The Witness (High Resolution Version)

The Witness.png


Annotated Entry – Burbules Virtuality

Burbules, N. C. (2004). Rethinking the virtual. E-Learning 1(2). 162-183.

I’ve previously used these annotations to look at the organization of pattern language in Lemay and the rhetorical functions of interfacing in Carnegie.  For my third annotation, I want to take these concepts to their logical ends using Burbules’ “Rethinking the Virtual” (2006), which reimagines virtuality not as a (traditionally considered) product of technologies of access but rather as the product of the effect of these technologies in terms of the concept of immersion (to this end, Burbules notes that some authors would describe the genre of science fiction literature as one of “virtual realities” (163)).  Secondly, Burbules argues that virtuality must be reconstituted without the distinction between the “virtual” and the “real” based on assumptions that VR offers an “illusion” which substitutes manufactured space for “real” space (which is both non-manufactured and unproblematically “direct”):

The virtual should not be understood as a simulated reality exposed to us, which we passively observe, but a context where our own active response and involvement are part of what give the experience its veracity and meaningfulness. Hence the virtual is better seen as a media concept, neither real nor imaginary, or better, both real and imaginary. In this sense ‘virtual reality’ is a misnomer (163).

For my own project, this reformulation immediately raises several questions which must be reconsidered in virtuality: a) to what extent can we still consider production and mediation technologies to be deterministic in defining virtuality?; b) how should we consider “immersion” as a manifestation of “canny” experiences rather than “buy-in” with the uncanny?; c) what is the rhetorical function of existing in virtuality when virtuality is defined not by mechanism or technology, but by subjective experience?

It is necessary, in Burbules’ conceptualization, to realize that within computing (and especially interactive entertainment) the “bifurcation of the synthetic and the real has obscured a deeper understanding of what is changing in the ways that we make and explore our worlds, mediated by and through new technologies” (165).  The problem, then, is to reveal these changes through specific approaches (or “aspects”) to the concept of immersion.  Burbules offers four such aspects of virtual experience (“telepresence”) to consider (166-67):

  1. Interest: experiences allow us to consistently discover and interpolate new elements, content, or nodes of interactivity–even upon consistent return to the same spaces/experiences/technologies/mechanics.  However, interest is again subjective–“what is interesting to me may not be interesting to you”–which, while potentially challenging also accentuates the personal immersive context of virtuality (166).
  2. Involvement:  according to Burbules, “an experience is involving when we have a reason to care about what we are experiencing: we pay attention to it because it concerns us in some way” (166).  This might be connected to aesthetics, to mechanics, to narrative, to personal or structural goals.  Burbules notes that involvement might be parsed as a product of involvement – or not (for instance, it may be that it is perceived as personally, socially, or contextually necessary or important).
  3. Imagination:  Similarly, imagination manifests in virtual spaces when “we can interpolate or extrapolate new details and add to the experience [because] actively going beyond what is given is part of what engages us deeply in it” (166-67).
  4. Interaction:  Finally, experiences are interactive when users/experiencers of virtuality can participate within it–“not only perceptually or intellectually but also through embodied action and responses” (167).  Again, Burbules notes that limiting this interaction to a technological environment is “a mistake” because components such as relaxation, participatory body language, rhythmic participation (such as with music), make a “synthetic” space feel more real–i.e.: accentuate virtuality and virtual participation.

These acts of participation are, within “networked settings” functional components of “part of the pleasure of discovery,” which, the author gives as an example, might be why we label so many web browser applications with “intrepid names like ‘Explorer’, ‘Navigator’, and ‘Safari'” (170).

Burbules continues on in the conclusion to explore the emergence of the “cyborg self” (171), and the facts of embodiment in virtual spaces and virtual time.  Most significantly, he argues that:

In the end, it is not the existence of new technologies that has raised questions about the necessity of our bodies for our sense of identity; it is a much larger cultural shift that foregrounds the ‘performative’ rather than ‘essential’ character of our embodied selves […] the embodied self is seen as an artificial constraint, falsely prioritizing one dimentsion of identity (which is iteself a changeable social construction) over others […] it is experienced as tremendously liberating not to allow an embodied ‘fact’ [as the ‘real’ body] to be so determining; and the virtual is proving a fascinating zone of experimentation in how people can move beyond these embodied physical facts, not necessarily for the sake of ‘escaping’ them or denying them, but for changing what they mean to themselves and to others (173).

