Why You Should See Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first of a two part commentary on the recently completed documentary, Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat, which explores the debates about video game violence. The film has been controversial with both gamers and game critics before its release; I’ve argued here that it is an important work which deals fairly with all participants and which offers a more indepth and nuanced account of the issues than any I’ve seen elsewhere in the media. I pick up on that point in the second part of this series.

Mainstream media coverage of the debate about video games keeps getting framed as if everyone who was concerned about media violence believed playing games would instantly turn a normal child into a psychokiller or as if everyone who argues against the censorship of this emerging medium was insisting that they had no potential influence on the people who consume them. That’s not the case here. Each speaker is allowed to develop their ideas sufficiently that we start to see the nuances in their positions.

The film accurately captures my own struggle to articulate the ways in which games do and do not influence the people who play them:

Everything I know about media as a media scholar who studied media for 20 years says, media is most influential when it reaffirms our existing structure or belief, and least influential when it changes our behavior. Which suggests that if a kid is already aggressive, they already live in a culture of violence, that videogames could conceivably reinforce the level of aggression that they already experience in their environment. But nothing there suggests that a kid who is normal, who’s emotionally healthy, who lives in a happy home environment, who has had no prior exposure to violence, is likely to become aggressive simply because they played a violent videogame.

Even those who defend the games industry against government regulation do not feel that it’s products should be free from social scrutiny or cultural criticism. They simply are asking that games be treated like any other medium — recognizing both what they have accomplished and where they fall short of the mark. Here, for example, is Doug Lowenstein, who recently stepped down as the primary spokesperson for the game companies in Washington:

Certainly there are games out there that I don’t particularly care for based on my morality and my values, just as there are movies I don’t care for based on my morality, and television shows that I don’t care for. That is the nature of a pluralistic multicultural society…. I’m not defending specific creative choices that people make. No, that’s very different. I am defending their right to make those creative choices.

The problem with the media effects argument, aside from the methodological issues which I have raised elsewhere, is that it seeks to trump any real conversation about values and meanings. For games to grow as a medium, we need to be able to express our distastes with certain products without these expressions being taken as evidence that the works should be banned. We need to be able to talk about what disturbs or discomforts us about some titles without reducing those arguments to “risk factors.” Complex cultural questions can’t be decided by turning to brain scans and this film makes an important first step towards a more thoughtful conversation of these issues by making sure that all of the key players get a chance to be heard.

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In many ways, San Jose Mercury reporter Dean Takahashi functions as the film’s moral barometer: sharing a story of personal loss and real world violence and then describing the ways that he worked through his own conflicting feelings about violence in video games. The film mirrors his own intensely personal and yet deeply thoughtful reactions to the issue of media violence and through his eyes, offers us a way to — if not resolve the conflict than at least — respect more than one perspective on the core issues. Takehashi has also posted some interesting reflections on the experience of appearing in the documentary. Like others who have seen it, Takehashi sees Moral Kombat as an important work which could push the debate about media violence to another level.

So far, in focusing so closely what gets said in this film, I have not done justice to its own aesthetic accomplishment. The frame enlargements I have been reproducing throughout this series hint at but don’t do justice to its complex visual style. In speaking with Halpin, he described his own experiences spending a lot of time in a sick bed watching certain films again and again on video. He shared his desire to create a film which can be watched many times and still give up new nuances. Using state of the art techniques, including an 80 track sound system, Halpin transforms the words of his interviewees into the starting point for a sometimes surreal audio-visual exploration of the mindscape of video games culture. As we speak, images swirl around us, sometimes giving form to our words, sometimes offering up conflicting images which challenge and complicate what we are saying. Sometimes, the filmmakers playfully transform the images of the speakers in ways that add new layers to the argument.

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Watching the film twice, I still struggle to make sense of the relationship between spoken words and images. I am certainly aware that the constant images of video game violence may spark a visceral response very different from what the explicit argument of the film seems to be. If one is concerned about the impact of images of game violence, then should one be concerned about the impact of seeing so many violent acts? Certainly the film doesn’t represent the full range of video game images which are out there and in some cases, the film removes scenes from their larger narrative context.

Yet, the film also captures the extraordinary beauty and sensuousness of much contemporary game imagery and in that way, forces the skeptical to reconsider the argument about whether games can be regarded as an art form. The visual style of this film will be dissected by classes and classes of film students — the effect is unlike any other documentary film I’ve seen before.

Adding even more texture to the work is a soundtrack which, like Peter and the Wolf, asigns a different musical motif to each speaker and uses music to work through the relationships between alternative perspectives. It turns out that I was assigned the clarinet — someone who knows more about film scores should tell me what to make of that choice of instrument. The music never seems to condemn or vilify speakers, always creating some degree of sympathy for what they have to say.

I am proud to have been included in this important work. I hope my readers will be open-minded enough to check their assumptions at the door, give the film a chance, and think through the implications of what it has to say with fresh eyes.

Why You Should See Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat (Part One)

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Let me start with a simple and straight forward statement: Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat is perhaps the most important film ever made about video games and you should see it if you get a chance. The film will force people on all sides of the debate about games and violence to re-examine their own positions and ask harder questions.

Spencer Halpin had no idea what he was getting himself into when he decided to produce a documentary about the debates surrounding video games violence. First, because his brother is Entertainment Consumers Association founder Hal Halpin, many reformers assumed that he was producing a blatant propaganda piece for the video games industry and he began to receive death threats from opponents of media violence (Kinda ironic, huh?). Then, he released a trailer for his film, Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat, which was widely perceived as taking a strongly anti-video game stance and was on the receiving end of angry correspondence from game defenders, many of whom wanted to censor his work because of what they perceived as its pro-censorship bias (also kinda ironic when you think about it). Now, the film is beginning to be previewed around the country and we are at last given a chance to judge the work for ourselves. Halpin is understandably skittish, not sure whose going to come railing against him next.

I will admit to having had a crisis of faith when I first saw the trailer. It felt sensationalistic and one-sided. Indeed, the backlash against the trailer put me in a rather awkward situation since I was one of only two voices heard in the segment who adopts a stance remotely sympathetic to the games medium. And some gamers were demanding to know why I’d appear in “such a film.” I’ve agreed to appear in a broad array of different documentaries through the years, most of them have come out fairly well, but sometimes I’ve been burnt rather badly. A number of self-declared “gamers” used Youtube and other media platforms to lash out against this film. The fact that longtime video game critic and trial lawyer Jack Thompson appeared to be a central focus poured kerosene on the flames.

When I spoke with Spencer Halpin a few weeks ago, he defended the preview but conceded it was not aimed at getting gamers into the theater. As he put it, he wanted to reach “42 year old women”, who were concerned about the impact of violent video games on their children but who had only a limited understanding of the underlying issues. I told him that many more people would see the preview than would see the film and that presenting such an unbalanced perspective on the issues did a disservice to what he accomplishes in Mortal Kombat and runs the risks of perpetuating the moral panic his film will help to address.

So, don’t judge a book by its cover and don’t judge this film by its preview. Yes, Jack Thompson, David Grossman, Joseph Lieberman, David Walsh, and other longtime critics of the video game industry are featured prominently in this documentary — as they should be if the film is going to accurately reflect the debate about video games violence. But the film also gives ample screen time to others — myself among them — who question the evidence connecting media violence to real world aggression and who have argued for the importance of protecting this emerging medium from threats to creative expression. Indeed, I literally get the last word here:

I think if you look at the games over the last 3 or 4 years, it’s starting to catch on what its potential is. It’s starting to realize that it can be more than it has been up to now. And people are starting to engage with it critically. Here at MIT, when I started teaching here 15 years ago, most of my students wanted to be filmmakers. Now they want to be Will Wright and Warren Spector. They want to be game designers. And I think the smartest brains in America are being drawn toward this industry and they’re gonna do incredible stuff. And if it’s allowed enough freedom to explore its potential…the sky’s the limit.

Now I’ve gone and spoiled the ending. :-) But getting there is half the fun.

Frankly, I have been deeply troubled by those in the gaming community who would seek to silence this film, even if its perspective were fundamentally opposed to our own. Surely, we can’t defend the free speech rights of game designers and players by seeking to silence those who disagree with us. It makes sense to critically engage with works which we feel distort the debate or misrepresent our positions, and I’ve been among the first to cry fowl when I think the media has taken cheap shots or has engaged in fear mongering. But we make ourselves look ridiculous when we rally prematurely against works we have not seen. How does that make us any better than what we are fighting against?

