Getting Serious About Games…

Hi, guys. You were probably expecting the third installment of my comic book foreign policy series. Sorry. I’ve fallen behind this weekend and it’s going to take me a few more days to pull that together. I decided it was better to do it right than to do it quick.

Part of what has me distracted is that Convergence Culture is finally out. And trust me, a new book provides its own distractions. If you are one of the people who’ve bought the book already, thanks. I look forward to hearing your reactions. If you have questions you’d like to explore, send them to me at henry3@mit.edu and I wil try to cluster them and address them through the blog.

Today, I am sharing with you some thoughts about Serious Games that I wrote Morph, the Media Center Blog late last week. I figure few of you would have seen it there.

I wanted to take this opportunity to respond to Clive Thompson’s recent article from the New York Time’s art section focused on the serious game movement.

Why Now?

Why are serious games happening now? When I spoke with Clive for the story, I identified a range of factors that were all contributing to the emergence of serious games:

1. The generation that grew up playing computer games in the 1980s are now entering adult responsibilities. They are the ones who are taking on roles as parents, teachers, workers for nonprofits and foundations, and so forth. They have a real appreciation of what has captivated them about this medium; they want to find a way to connect with it through their jobs; and they want to use its power to deliver their messages.

2. There has been a growing body of research suggesting that games may indeed represent a powerful instructional medium; there is also clear signs that the ability to interpret and manipulate simulations is going to be a central skill across a range of academic disciplines.

3. There has been a growth of games studies programs at colleges and universities that are seeking ways to give their students real-world experience conceptualizing, designing, making, and testing games. Historically, university based research explores the roads not taken, taking risks on projects that would not thrive within a commercial environment. So, they are turning their attention towards the development of games that serve pro-social purposes or that document aspects of the real world.

4. A small number of games publishers dominate the entertainment market. Small start up companies realize that they can’t compete directly with the Electronic Arts of the world and they have to direct their energies elsewhere. At the moment, their best routes forward come from casual games, mobile games, or serious games.

5. As I suggested in my blog recently, there has also been a political debate about whether games constitute a meaningful form of expression and are therefore protected under the First Amendment. Many of us who work in Serious Games have been looking for ways to expand the rhetorical capacity of the medium in response to moral reformers and judges who have dismissed the concept that games might be a vehicle for exploring ideas.

The serious games movement lies at the intersection of these five factors and often takes shape through collaborations amongst the various groups identified above — educators, policy makers, nonprofits, foundations, educational reformers, university based training programs, and political activists. Working separately and together, they have begun to develop games that demonstrate some of the far-reaching potential of this medium and working together they have begun to bring those games — in some cases, simply playable prototypes — to the attention of the larger public. The serious games movement reflects the idea that a medium can serve many functions and that restricting games to purely an entertainment medium seriously undersells its potential.

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Comic Book Foreign Policy? Part Two

Responding to recent essays in The American Prospect and Comics Journal which link comic books to the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, I have been running some segments from an essay I published in the recent book, Terror, Culture, Politics: Rethinking 9/11. about the ways the comics industry responded to 9/11.

A central theme here is to suggest that the representation of the War on Terror in American mainstream comics has been more ambivalent and complicated than most people who don’t read comics might have imagined. While there have been some images of superheroes bopping terrorists, there have been fewer of these images that you might imagine. Yesterday, I walked through the tribute books produced immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center and the ways that Spider-man, Superman, and Captain America were used as vehicles to ask some hard questions about the costs of war. Today, I want to pick up where I left off with some reflections on the shift in the conception of the heroic in comics during the immediate post-9/11 period.