The value of this, for me, is in considering the concept of digital or virtual embodiments within the context of visual rhetoric and the communication of philosophical, intellectual, and personal applications of these aspects within my object of study, The Witness (2016).  I’ll go more into this in coming weeks, but I do think it’s worth consistently revisiting these questions – how does the title communicate virtuality? How many levels of virtual ‘scope’ are present in the text (hint: a lot more than just one)? How do players experience virtuality, and what is communicated by the opaque and transparent virtual experiences?  What can be communicated to players who have a developed awareness of their virtualities (within a game space which encourages mindfulness and philosophical practice in virtual spaces)?

Burbules, N. C. (2004). Rethinking the virtual. E-Learning 1(2). 162-183.


Annotated entry – Carnegie’s Interface as Exordium

“Interface as Exordium: The rhetoric of interactivity.” (2009) – Teena M.A. Carnegie, Eastern Washington University

Carnegie, T. A. (2009). Interface as Exordium: The rhetoric of interactivity. Computers and Composition, 26(3), 164-173.

Where Lemay’s “Pattern Language” (2007) took a development-centered approach to understanding component frameworks for interactivity in rhetorical media, Carnegie’s “Interface as Exordium” (2009) instead creates a more broadly cultural and reception-centered answer to the question of how interfaces and interactivity function to engage audiences.

Carnegie separates the rhetorical modes of interfaces into three categories–multi-directionality, manipulability, and presence.  I will briefly address each of these modes in a moment, but first want to touch on the ideas and definitions Carnegie is building from in order to contextualize the significance of these modes.

I – What it means to view interface as rhetorical

For Carnegie, the interface is not only literal, but also figurative and symbolic.  The interface, she argues, is capable of being as rudimentary as the physical page of a book, or any point of interactive contact between two objects, two subjects, or a subject and a object–“the interface is a place of interaction, whether the interactions are between user and computer, user and software, computer and software, user and content, software and content, user and culture, and the user and other users” (165).  From this rudimentary model, she turns back to computer-mediated communication and argues that we have a traditional sense of the interface as including the “physical arrangements and ergonomic configuration of computer systems, user operation of programs, and how the user interacts with the content to solve a task or to learn material” (Marra, 1996, p. 115 as cited in Carnegie, 165).

The core feature of these various definitions, then, is their inseparability, that there is no singular “layer” of interface which exists between user-as-whole and computer-as-whole. This lends a rhetorical interpretation significant power, as the layers of interfacing “function rhetorically by creating interactivity. In other words, the modes of interactivity are the rhetorical modes of the interface” (166, emphasis added).  In fostering an especially active relationship between audience and content (thought this might be debated–any book wonk will tell you that they prefer books over computers for reading in part due to the added active relationship between the material and the human user over the digital), “new media requires action” that “involves and engages the user in using, playing, exploring, experimenting, discovering, and sharing” which effectively creates bodily and spatial rhetorics, while increased engagement produces “higher levels of acceptance, making the user more disposed to persuasion” (166).

II – Multi-directionality

Carnegie explores the suasive nature of heightened interaction through multi-directionality, which she defines through hypertextuality and networked practice (see Castells, Nielsen, Landow for more on this).  For Carnegie, intertextuality is hypertextuality, or at least a form of it, in which “users gain more control over how they discover, view, and connect the discrete units available in the network, [creating] their own paths and organizational structures” (167).

Essential to this is an understanding of the difference between hypertextuality (as referent) and multi-directionality – the latter “applies not just to the roles users can play in the network (receiver, sender, or both) but also to the messages the users communicate” (167). And so multi-directionality is a combination of this commutative role and the hyper/intertext which creat “a feedback model” that allows the user to participate in systems in multiple forms, while the “referential nature of messages is limited”–referentialism being key to increasing (at least apparent) interactivity and thus increased rhetoricity (166-67).

III – Manipulability

However, this feedback does not function as a fully rhetorical form without a belief–or evidence held–on the part of the user that their interactions have a hand in shaping or influencing the interfaced space (imagine, for instance, the rhetorical agency lost in a discussion board which permits comment submissions, but one where you can only see your own comments which are not distributed to other users).