When I start to describe the film, most people want to know “which side” it takes. I see this as both a reflection of how polarized the debate often becomes and also how accustomed we have become in thinking about documentaries as a form of public advocacy. Danny Ledonne, filmmaker and creator of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, has celebrated this film, saying that Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat is “a summarily decisive blow to the anti-game critics of the world…Through it all, you may realize that perhaps the videogame violence debate has already been won; society is simply not aware of it yet. To my mind, this is certainly the case.” Yet some noted games critics have also embraced the film’s representation of their position.

From where I sit, Halpin has produced a fair minded film which takes seriously a range of different perspectives on the issues, allows key players to present their arguments in their own words in fairly lengthy segments, and provides the visual evidence all parties require to support their claims. In our conversation, Halpin made it clear that he learned things in every interview he conducted, that each speaker made him think about the issues in new ways. That curiosity and respect for his subjects comes through in the final film.

Halpin doesn’t see video game violence as a simple black and white matter. Indeed, the film may be most powerful when speakers qualify more extreme claims or critique their own arguments. I’ve comment before that I can sit down and have dinner with a media effects researcher, if not with some of the moral crusaders, and end up agreeing on about 80-90 percent of what we discuss, yet the differences between us get stretched to the breaking point whenever we enter a hearing room or the cameras start turning. For once, everyone seems to have lowered their guard a little and shared some of the complexities of this topic with a thoughtful public.

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Halpin has been able to get a number of leading video games industry insiders, including some leading game designers, to speak on camera about the issue of media violence. What emerges is a diverse and complex picture of how the games industry sees itself, its medium, its consumers, and its critics. The legal and political climate around games means that these people often do not feel free to express disagreement or doubt (or for that matter, much else given the ways company lawyers gag many of these people from speaking to the press on this topic.) The absence of game designers in public discussions of game violence allows stereotypes about who they are and what they think to gain traction. Some of them come across well here, some don’t. Some seem reasonable and responsible, some sound indifferent to critics’ concerns, but we are all served by getting a taste of the complexity with which these matters get discussed behind closed doors within the gaming world.

Lorne Lanning: Violence is a mechanism that draws attention. And everyone who wants to draw attention, shows violence: The news, movies, novels, the newspaper. We’re attracted to it. Look at what happens on a freeway accident. The accident happened on the right lane but traffic’s backed up for 5 miles on the left lane. We just need to watch. We need to see what happened. It’s in our human nature. But how can we use that so that we can send positive messages even if people are attracting to it initially for possibly just the violent aspects.

American McGee: You know, when we were working on Alice I actually fought to get a mature rating because I felt that I didn’t want an Alice product to hit the shelves at Christmas and confuse parents into thinking it was for their kids. Looking back on that, I wish that I had not fought for the M rating because I think that the violence in the game never really warranted it. I think that, as long as an industry is self-regulating, and I think as long as individuals take responsibility, the government shouldn’t have to step in to regulate entertainment.

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The film takes seriously the proposition that video games might be regarded as an emerging form of artistic and social expression, not simply a product like cigarettes, but for that reason, the film asks us to think more deeply about whether it has achieved its full potential:

Jason Della Rocca: We have creative vision, we have things we want to express, ideas we want to explore, and we keep hitting roadblocks. We keep hitting negativity. We keep hitting government that wants to censor us. We keep hitting parents that don’t understand what games are and they’re fearful so they’re trying to boycott or ban. And as a community who understands the games and who creates them, sometimes it’s baffling to us why we hit those barriers.

Doug Lowenstein: We will have our Citizen Kane‘s. We will have our great games. We already have great games. We already have- It’s remarkable, if you look back at the creative history of this industry, how many extraordinarily great, entertaining games we’ve had. And we’re gonna keep making ‘em. And we’re also gonna keep making games that are lousy. Because we’re a creative industry and, inevitably, there’s going to be plenty of product out there that sucks.

As an artform, games deserve constitutional protection, but as artists, game designers have a responsibility to take seriously what they are saying through their work and how that message is being received by their audience.

Greg Ballard: I don’t think it’s possible to allow publishers to completely escape their responsibility in this mix. I remember during Columbine that when the fingers got pointed at the videogame business we became very defensive and claimed that we had certain First Amendment rights as publishers to put anything on a console that we wanted to. And in fact I was one of those who adamantly defended the right of videogame makers to make whatever game they want to. But there’s a difference between your right to make something, and your moral or ethical right to make something. The government may not be able to tell you not to do something, but as a publisher you still have editorial responsibilities. The New York Times can print whatever they want to print, but at the end of the day the editor has to make a decision about whether what he is writing, or she is writing, is correct or ethically correct. And the same thing is true of publishers of videogames.

Next Time: A focus on the innovative visual style of the film

Gender and Fan Culture (Wrapping Up, Part Four)

Cynthia Walker:

This conversation series has been very enjoyable and interesting and even, at times, fascinating, and I would like to thank everyone who participated and Henry Jenkins for hosting it.

It felt very much like a virtual conference and, as with most academic conferences I attend, I came away feeling both exhilarated but also overwhelmed. Indeed, I’ve been spending the last few days reviewing each of the conversations and making notes so I can remember the participants and their areas of expertise for future reference.

Although the conversations were organized around the question of gender, they ranged across a wide variety of subjects including fan fiction, fan vidding, machinima, gaming, horror, graphic novels and more. Still, there were common themes running through the discussions, particularly the relationships between individual fans and fan communities, between and among academics, and between audiences and producers.

What has become clear to me is that what we’re seeing in fan studies is an emerging interdisciplinary field and as such, we should be moving toward establishing our own conferences, our own forums (such as this one) and our own journals. Unlike the folks in other fields who sometimes seem to be talking just to each other, we have the opposite problem: we have to comb academic conferences just to find one another. I know I often search the programs of conferences I attend in Communication, popular culture, media literacy and media ecology, just to find panels on fan-related topics. Sometimes, there’s just one. Sometimes, there are none at all. This needs to change.

Another point that struck me in reading these conversations was how much we depend upon impressions, anecdotes, and personal conversations and experiences in discussing fan identity and fan practice. Perhaps because, originally, I came into academia through Communication and media studies rather than cultural and literary studies, I think I would like to see more quantitative and qualitative research, more surveys and focus groups, exploring just how fans see themselves, what they do, how they do it, and why. In this, I have felt encouraged to pursue my own research in that direction because I would really like to get a sense of the lay of the land of fandom — a map as it were. What exactly is this phenomenon called Fandom (with a capital F)? Does it have boundaries, and if so, what are they?

Since the relationship of media producers and fan audiences is also a subject that keeps cropping up, I would like to see more research in this area, research that is not conducted only by mainstream Communication and media studies scholars, but by those of us who also have some knowledge and acquaintance with fan communities. This is especially important because more and more of those working as media professionals either come from, or self-identify, as fans, and, particularly on the Internet, commercial and fan spaces are encroaching upon one another.

Finally, because gender apparently does influence, at least to some extent, fan identity, community, practices, interests, and interpretation, I hope these conversations will inform our work in this new field of fan studies so that certain topics, practices and approaches are not privileged over others. We have more in common than not, and as fan studies scholars, I believe it’s in our collective interest to find those areas where our identities and interests overlap and pursue them.

Will Brooker:

If this was a superhero summer crossover event, I guess I was Animal Man, or the Blue Beetle, or Booster Gold& one of those third-string DC characters (barely even superheroes, more a normal guy with a bit of a gimmick) who appears for a few issues then vanishes between the frames, leaving only his most die-hard fans to wonder where he went.

My little narrative involved a team-up with Kristine Busse and Ksenia Prassolova, across a series of messy personal emails that we then group-edited down into a neater conversation. I enjoyed those emails; I felt we found some common ground, disagreed respectfully and had a few laughs. It was a positive experience for me, especially given that the last time I’d seen Kristine in real life, in the bizarre setting of the Dog and Duck English pub, Austin Texas, we had the kind of mildly-drunken debate about gender privilege that may have prompted this whole event.

My feelings about that mini-narrative entering the bigger debate of Henry’s blog and the LiveJournal mirror are closely tied into my feelings about internet forums in general. I was deeply involved in maybe half a dozen discussion groups between 2001 and 2006, and while that’s late in the day by some people’s standards, about a third of my life seemed to be lived online during that period. So I’m familiar with the sniping, the cross-board politics, the elaborate insults, the wounded egos – the dynamics that occur when normal people meet online as larger-than-life textual persona, often with a few different codenames, a hardcore group of followers and an established reputation – maybe the closest we get in academia to a clash of superheroes. I know a handful of the participants in real life, and I often didn’t recognise the way they were being constructed and responded to; sometimes it did seem as though the debate demanded a few villains to knock up against and tear down.

