Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Moby Dick is a Game

In our Digital Culture class, we've already discussed a lot about the complicated idea of what type of book Moby Dick really is. Looking at the digital mediation post Dr. Burton wrote brought me back to that question as he encouraged us to deliberately disrupt the text to see it in a new light. After reading Ian Bogost's How to Do Things with Videogames and pondering game design a lot lately, I started to mediate Moby Dick through the lens of game design, and I wish to argue here how Moby Dick is a game--not that it could be adapted into a game well, but that the book itself is a kind of game.

Jane McGonigal defines a game in her book Reality is Broken as anything with four essential characteristics: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. McGonigal uses these loose principles to define games very broadly, and it's easy to apply these principles to Moby Dick, with the exception of a feedback system. The goal, rules, and voluntary participation are apparent--the goal is to read the words of the book, the rules are to start at the beginning, read from left to right, top to bottom, and there's no one really forcing you to keep going, so participation is voluntary.

We never think of traditional books having a feedback, system, however, so it's easy to disqualify Moby Dick as a game. But is there no feedback in Moby Dick? The reason this novel is so hard to classify is because it does so many different things and serves so many different functions. One of these unique things is set up a system for the reader whereas more effort draws more meaning to the plot. One could argue that all books do this, but Moby Dick is particular because it is specifically designed for this purpose. As I've argued before, Melville establishes this extra connection and extra meaning through the non-narrative chapters of the work. Among the many other things these extra chapters do, they establish a rudimentary feedback system for readers by showing them the meaning of a thing, then challenging their understanding of that symbolism by using those same symbols in subsequent narrative chapters.

In this sense, Moby Dick even scales up in difficulty and complexity as the "game" goes on. As the reader encounters more symbols and meanings in additional non-narrative chapters, the symbols to remember and apply add up over time, resulting in the ultimate "boss fight" of the final confrontation with the whale where nearly all of the symbols Melville builds throughout the book come together in a rich allegory that unfolds in the final three chapters. Now, Moby Dick certainly doesn't tell you explicitly if you succeeded in understanding everything or not, but the narrative does serve as a proving ground for the reader's understanding of the symbols and philosophy presented in the non-narrative chapters, leaving just the final step to the reader to check himself or herself for understanding of how the symbols interweave with the allegory.

Of course, no one is going to hold up Moby Dick in a conference and seriously claim Melville wrote a game and not a novel, but applying this framework of thought over the text shows us new things about it. Mainly, it instantly flips the prioritization of its content in our minds. When we look at Moby Dick as a novel, we search for its narrative, and see anything as "extra" or even "deviations," as they've been called. However, when seen as a game, at the very least we see the narrative and non-narrative working together to accomplish reader understanding, and liberally we see the narrative as only a tool to check understanding of the true content, the philosophical and moral points Melville presents in the book. We often see games built around otherwise boring or hard-to-digest material, such as games designed to test typing skill or accuracy that give meaning to a menial task and invite participation. This same principles applies very well to Moby Dick, as most of Melville's actual communication and expression comes from the proper reading of the symbols and allegories of Moby Dick, and not just the story of a crazed sea captain. Viewing Moby Dick as an instance of game design not only alters our interpretation of the work, but enlightens and enhances it.