When Fandom Goes Mainstream…

The most recent issue of Flow includes a range of different responses to the Flow conference, which I referenced here a few weeks ago. One of the articles would seem to be of particular interest to readers of this blog, because it refers to the panel on “Watching Television Off-Television” which I helped to organize, because it addresses the shifting nature of fan engagement with contemporary media, and because it was written by Kristina Busse (co-editor of the book, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, which was previously discussed here).

Previously I have contrasted the context in which I wrote Textual Poachers (a world where fan culture was largely marginalized and hidden from view) and the context described in Convergence Culture (a world where fan participations are increasingly central to the production decisions shaping the current media landscape).

Busse’s question, though, is whether we are really talking about the same fan culture in the two instances. Here’s part of what she has to say:

Throughout the panel “Watching Television Off-Television,” the emphasis was on how such behavior has become mainstream: casual media users now can engage with a universe that exceeds the television show via cross-media, cross-platform texts, thus creating a synergistic “overflow” experience. Thus, Jason Mittell offered the examples of Alternate Reality Games and additional online-only available footage, Will Brooker presented various fully immersive web sites that invite viewers into the shows’ diegetic spaces, and Henry Jenkins commented on the current ease of streaming or downloading television shows. The mainstreaming of fannish behaviors is thus seen as advantageous even if (or maybe even because?) the industry clearly attempts to create such behavioral patterns in order to sell their products and/or supplementary materials….My central question is: How alike or different is such a commercially constructed position when compared to the space media fans have traditionally eked out for themselves?

At least some fans have gained power and influence in the context of convergence culture. As I suggested here the other week, there are more fan friendly shows on the schedule. Shows which attract strong fan interests have a somewhat stronger chance of surviving. Producers interested in engaging with fans are generating more additional material which expands the fictional universe. We are seeing a thawing of the relations between media producers and fans as the studios are reassessing their attitudes towards even some of the more controversial aspects of fan culture. (We saw some signs of this détente during the Fan Culture panel at the Future of Entertainment conference.) And fannish modes of engagement with popular texts are spreading at a dramatic rate across more and more segments of the population.

And that’s part of what concerns Busse:

What ultimately separates “fans” from casual TV viewers who engage fannishly? Or, more specifically, how can we define fans without invoking a category so expansive that it includes all media audiences or one so narrow that it excludes large numbers of individualist fans? How can we create a continuum that acknowledges the more intense emotional and actual engagements of many TV viewers today without erasing the strong community structures which have developed through media fandom?

What gets lost as some of these fannish values and reading practices spread across the entire viewing public? Is there still a value in understanding fandom as a distinct subculture with its own cultural hierarchies and aesthetic norms, its own forms of social engagement, its own traditions of interpretation, its own system of genres for cultural production, and perhaps its own gender politics? Is this just another case of a subculture fearing a loss of “authenticity” as it moves into the mainstream? Or read from another angle, what happens to fan studies when it moves from the study of subcultural practices to the study of dominant or at least widespread forms of media consumption?

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A Tale of Three Quilts

Another in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, this passage sets up the contrast between folk culture (as it operated in 19th century America), mass culture (as it operated in the 20th century), and the new participatory culture (as it operates in the digital age). I argue in the book that digital culture often applies processes of cultural production we associate with folk culture to content we associate with mass culture.

We can understand the relations between these three phases of cultural production by considering the example of three very different kinds of quilts. The first was made for my grandmother upon the occasion of her wedding by the women in a small town in Southern Georgia. The quilt was built up from scraps which each woman had left over from previous sewing projects. The cloth was commercially produced at southern textile mills, but its value here was sentimental – a token of each woman’s affection for the young bride. The women didn’t have a lot of money but by combining their scraps they could share what they had and express their support. As the quilt was being created, the older women were passing along their skills and experience to younger women, some of whom perhaps had never worked on such a project before. Quilting as a process and the quilt as a product both helped to shape the social relations between the women in that small town. The result was a one of a kind object, shaped by local traditions but also customized to the tastes of its recipient.

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Hollywood Mogul 3

Today, I am turning over the bloging duties to my son, Henry Jenkins IV, who wanted to share with you an interview with game designer Carey DeVuono about Hollywood Mogul 3.

In Computer Gaming World‘s 20th Anniversary issue journalist Robert Coffey wrote an article about the three strategy games “that have insinuated themselves most deeply into [his] life,” a list one might anticipate would include established classics like Civilization, Age of Empires, Warcraft, Railroad Tycoon and The Sims. What’s interesting is that “the best fantasy game [he] ever played” was one a high percentage of the readers wouldn’t have heard of, one produced exclusively for the Internet by a single programmer for a fraction of the cost of those other games.