Rethinking the Hero After 9/11

Building on public interest in emergency workers, Marvel launched three new titles – The Precinct about cops, The Brotherhood about firemen, and the Wagon about an ambulance driver – which collectively formed the Call of Duty series. Lest anyone miss the point, “911″ was embedded in their logos. Of these new series, The Brotherhood was the most fully grounded in ethnographic detail — the tools of the trade, the hazards of putting out blazes, and the comradery of the firehouse. The opening issue makes vivid use of reds, oranges, and yellows, bringing us into the perspective of a firefighter making his way through a burning building in search of survivors. The stories construct these characters with surprising nuance and realism, dealing with their frazzled finances, their estranged relationships, their professional disillusionment, and their depression after watching so many friends die at the WTC. The interweaving of the characters and plots across the three series proved an effective means of examining the collaboration between police, fire, and medical workers. Yet, Marvel never fully trusted itself to build reader interest in ordinary heroes, adding supernatural and science fiction elements to the mix. The characters confront the ghostly figure of a young girl who has been sent back in time by her grieving father to warn of a forthcoming terrorist attack on the Statue of Liberty that had claimed the lives of his wife and sons. They also must deal with a strange cult that distributes what one character calls “cellular napalm,” turning junkies into human bombs that can be detonated on demand.

Searching for a different kind of hero, Paul Chadwick’s “Sacrifice” documents what we know about the uprising on the Pennsylvania flight. Chadwick takes us behind the scenes showing us images that couldn’t be seen on television, but could only be reconstructed after the fact. We watch the passengers compile information from their cell phone conversations, hatched a plan, and give their lives trying to insure that the plane never reached its target. Chadwick shows us knife blades slashing through the seat cushions the passengers use as shields and the struggle in the cockpit as they overpower the highjackers. Chadwick often uses his self-published comics, which deal with a self-doubting superhero, Concrete, as vehicles for exploring what communities can accomplish when they work towards a common cause. One of Chadwick’s earlier Concrete stories had offered a painfully complex account of environmental terrorism, questioning the human costs of spiking trees but ultimately not rejecting such tactics. Here, he celebrates the passengers’ willingness to sacrifice their own lives rather than allow innocents to suffer, a trait that distinguishes them from the terrorists they defeat.

What Chadwick takes several pages to do, Marvel’s Igor Kordey accomplishes in a single image. Kordey was born in Croatia and fought in the Balkan wars, before moving to Canada with his wife and children, hoping to escape the destruction he had seen around him. Kordey was the only artist in Heroes who directly depicts the terrorists and he chose to do so in a morally complex fashion. As Quesada explained, “He knows what it’s like to live in war, and he doesn’t want to sweep anything under the carpet.” The image is framed over the shoulders of the panic-striking terrorists who are clustered together as passengers come storming up the aisles. It is a haunting image because Kordey invites us to see the events from the terrorist’s perspectives and encourages us to dwell for a moment on their vulnerability and humanity.

Why Comics Matter…

Utopian rhetoric can seem, on first blush, naïve, yet what it establishes is a set of ideals or standards against which the limits of the present moment can be mapped and a set of blueprints through which a future political culture might be constructed. In this process, the comics are perhaps little more than a relay system, communicating messages from one community to another, taking ideas out of the counterculture and transmitting them into the mainstream. We can see this process occurring in several stages – first, the movement of ideas from counterculture into comics-culture (itself fringe, but defined around patterns of consumption rather than political ideologies). Here, the fusion of alternative and mainstream publishers meant ideas that once circulated among the most politically committed now reach readers who would not otherwise have encountered them. As such, these comics do important cultural work, translating the abstract categories of political debate and cultural theory into vivid and emotionally compelling images.

As the market responds to these ideas, they become more deeply embedded within the genres that constitute the bulk of contemporary comics publishing. Much as the depression, the Second War II, and Vietnam left lasting imprints on the superhero genres, giving rise to new characters, plots, and themes which were mined by subsequent generations, September 11 shows signs of altering the way the genre operates. As I am writing this essay (Late 2002), the tribute books have just now moved into the remainder bins at my local comics shop and every month seems to bring new projects which in one way or another have been shaped by the political climate of Post-9/11 America. The comics industry still seems to be engaged in an extended process of self-examination, still questioning their longstanding genre traditions, pondering the nature of the heroic and of evil, reinventing their hero’s missions for a new political landscape, and trying to figure out how to absorb the realism and topicality of alternative comics into mainstream entertainment. Some titles, like Captain America, are permanently altered. Cassaday and Reiber are still circling around issues of guilt and responsibility. A new miniseries, Truth, uses Captain America to re-examine the racism that shaped the experience of American GIs during World War II, suggesting eerie parallels between the “super soldier” serum tests that created Captain America and the experiments at Tuskegee Institute; and includes the astonishing image of the American army systematically slaughtering hundreds of African-Americans in order to protect their secrets. Other books have gone back to business as usual. In The Ultimates, Captain America, Giant Man, Wasp Woman, and Thor smash half of Manhattan, demolishing Grand Central Station, all because Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk when he gets jealous that his girlfriend was going out with Freddie Prince Jr. One would describe the book as totally untouched by 9/11 if the artist didn’t draw so heavily on what we had learned about what happens when real world skyscrapers come crashing down. These shifts do not need to be uniformly felt across all comics to make a difference. Not all superhero comics — not even all mainstream titles — embrace the same ideologies, tell the same stories, and represent the world in the same terms. But, enough creative artists from enough different sectors of the industry have been impacted by September 11 that these influences will be felt across a range of different titles for some time to come.

