Should I Cornrow My Beard? and Other Questions at the End of 2006

This will be my last blogpost of 2006. By agreement with my family, I am going to take next week off, spending as little time online as humanly possible, and relaxing after the end of a term which has included at least 16 talks outside my home institution (and quite a few inside) as well as a period of six months during which I have made more than 165 blog posts. I think I have earned a short break. But have no fear, I will be back ready and rearing for conversation by early next year. I’ve already lined up some great interviews and have some cool topics in mind. There will also be some cool new announcements from the Comparative Media Studies community. Never a dull moment around here.

I want to use this last post to provide a few updates and announcements — especially concerning the podcasts of our events — and then share a few thoughts about my recent venture into Teen Second Life thanks to the help of Barry Joseph and the other fine folks at Global Kids. (And I promise to answer or at least explain the title question by the end of this post).

CMS Announcements

We now have all but one of the webcasts of the Future of Entertainment conference up on line. That last one should be up soon.

We promised a while back that we would have a webcast version of Jesper Juul’s talk, “Half-Real: A Video Game in the Hands of a Player” and that podcast went up earlier today. We are experimenting here — and in the Futures of Entertainment content — with video podcasting. All feedback on these efforts would be welcome.

I wanted to flag an upcoming event. For the past eight years, the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program has worked with Sony Imageworks and various local games companies to produce a workshop on Transforming Traditional Media Content into Nonlinear and Interactive Formats. The course, in the MIT context, runs intensively for five days during a week in January. I run this workshop in collaboration with Sande Scoredos from Sony Imageworks. This year, we will be assisted by Ravi Purushotma, the technological advisor to the Education Arcade.

The dates for this year’s event will be Jan. 29-Feb.2.

Our students include undergraduate students from MIT and Wellesley College, graduate students, visiting scholars, staff, and other members of the MIT Community. While we offer a limited amount of academic credit for participating in the program, most of our students opt to do it purely on a volunteer basis. We also would welcome outside participants. If you are interested in joining us, contact me at henry3@mit.edu. More details will be coming early next year.

Now About the Beard.

From the start, my beard seemed to be the object of fascination and speculation among the teens at Second Life. Barry Joseph told me about this interest following my participation in the MacArthur Foundation’s announcement event earlier this term. And it was one of the reasons why I wanted my own avatar so I could enter Second Life and interact with these youth. One of them wanted to know how long it took me to grow my beard. In truth, that’s not an easy question to answer. I have had a beard since I left the University of Iowa to start my PhD work at the University of Wisconsin. This means I have not shaved it off completely in almost 20 years. We have watched it grow from black to salt and pepper to grey over that time. Yet, since hair continually replaces itself, it is hard to know how long I have been growing the particular beard follicles which are currently attached to my face.

At one time, we even jokingly discussed making my beard available for distribution on Second Life, though so far this hasn’t happened. Part of the issue is to figure out which beard length might be most popular — the tightly trimmed Henry beard at the start of the term or the long and shaggy one by the end when my schedule has kept me from getting to a barbershop for a trim.

Last Wedsday night, I made my live public appearance on the Global Kids island in Teen Second Life to talk about games, learning, and popular culture. I wasn’t surprised when one of the first questions I got asked was when and if I would have my beard put up in cornrows. It is an interesting question — and one I am pondering deeply as I enter into the Holiday season. So, here’s the heart of my response: I welcome any and all attempts to digitally doctor photographs of my beard. I especially throw this out as a challenge to teens in Second Life. If you want to use Photoshop to cornrow a picture of my beard or if you want to fix the beard on my avatar to have a funkier do, then it’s fair game. And I promise to share the results here on the blog early next year. Think of it as a technical challenge: how to cornrow Henry’s Beard.

My students have long tested their skills against the iconic quality of my persona –dressing up in Henry’s costumes (complete with “suspenders of disbelief”), using Barbie Fashion Designer to put me in drag, doing graffiti on photographs of my bald head. So I welcome anyone from Teen Second Life to do their stuff!

How’s this for the perfect narcissistic scenario: Last Saturday, I tried out my new avatar for the first time by beaming myself onto a desert corner of the Global Kids Island. I was going to stay for just a minute, try to work through some of the control mechanisms, make sure the connection works. There was no one else in the entire world that I saw on the screen. And then, out of nowhere, someone walks up and says “Are you really Henry Jenkins?” It turns out to be Mariel, a teenaged girl from Mexico City, who has been using some of her work for a school assignment. So, here we are: only two people in the whole world on a Saturday afternoon and one of them turns out to be a fan! It’s probably the only time in my life that I hit 100% market recognition! It turns out that Mariel, who introduced me at the event on Wedsday, and asked really probing and intellectually sophisticated questions, is one of the closest readers of my work I’ve met in some time.

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People have asked me why I wanted an avatar for my appearance on Second Life. This goes back to the meaning of the word, Avatar, which is a metaphor which has gotten lost as the word has taken on such common usage. Here’s what Wikipedia tells us:

In Hindu philosophy, an avatar, avatara or avataram (Sanskrit: अवतार, IAST: avatāra), most commonly refers to the incarnation (bodily manifestation) of a higher being (deva), or the Supreme Being (God) onto planet Earth. The Sanskrit word avatāra- literally means “descent” (avatarati) and usually implies a deliberate descent into lower realms of existence for special purposes. The term is used primarily in Hinduism, for incarnations of Vishnu whom many Hindus worship as God.

