology, and social patterns of use.  While design interests in new media interfaces are not new, the game design project I came to develop took up this component of interactive design in order to consider, specifically, the remediation of performative practice from the Victorian period into the context of a game-structured digital interface.  From my perspective as a researcher interested in Victorian recitation practice, my approach to this game design project arose initially from a simple question about methodology:  How might we, as 21st century readers, fruitfully interpret the instructions we find in Victorian elocution manuals?  Interpret is, of course, a loaded term here, and I mean to use it so that both the hermeneutical and performative senses of the word are kept in play.  What did prescriptions for elocutionary gesture mean in the historical context of 19c rhetorical philosophy and pedagogy, in relation to Victorian literature and culture?  And, what might we do with them, or, better, what can we possibly do with them, now, in the context of digital game design?  While I have published work on the former topic before, and I’ll spend a little bit of time discussing Victorian recitation practice and elocution handbooks below, the present post will mostly focus on the latter question about the potential of integrating such materials into games on devices that are built for everyday use—on the iPhone, to be more specific.

There are numerous video games that have used historical settings for their gameplay and narrative, for example, the popular historical science fiction action-adventure game Assasin’s Creed in which a modern day assassin, the third-person protagonist Desmond Miles, uses an “Animus” device to explore the memories of assassins from his ancestral line of killers, thus transporting us back for extended periods of gameplay to the Crusades and to 15th Century Italy.  There have been some video-game adaptations of Victorian fictional narrative (especially of Alice in Wonderland and Dracula), as well.  These examples represent one version of historical adaptation to interactive games, an approach that might be described as the augmentation of gameplay with “history-ness.”  In a recent blog post on “history-ness in videogames”, historian Michael O’Malley makes an interesting analogy between the function of historical accuracy and suggestions of verisimilitude in certain videogames like Bioshock (“steeped in an off-kilter history, the world of 1930s America with an overlay of modern genetic engineering”), with the gestures towards history, what he refers to as “fake history”, that we find in a fantasy novel like Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines.  Between Bioshock and King Solomon’s Mines,  Call of Duty and She, O’Malley says, “history plays the same augmenting role.”  The plot may be that of standard adventure romance (with King Solomon’s Mines), or, with Call of Duty, “[t]he underlying software engine [may be] the same as in fantasy games,” but in both instances, “’history’ lends an ‘aura’ to the gameplay” or adventure, it “haunts” the present (O’Malley).  Historical setting gives these videogames a certain temporal valence, but doesn’t really pertain, in any specific way, to the actions the player uses to generate movement for a sprite through the controller. While it’s no great surprise, it is still worth observing that there has been little historically-motivated exploration of Victorian performance in game interface design.  We may (historically) reenact Ringo’s kick drum in Beatles Rock Band and something of the gestures of medieval jousting and sword fighting in Wii Medieval Games, but we don’t yet have Wii Chimney Sweeper or Victorian Recitation Hero, through which we might consider the implications of adapting Victorian-era actions, pasttimes or practices into a contemporary game-play context.  That is what I set out to do, as best I could.

So, first, I will show, briefly, the end result of the project: what we made. And then I will work towards formulating a few ideas about Victorian elocution and digital interface design, that have emerged from the process of making The Victorianator.

1. The Victorianor Described

The Victorianator is an iPhone game that explores the use of gesture to trigger synthetic effects upon speech.

Wlocutionary Gesture Axes

Gesture was a significant part of Victorian elocutionary practice.  To make this game we took specific gestures as prescribed in Victorian elocution manuals and put them at the core of our game-play.


The splash screen that you see just  below (that’s the screen that comes up when you open the game) is a kind of steampunk book cover.

Victo Splash Screen

The Victorianator Splash Screen: Front cover of steampunk “book”

We imagined the entire game to take place between the covers of a book, as an interactive iPhone elocution manual.   So the “About”screen is designed as the inside of the back cover of the book.

About Screen

About Screen: Inside back cover of “book”

Upon entering the game a “Prologue” introduces the player to the protagonist of the game narrative, a character named Silas Shornsong, a man without means who has just arrived in London. Silas’s fate depends upon how well you perform in the game.  The narrative was written within the constraints of the game paths outlined by game designer Steph Bouchard, by creative writing student Jeremy Valentine.  To play the game the player must first select one of three poems, and then recite and record a selection from the chosen poem into the game using the record screen.