The long-term impact of September 11 can also be seen in the emergence of new comic book series that celebrate the heroism of average citizens. For example, Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency, which Wildstorm, a smaller independent press, launched in Fall 2002, depicts a multiracial, multinational organization of ordinary people who contribute their services on an ad hoc basis. Ellis rejects the mighty demigods and elite groups of the superhero tradition and instead depicts the twenty-first century equivalent of a volunteer fire department. Ellis has stated that the series grew out of his frustration with the hunger for paternalism expressed by superhero fans in the wake of September 11, his pride in the civilian resistance aboard the Pensylvania-bound aircraft, and his fascination with the emerging concept of the “smart mob” – a self-organized group who use the resources of information technology to coordinate their decentralized actions. As Ellis explains, “Global Frequency is about us saving ourselves.” Each issue focuses on a different set of characters in a different location, examining what it means for Global Frequency members personally and professionally to contribute their labor to a cause larger than themselves. Once they are called into action, most of the key decisions get made on site as the volunteers act on localized knowledge. Most of the challenges come, appropriately enough, from the debris left behind by the collapse of the military-industrial complex and the end of the cold war–”The bad mad things in the dark that the public never found out about.” In other words, the citizen solders use distributed knowledge to overcome the dangers of government secrecy.

The next step is what happens if and when these changes get absorbed into the mainstream of the entertainment industry. Comics function today as a testing ground for new themes and stories for the rest of mass media. Hollywood or network television are not likely to absorb the specific stories which emerged in the immediate aftermath of September 11, but in so far as those changes get felt in the underlying logic through which the comic book industry operates, in so far as those changes get institutionalized within the conventions of the superhero genre, then they will likely have an influence on the films and television series that emerge over the next few years. One could, for example, compare this reassessment of the heroic in comics to the revision of the superhero genre which took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in a darker, more angsty, more psychologically complex, more physically vulnerable conception of the hero. This rethinking of the superhero impacted not only future comic books but can be seen at work, albeit in a somewhat watered down form, in the big screen adaptations of Batman, Spiderman, and Daredevil. There, the influence is apt to be more implicit than explicit, a shift in tone or the “structure of feeling” as much or more than a shift in ideology.

Let’s be clear, though, that superheroes don’t have to conquer the world for the political expressions we’ve discussed here to make a difference. What they do in their own space, in their own communities, matters. Popular culture is the space of dreams, fantasies, and emotions. In that space, it matters enormously whether Captain America stands for fascism or democracy, whether Wonder Woman represents the strong arm of American cultural imperialism or whether she respects and understands third world critiques of her mission, whether Superman is more important than the average men and women who are accidental casualties of his power struggles, or whether everyday people have the power to solve their problems without turning to superheroes for help. It is important to remember, from time to time, that popular culture is not univocal; that it remains a space of contestation and debate; that it often expresses messages which run counter to dominant sentiment within the culture; and that it often opens up space for imagining alternatives to the prevailing political realities. It is also worth remembering that people working within the cultural industries exert an active agency in shaping the ideas which circulate within popular culture and that on occasion, they may act out of political ideals rather than economic agendas.

