By Jo Taylor
Chawton, Hampshire, sometime in the 1810s. A modest, well-kept house in the centre of the village, lavender outside the window waving in the breeze. Someone playing the harp in the background, and a dark stranger outside the village shop opposite the drawing room window.
Mrs. Hatch, mistress of the house, has been called away suddenly, and must apologise that she cannot be there to greet her visitor. Would Miss Josephine Taylor mind going to Whitstone Fabrics and collecting a parcel of lace for her?
Miss Josephine Taylor does not mind at all. She is a happy, kind-hearted soul, although she is sadly lacking in a sense of duty and is sorely disadvantaged by her low station in life. The best she can hope for is that her charming manner can win over the upper echelons of society. She has, as yet, no suitors, but she anticipates much from her visit to Mrs. Hatch. Does Mrs. Hatch know anything of the dark stranger? ‘You must mean Mr. Darcy,’ Mrs. Hatch replies. Miss Josephine Taylor falls into a swoon, and hurries to the writing desk to confirm that she can indeed attend a concert this Saturday afternoon with the mysterious Mr. Darcy.
And now to reset the scene. The somewhat less R/romantic Loggerheads, Shropshire, in 2013. A very untidy flat on the edge of a housing estate, a few frost-bitten flowers outside the window cowering against the wind. Pure Harp Music is playing in the background, courtesy of my Granny’s suggestion after my inept Spotify search for ‘Regency music’ proved, unsurprisingly, ineffective. If there was a dark stranger opposite the living room window, I’d be making some panicky phone calls.
The newly-funded Kickstarter MMORPG (Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game) Ever, Jane is open on the screen in front of me, and I am congratulating myself on a career choice that means I can justify this as ‘work’. This game reached its funding target yesterday (2nd December); it has, in fact, gone over the $100,000 target to make $109, 563. (It’s worth observing that the funding request was only open for 33 days – a quicker turnaround than most funding bids!) The beta version is estimated to be available for those who pledged $5 or more from January, with the final game seeing completion towards the beginning of 2016. At the moment, you can download a prototype which introduces you to the main themes of the game: namely, gossip and social events. The aim is to get your character invited to the most prestigious events alongside the people with the highest reputation. Your status is made or marred by gossip and by the people with whom you associate. As the blurb says, ‘in the virtual world of Jane Austen, it is not about kill or be killed, but invite and be invited with gossip our weapon of choice’.
The game is in its very early stages, and there are still a few obvious issues. Chat doesn’t work properly yet (Mrs. Hatch, for example, is ‘quite deaf’ and so ‘will only hear what she wants to hear’), and there’re several floating houses. The setting will, perhaps, upset a fair few Realist sensibilities: although the game is ostensibly set in Chawton, the hilly landscape covered in pine trees is actually more reminiscent of the Wordsworthian Lakes than Austen’s Hampshire. You can only walk around one very small, sparsely-populated village. But the potential is pretty exciting.
The game will, eventually, aim to offer a more immersive way of channelling your love of Austen, in a very different format to sites like the Republic of Pemberley; there is something kind of geekily exciting about accepting an invitation to go to a concert with Mr. Darcy. This game offers players a way of reforming their reading experiences. Essentially, the game aims to encourage the development of a host of new narratives in the style of a twenty-first century, social media savvy Jane Austen. Eventually, there’ll be a forum on which players can publish the stories they ‘live’ in-game. Like in other MMORPGs (World of Warcraft being the most famous example), the player progresses by enhancing their character’s stats, but unlike in these previous examples the player is not looking to develop their stamina, magic abilities or sword-wielding skills. Instead, you must build upon several ‘Austenian’ character traits: happiness, duty, kind-heartedness, status and reputation.