This function of mutability is labelled by Carnegie as manipulability–and does not apply solely to the human interface level of interaction.  She also notes that the very fact that “objects such as images, sound, text [can] become units of numerical code” which are “separated from physical forms” is an expression of mutability, indicating their ability to be duplicated, deleted, combined, scaled, compressed, and so on (168).

Carnegie sees the rhetorical force of manipulability most present, however, in the user’s capability to customize their working/playing/learning environment in digital interfaces.  By adding, deleting, hiding, or moving content, the user exerts their will over the workspace, and as such has a suasive investment in its value, use, and well-suited nature.  That these choices are likely deeply pre-determined by the interests of the designer doesn’t necessarily matter so much as the appearance of choice which suasively functions to enlist users in investment behaviors which makes them “feel empowered and engaged [because] the user is given limited power to construct him- or herself as a user” (168).

Additionally, Carnegie notes that while customization is a nominally low-level manipulability, the ability to add or modify content creates a remarkably high-level manipulability which correlates with an extremely suasive environment centered on interactivity (168-69).

IV – Presence

While the first two modes of interactivity/rhetoricity function as products of networks themselves, Carnegie notes that presence “is a product of the integration of system attributes with user perceptions” (emphasis added), attributes including speed, possible actions, controls, responsiveness, which present the use of the platform “in a natural and predictable manner” which might manifest successfully when users “perceive others as present in the environment created by the medium” and the ability to “gather appropriate and personal information to adequately interpret situations and gain a sense of being connected with others and the system” (169-171).

This equivalence of systems and apparent human connectivity is an essential facet of rhetorical presence within interfaces, and will shape much of my study moving forward.  I will speak more to this notion with my next source for annotation, Alexander Galloway’s The Interface Effect (2012).

V – Interface as Exordium

I will return to these components further moving forward.  However, I would like to end this annotation with a brief quote from Carnegie’s conclusion:

“the shape and design of the interface is not natural and inevitable. The design of the interface is a design of human experience, and, as such, the interface becomes a locus of power. The modes of interactivity it deploys are capable of both enabling empowerment and enacting patterns of control. To see the interface, we must see how it functions rhetorically through modes of interactivity to prepare the user/audience to accept particular world views and constructions of relationships” (172).

I will take this notion, that the interactivity and spatiality of interface and systems functions suasively to prepare users to integrate world views and philosophies/constructions of relationships, much further in exploring my object of study in the coming annotated bibliographic entry.

Carnegie, T. A. (2009). Interface as exordium: The rhetoric of interactivity. Computers and Composition, 26(3), 164-173.

Galloway, A. R. (2006). Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture (Vol. 18). U of Minnesota Press.

Galloway, A. R. (2012). The Interface Effect. Polity.

Visual Argument – Parts One & Two

Part One

What constitutes visual argument?

Arguments, made with or through visuals.

Is it possible?

Sure is.

What elements does it require?

Visuals. An argument.  That’s it.

Can it be done without linguistic reference?

Contextual reference?

The term “contextual reference” is so loaded I had to save 80% of my word count to address this.  There is no such thing as non-contextual reference, because to be referential an object or argument must contain a referent.  That referent is contextualized by its juxtaposition.  Also, there’s no form of argument that is not referential, if at least to the actant(s) of that argument.

So, not only can visual arguments not be made without contextual reference, nothing can be made without contextual reference.  Not a verbal argument, not a written one, not a bicycle. Not a banana (P.S. any object which could be argued to have a Platonic ideal–whether you buy into the Platonic ideal or not–is a contextualized argument).

As is so often the problem with rhetoric, the question isn’t category, but scope of inquiry.  If we instead ask “can visual argument be done without immediate or direct contextual reference?” then the answer is still “yep.”

My Artifact – “A kind of intellectual catastrophe” (The Witness)


“A cage awaits you – this is it, this is the enlightenment you were promised.  You lock yourself in the cage.  But The Witness played you for a fool. – you were wrong.  You were the one snared in the net of panels and wires.  There is no enlightenment here.  The cage slowly returns you to the very beginning of your long journey, as the island resets. The puzzles un-solve themselves. Where you started is no different from where you ended up, because the experience has left you unchanged. You have achieved nothing.  You have learned nothing.”