So I bowed out of participating in the spin-off discussions because I’ve had enough of internet arguments for the time being, and it looked to be going a way I’ve seen before. I think the anonymous, text-based nature of an online forum encourages people to see each other as cartoonish, stylised opponents, encourages the sense of a grand battle complete with allies and cheerleaders, and encourages individuals to carefully craft poisonous barbs and rhetorical missiles, and fling them at each other trying to cause maximum damage. When really, if they sat down face to face, they’d just be normal men and women with a bit of a gimmick. But I’ve probably been reading too many comics.

Francesca Coppa:

What’s been striking to me over the course of this debate is the extent to which the gender issues reflect general problems of convergence culture–that is, the mainstreaming of fannish practice as well as the as growing respectability of “fandom studies”. Fandom is a subculture well on its way to becoming culture, and while that has many benefits, it also raises the risk of re-marginalizing the groups that the subculture once represented. The Enterprising Women of 1992 are now only a small, not terribly profitable, subdivision of Fandom, Inc. The line between “fans” and “consumers,” once fairly distinct, is blurring as we talk of Apple fans, Dr. Pepper fans, Hummer fans, etc.

I worry about women becoming, yet again, a minority voice in a mixed gender fannish culture in which the makers of Chad Vader get a movie deal and the makers of the K/S vid Closer flee the internet when their vids go viral. The media–especially the genre media which has been the center of so much fannish activity–has typically courted a male demographic, despite (or perhaps because of) their female-dominated audiences. And female fans have typically made lemonade from these lemons; it’s no accident that so much “remix” culture happens in the context of minority communities: women, blacks, and the disabled. But in the end, my lovingly crafted fanwork is not your marketing team’s “user-generated content.”

I think this is why there was such a strong reaction to the gender composition of the panel audiences at MiT5: it reflected our larger cultural fears about the way media is marketed and which consumers matter. In a world where fanboys get development deals, many female fannish interests–and the scholarly works about them–can look comparatively non-mainstream; with their longstanding (and culturally determined) commitment to the local, the handmade, the non-profit, female fans can seem small time, of limited interest, insufficiently “universal.” In fandom studies female-created artifacts were a priority because media fandom was so heavily female. Now, as this summer’s debate proved, the field has expanded to include all sorts of new arts, practices, and communities.

This is a good thing; I think fandom studies is exciting right now because of its diversity of subject, and also because it has a lot more than its share of “public intellectuals”: we’re not simply nattering to ourselves, locked in our own esoteric disciplines. We’re talking to media producers, legislators, teachers, public advocacy organizations, and we’re making connections across fannish communities. But it’s important that we keep talking to each other, too, because there’s a danger that minority communities (and somehow women in a mixed-gender groups end up as “minority communities,” no matter how many of us there are in the room) might be marginalized in the transition from subculture to culture.

Robin Anne Reid

Now I must admit up front that there are gaps. During the first rounds, I was in summer mode, with more time to read and comments. Later on, as we started a new term in a department with major new program and curriculum initiatives taking place, I fell back on skimming, without being able to take the time to read carefully enough to respond. I hope to spend some more time reading over the winter break (and of course I’ll respond in the LJ community then!), but take what is below as based on a partial reading (and if you want to point me at great rounds I missed, feel free to do so).

I learned :

That while there are still some important issues regarding gender in the area of fan studies, one of the more serious gaps that needs to be addressed are disciplinary differences. I have a much stronger sense than before of all the current academic disciplines that fan studies is developing in, and a sense that we need to talk more. That being said, I was disappointed to

see so little representation by people trained in the social sciences [remember, point me to stuff I might have missed].

I was glad to see so much work being done along such a wide spectrum of fan productions and communities, and in fandoms such as sports, soap opera, etc. I learned a lot from reading postings by people active in those areas.

I was glad to see some sense of the international nature of fan studies, although I look forward to seeing more work in future by academics working with fan communities and cultures in other national languages.

However, I also learned:

My initial skepticism about the tendency of the majority of male academics to show little to no interest in any serious discussion about gender disparity in scholarship, status, texts, professional places, etc., was confirmed. Perhaps the existence of some women academics saying they had not faced discrimination indicates that in some academic environments things

are changing, or in some disciplines, but the lack of acknowledgment of other women’s experiences was problematic.

I am concerned at the extent to which, even in discussions where feminism was identified as an important part of a field or discourse, many of the participants seemed to insist on locating sexism as individual intentional acts as opposed to acknowledging the systemic and institutionalized nature of organized and restrictive hierarchies. Being marginalized in one academic discipline because you study X subject being consistently equated with being

marginalized in the whole academic culture because of gender and field or study and perhaps sexual identity reduces the whole debate to accusations of some individuals lack of character

I learned that if it was this hard, after thirty some years of feminist discussions in mainstream culture and academia, to discuss gender disparity, that serious discussion of class and race are probably not going to happen any time soon among the aca-fen (despite happening more in fandom). I saw only one round where a participant seriously discussed race and class.

I learned that it is very rare for male academics even in this more informal forum to talk at all about how children might affect their careers in any way whatsoever. Whether there is little or no effect, or whether men are simply trained never to talk about their children in professional

spaces, or some combination of both, I am not sure. From research done about women’s marginalization in the academy, I suspect that the gaps showing up between childfree women and women who choose to have children will consider to be a problem for some time.

I learned that identification of male privilege, a common concept for decades among feminists, is still perceived as an attack on individuals by some.

I learned that there are always male allies who are appreciated.

I have been glad to meet those men who I will consider from now on as part of the (numerically mostly) female networks where I prefer to spend most of my networking energies.

On the whole, however, I do not think that new and evolving disciplines are necessarily move egalitarian than existing/traditional ones, and that without careful and on-going self-evaluation, a new discipline can easily ossify into old patterns, even if there are a few more white, middle-class women active in it.

Jonathan Gray

One of my original responses to Kristina when she and I discussed fandom, fan studies, and academia’s gender divides in Austin was that a lot of the divisions were “just” because of friendship groups. I’ve since come around to seeing many structuring divides that determine those friendship groups in the first place. And since knowing each other’s work and ideas are the best “in” towards establishing better social networks, which will in turn determine more balanced panel constituency, audience constituency, collaborations, etc. in the future, I’m cautiously optimistic that the discussions that have taken place here have formed something of a community (The Fan Détente Summer Camp?) that wasn’t there before, and that is now considerably more gender diverse. I know many more people’s work, and I feel I know the field much better now.

That said, I don’t want to make it sound like the work’s done, since I think this Détente has pointed out how much work is required to try and fight the subtler forms of gendered privilege. In particular, clearly more effort is required of us guys to be feminist fan studies (or fan studies-ish) scholars than just smugly knowing we’re not the overtly sexist bastards we see elsewhere, and than reading, teaching, and writing with feminist theory.

In moving forward, part of what interests me is how representative or not this group is. For instance, there’ve been numerous “fandom-lite” males at the Détente, but few fandom-lite females. I know they exist en masse, though, because I meet many of them at conferences, in dept corridors, etc. I’d like to hear how streamlined the experiences of the “fangirls” are with those of the “non-fangirls,” as this might tell us what’s unique and what’s not to fan studies’ gender divides. I worry somewhat that at times in this discussion the small group of scholars here, along with their fandoms and fan practices, have been asked to stand in for female or male fandom and female or male consumption more generally. So I’m keen to continue these discussions, both with the Summer Camp and with other fan and non-fan studies men and women.

All along, though, I wish we could’ve had this whole thing take place in a pub. With Henry buying. Nevertheless, thanks go out to Henry and Kristina for getting the ball rolling on this, and here’s to some pub trips in the future.

Karen Helleckson:

Although these fan debates have been valuable, for me, they were less valuable as an explication of gender disparity than as an examination of current scholarship in a huge variety of arenas. I liked the biography parts the best: I found myself looking for others like me, like Deborah Kaplan (#16) and Kristina Busse (#7)–those of us who are unaffiliated. I read everybody’s bio with interest. This situating of the self helped me construct their theoretical framework for reading their texts. These constructions of self credential, but they also illuminate. With “my published books include” laid next to “my primary fandom is,” it’s clear that the academic and the fan must coexist, else how to entwine the interests?

The explications of the entwining that followed ranged from practice (eg, #21, Lucas and Santo) to theory (eg, #18, Russo and Postigo). I found myself enjoying the latter just a little bit more: I have my own practice, my own ways of engagement, which seems unlikely to change anytime soon, but my mind grabs onto these theoretical elements and then begins free-associating. I read about affect and gender (#14, Coppa and Kozinets) and was seized with a desire to revisit the poetics of pleasure; or I read about Japanese cinema fandom (#19 Morimoto and Surman) and it struck me that I have not seen much Japanese cinema, and certainly that must be rectified immediately. The sheer range of interests makes me dizzy, and everywhere I look, I see potential for good, fruitful, interesting work–work that I would like to do, and in that regard, the fan debates have inspired me to begin writing again, after a long time away.