In Hollywood Mogul gamers create a movie studio and produce a full slate of films, from hiring the screenwriters and developing the scripts to casting the actors and setting the budgets. Along the way they have to deal with the problems that crop up in the production of the film – tension on the set, budget overruns. Once a cut of the film is completed you can test screen it and then tinker with later versions in order to get it right. The ultimate goal is to make more money than the competing studios and win more awards.

Hollywood Mogul is the game I wanted when I bought Peter Molyneux’s holiday blockbuster The Movies, or at least something closer to it. This game, too, is flawed. As much as I enjoy spending hours coming up with interesting ideas for movies – What if you made an alternative version of The Sopranos set in the 1930s of Al Capone and John Dillinger? What if you cast Bill Murray and Robert DeNiro as the rival coaches of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees? – there’s no way for the game to measure the creativity of your story or the charisma of your casting decisions. Ultimately it has to make decisions according to objective criteria. Can you get enough star power for a low enough casting budget? Did you take the months necessary to perfect the script or did you rush it? Did you invest enough in truly special, state of the art special effects to really bring people to the theaters or just enough to waste a lot of money?

Initially the game faced further limitations for obvious reasons – no actual writers, actors or directors could be used by name. But a surprising thing happened. A thriving fan community sprung up on the game’s message board and gamers spent months programming their own additions. Suddenly you could download databases of carefully devised talent profiles for any decade. Even when a period of several years stretched on between new officially released versions of the game, fans continued to share their insights and experiences with the game on a daily basis, maintaining the energy surrounding the game.

This fall Hollywood Mogul 3 was released with a whole new set of improvements and features. Carey DeVuono, the game’s independent creator, whose work was placed alongside Will Wright’s The Sims, talked with me about his creative process, his Internet community and the role of independent game developers in a commercial marketplace.

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Collective Intelligence vs. The Wisdom of Crowds

David Edery, who was until recently part of the CMS staff and now works for Microsoft, has been generating some interesting discussion over on his blog, Game Tycoon, about how games might harness “the wisdom of crowds” to solve real world problems. It’s an idea he’s been promoting for some time but I only recently had a chance to read through all of his discussion. He starts by describing the growing academic interest that has been generated by James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and then suggesting some of the challenges of applying these concepts in a real world context:

Despite a lasting surge in media, business, and academic interest, proven mechanisms via which to harness the wisdom of crowds remain in short supply. Idea markets have existed for many years, as have the “opinion aggregation” systems in websites (i.e. the user-generated product rankings found in Amazon.com). The chief obstacle is and always has been: how to properly incentivize the participants in a system, such that they generate meaningful, unbiased input.

There is, however, one well-known mechanism that does an amazing job of incentivizing people to think seriously and passionately about a given set of problems. A mechanism that compels people to meaningfully compete, against other people or against themselves, for no monetary benefit whatsoever. That’s right — video games.

For many years now, developers have been creating games that revolve around real-world problems such as resource development, political maneuvering, etc. One of the most famous of these is called SimCity; in it, players are taught to grapple with zoning issues, tax rates, etc. What if games that encouraged people to solve real-world problems (as a means of accomplishing larger objectives) were developed in tandem with corporate or government sponsors? Not “business games”, but commercially-viable, entertaining games that consumers might not even recognize as out of the ordinary?

Imagine a SimCity-esq game in which the player is given the financial reins to a region. The game could be set in a real location (i.e. California), incorporate real world constraints (i.e you can’t indulge in deficit spending forever), and could dynamically import the latest available real-world regional data via the Internet (i.e. demographic figures, current spending levels, etc). That way, when players begin a new game, they are immersed in a situation that closely resembles whatever situation California’s politicians are currently grappling with. But here’s the catch: once players get out of the tutorial phase, the game can begin recording their decisions and transmitting them to a central database, where they are aggregated into a form of “collective vote” on what actions to take (i.e. raise the sales tax or lower the sales tax). If the Wisdom of Crowds is correct, the collective choices of 100,000 game players in California (which would include knowledgeable people as well as many less-knowledgeable people) may very well be better than the choices of 1,000 Californian policy experts.