Coming Soon: How current comics are dealing with the War on Terror

Comic Book Foreign Policy? Part One

The online edition of The American Prospect published an article comparing the Bush administration’s current policy in the Middle East to comic books — specifically, to the Green Lantern Corps. Here’s what they had to say:

The trouble is that a broad swathe of hawkish opinion, taking in most conservatives and a tragically large number of liberals, have bought into a comic book view of how international relations works.

I refer, of course, to the Green Lantern Corps, DC Comics’ interstellar police force assembled by the Guardians of Oa. Here’s how the Corps works: Each member is equipped with a power ring, the ultimate weapon in the universe. The ring makes green stuff — energy blasts, force fields, protective bubbles, giant hammers, elephants, chairs, cute rabbits, whatever — under the control of the bearer. When it’s fully charged, the only limits to the ring’s power (besides the proviso that the stuff must be green) are the user’s will and imagination. Historically, the rings couldn’t affect yellow objects, but in recent years it’s been revealed that this was the “parallax fear anomaly” (don’t ask) and that the problem could be overcome by overcoming fear — which is to say, with more willpower.

This is an OK premise for a comic book. Sadly, it’s a piss-poor premise for a foreign policy.

Without getting into the specifics of Bush’s current foreign policy (or for that matter, the current run of Green Lantern), this statement seems grossly unfair — to comic books. I understand why Bush’s world view full of its talk about capturing “evil-Doers” who are hell-bent on destroying the “American way of life” reminds some people of comic book superheroes — it is colorful, broadly drawn, larger than life, and sometimes a little punch-drunk. But the reality is that contemporary comic books have offered a much more nuanced depiction of our current political realities and have adopted a pretty consistently progressive framing of these events than The American Prospect and its readers might imagine.

The American Prospect is not the only publication that has recently taken on comic books as a site for current foreign policy debates. Comics Journal (a publication which has never missed an opportunity to express criticism of mainstream comics) has been running a two part series by Michael Dean about the ways comics responded to 9/11 and its aftermath. You can see a small sample of what they have to say here:

The first part of this report noted a developing trend toward comics with a “superpatriotic” theme, setting square-jawed American heroes and superheroes on the trail of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists — most notably Frank Miller’s much-publicized plans for a Batman-versus-bin Laden showdown. Miller told the press that there was once again a need for the archetypal satisfactions of the classic 1940s wartime propaganda comic. The cover of Tightlip Entertainment’s May-shipping comic, Freedom Three #1, is a recreation of the Captain America #1 cover showing the red-white-and-blue hero punching Hitler with Captain America replaced by one of the Freedom Three and bin Laden substituting for Hitler as the punchee. Fantasy tableaux of superheroic vengeance directed against demonic terrorist icons clearly offer a degree of gratification to comics readers today.

Dean does some interesting reporting here, arguing that ideas from conservative think tanks are finding their ways into some contemporary comics though his focus is on a small handful of examples that may not be representative of current industry practice as a whole. It is true, for example, that Marvel worked with former embedded journalist Karl Zinsmeister to produce Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq, but that same publisher also launched a new 411 series which first hit the shelf in April 2003 even as American troops were marching into Baghdad. Taking its name from an old telecommunications code for information, the series expresses a belief that it is important to inform the public about alternatives to war and violence. As Marvel President Bill Jemas explained, “411 is about peacemakers: people who make sacrifices in the name of humanity. These are people willing to die to keep all of us – on all sides – alive… But the theme of sacrifice for the sake of peace, for the sake of all of humanity, is hard for many Americans to accept right now, with the hearts and minds of the body politics rising in a patriotic furor… These stories are neither anti-American nor anti-Iraqi, not anti-French, nor anti-Israeli. 411 is pro-human.” Opening with an essay on “Understanding the Culture of Nonviolence” written by Mahanda Gandhi’s grandson, the series included contributions by Tony Kushner (Angels in America), longtime anti-nuke activist Helen Caldicott and political cartoonist David Rees. Marvel’s overt engagement with the antiwar movement was certainly rare among American corporations. How do we decide which book is more representative of Marvel’s response to the War on Terror?