I remind us of this meaning half-ironically. I don’t mean to imply that I am somehow a divine being taking earthly form. Rather, I mean to critique what happens when adult speak to youth much of the time. I felt vaguely uncomfortable at the MacArthur event because we — the panelists — were speaking from another order of representation (cinematically) in a world occupied by virtual beings. I wanted to get down to the same level (socially, representationally) with the community I was talking with. I think this is a real issue. Too often, adults talk about kids, maybe even speak to youth, but they don’t talk with them. And becoming an avatar seemed like the best way to signal my desire to speak on the same level with my audience. Anyway, it made sense to me.

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The whole experience was amazing. I will let you listen to the actual exchange which has been recorded and put on line if you wish. There’s also a really wonderful video of highlights of the event which is now in circulation on YouTube. Frankly, I come off sounding much more coherent in the video than I did at the time. There was something truly overwhelming about the whole experience.

For one thing, I really am a newbie and so moving around in that body — and indeed, remembering to keep moving — was a challenge for me. At one point, I accidentally flew up, planted myself on the top of a sign suspended over the event, and couldn’t figure out how to get down. I’ve had embarrassing experiences speaking before but none like that. At another point, I just slumped over in my chair because I didn’t remember to keep poking at my avatar. There’s a high learning curve here and doing your learning in public eye can be awkward. My students are talking about creating an animation sequence which has my characteristic hand gestures. Nobody has ever seen me speak for long without gesticulating wildly. I’ve got a ways to go before I blend fully and comfortably into my avatar but I was really taken with the sense of presence I felt interacting with all of the people attending the event from remote locations.

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I kept getting distracted by the sheer array of avatars in attendance — characters from anime, dancing Pandas in Ninja costumes, a monster from Will Wright’s Spore… At one point I made a reference to the struggles City of Heroes had with Marvel over the fact that players might use their character design tools to create a knockoff of the Incredible Hulk and then looked out a moment later to find someone in the audience had turned themselves into the Hulk. And I was blown away by the fact that my avatar has much better moves on the dance floor than I’ve ever managed to master. He’s one cool dude and I am, well, not. So, all in all, it was an amazing experience but I was not at my most articulate as one thing or another distracted me mid-sentence.

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Thanks to everyone who made it possible and to everyone who turned out to enjoy the show. I hope to have more chances to interact in Second Life in the coming year.

And to all of you who have read and contributed to the blog this year, thanks — and best wishes on the holiday season.

The Independent Games Movement (Part Five): Interview with Eric Zimmerman

A while back, I ran a series of interviews with Manifesto Games’s Greg Costikyan (Part One, Part Two) and Indiecade’s Stephanie Barish (Part One, Part Two) talking about the current efforts to spark an independent games movement. Both of them offered some unique perspectives about what independent games are, why they matter, how they fit within the current games culture, and what steps need to be taken to promote more experimentation and innovation in game design. I plan to continue this series from time to time with other interviews which showcase innovators, experimentors, and entrepreneurs who are helping to build the independent games movement.

Eric Zimmerman was the person who introduced me to the concept of an independent game some years ago and his work for GameLab consistently embodies for me the experimental mindset I associate with this particular category of cultural production. I run into Zimmerman four or five times a year at various conferences and consistently find him an engaging personality and a lively thinker. As long as I have known him, Zimmerman is someone who has consistently pushed us to broaden our definition of what games can do and who has proceeded to prototype, build, and market games that expand our conception of this still emerging medium. Eric Zimmerman would rank high on anyone’s list of the top game theorists — Rules of Play remains probably the best book written to date about game design and is rapidly emerging as perhaps the most widely taught text in the emerging field of games studies. What gives his ideas about game design such credability is the ways he has put them into action, working with his smart team of fellow designers, through projects like Arcadia, Diner Dash, Loop, Blix, and Sisyfight 2000, among other Game Lab titles. Every Gamelab game has a point — as we discuss here — an underlying theoretical question which drives the design process. Each one contributes something vital to our understanding of the medium as well as illustrating that there are a whole lot more different kinds of play and fun that the marketing department of Electronic Arts might care to imagine. The GameLab titles are the best case I can imagine for the value of producing and distributing games outside of the major studios. I will be running this interview over the next two days. The first part deals mostly with the issue of independent games and with the ways GameLab approaches its business. The second part digs deeper into the Game Designer project which Zimmerman is developing with Katie Salen and James Paul Gee — which promises to be a significant part of the new Digital Learning and Youth project recently launched by the McArthur Foundation.

You have been a longtime advocate of the independent games movement. How do you

define independent games and what do they bring to games culture?

The idea of “independent games” is a slippery but important concept. I think there are a number of ways to consider what they are – I like to use the notion of independent film as a way of thinking through what indie games might be.

On the one hand, it’s possible to think about independent film as something which is small-scale in terms of scope of production – a homemade film project on a shoestring budget, as opposed to a major studio release. Related to this is another definition of independent film, which refers to the ways that a movie is funded and distributed – perhaps funded through an arts grant, and distributed via festivals, instead of more mainstream means. Lastly, an independent film might be seen as something which questions the conventions of mainstream cinema through its form or content – from avant-garde experiments to political documentary.

