Digital Seriality

I need to elaborate a second context before staging an encounter between seriality studies and the digital humanities. This concerns the specifically digital forms of seriality that pertain to digital games and gaming communities, marking them as both continuous with but also different from the popular cultures that originated in the nineteenth century and that revolve around serialized print and analog media formats. In the last section, with reference to Lev Manovich (2001), I began outlining some of the ways that digital media are inherently involved in serialization processes; however, Manovich's focus is primarily on the media–technical differences between old and new media, and so the transcoding processes he describes—and which interest me with respect to serialization in particular—are rather one-sided. My aim is to trace, with the help of digital methods, bi-directional pathways across code and community, and this requires theoretical perspectives and models of computational and cultural agencies that will allow us to see how inherited cultural forms can exert force at the level of code as much as the other way around. The multi-leveled framework that Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and I have elsewhere (Denson & Jahn-Sudmann, 2013) called digital seriality aims to enable such a perspective by detailing the hierarchy of planes—both computational and cultural—across which serialization processes transpire in digital games and gaming communities.

Inter-Ludic Seriality: Collage of Super Mario Games
Figure 1. Inter-ludic seriality establishes forms and processes between games.

1. Inter-Ludic Seriality

A natural starting point for investigating serial forms and processes in games and gaming communities is inter-ludic seriality—that is, the serialization processes that take place between games, establishing series such as Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, 3 and so on. For the most part, such inter-ludic series are constituted by fairly standard, commercially motivated practices of serialization, expressed in sequels, spin-offs, and the like; accordingly, they are a familiar part of the popular culture that has developed under capitalist modernity since the time of industrialization. So, on this level at least, there is a great deal of overlap with pre-digital forms of seriality (as expressed in serialized novels, films, TV shows, etc.). But while this might be the most immediately apparent form of serialization, games also involve seriality across a variety of other levels.

Intra-Ludic Seriality: Collage of Super Mario Levels
Figure 2. The repetition of levels in Super Mario Bros. shows intra-ludic seriality.

2. Intra-Ludic Seriality

Intra-ludic seriality refers to processes of repetition and variation that take place within games themselves, for example in the 8 worlds and 32 levels of Super Mario Bros. Here, a general framework is basically repeated while varying and in some cases increasingly difficult tasks and obstacles are introduced as Mario searches for the lost princess. Following cues from Umberto Eco (1985) and others, this formula of repetition + variation is taken here as the formal core of seriality; games can therefore be seen to involve an operational form of seriality that is in many ways more basic than, while often foundational to, the narrative serialization processes that they also display.

Para-Ludic Seriality: Collage of Mario Tie-Ins and Crossovers: movies, comics, etc.
Figure 3. Crossovers and Tie-ins of Super Mario Bros. are an example of para-ludic seriality.

3. Para-Ludic Seriality

On the other hand, this low-level seriality is matched by higher-level processes that encompass and go beyond the realm of narrative—beyond even the games themselves. Para-ludic seriality involves tie-ins and cross-overs with other media, including the increasingly dominant trend towards transmedia storytelling, aggressive merchandising, and the like. Clearly, this is part of an expanding commercial realm, but it is also the basis for a social superstructure, itself highly serialized, that forms around or atop these serialized media, as fans take to the Internet to discuss (and play) their favorite games. In itself, this type of series-based community building is nothing new. In fact, it may just be a niche form of a much more general phenomenon that is characteristic for modernity at large. Benedict Anderson (1991, 1998) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1991 [1960]) before him have described modern forms of collectivity in terms of seriality, and they have linked these formations to serialized media consumption and those media's serial forms (see also Boluk & Lemieux, 2012; Denson & Mayer, 2012). According to these thinkers, newspapers, novels, photography, and radio have effectively serialized community and identity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

4. Infra-Ludic Seriality

Interestingly, though, in the digital era, this high-level community-building seriality is sometimes folded into an ultra low-level, infra-ludic form of seriality—a level that is generally invisible and that takes place at the level of code. This enfolding of community into code, broadly speaking, is what motivates the critical code studies (CCS) enterprise, defined by Mark Marino (2006) as

Infra-Ludic Seriality: Hexcode and Source Code: Mario Mod and Super Star Trek
Figure 4. Infra-ludic seriality takes place at the level of the code.
an approach that applies critical hermeneutics to the interpretation of computer code, program architecture, and documentation within a socio-historical context. CCS holds that lines of code are not value-neutral and can be analyzed using the theoretical approaches applied to other semiotic systems in addition to particular interpretive methods developed particularly for the discussions of programs. Critical Code Studies follows the work of Critical Legal Studies, in that its practitioners apply critical theory to a functional document (legal document or computer program) to explicate meaning in excess of the document's functionality, critiquing more than merely aesthetics and efficiency. Meaning grows out of the functioning of the code but is not limited to the literal processes the code enacts. Through CCS, practitioners may critique the larger human and computer systems, from the level of the computer to the level of the society in which these code objects circulate and exert influence.
Basically, then, the questions that I am here pursuing, in the interest of staging an encounter between digital seriality and the digital humanities, are predicated upon another encounter as well. I am concerned, that is, with the possibilities of crossing critical code studies with digital humanities—CCS with DH—and with exploring the consequences and affordances for a critical investigation of digital game-based seriality. My goal in this undertaking is to find a means of correlating formations in the high-level social superstructure of gaming communities with the infra-ludic serialization at the level of code—not only through close readings of individual texts but by way of distant readings and other interactions with the large collections of data produced by online collectives. It is with this goal in mind that I turn now to my case study: Correlating Code and Community on