The story so far... The researcher as a player in game analysis


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This article outlines some preliminary research into the learning discourses of computer and video games, as expressed through the printed materials that accompany games, and the instructional elements built into game narratives. This leads to discussion of an interesting methodological dilemma - how does the interpretative ethnographic researcher analyse this content when he or she becomes part of the playing process? How do you analyse the learning mechanisms of games when you are being reflexively engaged in the training materials and systems mapped into the text by the games designers? This article examines this “crisis of representation” in interpretive ethnographic research approaches to games research.

This is a draft preprint copy of the article that appeared as:
Cameron, D., & Carroll, J. (2004). The story so far... The researcher as a player in games analysis. Media International Australia, 110, 62-72.

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The story so far... The researcher as a player in game analysis

  1. 1. Cameron, D., & Carroll, J. (2004). The story so far... The researcher as a player in games analysis. Media International Australia, 110, 62-72.DRAFT version. This is a preprint copy.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------“The story so far …”: the researcher as a player in game analysisDavid Cameron, John CarrollCharles Sturt UniversityAbstractThis article outlines some preliminary research into the learning discourses ofcomputer and video games, as expressed through the printed materials thataccompany games, and the instructional elements built into game narratives.This leads to discussion of an interesting methodological dilemma - how doesthe interpretative ethnographic researcher analyse this content when he or shebecomes part of the playing process? How do you analyse the learningmechanisms of games when you are being reflexively engaged in the trainingmaterials and systems mapped into the text by the games designers? Thisarticle examines this “crisis of representation” in interpretive ethnographicresearch approaches to games research.IntroductionTo borrow a sporting truism, this is a paper of two halves. Our initial projectwas to examine the nature of learning discourses evident in computer andvideo games, and we start by discussing our preliminary observations in thisarea. As we progressed in that work we became aware of a fundamentalmethodological issue – how best to analyse the content of computer and videogames when we were part of the playing process? This apparent dilemma in 1
  2. 2. the interpretive ethnographic research approach to games forms the secondhalf of this article.Challenge versus failureThe ability of computer and video games to capture and maintain playerinterest - their special ‘holding power or addictive quality’ (Haddon 1999:319) - seems to stem from a mix of challenge and ability that can easily tiptowards boredom and dissatisfaction if the game becomes too hard. Somepsychologists refer to “optimal experience”, or more commonly “flow”, asthat moment when skill levels allow players to engage with a challengewithout feeling too anxious about failure, or too bored with success(Csikszentmihalyi 1990).Clearly an entertainment product like a computer or video game that gets thebalance wrong, that frustrates and challenges too much or too early, runs therisk of putting players off. In a multi-billion dollar industry that relies heavilyon word-of-mouth to generate sales this could be a disaster. The designers ofcomputer and video games are therefore faced with a fundamental problem:‘if no one can learn their games, no one will buy them’ (Gee 2003: 114). As aresult these products incorporate a range of teaching and informationstrategies to ensure new players can quickly engage with the game content.These can include:  printed documentation;  in-game help screens;  tutorial modes of play separate to the game itself;  episodic gameplay with simplified or instructive early stages; and  game characters that coach (or inveigle) the player. 2
  3. 3. In addition, sources of information external to the game package itself may beavailable such as telephone support lines, printed or online player guides,cheat lists and walkthroughs. In many cases this supplementary help materialis produced or collated by players rather than publishers, and is thendistributed via fan networks, specialist magazines, or online games forumsand Websites.Going (digital) nativeKatz argues that new forms of popular culture, mostly involving computers,have developed so quickly that there has evolved ‘perhaps the widest gap -informational, cultural and factual - between the young and the old in humanhistory’ (Katz 2000). Evidence of these changes surfaces in the literature as anexpression of frustration from educators about how students use technology.Laird (2003: 42) describes how her online students prefer to randomly accesscourse components rather than follow a sequential order, expect fastinformation delivery, and demand immediate feedback - all