GAM3R 7H30RY: a work in progress… in progress

McKenzie Wark

I’m pleased to report that the institute is gearing up for another book-blog experiment to run alongside Mitchell Stephens’ ongoing endeavor at Without Gods — this one a collaboration with McKenzie Wark, professor of cultural and media studies at the New School and author most recently of A Hacker Manifesto. Ken’s next book, Gamer Theory, is an examination of single-player video games that comes out of the analytic tradition of the Frankfurt School (among other influences). Unlike Mitch’s project (a history of atheism), Ken’s book is already written — or a draft of it anyway — so in putting together a public portal, we are faced with a very different set of challenges.
As with Hacker Manifesto, Ken has written Gamer Theory in numbered paragraphs, a modular structure that makes the text highly adaptable to different formats and distribution schemes — be it RSS syndication, ebook, or print copy. We thought the obvious thing to do, then, would be to release the book serially, chunk by chunk, and to gather commentary and feedback from readers as it progressed. The trouble is that if you do only this — that is, syndicate the book and gather feedback — you forfeit the possibility of a more free-flowing discussion, which could end up being just as valuable (or more) as the direct critique of the book. After all, the point of this experiment is to expose the book to the collective knowledge, experience and multiple viewpoints of the network. If new ideas are to be brought to light, then there ought to be ways for readers to contribute, not just in direct response to material the author has put forth, but in their own terms (this returns us to the tricky proprietary nature of blogs that Dan discussed on Monday).
So for the past couple of weeks, we’ve been hashing out a fairly ambitious design for a web site — a blog, but a little more complicated — that attempts to solve (or at least begin to solve) some of the problems outlined above. Our first aim was to infuse the single-author book/blog with the democratic, free-fire discussion of list servers — a feat, of course, that is far easier said than done. Another concern, simply from an interface standpoint, was to find ways of organizing the real estate of the screen that are more intuitive for reading.
Another thing we’ve lamented about blogs, and web sites in general, is their overwhelming verticality. Vertical scrolling fields — an artifact of supercomputer terminals and the long spools of code they spit out — are taken for granted as the standard way to read online. But nowhere was this ordained as the ideal interface — in fact it is designed more for machines than for humans, yet humans are the users on the front end. Text does admittedly flow down, but we read left to right, and its easier to move your eye across a text that is fixed than one that is constantly moving. A site we’ve often admired is The International Herald Tribune, which arranges its articles in elegant, fixed plates that flip horizontally from one to the next. With these things in mind, we set it as a challenge for ourselves to try for some kind of horizontally oriented design for Ken’s blog.
There’s been a fairly rigorous back and forth on email over the past two weeks in which we’ve wrestled with these questions, and in the interest of working in the open, we’ve posted the exchange below (most of it anyway) with the thought that it might actually shed some light on what happens — from design and conceptual standpoints — when you try to mash up two inherently different forms, the blog and the book. Jesse has been the main creative force behind the design, and he’s put together a lovely annotated page explaining the various mockups we’ve developed over the past week. If you read the emails (which are can be found directly below this paragraph) you will see that we are still very much in the midst of figuring this out. Feedback would be much appreciated. (See also GAM3R 7H30RY: part 2).

