The Campaign to Nethack YikYak

Let’s start by getting one thing straight: I’m neither a luddite about technology (as I hope other entries in this blog show) nor a big naysayer about social media. I’m as guilty of spending too much time on Facebook, and all that, as anyone.

A typical Nethack screen. The player is the "@."

A typical Nethack screen. The player is the “@.”

A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to Yik Yak. (I know, I’m behind the game–but while I’ve always been interested in all things tech I’ve never been an early adopter.) For those unfamiliar with Yik Yak, it’s a social media tool whereby users post messages, a bit like tweets. The difference is that the basis of Yik Yak is geographic: rather than seeing posts from groups of self-selected friends, Yik Yak uses location services to display only “yaks” from one’s location. The other difference is that the individial posts are entirely anonymous.

On the one hand, reading through posts on Yik Yak is fascinating. It’s a bit like having a sort of radio receiver that picks up on the subconsious thoughts of all your neighbors. For the same reason, however, it’s simultaneously quite creepy, as though we’re all staring at secret webcams webcam feeds from within our neighbors’ bathrooms. Something like Yik Yak might also seem to give users an opportunity to vent thoughts and frustrations they might not feel comfortable venting elsewhere–and some of the posts can indeed be quite clever. On the other, there’s a great deal of empty posturing–a lot of people advertising what’s less the expression of a subconscious than an engineered projection of how users wish their subconscious minds or unstated thoughts might appear to others voyeuristically tapping in on them. Therein lies some of its attraction, I think: it provides an opportunity for users to feel as though they are intentionally “branding” their own ids. (Of course, if you’re intentionally trying to “brand” your id through social media, it’s not really your id that’s showing…)

Yik Yak seems to me a relatively destructive way of using such imagination. It seems to reveal the worst in everyone around you (whether they’re really that awful or just wanting to brand themselves as such). It’s also been the source of a number of problems on campuses, a place to start and publicize very nasty rumors, or the perfect anonymous forum for cyber-bullying of the worst variety.

So, here, I would like to attempt to start my very own online viral campaign: the Campaign to NetHack Yik Yak.

The Campaign asks users of Yik Yak to do two simple thing: First, delete Yik Yak from your phone, tablet, or whatever, and, in its place, install NetHack (more on what this is in a moment). Second, spend the time you would normally spend on Yik Yak playing NetHack.

For those not familiar with NetHack, it’s a computer game, originally written, years ago, for Unix systems. It has the distinction of being the oldest computer game still in continuous development. Think about just that aspect: expert game designers and programmers have been working on this thing, refining and improving it, for that many years. In many ways its the ancestor of a lot of more modern games: if you’ve ever played something like Diablo or Torchlight, you’ve engaged with once of NetHack’s direct descendants. More indirectly, it’s the ancestor of the first-person shooter: the original FPS games, like DOOM, were conceived as something like NetHack from a first-person perspective.

On its surface, NetHack is a “dungeon crawler” or “roguelike” game. You start out at the top level of an underground “dungeon” with a mission to retrieve a mysterious artifact that lies at its deepest level. To get there, you must pass through many, many levels made up of rooms and tunnels, where you encounter friends and foes, traps and obstacles, puzzles and mysteries. You also have an animal companion who travels with you, can can assist you in many ways (though you have to work to discover many of them).

For me, there are several great things about NetHack:

For one, it’s all imagination. Played in its purest form, NetHack’s “graphics” consist only of ascii characters in a terminal window–no fancy images whatsoever. Like words in a good poem, those ascii characters are simply prods for your own imagination, in which you flesh out the appearance of the dungeon and its denizens. It might seem strange at first to those accustomed to flashy xbox titles, but what one begins to discover as one gets used to playing the game is that there is no better graphics card and no better CG designer than the one between your ears. NetHack is an adventure that takes place in the playground of your own imagination. And there’s no better place to play.

For another, once you get used to how the gameplay works, it’s an incredibly clever game. What might, at first, look like a very minimal interface with a very simple goal (get through all the dungeon levels without getting killed), the more one plays the more one discovers that all the energy that modern game developers put into graphics has instead been put into the imaginative and creative aspects of the game-play itself. The usual mantra of NetHack fans is “the developers thought of everything”–and the more one plays, the more this becomes apparent. The entire game is rife with possibility.