So, I think Dean may oversimplify a much more complex history of the ways that the comics industry has responded to American foreign policy since 9/11. As it happens, I recently published an essay on this topic, “Captain America Sheds His Mighty Tears,” which can be found in the book, Terror, Culture, Politics: Rethinking 9/11. Here, I am going to lay out some of my key arguments from that essay. I will be back soon with an update suggesting how some more recent comics — mainstream and midstream — have tackled the long-term consequences of the war on terrorism upon American society.

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Can One Be A Fan of High Art?

A Tale of Two Checkovs

Some years ago, I co-authored a book called Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek with a British cultural studies researcher John Tulloch. We had interviewed different groups of consumers about their responses to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Doctor Who. In my own work on Star Trek fans, I focused on three core groups: the members of the mostly female fanzine writing community, a mostly male and highly technologically focused group of MIT students, and the members of the Gaylaxians, a group of Gay-Les-Bi-Trans fans who were interested in the show’s social politics. Tulloch’s work went back across several decades of interviews conducted on multiple continents and found a range of different thoughts and reflections on the series.

Then, Tulloch went on to another project that involved interviewing theatre goers at productions of Chekhov plays (the Russian playwright, not the classic Trek character). In our work on science fiction audiences, we found enormous variability in the ways that fans talked about their favorite series. For example, asked about the characters one by one, most of the MIT students defined them as autonomous problem-solvers, whereas most of the female fans read them as part of a social network with the other characters.

When Tulloch applied these same methods to talk to theatre patrons, however, he found much less variation in the ways they talked about the work they had just seen. Most of them fell back on a handful of things they had learned about the playwright in school or the kinds of insights that are most often to be found in the Cliff Notes style study guides to classic literature.

It is hard to say precisely why the range of interpretations of Chekhov were so restrictive — was it because people are intimidated to talk about high culture and so they repeat things they know to be true even if they also see them as boring and unoriginal? Did they see the interview as a chance to impress the researcher with how well they had mastered their lessons? Were they less likely to appropriate from or speculate about the plots and characters and so had a less intimate relationship with them? Was this a product of contemplative distance and the aura of high art?

If high art is supposed to be so enriching and intellectually engaging, why do we respond to it in such predictable and predetermined ways? And if popular culture is supposed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, why does it generate such a broad array of different responses?

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Behind the Scenes: Spoiling Survivor: Cook Islands

Welcome Survivor fans. Many of you might be interested in seeing some of my other posts about reality telvision, including this one about the racial politics around Cook Islands and this one about the behind the scenes politicing that shaped Big Brother: All-Stars.

Now back to the original post:

Most of you probably don’t have a clue where the next Survivor series is going to be set (answer: Cook Islands). Yet, there is a hardcore group of fans which has already pieced together detailed information about the location, including photographs of the Tribal Council site and the location of the first challenge. From these pictures, the Survivor fan community will be able to piece together a great deal about the forthcoming series. Even as we speak, other members of that community will be trying to ferret out the names and identities of the contestants (well before they are announced by the network) and others still will be trying to extract information from people on the ground in the Cook Islands who might have seen something or overheard something during the production. They call themselves spoilers.

Mark Burnett acknowledges this contest between producer and fans is part of what creates Survivor‘s mystique: “With so much of our show shrouded in secrecy until it’s broadcast, it makes complete sense that many individuals consider it a challenge to try to gain information before it’s officially revealed – sort of like a code they are determined to crack. While it’s my job to keep our fans on their toes and stay one step ahead, it is fascinating to hear some of the lengths these individuals are willing to go.” From the beginning, the producers have run misinformation campaigns to throw fans off their tracks. There is a widespread rumor within the fan community that the producers now offer bonuses to cast and craw for every boot or event in the series which doesn’t get “spoiled” by the fans. If true, this policy reflects the reality of a world where fans pool money and send reporters to snoop around the location, pumping hotel clerks and maids for anything they can learn.

I devote a chapter to “Spoiling Survivor” in my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The chapter takes you deep inside this fan community, showing some of their techniques for getting information, and discussing some of the debates that erupted when a guy who went by the user name “ChillOne” claimed to have known the outcomes of a Survivor season before it even reached the air. The ChillOne story, which structures this chapter, focuses attention on the issue of whether spoiling is a goal (that is, find out what you can how ever you can) or a process (put your heads together with lots of other people and solve a puzzle). Some have argued that ChillOne broke the game — making it a contest to see which individual can access information rather than an issue of how a collective intelligence community can solve complex problems through collaboration and information sharing.