This exchange began after a week of sketching and discussion following an initial brainstorm session with Ken in mid-January…
Thu, Jan 26, 2006 at 3:45 PM
Ben Vershbow
To: Ken Wark
Cc: Bob Stein, Jesse Wilbur
Subject: a start
Hi Ken,
So here’s the challenge as we see it.
We need to create a single site that:
– combines the best of blogs with the best of list-servers
– is structured to progressively reveal the draft of a book and gather commentary
I’m pleased to report that we’ve cooked up something that comes pretty close — a Word Press blog re-jiggered to solve all the world’s ills. You can view an html mock-up here:
(wide screenshot of the initial HTML mockup – eventually rejected)
Rather than explain how it works, why don’t you just take a look and see how clearly things come across. Not quite everything is there yet, and obviously, it hasn’t been tied in to Word Press yet, which will be a bit tricky. But we’re pretty confident we can get it to work (when I say we, I mean Jesse, who is the one responsible for building this and who put together the lovely mock-up).
Keep in mind that this is only a sketch and that everything is negotiable. But I think this is a good start.
Let us know how this strikes you fire away with questions.
Ben et al.
Thu, Jan 26, 2006 at 3:51 PM
Ken Wark
To: Ben Vershbow
Cc: Jesse Wilbur, Bob Stein
Subject: Re: a start
a really impressive start. I kinda imagined it going left to right,
rather than right to left. I think it should also have a sort of free
fire zone where people can comment and discuss without it being tied to particular parts of the book.
In place of the proprietary Mario image, may be a space invader.
Thu, Jan 26, 2006 at 3:52 PM
Ken Wark
To: Ben Vershbow
Cc: Jesse Wilbur, Bob Stein
Subject: Re: a start
— and if the columns could be a bit wider or the text a bit more
compressed (less leading, maybe) to try and get the whole paragraph on
the screen. The longest are 250 words (or if they’re not, i’m cutting
them down).
… if i wanted to update the text, how could that work?
Thu, Jan 26, 2006 at 4:22 PM
Ben Vershbow
To: Ken Wark
Cc: Jesse Wilbur, Bob Stein
Subject: Re: a start
Ken said:
>I kinda imagined it going left to right, rather than right to left.
We debated the left-right right-left thing. The problem with left to right is that the more of the book you release, the further down (or over, I should say) the new paragraphs are. Our thought was that it’s better to have the most recent first, as in a normal blog, in the interest of keeping the thing as a living exchange. You don’t want readers to have to do tons of scrolling to get to the latest installment. It’s reverse linear, I realize, but the book hieararchy to the side will allow readers to see an archive view of the book that goes 1-200 in the proper order. There are ways we could make that clearer, like inviting visitors to “read from the beginning” or something.
Ken said:
>I think it should also have a sort of free fire zone where people can comment and discuss without it being tied to particular parts of the book.
This is certainly something we should consider. You’ll notice that the “binary thinking for humans” post was made by another user. This is our gesture toward the democracy of list-serves. We figure that there are three ways a user can interact with this site:
1. They simply read it (and later are moved to buy your book, or change the world)
2. They read it and sometimes post comments
3. They read it, sometimes post comments, and even sometimes post top-level threads (like the “binary thinking” one).
1 and 2 are obviously open and unrestricted (though we might need some moderation once the spammers find us). Number 3, however, would require a guest account, so we’re working out a way to allow users to create logins. In the spirit of the game, they would be allowed to choose an icon from classic game culture (that’s just something we’re toying with, let us know what you think). Mario for you was a purely arbitrary choice. You can be a space invader, Metroid, Yoshi or whoever.
Anyway, this allows people to start threads of their own, though they are, as you point out, interspersed within the set structure of the book according to the time they were posted. If you want something that is freer of the book’s structure, we would need something like a free fire zone.
Regarding your second comments:
>– and if the columns could be a bit wider or the text a bit more
>compressed (less leading, maybe) to try and get the whole paragraph
>on the screen. The longest are 250 words (or if they’re not, i’m
>cutting them down).
>… if i wanted to update the text, how could that work?
We can certainly tweak the formatting. Our goal is to have two full sections visible and a third cut off, giving the visual clue that there is more content to the side.
As for updating text, that’s a very good question. Jesse, any ideas?
We could color code additions and deletions – like a track changes function. We could also work revised paragraphs into the main stream, though this could quickly get confusing. If you see 84, 83, some dude’s post, 82, then 41 with all kinds of markings on it, then 81, it might be a little disorienting.
