Computer Gaming and Protocols of Improvisation


"When they are effective, riffs always seem as spontaneous as if they were improvised in the heat of the performance. So much so that riffing is sometimes regarded as being synonymous with improvisation. But such is not always the case by any means. Not only are riffs as much a part of some arrangements and orchestrations as the lead melody, but many consist of nothing more than stock phrases, quotations from some familiar melody, or even clichés that just happen to be popular at the moment....[I]mprovisation includes spontaneous appropriation (or inspired allusion, which sometimes is a form of signifying) no less than on-the-spot invention." (Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues, 96)

When the vernacular crosses a matrix of social codes in the mode of improvisation, spontaneous appropriation and the referencing of previous expressions acknowledge the continuity of tradition. In literary studies, this use of allusions can take the form of troping--a kind of linguistic play--or intertextuality, when one text participates in a "dialogue" with a previous text. In jazz, the use of allusions, echoes, or references is often called "riffing."

Murray also notes that the efficacy of the creative process "lies not in the originality of the phrase...but in the way it is used in a frame of reference" (96), an idea that essentially repeats what Keith Johnstone claims for originality in improvised acting--the more obvious one is, the more original one appears (Impro 87). What distinguishes the jazz musician adept at improvisation is not originality but "idiomatic orientation." The "character" of the jazz musician is revealed by the "voice" of the instrument; idiomatic orientation is the relation of that voice to the other instruments and to the tradition, and can be seen as a variation on the idea of the vernacular.

My sense is that RTS (real time strategy), FPS (first person shooter), RPG (role playing games) and other idiomatic computer games riff on the tradition of games in that idiom.