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I "Detect" Multiple-Authorship

dglasser's picture

            “The key issue is interaction” (Fitzpatrick 20). People have become so afraid of interaction, so afraid of collaboration. Instead people run behind the title of author. An author has power; the ability to create and influence others through words, or art. However, if an author is so powerful, imagine how powerful co-authors would be, or multiple authors, or a piece produced through a collaboration of dozens of minds! Most pieces are collaborations, but their “authors” won’t admit it for fear of loosing status in an academic world that praises individual genius. Yet, if people would only harness the power of collaboration and commit to it boldly, not in shame, then the world of writing would expand exponentially, inclusive of all those unable to be published or heard for whatever reason, and best of all, more people would be able to have fun.

            To demonstrate my point I’m going to use Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence as a starting point to analyze the best example of collaborative authorship that I can think of, an online interactive detective game called SLEUTH. The game itself is located at and is a Hypothetical Software development. Online interactive games have been around circa 1969 when “Rick Blomme [wrote] a two-player version of MIT’s famous Spacewar for PLATO…PLATO [being] one of the first shared systems dedicated to experimenting” with online interaction (Mulligan 1). After that point the industry boomed, focused firstly on using computer games as a means of education, then branching off into less academically minded games such as the ever so popular Dungeons and Dragons, one of the first online multi-player games released in the mid 1970s. Taking a giant leap forward through time, we now have games like SLEUTH.

            The site itself reads, “SLEUTH is a series of open-ended, detective role playing games where you solve mysteries by searching for clues, questioning suspects and interviewing witnesses. Every mystery is unique” and there is always more than one solution to a case. Simply stated, SLEUTH is a designed computer game that acts like a web. As players decide with thread to follow, the case changes. As a result players will solve crimes differently and the criminal won’t always be the same. Every case becomes unique as you play it. You and the game designer work together; the designer creates the web, and you mold the threads into your own path. Yet this game isn’t just an example of co-authorship, co-collaboration, because millions have and still will play this game. Millions of minds molding one base code, one web, one game design, twisting and turning it across the world into multiple stories.  “The author is not operating- and has never operated- in a vacuum, but has always been a participant in an ongoing conversation”, an ongoing push and pull, in this case between game designer and player (Fitzpatrick 19). Although a player does not design the base code of the game, the actual equations and formulas that make up the program, he/she is an author is the sense of designing the story. It’s the same as when a mother reads a bed time story to her child. She may start be reading the actual words of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but by inspiring the child’s imagination, the story could end in outer space. That child is a co-author, a co-collaborator despite never having written down a word.

            However, the question can be asked, how unique can a pre-designed computer program really be? Players may have different results, but all possible scenarios have already been mapped out by the designer. Is the game falsely advertising unique cases? Is this collaboration nothing more than false authorship, and is the game designer the one true author? To answer this question, and understand how it pertains to, how we read in general, let’s first follow a thread and solve a case. To help you picture the game more accurately, I've attached a document of screen shots I took while playing the game.

            The game begins when you create your detective. Mine was named is Logan McLoganson. My first case was to solve the murder of James Zimmerman, who’s body you can clearly see at the crime scene in the second provided screen shot. Through the use of the map, the third screen shot, I was able to maneuver around this digital world, interrogating bartenders, collecting evidence, and researching the case in the police station. You can see in the various screen shots that a detective can intimidate witnesses, bribe them etc. and can collect evidence and bring it to various places around town. For example, there was a bloody footprint at the scene of the crime, so when visiting the victim’s brother, I stole a shoe and took both a trace of the bloody footprint and the shoe, to a loyal shoemaker downtown. It was examined and found not to match. I did the same when collecting handwriting samples. In the end, I solved the case! It was Sam Zimmerman who owed James quite a bit of money and who the bartender eventually ratted out after I intimidated him.

            However, if I go back and try to play the exact same case I couldn’t. The victim may be the same, but the criminal would most likely be different. Once you go down one thread of the web, you can’t climb back up, the scenario changes around you. This is very similar to Clue. Clue is a very popular board game, movie, and musical. The point of Clue, like SLEUTH, is to solve a murder, and the result is always different based on chance and player’s choice.

            Now surely you are wondering why I am relating a computer game to you when I began with a melodramatic appeal to authors to be bold and admit to finding inspiration in others. The reason for my appeal was to highlight the writer-reader relationship, and to support Fitzpatrick’s claim that, by using “the framework of an ongoing conversation…supported by the technologies of the Internet [like SLEUTH], academic authors [can] think about the multiple audiences they address and the different forms which they can be addressed, potentially drawing the academy back into broader communication with the surrounding social sphere” (Fitzpatrick 20). SLEUTH has multiple audiences and because of this, new scenarios and threads are constantly being constructed to include a broader and broader viewership.

