This group of amateur actors, Associate Professor of English Sandy Baldwin and his graduate students, has wandered into the online game Counter-Strike. It’s a virtual world of terrorism and counterterrorism where the plan revolves mainly around killing, occupying territory, and getting killed.
But instead of being conventional and just playing the game, they wanted to see what it was like to perform absurdist drama in an equally absurd place.
“Our point is not to say you shouldn’t play the games but sort of to think ‘What if we did different things in this space?’” Baldwin said. “‘Wouldn’t it be interesting?’ We actually set ourselves to the challenge of how much of the play can we act out before we’re all killed in the game.”
This is one example of Baldwin’s exploration of digital space. When he talks about how he feels while creating, he uses words like “fun,” “interesting,” and “startling.” He won’t find an end-all, be-all answer. He’ll be wandering around forever testing one idea and then another. And he likes that.
“It’s like diving into a pool,” he said, “and seeing if you find something at the bottom.”
The online gaming world is where his students spend much of their time and where his 16-year-old son lives on lazy Sundays. And it’s ripe ground for experimentation.
“I think we’re still trying to figure out how it is that we express ourselves there and what these places are,” Baldwin said. “They’re different from let’s say making a movie or writing a book or any kind of other forms of expression because of their interactivity, because of what I see as their transnational quality.” Baldwin’s research will never find an answer, at least not one definitive answer. And that’s why he likes it.
But it does have a defined beginning with the premise that virtual worlds are very much a part of our world. They are spaces we create. They exist when we’re at work or sleeping. Though worldwide energy usage by gamers is difficult to calculate, Baldwin said it is estimated that the energy used by gamers worldwide every day tops what the airline industry requires daily.
When Baldwin graduated college, he took a job writing documents for a computer software company. But even before that, he’d combined creativity and technology by writing on a computer, something that people have been doing at least since the 1940s.
But the advent of the World Wide Web and higher quality personal computers in the 1990s made it much easier to merge tech with art. He did some improvisational performance poetry in chat rooms, wrote poetry in hypertext, and moved onto online gaming, including performing plays inside virtual spaces and turning first-person shooter weapons on poetry instead of monsters.
Some of this seems like playful disruption. Baldwin says it’s being creative: using the games for a purpose they weren’t intended.
In looking at what can be done in virtual spaces and what that means, he is working within two major projects. In one, he and his collaborators are looking at massive multiplayer online role-playing game participants from various cultures in World of Warcraft, a game that has the most subscribers in the world at close to nine million.
In one collaboration, Baldwin and his students are working with a group of universities to pilot an international course on creativity that they will present in Norway.
Baldwin is working with researchers and students at WVUand at schools in Wales and India to examine how players choose their identities in the games. Players are free to choose a gender, race, class, and something specific to the game: a guild, which Baldwin said is sort of like a group of coworkers that you’d have in our world.
Exploring what we do when we’re someone else tells us a lot about who we are, he says. Our identity is the story we tell people, and when that changes online, he wants to know why.
“Our point is not to say you shouldn’t play the games but sort of to think ‘What if we did different things in this space?’”
Baldwin is fostering new media studies at WVU, where one of the oldest all online peer-reviewed journals — the Electronic Book Review, is now hosted. He heads the Center for Literary Computing at WVU, one of the first centers dedicated to studying the intersection of writing and media. He is also the vice president of the international Electronic Literature Organization.
Society as a whole has had about 20 years to get to know digital humanities, and academia needs an even closer look.
“I think this is where the future is for English departments, so personally I’m excited to be charting that in our own way for students here,” Baldwin said.