Anyway, let’s keep talking this through. Remember to copy everyone so we’re all part of the discussion.
– Ben
Thu, Jan 26, 2006 at 5:08 PM
Jesse Wilbur
To: Ben Vershbow
Cc: Ken Wark, Bob Stein
Subject: Re: a start
I think coded additions and deletions are probably the best way to
handle, for the reasons that ben noted. Getting that info into the
stream of the posts does pose a little bit of a problem. My first
reaction is to have some area of the screen dedicated to the “latest
updates” which would be unrestricted to the flow of the chapters.
Possibly in the upper right corner, as a list of small text links.
To help get all of a paragraph on the screen, I can 1) reduce the
leading, 2) move the icon to the left hand side, return address style.
It will still serve the purpose of visually marking a post as belonging to a particular author, but reduce some of the stacking.
Thu, Jan 26, 2006 at 5:28 PM
Ben Vershbow
To: Jesse Wilbur
Cc: Ken Wark, Bob Stein
Subject: Re: a start
The question of revisions is important and very tricky. Tracking changes would have to be done by hand, which could get burdensome. Ideally, each entry would have a revision history. But that’s simply not something Word Press is built to do. We’ll look into ways that we can mess with it, but we’re pushing it nearly to breaking point as it is.
There’s also the question of how soon we want to get this thing up. I say the sooner the better (initially I was thinking in the next two weeks), but if we want to get revisions right, it might take longer.
We’re going to confer on this and weigh our options.
We’ll be at a conference tomorrow so may have less time to work on this. But let’s keep talking about anything and everything we want to add/remove/change on the current design.
– Ben
Thu, Jan 26, 2006 at 7:32 PM
Ken Wark
To: Ben Vershbow, Jesse Wilbur
Cc: Bob Stein
Subject: Re: a start
revisions need not be a big deal. It would be useful to be able to take a chunk of text out and put another one in. That the pars are numbered makes that easy.
We then hunkered down for the next few days and came up with some new mockups.
Wed, Feb 1, 2006 at 2:02 PM
Ben Vershbow
To: Ken Wark, Jesse Wilbur, Bob Stein
Subject: Site Draft(s) 2
Hi Ken,
So we’ve made a second stab at a design. Several stabs, actually, which leaves us a little more confused than before, but I think productively confused. I do believe we’re getting somewhere.
Go to /mckenziewark and you will see a menu of three new mockups (just graphics, not interactive). Three and a half, to be precise (one of them has two views). These are rough, and are missing some important elements, but we wanted to keep you in on the discussion. So here they are, warts and all.
But before you look at these sketches, I’ll briefly summarize how we got from what we had the other day to what we have today. So. The initial design had two major problems. One you pointed out, namely that the interspersing of visitor posts among book paragraphs (a bloggish gesture toward the democracy of list servers) did not meaningfully subtract from the primacy of the author in the flow of discussion. This was problem number one, and it led us to give up on trying to fully integrate free-fire discussion with the syndicated book. After all, this project is inescapably about the primacy of the author. Sure, we’re poking at it, gently undermining it — suggesting that a book is as much about process as product — but it’s still your book, your name. We decided that the design should embrace this fact, while also providing alternative venues for more equitable exchange.
The second problem was one we realized only after getting over the “oh, how cool this looks” stage of analysis, namely that horizontal scrolling, lovely as it is, runs into difficulties when you are working with such a large amount of content, much of it coming in at inpredictable intervals and in varying amounts (i.e. comments). It’s a question of real estate. We have only so much space on the screen (keeping in mind the smallest standard browser window) and since we want comments to be visible in the main view, we’ve got an awful lot of material to get organized. If you look at the original mockup, you’ll see how this necessitates a combination of vertical and horizontal scrolling. The result is that when you come to the page, instead of a clearly defined website, you see something that looks more like the upper-left corner of a map — not well formatted for a browser. Seeing as the browser is the reading tool of choice, this won’t do at all.
Having both horizontal and vertical scrolling emphasizes the disadvantages of both and the advantages of neither. The Herald Tribune site works nicely because it is dealing with set amounts of text that it can flow cleanly into successive horizontal plates. If we were dealing only with the book, sans comments or discussion, we could do something similarly elegant. But there are more variables in play here, and like it or not, a dynamic work such as this, given the tools currently available, strongly tends toward a vertical display.