characteristics ofthe cognitive changes evident in the “games generation” (Prensky 2001).Prensky (2002) also talks of a chasm between a younger generation of “digitalnatives” who have not known a world without computer games, and an oldergeneration of “digital immigrants” forced to adapt to rapid changes in digitaltechnology. This raises a fundamental problem for would-be gamesresearchers - are you a digital native or a digital immigrant? Prensky (2002)carries the metaphor further to suggest that many educators (and byimplication, researchers) are digital immigrants who speak with an “accent”that some natives find difficult to understand. Examples of this accent includenot using the Internet at all, or printing out emails before reading them.Prensky claims that this generational chasm manifests itself in education viaten basic cognitive changes as illustrated in Table 1. 3
  4. 4. Table 1: Ten learning preferences of Prensky’s “Digital Natives” (fromCameron 2003). Digital natives Traditional Learning implications: prefer: training provides:1 “Twitch” speed Conventional Students desire faster speed interaction with information (game speed).2 Parallel processing Linear processing Students desire multitasking, processing multiple data simultaneously.3 Graphics first Text first Students desire graphic information with a text backup.4 Random access Step-by-step Students prefer hyperlinking through materials, rather than reading from beginning to end.5 Connectivity Stand alone Students prefer networking, and high level of electronic communication.6 Activity Passivity Less tolerance for passive instructional situations - learn by doing.7 Play Work Students see computers as toys as well as tools; prefer to learn in a fun environment.8 Payoff Patience Expect immediate and clear feedback or reward in return for efforts.9 Fantasy Reality Fantasy and play elements are an accepted part of “serious” work, e.g. informal work settings.1 Technology-as- Technology-as-foe See technology as0 friend empowering and necessary.This summary of the generational differences between the teaching andlearning generations is supported by Fromme (2001: 2), who also argues that‘parents and teachers tend to address the media cultures of the younger fromtheir own generational perspective’ while ignoring the digital media literacyof children and young adults. Table 1 also clearly illustrates potential pitfalls 4
  5. 5. for games researchers who do not account for generational differences inchanging media cultures.From manuals to mangaTraditionally, most computer and video game products are shipped with anexternal player guide or manual. These can range in complexity from a briefprinted insert designed to slip into a CD-ROM jewel case, to an expandedversion with gameplay tips and background narrative, perhaps reaching thelevel of a substantial book with dozens of pages explaining complex controlsand screen features (Hendrick, 1999). Some budget-conscious titles dispensewith printed material completely, but provide an electronic version of thedocument that can be viewed or printed by the user.Possibly like most software support products, these instruction manuals ‘arefrequently given short shrift by just about everybody associated withcomputer games’ (Crawford, 1982). Hendrick (1999) suggests that manualswritten too early or too late in the production process, or produced byinexperienced writers, result in texts that are ‘frequently reviled asoverblown, badly worded, uninformative dross that provide little or no help.’However part of the reason instruction manuals may be ignored until aproblem arises is that ‘they do not make a lot of sense unless one has alreadyexperienced and lived in the game world for a while’ (Gee 102: 102).Experienced players may be able to recognise or make educated guessesabout controls and goals, particularly if the game falls into a familiar genre. Inthis way many players prefer to start playing after only a cursory glance at theinstructions, and then return to a manual or help system only when theybecome stuck, frustrated or want to see if they’ve missed any game features.The tendency for people to jump into new software before reading theinstructions is reflected in a common acronym found in responses to new 5
  6. 6. users’ questions posted to online message boards and forums - “RTFM”(“Read The Fucking Manual”).Printed materials that accompany games can stretch beyond technicalinstructions to be narrative texts in their own right. Hendrick (1999) notes thatthis can simply be the result of a lazy writer opting to produce ‘bad fiction’instead of a useful manual.Yet most games have a suggested narrative frame: ‘a story on the package, inthe manual, or somewhere else, placing the game in a larger story’ (Juul 1999:40).Some of these texts are an interesting narrative supplement to the games theysupport, moving beyond a simple “the story so far” account of narrativebackground.The PlayStation 2 version of Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty forexample eschews the model of a training manual, and explicitly adopts thetitle of “Training Manga”. Game controls and tactics are described in theJapanese manga comic-book