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Cybertext – A New Way to Look At Texts in the Digital Age

I am very interested in deconstructing texts of various kinds, though I have no formal training in doing this sort of work. This is somewhat problematic for me since my MA thesis will entail deconstructing a text, the Beatles Rock Band videogame. To prepare myself for this exciting but challenging task, I am looking to scholarship that places both static and digital texts together a clearly defined spectrum of human expression. By this, I mean that I am interested in looking at digital artifacts in a way similar to how scholars have been evaluating static ones.  I am taking this approach so that I can imbue my work with a “scholarly heft” that may not at first be possible for the analysis of a text that is not “readerly” in the traditional sense. I don’t think my thesis will make a connection between playing the game and reading; however, I will be making a connection between writing and making the game. To this end, Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perpectives on Ergodic Literature has been helpful.

Aarseth’s text opens with the familiar premise that digital technologies have provided writers, scholars, artists, and programmers with increasingly powerful and flexible content creation tools. This book was written in 1997, so it was a little edgier back then. Aarseth explains that his approach does not divide static and digital texts, as most scholarship to that point- and since- has done, but rather, to divide these texts between whether they are linear, or nonlinear. The term Aarseth uses is “ergodic,” which is derived from two Greek words that mean “work” and “path.” While it is natural here to think merely of newer, digital texts, such as websites, electronic literature, videogames, and the like as the only sorts of artifacts that are nonlinear, and require the reader to choose a “path” through which to “work” through the text, the author is quick to point out that a text’s digitality is not the feature that makes a text ergodic or not. Aarseth explains: “The concept of cybertext focuses on the mechanical organization of the text, by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange” (p.1). We are used to seeing “texts,” at least in the Print Age, as being largely uniform: printed on paper, and bound in a book, journal, or magazine. This explanation has a tinge of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” vibe to be sure, but Aarseth’s explanation is clearer than McLuhan’s 50-year-old aphorism. Aarseth continues, saying, “During the cubertextual process, the user will have effectual semiotic sequence, and this selective movement is a work of physical construction that the various concepts of ‘reading’ do not account for” (p.1). In other words, ergodic texts take the idea that readers need to be active to a whole new level.

Aarseth qualifies his statements by explaining that, “hypertexts, adventure games, and so forth are not texts the way the average literary work is a text” (p. 2-3).  Cybertexts are different from traditional literary texts because they require choices on the reader’s part. When she/he views a website, and clicks on something, she/he sees some some content of the site, but not all of it. The user must negotiate the interface to find what he or she is looking for. Users engage in a similar process for other types of digital media. I think looking at this difference, not from a reader’s perspective, but from a writer/designer’s perspective, makes cybertexts inherently different.

While there’s a lot more to Aarseth’s discussion, I can’t get into it all here. Perhaps I’ll revisit it later on, when I get a chance to finish his book.

Check out Nick Montfort’s The Purpling, which was published in the Iowa Review Web last year. It’s a very cool electronic poem, and good example of ergodic literature. I tried to put up a screen shot of it, but it’s not cooperating with my screenshot application.

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