Digital and Pre-Digital Archives in Societal Systems

It can be easy to look at archives as an unbiased, somehow pure repository of information, but, of course, that’s not actually possible. In order to have an archive, you need to have an archiver. No matter who the archiver is, they will always have personal biases, and no matter how consciously they remove those personal biases from the act of archiving, they will always have an impact on what does and does not get archived. Any level of consciousness of personal bias will leave some amount of unconscious bias. A good example for thinking about how bias affects archives is bias about gender. There is information about women that is now lost to us where we do have information about men because of the biases about gender of those who were responsible for making sure that information was preserved–whether or not that task was considered archiving at any given point.

Orlando plays an interesting role as an archive within this dynamic of bias driving archiving and the preservation of information. It is an archive devoted to restore and collect information against the trend of a particular bias that has existed. That is not to say, of course, that the people running Orlando do not have their own biases–how could they avoid that?–but it does a lot more to attempt to recover from the errors of other archives. This extends the meaning of the archive from a means of preservation to a means, also, of restoration or recovery. Orlando, by its very existence, challenges the traditional notion of archiving.

The fact that Orlando is a digital archive plays no insignificant role in how it expands the function of the archive. Part of the function of restoration is, here, duplication of information from other sources. As archives collect primary texts, only a single physical archive may contain the original primary text itself. While it is certainly possible for physical archives to contain copies of items, digitization streamlines that copying process. The step of printing is obviously skipped, but the method itself of accessing a digital archive is what streamlines the process most efficiently. Digital access effectively solves the problem of being able to only have a limited number of people view an archive item at one time.

Orlando’s particular topic of British women’s writing is of particular significance to how the archive functions within societal systems of privilege and marginalization, particularly due to what digitization provides. Where the biases of archivers traditionally served those societal systems, Orlando works against those power structures by compensating for that problem. Could we, perhaps, see digital archives work against other such power structures in society? Is there, perhaps, historical information about transgender people and nonbinary genders that could be recovered and collected? Gender essentialists problematically argue that nonbinary genders were invented only recently; however, genders such a two-spirit, and others tied to specific cultures, are known to have been recognized and expressed since long before Tumblr was even the seed of a concept. It would be fascinating and extremely significant for a hypothetical archive, like Orlando has done for British women writers, to recover and collect all the information it can about nonbinary people around the world in antiquity.


Non-Linearity in Interface

I find the most approachable way to think about interface theory with any substantiality to be by comparing computer interface to other pre-existing methods of presenting information. As Johanna Drucker points out in “Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory,” all such tools for presenting information, digital or otherwise, can be considered interfaces. Interface is a delivery method, carrying information to the reader’s brain, but it is also more than that in the way it shapes, and allows or asks us to shape, the pathways of information it presents.

Drucker compares digital interfaces to comics interfaces by way of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud lays out six types of transitions from frame to frame in terms of the shift in information; he proceeds to evaluate which are more and which are less common in his own medium, but Drucker finds the non-sequitur transition, the most rare in comics, to be all too common on the web. The key distinction between digital interface and comics interface is the non-linearity of the former, which naturally facilitates those non-sequitur transitions. A huge point of McCloud’s is that our brains will always find the meaning in any frame-to-frame transition, even in the non-sequitur, which plays a huge role in how we interact with the web.

The web, however, is not the only non-linear digital interface worth examining. In games, the dynamic of interface is highly similar to what we find on the web because of the non-linear presentation of information. But game interface tends to, depending on the game, differ in one fundamental way from how web interface works. Drucker characterizes the non-linearity of web interface by the lack of any central narrative for the viewer to follow. The tightness with which Drucker links non-linearity and lack of narrative, then, makes an even more interesting conversation out of games that do seek to convey narrative in a non-linear medium.

We may consider narrative to be linear by nature, as Drucker certainly does. This leads to many narrative games being highly linear, which becomes a common point of criticism in some cases. Other narrative games, however, loudly call into question the notion that narrative must be linear. Narrative events may occur in disparate orders. They may occur differently or not at all depending on the choices the player makes.

Non-linear storytelling via player choice is often talked about in terms of clearly non-linear games such as Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead. I would posit, however, that non-linearity is a part of every game narrative, however small. In many of the more linear games, these variations in the narrative appear to be simply variations in gameplay. But the two are not–or at least, should not be–separate. When the game is played differently, the story plays out differently.

At some point, however, non-linearity always breaks down. If you watch a recorded playthrough of a game on YouTube, you’re watching a linear video or playlist. If you browse the web for an hour, you can check your history to find an ordered list of the websites you visited. This is the paradox of non-linearity: we can only experience it in a linear fashion. The ultimate meaning on non-linearity is the degree of uncertainty of what that line will contain. Digital interfaces are the means by which that line is drawn.

Data Sets in Game Building

Games are perhaps more dramatically interdisciplinary than any other form of storytelling. Those games that do tell stories are examples of how digital creations reach humanistic concerns. In being so fundamentally digital, there is a mathematical component to games–whether under the hood or nakedly visible–that other forms of storytelling simply lack. In the process of creating a game, part of the use of data sets is in managing the math, but that is by no means all that they are good for. Data sets of the internal attributes of a game can help streamline the direction of a project in any number of ways.