Audio recording screen

This recitation of the poem must be done in time with the scrolling brackets that progress word by word through the poem as the steampunk stylus moves down the phonograph cylinder on the right.  The recitation must be done in monotone, with as little intonational variation as possible.  We found that reciting in monotone is a difficult and fun thing to do.  This vocal activity is scored with an implemented pitch tracker which stays green if the needle stays stationary and your pitch remains steady, and turns yellow or red if your intonation changes during the course of reading the selected poem.

The tutorial screen explains the elements of the record portion of the game.

Audio recording tutorial screen

With the poem recorded the player then moves to the gesture part of the game.  Again, we considered the many different kinds of diacritical marks and symbols used in Victorian elocution manuals to annotate texts for reading, and the artist on the project developed symbols for the five gestures and vocal actions we implemented into the game.  You can see from the images below how certain elements of the visual representations of vocal qualities found in Fulton and Bashford’s Practical Elements of Elocution (1893) were integrated into the artist’s rendering of visual cues for the game.

elocution manual diacritical marks

From: Fulton and Bashford, Practical elements of elocution. Designed as a text-book for the guidance of teachers and students of expression (1893)

Mo's diacritical marks

Artist’s adaptation of Victorian elocutionary diacritical marks

The artist on the project also designed a feedback screen that helps the player gesture at just the right moment, as the poem is played back on the iPhone.

Gesture feedback screen

We also developed a gallery of gestures that the player can visit to learn the gestures and symbols in relation to each other (from a steampunk gesturing robot).

Gesture Gallery stills

Stills from animated gesture tutorial gallery

Performing these Victorian elocutionary gestures during the playback triggers “Victorian style” (in bold quotation marks) elocutionary effects upon the original monotone recording that the player had made.  If you perform your gestures properly, on cue, then you “Victorianate” your voice, and succeed in the game.  Framing the actual voice and gesture-play screens are additional spaces to explore in the book (such as the Diary of Silas Shornsong, pages of which are unlocked if you score well during the game), and an elaborate neo-Victorian narrative chronicling the life of Silas whose fate is determined by the user’s successes and failures in the course of playing the game.

As I mentioned above, and as you have already seen in the images provided, the design developed for the interface is in a steam-punk style, a stylistic mode that suggests anachronistic engagement from the present with an earlier historical period.

That is the game, in a nutshell.

This research-creation project involved students and professional consultants from English, Creative Writing, Computation Arts, Design, Interactive Audio Engineering, and Computer Science.  Funding for the project is a long story worth considering because it illustrates how complex funding and infrastructure support for different kinds of digital humanities research-creation projects like this can be.  I will return to the question of funding for design-oriented digital humanities projects, and the potential that digital design-oriented  projects might have for literary studies, at the very end of this post.  It’s enough to say, for now, that the goals that defined the work on this project were diverse, depending on a given team member’s home discipline.  While the collective goal of the team was to adapt certain protocols for performance from Victorian elocution manuals into an interactive game to be played on a mobile device, the more technical and task-oriented goals, beyond that of embodied historical adaptation, included the development of functional Gesture Recognition, Real-Time Voice Modification, a compelling GUI Design, and the plotting of a framing Game Narrative.

While I am not a programmer or digital designer, I found myself in the role of coordinating and overseeing the work of students who solved technical and design problems for this project, and who performed the work necessary to make this game possible.  In the process of making the game I learned enough about what the coding and design work entailed to be able to say a bit more about the technical and design elements of the game.  Following a survey of some of these technical and design elements, I will return to the development of the concept as it relates to the Victorian source materials.  So, first some more about the technical specs of the game:

Gesture Recognition:  The motions that a player performs in the game are taken directly from images and detailed instructions for gestures to be performed during literary recitation as they appear in nineteenth-century elocution manuals.  The team programmer, Michael Fortin, worked on calibrating a gesture-matching algorithm that measures accuracy of player’s performance in relation to historically paradigmatic gestures built into the game.  This involved the development of a gesture recording and percentage matching application and subsequent analysis of the data, for early testing, and then the integration of visual diacritical cues and audio feedback for gestural action in the game itself.  The questions that were most interesting to the game design students working on the project had to do with the interaction between audio feedback and gestural performance, in terms of the performance problem called “assistive feedback” (see Visell and Cooperstock).  In testing the gesture in relation to the audio, a key design question was:  how much audio can be used to direct the player to improve (even without visual feedback)?