The game aims to exploit Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s reading of Jane Austen as an early game theorist. According to Graham Romp, game theory ‘is concerned with how rational individuals make decisions when they are mutually interdependent’. According to non-cooperative game theory, in order to work together successfully individuals must recognise how co-operation will benefit their own self-interests, and it’s this branch of the theory which has become increasingly influential in economics over the last few years. This is a natural selection theory: the strongest rise to the top. It’s easy to see how this can be applied to Austen’s works, where it’s not the richest individuals who ‘win’, but the kindest, most charming and most dutiful women who eventually charm the man they’ve been (sometimes unknowingly) waiting for. These successful characters rely on others to showcase their natural abilities: Lizzie needs Lady Catherine de Burgh to showcase her spiritedness and propensities for satire; Elinor Dashwood needs Marianne to highlight her ‘strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment’; Anne Elliot needs Louisa to act as a foil to draw her back to Captain Wentworth. Similarly, Bingley and Darcy prove to be co-dependent in their marriages; as the double wedding makes clear, one cannot marry without the other.
Competition is inherent in Austen’s narratives, just as it is of course crucial to gaming, and Ever, Jane could provide a tantalising example of a new generation of twenty-first century texts. According to Eric Zimmerman,
there is an emerging set of skills and competencies, a set of new ideas and practices that are going to be increasingly a part of what it means to be literate in the coming century. […] Literacy and even media literacy are necessary but not sufficient for one to be fully literate in our world today. There are emerging needs for new kinds of literacy that are simply not being addressed, needs that arise in part from a growing use of computer and communication networks […]. Gaming literacy is one approach to addressing these new sorts of literacies that will become increasingly crucial for work, play. education, and citizenship in the coming century. (pp.23-4)
Obviously, there’s an enormous sense of fun in this kind of project: it’s a total geek-out for gaming Austen fans, who may not be so frequent now, but will inevitably become more common as computer games step up beside books and films as a dominant narrative form. After all, games developers are increasingly investing in their scriptwriters: Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of Terry) penned the latest Tomb Raider installment; Lorenzo Carcaterra (scriptwriter for hit shows like Law and Order (1990)) worked on Atari’s Alone in the Dark; And there’s an increasing recognition of the debt to literature under which games labour: Ken Levine, who worked on Bioshock (2007) has previously acknowledged his debt to the works of, amongst others, Orwell, and games like Bethesda’s Skyrim (2011) self-consciously draw on a range of literary modes (not least Romanticism, as I talked about, in brief, here).
But there’s the chance for a more serious, and more wide-reaching, point to be made from projects like this. The news this week that Britain is falling rapidly down international school league tables suggests worrying things about levels of traditional literacy – but what about these emerging forms of literacy? When graduate attributes lists advertise the need for strong team-working skills, well-developed information literacy skills, and the social, technological and environmental implications of the subjects studied, an increased awareness of this kind of project seems more pertinent: after all, it’s encouraging a sort of traditional literacy through the kinds of technological means that are becoming increasingly dominant for today’s graduates (if readers of Austen play the game, and players of the game read Austen). These are precisely the types of attributes encouraged by involvement in MMORPGs; as Jane McGonigal has suggested, they’re also the kind of skills we’re told high-level employers are looking for.
Zimmerman asks us to consider ‘how games relate to the world outside the magic circle – how game playing and game design can be seen as models for learning and action in the real world’ (p.24): in other words, how does gameplay (drumroll, please) impact upon our lives outside of the text? Ever, Jane could be a part of this revolution which challenges our notions of the text, and challenges us to interrogate the social theories at play in Austen’s works and our worlds. This might be a kind of death of an author, but it’s certainly the birth of a kind of reader.
Move aside, Lizzie Bennett and Marianne Dashwood: there’s a whole new generation of Austen heroines in town.
Jo Taylor is in the third year of a PhD at Keele University. Her thesis explores the creation of autonomous poetic spaces in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s children and grandchildren. She is the British Association for Victorian Studies Postgraduate Representative for 2013-15, and can be found of Twitter: @JoTayl0r0. She has her own shamefully neglected blog here.
Romp, Graham, Game Theory: Introduction and Applications (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Zimmerman, Eric, ‘Gaming Literacy: Game Design as a Model for Literacy in the Twenty-First Century’, The Video Game Theory Reader 2, ed. by Bernard Perron and Mark J. P. Wolf (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2009) pp. 23-31.