Computer Gaming and Protocols of Improvisation


"Improvisation, of course, so fundamental to the very idea of jazz, is "nothing more" than repetition and revision. In this sort of revision, again where meaning is fixed, it is the realignment of the signifier that is the signal trait of expressive genius. The more mundane the fixed text ("April in Paris" by Charlie Parker, "My Favorite Things" by John Coltrane), the more dramatic is the Signifyin(g) revision. It is this principle of repetition and difference, this practice of intertextuality, which has been so crucial to the black vernacular forms of Signifyin(g), jazz--and even its antecedents, the blues, the spirituals, and ragtime...." (Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey, 63-4)

In The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores a related notion of improvisation in which the performer "repeats and revises" musical figures, styles, and instrumental voices. Gates associates this activity with the African American practice of "signifyin(g)--playing with linguistic figures to parody or pastiche a rival" (46). Gates notes how this process of signifyin(g), of repetition and revision, has become a staple of jazz improvisation.

The repetition and revision of the improvising jazz musician has its counterpart in the intertextual networking of the cultural critic: both trade on indeterminacies resurrected from the tradition, and both operate to realign the signifier. The more radical the revision, the greater the expressive genius.

In Gates' complex mythopoetics, the cultural critic and the improvising musician are equally engaged in acts of translation and dialogic networking. By tracing the path of the Yoruba trickster Eshu-Elegbara to his multiple New World incarnations as Ex˙, Papa Legba, and the Signifying Monkey among others, and by associating the act of literary criticism with musical improvisation through the conceit of Signifyin(g), Gates plots an intersection of performative activities that include "individuality, satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure and disclosure, encasement and rapture" (6). Animating these often contradictory activities is the spirit of play.

In the abstract of his presentation at the Playing with the Future conference, Ole Hansen interrogates the importance of repetition in computer gaming: "Is the goal of playing a computer game actually the repetition of processes more than getting to the end of the game?" Repetition and revision in computer gaming may be more than a twitch response to stimuli and, in fact, be a kind of signifyin(g) on reigning social codes. It is also clearly, in many cases, an attempt to develop expertise--the woodshedding of the jazz musician. ("Playing with the Future: Development and Direction in Computer Gaming":