form. Interestingly although generally thought ofby Western observers as entertainment, nearly one in every three bookspublished in Japan is a manga and can cover a broad spectrum includingtechnical manuals and educational content (Sales 2003). Nevertheless, theimages within the “Training Manga” produce an emotional orientation to thegame and its stealth strategy rather than providing explicit instructions.Clearly, a games researcher must decide whether to consider theaccompanying instructions as part of the game being studied. Our interest inthe instructional elements of games suggested that the manuals should bepart of the research subject, but should we read them before, during, or aftertackling the software itself? How would this impact on our understanding ofthe game? 6
  7. 7. For example, one of the authors starting playing Rockstar Games’ Grand TheftAuto: Vice City without reference to the paper manual. Although familiar withthe game milieu (organised crime in a Miami-like city) from reviews, word-of-mouth and the opening credits of the game itself, he had not seen or playedthe game before.He was able to determine by trial and error the basic mechanics of moving hischaracter around and interacting with the game world (primarily fighting anddriving skills). Within a few minutes he was armed with a handgun and onthe prowl, as illustrated in Figure 1. Soon he was involved in street fights,shootouts with criminal gangs and police, car theft, and even a joyflight in astolen helicopter.Figure 1: Loud guns, and even louder shirts, are basic tools of the trade inGrand Theft Auto - Vice City (source: 7
  8. 8. He spent the best part of two hours enjoying a chaotic rampage through Vice City before even realising there were specific goals and missions built into the game. At that point the manual, framed as a tourist pamphlet and blending game instructions with “facts” about the world within the game, became required reading.Learn to play / play to learnLearning strategies are often an implicit part of the game narrative. Non-player characters may be positioned as coaches. There may be a “boot camp”or training scenario separate to the game, or early levels of a game can bedesigned to introduce players to basic skills and functions within the gamerealm. For example, the authors starting playing Capcom’s Resident Evil -Code: Veronica X without recourse to the manual. After a lengthy cinematicintroductory sequence the player character, named Claire Redfield, regainedconsciousness in a darkened cellblock. The following text appeared on thescreen:“If I were equipped with a lighter, I could see outside…”Taking that internal monologue as a clue to our next step, an experimentalpress of control buttons soon brought up a control screen that indicated thatClaire was in possession of a lighter, and this was quickly brought into use.The control screen also included a rudimentary help system to describe basicfunctions, a map to show the location of key game features as we progressed,and tactics for solving puzzles in the games. The internal monologue cuesystem appeared again as we progressed into the next room of the game mazeand discovered a manual typewriter:“An old typewriter. I could save my progress if I had an ink ribbon.” 8
  9. 9. Thus we were introduced to the game’s mechanism for saving progress at keycheckpoints in the game maze. The language of the monologue also illustratesthe curious blend between story and game mechanics that occurs wheninstructive elements are introduced into a narrative. Not only is the Clairecharacter describing her surroundings (“an old typewriter”), but also she isexplicitly aware of progressing through a game maze (“I could save myprogress”).Clearly there is learning happening here, but just what is being learnt is theissue if players are ignoring the manuals designed to introduce them to thegame. Obviously there is learning based on the computer game concept ofmastery of the interface, such as the onscreen help and the internalmonologue clues in Resident Evil. But by initially ignoring the manuals mostplayers appear to have a learning experience that closely mirrors the processof experiential learning that occurs in role based process drama (Carroll &Cameron 2003). Of particular interest is how the learning concepts drawnfrom process drama such as understanding role distance and dramaticprotection (Carroll 1986) apply to games learning.For example, while under the control of novice researchers/players the maincharacter in Resident Evil was continually being killed before they worked outhow to defend against the zombie attackers; yet their avatar Claire Redfieldexisted in a penalty-free learning zone with nothing to lose. This allows theplayers to indulge in high-risk behaviour while at the same time beingprotected by their role distance from deep identification with the character sothat her potential danger becomes a learning experience. Describing herexperience playing the same game, Tosca notes: ‘actual gameplay is full of trial and error actions, specially at the beginning of the game when we are not familiar with the interface or the story’ (Tosca 2003: 202). 9
