Gaming, LoTR and New Media: Interview With Professor Jay Clayton

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jay Clayton - the man behind "Online Games: New Media, Literature, and Narrative"; a course taught primarily through Lord of The Rings Online - to talk about his thoughts on video games, literature, and the future of narrative fiction.

As I prepare for my interivew, I look again at the man on-screen. I'm immediately struck by his humility. Athough it's clear that a rather formidable intellect lurks beneath the surface, he displays no arrogance, nor does he convey any of the stuffiness and elitism so commonly (and unfairly) ascribed to those who teach the arts. Instead, he talks candidly - and with clear enthusiasm - about his career, and how it ties into his passion for both video games and the written word. 

Professor Clayton teaches literature at Vanderbilt University,  and gaming has played an increasingly important role in his classes there. He's also the man responsible for "Online Games: New Media, Literature, and Narrative;" a Coursera Course on video game narrative taught entirely through Lord of The Rings Online. Through this course, he instructs over 40,000 students; applicants range from industry veterans to men and women who've never even picked up a controller. All of them share one thing in common: they want to learn.

Clayton is more than happy to teach. "I think we're on the cutting edge of a wave that's only going to grow," he explains. "I don't think it's crested by any means." 

Let's start by finding out a little bit about your background.  What kicked off your passion for literature; what genres do you favor in particular?

I loved science fiction and fantasy when I was a boy, and read enormous amounts of it. As I say in one video, back in those days the genres were so looked down upon by teachers and parents that I often had to hide my reading habits from my high school teachers. I've always liked what was then regarded as more serious literature as well; I think I was destined for the road of an English professor from a very young age. I used to write fiction myself and I published a fair amount of it before I became an English professor - but only in the realist vein.

Has your experience as a professor been a positive one?

I'm really fortunate to work at a great university like Vanderbilt; they place a lot of emphasis on teaching. I think it's quite important to them. It's a research university too, but every single professor of the English department regardless of their rank teaches. I teach an undergraduate class every year, and I was chair of the English department here for eight years. Now I'm director of the curb center, yet I still interact with freshmen on a regular basis; that makes me really proud of my university.

Let's continue discussing literature - who's your all time favorite author?

I don't really have one. There are so many different authors I enjoy; trying to compare my favorites to one another would be like trying to compare apples to mangos to bananas - they're completely different species within the world of taste. I will say; I talk about many of my favorite writers in all the videos.

I talk about Tolkien, of course, who's certainly got to be counted as one of my favorites. Then I move on to talk about Jane Austen, and George Eliot and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. We put Tolkien and fantasy literature in the context of not only other romance writers like Homer or Spenser or Dante, but we contrast it quite frequently to other important realist novels.

Why's that?

There's this great contrast running down through the ages between realism and romance - what we'd call today Fantasy. That is not a new contrast. Everything is in some way grounded in both its contemporaries and what came before. That's an important and fresh insight to a lot of the audience in the course.

Moving on; when did you first start gaming?

Pretty late in my life. I started in the 90s and played Myst and some standalones like Age of Mythology, Age of Empires; Civilization. I'd have to go back and get my dates correct to see which games I played first and which came along later, but I was beginning to incorporate games into my classes - that I can date really clearly -  around ‘97 or ‘98. By 2003, they'd become an important part of some of my classes.

Of these, Myst was what ultimately brought me into the hobby. 

How would you say Myst impacted your perception of video games? 

Very favorably, as you might imagine. That game was such a wonderfully artistic work to begin with. I'm a Victorianist when I'm wearing one kind of hat, and Victorian Literature is a love of mine and the Steampunk elements in Myst completely entranced me. Those were early days for Steampunk - of course, you had the Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling; one of the original steampunk novels. It had been published before Myst, so I'd already read some steampunk but to see it on the screen was just amazing. I also loved the non-violent nature of Myst. At the end, there's a violent act or two reported, but the main gaming action is not killing things but exploration, discovery and puzzles.

So between the beauty of the art and music and the gentle narrative creativity, I found Myst to be an amazing way to begin gaming.

Myst underscores a sort of truth about gaming - Games aren't really literature, they aren't really physical art, they're something in between.

Very true. To use an academic term, that kind of modal specificity is really important in my course. I do want to look at games in their own terms, and not say they're a form of literature, even though they certainly profit from and draw on narrative conventions that come from literature; they do many other things that make them a kind of unique blend.

So long as we're talking about games and creativity, what are your thoughts on Minecraft?

We talk about Minecraft in the course all the time. I'd say not a week goes by that somebody doesn't bring it up and we use it as a comparison or a contrast with some other aspect of the gaming we're talking about. An interesting sub-plot to the course is that a very renowned Minecraft creator of Let's Plays - Joe Hills - was the videographer on some of the sessions of the course.

What first got you interested in MMOS? What kicked off your passion for MMORPGS?

Star Wars Galaxies. I grew up on Star Wars, I was there for the premiere of the first Star Wars film; I was there the first day it came out. When I heard they were making Star Wars Galaxies, I wanted to try it right away. Once I did that I was hooked.