There are other ways of conceiving of independent cinema as well, but these three (production, business, & design) help describe some of the challenges of creating independent games. The game industry is a cultural field that is currently dominated by large-scale games that cost $10 to $20 million or more to create, games that are funded by large corporations, distributed through the bottlenecks of retail, and are largely genre-generic titles. At Gamelab (a company I founded in 2000 with Peter Lee), we try and address these questions, making small-scale experimental games that are still commercially viable.

To me it is less important to define exactly what independent games are and instead figure out how to create innovative games that expand the boundaries of digital games, a form of culture that is only a few decades old and still has vast spaces for experimentation and invention.

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The Independent Games Movement (Part Six): An Interview with Eric Zimmerman (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first of a two part interview with Eric Zimmerman, game theorist, designer, and teacher, during which he spoke at length about his vision for the Independent Games movement and the ways that his company, Game Lab, has developed distinctive and original content. Today, I shift the focus onto some of the public service aspects of Zimmerman’s work, especially in his efforts to promote games literacy.

Across the term, I have been sharing with you some news about the MacArthur Foundation’s 50 million dollar commitment to exploring youth and digital learning. Our own Project NML is part of this effort as was the white paper I published on the social skills and cultural competencies young people need to participate meaningfully in the new media landscape. Another dimension of this effort is the Game Designer Project, which Zimmerman is developing in collaboration with Katie Salens and James Paul Gee. I got a chance to see some early prototypes of this project at the Serious Game Summit in Washington DC earlier this term and was blown away by the wit and imagination, not to mention the pedagogical sophistication, which is informing its design. As Zimmerman discusses below, this is an attempt to use the game platform as a vehicle to teach students about the design process. The goal is not to turn young people into game designers but rather to use the design process to help them to think critically about games as a mode of experience.

In a recent interview on this blog, Greg Costikyan commented, “Consider Eric Zimmerman. He’s found a viable niche doing casual games, and his company, Gamelab, does some excellent ones. But Eric is a -gamer- at heart, and while I imagine he’s happy enough developing games for an audience (middle-aged women) that prizes games of types very different from those he himself loves, I’m sure he’d much prefer to be developing games of greater cultural significance and intellectual merit. In other words, if he could make as much money doing a game that appeals to people who have a passion for games, rather than for those who view them as light entertainment, I’m sure he’d be happy to. But he also has a payroll to make, and there’s demonstrable money in casual games, and indie games are pretty much unproven as a market.” Do you agree or disagree with that description of the context within which you work?

God bless Greg Costikyan (and I mean that in the secular, idiomatic sense).

Greg is half right. While Gamelab strives to have every game we make be in some way innovative, I believe we are just scratching the surface of the tip of the iceberg in terms of the kinds of games that could be made. So of course I would love to be doing more radically experimental and unusual work, in terms of gameplay and interaction, narrative and cultural content, contexts for play, audio and visual aesthetics, etc. In this sense, yes Greg, I’d like to be doing more than I am. But when I look around at all of the game companies out there, I’m very happy with what we are doing at Gamelab and I don’t think there is another place I’d rather be.

But I certainly wouldn’t frame these issues as Greg does. For example, I wouldn’t describe the work I want to do as my own personal desire to make games that I want to play. As a designer, I like solving design problems, which doesn’t merely mean making games that are fun for me. And even if it did, the intrinsically collaborative nature of game development means that a game is the product of many people’s desires, not just those of a single author.

Greg is also certainly over-generalizing the online game audience. Online games include far more than the “middle aged woman” stereotype he invokes. I’d much rather be making games for the Internet, as the players there are vastly more diverse than for consoles and PC retail games. I can say with confidence that the two games I described in my response to the last question, Arcadia Remix and Out of Your Mind, are not designed just for middle-aged women.

Lastly, I would hesitate to set up an opposition between running a business and “creativity,” something implied in Greg’s quote. Part of what we are doing at Gamelab is not just engaging with design questions, but engaging with questions of funding and producing and distributing our work as well. And Greg’s company Manifesto Games is certainly doing this too. The fact that there are still so many unanswered questions about games – in terms of design, culture, business, etc – is what makes it so exciting to be working in the game industry right now.

Tell us something about the Game Designer project. You hope to help young people develop an understanding of the game design process. Why? What do you see as the benefit of everyday people understanding games on this level?

Game Designer is a project funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant in partnership with Jim Gee’s research group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Game Designer will let junior high and high school students learn about game design by creating and modifying simple games. However, the point of the project is not to train future game designers. It is to engender media literacy.

Our position is that there is an emerging form of media literacy that we sometimes call “Gaming Literacy.” Gaming Literacy has to do with information management, understanding complex systems, social networks, a critical design process, and creativity with digital technology. Increasingly, this new form of literacy will be crucial in the workplace and in our social and civic lives. The process of game design, which combines mathematics and logic, storytelling and aesthetics, writing and communication, systems and analytic thinking, among other elements, is one of the best ways of engaging with this form of literacy.

Katie Salen here at Gamelab is leading the Game Designer project design and working directly with our academic partners, who are focusing on research, pedagogy, testing, and assessment. Game Designer is not an open-ended prototyping tool like GameMaker – it is a guided, scaffolded experience that teaches game design concepts. So it is important that the instructional components of the project are really well-tuned. Right now there is nothing like Game Designer out there – and from kids’ reaction to our prototype testing, it may be a very popular application.