  10. 10. Drawing on Goffman’s (1974) explication of Frame Analysis - this concept ofthe dramatic frame, where the player is operating “as if” the situation is real -there are a range of conventions that can be engaged that vary the levels ofprotection required within the game. In the initial stages of playing ResidentEvil the role distance for the player is a long way from being an involvedparticipant in the event. It is distanced from identification with the centralcharacter, and instead becomes the observer/learner who needs to know howto navigate within the new environment. The one obvious way to discoverthe resources of the environment is to push the limits. Within Resident Evil thismay frequently involve unpleasant deaths for Claire, the characterrepresentation of the player. The authors were quite willing to repeatedlysend Claire, shown in Figure 2, into flaming wreckage or zombie-infestedcorridors to discover how to find useful objects and overcome obstacles.Figure 2: Claire Redfield met repeated horrible deaths in Resident Evil -Code: Veronica X, until the authors discovered she had firepower at herfingertips (source: learning terms, Eskelinen (2001) makes a critical distinction between thissort of risk-based learning and that of engaging in traditional text basedlearning. He makes the point that the dominant mode of learning in literature, 10
  11. 11. mainstream theatre, and film is interpretative, while in games and processdrama it is configurative. He says: ‘…. in art we might have to configure in order to able to interpret whereas in games we have to interpret in order to configure, and proceed from the beginning to the winning of some other situation’ (Eskelinen 2001: 2).This type of learning is directly applicable to the ergodic learning pathworkthat Aarseth describes in Cybertext (1997). During the process of playingResident Evil the researchers/players were engaged in the construction of anindividual and unique screen-based semiotic structure. This consisted of aselective configuration of the game elements and their own player choices.The wide ranging variable expression of meaning built into a non-linear gametext should not be confused with the semantic ambiguity of a linear printbased text. The game world of Resident Evil is constructed through anindividual player’s work and hence is an ergodic text as Aarseth defines it.The playing of Resident Evil demanded strategy and experiential repetitionthat was based on the frustration of a difficult interface and a deliberatelyconfusing scenario. This led to extreme levels of high-risk experientiallearning that exploited the “no penalty” learning zone that death and rebirthof player characters can provide. Of course, applications of this successfullearning strategy outside the dramatic frame can have far more seriousconsequences. There is no penalty free zone in real life social interaction, andthe results are often worse than a bite on the neck from a zombie (althoughsometimes that’s what it feels like).A performance narrative approach to games researchOur research approach was based on playing games in order to observe thelearning mechanisms and discourses in these texts. A fundamental problem is 11
  12. 12. apparent when the researcher becomes a participant in the process beingobserved. The indeterminancy that Heisenberg so clearly articulated inrelation to quantum physics (see for example also applies to the worldof games research.Norman Denzin asserts that researchers in the human disciplines face a crisisin both representation and legitimation when it comes to qualitative studies(1997a: 350). The crisis of representation reflects the inherentmisrepresentation of experience that can occur when a lived experience (e.g.learning to play a video game) is interpreted through research. Researchersthat stand outside the process itself will have vastly inferior understanding ofthe research material, compared to the learner/player. This is the digitalnative/digital immigrant gap described earlier. One obvious way to deal withthis is to place the researcher within the learning environment and creativelyinterpret this experience as a performance narrative, while interpretingobservation and interview data as a performance text.For our initial examination of game learning mechanisms we adopted aprocess of recording both the onscreen gameplay and the researcher/playermotivations and observations in real-time. This was afforded by the simplestep of connecting the games console hardware to a video tape recorder torecord the screen action, while an audio tape recorder recorded a spokencommentary. While one researcher played the game, the other was able toprompt observations by asking questions about the motivation behind playeractions. The observations, assumptions, strategies, and experiences of bothresearchers were recorded as a direct stream of consciousness response to thegame. In this manner the authors were creating a performance narrative (thegameplay) while generating an audiovisual record that could later beinterrogated as a performance text itself (a commentary on the gameplay). 12
