Computer Gaming and Protocols of Improvisation


"Any attempt to describe improvisation must be...a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation.... For there is no general or widely held theory of improvisation and I would have thought it self-evident that improvisation has no existence outside of its practice" (Improvisation, Derek Bailey ix-x).

Miles Davis in the Studio

As a mode of performance, improvisation resists easy definition, and writers on jazz improvisation such as Derek Bailey and Paul Berliner describe its practice rather than theorize about it. For Bailey, musical improvisation is either "idiomatic"-- such as jazz, flamenco or baroque--or "non-idiomatic": "...most usually found in so-called 'free' improvisation and, while it can be highly stylized, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity." As will be noted below, the idea of idiomatic improvisation resonates deeply with the related notion of the vernacular in identifying both the character of the performer and the nature of the performance. Bailey's interrogation of musicians to find out what they do--the practice of practice--attempts to skirt some of the problems of theorizing improvisation, and is similar to the method used by Berliner in his Thinking in Jazz: "close observation and description of the full range of musical activities that occupied active members of a community known for its expertise in improvisation" (4). While my approach attempts to synthesize a diversity of observations and ideas about improvisation as a mode of performance, it does so with the understanding that any theory is less than useful if not confirmed--or at least entertained--by the practice of experts. It is my understanding that the notion of Luddology takes the same approach with regard to computer games.

The practice of jazz musicians--as theorized by Bailey, Gates, Chernoff, Albert Murray, and others--concludes that riffing, spontaneous appropriation, repetition and revision, signifyin(g), and idiomatic vernaculars are important elements in the engagement of players. How might these protocols be retrieved by designers of computer games? Are machine languages capable of translating these expressive behaviors into schemes of agency and interactivity?