I wrote my dialogue with Jason Mittel using Google Documents, where each could go in and edit the work of the other–a collaboration I very much enjoyed and have used since then with others. I began writing down my own thoughts at my WordPress blog, a process I enjoy despite the lack of dialogue inherent in the fan debates. So the fan debates have certainly helped make me engage better, and they’ve drawn my attention to the work of many people I didn’t know anything about–as well as taught me things about people I do know.

Instead of he said/she said, the fan debates have become we said. The dialogues, taken together, have created a kind of metadialogue. True, it doesn’t come to any kind of grand conclusion. The gender-based feelings of exclusion that inspired the project are still in evidence (I witnessed much the same thing at the recent 21st annual SLSA meeting). The same notions of power and authority still apply, even as we discuss them. But the connections made, interlocutor to interlocutor, pairing to pairing, strike me as worthy things in and of themselves. I would consider e-mailing someone I don’t really know to ask for advice or an opinion, rather than staying close to my own network. I spend too much time in a small group, and it’s time to widen my circle of acquaintances.

Thanks for that opportunity.

Anne Kustritz:

In reviewing these past few months of blog posts, I find I’m left with tentative optimism and a few areas of future concern. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to speak publicly in this company, and particularly to raise the visibility of gender as an axis of oppression and a lens for analysis within fan studies. When time permitted, I greatly enjoyed reading the contributions posted here for the glimpse that they provide into such a wide range of approaches to fan studies. However, I must also recall moments of shock and dismay as the discussion repeatedly revealed the enormous amount of work yet to be done on gender issues within our field, and in the academy more generally.

Overall, I remain unconvinced that a discussion series between individual scholars adequately responds to the institutional problems which prompted this debate. The issues of sex/gender related disparities in graduate student admissions, hiring, tenure decisions, wage levels, publishing, and conference organization require broad, institutional interventions far beyond the scale of our conversations here, and I hope that the détente will inspire those larger acts of intervention.

In addition, this series of exchanges magnified some of the difficulties which always plague interdisciplinary work and communication within an interdisciplinary field. Crossing disciplinary boundaries is incredibly exciting and necessary to the study of fan activities. Yet, such hybrid methodologies also involve increased risk. As fan studies adopts the tools of many disciplines, I think that we must take a very serious look at how those tools developed, and what kind of theoretical, socio-cultural, and historical baggage they carry with them. Further, if we are committed to being able to talk with each other, the task of translation across disciplines also deserves attention as the language of fan studies moves to embrace the jargon of an ever expanding number of fields. This détente included scholars from a promising array of disciplines, theoretical backgrounds, and methodological hybridities, but that very richness demands that in the future fan studies scholars work together to understand each other’s theoretical languages, and work to fully engage with the literatures associated with our interdisciplinary methodological choices.

Barbara Lucas:

While I cannot say that I have faced the same level of institutional sexism that has been discussed in (and was, in part, the impetus for) our debates, mostly because my full-time job is in management at a Fortune 100 company, I am a woman working in a male-dominated industry. My company has women managers in accounting and call center operations, human resources, and client relations, but I am the only female manager in field operations. I believe it is easier for me to compete in my corner of the corporate world than it would be in academia. In my corporate position, I can measure success in terms of goals met and results achieved. Those are the things I am judged on, and they are things that can be documented and verified. However, in academia, I am judged on my ideas, my interpretations and perceptions, and the judgments people make based on such things are definitely more subjective, more likely to be colored with their own biases.

In these debates, we have touched on what it means to be a part of an environment where judgments are made in such a fashion. We’ve also taken care to distance ourselves as individuals from the sort of behavior. I would have liked to have seen this issue discussed in greater detail. It seems critical when we consider that we are called on to specialize and hone a particular area of expertise, only to find that the texts or approaches that speak most strongly to us are the marginalized ones. This makes it all too easy to marginalize the scholars who work with them and the work those scholars produce.

One of the things that our shared field of study encourages and demands is a flexible, interdisciplinary approach to texts. While our critical approaches may reach across disciplines, at times, our focus and application of them can become decidedly myopic. These debates have afforded me the opportunity to see how other scholars approach their own work, and it is this unearthing of the rich veins of possibility that I might not have stumbled across on my own that I found this the most valuable part of our exchanges. I hope that we can continue the dialogues we stared in this forum.

Eden Lee Lackner:

While I think the discussion has been useful in allowing for some limited cross-discipline discussion and for bringing gender, racial and cultural issues to the fore, I do believe that it has also underlined the insidiousness of institutionalized sexism. This may be a function of individualized debates in which participants are far more focussed on person-to-person discourse than larger frameworks, as much of the gendered considerations seemed to whittle down to individual experiences that discard the context in which they take place. That is fairly disheartening as it is a block that requires work from all sides to dissolve, and I do not get the sense that that willingness is in place as of yet.

Additionally, in preparation for these debates I was once again reminded that sexism is not only intergender, but is also — perhaps more insidiously — intragender. Issues around providing childcare are largely ignored by many academics on either side of the gender divide, as are essential caregiver roles for those of us with elderly or ailing parents; while these may be major barriers to traditional notions of “proper” academic compliance, no quarter is given for those of us who have loved ones depending on our support. By and large, it is women who fill the caregiver role, and most often suffer the consequences of it: lack of opportunities to move up the academic ladder/participate in projects, lack of tenure, lack of recognition, lack of support. Although I saw this spectre of intragender sexism raise its head, I did not see it discussed in a frank manner within the scope of the series.

I think the reliance on binaries — fan/academic, female/male, fangirl/fanboy, pink/blue — is damaging, as it polarizes research and researchers, and frankly, most observations and interactions tend to fall somewhere in between regardless. By forcing our work and ourselves into neat categories, we fail to consider a multiplicity of viewpoints and the palimpsests that make up so much of active fanworks.

Regardless, I was pleased to see a number of different facets considered, from sexism to racism to ethnocentrism, and I do hope to see these discussions spin out in other arenas. And of course, while we touched on these things, we have by no means plumbed the depths of any of them. There is much work still to be done in these areas, which will prove fruitful for those who pursue them. I think we missed an all important complicator, however, in terms of class and who has access to the media we study.

In short, I think these debates were a good start. The interdisciplinary nature of them was eye-opening and fascinating, and the various approaches therein provide Fan/Media Studies with a scope that other disciplines lack. It’d be in all our best interests to continue discussing and interacting with one another, and I would hope in doing so we not only strengthen the discipline but also become more open to issues of privilege.

Robert Jones:

When I was first asked by Henry to participate in the Fangirl/Fanboy discussion, I was both honored and unsure of how I would fit in the conversation. Having published a chapter in Nina and Karen’s book on fan cultures, I figured that was what had earned my invitation into the discussion. But as with that volume, I tend to find myself odd man (and I use that intentionally) out among the aca-fan crowd because my fandom extends strictly from gaming. I will always be a lover of the Star Wars sage, but would hardly count myself a fan of the ranks of so many of the other participants in this discussion. And I say this not to alienate gaming fandom from TV/Film fandom because there are certainly crossover elements that many have explored; Bob Rehak and Christian McCrea in particular have illustrated that during this process. However, so many of the aca-fans who primarily come from literary backgrounds and deal mostly with fan fiction seem to share a lack of interest in gaming as a narrative form. Add to that the fact that gaming already carries with it a huge amount of cultural baggage as an area that has so far to come in terms of gender divides, and the fit seems even more difficult. I certainly found the process rewarding and felt I have learned quite a bit about the many tensions at play within the fandom literature.

I would say that the defensive nature in which people were so quick to guard their sacred cows was somewhat surprising. Looking back at my own contribution, I even surprised myself in falling into that same trap. I hardly intended to fetishize gaming technology in regards to the fandom of machinima, but it certainly reads that way in retrospect. My intent was to instead introduce that gender divide that gaming brings with it as it pertains to the technology. Far from essentializing gender as a prescriptive way for understanding why we find so many more men participating in gaming fan culture (i.e. machinima, mods, tournaments), I wanted to suggest cultural discourses and expectations become the motivating factors that make gaming spaces more welcoming to young men. So access becomes the key issue to address here, which is why I really liked it when Robin Reid suggested we expand this to a larger discussion of race/class. Because when we talk about fanboys, we are most often talking about white males with access to these texts and free time to consume them. Unfortunately, the discussion I wound up having tried to situate gaming technology on a different plane than fan-fic and fan-vids. In retrospect, not my best move.