A third, less-touted aspect of the game (and my personal favorite) is that it’s very literary. Text shows up everywhere in the game, especially when one “looks” at any creature or item within. It’s also a game that’s very–to use the term my literary colleagues would apply–“intertextual.” That is, it quotes literary texts everywhere. For example, when one encounters a lizard as a “monster” in the game and “looks” at it, instead of some artist’s representation of a fantastical lizard, one gets this:

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

It doesn’t take a lot of literary knowledge to realize the source of the quotation as one of the scenes of the Three “Weyard Sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Instead of simply accepting whatever graphical image of a lizard a game designer or artist might throw at him or her, then, the player gets a host of imaginative prompts. As the player imagines his or her way through the images in Shakespeare’s verse (detailing the scariest parts of the scariest creatures), and also, perhaps, realizing the connotations of this scene in Macbeth (the witches cooking up Macbeth’s evil fate), one develops not just a visual image of the lizard but an emotional one as well. The text gives you not only what the creature looks like but how it feels, invoking an entire atmosphere of dread, creepy stings, flicking forked tongues, boiling and bubbling. It’s as though the developers have invented a graphics card that conveys not only visual but all other sensory and emotional impressions. That’s the lizard you’re fighting.

Similarly, when a character finds a wand lying on the dungeon floor, he/she might be confronted with this:

‘Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice grew in power and authority.’Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council.’He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice ‘Saruman, your staff is broken.’ There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. ‘Go!’ said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away.

Now that’s (with apologies to both Harry Potter and Paul Hogan) a wand!

So there’s my advertisement for the game. The best graphics you’ve ever seen, because the graphics are literary and emotive as well as simply visual. The more you play, the more you discover.

All of which is to convince you to do this:

Rather than engage in the negative, creepy, voyeuristic, and often destructive brand of imagination that is Yik Yak, why not take advantage of the exuberant, positive, and, ultimately, incredibly fun imagination of NetHack?

The other nice thing about NetHack is that various developers have ported it to run on everything: your iPhone, your Android phone, your tablet, your PC running Windows, MacOS, Linux, whatever. It’s a tiny program that takes up negligible memory, but in all other ways its a “bigger” game than anything else you could fit on your phone (it’s the only one I have on mine), because its scope is the scope of your own imagination.

Interested? There’s even more in praise of the game here, and a great Salon article here.

So that’s it. Ditch Yik Yak. Play NetHack.

Who’s with me?

P.S. If you’d like to try NetHack, it is free and open-source software, that comes in many different “flavors.” The most basic version, which I prefer, consists only of ascii characters, but there are other versions that use various sets of more-or-less sophisticated graphics, known as “tiles” to make the game a little easier to navigate and give it more visual appeal.

To download and play Nethack on a PC or Mac, everything you need is available [here]http://www.nethack.org/). This is the main Nethack site, which includes versions for Windows, Linux, and MacOS.

To play Nethack on your tablet or phone, free versions are readily available through the Google Play Store for Android devices, and the Apple App Store for iOS devices.

You can find a handy beginner’s guide to playing Nethack, including basic controls and gameplay, here.

In Praise of the “And” in an “Or” Culture

I was struck recently by A New York Times column by Frank Bruni, anChaucer's Pilgrim Color individual of a kind of rhetoric that’s become a species unto itself in recent years: laments about the state of the “humanities” in contemporary universities.

I found myself agreeing with many of Bruni’s broadest points but questioning most of the particulars he used to make them. Like Bruni, I agree that university education broadly, and particularly in the humanities, is not simply about gaining what might be termed “job skills.” Rather, it’s about training that most important of human muscles–the mind–to be a sharper, nimbler, more creative, more adaptable instrument. It might, too, even be about helping students to create what Aristotle might call “flourishing” lives. Part of college can and should be about “getting a job.” Only part. The rest is about something bigger: building a life that honors and enhances every aspect of students’ existence: mind, body, and spirit. A humanist might call this training in becoming a whole person; a Buddhist might call it training in becoming one with the universe; a Christian or Jewish person, training in the love of one’s neighbor as one’s self.