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Sampling the Polish Comics Scene

According to Tim Pilcher and Brad Brook’s The Essential Guide to World Comics, “Of all the countries in the former Eastern Bloc, Poland has perhaps the largest comics scene — you could almost call it an industry.”

My host and translator, Miroslaw Filiciak , took me to several comics shops on my visit — the largest of which was located in the railroad terminal at the center of the city, a location which reflects the connection in many people’s minds between comics (and other forms of popular fiction) and railroad transportation. This picture was taken of me reading some of the local product outside the train station in front of some murals (covered with graffiti) that suggest several of the other graphic arts traditions in Poland.

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And here’s a somewhat more traditional form of graphic arts — some remarkable murals painted on the fronts of buildings in the old section of Warsaw. This one is signed and dated in the mid-1950s.

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(By the way, thanks to Cynthia Jenkins for all of the great pictures of Warsaw I have been running over the past few entries).

Pilcher and Brooks tell us, “As in most countries, comics in Poland have been looked down upon as trash for subnormal people and slow children. Much of this attitude was created by the communist regime, which on one hand dismissed comics as imperialist garbage and on the other used them for propaganda amongst children and adolescents. During these years, such morally edifying comics like Kapitan Kloss, Kapitan Zbik, and the still published Tytus Romek I A Tomek had their salad days.” Kapitan Kloss and Kapitan Zbik were among those works of Communist era popular culture whose loss was being lamented by nostalgia buffs at the Kultura 2.0 conference.

After the collapse of communist, independent comics emerged to fill a gap left by the end of state subsidized publishing of comics. In some cases, these new companies simply reprinted comics from abroad — including the pulpy Prince Valiant inspired Thorgal series which happened to have been co-created by a Polish comics artist, Grzegorz Rosinski. Rosinski was the star of the Polish comic market (he prepared some of the best books of the Kapitan Zbik series) and wanted to cooperate with publishers on the other side of the iron curtain, but after the fifth part of Thorgal the martial law began in 1981 and there was no more possibility for postal cooperation. So he moved to Belgium where the author of the series lived. As a result, Thorgal is the Polish comic best known in the west.

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This image suggests the larger than life heroics and blood and thunder fights that characterize the Thorgal series as a whole. Thorgal continues to be enormously popular if its high visibility not only in the comics shops but also the bookstores across Warsaw are any indication. It commands almost as much shelf space in the comics shop we visited as the entire output of DC comics.

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My Adventures in Poland (Part Three)

On the second day of my trip, I went over and spoke at a conference on internet research hosted by the Warsaw School of Social Psychology, built inside an old factory, in what was described to me as the “dodgy” side of the Vistula River. The river divides the city into two parts: historically more working class people lived on the west bank. This area, however, is now undergoing gentrification and the university itself was a modern, inviting facility. I will have less to share about this conference because it was mostly conducted in Polish without translation facilities and so I was not able to really engage with the other presenters as much as at the Kultura 2.0 event. I did hear a really interesting presentation on a phenomenon called Couchsurfing, where people use social networking tools to arrange to stay in people’s homes as they travel around the world. The presenter discussed it in terms of the interplay of virtual and physical spaces and the different kinds of sociality that each enables.

Later that night, we ended up going out with a group of students to a typically European drinking hole, Sklad Butelek. I spent much of the evening talking with Alek

Tarkowski, who is the primary person in Poland organizing and promoting the Creative Commons movement.

The Polish Reggae Scene?

One of the most interesting aspect of his conversation, however, centered around the emergence of a Reggae movement in Poland. Keep in mind: There are almost no Jamaicans living in Poland. This is not a case of emigrant populations porting music to another part of the world. Poland is an incredibly homogeneous country with very limited immigrant populations and clearly, there are no cultural reasons for Jamaicans to want to relocate to this part of the world. Reggae emerged here because it served Polish interests and reflected Polish tastes and thus it has taken some distinctly Polish shapes.

I shared some of the music I brought back with Generoso Fierro, who works in the CMS offices. For more than a decade, he has hosted Generoso’s Bovine Ska and Rocksteady which airs every Tuesday from midnight to 2AM (EST) on 88.1FM WMBR Cambridge and can be found online. His show focuses on the beginnings of Jamaica’s music

industry (1955-1970) from the earliest recordings of mento (sometimes referred to as

Jamaican calypso) through Jamaican R & B,ska, rocksteady and the rise of reggae. Here’s his insights into the Polish reggae phenomenon:

I have found that Jamaican music truly appeals to any culture that is in a dire economic position. In the case of England there was the effect of children of post WW2 Jamaican immigrants who were brought to England due to the labor shortage, living in depressed neighborhoods with white London youth turning them onto Jamaican rhythms during the Mod and Skinhead movements of the late 1960s..The whole merger of punk and reggae (i.e The Clash covering Jamaican music) happened due to a London DJ named Don Letts who, due to the small amount of punk records available at the time, would spin reggae before live punk rocks shows. But in the case of Mexico, which has a huge Jamaican music community, this seemed to have spawned from radio broadcasts from California during the Jamaican revival in the early 1990s. Several of the revival bands that formed in Mexico told me in interviews that California radio really turned them onto the sound.