Wezzie and Dan Bollinger run a site called Survivor Maps, which is primary focused on the locations where the series takes place. But their maps become important resources for all kinds of other spoiling activities. Here’s a little of what I say about them in the chapter:

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Catching Up: The Future of Television

Today, I am just going to highlight a few things that have caught my eye recently.

We picked up the July 17 issue of Newsweek, belatedly, and read an interesting article discussing what current network media consumption. The opening paragraphs, though, really annoyed me:

A guy–let’s call him Brad–longed for the company of his wife, so he took his iPod to bed. Confiding in an NBC researcher, Brad tells how he inserted his earplugs, nestled down beside his bride and got lost in an episode of “The Office” or another of his favorite TV shows downloaded from the iTunes store. His wife, meanwhile, was riveted by her favorite show playing on the bedroom TV. Yet another intimacy-challenged couple dialed up the heat on their relationship during the college basketball playoffs, say researchers for Verizon, the cellular-service giant. No fan of hoops, the wife snuggled up to her basketball-craving husband on the living-room couch, unfolded her cell phone and watched video clips streaming from Verizon’s VCast service while he tuned in the game on CBS. “She thought it would be a good way to spend time together,” says Ryan Hughes, Verizon’s chief media programmer.

There’s a kind of outrage here that people might be sitting side by side in bed and consuming different media content. Now, substitute books or magazines for television content and see if you feel this same level of shock and awe. I think we’d think it a little odd if the couple always coordinated the books they took to bed with them. As my wife points out, in the old days, the wife would have been banished from the room while her husband watched the big game, so, yes, there is some element of togetherness, snuggling down physically together, even if you are in different mental spaces. In any case, other research on television suggests that while homes may have multiple televisions, only one set is on during prime time in most households because we still prefer to watch television content socially rather than individually and the shows that do best are those that give us content we can talk about with others.

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So What Happened to Star Wars Galaxies?

Earlier this week, Next Generation published a short excerpt from my much longer discussion of Star Wars Gallaxies and user-generated content in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The publication seems to have prompted game designer and theorist Raph Koster to blog about what he learned by adopting a more collaborationist approach to his fans. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Some have since decided that it was listening to the players too much that caused some of the design problems with SWG. I am not sure I agree. If anything, I think that many subsequent problems came from not listening enough, or not asking questions in advance of changes. Walking a mile in the players’ shoes is a difficult trick to pull off even if you have the best of intentions.

The tensest and most difficult moments in SWG’s development — and they came often — were when we had to remove something that players really liked. Usually, it was against our own wishes, because of time constraints or (rarely) orders from on high. But we couldn’t tell the players the real reasons sometimes. That sucked, frankly, because the open relationship really did matter. As often as we could, we laid everything bare.

These days, it’s accepted wisdom that you don’t reveal a feature until it’s done, so as to guarantee that you never let the players down. Of course, even finished features sometimes fall out for one reason or another…

In any case, I think I don’t agree with that philosophy. I’d rather have prospective players on a journey with the team, than have them be a passive group marketed to. Yes, they will suffer the ups and downs, and see the making of the sausage… but these days, that’s getting to be an accepted thing in creative fields. There’s not much to gain, to my mind, in having the creators sitting off on a pedestal somewhere — people fall from pedestals, and pedestals certainly will not survive contact with Live operation of a virtual world. Instead, I’d rather the customers know the creators as people who make mistakes, so that when one happens, they are more likely to be forgiven or understood.

One of the challenges of academic publishing is that the world can move out from under year in that long, long period of time between when you finish a book and when it hits the shelves. In the case of Convergence Culture, one of the biggest shifts was the meltdown which has occured in the relations between the players and creators of Star Wars Galaxies, much of which really hit the fan last December. I still think what the book says about Star Wars Galaxies — Raph Koster, as the comments above suggest, remains a leading advocate for a more collaborationist relationship between producers and consumers; his approach does contrast with at least some of the policies that Lucas has applied elsewhere in dealing with other aspects of Star Wars fandom and so Star Wars represents a rich case study of the uncertain and unstable relations between media franchises and their consumers. If anything, these contrasts are even easier to see when we see how shifts in company leadership impacted the community around this particular game.