In regards to the split of the discussion that ultimately migrated to Live Journal, I wonder if that is just indicative of this tension/conflict (I hate even using such combative language) that this whole project aimed to overcome. As many had pointed out, the gender divide seemed to carryover into that forum as well, with the women commenting on LJ while the men commented here. Again as an outsider to traditional fan cultures, I found myself only lurking there without the courage to respond to what was certainly a more “spirited” debate than the tamer comments on Henry’s site. So while this experience has been rewarding in many ways, particularly being directed to the work of Hector Postigo, I’m not sure that we get to say that “we did it.” Not that there were ever any hard and fast goals set out to what this was to achieve, but I would be curious how this will ultimately impact practice. Perhaps a good question to ask everyone would be: What do you plan to do differently within your own work now that you have been a part of this ongoing dialog? To be honest, I’m not even sure how I would answer that question. I’d have to give it some more thought.

Gender and Fan Culture (Wrapping Up, Part Three)

Editor’s Note: We continued to be struggling to repair the damage done by the hackers. I remain interested in your comments. I have posted those received so far at the end of this entry and will post anything I receive from readers via my e-mail account. In the meantime, if you want to participate in a discussion, check out http://community.livejournal.com/fandebate

Abigail Derecho:

First of all, many many thanks to Kristina Busse for inspiring this wonderful series of

conversations, and to Henry Jenkins for organizing the exchanges and hosting them on his

blog.

Although I had read the existing literature on gender and fan studies, and had gotten to

know some of the emerging scholars in the field, this exchange made me understand just

how much more there is to be done, and also gave me hope that so many excellent scholars

are interested in this field and willing to do new and urgently important work.

Through these conversations, I have found a terrific intellectual partner in Sam Ford,

and we are now in the process of co- editing a new volume on soap operas. We hope to

bring “soap studies” into the digital age, and aim to address the role of gender, and

the role that fans play, in the production, circulation, and distribution of daytime

soaps and soap-related texts. Two great university presses have already expressed

interest in this project. We think our volume will be a strong contribution to the

fields of media (especially new media and television) studies and fan studies, and it

would never have come into being without the conversations that took place this summer

and fall on this blog. (And at least a couple of the authors whose essays we will

include also participated in the Gender and Fan Culture exchanges!)

Sam isn’t the only great connection I’ve made through these conversations. I’ve been

fortunate enough to develop significant professional relationships with other

participants, and have become a fan of many other people’s work just by reading about

their ideas in this forum. Now that this exchange has ended, I am a thousand percent

more committed to using my position as an emerging academic (as a scholar, teacher, and

member of a college community) to expand on some of the terrific thinking around gender

and fandom that was discussed here. In the short term, this means giving conference

papers and writing essays that turn the spotlight on these issues. In the longer term,

I envision myself organizing symposia and conferences, and essay collections, that bring

gender and fandom more and more into “mainstream” media studies, and even into

mainstream media production. The conversations on this blog have empowered me to

become a leader with regards to publicizing these matters, for which I’m incredibly

grateful.

Matt Hills:

I found participating in this discussion most useful, perhaps oddly, not directly in relation to issues of gender per se, but instead in relation to where theories of fandom are to be found, and

what can or should be counted as a ‘proper’ scholarly reference.

When I was thinking about interesting work on fandom that I’d read recently, the dialogue brought home to me the fact that I had very much been thinking of traditionally published academic work, and not online fan discussion, or ‘meta’, or even blog content for that matter! And this despite the fact that I’ve written on scholar-fans/fan-scholars, and the possibility that fandom theorises itself (as per arguments on ‘vernacular theory’).

This blindspot is certainly to do with my professional identity as a paid academic, but it may also be partly and unwittingly correlated with issues of gender, given the possibility that the fan

communities I’m not often reading or citing may be predominantly spaces occupied by female fan intellectuals and thinkers who are perhaps not paid academics.

And there is also a professional time pressure linked to this; I have to make time to seek to keep up with ‘traditional’ published academic work in my area, and so I quite possibly prioritise this over and above participating in online discussion groups/blogs and so on. I feel that my

professional identity requires that I keep up with certain forms of published work, and this leads

to a lack of time and attention for what may be perceived to be less securely ‘consecrated’ forms of fan debate and dialogue.

Right now, I don’t even have the time that I’d like to give to discovering new fan objects, passions, and interests, for instance my recent engagement with the reimagined Battlestar Galactica — I’ve now seen everything up to the end of series 3 — was frequently deferred and delayed due to work projects, despite the fact that many, many people told me that I “had” to see it. They were right, of course. But by the time I managed to catch up with BSG, I was far behind committed fans’ debates and speculations.

So, what the fandom and gender debate really brought home to me, time and again, was the painful extent to which I was up against the clock, very much having to dip in and out, and having to schedule periods of work on my own contributions with my partner in crime.

These may not seem to be quite ‘proper’ matters for discussion, but what my PhD supervisor Professor Roger Silverstone once called, after Bourdieu, “temporal capital” is, I think, the most significant delimitation and restriction on what I am currently able to consume (as a fan) and engage with (as a scholar-fan) and integrate into my cultural repertoires (as fan, scholar, and any hybridised version and multiplication of those identities).

What I need — and what would enable me to participate adequately and properly in online discussion spaces as well as venues of academic publication — is quite simply a TARDIS. (Failing that, extensive research leave, or a ‘fan retreat’).

But when I encountered a few discussions as to how male participants were less frequently to be found in specific online spaces (LJ), I thought to myself “but I want to be here, I want to have

time to do this, I want to speak to these people”. And I wanted to participate in blog discussions.

But I was time-poor, lacking in temporal capital.

And that problem isn’t, I think, necessarily a matter of gender (though it is certainly open to

gendered analysis: am I too intent on academia as a ‘career’, for instance, with that being

articulated to a reactionary masculinist focus on career-as-identity. Perhaps).

A lack of time is, however, very much a matter of the contemporary University-as-industry, and the duties that are expected of academics in the UK HE sector, and the pressures to publish (in ‘approved’ cultural spaces — quite literally, no marks for blogging!) that, with the RAE, are as

forceful now in the UK as I suspect they are for those seeking tenure in the US. In short, I suspect that some of my own blindspots and pressures here (reading trad, published “academic” work more than blogs and LJs) can be partly traced back to forms of academic governmentality operating in my national context. Even publishing in online journals is devalued here; the whole system of governmental evaluation is geared towards valorized print culture (books/journals with consecrated sources such as University Presses and well-established publishers) rather than, say, blog interactions. Whilst the US system may be far more techno-embracing, I feel that my national work context strongly favours ‘slow’ cultures of academia

Melissa A. Click:

I was excited to participate in this discussion because it aspired to address two issues in which I’ve been interested: the meaning of the term “fan” and the gender divide in our field. The last few months have been eye-opening, mind-blowing, frustrating, and productive. The experience has exposed me to the positions and viewpoints of a range of thoughtful and talented scholars–for me, that is the best possible outcome of the project. I do still think we have work to do, though, and I’m looking forward to it.

Perhaps because I am not an avid blogger, I wonder if the web is the best place to continue this discussion–it feels like there are too many folks talking in too many different places to feel as though we’re all on the same page in the conversation. I think we need to take advantage of occasions when we can continue these conversations face-to-face. More formal conversations in conference sessions are great for provocative discussion, but what about also making time after hours, where we can add to our theoretical work with social work–building on what we’ve begun here by developing our connections to each other. Drinks at ICA, anyone?

Derek R. Johnson:

Without a doubt, this conversation has been a valuable one. Scholars with diverse interests in and concerns about fandom as an intellectual enterprise have collaborated to provide a snapshot of the field. Evidenced over and over for me was the sense that to understand the multiplicity of fandom, we cannot rely on the methodologies or research questions of any one scholarly approach. We cannot understand fandom without thinking about gender, for example, but we cannot reduce fandom to gender issues either. We need an integrated approach. The future fruits of our labor here, I’d wager, will come from the way this conversation has brought our multiple approaches into direct dialogue.

Significantly, this conversation gave voice to the claim that some perspectives on fandom operate from the margins because of inequalities based in gender–both the gendered practices of fans and gendered researchers themselves. For enabling this expression of gender strife alone, this conversation succeeded. And yet, after months of discussion, I’m ultimately not sure how productive the boys vs. girls format was. Even though our goal was to find “commonalities and differences” in our approaches, and discussion quickly moved beyond these initial grievances, the presentation of each entry as a “round” still conveyed a sense of pugilistic combat to me. This is meant as no sleight to Henry–not only was this format a logical way to organize content for an exciting blog series, but it directly responded to the boys vs. girls antagonism felt by some and communicated to him earlier this year. Indeed, Henry’s intervention should be credited with valuably bringing our multiple approaches to fandom together. But to me, the awkwardness of the gender-divided format calls into question what boys vs. girls issues were actually in play. More often than not, men and women seemed to dialectically find common ground, and when it came down to it, no one could really make a convincing argument (to me, at least) that men study fans and navigate the field in one specific way, and women in another, etc. I saw very little in our diverse approaches to fandom that could be even imperfectly mapped on to the binary of gender that organized the conversation. In that sense, while I certainly acknowledge institutionalized gender inequality in the academy, I remain skeptical about some of the perceptions of gender-based methodological and relational schisms that inspired our discussion. But I find it simultaneously reassuring that when positioned for gender opposition, we could thwart it, rising above trying to take down “the other side” and reaching mutual understanding, cooperation, and collaboration. If there’s anywhere for us to go from here, it’s there.