The idea of using games to collect the shared wisdom of thousands of players seems a compelling one — especially if one can develop, as Edery proposes, mechanisms for linking game play mechanics with real world data sets. Indeed, Raph Koster — another games blogger who has been exploring these ideas — does Edery one better, pointing to a project which actually tested this concept:

What [Byron Reeves] showed was a mockup of a Star Wars Galaxies medical screen, displaying real medical imagery. Players were challenged to advance as doctors by diagnosing the cancers displayed, in an effort to capture the wisdom of crowds. The result? A typical gamer was found to be able to diagnose accurately at 60% of the rate of a trained pathologist. Pile 30 gamers on top of one another, and the averaged result is equivalent to that of a pathologist — with a total investment of around 60-100 hours per player.

At the risk of being annoyingly pedantic, however, this debate keeps getting muddied because participants are blurring important distinctions between Surowiecki’s notion of the Wisdom of Crowds and Pierre Levy’s notion of Collective Intelligence. Edery uses the two terms interchangeably in his discussion (and to some degree, so does Koster), yet Surowiecki and Levy start from very different premises which would lead to very different choices in the game design process. Surowiecki’s model seeks to aggregate anonymously produced data, seeing the wisdom emerging when a large number of people each enter their own calculations without influencing each other’s findings. Levy’s model focuses on the kinds of deliberative process that occurs in online communities as participants share information, correct and evaluate each other’s findings, and arrive at a consensus understanding.

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Grafitti as an Exemplary Practice?: Tats Cru

lloquium series featured a program about the production of Zigzag, the new video podcast which seeks to capture and convey some of the many fascinating aspects of life at MIT. This week’s edition features a profile of the New Media Literacies Project. The video includes footage of several of our graduate students setting up to interview my colleague Beth Coleman for a forthcoming entry in our exemplar library project which will deal with DJs and music remixing practices. The center piece of the documentary, however, deals with the most recently added film in our collection which deals with the New York based Graffiti group, Tats Cru.

This is a segment that cuts close to home for me. Indeed, many of the interview segments were shot in my living room. As some of you know, I am proud to have spent the last 12 years of my life as housemaster of an MIT dormitory known as Senior House. (Contrary to the name, the community includes a full range of undergraduates — frosh to seniors — and houses many of those at MIT who are interested in alternative cultures.) Tats Cru came to MIT in part at the request of our graduate resident tutors, Andrew “Zoz” Brooks who wanted help constructing a mural which would pay tribute to “Big Jimmy” Roberts, a long time night watchman who was much beloved among our residents and who passed away a few years ago. Our students have raised more than 50,000 dollars to create a scholarship in Big Jimmy’s honor but they wanted an icon to help memorialize his role within the dorm. Since he worked between two dorms, the agreement was that they would paint a mural on canvas that would be portable and could spend part of the year in each location. Tats Cru came to MIT through help from the Creative Arts Council and Michelle Oshima and worked with our students to produce something that was worthy of Big Jimmy’s memory. While the group was on campus, the graduate students on Project NML also filmed the production of the mural and conducted interviews to help explore graffiti as a form of creative expression.

The story of Tats Cru is a fascinating one: a group of former street artists who have become known around the world for their murals and graffiti, who work with local communities to create memory walls and who work with corporate clients to support their branding efforts. It’s hard to pick any group of artists who better embody some of the contradictions which surround graffiti as a form of creative expression.

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Happy Turkey Day

I am taking the day off to spend time with my family and the students in my dorm. My posts will return on Friday. Have a great holiday.

Catching Up: Mostly on Media Literacy

The New and Improved Henry Jenkins

I was so impressed by the experience of participating in the MacArthur Foundation’s press event, which was partially held in the New York Museum of Natural History and partially held in Second Life, that I sought out Barry Joseph from Global Kids, an organization which regularly runs events through Teen Second Life, to see if there might be a way I could engage with their youth participants. My one concern, as a media scholar, had been that when we spoke in Second Life at the press event, we appeared as cinematic images and not as avatars.

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So, in speaking with Joseph, we decided that I should get an avatar if I was going to relate to the Second Life youth on their own terms. Joseph was nice enough to volunteer to get some members of his group to create an avatar for me. Apparently, some of the youth had expressed a particular fascination with my beard and therefore wanted to be able to reproduce it and share it with their friends. (I wasn’t sure which Henry beard they wanted since mine comes in various lengths from trim to shaggy depending on what point it is in the term and how hectic my life has been.)

This past weekend, Barry wrote to introduce me to the second Henry Jenkins. I have to say that I bonded instantly with this frisky fellow.

