Hors-Categorie: An Embodied, Affective Approach to Interactive Fiction

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

The interactive fiction work "Hors-Categorie" stages a virtual encounter between bodies in a hotel room along the Tour de France bicycle race. 

In the story, the player is confronted with a number of decisions regarding his or her body, which, in the game state exists virtually. Various bodily choices—blood doping, shaving one's legs, peeing in a cup—lead to the generation of affects that alter the game state. My effort in writing this work—concerning doping, cyclists, bodies, and ethics—is to think through the potentialities for engaging, designing, and theorizing new media with an emphasis on the embodied nature of affect. 

I argue that by thinking through together the indeterminacy of affect, the indeterminacy of the bodies that generate affects, and the virtuality of new media, we can experiment with the capabilities and capacities of each of these concepts. The rich inter-animation of affect, the body, and new media can co-produce virtualities that not only enliven each terms' potentiality, but indeed can contribute to what I suggest is an "ethics of experimentation" that is needed to think through relations of the body, feelings, technology, and new media. Put differently, I wish to mobilize these concepts together to suggest an inherent affinity that expands our theories of the embodied nature of affect and its crucial role in new media work. 

"Hors categorie" is a designation for climbs in the Tour de France that are "beyond classification." That is, the intensities of the climbs—the grade of the climb, the altitude, the weather possibilities—do not fit within the classificatory scheme the race uses elsewhere. I choose this pun for my interactive fiction experiment to highlight the indeterminacy—the virtuality, even—of the sporting body when it encounters emergent technologies that threaten systems of classification—classifications of bodies and their capacities, of drugs, and of ethical codes of conduct—and elude the very technologies designed to produce those classifications—drugs tests, ethical charters, etc. My presentation, both a work of interactive fiction and an academic essay, is an attempt at creatively staging a number of theoretical encounters in order to experiment with bodies, affects, interactive fiction, and ethics. 

My presentation takes advantage of the configurative possibilities of game play and links that to the configurative possibilities of bodies and of the virtual, by staging a virtual encounter between bodies in a hotel room along the Tour de France race. In the story, the player is confronted with a number of decisions regarding his or her body, which, in the game state exists virtually. Various choices—blood doping, taking aspirin, shaving one's legs, opening doors, watching television, peeing in a cup—lead to the generation of affects, both offered by the game state, or parser, and as experienced in the player. How does the player experience his or her body? Does the player avail themselves of the medical technologies present? How do these alter how the player feels? How do the various—and temporally fleeting—judgments imposed upon players influence their relationships to their virtual/real bodies, and the movements that arise from these relationships? What emerges from the confluence of affective intensity and provisional judgment of this intensity? How does this influence subsequent action? How do these bodies—parser, virtual bodies, "real" bodies -intermingle and co-constitute new bodies through the generation of affects? My hope is that the game provides an amusing (!) platform for meta-reflection on these questions and, I imagine, their somewhat indeterminate, provisional answers. This type of experimentation allows us to introduce affect and virtuality into "regimes of living" (Collier and Lakoff, 2002), which allows for a certain type of animation of ethical questions. At the level of design and coding, this project attempts an experiment with what has been discussed as Silvan Tomkins' (1995) "cybernetic" theory of affect. Tomkins' theory of affect emerged in the context of, and was influenced by, the cybernetic theories of Norbert Weiner. In a conceptualization that greatly informs my efforts here, Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank (1995) discuss Tomkins' critical distinction—countering Freud—between drives and instincts as analogous with a distinction between digital and analogue: drives exist as binary motivations (on/off) while affects have qualitatively differently possibilities. If drives operate in a "stop/start" way, then affects, which Tompkins claims are instinctual, are more "and/and/and". For Sedgwick and Frank, this model allows us to understand how things differentiate: how quantitative differences turn into qualitative ones, how digital and analog representations leap-frog or interleave with one another. My interactive fiction work experiments with at the level of writing how various affects can combine with each other in certain configurations following actions—and how this can be written into code. The translation of analogic affect into digital code back into analogic affect through the virtual possibilities of thought and bodies interests me—so I have written "hors-categorie."

(Source: Author's abstract, 2008 ELO Conference)

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Scott Rettberg