Documentary Review: Get Lamp

January 20, 2012 § 2 Comments

If you read this month’s Technology Review*, and, like me, were intrigued by the shout-out to Jason Scott’s latest documentary, Get Lamp, which is about the history of text adventure games, their players, and their designers, then you will be thrilled to know that it is available to stream right now on YouTube as a Google Tech Talk. That’s not to say that I don’t encourage you to go to the official movie website and place an order for the DVD, or encourage your university library to do the same, but rather that YouTube is kind of the perfect setting for your first viewing. For one thing, you get to “meet” the director at the beginning of the video, as well as learning some crucial background information from the context his presentation provides. Subculture documentaries, by their very nature, raise questions about the authenticity and comprehensiveness of the representation, and it’s clear from the Google Tech Talk that the documentary spoke easily to members and fringe members of the community it hoped to represent, although, as always, there remain minor limitations of time and access to individuals.

Scott himself is fascinating, as well as a great speaker. I was not surprised to discover, after watching his film, that he is listed on Wikipedia as a “critic of Wikipedia,” indeed, one who has given a forty-minute speech about “The Great Failure of Wikipedia,” that is, the ways in which the site, so near and dear to all of our hearts, seductively offers us some of what we want, while inadvertently centralizing information unsustainably. Scott, as a long-time internet insider, can of course be accused of being kind of a cranky old-timer on this issue, although it should be noted that this particular speech, while still highly relevant, was given in 2006, but his positions also reflect a kind of knowledge that is hard to recognize in this Era of the Geek. As an archivist himself, as well as an archival historian and artful creator of complex representations of recent history, Scott knows what good information looks like to the people who most care about it — people like himself and the gamers who appear in Get Lamp, who are willing to put in serious time and effort, if the payoff reveals something new about the world, even if it is only something new about an interactive fictional storyworld.

The first five minutes of Get Lamp alone are worth watching for those who may have tinkered around on a MUD at some point, but know little about the origins of text-based gaming. It turns out that one of the first text adventure games, Colossal Cave Adventure, derived much of its design from developer Will Crowther’s expeditions in Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky. This connection is so nicely illustrative of what an outsider needs to know about the early history of text adventures — they were, in part, an attempt to translate some of the pleasures of living in the world into a new, and thus, newly-engaging, genre of fiction, as well as a new medium, taking advantage of emerging computer technology. It’s quickly clear that the cave is just one model of experience, and not some kind of shared real origin point for the whole genre, but it’s one that provides a kind of shorthand for the ambition underlying the development and play of text adventure games.

The other glorious metaphor is built in to the title, of course: the lamp. Firstly, the grammatical structure of the title anchors the kinds of semantic work that one would do in a text adventure game in order to explore the storyworld. Such language has been parodied in recent years, but it is part of the very structure of text-based games, and is thus useful to internalize. Secondly, one (usually the more observant viewer, that is, not myself) notices at some point during the film that, within each interview Scott conducts, there is a brass lantern. I was pleased to see that this was so, as well as to see that Scott had incorporated this so-called Lamp Game into the film website. As Felicia Day and Sandeep Parikh recently showed in The Guild: Zaboo comic, the incorporation of a mini-game into a narrative about gaming can excite the ludic impulse in the reader or viewer, and thus connect the pleasures being described to those the reader has also experienced, and might wish to experience again. Finally, “get lamp” is a joke — because a good portion of the interviewees in the film are visually impaired, they joke about having been confused by the ubiquity of that command, and its use as a requirement for the exploration of a new environment. I’m a huge fan of Georgina Kleege’s work on visual impairment and visual culture studies, and it was especially interesting for me to think through this new context of text adventure gaming and sensory difference. What seems cranky in the mouths of some (and there is one particularly memorable anti-graphics rant in the film) arises as an accessibility solution at the same time as it is an innovation in storytelling in the mouths of others.

Speaking of personal investments, I should perhaps note that the story, which most broke my heart, was the story of Mary Ann Buckles, which was also written up in the New York Times a few years ago. While undoubtedly, Buckles has happily found much success outside the academy, it was hard to watch her remember her experience of discovering e-mail and computer games in the 1980s, which was so intellectually exciting, rub so harshly against the work she was expected to do for her doctoral thesis. I don’t envy her committee, who had expected her to write about Austrian poetry, but it still seems somehow to speak to the glacial pace of academic publishing that her article on video game aesthetics, now so widely-cited, did not seem to be asking any related questions, or exploring any shared intellectual terrain.

The final comment I wanted to make about the film was the lovely sense of community it evoked in ending on the sentiment, expressed by writers and fans of interactive fiction, that the genre seems to inspire almost everyone who enjoys it to try creating a storyworld of their own, which takes advantage of the genre conventions and evolving media. This speaks to a spirit that transcends fan cultures, to some extent — the invitation to transform participation into authored creation, whatever form it may take. The spirit of interactivity itself, properly understood, is not one of a ratio of words typed to words read, or works created to works completed (Buckles, after all, never completed a text adventure game), but there is something of value in the liminal space between the acts.

*Correction: Originally, I attributed the shout-out to Wired. There was indeed a reference to Sockington in last month’s issue of that magazine, which I had accidentally conflated with Matt Schwartz’s epic Fire in the Library, which features Scott prominently. “Fire in the Library” appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of Technology Review.

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