What perplexed me about Bruni’s column, however, was the repetition of what I suspect has become a too-easy refrain in such laments about the humanities: the idea that the “problem” is the professors themselves, who have allowed their noble profession be become infected by the nefarious influences of an Ugly Thing called “Theory” or “Cultural Studies.” An often-used corollary to this is a concurrent accusation that humanities faculty have “dumbed down” their subjects in order to pander to popular cultural fads, playing to their students as “customers” rather than learners. It’s always seemed a little strange to me that these accusations are paired as though they’re not contradictory–professors in the humanites apparently manage to be too smart and too dumb, to complex and too simple, too theoretical and not theoretical enough, all at the same time.

Bruni recounts the lament of a former professor of his, an expert in Renaissance Poetry (who I’m sure is a wonderful person and accomplished scholar from whom I could learn much; I’m critiquing an idea here, not this individual), that “Chaucer has become Chaucer and …Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

That is one loaded “and.”

It’s used, in that sentence, seemingly, to encompass everything that’s gone wrong with teaching in the humanities. It’s those pesky “ands.” Why can’t we just teach “Shakespeare” and not “Shakespeare and..” Why not just pure Chaucer rather than “Chaucer and…”? Is the “and” what’s keeping us, as the same professor notes, from affirming college as an experience that “develops something in you that’s like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles…”?

I’d like to offer an alternative view, namely, that the “and” might be the most important thing for those of us who want to teach in the humanities toward the ends that Bruni himself values. The “and” muscle is likely the weakest one in our culture, and as such the most important muscle teaching in the humanities must train.

I might start by pointing out that Shakespeare himself was a particular fan of that correlative: Shakespeare loved “and” so much that many of his most famous lines use it with great intention and effect, as when Hamlet speaks of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or when he tells Horatio that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It is this figure of speech that also allows Iago, in Othello, to talk about the danger of expressing the “native act and figure” of his heart, or Prospero, in The Tempest to ask about his daughter’s memory of the “dark backward and abysm” of time. The techy rhetorical term for this particular use of “and” is hendiadys.

The effect of a hendiadys is to slow us down, derail our preconceptions about an idea, and lead us to consider more possibilities in richer and more complex relationships. Take Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” line: the phrase is in some ways so commonly known that we nearly gloss over it, but, as Simon Palfrey notes, a moment’s thought disrupts any knee-jerk impression: why slings and arrows? After all, one doesn’t shoot arrows with slings, and “bows and arrows,” which actually makes a lot more immediate sense, still fits the rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse. So the figure gives us some pause: why slings and not bows? That pause leads us to reflect on both words. Slings make a circular movement, whipping around and around until practically invisible, and, when released, hurl a stone that can fell a Goliath. “Slings” functions grammatically as a noun here, but can also be a verb: “to sling.” On this end of Shakespeare’s “and,” fortune is something that whips us around, throws us willy-nilly into the unexpected with irresistible, destructive centrifugal force. The plural is also significant: there are lots of those things whipping us around. “Arrows,” on the other side of the “and,” are something else: arrows are about linearity; they point, fly in precisely directed rays. They pierce with precision. The discontinuity of the two terms on either side of the “and,” then, is what causes us to pause long enough to take Hamlet’s full meaning of the nature of “outrageous fortune:” it’s all the connotations of both of those terms, plus the disruption that happens in our own minds when we try to reconcile them. Hamlet’s fortune is never something we can turn into the easy equivalents we’d like the “and” to represent. That single hendiadys, too, is only one part of a famous speech that only becomes more full of substance and possibility the more one slows down to consider its words.

