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Authorship and Autership

The talk I gave at the Electronic Literature Organisation in 2013.

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Authorship and Autership

  1. 1. Authorship and Autership John Townsend, University of Sydney Michael Heron, Canterbury Christ Church University
  2. 2. Introduction  The construction of literature in any form has several components that influence construction.  Some of these are based on format.  Some of these are thematic  Some are stylistic.  Today I want to talk about the collaborative construction of real time multiplayer text games.  The issues are not unique to these kind of games, but most neatly encapsulated within them.
  3. 3. Text Games  For the purposes of this talk, I will define text games as those works of electronic literature that are:  Primarily driven by textual output  Primary driven by textual input  Ergodic, requiring some degree of effortful navigation.  Cybertextual, with output algorithmically dependent on input.
  4. 4. Examples of Text Games  Early text adventures, such as those of Level 9 and Infocom.   Mafia Wars   Fallen London   Urban Dead 
  5. 5. MUD Output
  6. 6. MUDs  The heyday of the Multiuser Dungeon (MUD) was in the early 90s.  Before the graphical MMOs that eventually killed then off.  There remains however an active community of developers and players.  Die-hards (like me)  Indie developers looking for low-cost game platforms  Text aficionados  Those for whom graphical games are inappropriate
  7. 7. Characteristics of a MUD  MUDs differ from ‘conventional’ text-games in a number of ways.  Expectation of persistence  Many MUDs around now have been in constant operation for 20 years.  Expectation of discontinuity  Very few MUDs around now have the same developer team they did at their inception.  An expectation of novelty.  A persistent game must continually introduce new content to keep players interested.  24 hour availability  ‘Production’ MUDs are available at all times of the day, which creates issues of co-ordination as well as the emergence of multiple social cohorts.
  8. 8. Characteristics of a MUD  Similarly, there are certain aspects that derive from being persistent multiplayer.  Players have a sense of ownership over the work.  They have, in many cases, invested more time than many developers into exploring and interpreting the content.  MUDs are in many senses a ‘social text’  Formed from attaining the necessary ‘critical mass’ to persist.  MUDs are as much community as they are ‘interactive works’.  And a community can cohere against changes that it sees to be corrosive to the status quo.
  9. 9. Characteristics of a MUD  Save for a handful of rare cases, MUDs are free to play.  This has consequences too when it comes to recruitment and promotion of developers.  The longevity of a MUD all but guarantees a high attrition rate.  Developers and players  The need for constant expansion requires an active, ongoing developer presence.  MUDs are never ‘finished’ as long as people are playing.
  10. 10. Collaboration  Muds therefore tend to have many ‘creators’  Many at a time  In overlapping periods  Without financial remuneration  This impacts heavily on concepts of ‘authorship’, ‘ownership’ and the ability to direct a game’s creative direction.  This makes it difficult to build ‘authorial intention’ into the analysis of a work.
  11. 11. Issues of Intention  It is all but impossible in such environments to ascertain ‘authorship’, which in itself is broken up into multiple spheres.  Code ownership  Literary expression  Artistic direction  Each of these carries with it a different expectation of what constitutes ‘authorship’ as well as the common conventions of collaboration.  As well as the extent to which ‘authorship’ can be exercised within the game.
  12. 12. Collaboration and Code  MUDs are code artifacts as well as (ideally) literary works.  The culture of ‘code ownership’ in most healthy dynamics stresses ‘expertise’ over permission.  Although this in turn is usually tiered by how ‘critical’ the code is.  Good projects try to aim for a high ‘bus factor’.  However, the code infrastructure exists largely independently of the narrative structure of a game.
  13. 13. Collaboration and Code  The code in properly engineered games of this nature serves as the library upon which the game itself is built.  The same code should allow for radically different games with radically different themes.  However, this is rarely a design goal that is attained completely.  And so the mechanics of the game will serve to restrict and direct the creativity of individuals working within it.
  14. 14. Collaboration and Code  Code is malleable, and so limitations may not persist over the long term.  And this can create inconsistencies in terms of code and artistic directions.  The decisions made by game developers long gone are not binding on those who still remain.  Too much freedom to relax limitations can result in these inconsistencies developing into harmful ‘turf wars’  MUDs then, due to their long-term persistence, introduce the complexity of curation into an already complicated ecosystem.
  15. 15. Collaboration and Code  Commercial MMOs have many of the features of text-based MUDs, but most usually have one key differentiator:  A paid staff of developers.  MUD developers receive their reward in intrinsic benefits.  Like contributors to open source software.  This requires again a freeing up of creative opportunities for developers.  They’re not likely to be willing to implement a design spec without having the freedom to alter it.
  16. 16. Collaboration and Players  Players too, by virtue of their time invested, often demand a certain amount of control over the direction of the game.  Pay heed to the ‘tribal elders’ in a community.  The long term success of a MUD is driven by a healthy and growing playerbase.  The community plays an incredibly strong role in this.  Additionally, players are likely better placed to analyse the game than developers.  Having interpreted it as its ‘game form’ for longer.
  17. 17. MUDs  It is possible to refer to an edition of a book, a platform of a game, or a print of a movie as a ‘definitive work’  The dynamic evolution of a MUD though frustrates any attempt to properly cite it as a fixed representation.  It is difficult to point to the ‘author’ of a MUD.  Because such a thing may not exist in any real form.  It is difficult to point to a fixed representation or ‘edition’ of a MUD.  It likely changes on a daily basis, and as a result of playing experience and styles.
  18. 18. Conclusion  Ascertaining authorship is important in many types of critical analysis.  Author intention  Foucault’s impact of interpretation  A MUD is rarely driven by a single auteur, at least not for its entirely lifetime.  Auteur theory thus provides a framework for approaching these works, but within tight limits.