A group called Izrael was the first to introduce the sound into Poland in 193. Some members of Izrael heard a few songs and were so fascinated that they started to produce music in this style (at least as they understood it). I gather there’s a good deal of reinvention going on here given how limited their initial exposure to the music was. The name created confusion in Poland with some people assuming this was a Christian Rock group. Indeed, my hosts shared with me stories of older people storming out of the concert, confused and angry, having hoped for a more conventional religious experience.

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My Adventures in Poland (Part Two)

The first thing you need to understand about Warsaw is that the city still has not recovered from its traumatic past. Almost every Pole I met during my visit, at one time or another, apologized to us about the state of their city. Warsaw was once one of the great cosmopolitan cities of Europe but it was devastated during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 — a two month period during which the Poles actively resisted German occupation with the result that by some estimates 85 percent of the city was destroyed and more than 250,000 civilian lives were taken. (These estimates come from Wikipedia). The German occupation was followed by decades of Soviet dominance during which the old buildings were replaced by newer buildings in the Stalinist tradition. Only in recent decades have the Poles regained control over their city and been able to exert their own influence on its architecture again. And as a result, the Poles are often deeply apologetic about a city that they variously described as “ugly” and “dirty” and “without cultural identity.” There are constant comparisons made to Krakow, which is described as an older, more sophisticated, more culturally rich city (though we never actually got out of Warsaw on this trip and found this city had its own charms and attractions.)

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Some of the older sections of the city have been rebuilt — including some of the fortifications whose origins can be traced back to the early 14th century.

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The Palace of Culture Meets Kultura 2.0

My primary talk on this trip was at a conference called Kultura 2.0 which was held inside the Palace of Culture — a gift from Joseph Stalin to the people of Poland — which remains perhaps the most controversial buildings in the city. At 30 stories, it is also still the tallest building in the city and can be seen from almost every corner of Warsaw. Some Poles believe the building should be destroyed, seeing it as a painful reminder of the Soviet occupation of their country. Others embrace the building for its architectural distinction and the vast cultural complex of theatres, auditoriums, and museums which it houses.

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There was something paradoxical about hosting a conference themed around the transformative power of new media technologies (i.e. the digital revolution) inside a building so strongly associated with the centralizing power of the Communist State, an irony noted by a number of the speakers. (I could not resist comparing Nicholas Negroponte’s predictions in Being Digital that mass media as we know it would collapse under its own weight in the face of personalized media to the old Marxist rhetoric about “the withering of the State.” Neither prediction has or seems likely to come to pass anytime in my lifetime.) The conference organizers had brought together a very interesting mix of key players in the Polish context (more about this in a minute) as well as some leading thinkers about digital media from across Europe and the United States (me). I found the audience tremendously hungry for new ideas and perspectives.

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My Adventures in Poland (Part One)

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Malgorzata Bernatowicz and Miroslaw Filiciak are the two people who translated Convergence Culture into Polish as Kultura Konwergencji:zderzenie starych i nowych mediow. This picture was taken when they were showing me around the old section of Warsaw. The building in the background is the Namiestnikowski Palace, where the President of Poland lives.

What follows are some highlights from the introduction I wrote for the Polish edition of the book. I have focused here primarily on some thoughts I shared with my new Polish readers about the global context within which the issues discussed in the book are operating. The original plan was to have a chapter focused entirely around globalization be part of Convergence Culture. Much of that material ended up being included as the “Pop Cosmopolitanism” essay in Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers, or developed through the sidebars in the book at the Animatrix and about anime fansubbing. But here, I tried to bring a few strands of my thoughts about global media change together.

Next time, I will offer more observations on digital and popular culture in Poland.

Welcome to Convergence Culture.

For those of you keeping score, The dotcom era has ended. The age of Social Networks and Mobile Media has emerged from its ashes. Blogging is thriving. Podcasting is on the rise. Everywhere you look the people are taking media in their own hands, speaking back to mass media, forming their own on-line communities, learning to think, work, and process culture in new ways.

We are no longer talking about a digital revolution, which envisioned new media displacing the old. We are now talking about media convergence, where old and new media interact in ever more complex ways, where every story, brand, sound, image, and relationship will play itself out across the maximum number of media channels and platforms.

We are no longer talking about interactive media technologies; we are talking about participatory culture. Talk to advertisers, media producers, network executives, game designers, fans, gamers and bloggers and they will all tell you that the consumer is gaining new visibility and new cultural influence in this emerging culture. This is at the heart of what some American observers are calling Web 2.0. Some of them are embracing this change with enormous excitement, others with great fear, none of them claim to fully understand what is going to happen next. The terms of our participation in this new convergence culture are very much under debate, being shaped by governmental policies and court decisions but also by choices being made both in corporate boardrooms and in teenager’s bedrooms.

New media are being put out by technology companies and they are being redefined on the fly by various groups of consumers. Companies are trying to get ahead of the game by empowering their lead users, by allowing key fans and consumers to test their products before they even reach the market, and building on their insights to create a better mousetrap, build a better game, or produce a better television show. Media networks are trying new strategies to grab the attention of their viewers and insure longer term loyalty to their properties. As they do

so, viewers are every level are demanding the right to help shape the production and circulation of media content.