Julie Levin Russo:

I’d like to thank everyone who participated in our rich, extensive, and provocative

dialogue. This project, like all aca/fan activities, was contoured from the start by an

uneven topography of power (from Henry’s position as the patriarch of our field to the

divergent interfaces of the personal blog and the LiveJournal community), and my hope

is that, at the very least, it brought this landscape into clearer focus. As a reader, I

became ever more convinced of the importance of modeling fandom in terms of multiple

axes of engagement rather than a monolithic binary. These axes are all gendered to

varying degrees, ideologically and/or empirically, and are also raced, classed,

nationalized, etc. Mobilizing the term “fanboy” or “fangirl” activates some

overdetermined soup of meanings, often mostly from the left or right column of such

oppositions as casual/ watercooler vs. avid, individual vs. community, “as is” vs.

“creative,” closure vs. openness, knowledge vs. relationships, transformative vs.

derivative, public vs. private, straight vs. queer, mainstream vs. fringe, and consuming

vs. producing (or vice versa) — but not with equal emphasis and certainly not with

precision. I trust that this set of conversations has pushed others as well as myself to

attend to the particulars and complexities of gender and other inequalities on whichever

of these planes we’re working, and also in the institutional context of this work.

Overall, I found the series especially fruitful in materializing and cultivating a

network of scholars, and I look forward to continuing our discussion in the blogosphere

and IRL (at Console-ing Passions, for one).

Catherine Tosenberger:

I found the entire process extremely rewarding, and not simply the exposure to others’ interesting work – though that was definitely my favorite part. I think the entire series reinforced that this discussion of gender and fandom studies needed to happen, and needs to keep happening. In several cases, including my own segment, we wound up reproducing the stereotypical gendered discourses that this series was intended to call out and examine. It was both frustrating and enlightening, and I hope that we can use this as fodder for further discussions of the issue, as an impetus to continue critical examination of our own field and its assumptions.

As for practical and structural issues, while I understand and appreciate the grounding in the blog community, I’m wondering if perhaps, if this were to take place again, a move to a more “message-board” format might be fun to try, just to mix it up a bit; it might be more conducive to free-flowing discussion, and not just because the much-maligned wait period for posting comments might be avoided. A message-board format might encourage more people to comment, since it’s the very nature of a blog to function as someone’s personal forum, and the sense of… “invading” isn’t the right word, but it’s the only one springing to mind, someone else’s personal space. This is not a commentary on Henry as host, as he was completely gracious and hands-off; I was thinking more in terms of the perceptions of Jane Random Fan, who might feel more comfortable – especially if disagreeing with the OP — posting on a message board that doesn’t appear to “belong” to anyone than in a named someone’s blog. (Not that this stops blog-conversant fans, but not all fannishness takes place in the blogosphere.) We got some overlap, with the cross-posting on LJ, but I’m wondering if an entire space set aside specifically for all comers to the debate would bring in a wider base; neutral ground and all that.

Sam Ford:

Thanks again to everyone for what has been 22 rounds of fascinating discussion that have

raised a wealth of issues. I am sure we all share the feeling of being overwhelmed by

the content that this discussion has generated and all have secret guilt about certain

weeks we weren’t able to internalize all of the discussion we would have liked, but I

think what we should be most excited about is the textual archive of this discussion and

that it can continue providing richness for all our discussions as an ongoing discourse.

This discussion showed both the positives and negatives of discussing these issues in

the blogosphere and in a style of writing that can be quite different from traditional

academic prose. This led to a type of direct address that is only possible on the

blogosphere, which is why I am quite the proponent of using the blog as a tool of

discourse that throws off the power structure and closed walls of traditional academic

conversation. That raw honesty empowered this discussion, but the insertion of emotion

and personal address into this discourse also led to some occasionally heated exchanges

that weren’t always productive and ultimately served to obfuscate some of the most

important issues. I know we all felt frustration at one point or another with how

certain rounds went, and with the direction conversations turned.

Ultimately, looking at this conversation through the construct of a continuous

trajectory doesn’t serve us well. The fact that a different pair picked up the

discussion each week and that each conversation is somewhat disjointed from the last

means that we should not necessarily expect the last round of this series to

necessarily be more “enlightened” than the first. And of course we raised many more

problems than we solved, but I feel that was the purpose of this conversation to begin

with, to bring tensions more to the surface and to get us all thinking more overtly

about the issues both of gender in fan communities and gender in fan studies.

I am most indebted to this discussion for the awareness it has provided me for the

community that exists around fan studies and the wide variety of interesting voices who

surround these discussions. For me, I was aware of some of the C3-related folks who

have been involved in this project–Joshua Green, Geoffrey Long, Aswin Punathambekar,

Rob Kozinets, etc., some of the folks heavily involved in these discussions on

LiveJournal that I had the pleasure of meeting through the Media in Transition 5

conference here at MIT, and the soaps-related researchers whose work I was familiar with

and who greatly shaped my thesis writing, in particular Lee Harrington and Nancy Baym.

In the process, I’ve launched a preliminary project comparing daytime and primetime

dramas with Jason Mittell that I hope will further the discourse started here and that

spilled over into Jason’s blog, Just TV. I have been invited to participate in a

workshop at Consol-ing Passions with all sorts of fascinating people who I got to know

over the past year, directly stemming from the conversation that began here–Bob Rehak,

Suzanne Scott, Louisa Stein, and Julie Levin Russo. And I met Abigail Derecho and,

through our realization of a common interest in contemporary soap opera fandom, we have

started the task of co-editing our first anthology together, on the current state of the

soap opera industry and its future.

Ultimately, I think this series was most valuable in this community- forming function.

Since my “other self” is a small-town journalist, I see this scholarly community as not

that unlike the small towns I covered. Everyone here is bound by common goals and

issues, but it doesn’t mean we always agree. Nor, perhaps, should we. But I am

thankful for the time everyone put into making this conversation happen, and I hope we

all stay committed to pursuing the issues raised here further in our own work and

conversations.

A final thank you to all those who were not part of the debates but who joined the

conversation throughout the summer. Henry and others write often about “aca/fans,” but

I am interested in doing what we can to include “criti/fans” in this debate as well. As

the people surrounding this conversation has shown, there are a lot of very intelligent

and articulate people outside academia who are interested in these conversations. How

can we adapt our practices to make them more a part of this conversation, while also

opening up our resources to help “criti/fans” who don’t live within the haven of a

university system obtain the resources to become involved with the scholarly side of

these discussions?

Now for comments from readers:

Thank you, Henry! Thank you for listening to me and writing to me when anyone’s first reaction would have been to be defensive and protective of those I summarily attacked; thank you for spending your–clearly overbooked and precious–time to organizing this and making it possible; thank you for worrying enough about younger scholars and our concerns to want to hear what we have to say; and thank you for trying ceaselessly to be a voice and spokesperson for fandom when you need to be and trying to pass over the reins when you can.

Like most of us, I’ve experienced moments of frustration at various points this summer, but more importantly, I’ve also felt that we’ve begun to build something. There’s an intellectual excitement for me and many I talk to for which the summer gender debate is not solely responsible, but is in large parts.

As “partner in crime” I probably have seen more than most how much effort and energy and thought you’ve put into this, so: THANKS!

– Kristina Busse

.

Thank you for hosting the discussion. I think it was really important.

BTW, most of the female scholars I’m familiar with have a blog as well as an LJ…. Why do the men of your acquaintance say they are not comfortable in LJ? This honestly puzzles me because it’s not an exclusively female space…. there are plenty of men there, and a man invented it. Fanfic, yes — tons more women than men. LJ, no.

Again — thanks for the thinky.

Dana Sterling

I want to address just one issue which I think is important.

The internet in its current formation is for linking. Yet you say:

Female scholars are more likely to start a Live Journal page than to

start a blog. Live Journal seems a much more personal and private space so

sending large numbers of readers of this blog trampling through some one’s

Live Journal seems inappropriate. Or for that matter, it doesn’t always feel

right to take something which is being discussed in LJland and bring it into

the blogosphere.