(first mockup graphic)
Still, as you’ll see in our first new mockup, we’ve still struggled to make the horizontal work. In this one, the paragraphs flow vertically, but the comments flow horizontally. In this case, the horizontal is more intuitive, since we naturally read left to right and the comments are ordered chronologically in the same way. But we still run into the real estate problem described earlier and the reader ends up having to scroll in multiple directions. You’ll notice also a menu on the sidebar pointing to discussion topics in a free-fire forum. This is not at all the way this would look, it’s just a crude marker. It would lead to a page of topics that anyone could post. We’re also thinking of a way to allow readers to post a comment simultaneously under a paragraph and as its own forum thread.
(second mockup graphic)
The second mockup keeps the comments to the right, but arranges them vertically. This isn’t so bad, except that when you have a lot of comments, and you open them up, it starts to seriously push the next post down, which looks awkward. But maybe this is not such a problem.
(third mockup graphic)
The third reflects our attempt to keep the free-fire discussion on the main page next to the book flow. The problem with this is that, though the two streams are clearly related, there is no mechanism provided with which to draw specific connection points. In other words, this design implicitly promises something it cannot deliver, and will come off seeming arbitrary and not well thought out.
The other big thing to throw into the mix, but which is not yet reflected in these sketches, is the question of versioning. We’ve figured out some reasonably simple ways to incorporate versioning into the design and feel that, given the goals of the project, this is one of the most important ingredients to include. The kind of versioning we’re imagining would include a sort of “track changes” function and would automatically archive all past incarnations of a paragraph.
So to sum up, I think what we’re moving toward is something that combines elements of all three sketches and throws in the element of versioning. We may have to let go of the idea of horizontal scrolling, but we’re confident that we’ll still be presenting comments in an interesting way. The free-fire discussion element will be there, but in a different space, yet we will advertise it prominently on the front page and try to find a simple but effective way to connect it to the book-centered comments.
And having said all that (sorry it was so long-winded), we’d like to hear from you which, among the elements we’ve laid out, you think are most important to include in the final design, and in what proportions. What works and what doesn’t work? What are things we are obsessing about that need not be obsessed about? What are things we’re still missing?
With a little more work, I think we can have something ready to go in the next week or two.
– Ben
Wed, Feb 1, 2006 at 2:19 PM
Ken Wark
To: Bob Stein, Ben Vershbow, Jesse Wilbur
Subject: Re: Site Draft(s) 2
wow, that’s a lot to think about, but its an interesting set of
problems. I’ll have a think about it, but maybe it would be best to meet
and kick it around. How’s Friday?
Wed, Feb 1, 2006 at 2:48 PM
Ben Vershbow
To: Ken Wark, Jesse Wilbur, Bob Stein
Subject: Re: Site Draft(s) 2
Meeting face to face is a good idea and Friday works well.
Wed, Feb 1, 2006 at 3:26 PM
Subject: Re: Site Draft(s) 2
Ben Vershbow
To: Ken Wark
Cc: Jesse Wilbur, Bob Stein
Hey Ken,
One other thing…
Here at the institute we’re generally trying to find ways we can do our work more in the open, and thinking about it, our email exchange about the site design have actually turned out to be pretty interesting, maybe even interesting enough for people to want to read them on our blog.
This project poses some big questions about the work of ideas in the network of ideas, and our little back-and-forth is turning into an intriguing little document at the intersection of theory and practice.
How would you feel about us posting it?
– Ben
Wed, Feb 1, 2006 at 4:16 PM
Ken Wark
To: Ben Vershbow
Cc: Jesse Wilbur, Bob Stein
Subject: Re: Site Draft(s) 2
sure, let’s start a public thread on it
i’m starting to wonder if it ought not to feature the book too centrally at all. What if the front of the site was about the games that the book is about? (I’ve pasted in the contents below). The architecture for commenting on the book could be a layer, but in front of that could be a more conventional set of forums about particular games.
Allegory (on The Sims) 25
America (on Civilization III) 47
Analog (on Katamari Damarcy) 66
Atopia (on Vice City) 83
Battle (on Rez) 104
Boredom (on State of Emergency) 124
Complex (on Deus Ex) 147
Conclusions (on SimEarth) 162
see you fri
…which just about brings us up to the present moment. If you have any thoughts/questions/comments, we’re all ears.