Sites like YouTube have emerged as meeting places between all kinds of different subcultures, fan communities, and participatory cultures, places where commercial and amateur media circulates side by side. They are producing their own stars and they are also turning out to be places where consumers re-evaluate network content, calling attention to moments on television which might otherwise have passed by without much comment. Online worlds, such as Second Life, are thriving based almost entirely on what people are calling consumer-generated content (though to reduce what happens there to content or describe the participants in these worlds simply as consumers is to grossly simplify what is taking place)….

Morover, these changes are occuring on a global level, impacting each country differently according to their own national cultures and traditions, but being felt around the world. There’s a reason why they call it the World Wide Web. It is not simply that American media products are flowing into international markets — this is scarcely news. More profound is the degree to which cultural goods from other parts of the world — at the moment, especially from Asia — are flowing into the American market at a rate so fast that it is breaking through the protective membrane constructed by American major media companies to block access to international competitors.

More and more American young people are embracing what I call pop cosmopolitanism — seeking an escape from the paroachialism of their own cultures by embracing cultural materials from around the world. There is an ironic juxtaposition between an American government which acts more and more in unilateral terms and a younger American population which is embracing global media. I recently spoke to an American teenager who described this particular JPop group as her “favorite band in the whole wide world.” Anyone who is the parent of an adolescent knows that’s the way teenage girls have always talked. But this time, as I listened to her enthusiasm for a band which had no label and no distributor in the west, I thought she might be telling the truth. She had searched the world for a group that spoke to her and found it through networking with kids in Japan who shared her interests in anime, manga, and cosplay.

It isn’t just that American youth are consuming more international media:they are also taking advantage of a network culture to engage on a regular basis with youth from around the world who share their common interests. I am struck by the story of Heather Lawver in the Harry Potter chapter of my book. When Warner Brothers first sought to shut down certain fan websites around their newly acquired franchise, they sent cease and desist letters to young people in parts of the world which would have once seemed very distant from their base. Yet, as Heather tells us, the word got back to their American fans almost instantly because they already participated in a global fan network. More recently, I watched fans of the American science fiction series, Stargate, mobilize fans to news of the series cancilation worldwide in just a few days time. They now understand television operating within a global framework, rallying fans in many different countries to put pressure on their local networks where the show is still thriving and using that economic clout to push the American producers to continue to generate new content.

In some ways, new media technologies are making more visible the kinds of cultural links that immigrants have long maintained back to their mother country. I see this pattern with my own students who have come to the United States for an education but still listen to radio stations, read newspapers, share music, and talk about fan cultures from back home. The web now serves the functions that ethnic grocery stores and community centers have long played in immigrant communities with one exception. The content is flowing from one community to another as people mix and match cultural materials with others from radically different backgrounds. I live in a dormatory at MIT and I have seen first hand the ways that media sharing is opening up students to new kinds of culture from around the world.

So, I have to confess that I wrote this book very much from an American perspective. My expertise is in American media and popular culture, though it is increasingly clear that one can no longer understand American media outside of a global context. I have never been to Poland and know only very little about your country. I hope to change this but for the moment, I can claim no particular expertise about the media changes that are impacting your corner of the planet. That said, I suspect much of what I write about here will sound familiar to anyone deeply immersed in popular media in any part of the world. Many of these same franchises are known in Poland — either through American imports or through localization of larger multinational properties.

There are differences created as a result of different economic structures — the difference between commercial and state run media production systems, for example, result in different opportunities and restrictions on participation. Some cultures have strong traditions of open debate and democratic citizenship; others have historically placed greater restrictions on what the public could see or say, but all of them are being rocked by a media culture which is more open and more participatory than anyone would have imagined a few decades ago. As the rate of internet access increases in countries around the world, they are one by one confronting some of the cultural, legal, economic, and educational challenges Convergence Culture records.

I am certain that there are new and innovative uses of media that have emerged among youth subcultures and fan communities in your country which are not yet known in our part of the world. But the key phrase here is “not yet known.” As media flows more and more rapidly and fluidly across once rigid national borders, innovation on the grassroots level may still have a global impact. Throw a pebble in one part of the ocean and the ripples will eventually wash up

on every shore.

In the book’s closing passages, I return to the issue of who gets to participate in the kind of robust participatory culture I am describing and who gets left out of the kinds of knowledge communities we are discussing. My own work has turned increasingly towards interest in media literacy as I am working with American foundations and educational institutions to identify the core social skills and cultural competencies young people need to acquire in order to fully participate in convergence culture. In doing so, I hope to shift the conversation beyond talk of the digital divide which is so often defined purely in terms of technical access and onto the participation gap which is concerned with the skills and opportunities needed for young people to actively engage with the affordances of the new media landscape….

This is certainly not a uniquely American problem. Each country is facing these difficulties on their own terms, on their own time table, in their own way, and on their own terrain, yet all of us are struggling with how to insure that the increased power and knowledge being generated by emerging technologies and cultural practice can be spread across the population as a whole. My hope is that this book will help people to better understand the implications of this participation gap both in terms of their own national cultures and in a more global context.

Webcasts of Futures of Entertainment Conference Now Online

Many of you have asked over the past month whether we were going to be webcasting the Futures of Entertainment conference panels. We had hoped to be able to stream these live through Second Life and ran into surprising legal obstacles in doing so. We have had to strong with the technical challenges of mixing this footage — shot on multiple cameras, digitize it, and index it so that you could get much easier access to the material you want to hear. Keep in mind that we ran two and a half hour long sessions at the conference. Keep in mind as well that getting this material up required permission from each of the companies represented on the program.