I cannot speak for everyone, of course, but I can note a few of the

following points

One of the reasons this whole debate started (in terms of the people I know

talking about problems) was the on-going perception that the male scholars

in blogland in effect dismissed scholarship in LJ, dismissed women scholars

in LJ. If that attitude is reified, then there’s a real problem. It’s

sloppy stereotypical thinking. Nobody says that LJ is the only place for

acafen, but to dismiss it as unintellectual/girly space, or as a female

space that has to be protected from males is just too Victorian for words.

(LJ actually does allow a lot more protection than some of the other

internet spaces, but that is not only about gender, I assume.)

There are differences in communication practices between blogs and LJ, but

there are differences bewteen blogs and blogs (I read a lot of the feminist

blogs), and between different LJ users.

People ignoring everybody else won’t solve the problem of lack of

communication between differentn disciplines or different genders. I, and

others I know, read some blogs (not always commenting because it’s such a

pain over here), but the blog writers apparently often don’t bother to read

LJ..

We now know the name and online personas and spaces of a bunch of new

acafan. I’ve seen several of the women set up blogs and participate in

discussion over here. I’ve seen several of the men set up LJs and

participate in discussion over there. That is to the good, I think.

But after reading this post, one aspiring academic has already asked me if

she should get a blog, fearing that the LJ will not be enough if she

continues her academic work. I find her response incredibly disturbing,

hinting at yet more ways in which “male” spaces (which aren’t male because

many females are there, but somehow ignored) are privileged over “female”

spaces (which haved males in them, but they are somehow ignored).

Not all the female scholars in the aca-fan debates are in LJ (nor should

they be!).

There are men in LJ online fandoms.

I think LJ is the most exciting fandom space right now, but that’s my

evaluation, my choice, and my focus for scholarship. There are other

areas–and fan studies will be stronger for being more inclusive and aware

of multiple spaces (to avoid that pesky “all fans are X” problem). I don’t

assume that just because I’m not interested in a fan space or topic that it

is inherently uninteresting or unimportant. I try to read as widely as I can

about areas of fandom I’m not interestd in writing about, just as I try to

read scholarship in different areas. Nobody can read everything, but marking

off a whole space as if “there be dragons over there,” is frustrating

(speaking as one of the dragons).

I am not going to get a blog–and given all the complaints I hear about spam

over here, I am wondering why anybody bothers. LJ doesn’t have spam

problems (now, ads, well that’s another issue, but that’s all over the

internet as well). The comparison between the level of discussion on the

acafan posts here and the ones in fandebate shows, I think, that more

discussion is possible in the LJ format, and certainly more community

building.

The point (if I have one) is not that LJ is better or blogs are better–but

that good scholarship will come from being aware of what’s out there so

one’s own focus/argument can be stronger rather than assuming that one’s

ignorance of large areas of fandom isn’t a problem.

Deciding that it’s just too rude or invasive to link to LJ (as if all LJ

users are the same) is, to my eyes, a retreat of sorts. As far as I’m

concerned, feel totally free to link to anything I post in either of my LJs:

robin_anne_reid or ithiliana (most of the public posts in my fan journal are

fanfiction, so not of interest in terms of academic discussions, but I do

meta once in a while).

I recently posted about the ethics of analyzing fandom, and human subjects

protection, in my fan journal (I find that there’s a lot of overlap between

the two journals!). The post garnered over 130 responses (some of those were

my replies to people): it was a great discussion, and an incredible part of

my process/writing. I tend to post ideas in process, as I present on newer

ideas, to get feedback and try out my ideas. I learned a lot. The disussion

is here:

http://ithiliana.livejournal.com/789235.html

It was linked in metafandom, and probably in some friends’ journals as well.

I have my comment settings set to screen anonymous comments (but that’s no

different than this blog!), but I don’t at all mind people trampling over to

read and comment. That’s sort of the point as far as I’m concerned.

In my professional journal, I’m currently posting on online teaching, new

media literacies in terms of my own work and a new program starting up in my

department, and racism imbroglios in fandom. I’m posting about two

presentations that I’ll be giving this spring, because the whole time the

acafan debate was going on, with very little mention of race, there were

conflicts in multiple fandoms over racism in source texts, racism in fan

fiction, use of racist language, and the responses of fandom as a whole to

concerns raised by fans of color.

You linked to some fan posts over the fanlib issue: I thought that was

excellent. Failing to link to them while writing about fanlib or allowing

Chris Williams the space to talk about his project would have been

incredibly problematic: that is, you would be denying fans their voice and

agency. You’ve never done that as a scholar–that’s only one reason, I

think, why so many (fans and acafan) admire your work..

Why would you deny the same courtesy to acafen in LJ?

I can see a material problem: the sheer number of LJs. I can RSS feed blogs

and read without having to bookmark each one. I doubt any blog could “feed”

LJ in the same way (but I don’t know–I know that people can track LJs

outside LJ–I just don’t know if you could do it). When Kristina started her

blog, I went over the pointed out she could “link” in the blogroll section

to LJs, and why not do it. I know some people in LJ feel awkward or silly

about dropping links to their own posts in a blog response (but I don’t

understand why–when one blogger links back and and comments on a blog post,

that’s considered a good thing.

I’d suggest the best place to feed or bookmark is

which links to a range of interesting discussions in LJ (and if people don’t

want to be linked, they’re not).

http://community.livejournal.com/metafandom/profile

People who have to maintain a certain amount of anonymity will have their

journals locked, or some posts will be locked. Others, however, do not lock

and welcome discussion from others. Many in LJ do see/feel it as a private

protected space, but they learn pretty fast that if you want privacy, you

friends lock. Some in LJ do want it as a protected space for fandoms, but

it’s not likely to be that way–anything in public on the internet can be

seen by anyone. If you’re worried about linking, it only takes a few

moments to ask (it’s considered polite to notify people if you’re linking to

them, in a comment).

And if it comes to that: I’ve seen a lot of rhetoric on various blog

debates about how a blog is the owner’s private space, and people commenting

have to be polite, and they all have anti-trolling policies, etc. Sounds to

me a lot like the discussions in LJ over commenting, IP logging, etc.

In LJ (and around fandoms), we link all over the place–there are

newsletters like meta-fandom devoted to linking. There are conventions

about communicating, just as there are everywhere, but given that a LJ post

is likely to get anywhere from 50-150 comments very quickly (if it interests

people–it can get 0 as well), when I’ve rarely seen that sort of response

here, I’m baffled by the idea that somehow we don’t want comments.

Sure, most of those comments are from LJ users–but we don’t all agree,

we’re not all female, we’re not all academics, and all of those

disagreements and debates go on all the time.

– Robin Reid

Henry,

I didn’t comment when you first asked for responses, but the other scholars’s responses you posted are so interesting I feel like I want to add my $0.02, albeit late.

My experience in reading and writing during this debate has been so mixed. On the one hand, I think the most progress on the gender debate per se was made in those conversations which got most hairy and uncomfortable (either directly in your blog, or in the ensuing livejournal/blogosphere conversations). Real underlying thorny issues were revealed, real disagreements came for us, and people got a chance to learn from each other.

But on the other hand, those uncomfortable conversations were, well, uncomfortable. Women feeling like the contributions of female academics or fans are marginalized; men feeling like they were attacked as sexist — these left some pretty raw wounds. Whereas my conversation with Alan was pleasurable throughout.

There were places I didn’t poke in my exchange with Alan. Not that I thought it would have turned into an uncomfortable, hairy situation. No part of that conversation was anything other than pleasant, enjoyable, and educational. But I’m an independent scholar — and a woman, socialized to avoid public disagreement — and I was having a very public conversation with a male credentialed associate professor in my field. I was far too wary to prod at any statements I disagreed with. Not that I think Alan would have responded negatively. On the contrary, I think

further questioning on my part would have only enriched our conversation and added to our pleasure in the exchange. I went through drafts of e-mails I didn’t send to Alan in which I did

raise questions about assertions he made. But I rejected those drafts out of nervous suspicions that I was out of line.

This isn’t the fault of Alan or Henry or any of the participants in the conversation giving me this irrational sense of risk. I think it comes back to the professional/amateur divide which Kristina reiterated, and which is part of a larger question: why does the balance of faculty to independent scholar in our field (and academia in general) appear tied to gender, and what can we do about it? (Whether what we do about it is address that gender balance, or instead address the lack of support for independent scholarship is yet another question.)

That being said, I had so much fun in my conversations with Alan — they were interesting, compelling, and entertaining. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t accuse him of being a patriarchal

oppressor, no matter what he claims!

Thank you so much for setting this up. I had a fabulous time.

