By Steve Holmes, George Mason University
Agency is one of those terms that most academics who have even heard the name “Foucault” in a graduate seminar at some point are secretly obsessed with. Why? As this timely meditation on agency by Jillian Hovatter, “It Helps to Be In On the Joke,” reminds the viewer, how we understand and define agency determines how we interact with and eventually analyze and understand a given piece of digital media (A Duck Has an Adventure, in this webtext’s case).
This one link right here summarizes the entirety of my response to this excellent piece and I strongly encourage the user to click on it before reading the rest of my response.
Did you click on it? If you did and are now rolling your eyes, then you’ve probably internalized through a performative example the greats risks of a hypertext composition without an ending like the one Hovatter has created for us. We probably take links and hyperlinking for granted in the present. At the academic level, we’re more obsessed with rhetorically analyzing algorithmic behaviors and software code/protocol. We’ve moved on from the humble weblink and, indeed, hypertext fiction has shifted from webtexts to interactive YouTube clips assembled into a compositional medium thanks in part to user-friendly design interfaces such as EkoStudio.
But has it really? The New York Times has been at the forefront of creating fascinating scrollable multimodal webtexts. Just this past February (2019), I was surprised when one of my BA students (who isn’t even a sports fan) brought up in a class discussion Breaking Madden’s Jon Bois’s hyperlinked webtext 17776. The webtext uses a hyperlink fiction genre to describe the dystopian future of the National Football League to explore what football—currently plagued by public outrage over concussions, patriotism, sexual assault, and countless other issues—would look like in the future. As a case in point, the object under consideration for Hovetter’s Adobe Spark driven webtext analysis, A Duck Has an Adventure, is a contemporary hypertext app—“a unique hypercomic adventure game” about the various possible lives that a duck can have.
So what does a “link” do? Again, we take these user interfaces for granted, but, at a philosophical level, to offer a user a link is to engender a certain mode of risk. Links can fail as well as surprise (I still like Google search’s “surprise me” button). There’s always an excise in the unknown both for the reader as my Rickrolling example confirms, but, importantly, for the author as well. By setting up choices, the author gives up a large degree of control (compared to other mediums at least like a novel or a film) over the way in which a user will encounter a system.
Hence, why my reflection to this hypertext webcomic starts with “agency.” Hovatter states, “I am using agency as defined by Dene Grigar’s in Digital Storytelling which refers to it as “the degree of freedom and choice a user has (30)” and, a bit later, “the way in which an author/artist lays out the procedures for a work impacts the user’s AGENCY (30).” A decade ago, in one of the first major books, Lingua Fracta, on “new media rhetoric,” Collin Gifford Brooke made what I think is still a highly relevant observation. He noted that hypertext as a medium of composition as a medium foregrounded poststructuralist concepts like Roland Barthes’ “death of the author/birth of the reader.” According to Barthes, in a logic well captured by this webtext
Barthes is older. As I navigate the webtext, it’s this quote that Hovatter musters from Katherine Hayles that I think offers another highly relevant way to re-cast agency. As quoted by Hovatter, Hayles writes, “Materiality thus cannot be specified in advance; rather, it occupies a borderland—or better, performs as connective tissue—joining the physical and mental, the artifact and the user.” This quote is taken as a call to researchers to see a digital text as more than just the system that the designer establishes. For comparison, game studies scholars like Miguel Sicart have argued against a paradigm they broadly call “proceduralism,” which is the reduction of what is rhetorically salient to analyze to the interactive rules that a designer intended. Such approaches, much like a decade of reading criticism that argued that readers will take their own path through a text and bring their own interpretative schema as well, ignored a player’s creative interaction with the rules. This brings me to the one term that kept occurring to me as I read through this webtext: possibility space.
A possibility space, which many scholars attribute to Ian Bogost’s discussion in Persuasive Games, comes first by way of Janet Murray’s pioneering work in hypertext fiction: Hamlet on the Holodeck. A possibility space can apply to any medium that causes interactivity with rule-governed procedures. An office memo which has to be composed in a particular arrangement or company font is a possibility space. A college syllabus is a possibility space. A mortgage loan contract for a house is (an admittedly limited) possibility space. The examples are endless. A possibility space, like A Duck Has an Adventure, doesn’t entirely determine which route through a given set of procedures an individual user will take.
Procedures function—if I may borrow an example from ecology and complexity theory—more like attractors in a phase space. Imagine a marble dropped into a bowl. At the end of its period of rolling around and around, it will eventually end up at the very bottom of the bowl—what Manuel deLanda calls an “attractor.” The unique configuration of all components involved in this emergent system is called a “phase space.” Despite the fact that the marble will end up at the attractor point, we don’t know in advance the exact path the marble will take to the bottom of the bowl. Such is what agency means in possibility spaces and in hypertext or, rather, hypercomic adventure games like A Duck Has an Adventure. It’s, to borrow Marilyn R. Cooper’s phrase, “emergent and enacted” rather than fixed and consciously activated. As a case in point, A Duck Has an Adventure performs this functionality because the protagonist—the duck—doesn’t have a final destination of a linear path through life. Depending upon the interactive system or attractor oints that the user helps to set up for the duck, as Hovatter argues, the duck takes a different path through its phase space in narrative.
These are the sorts of reflective moments that Hovatter’s exemplary analysis helps me to think through. Just as hypertext foregrounded poststructuralist reading principles, hypertext itself has an always already dimension to it. We’ve had footnotes in print-books for centuries—a kind of slow paced hyperlinking. Now, there’s a bit of hypertext in everything digital and so we’re definitely in need of more analyses fictional texts that help us to create allegories (or, better, “allegorithms” as McKenzie Wark calls them in Gamer Theory) to help us navigate and understand our algorithmic present and future.