Remember how we used pivot tables in class. We used them primarily to reorganize qualitative bits of information, but not so much to analyze numbers. We even specifically had to uncheck “show totals” because we weren’t dealing with numbers. I hypothesized that incorporating rows as well as columns would be useful only if we were dealing with numbers.

In that dimension, I can see data sets and pivot tables being a useful tool for me in managing my own independent game projects. Without this tool, the fine-tuning of the numbers is perhaps where I’m the most out of my depth in my own projects; however, a data set may well clarify how player stats at various levels actually balance against enemy stats, opening new pathways for me to characterize both the player and enemies. Even in messing with the math, the goal of the game remains humanistic.

Just as we used data sets in class, however, I can see use for them in the more qualitative, more immediately humanistic elements of my game design. My current project is in many ways more of a JRPG (which doesn’t require that I be Japanese, as JRPGs and WRPGs are basically distinct characteristic genres); I do, however, intend to incorporate some more WRPG-typical dynamics in the form of dialogue options that lead to varying results within the story. Linear dialogue writing typically takes place in a document, but non-linear writing may be well suited to a spreadsheet, and thus, in the spirit of documenting the effects of dialogue choices, a data set.

medialogue(An example of dialogue choices at play in a WRPG.)

Part of what I’m planning with dialogue options is the possibility for the main character to establish a romantic relationship with one of three other characters. The dialogue options that will affect the likelihood of each relationship being possible will the further spread apart than most effects of dialogue options. Because of this, a data set format for a script can help organize what, where, and how frequent the dialogue options encouraging each romance is. This will hopefully help balance the likelihood of the main character being able to form a relationship with each potential partner.

What I’ve examined here is mostly how data sets can apply to my own game, but there are so many other people and groups making so many more types of games. The possibilities across all of these projects are so much more than what I’ve mentioned here as applying to my own project.

Defining DH as a Particular Argument

The difficulty digital humanists have in defining what exactly digital humanities is makes the discipline difficult to talk about in any general terms. Digital humanities discourse in specific terms tends to focus on finding and making meaning in digital tools in the context of the use of those tools within our experience as humans. In this way, digital humanities differs from what one might assume to be the discourse over that which is digital: mere code, mere information, the inner workings of our computers. In the digital humanities, we talk about our computers and our digital spaces as something more than cold, mechanical data. We are therefore making the argument simply by our participation in a particular conversation that our digital tools are essentially humanistic in nature.


One possible way of defining digital humanities is as this argument. The argument that the digital space is a human space is the premise for all digital humanities conversations; in engaging with that which is digital from this vantage point, we become digital humanists.


Defining digital humanities in such a way speaks to the issue of why the discipline tends to be found within English departments. It may be painting in broad strokes to divide all disciplines between the sciences and the humanities, but the basic distinction is sufficient for the argument the digital humanities makes. It is not to be disputed that the creation of that which is digital is a function of scientific inquiry. The existence of the digital humanities, however, challenges the notion that computers equal science. When an English department introduces the digital humanities, it does not take computer-based discipline away from the scientists and mathematicians; what it does take from them is their monopoly on computer-based discipline.


Why, then, are English departments so prominent in the digital humanities rather than any other particular department in the humanities? One possibility or factor may lie in the relationship between digital spaces and creation. Much of humanities scholarship occupies the realm of analysis rather than creation. While this can no doubt be said for English as well, English also distinctly has a foot in the realm of creation via creative writing. English departments have an interest in the creation of new works just as they have an interest in the analysis of existing works. And clearly, the intersection of creation and analysis makes digital tools useful in the analytical realm of English as well. The sciences, likewise, are focused largely on the realm of creation, particularly in the initial creation of the digital machines and tools in question.
The history and origins of the digital humanities may expose main shortcoming, or else an extension of meaning, in defining the digital humanities as the argument that the digital is humanistic. Given David M. Berry’s distinction between the first and second waves of the digital humanities, the definition of digital humanities as argument seems at first to fit the second wave in its lesser focus on being able to code. The first wave, in its emphasis on coding, more nearly matches computer science. That does not mean, however, that the argument “the digital is humanistic” was not there. In one sense, defining “the digital” as coding, as closer to the science side, makes the argument “the digital is humanistic” a tighter argument. On the other hand, the evolution of digital humanities, moving away from a need for coding, makes the argument the digital humanities makes. A more universal human application of the digital has become, with the “second wave,” the focus of digital humanities.

Memory of Severus

An exciting week though this has been as we begin to dive into the digital humanities, it has also been a time of great sadness and remembering as two of the great artists who have helped define a generation, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, have passed from this world. To add to Kaitlin’s tribute to the former, in memory of the latter, his most famous role as his character experienced it (spoiler warning, of course, for the Harry Potter series):

The greatest honor to the memories of these great artists is to find inspiration in them. In order to aid him in his portrayal of the character, J.K. Rowling confided in Alan Rickman details of Severus Snape’s past prior to the release of the novels that revealed those details. He understood the character’s story “out of order,” and as a result, understood Severus Snape more deeply than nearly anyone else at the time.

The power of the digital humanities, whether for narrative (such as in games), or for information (such as in databases), etc., broadens the application of ideas and information “out of order.” Where books and film are linear, having a strict order, in every application of the digital humanities, the meaning of order changes.