The goals for the Audio Design programmer (Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, President of Carré Technologies Inc., our main industry partner), were to program a simple scorable pitch tracking interface for the ‘record’ mode of the game, and to generate synthetic vocal effects that are based on descriptions found in Victorian elocution manuals (the five we settled on—selected purely on the basis of what we could approximate synthetically—were: pitch-rise, pitch-fall, tremor, prolongation, and falsetto).  This entailed writing a real-time voice modification engine from the bottom up to produce the five voice effects.  Further, this engine had to process CD quality audio and had to work in real-time with what was basically the computing power of a 1994 486 CPU (Central Processing Unit:  the brain of the computer), which is not far off, in the history of computing, from one of Charles Babbage’s difference engines.  This voice engine deploys voice synthesis concepts for the pitch effects and is capable of scoring singing pitch as in a video karaoke game.  The synthetic speech “actions” generated by the voice engine function as audible, assistive feedback in the game, and are delivered with greater amplitude as the player’s gestural accuracy increases.

The audio code in Victorianator is made up of two parts:  The effects and the chaining.  The effects are what is audibly heard: the pitch, time skewing, intensity, and echo.  The chaining takes a request from the iPhone to generate audio and goes from effect to effect asking each to manipulate the spoken voice.  The pitch effect (and pitch detection) function to change the pitch of the input voice. The time distortion effects increase or decrease the amount of time that is taken to play back a sequence of audio.  This is used in pitch-rise and pitch-fall in conjunction with pitch adjustments to make the voice slightly faster (high-pitched) and slightly slower (low pitched).  The echo effect is used for vibrato.  It literally adds an echo.  We tried other algorithms to get something closer to a dry vibrato effect, but they didn’t work properly.  None of the synthetic effects that are triggered by gesture to “Victorianate” the players voice are very Victorian in quality.  For example, we were aiming for a Tremor akin to that of Victorian actor Lewis Waller reciting Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”.  But what we ended up with is something closer to Peter Frampton’s talkbox guitar solo in “Do You Feel Like We Do”.

The chaining of the audio accomplished the more mundane task of ordering the application of the effects to the audio signal, among other things.

The Steam Punk GUI:  Steampunk is a style associated, initially, with science fiction of the 1980s, but has it roots in popular fiction of the late nineteenth-century, as well (see Nevins, 3-12).  The style approaches the technological icons and visual motifs of this first full-fledged industrialized culture analogically in order to trace ideological and sociological continuities between this early period of modernity and our own.  This style of GUI was quickly determined to be the most appropriate for a digital game that draws upon social and performative practices from the nineteenth century, in part because such an imagined historical design converged nicely with questions I am interested in about the historical transformation of the poetry reading from the Victorian period to the present.  The primary challenge of the game’s art director was to render compelling and seemingly tangible adaptations of Victorian communication technologies (such as the phonograph and the mass produced codex) for the various sections of the game in a manner that made the gameplay intuitive and historically “auratic”, to use O’Malley’s phrase.  As a digital representation of what is an actual contemporary material-based modding practice, one might say that the game offers a digital remediation of a steampunk aesthetic.  So, where Giovanni James, member of the James Gang Steampunk Vaudeville troup has steampunked his iphone  by encasing it in wood and burnished brass, The Victorianator digitizes the materials and motifs that are associated with this pre-digital aesthetic.

Steampunked iPhone by Giovanni James

We have not steampunked an iPhone but have made a digital steampunk iPhone game.  In this sense, the GUI of the game is self-consciously historiographical.

Despite the fact that the player must perform gestures that do come directly from Victorian elocution manuals, the game is in no sense “realistic”.  The most obvious difference between playing The Victorianator and performing a poem according to nineteenth-century elocutionary protocols (apart from the iPhone in your hand), is the separation of real-time speech and gesture in the game.  Another key difference is the one I already mentioned:  the inaccuracy of the vocal effects that are generated synthetically through the gesturing action.  While I grew to understand these elements to “work” within the game concept as our development progressed—and I especially came to like the separation of voice and gesture—these design elements were largely the result of what Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost describe—in their study of game design for the early Atari videogame system—as “platform constraints”.  These constraints became an important part of the process for developing the game, and had a significant impact on the space between my original motivation and concept and the end result, and are largely responsible for some of the ideas about historical reading and interface that have emerged from that gap.  So, in the remainder of this post, I will describe the significance of this design process as I have come to understand it.

