Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: Chapters 3 & 4

In presenting the complex discourse, terminology, and debates surrounding the issue of text, Matthew Kirschenbaum’s purpose of writing this monograph is didactic in that he hopes to add “to the repertoire of activities we are able to perform as scholars of electronic literature and digital culture” (115).

Chapter 3 is a case study about the game Mystery House, its disk image and its entirety of digital information. Mystery House, created in 1980, is a computer game in which the player is locked inside an old mansion with the goal of finding a supply of jewels. However, as the game progresses, bodies of other people inside the mansion start appearing and foul play is at hand. It is up to the player to figure out who the killer is before the player is killed himself.

As Kirschenbaum notes, the space of the disk is finite and capable of holding only a certain amount of textual information. Within this world of text, Mystery House features a multi-layered environment for its players that help to engineer the codes that drive the game itself. This balance and interplay of textual forensics at work is one of the focal points of Kirschenbaum’s arguments. For example, when the player is inside the mansion gathering clues and notes about the committed murders, the game’s instructions point out: “a note of caution: carrying more than one note may be confusing as the computer will arbitrarily decide which one to read or drop” (131). As Kirschenbaum points out, this interaction created through the programming of the notes’ behaviors is a basic component of all digital media (132).

The illusionary world created by the computer itself in this game is also Kirschenbaum’s focus. He calls this “formal materiality.” Through this process, computers generate many signals that get processed in the span of a few mere milliseconds before viewers can detect glitches, errors, or misunderstandings in both the computer’s and game’s functions. Through formal materiality, computers give viewers the illusion of perfection when in fact there are many digital misunderstandings occurring within the computer itself. The first example of this illusory view took place in the late 1930s when German citizen Alan Turing created the world’s first computer. Kirschenbaum differentiates between the formal materiality of digital media from the forensic when he claims that computers and their processes can be proven to be identical while forensically they are more individualistic (157).

Chapter 4 deals with Kirschenbaum’s case study of Michael Joyce’s work of hypertext fiction entitled Afternoon.  According the to Wikipedia website, Afternoon tells the story of Peter, a recently divorced man who witnessed a car crash that may or may not have involved his ex-wife and their son.[1]

Through studying the digital aspects of this electronic text, Kirschenbaum reveals how Joyce’s allows him to analyze the “material negotiations” that comprise the text of Afternoon. Kirschenbaum points out that Joyce’s Afternoon walks a fine line by depending on the reader’s active engagement yet Joyce controls the engagement in that a vast array of choices, deceptions, and vagaries envelop the reader (165).

Kirschenbaum goes into detail about the hypertext writing environment of Storyspace. This complex atmosphere emerged from “computer fiction, artificial intelligence and story generators, word processing, desktop publishing, hypertext systems research, and interactive videodisc technology” (177). Because it leaves behind such a trail of evidence, Kirschenbaum argues that Storyspace is highly accessible for further study.

Kirschenbaum does a fine job in describing the digital nuances, methods, features of both Mystery House and Afternoon in chapters 3 and 4. What would have been more preferable would for Kirschenbaum to give an overview of both games and texts and to describe how the electronic nuances, functioning internally during these games and texts, would impact the viewer or readers from the outside. In other words, I found Kirschenbaum’s chapters too internally focused and without implications for how these internal digital functions affect players of these games. More examples from these games from a player’s perspective would have been a welcome addition.


[1] Wikipedia.com

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