“The key motif of The Witness is the circle and line, but it has seeped out of the panels into the fabric of the island.  You see the motif everywhere–the path of a stream, the patterns in the ivy, it can even be found in the weather. A player who spends too much time with Tetris can be infected with it–they see the shapes everywhere, and have to resist the urge to plot fictional trajectories.  It feels like The Witness wants to do this with you.  Soon enough, you start to notice the same motif in the real world.  Finally, you have the thought: ‘wouldn’t it be funny,’ you think, If I could just click the–‘”

The Unbearable Now: An Interpretation of The Witness (2016)

As always, I’ll be looking at The Witness – this time in terms of an analysis on the YouTube channel Electron Dance.  Connecting the visuality and designed structure of The Witness to the concepts of mindfulness, enlightenment, and rebirth through sacred texts and public intellectuals, the video questions what the role of the self is within The Witness.

More on that later, but for now, I would encourage folks (who have NO INTEREST in playing the game) to watch the video (massive spoilers, all the spoilers).

Part Two

Based on some of the initial coding from my subject testing, I decided to look at Zettl and aesthetics for this component, and found it… wanting in its abbreviated form in the Handbook.  So I went and got an instructor edition of Zettl’s Sight, Sound, Motion (6th ed. – it’s in 8th now).  And I found that perhaps the most useful analytic mechanism in Zettl is the pedagogical framework he lays out for building a curriculum around aesthetics, including a quite nice little week-by-week breakdown of teaching from the text (Fig 1).

Figure 1: 15-Week Course Schedule from Zettl (2014).
Figure 1: 15-Week Course Schedule from Zettl (2014).

So, the thing I find most fascinating here is that Zettl views aesthetics not only as component-based, but also iterative, building upon first principles towards broad aesthetic narratives.  Zettl argues, effectively, that you can teach aesthetics, teach with aesthetics, and teach through aesthetics, and this structure works across all three forms of pedagogy.

In the end, what Zettl is talking about in “Aesthetics Theory” is visualizing aesthetics through cinematographic lens–no surprise based on what his interests are–and this is what drove me to go more afield in his work to explore how spatial rhetorics, sound, motion, and light build towards an aesthetic syntax.  I’m also going to be doing a lot with Gilles Deleuze here, but for this assignment I had to choose one of these readings, so Zettl it is.

So, here’s a question – the video artifact I posted is not a montage, but as an edited narrative of play and philosophy, it is certainly montage, and it contains montage(s).  Is gameplay itself, even in continuity and without montage, montage? Is it an assemblage of actions, a juxtaposition of “various seemingly unrelated events” into a broader narrative, a “specific meta-message” of “induced meaning”?

Let’s get to the questions.

Why this method for this artifact?

“Everything smells of *long sniff* significance.”

The Unbearable Now: An Interpretation of The Witness (2016)

The Electron Dance video is fascinating because it makes a parallel argument to that of The Witness itself – namely, that participating with it will draw the user/viewer/player towards a comprehension of philosophy and a narrativized “truth” about the self.  That is to say, that it moves from noise to sound, from light to form, from abstract to concrete.  It builds a narrative syntax through editing of aesthetic continuities.

These aesthetic continuities are reflected in the philosophical narrative syntaxes the game itself explores, and the video interpolates.  Content and aesthetics are, effectively, one and the same.


What did it reveal?

“The flight simulator is now the only way to visit Meiggs’ Field. Technology empowers us to visit places that do not exist. Places that cannot exist. But we do not celebrate this enough. Critics and players often denigrate virtual environments with demands for purpose. The developer-god must corrupt places with mechanics, poison them with meaning–proof of intelligent design must be demonstrated through challenges and collectibles.

The journey itself is never enough.”

Into the Black: On Videogame Exploration

It revealed that the viewer is the open, empty, luminous presence of awareness.

Thanks, Rupert Spira! That was easier than I expected!

For Zettl, the space of visuality is delineated and limited by aesthetic forms and choices.  And this limited frame is useful for what it manages to isolate in scope.  The Electron Dance video touches on each component of Zettl’s cinematography: light, color, form, field, area, contrast, contained forces, depth, volume, sound, motion, and effect.  It uses these components to build on the narrative structures which are drawn from this; however, it also isolates the experience of the viewer-participant (“audience” is absolutely a falsehood here, but it’s hard to articulate why).  It assumes that the space is given to the viewer-participant, and the viewer-participant simply occupies it.