2. Thoughts on Interface Generated by The Victorianator

In computer science, interface is a concept concerned with a nexus of interaction. It may refer to both hardware and software.  As I’ve already said, in making The Victoriantor, I wanted to explore the development of an interface for an interactive Victorian poetry recitation game.  This entailed an exploration of the modern history of sound games (and the models of interface they provide), including:

It entailed thinking about the social element associated with the particular media interfaces, both in the nineteenth century (such as the way the phonograph and gramophone were often marketed as a social, parlor activity, akin to what actual parlor recitation might have been), and in contemporary digital games, as in the way Wii has been marketed as an activity that the whole family can enjoy together.

Magazine advertisement for the gramophone as form of social, parlor entertainment c1915

Family playing with Wii c2010








Most importantly, it entailed thinking about the difference between poetry reading in the nineteenth-century and today, and elocution as a practice that is in many ways about interface.  The technical and design-oriented elements of the project naturally pushed me to think about interface in relation to Victorian elocution and the iPhone.

As we know, modes of recitation that combined prescribed vocal actions with gesture and facial expression were once an important part of the experience and study of literature.  Elocution as a prescriptive, performative practice developed in the eighteenth century as a method for a public reader (other than the author) to convey to the Hearer the meaning of the writer.  It was, in the words of John Rice (as he put it in his work An Introduction to the Art of Reading [1865]), a method for “converting Writing into Speech” (cited in George 375). The process of this conversion involved a self-conscious performance of natural expression.  As Jacqueline George has put it, in elocution, “The reader must be at once self-consciously constructed and perfectly natural, adhering to the proper rules for reading—pronunciation, pitch, pauses, gestures—without revealing his reading to be a performance, as such” (374).  The reader, in short, attempts to function as a good (that is to say, natural, immediate) vehicle of delivery between text and audience.  In this sense elocution is all about interface. George has usefully sketched out some models for the structure of this interface, depicting relations among the participants in the public scene of reading as “quadrangular, mediated by the text and determined by the participant’s various engagements with it” (386).

Gestures as depicted in selected Victorian elocution manuals

Similarly, Ben McCorkle, has shown how “the elocutionary movement and belletristic tradition of the nineteenth century’s New Rhetoric worked in tandem as parallel and educational and cultural forces in order to naturalize the printed page…[and to render] the print interface invisible to an increasingly literate society via the remediation of handwriting and oral speech” (27).  It seems counter-intuitive to us today, when we examine the pages of elocution manuals, with their extensive categories and instructions for vocal manipulation, bodily gesture, facial expression, and symbolic systems of annotating texts for performance, to think of them as handbooks for the naturalization of print. In his introduction to the collection, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, Charles Bernstein proposes that we look at the poetry reading not as an extension of written texts, but as a medium unto itself.  The essence of the poetry reading, according to his definition, is “its lack of spectacle, drama, and dynamic range, as exemplified especially in a certain minimal—anti-expressivist—mode of reading” (11).  We as 21st-Century readers are estranged, in significant ways, from understanding what an elocutionary model of reading meant in the nineteenth-century: what it meant in relation to print media and written composition, social decorum, and the faculty psychology that informed the particular kind of communication circuit it entailed.

But (shifting into quasi-ironic huckster voice) The Victorianator can help!  Such a game renders the player aware, not of the historical nature of elocution, so much as of the status of his or her own voice and body as it relates to expressive performance.  A Victorian recitation game for the iPhone is a most unnatural thing, and works to denaturalize the player’s experience of reading, expression, and finally of the very device upon which the game is played.  By demanding the player record a text in monotone to begin with—in getting her to speak into her iPhone like a robot—it asks her to become aware of her voice as an instrument of expression.  The very creation of a game out of elocutionary practice highlights player skill over expression as the primary goal of the action, which positions the poem as a vehicle for scored performance rather than as a repository of expression and meaning.  Further, the platform and software constraints that the iPhone posed, forced us to separate vocal action from gesture, thus decoupling two performative elements that were supposed to function in seamless unity to manifest a natural performance of printed expression.  These contraints also resulted in the less than accurate synthetic production of “Victorian” speech inflection, again, making the player aware of speech as a made artifact.  The game as a whole, delivered on the iPhone, raises questions about how the iPhone interface has so quickly become naturalized.  So much so that our immersion in the device has become an iconic joke.  (Remember, for example, the 2010 Windows advertisement in which a man drops his iPhone into the urinal he was in the process of using, picks it up, and continues texting, while the less-immersed, more “aware” Windows user  next to him responds, “Really?”)

