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.