I might call Chaucer another big fan of the “and,” in the sense that he tends to add rather than subtract concepts. In the Canterbury Tales, we’re confronted by a whole series of implied “ands” in the portraits of the many characters, who, “by aventure yfalle in felaweshipe,” are about to set out on a pilgrimage toward the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. There’s always another one: a knight, and a squire, and a yeoman, and (a Miller and a Prioress and a Wyf of Bath and a Summoner and a Parson and…) always one more. When they begin their storytelling, one can never only consider that story in isolation, because their stories speak to one another, operating, at the level of structure, in a similar fashion to the way in which hendiadys operate at the level of words in Shakespeare: The Knight tells the first story, and almost everyone seems satisfied, until the Miller jumps in and insists on telling his story, which is in many ways a response to and critique of the knight’s. The next teller is the Reeve, who, incensed by the Miller’s insulting tale, tells a story about a corrupt Miller who gets his comeuppence (in a way that makes us question whether the outcomes of any of the tales has really been just). All three stories discuss similar themes: power, what constitutes “legitimate” authority, sex, what orders the universe. And each story adds a new dimension that both tears down and adds to the perspectives that have come before. The Knight’s Tale never stands as such. When it ends, we consider the Miller’s tale, which is both entirely the Miller’s and a response to the Knight’s, critiquing it and adding to it. The Reeve adds his own elements and responds to both Knight and Miller, such that the whole sequence can only happen as a sequence of ands. Each story must be taken in relation to the others (both the other stories, and the other pilgrims). It’s never the Knight or the Miller, the Miller or the Reeve. As if to emphasize this point, the next take–the Cook’s–is one that Chaucer famously left unfinished. The conversation the Knight starts has literally never ended: it only trailed off into another imaginary “and” that continues to resonate. And, one might say, that’s part of the point: Chaucer points out that the “and” is everything: as different as they are, the pilgrims keep adding, supplementing, but never completely succeed in creating real differentiation or division. They poke fun at each other, squabble, snark, and even come to fisticuffs–but they never part company, and the whole crew continues toward Canterbury together. The whole sequence of the tales is a rejection of “either/or” logic and an affirmation of and.

The last time I taught an undergraduate Chaucer course, my students started a discussion about how experiencing something like the Canterbury Tales might be helpful in their daily lives. There were a number of interesting takes on this, but the overarching idea the students generated (and not at my prompting, but, I think, at Chaucer’s) was the importance, in dealing with difference, to “hear the other’s story.” They discussed how helpful that kind of orientation toward difference might help in forums as mundane as difficult political confrontations on Facebook: what if, they posited, one’s response to an objectionable perspective from a Facebook acquaintance was not to immediately counter-assert, but to ask for a storytelling game, to ask “how did you come to believe that?,” and then to offer one’s own narrative of the same. Wouldn’t that allow for better, more productive, more affirmative communication? What if we all did what we could to turn our own Facebook feeds into Chaucerian storytelling games rather than tawdry political smear campaigns? What could we create? And, if we succeeded, what, in turn, might that help us understand about the Canterbury Tales in its own milieu? What if we brought Chaucer’s and to our own culture (which loves the or a lot more, wanting to separate us into Democrats or Republicans, us or them).

I might also point out that there has never been a time in which the study of Shakespeare and Chaucer has not been the study of Shakespeare and or Chaucer and. The only real difference, in what we might call “traditional” studies of both writers, is that the “ands” were simply unstated. The study of Shakespeare was really Shakespeare and formalism, or Shakespeare and traditional aesthetics, historicism, or textual studies, or Shakespeare and humanism. The same terms go for Chaucer. So it’s possible, at least, that the proliferation of “ands” in current course titles is simply the overt acknowledgement of the “and-ing” that’s always been happening in Chaucer and Shakespeare studies, as well as an affirmation, very much in the spirit of both Chaucer and Shakespeare’s own works, that there are always more “ands.”

The enterprise of the humanities–at least, the part of it that we want to encourage students’ senses of connection to the world and to themselves–is about those “ands.” So we help students train the “and” muscle by showing them the potential ands out there: Shakespeare and film, Chaucer and Psychoanalysis, Shakespeare and Pop Culture, Chaucer and How to I Handle My Crazy conservative/liberal/atheist/religious/tory/libertarian Friend on Facebook without Driving Us Both Brazy? The Winter’s Tale and Why Do I Keep Sabotaging My Own Relationships? The Reeve’s Tale and Rape Culture on Campus. Othello and How to Teach in a Diverse High School. Shakespeare and I Know What I Want to Do, but How am I Supposed to Live?