Special thanks goes to Rik Eberhardt, CMS’s resourceful and hardworking technologist in residence, and to Joshua Green, the research manager for the Convergence Culture Consortium for their herculian efforts to make sure you guys had access to this content. We also want to thank the sponsors of the Convergence Culture Consortium for their continued support of our efforts to understand the changes that are occuring in our media landscape and to bring that understanding to a larger public — MTV Networks, Turner Broadcasting, GSD&M, Fidelity, and Yahoo.

Posted so far are:

My opening remarks on the first day

The panel on Television Futures.

The panel on User-Generated Content.

The panel on Transmedia Storytelling

Josh Green’s opening comments on the second day of the conference.

The panel on Fan Cultures

The panel on virtual worlds

I am going to be updating these links over the next few days as the material becomes available so book mark this post for your one-stop shopping needs.

There’s so much material here that might be relevent to regular readers of this blog that it is hard to know where to start. Our students produced some very good summaries of key ideas from each session, more or less in real time, during the event:

Opening Comments by Henry Jenkins (that’s me!)

Television Futures

User-Generated Content

Transmedia Properties

Joshua Green’s Opening Remarks for Day 2

Fan Cultures

Not the Real World Anymore

Given our recent discussions here, I would especially flag for you:

the discussions of transmedia storytelling which involved DC comics Paul Levitz, Big Spaceship’s Michael Lebowitz, and [ICE]3 Studios’s Alex Chisholm. There was lots here about Lost, Heroes, and superhero comics, all popular topics here.

the discussion of fan culture which involved Warner Brothers’ Diane Nelson (who plays a prominant role in the Harry Potter chapter of Convergence Culture), Cartoon Network’s Molly Chase, and social network research danah boyd.

But you won’t want to miss Flickr’s Caterina Flake’s views on user-generated content, Ji Lee on the controversial Bubble Project, a lively discussion of virtual worlds with representatives from Second Life, Multiverse, and MTV’s Lagoona Beach project, and some challenging comments from C3 advisor Josh Green on the metaphors driving the marketing of mobile technologies. And much much more.

For a list of blogger responses to the conference, check here.

Jesse Walker covered the event in depth in an article published in Reason magazine’s online edition.

Spellcast offered special coverage of the event, including behind the scenes interviews with some of the folks who attended.

And here’s the coverage of the event which was issued by the MIT News Office.

People keep asking me whether there will be a Futures of Entertainment 2 conference — and the answer is we don’t know for sure but we are definitely considering it given the enormous success of this event. If we do decide, readers of this blog will be among the very first to know.

Odds and Ends

It’s Awards Season…

Many of you are already starting to second guess which films are going to be nominated for Academy Awards. The past few days we are starting to see the major film critic’s organization weigh in on the best films of the year — so far, they are all over the map with no strong consensus behind any particular title. But my own focus is on the Edublog awards. As it happens, two of my projects this year got nominated. The white paper we wrote for MacArthur and which we serialized here on the blog is being considered for Best Research Paper 2006. And the public conversation which I did with danah boyd about MySpace and the DOPA act is being considered for Most Influential Post, Resource or Presentation 2006. Thanks for everyone out there who nominated me — I am flattered!

Here’s how the awards are described:

As the reality and potential of distributed learning and distributed learner identities and communities are increasingly acknowledged, articulated and understood education moves further towards facilitating truly learner-centered and learned driven environments. A lot has changed in the world of educational technology since this time last year. The continuing rise and mainstreaming of easy to use network-as-platform applications, and increasing access to affordable online speed and space, have seen the continued expansion of users of all ages creating and communicating online. Learners and educators still however face difficult issues around network restrictions, around data protection and ownership, and around commercial protectionism. This year has also seen a marked increase in hostility towards social networking sites in the US, demonstrating a widespread lack of appreciation of the informal and formal educational value of user-centered applications. The Edublog awards are more relevant than ever in this climate – a space for us to refocus the debate surrounding young peoples use of technology as irresponsible, dangerous or illegal, and look at the positive, powerful and transformative work which continues to be demonstrated.

Voting amongst the finalists will continue through December 14 with the winners announced on December 15. There are nominees in ten different categories representing a really interesting catalog of some of the most interesting writing online this year concerning youth and digital media. Many of my readers who are concerned with media literacy will find the nomination page a useful resource for further reading and reflection.

That’s Transmedia Entertainment!

Paul Levitz, the President of DC Comics, shares some speculations about the future of comics in a fascinating interview with Newsarama.com. Levitz references his participation in the Futures of Entertainment conference and continues some of his thinking about comic’s relationship to transmedia entertainment. Levitz thinks deeply about the comic’s medium and clearly prepared himself thoroughly for his role at our conference, making a series of very thoughtful comments.

[Read more...]

How Transmedia Storytelling Begat Transmedia Planning… (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first of a two part series examining the emergence of a new discourse about transmedia branding, inspired in part by the discussion of transmedia storytelling in Convergence Culture. Obviously, I am following these developments with great personal interest. I wrote this summary of the debates for the newsletter of our Convergence Culture Consortium.