I have not been on the inside of that meltdown. Most of what I know came from a close reading of news reports about what happened and conversations with other games researchers, such as USC’s Doug Thomas or UW’s Kurt Squire. I am sure there are readers who could tell us more about what happened than I can and I would welcome them to share their experiences here. I prepared some reflections about what happened for our Convergence Culture Consortium partners newsletter last January.

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Pink Pigs and Other Local Knowledge

My references earlier this week to Brian Wood’s Demo inspired me to reread something I wrote in January about his new project, Local. This is excerpted from an essay that will run in a forthcoming issue of Cultural Anthropology. It was written as part of a tribute to the great American Studies scholar George Lipsitz.

So often, cultural critics accuse digital media of undercutting our relations to the local, cutting us off from the world around us. So often, cyberspace advocates have constructed the digital through their own fantasies of dislocation, seeing it as a space where one is liberated from parochial constraints rather than authenticated through local cultures. Consider, for example, John Perry Barlow’s famous formulation in “A Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace”: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather …. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” Here, Barlow renounces all claims upon the local while insisting that the local renounce all claims on him. So it is refreshing to learn about a project where the web is being used to heighten our awareness of local cultures.

A case in point: Brian Wood’s Local. Brian Wood is an alternative comics writer whose work has the feel of an independent movie — complex and compelling characters, rich attention to detail, a slight political edge, and narratives that resemble well-crafted short stories. I was unimpressed by some of his early work but he took off a few years back with Demo, a series that used the superhero metaphor to talk about everyday people in everyday situations. Now, he has three very different series running — Supermarket, which is a political action thriller; DMZ, which deals with an embedded journalist in Manhattan in the midst of a war on terror that has cut the city off from the rest of America; and Local.

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Prohibitionists and Collaborationists: Two Approaches to Participatory Culture

Next Generation, a leading webzine focused on the games industry, ran an excerpt today from my forthcoming book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, which focuses on the very different ways media companies are responding to the desire of their consumers to participate in the production and distribution of media content. This passage cuts to the heart of my book’s argument that the new media environment is forcing us to rewrite the relationships between media producers and consumers.

Here’s how the passage begins:

Grant McCracken, the cultural anthropologist and industry consultant, suggests that in the future, media producers must accommodate consumer demands to participate or they will run the risk of losing the most active and passionate consumers to some other media interest which is more tolerant: “Corporations must decide whether they are, literally, in or out. Will they make themselves an island or will they enter the mix? Making themselves an island may have certain short-term financial benefits, but the long-term costs can be substantial.”

The media industry is increasingly dependent on active and committed consumers to spread the word about valued properties in an overcrowded media marketplace and in some cases, they are seeking ways to channel the creative output of media fans to lower their production costs. At the same time, they are terrified of what happens if this consumer power gets out of control, as they claim occurred following the introduction of Napster and other file-sharing services….

One can trace two characteristic responses of media industries to this grassroots expression: Starting with the legal battles over Napster, the media industries have increasingly adopted a scorched earth policy towards their consumers, seeking to regulate and criminalize many forms of fan participation which once fell below their radar. Let’s call them the prohibitionists.

To date, the prohibitionist stance has been dominant within old media companies (film, television, the recording industry), though these groups are to varying degrees starting to re-examine some of these assumptions. So far, the prohibitionists get most of the press – with law suits directed against teens who download music or against fan webmasters getting more and more coverage in the popular media.

At the same time, on the fringes, new media companies (internet, games, and to a lesser degree, the mobile phone companies), are experimenting with new approaches which see fans as important collaborators in the production of content and as grassroots intermediaries helping to promote the franchise. We will call them the collaborationists…..

As the excerpt continues, I hold up Raph Koster, the man initially put in charge of the Star Wars Galaxies game, as a prime example of collaborationist thinking within the games industry.