8 thoughts on “GAM3R 7H30RY: a work in progress… in progress

  1. Bud Parr

    I like the mockup, particularly with the comments to the side where they are far more prominent than usual.

    re: IHT – I don’t know if it’s my browser, but I don’t see what you’re talking about with the IHT site. It scrolls down just like everything else. All I see is a four column layout – fairly standard. Is there a different version or something?

    One other thing about comments (slightly off-topic, but I hope helpful). I’ve found that email notification (you make a post or comment on one and you get notified of any subsequent comments) spurs more conversation than without any notification or feeds. Feeds for the same purpose (I think wordpress does this) aren’t bad on a post-by-post thing, and probably less obtrusive, but then it’s cumbersome keeping up with them all. Comment feeds for the whole site don’t work at all, in my view.

    Finally, for what it’s worth, Zembla magazine (now defunct, I believe) had a side-to-side scrolling site and it was not met happily (although there were other issues as well).

  2. bowerbird

    this is right up my alley.
    i will create a site for you how i would design it.
    you can send me the text of the book for my demo,
    or otherwise i will use the text of some other book…

  3. bowerbird

    ok, i’ll use the manifesto text.
    i won’t have time to upload
    a demo before your meeting,
    as i’m a west-coast sleep-in,
    but i’ll put it up this weekend.
    if you design a page you like,
    let me know so i can grab it,
    and i’ll put it in my code, as
    i consider the page design
    to be cosmetic, in large part.
    even though i recognize that
    design been your focus so far,
    i think in the operation of the
    experiment, you will discover
    that the more important factor
    is the ease of moving material
    between offline writing arena
    and online commenting arena.
    when every paragraph becomes
    a discrete item, which may have
    lots of comments hooked on it,
    and you are doing various edits,
    organizational problems mount.
    (once you venture to the land of
    track-changes, you will scream.)
    so my focus is on an application
    that facilitates that organization,
    for a workflow that simplifies…

  4. Bud Parr

    Oh, yes, I see what you mean. Very nice, and no scrolling – very good. Funnily, the only scrolling you have to do is to scroll down because they’ve taken up so much ad space on the top, you can’t (on my browser) see the article without scrolling. – minor quibble with what is otherwise a very good presentation.

  5. bowerbird

    i’ve got something ready to put up…
    it’s bare-bones, with no design, but
    a css wizard could make it look nice.
    (isn’t that what the css people say?)
    i still believe my comment above on
    managing of the totality of the text
    should be a big concern, even more
    than interface issues, and i wonder
    what you’ve thought in that regard?…

  6. ben vershbow

    Our primary goal with this is to create a compelling online reading environment for the book. Though it’s broken down into hundreds of discrete units, the reader will always know exactly where they are in the book with the help of a simple structure map above the cards. So I’m pretty confident that the sense of totality will not be compromised.

    I appreciate your concern for “ease of moving material between offline writing arena and online commenting arena.” You’ve identified one of the weaknesses of our design. We’re still toying with the idea of versioning, but the main objective here is to put up a draft of the book to gather commentary. How that commentary will be used remains to be seen and is ultimately up to Ken. The book will almost certainly go through further revision but it’s not yet clear whether that will occur in real time or after the initial period of the experiment when Ken has had time to absorb and process the feedback. In part, this will depend on how much feedback we get, and on how persistent it is. Again, this is Gamer Theory Version 1.0. Things could change as we go.

    That said, we’re curious to see what you’ve done with Hacker Manifesto. Where can we take a look?

  7. bowerbird

    ben said:
    > Where can we take a look?
    it’s one of the books in a handful of demos i’ve put up recently:
    these are demos of a system i call “continuous proofreading”,
    where the general public serves as our “final proofreaders”
    for books from the public-domain that have been digitized…
    to facilitate that, the text for a page is displayed side-by-side
    with the image-scan of that page, so they can be compared…
    at the bottom of each page is an error-reporting form with
    a “comment” field that can be used for annotation purposes.
    it’s this comment field that could be expanded for annotation.
    this is just the underlying “engine” for an annotation system;
    you’d have to bring in the css people to make it look all pretty.
    in order to make “a hacker manifesto” fit in this template,
    i generated “scans” of the book via simple screen-captures,
    and they look pretty crappy on a p.c. (sorry about that, but
    maybe you p.c. people should just go buy a mac anyway…) ;+)
    p.s. you’ll notice one of my demo-books was “liberated” from
    the google library project. indeed, it was their first example of
    a public-domain book. it’s now safely in the hands of the public,
    so it won’t matter if google eventually tries to lock it up, will it?
    we should likewise liberate all google’s public-domain books.
    (there’s no reason for us to relinquish our control to them…)

Comments are closed.