The (Burger) King Is Content

Yacob’s post has generated a range of other responses across the blogosphere. Here’s some of the advantages which Jason Oke of the Toronto based Leo Burnett agency sees in the transmedia model:

I think it addresses those two weaknesses of media-neutral planning: ignoring that different media are better at different things, and that people are social beings. And by putting a brand community in the middle, it also forces us to think about whether we are in fact making brands and communications which are interesting enough for a community to form, and for people to want to talk about our communications…. [We] have talked about the power of complexity in

communication – that people generally find complex, nuanced, layered things more interesting than simple straightforward things. But when we talk about this stuff, we still usually talk about people processing it individually – so each one person is rewarded for spending more time or if they see it again. But what if we looked at it through the lens of a brand community? Each different layer or detail could appeal to a different group of people, who could compare stories, and thus continually be getting new perspectives on the same thing….

“The idea of brand communities solves one issue that we sometimes run into when attempting to create complex and layered communications – the pushback that we shouldn’t put details that everyone (or at least most people) won’t or can’t get. This is often combined with research findings that indeed, “most people didn’t get this reference you were trying to make.” This kind of thinking dumbs down communication into the lowest common denominator. But with the brand community model, that ceases to apply – as long as someone, somewhere will get

it, then lots of details and references can work. Whoever notices it will likely tell others about it, because the fact that they figured something out reinforces their ego, status and self-image, and because the tools to widely spread that knowledge are now readily available. So instead of talking down to everybody, we can talk up to everybody, by giving many different groups

something that makes them feel intelligent for getting a subtle reference. And we give them a reason to have multiple conversations about the brand.

Oke’s version moves us even further away from the idea that transmedia centers only on narrative and instead focuses on this notion of layering. Oke discusses for example a particular Burger King spot which circulates on YouTube:

On the surface, it’s a jingle about the new Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch chicken sandwich. But you might also notice that the guy singing the song is Darius Rucker from 90′s band (and pop culture trivia item) Hootie & the Blowfish. Or that the jingle itself is based on the old hobo ballad and Burl Ives classic “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Or that it was directed by iconic photographer David LaChapelle with all kinds of sexual imagery, both hetero and homo. Or that model and TV host Brooke Burke makes a cameo at the end (she’s often used in BK ads). But you probably wouldn’t notice all of those things, and in fact I’d be surprised if the same people who know who David LaChapelle is are also into turn-of-the century hobo ballads (I’m guessing those circles don’t tend to overlap much). But more to the point, not getting some or all of the references doesn’t detract from the main brand message (there’s a new

chicken sandwich), because each bit also stands on its own. By having lots of detail, though, it gives fans of the brand something to notice and talk about and deconstruct. So you might have missed some of the details but someone else can point them out, and this gives you a deeper appreciation of it, and completes your picture of the whole a bit more.

Oke seems to be describing something close to what game designer Neal Young describes in Convergence Culture as “additive comprehension.” Young uses the example of the “origami unicorn” featured in the director’s cut version of Bladerunner, a detail which led many to speculate that Deckard, the protagonist, may be a replicant. At the Futures of Entertainment conference, Alex Chisholm provided another example of additive comprehension drawn from one of the Heroes comics tie-ins, where the information that Hiro’s grandfather survive Hiroshima adds new significance to both his name and to his response to the challenge of saving the world from what appears to be a threat of nuclear destruction.

Additive comprehension is a key aspect of transmedia entertainment/branding since it allows some viewers to have a richer experience (depending on what they know or which other media they have consumed) without in any way diminishing the experience of someone who only encounters the story on a single media platform. In this case, the same advertisement may support multiple interpretations depending on what kind of knowledge consumers bring to the encounter. If one can convey to the readers that there are secrets there to be uncovered, you can potentially motivate more conversation and engagement as online discussion forums rally to mutually decode the layered content.

Is Transmedia Branding Redundant?

Not everyone has embraced this idea of transmedia branding, though. In a post called “Transmedia Planning My Arse,” Giles Rhys Jones argues that transmedia branding simply represents an expansion of the existing 360 branding model: there is still a need for redundancy in the messaging if the branding efforts are to be successful. Citing the Art of the Heist example, Jones suggests, that each element “surely required multiple channel exposure for full impact, rather than each channel living in its own right.” I would argue that redundancy is an essential aspect of the transmedia experience. If every element were truly

autonomous, one would have no way to recognize the distinctive contributions of each medium to the media mix strategy. Indeed, much must remain the same across media for people to feel the strong sense of connection between the different installments and for communities to feel like the parts will add up to a meaningful whole if they work together to map the larger fictional universe. What we still need to explore — whether we are talking about entertainment content or brands — is the ballance between redundancy and originality, between familiarity and difference.

Will transmedia branding make a lasting contribution to contemporary marketing theory? It’s too early to say. As an author, I am delighted to see some of my ideas are generating such discussion. As someone interested in marketing my own intellectual property, these discussions are themselves a kind of transmedia branding: after all, the more people talk about my book, the more people are likely to buy it. I don’t have to control the conversation to

benefit from their interest in my product. The key is to produce something that both pulls people together and gives them something to do. In that regard, the book may have had greater impact on the discussions of branding because I didn’t fill in all of the links between branding and transmedia entertainment, leaving the blogosphere something to puzzle through together.