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I have heard television puts ten pounds on you. It would appear that Second Life takes thirty or forty pounds off — not to mention adding some of that vigor and vitality that has been worn away through many years of living the life of the jet setting academic.

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Barry says they had two groups work on constructing me an avatar — a group of adults known as The Magicians and several teens — 1000 Carlos and Nik385 Doesberg — and then they combined the best features of the two for the finished product. Thanks to everyone involved. It’s been years since anyone has drawn a representation of me that didn’t consist of a series of circles — the bald head, the glasses, and the round little tummy. Indeed, some years ago, a whole Kindergarten class made Henry Jenkins masks by gluing string to paper plates! Even then, my beard was the subject of considerable fascination.

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Barry and I are now working on the details of when and where I will be engaging with the Second Life Youth. I can’t wait.

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Game Theorist Jesper Juul to Speak at MIT

Half-Real: A Video Game in the Hands of a Player

November 28, 2006 | 5:00 PM | Location: 1-136

What happens when a player picks up video game, learns to play it, masters it, and leaves it? Using concepts from my book on video games, Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, I will argue that video game players are neither rational solvers of abstract problems, nor daydreamers in fictional worlds, but both of these things with shifting emphasis. The unique quality of video games is to be located in their intricate interplay of rules and fictions, which I will examine across genres, from casual games to massively multiplayer games.

Jesper Juul is a video game theorist and assistant professor in video game theory and design at the Centre for Computer Game Research Copenhagen where he also earned his Ph.D. His book Half-Real on video game theory was published by MIT Press in 2005. Additionally, he works as a multi-user chat systems and casual game developer. He is currently a visiting scholar at Parsons School of Design in New York.

This lecture is free and open to the public and is sponsored by the Comparative Media Studies Program and the New Media Literacies Project.

Broadband and the Public Interest

The Comparative Media Studies graduate students have been discussing current policy debates around “net neutrality.” The phrase, “net neutrality,” is in broad circulation at the moment but I suspect many people out there are not familiar with the core terms of the debate or how it impacts them. Stephen J. Schultze, a first year CMS masters student, asked if he might share some of his perspectives on this issue.

Schultze holds a 2002 BA in computer science and philosophy from Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI). Since graduation, Schultze served as a project director at the Public Radio Exchange in Cambridge, MA: “Through PRX, I’ve been closely involved with station consultations on issues of cross-media branding in podcasting and web strategy. I launched a project that provides stations with a customized, branded podcast interface for their listeners. We advise stations that their brand identity and relationships with listeners have become more important than ever in a multi-channel world.” He has also collaborated on projects through the MIT Media Lab where he helped Carla Gomez-Monroy to build an experimental radio production system for Mexican diasporic communities in New York City. Schultze spends a lot of his time these days over at the Berkman Center at that other place up the road from us and has been involved in the organization of the Beyond Broadcasting conference (more on that later). He is currently working on a documentary about podcasting for the New Media Literacies Project. What follows are his thoughts about how the recent election returns are apt to impact the debates around net neutrality.

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Youtube and the Vaudeville Aesthetic

My very first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts? (based on my dissertation at Wisconsin), explored the impact of American vaudeville on early sound comedy, seeing variety performance as an important influence on the films of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Burns and Allen, Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn, Joe E. Brown, Wheeler and Woolsey, and a spate of other clowns and comics of the early 1930s. I confess that given my current research interests, I don’t get very much demand to pontificate about the particulars of early 20th century popular theater.

Yet, the other day, a journalist asked me to look at this OK Go music video, currently extremely popular on YouTube, as part of a story he was doing about the ways that digital distribution of content was impacting the recording industry. And I was suddenly struck by the ways that YouTube represents for the early 21st century what Vaudeville represented in the early 20th century.

Let me see if I can sketch some of the resemblances:

As the name suggests, the variety stage was based on the principle of constant variation and diversity. It represented a grab bag of the full range of cultural interests and obsessions of an age marked by dramatic social, cultural, and technological transformations. In the course of an evening, one might watch a Shakespearean actor do a soliloquy, a trained dog act, an opera recital, a juggler or acrobatic turn, a baggy pants comedian, an escape artist or magician, a tap dance performance, and some form of stupid human tricks (such as a guy with hammers on his shoes hopping around on a giant xylophone or an act where baboons play musical instruments). Similarly, YouTube brings together an equally ecclectic mix of content drawn from all corners of our culture and lays it out as if it were of equal interest and importance, trusting the individual user to determine the relative value of each entry.

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