I enjoy this conflict.  It’s unresolvable, and that is the curse of cinematic language.  It gives us tools and terms of production and distribution, but even at its best (Deleuze?), it misapprehends the mindfulness of reception.  Aesthetics are mediated, but they are unilateral.  Visual rhetoric makes arguments, but those arguments are always resolved by another party who either sees or does not see.  Who pursues truth, but cannot apprehend it.

What did it miss that you think might be important?

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

H.P. Lovecraft – The Call of Cthulhu


Zettl offers us a cinematographic language and palette which we can use to understand how visuality constructs tonality and argument.  What is fascinating is to consider how it fails to do the things necessary to address the narrative choice which exists outside of the cinematographic form–the narrative selection of the viewer, whom Zettl’s aesthetics is inflicted upon.

I’ve more than exceeded the length I planned to dedicate to this at this point, so for now… Part Three?

Annotated entry – Lemay’s Pattern Language

“Developing a Pattern Language for Flow Experiences in Video Games” (2007) – Philippe Lemay, University of Montreal

Lemay, P. (2007). Developing a pattern language for flow experiences in video games. In Situated Play, Proceedings of DiGRA 2007 Conference (pp. 449-455). University of Tokyo, Tokyo.

Lemay’s “Developing a Pattern Language for Flow Experiences in Video Games” (2007) explores the structure of play experience surrounding designed pattern languages in order to create a tool for gamespace designers to create efficiently structured and paced play experiences which encourage and maintain flow.  From this, Lemay attempts to create a dimensional model of play experience.

In order to accomplish this model, the author performs a metacritical survey of existing pattern languages in the understanding of play, and attempts to create a supplement or synthesis for these approaches which might offer an “extended corpus” which includes “all facets and dimension of the flow model” for play (454).

Bjork and Holopainen’s component pattern language.

Examining Bjork and Holopainen’s (2005) component framework (Figure 1), Lemay considers the categories of play and game systems (Boundary, Holistic, Structural, and Temporal) and finds a lack in the experiential elements of play and interaction–and argues that while the pattern “encompasses the wide variety of games found today,” it requires a “complementary language” in order to create a more coherent structure(449-50).

Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model

From this, the author moves on to Csikszentmihalyi’s model of “flow” and optimal experience (1988), which Lemay argues offers sensory and cognitive structures for understanding how individuals interact with spaces and media through a locus of experienced challenge and expressed competence (Figure 2).  Extending this argument into interactive spaces, Csikszentmihalyi’s conditions for flow demand expressed or clearly-presented goals, instant or immediate feedback, and an elevated degree of challenge matched to a specific degree of expressed competency (451).

fig_3From these two frames of  understanding game mechanic experiences, Lemay then attempts to structure a pattern language of experiential flow (Figure 3 and the experiential/design relationship (Figure 4 in concordance with previous scholars who applied flow experience to game spaces. In doing so, Lemay is able to further articulate the research questions at the core of the investigation, including:


  • What elements may help generate or maintain flow experiences? 
  • What elements would hinder the emergence of flow experiences?

In so doing, Lemay also establishes the notion of an “anti-pattern” language, one which functions against or subverts flow experiences. (452)  At this point, the author creates a multifaceted structural metric for coding play experience according to five core categories (sensation, emotion, cognition, behavior, and social) and offers three different pattern examples which might fit various flow experiences and medium types (453-54).

In his conclusion, Lemay argues that these comprehensive flow patterns might be viewed as a guiding set of consequences of design for games which function effectively and communicate flow-capable mechanics.

However, I want to push back, briefly, and argue that I don’t think these metrics will inherently create flow experiences or encourage the maintenance of preexisting flow behaviors. This is to say that the design process is inherently too individualized and specific to theme or project purposes to allow for a heuristic understanding of flow within design procedures.  However, this pattern language may allow for studying flow experiences under coding protocols which attempt to locate flow by examining the emotional and performative dimensions examined here.

I’ll return to this more with the methodology and coding sections of my current study at a later point in the semester.  However, for now I will note that–while Lemay may not be generally useful for the study of visual rhetoric–this work offers very viable tools for exploring the experiential nature of visuality in interactive spaces.