  13. 13. Within video game research based on the performance text model, two formsof textual product can be distinguished. One is the complex interpretiveproduct or the original text produced by the player as they learn to play thegame and attempt to articulate a set of understandings about a particularcultural product and social process. This text then becomes the site for newinterpretive work by the researcher. The second form is the researchers’ text,(also a critical/interpretive text) which now inserts itself inside the originalprocess, offering new interpretations and readings of what has beenpresented. When playing Resident Evil as a specific textual video gameexperience this produces a multileveled, multi-method approach tointerpretation. The favouring of such an interpretive ethnographic writingstyle requires that the project simultaneously question/establish thecredibility of its use of facts and fictions in the story that is both told andplayed/performed (Denzin 1997a).The audiovisual text generated during our first encounter with Resident Evildemonstrated the multi-level data generated when considering a new gametext. The video of the gameplay shows in real-time how awkward thegameplay was at first, as the player continually struggled to find the rightbutton to complete actions. This problem decreases as the controls are learnt,but then the viewer is struck by the amount of backtracking and aimlesswandering as the researcher/player discovered how to progress through thegame maze by trial and error. If playing the game was at times frustrating andawkward, watching the video reveals a deeper tedium and a tendency torepeat actions that have already proven fruitless or fatal. On the other hand,the video recording of a first attempt at Grand Theft Auto - Vice City illustratesthe speed with which game controls were learnt, and the freedom affordedthe researcher/player to explore the game world. This video reveals thecinematic quality of the gameplay, and is at times more like watching anaction TV show than a game. 13
  14. 14. The audio commentary adds several layers to the research narrative.Comments recorded include observations on the design aesthetics, the genre,the difficulty of gameplay, and the motivations for player actions. Thenarrative position constantly toggles between observing researcher andparticipatory game player, providing different levels of understanding to beteased out by later reflection. Watching the gameplay video while listening tothe audio narrative (like listening to a director’s commentary on a DVDmovie) provides yet another level of critical interpretation of the experience.Reading the social sciences dramaturgically (Denzin 2001; Carlson 2001)involves understanding that playing video games exist as a continuum ofperformances modes that exhibit constantly shifting dramatic role positionsbetween being a participant through to spectator. Fieldwork can then be seenas a collaborative undertaking that revolves around the meanings brought tothe videotext, performers and performances (Silko 1981). By moving back andforth through a narrative collage of gaming experience an unstablerelationship is generated between the investigator, cultural text, ethnographictext and electronic and archival representations. Rather than turning a storytold into a story analysed (using traditional functionalist narrative methods)the goal becomes hearing and reading the gameplay as it happens (Trinh1989; 1991 p.143).If video games are performed as ergodic texts then according to Denzin (2001)this calls for new forms of qualitative research that embrace the performanceinterview, performative writing and ethnodrama. Building on the concepts ofthe cinematic society (Denzin 1995), where accounts of lived experience arebased on cinematic/televisual/ethnographic representations and an interviewsociety (Denzin 2001) of spectacle and professional confession, Denzin (2001)re-theorises a cinematic-interview game society where lived experience isturned into narrative. Video game narrative is also part of this livedexperience; the personal becomes public, and experience is made a 14
  15. 15. consumable commodity that can be bought and sold in the media andacademic marketplace. (Carroll 2002)The idea of the reflexive interview in video game research also requires a shiftfrom a functionalist theoretical perspective to ethnoperformance. For Denzinthe interview is not a mirror of the external world or a window into the innerlife of the gamer, but it functions as a narrative device that allows theresearchers to tell stories about themselves. Reflexive interview texts aboutvideo games selectively reconstruct that world by telling and performing astory according to their own version of narrative logic (Denzin 2001: 26; Trinh1989; 1992) built into the ergodic game structure. In these ways both visualand narrative collage and montage allow the writer/interviewer/performerto create a meaningful examination of the text.By going digital native, the reflexive interviews on learning to play videogames reflect the postmodern and post-experimental moments of qualitativeresearch (Denzin & Lincoln 2000). Writing up interviews as game descriptionsallows for pauses, repetitions, narrative strategies and the rhythms of twitchand run. By moving between the game role positions of participant andspectator the players and their projects are located within a newly developingdigital culture (as a set of interpretive practices) as performers within it.An equally important consideration, and one that follows the crisis ofrepresentation, is one of legitimacy. Denzin (1997b) argues that the validity ofa research project does not rely on a set of external rules and proceduresimposed from the world beyond the research subject, but rather that the textbeing studied can assert its own authority over the reader. Thus, use of thetraining manuals themselves and the initial experience of playing the gamewill shape any study of the learning discourses of video games. 15