The Victoriantor denaturalizes the iPhone interface by clumsily wedding the public/private divide, that is, by delivering a public, audience-oriented activity—that of Victorian elocution—on what we perceive to be a private device.  One can certainly play the game in public, but it will not register as a meaningful public activity.  People will wonder why you are swinging your phone boldly into the epic zone, as you wait for your bus.  While it is more comfortable to clutch your phone to your ear in private conversation, or hunch over its miniature screen and flick birds at bricks in relative oblivion to your surroundings, The Victoriantor will not allow that.  It requires you to speak and move.  Finally, the The Victorianator may be seen to address, directly, the increasing naturalization via digital technologies of the STT (speech to text) interface.  The focus of the next generation iPhone, iOS 5, is its incredible voice recognition software that will allow us to convert speech into text even more “naturally” than Nuance’s famous Dragon Naturally Speaking text to speech software.  The Victoriantor, won’t have it.  Rather than turn speech into text, it demands that you speak text in an unnatural manner, record it, and then transform it into even less natural sounding speech.  In this manner, a Victorian practice that deployed the human body as a naturalizing interface between text and audience has been mobilized in our design to denaturalize the assumed humanity of the digital devices we so unselfconsciously speak into, read, jiggle, touch and hold.

Such are the backloaded thoughts on the implications of this particular digital design project.  I came into the project with a lot of questions about digital design as it relates to my own research in Victorian studies.  I’ll close with a few more thoughts about this project as it pertains to questions of funding, and work in the digital humanities, in general.

3. Digressive Conclusion on Project Funding, and The Potential Value of Digital Design for Literary Studies

Questions don’t always enable exploration.  For example, you don’t just write a grant application stating your intention to develop a Victorian recitation and gesture game for the iPhone and expect to get funded.  It takes a certain degree of friendly infrastructure to make a project like this possible.  I have been very involved over the past several years in helping to establish a new research center at my university called the Center for Technoculture, Art and Games.  This Centre (TAG, we call it) serves as an interdisciplinary collaboration platform for research/creation in game studies and design, digital culture and interactive art.  It is a hub for students and faculty from Computer Science, Software Engineering, Computation Arts and Design, Studio Arts, Sociology, Philosophy, History, Film, Communications Studies and English and Creative Writing, among others.  It’s an exciting place, especially, I think, because the people involved are interested in exploring ways in which we can bring disciplinary research questions and creative design questions, together.  Further, through my affiliation with certain colleagues in TAG, I am a collaborator on one of 34 projects that together comprise a very large research program called GRAND (Graphics, Animation and New Media) that is funded by the Canadian federal Networks of Centre of Excellence Program.  GRAND’s self-description sounds like this (from the GRAND website):

 GRAND is a research network and commercialization engine whose goal is to address complex issues in digital media and transform multidisciplinary research into user-centred solutions. GRAND will explore the use and application of digital media in a variety of settings including entertainment, healthcare, education, environmental sustainability, and public policy.

While it is true that there is no specific mention of adapting Victorian recitation practice to the iPhone in the GRAND mission statement, the research team I collaborate with as a part of GRAND, focuses specifically on questions of interface and play.  This research group, working under the GRAND umbrella, is called “Play and Performance Interfaces for Culture and Games”, or PlayPR.  Apologies for all of the acronyms, but it comes with the territory.  Our PlayPR mandate is to explore the relationship between performance and content in digital media through case studies in game design, interactive museums, and cultural installations.  Our research focuses on spatial play, which considers the body’s movement in physical space in relation to digital media, gestural play, which considers discrete movements of bodies in relation to screen-based media and interactive installations that raises questions of how the body and its gestural motion can affect the player’s relationship to digital representations, and vocal/audio play, which considers voice as an important input channel in interfaces and explores vocality as a corporeal practice that enhances engagement and interactivity.  My own LudicVoice team is the vocal part of PlayPR, and is presently funded by GRAND and TAG.  Because I am a small cog in a much larger network of research groups, I have great freedom in how I use my annual PlayPR envelope.  I guess this last statement is obvious, considering I used my funding last year to make The Victorianator.  However, the larger research network of GRAND, which encourages researchers, programmers and artists from different disciplines and universities to share knowledge, is also a “commercialization engine”.  There is a commercialization officer who reads our project reports and tries to make connections between the often strange things we are working on in order to channel elements of them towards more utilitarian goals.  For example, I have been contacted on several occasions about The Victorianator to see if there are elements of its design and technology that might be adapted to use in the development of a game to assist children with speech pathologies.  I have grown increasingly interested in thinking about design projects from the perspective of our commercialization officer, not so much because I’m interested in making useful apps (I have nothing to show for that), but because I like the idea of repurposing layers of technology, and then thinking about the implications of such repurposing.  Where the relationship between my conceptual goals of literary historical adaptation and the limitations of technology often seemed dissonant to me when I started out on this project, I have learned to think about the tech side of things, less as a factor that inhibits the realization of a thought, than as a platform that privileges some forms of thought over others.