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Sneak Preview: NBC’s Heroes

If a superhero can be such a powerful and effective metaphor for male adolescence, then what else can you do with them? Could you build a superhero story around a metaphor for female adolescence? Around midlife crisis? Around the changes adults go through when they become parents? Sure, why not? And if a superhero can exemplify America’s self image at the dawn of World War II, could a superhero exemplify America’s self image during the less-confident 1970s? How about the emerging national identity of a newly-independent African nation? Or a nontraditional culture, like the drug culture, or the ‘greed is good’ business culture of the go-go Eighties. Of course. If it can do one, it can do the others.

- Kurt Busiek, introduction to Astro City: Life in the Fast Lane

The San Diego Comicon has become one of the landmark events in the world of branded entertainment. Begun as a fan convention, Comicon has become much much more. While comics readers remain a small, tight-knit, niche market, the influence of comics extends outward to shape all other entertainment media. As longtime DC editor Denny O’Neil told the Comparative Media Studies colloquium several years ago, comics now constitute the “R&D” sector of the American media – comics don’t make much money themselves but they test strategies, model content, and experiment with new relationships to their readers, which will later be deployed across film, television, and video games.

In such a context, the country’s biggest comics convention has also become a test market for a range of new entertainment franchises. Take a look at the list of new films and television shows which will be previewed before the Comicon crowd this weekend. Producers, directors, network executives, and cast are waiting anxiously to see how the Comicon crowd will respond to their brainchildren.

One of the shows which will get its first public airing at San Diego this year is NBC’s new superhero drama, Heroes. I was lucky enough to get my own advanced look at the series (don’t ask how…) and wanted to offer my own thoughts on how it is apt to be received within comics fan culture. There will be a fair amount of spoiler information in this piece, but you are going to have to click to the continuation page to see it. If you just want some broad evaluative comments and background, you can keep reading this top level and then skip to the very end.

Unlike most previous stabs at superhero television, Heroes is not adopted from an existing comics franchise; it was created specifically for television, though its creative team includes several who have solid comics pedigrees – notably Jeph Loeb (best known at the moment for the Batman: Hush series). So far, searching the web, it would seem that the series has only started to register on the radar of most superhero fans, who are still nursing disappointment that two other highly publicized pilots – the adaptation of the Luna Brother’s Ultra miniseries (imagine the Ben and JLo story told in a world where superheroes replace movie stars as the favorite topic for celebrity gossip) and Mercy Reef, (a Smallville-style version of the Aquaman mythos) – were not picked up for the fall schedule. What little online discussion I’ve found suggested that its premise, which bears a superficial relationship to X-Men, led to it being perceived as similar in spirit to Mutant X, a short-lived series which borrowed heavily from (i.e. “ripped off”) the established Marvel franchise. If fans are imagining a rapid-paced, larger-than-life and somewhat campy superhero romp, they are in for a surprise.

This show owes more to indie and alternative comics than it does to the DC and Marvel universes: its tone comes closest to Brian Woods’ remarkable Demo series of last year (more on this later) or perhaps the kinds of stories one is apt to find at publishers such as Vertigo, Dark Horse, Image, or Oni. I call such publishers mid-stream: that is, not quite mainstream and not quite alternative. They tend to build on conventions of established genres, but pull them in innovative new directions. Their stories tend to be quirky and personal, somewhat dark, intellectually challenging, socially subversive, and aimed at more mature comics readers. These are my favorite kinds of comic books, ones that seem to fall through the cracks between the two main comics news magazines, Wizard (whose editors never met a mainstream superhero they didn’t like) and Comics Journal (whose editors never met a mainstream superhero comic they did like), but often attract enthusiastic interest for online fan publications, such as The Sequential Tart. Hopefully, if you are a comics fans, these reference points can help you calibrate your expectations.

If you are television fan, it might be helpful to describe this as “must see TV,” that is, a quality drama with an ensemble cast and well orchestrated story arcs, focused more on its character’s inner struggles than on external struggles (so far, the only character to wear anything remotely resembling a traditional superhero costume is wearing a cheerleader uniform.) I would place it roughly in the tradition of The X-Files, Lost, and Prison Break in both its emotional tone and its intellectual demands on the viewer.

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