August 4, 2004

Spelunking the British Imagination

by Nick Montfort · , 1:09 pm

I recently found, read, and had mixed feelings about a 2002 article by Julian Dibbell about Adventure, called “A Marketable Wonder: Spelunking the American Imagination.” (Dibbell is probably best-known online for his 1993 Village Voice article “A Rape in Cyberspace…”) The “marketable wonder” refers to Mammoth Cave as a popular attraction in the time of Stephen Bishop, the slave tour guide whose story takes up the first half of the article — and to Will Crowther’s Adventure, which of course wasn’t originally marketed, but later was. The article is addressed to a general, non-computer-fluent readership, which, dear reader, does not include us.

While my writing sense may be tuned for scholarly contexts, there seem to be some issues. Read on…

Graham Nelson’s imagination may be the main thing spelunked in the article: Nelson’s article “The Craft of Adventure” previously juxtaposed Bishop and Crowther, the same juxtaposition that is main conceit of Dibbell’s article, and Dibbell even follows Nelson is speculating on the parallels between the family-related struggles of the two. Nelson’s statement “It’s hard not to feel a certain sadness that the first adventure game is shaped by these two lost souls, Bishop and Crowther, each like Orpheus unable to draw his wife out of the underworld.” (from the DM4) could have served as the epigraph.

Dibbell does mention Nelson and “The Craft of Adventure” in the last section, as if it were an afterthought. The article isn’t, unfortunately, scholarly — as is always the case with magazine articles of this sort, I suppose — and doesn’t provide information about any but a handful of sources. Quotations from Crowther that come from an interview Katie Hafner did long ago are presented as if they came out of the author’s interviews for this article, with no mention of their origins. It would be hard to guess what combination of writing, editorial policy, and editing are to blame, but this sort of thing is misleading.

Perhaps it’s a sign that the introduction to the article provides a free, prose-like rephrasing of an Adventure transcript, while nowhere in the article is an actual quotation from a transcript to be found. (I would suspect a general readership could handle a snippet.) The conclusion provides a bit of interesting thought about caves and popular imagination at different historical moments, and there are nice touches and good background information given. While I’m glad to see writing about Adventure that is well-researched and directed to new audiences, as this seems to be, this article does point out to me that it’s important to show where information, and major ideas, come from.

2 Responses to “Spelunking the British Imagination”

  1. Julian Dibbell Says:

    First, Nick, let me say in all sincerity what an honor it is to have been noticed and not entirely dismissed by the keeper of the flame of IF criticism.

    Second, let me note that sometime between now and when you posted the link to my essay, the folks at Topic magazine apparently decided to take their archives offline. I have hastily reposted the essay on my own site, here.

    Third: WTF, dude? “Dibbell does mention Nelson and ‘The Craft of Adventure'”? Cut a brother some slack! I not only mention them, I begin the concluding section with two full paragraphs making it explicit that Nelson provided the conceit on which the essay rests. In the context of journalism, that’s hardly an afterthought, and it’s no less than what Nelson deserves.

    That said, I don’t think it could have hurt to include footnotes, and now that I’m hosting the article on my own site, I may do just that. But keep in mind there’s a reason journalists get a wider audience than scholars, and a price we pay for it. In exchange for the freedom to write a quick, compelling read unencumbered by the machinery of scholarly reference and argument, nobody takes us especially seriously as thinkers. Your post, I guess, being a case in point.

    PS: I guess you’re right that the phrase “As he later explained to an interviewer” might be taken to imply the interviewer was me. The confusion is an honest one, however. The quote in question does not in fact come from Hafner but from the Nelson DM4 you cite, which in turn cites it as “quoted in” a long-out-of-print book on computer games from 1983, so that the actual identity of the interviewer is pretty murky. I probably should have just left “to an interviewer” out. In journalistic convention, a phrase like “As he later explained” usually suffices to signal second-hand reporting.

  2. nick Says:

    Julian, the main issue I was trying to get at is really that when it comes to Adventure and a lot of similar topics in computing, it’s often very hard to pin down where specific information and ideas come from. I actually wasn’t trying to harsh on your article particularly, but I was frustrated in this way by it, and it did seem to me to be a specific case of a larger-scale issue I saw in a lot of writing about new media history and such. I wanted to link to the article, show that you’d written to a different readership about Adventure, and invite discussion of your article, but this issue did seem worth discussing.

    This sort of citation matter may not be a problem from the standpoint of the general reader. Although there were, as I wrote, things to like about your article, these things that irked me were still what I felt like I should comment on. Not knowing the source of information makes things difficult for historians, scholars, and other thinkers and writers — including journalists. You mention that you’ve run into this sort of murkiness in your research, as have I; it isn’t a purely academic issue in any sense of the word. You’ve noticed this, surely — people can’t even figure out exactly what year it was that the original Adventure was released, largely because a lot of people have just declared that it was released in a such-and-such year, without saying how they know this.

    Certainly, I respect journalists as writers and thinkers, and I understand that in a popular magazine format it’s difficult to do the detailed citation of the sort that academic formats facilitate. Although I wrote in my usual and probably overly-snappy style, I tried to take pains to say that I’m not a magazine editor and not trying to dictate the way things are supposed to be in Topic. I can only speak from my own perspective, one that is biased to scholarly writing, as I mentioned. Still, I do wish that people writing about computing in all sorts of ways, not just scholars and journalists but even people writing for their own Web pages and contributing to Wikipedia, would make it easier for their readers to link back to sources of information and inspiring ideas.

    It would be a great service (for parties interested in Mammoth Cave as well as those interested in the history of computing) if you did have Web footnotes, although I understand that adding post-publication citations and other apparatus is a pretty thankless task, one I’m not so eager to undertake myself. I would have had to correct one, if I’d put footnotes in my blog entry: I was mistaken about the Katie Hafner interview, which as you pointed out is not the one (whatever that one is) that is quoted in Dale Peterson’s 1983 book.

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