The combination of the social world, crafting system, the ability to build houses in-game - in the world, not just in a special zone - it gave me an amazing sense of how this immersive world and this persistent world could form an entirely new type of narrative. That's why I pursued MMOs from that point forward.

It was definitely my favorite MMO of all time; I stopped playing after the NGE update. .

What other MMOs would you say stand among your favorites?

I really quite liked Dark Age of Camelot. It's an older MMO - its age definitely shows - but I think the game-play and the realm-versus-realm idea was very innovative, and the gameplay was terrific. As an English professor, I found the setting back in the Arthurian period very intriguing.

What brought you to choose Lord of The Rings Online, rather than another game like World of Warcraft?

I did play World of Warcraft. I enjoyed it, and I admire the enormous creativity that went into it. It just wasn't my favorite, and it doesn't really work for this course.

The reason I chose Lord of the Rings Online is that it's got three different modes - a great novel, a great film, and a great game. You're really able to compare three different ‘modes' without talking about issues of faithfulness or even comparative quality. You're really able to look at what one did well versus what another can do really well, and focus in on the questions of what a mode allows you to do successfully.

How do you think that new forms of media - YouTube, the Internet; games in particular - have impacted storytelling, and changed the traditional means of storytelling?

To answer that, I'm going to have to look back.

It's pretty clear that film and television have affected novelists. We've done some work here at Vanderbilt on that. One of my fellow teachers, Cecilia Tichi, has written quite effectively about how television shaped the fiction of writers in the 80s and 90s. People called them minimalists at that time; their deadpan tone and some of the flatness in their storytelling seems shaped by filmic conventions.

Going all the way back to the 1930s, people have seen John Dos Passos - a famous writer of the 1930s -was very influenced by the quick cuts of cinema and the headline style of newspapers and cinemas. He tried to capture it in both the content and form of his novels.

It's therefore undisputed that new media will rapidly impact traditional storytelling. The evidence is there, and there's no reason to think that media like gaming won't affect storytelling in the future. The first signs of this can be found in the genre known as "hypertext." Its heyday was the late 90s and early 21st century, and it was mostly done in standalone experimental fiction published by Eastgate Publishers. They released novels and short stories and poetry on CD ROM back then. You would insert your disc and then you'd have this entire novel in hypertext.

The first thing this did was turn narrative into a non-linear format so that the links took you to one place after another. In the best of them, the story had no beginning and no end. It had an entry point, and you could stop whenever you wanted. It tried to create that effect of an infinite text.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a work some time ago called the Library of Babel which talked about the infinite text, and they tried to do that in storytelling.

Another way you could speculate that gaming will affect narrative is through virtual reality. The notion that you could someday enter a virtual world entirely, with all your senses; just walk into a boxed room that would completely enwrap you in a virtual world. You could engage in a story with all six of your senses.

We've got the technology - or at least the beginnings of it - but we don't have the art forms yet that follow it. It's inevitable that they eventually will. I can't see any reason why people wouldn't want to try this. There's a great book that was written a while ago by Janet Murray called Hamlet on the Holodeck. It begins with the holodeck on Star Trek, and it puts forth the idea that we may see great works that you enter and live in on the holodeck. Who knows where it'll lead?

The rudimentary form of interactivity that you get in an MMO is a step towards a new form of storytelling, to the extent that you can interact, and your interactions create new stories that weren't planted there by the game creators. We're getting new kinds of narrative already - we don't have to wait for that.

Do you feel there's a difference in narrative style and structure between MMOs and more traditional games?

I do. I think that a standalone game which you might play on a console - increasingly, you can play any game on any platform - but a game which Jesper Juul calls a game of progression has a storyline that's much more firmly fixed by the game designer. The gamer has much less freedom of action to create his or her own narrative lines. I think that MMOs are currently...I won't say ‘unique,' but they're currently more likely to allow you to create interactive experiences than games of progression that move between end-points.

Of course, those games can sometimes be played online with other people, and that creates some variation, but not to the same degree. A first person shooter, even when played online, doesn't give you the creative range and flexibility of an MMO. Further, these games more often tend to feature ‘arena' play; disconnected from the game's main narrative.

One more question before we wrap things up: what gave you the idea to teach over an MMO?

The class that I teach at Vanderbilt - that I've been teaching since 1996, changing it accordingly every time a new game or medium comes out - is all about how media affects storytelling. When I had a chance to teach a class in a game, in a persistent world, it was like a dream come true.

 It was a realization of the theme of the course in the actual way we could present the course. So my favorite part of the coursera class that I'm teaching online are those sessions where I speak to the student while playing my character in the game so that I'm actually inside the game talking to the students about issues of narrative form and structure; I'm able to point to the exact thing I'm talking about with my character while I'm talking about it.

It's essentially like an academic livestream.

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Oct 21, 2013
by Anonymous

I enjoyed the Coursera

I enjoyed the Coursera learning format for the free online course, "Online Games: New Media, Literature, and Narrative". The ease with which Dr. Clayton traversed the details of several works of fiction was inspiring!