  16. 16. In reading contemporary game texts in this way the new ethnographyradically subverts the functionalist agenda, because the real world is nolonger the referent for analysis. Gaming is simultaneously an ergodic text andan interpretative process (Strine et al 1990: 184) The original textual product,the unique gameplay becomes the site for new interpretative work, and theresearcher as gamer is now inserted into the ergodic nature of the text andbecomes part of it. Objectivity is never an option; you kill the zombies becauseyou must - the world is just structured that way.ReferencesAarseth, EJ, 1997, Cybertext, Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.Cameron, D, 2003, Giving games a day job: Developing a digital game-based journalism training resource, MA (Hons) thesis, University of Wollongong.Carlson, M, 2001, Performance: A critical introduction, Routledge, New York.Carroll, J & Cameron, D, 2003, ‘To the Spice Islands’: Interactive process drama, Proceedings of the 5th International Digital Arts and Culture conference, Melbourne, 2003, <>.Carroll, J, 1986, Framing drama: some classroom strategies, National Association for Drama in Education Journal, Vol.12. No. 2.Carroll, J, 2002, The theatre of surveillance: Invisible theatre for invisible audiences, in (eds) B Rasmussen and A-L Ostern, Playing Betwixt and Between: The IDEA Dialogue 2001IDEA, Bergen, Norway.Crawford, C, 1982, The art of computer game design, electronic version, Washington State University, available online, < book/Coverpage.html>.Csikszentmihalyi, M, 1990, Flow: The psychology of the optimal experience, Harper, NY.Denzin, NK, 1995, The cinematic society: The voyeur’s gaze, Sage, London. 16
  17. 17. Denzin, NK, 1997a, Performance texts, in (eds) WG Tierney & YS Lincoln, Representation and the text: reframing the narrative voice, SUNY Press, NY.Denzin, NK, 1997b, Interpretive ethnography: Ethnographic practices for the 21st century, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.Denzin, NK, & Lincoln, Y.S 2000, The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research, in (eds) NK Denzin & YS Lincoln, Handbook of Qualitative Research, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.Denzin, NK, 2001, The reflexive interview and a performative social science, Qualitative Research, Vol 1 (1), 23-46.Denzin, NK & Lincoln, YS (eds), 2002, The qualitative inquiry reader, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.Eskelinen, M, 2001, The Gaming situation, The International Journal of Computer Games Research, vol.1 No.1, July 2001Fromme, J, 2001, Computer games as a part of childrens culture, viewed July 2003, <>.Gee, JP, 2003, What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy, Palgrave, New York, NY.Goffman, E, 1974, Frame Analysis, Peregrine, Norwich.Haddon, L, 1999, The development of interactive games, in (eds) H Mackay & T OSullivan, The media reader: continuity and transformation, Sage, London.Hendrick, A, 1999, Manuals: They can be good, viewed 26 June 2003,>.Juul, J, 1999, A clash between game and narrative, MA thesis, University of Copenhagen, available online, <>.Katz, J, 2000, Up, up, down, down, viewed September 26, <>.Laird, E, 2003, “I’m your teacher, not your Internet service provider”, The Education Digest, 68 (1), pp. 41 – 44.Prensky, M, 2001, Digital game-based learning, McGraw-Hill, New York. 17
  18. 18. Prensky, M, 2002, Designing e-learning for the digital generation. Paper delivered online at NET*Working 2002 conference, <>.Sales, V, 2003, Web Watch: Manga, 21 January 2003, < layout=article&articleid=CA270603&publication=libraryjournal>.Silko, L.M, (1981), Storyteller, Seaver, New York.Strine, M.S, Long, B & Hopkins, M.F, 1990, Research in interpretation and performance studies, in (eds) GM Phillips & JT Woods, Speech communication: Essays to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Speech Communication Association, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.Tosca, S.P, 2003, Reading Resident Evil – Code: Veronica X, Proceedings of the 5th International Digital Arts and Culture conference, Melbourne, 2003, <>.Trinh, T. M-ha, 1989, Woman, native, other: Writing postcoloniality and feminism, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.Trinh, T. M-ha, 1991, When the moon waxes red: Representation, gender and cultural politics, Routledge, New York.Trinh, T. M-ha, 1992, Framer framed, Routledge, New York. 18