PlayPR is an example of a GRAND project for which a very significant part of the activity is practice-based, and prototypes and play testing are central rather than peripheral to research outcomes and activities.  My participation in PlayPR projects has  led me to ask what role interactivity and ludic engagement can play alongside more traditional approaches to research, and how design and interactivity might be understood as central, rather than peripheral to literary research and pedagogy.

I am interested in thinking more about possible answers to the question Jan Parker asks in a recent issue of Arts and Humanities in Higher Education on the topic, “Digital Humanities, Digital Futures”:  “In what ways is the digital good to think with?” (Parker 3).  I think that’s a very interesting (if vaguely phrased) question.  I would brocade Parker’s question with a few more that seem to me related, and equally interesting:  “In what ways can design—and, in particular, GUI design—be understood as a critical practice?” and  “How might performance and interactive play factor into literary critical practice?”

To answer these big questions (I won’t really be answering them here) we need first to identify some of the defining characteristics of the “more traditional approaches” taken in our discipline, literary studies.  To start with, I would say that some concept of “critical distance” in relation to what is being studied in literary studies (literary artifacts such as poems, plays, novels) is a key defining element of the “traditional approach” to literature authorized by our discipline.  It may be some variation of aesthetic criticism (which attempts to define, critically, the formal and affective elements of a work of literature), or historical criticism (which attempts to locate the literary work in a material or discursive context in order to better explain its historical meaning), but in both instances the value of critical distance prevails.  (Amanda Anderson’s The Powers of Distance is one good attempt to explain how this position of critical detachment came to accrue value.)

So, one may ask, is there anything ludic about this value of critical distance?  Let’s go to one of the sources of this value for critical practice, Matthew Arnold.  Arguably, Arnold introduced the concept of critical distance in its original, Liberal Humanist form, with his concept of “disinterestedness”.  (David Bromwich’s chapter, “A Genealogy of Disinterestedness” in A Choice of Inheritance provides one account of this intersting story.)  In ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1865), Arnold asserts that criticism must discern a rule for its course in the future.  And then he goes on to discern it:

The rule may be summed up in one word,–disinterestedness. And how is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from practice; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches; by steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas … which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its business is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas. Its business is to do this with inflexible honesty, with due ability; but its business is to do no more, and to leave alone all questions of practical consequences and applications, questions which will never fail to have due prominence given to them.

We can note the seeming (yet anachronistic) timeliness of some of Arnold’s language—the focus on “play” as a key element of his definition of a disinterested mode of criticism, and his reference to “applications”, although here he’s not talking about apps, but the practical forces that he feels are antithetical to pure critical practice.  Whatever “ludic” aspects we might try to find in Arnold, it’s clear that his conception of “a free play of the mind”–derived from German romantic critical theorists like Friedrich Schiller who argued for a necessary balance between a clear (disinterested) view of the object under critique while, at the same time “giving free play to the imagination”–is motivated by the desire to achieve the fullest critical analysis possible.

