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August 1, 2005

Ivanhoe: An Online Playspace For Collaborative Interpretation

Back in 2000, University of Virginia English professors Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker exchanged a series of emails in which they attempted to re-write the conclusion of Sir Walter Scott's epic romance, Ivanhoe. They did this to answer a question:

"How might the rewriting of a literary text provide self-conscious insight into the literary work and into the processes of interpretation constituted by any and every act of reading?"

The question stemmed from a larger preoccupation that they shared, namely that digital machines and the web are changing the way we read and process texts. The game of re-writing seemed somehow to fit with this. They wondered how this playful, interpretative experiment might be expanded and systematized for an online space - one that would allow multiple readers to interpret a text collaboratively, even competitively? Theories developed, diagrams were sketched, and before long, the foundations were laid for an exciting new approach to textual studies.

The Ivanhoe exercise led to a series of classroom experiments - interpretive games played around a variety of literary texts from Wuthering Heights to A Wrinkle In Time. The games were essentially collaborative research projects, and made use of the limited tools on hand, chiefly blogs. But the theoretical discussions that coincided were all focused on building some kind of specialized tool, a virtual game board. This was taken up by UVA's Applied Research in Patacriticism initiative in collaboration with the Speculative Computing Lab (SpecLab), bringing together textual studies, visual theory and serious programming power.

In its present form, Ivanhoe is an online playspace for multi-player collaboritive interpretation. Each player chooses a role, which is at the very least a kind of moniker, and at most an entirely new persona through which they will engage the text and other participants. A game is made up of "moves." A move might be a gloss, a comment, a re-write of a text, the presentation of a new document, an entry in a journal etc. Each player must provide justification before "publishing" a move, and once the move is published it is permanently logged in the game.

Like any great classroom discussion, a game can veer into tangential territory, new evidence can come to light, and playful inventions can arise. In the playspace, each of these developments, large and small, assumes a visual presence on the subjective landscape. It is a landscape that is constantly shifting, in part because it depicts a living process, but also because the point of view is always moving from player to player. This, too, is depicted visually. When one point of view is selected, its relationship to other players and to various moves and documents is highlighted.


As stated in the online demo: a "role's position in the discourse field is the product of their relation to other players and actions taken." When games become sufficiently complex, with multiple players entwined in multiple subjective trajectories, they begin to resemble Suprematist paintings, with circles, triangles and vectors cutting across the central sphere.


Ivanhoe is intended to investigate how human interaction with machines might illuminate and call attention to the interpretative processes of the individual reader. By situating these processes in a game space governed by certain rules and procedures, awareness is cultivated in the players of individual interpretive acts and of their place in a progression, or digression. It also asks how digital instruments and social software might facilitate collaboration - or even a more productive kind of competition - in the humanities. To quote from "Reflections on the Ivanhoe Game" in TEXT Technology (Drucker and Rockwell 1983) (download pdf), an article chronicling the project's history:

"Collaborative work is still novel in the Humanities, but will increase. Shared resources aggregated from geographically distributed collections create altered conditions for editing and study. Our aim is to concentrate the development of these features in a concerted effort towards increasing awareness of interpretation as a process. One might argue, in fact, that interpretation in its subjective and historical dimensions is the core activity of humanities."

Posted by ben vershbow at August 1, 2005 10:51 PM