            Academic writing can learn a lot from interactive games like this by making itself more available to viewership. This does not mean that academic writing has to “dumb itself down”, but that it can be made more accessible to those who don’t attend colleges, or don’t have the means or time necessary to devote to reading an academic paper. Publishing papers online however, grants a wider readership and allows others to participate in collaboration, much like the formatting of Fitzpatrick’s book where readers are allowed to comment.  If gamers are allowed to mold stories, why can’t readers mold papers- respectively of course. Interaction is necessary for any sort of growth, and it is teaching how to properly interact with each other creatively as authors that should be made more of a priority in education, instead of teaching whom is allowed to interact. That is my appeal.

Works Cited: 

1.) Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolesence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. 
New York University, 2009.


3.) Mulligan, Jessica.

SLEUTH.docx1.81 MB


Ayla's picture

me being me

Wait, Goldilocks and the Three Bears doesn't end in outer space?  What are you saying?

Anne Dalke's picture

Gaming Reading and Writing

As you know, I have a great interest in the uses of the internet for academic work. But I've never been a gamer; there's something about that world that's always seemed too, well, solipsistic to me, a closed club…

So I'm intrigued by the argument you advance here, that an open-ended, detective role-playing game like Sleuth can be read as a model for the ways in which readers can customize, to their own taste,  the texts that they read--and so effectively become co-authors. This actually sounds a lot like reader-response theory (do you know of this? If not, you might interested in learning more about it….). What you add to that argument is a certain manifesto-like language and valorization of the communal, I think: "if people would only harness the power of collaboration and commit to it boldly"!

Given my own disinclination to play games like Sleuth, my first question has to do w/ the extensiveness of your own engagement in the form you analyze here. You attach a series of screen shots of a single round of your playing (rather than attaching a document, btw, it would be more effective to insert the individual images w/in your on-line text). But to really demonstrate the way in which a reader becomes an author, you'd need to compare a series of tries @ solving the same mystery. You say that "the criminal would most likely be different" each time through, but you don't actually show me that that's the case. (Your description that "once you go down one thread of the web, you can’t climb back up, the scenario changes" is nicely reminiscent, though, of how Stephen Jay Gould famously described evolution, as a particular path in the history of the world that could never be played backwards and then forwards again in identical fashion).

I'm also puzzled by just how much agency your narrative grants the game-player/reader. You speak, on the one hand, of "millions of minds molding one base code," and yet you say that the player  "does not design the base code," but just selects among the various "equations and formulas that make up the program." You describe "an ongoing push and pull between game designer and player," and yet you say that the player is "an author in the sense of designing the story." I'm unclear about how exactly (or how much of) this pushing-and-pulling happens. What precisely are the constraints within which the player is operating, and how bi-directional is her engagement with the author (game designer)?

When you begin to draw your analogy between game-playing and academic writing-and-reading, the answers to these questions become even more uncertain to me. You speak, for example, of "the multiple audiences" academic writers might address,  to "include a broader and broader viewership," but you don't discuss the possibility that such audiences might actually shape the academic text in particular individual ways. Might it be the case that academic writers want to keep their audiences small, and specialized, in order more fully to control the outcome, or uptake, of their material? That co-authorship is precisely what we don't desire?

"Why can’t readers mold papers," indeed? Perhaps because academics want to control who "is allowed to interact" with the texts they create? That is, after all, one possible response to your strongly worded appeal….

Ayla's picture

I agree somewhat with Anne

I agree somewhat with Anne here in that the subtleties of SLEUTH seem not to match up so well with the type of collaborative writing you seem to describe in the end of your essay.  The idea that no two ways of playing the game will ever be the same seems to me to be just a coding detail (like you said, navigating the various equations and formulas coded in the game).  So, everytime the player gets a clue, the computer program randomizes what that clue means and what a person says (depending on previous responses that you received).  It could randomize the clues available to you.  Since there are so many factors in solving a mystery, the permutations of these factors (lets say each factor has 10 options) is huge!  Therefore, "no two ways to play the game will ever be the same" really means there is a highly unlikely chance you as a player will encounter the same permutations in the same order in your lifetime because we have coded it so well.  This is interesting to think about in the context of collaborative writing.  Let's say a writer decides to put their novel online as he is writing for peer review.  So, he puts up chapters one to ten and gets 100 comments about how the book should end, or what should change.  Essentially the writer set the base code, right?  He created the characters and the dynamics of the characters as well as the overall arching themes of his novel.  The novelist - who we can suppose is writing a love story - is not going to 'listen' to a comment that suggests that in chapter two the main character dies and in chapter three he rises from the dead as a zombie to express his love for his real-life object of affection.  That's just ridiculous.  Just as in the game SLEUTH, where the detective would not have the option to murder anyone, no one has the option to 'murder' the novel (successfully) in collaborative writing.  There is a certain base code, at least in my example.  There are lots of connections between SLEUTH and collaborative writing - and I think your observation was really insightful!  I loved reading your essay and thinking about the connections between SLEUTH and collaborative writing.