The two main branches of digital work in the humanities have been those pertaining to “humanities computing” (tool building, text analysis and encoding, etc.), on the one hand, and “new media studies and design” (often pursued by theorist-practitioners interested in exploring the nature and implications of new media), on the other.  In a recent article on “The State of the Digital Humanities” Alan Liu frames his analysis of the value and potential of both branches just mentioned in terms of their relative degrees of critical awareness.  Observing, first that the expanding domain of digital humanities must “in some manner, for better or for worse, […] serve the postindustrial state,” Liu ultimately decides that “the digital humanities are not ready to take up their full responsibility [within the discipline] because the field does not yet possess an adequate critical awareness of the larger social, economic, and cultural issues at stake” (11). So, as far as “traditional approaches” in literary studies go, the idea of critical distance and critical awareness persists as a core value that are expected of contemporary and digital manifestations of humanities research.

What kind of contribution to knowledge does a digital game design project like The Victorianator represent, and what form of critical practice might it entail?  As I said, I will not even begin to attempt a full answer to such questions here.  I have already exceeded, by a mouthful, the length and parameters deemed appropriate for a blog post.  I’ll simply close with the basic observation that The Victorianator, as well as several other design-oriented ‘digital humanities’ projects I’ve been working on, have led me to think in new ways about problems of “knowledge representation” (a term I first thought about when it was discussed in a paper delivered by Ruth Knechtel at the VSAWC “Victorian Media” conference in 2012).  So, among other contributions that such projects make, design-oriented digital humanities projects are potentially valuable, to quote from Julia Flanders, as a practice based mode of critical “inquiry into how we know things and how we present them to ourselves for study, realized through a variety of tools which make the consequences of that inquiry palpable” (10).  In the process of thinking about how print and paper, voice and body may have informed the Victorians’ experience of poetry, it only makes sense that we work, feel and think our way through the media we presently use to interface with them.

Some Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew.  “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.”  1865.

Bernstein, Charles.  “Introduction.”  Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.  3-26.

Bogost, Ian and Nick Montfort, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System MIT, 2009.

Flanders, Julia.  “The Productive Unease of 21st-Century Digital Scholarship,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3 (2009).

Knechtel, Ruth.  “Victoria 3.0? The Uneasy Evolutions of Victorian Scholarship and The New Woman Online.”  Paper delivered at the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada “Victorian Media” Conference.  27 April 2012.

Liu, Alan.  “The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique.”  Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 11 (2012): 8-41.

McCorkle, Ben.  Harbingers of the Printed Page: Nineteenth-Century Theories of Delivery as Remediation.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 34 (2005): 25-49.

Nevins, Jess.  “The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk.”  In Steampunk.  Ed. Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.  Tachyon, 2008.  2-12.

O’Malley, Michael.   “‘History-ness’ and Video Games.”

Parker, Jan.  “Digital Humanities, Digital Futures.”  Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 11 (2012): 3-7.

Rice, John.   An Introduction to the Art of Reading (1765), cited in Jacqueline George, “Public Reading and Lyric Pleasure: Eighteenth Century Elocutionary Debates and Poetic Practices.”  ELH 76 (2009) 371-397.

Schiller, Freidrich. “On the Necessary Limitations in the Use of Beauty of Form.” 

Visell, Y.  and J. R. Cooperstock, “Enabling Gestural Interaction by Means of Tracking Dynamical Systems Models and Assistive Feedback [PDF].” Proceedings of the IEEE Intl. Conf. on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics (IEEE SMC’07), 2007.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies.  Cambridge, Massachussetts: MIT, 2009.


Some of the Elocution Book titles that influenced the art and text of The Victorianator directly include:

Practical Handbook to the Elocutionary Art, Comprising Also Selections in Prose and Verse Adapted for Recitation, Reading, and Dramatic Recital. With upwards of a hundred illustrations by Dargavel and Ramsey. ed. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1904.

Weaver, J. A System of Elocution and Rhetorical Gesture. Philadelphia: Barrett and Jones, 1846.

Bronson, C. P.   Elocution; or, Mental and Vocal Philosophy: Involving the Principles of Reading and Speaking; and Designed for the Development and Cultivation of Both Body and Mind … Illustrated by Two or Three Hundred Choice Anecdotes; Three Thousand Oratorical and Poetical Readings; Five Thousand Proverbs, Maxims and Laconics, and Several Hundred Elegant Engravings. 43d thousand, rev. and cor., with large additions … ed. Louisville: Ky. Morton & Griswold Boston O. Clapp, 1845.

Caldwell, Merritt. A Practical Manual of Elocution; Embracing Voice and Gesture. Portland: Sanborn and Carter, 1852.

2 Responses to The Victorianator, an iPhone Game: Thoughts on Design-Oriented Digital Humanities

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