-Deborah Kaplan

Gender and Fan Culture (Wrapping Up, Part Two)

Editor’s note: The blog has been under attack from hackers in recent weeks. We have had to disable the comments function in the short run but hope to have it working again soon. I am still very interested in your comments about the Gender and Fan Culture series so send comments to me at henry3@mit.edu and I will post them as soon as we get the comments section functioning. Sorry for encouraging comments just as the whole site went down. Really bad timing!

Bob Rehak:

I enjoyed reading and taking part in the summer’s conversations, in part because I don’t consider myself an aca-fan so much as — if you’ll forgive the neo-neologism — a fan-aca: that is, while fandom definitely informs my research and teaching (it’s what led me to graduate school in the first place), my projects tend not to center on fandom “as such.” So while I engaged with the dialogues most immediately for moments of fellow-fan-recognition (“Hey, she likes Battlestar Galactica too!”), I spent more time reflecting on the strange phenomenon of acafandom: this group of exceptionally smart and articulate people positioning ourselves — with varying degrees of forthrightness, self-critique, pride, and disavowal — around not just the texts and objects that we love/hate, but the potent essence of love/hate itself. In short, it was interesting to watch ourselves wrestling with our own jouissance, a collective (if variegated) upwelling passion that functioned both to disrupt and drive our interactions.

But to boil it down to a few blunt, highly subjective specifics:

1. The women ruled. Not that there aren’t a lot of cool guys here. But I grew impatient with the defensive, almost willful missing-the-point that snaked through the dialogues like a malingering virus, usually expressed in some version of “Gendered power may exist, but it’s not germane to what we study/how we study it” or, more perniciously, “Gendered power may exist, but I myself am free of it.” Again, I don’t mean to totalize. Standing back from the debates, though, it seemed that “we” (the men) were first and foremost being invited to consider the idea that gender has different but valid meanings to, and significant material impact upon “them” (the women), and that, too often, we chose to counterattack rather than to listen.

Of course, it *was* a debate, and assessing the validity of arguments is one aspect of what we do professionally. I just think that if we’re going to cross the troubled waters, we should start by building bridges, not standing on opposite shores tossing rocks at each other.

2. Forum matters. It’s utterly intriguing to me how the debate unfurled in two distinct realms, Henry’s blog and LiveJournal (with of course a halo of side discussion throughout the blogosphere). While I tended to read Henry’s blog for the initial posts, I would usually bounce over to LiveJournal for the comments, which seemed more lively and dynamic, more raw and honest. My sense is that we all tried to *behave* on Henry’s blog; we were guests at the dinner party (and grateful, let me add, to be invited!). By contrast, LJ was like the afterparty, where people felt free to let their hair down. Was this good or bad? Inevitable or avoidable? I dunno. But the way in which these two spaces structurally reproduced certain essentialist notions of masculinity and femininity is troubling, and I will leave its exegesis to more experienced LJers (I was but a nomad, passing through the territory).

3. We’re all really smart! Really. I was astounded at the depth, range, and sophistication of the exchanges, and glad to see that, freed from classrooms, conferences, peer-reviewed publications, and other restrictively overdetermined speech environments, we remain capable of

nuanced, compelling, adventurous intellectual engagement.

4. Where next? More dialogue. More debate. More connections. More friendships. More misunderstandings on the way to enlightenment.

Kristina Busse:

After I posted publicly about unexamined gendered assumptions in play across scholarship

of fandom as well as within the community of fan scholars, Henry approached me about

launching a conversation that would bring a variety of fan academics together to discuss

and debate gender. Within my corner of fandom and among my female acafan friends, we’d

been discussing these issues repeatedly, so I was very excited that Henry’s forum would

bring these concerns to broader attention. In fact, I hoped it would offer all of us the

chance to engage more constructively with it among a group of academics that would

include those who had quite different approaches and investments. I thought the series

might result in more general awareness and maybe greater recognition of the academic

contributions of the women around me, but over these recent months I have seen that and

much more: I’ve seen conference panels organized, co-written articles planned, and more

awareness across the gender line, of both the importance of fan artifacts as subject

matter and of particular scholars. I think everyone has made connections and gotten to

know scholars they might otherwise not have interacted with. More women have started

blogs, more men have started LiveJournals, and more scholars are talking to one another,

whether in public or private. Personally, I hope to attend SCMS with a fanboy/fangirl

panel that effectively draws from our different perspectives, and will be co-writing an

essay on fandom, hopefully offering both perspectives. I have made personal friends and

started corresponding with more scholars–male and female.

So while there remain a lot of things that are frustrating to me coming out of this

conversation, while there are exchanges and comments that still exhibit unreflected

acceptance of patriarchal culture, I think it’s been a great beginning. Beyond continuing

the discussion in other venues, however, there are two things that I think we need to

focus on as we complicate the issues. One is the question of different realms of contact

in which being a woman matters. Most of the debates tried to separate academic and

fannish and personal spheres, but in my experience they are all connected. The

disproportionately amateur status of women is interwoven on the one hand with the type of

fan productions we prefer and on the other with the conditions of our offline lives. I

don’t think we should focus on one area alone, because gender issues run through all

areas and mutually affect one another. As we continue to address women and gender in

fandom studies, I’d like more of us to examine these often repressed issues of how and

why women create what they do (or not), analyze what they do (or not), choose the

academic careers they do (or not), and how these are interrelated.

Also, on a larger scale, I feel we’re still not reaching out enough to bridge other,

related gaps. Race has been mentioned multiple times as a conspicuous exclusion, and I

hope that we can all become more aware of what trajectories we might be leaving out even

as we’re becoming more aware of the axis of gender. But the one issue I’m most interested

in, and which I believe to be closely related to gender, is academic status. We haven’t

succeeded in sufficiently addressing, let alone solving, the professional/amateur divide

in academia that is also so central to fandom itself. I think the fact that all of us

have gotten connected with at least one (and quite often many more than one) scholar we

may not have known before has increased the depth of the overall fan studies world. In

particular, as fan studies is so interdisciplinary, the debate allowed us to meet across

a variety of disciplines and methodologies. I hope that going forward we can strengthen

acquaintances and friendships and reach out to new scholars. I want this debate to be the

beginning of an ongoing increased awareness of gender and the way it inflects all other

areas we need to now focus on: race, class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation,

and all the issues that have been raised as insufficiently addressed and, even more

importantly, those we haven’t even begun to think about.

C. Lee Harrington:

I was very intrigued by this series of dialogues though my own area of fan studies (mainly soap opera) has not been fraught with the gender concerns/debates that launched the blog. I have been more a lurker than a participant these past 5 (6?) months, as is my nature, but I learned a lot — about scholars whose work I was unfamiliar with, about fan studies in general (especially areas outside of my own), and most useful to me, about specific books/articles/chapters that I haven’t read but should. I have compiled a large list of materials to slowly plow through. I’ve been intrigued by gender debates I didn’t really know existed, and frustrated at times with attempts to work through complex notions of gender, feminism, privilege, and media through written (rather than spoken) dialogue. Gender is a hard topic to talk about, teach, and learn, regardless of the context or topic in question, and it was hard at times here. I was dismayed by several exchanges that seemed to devolve into personal attacks. I was impressed by most participants’ seeming open-mindedness about hearing perspectives very different from their own. Participating did not change my own line of research in any way that I could articulate on the spot, but as I slowly digest both the exchanges and my to-read stack, I’m sure new ideas and ways of thinking will emerge that would not have happened otherwise.

The only real negative for me is that I’m not in the blogosphere much. It’s not a preferred method of communication for me so at times participating seemed like homework rather than intrinsically motivated. I also became more and more guilty over time because I *have* been lurking rather than participating actively….I’m happy to have been invited to the table, though.

Alan McKee:

The reason I haven’t sent anything in is because I’m slightly embarrassed about what I would say …

There is nothing worse than members of a dominant group saying that they haven’t noticed the importance of an identity category: ‘Why do you have to go on about being gay all the time? Why do you have to talk about your sexuality? We [ie, straight folk] don’t do that …’

So I’m hesitant to say that for me the experience of taking part in this discussion was about the delight and excitement of finding a like mind (Deborah). I wasn’t really aware before I started about the gendered debates in fan studies, and I didn’t find that they impinged on my discussions with Deborah. But you see? Even by saying that I feel like a patriarchal oppressor.

So – I thought this was a wonderful project. Mostly I find academics tiresome – their interests and debates bore me. It is always delightful to find others who are interested in things that interest me, who value fun, and decency and delight and joy. Oh, and who are deeply informed about things that I don’t know about, but care about (yes, there are a lot of them who know a lot more than I will ever know about the writings of Deleuze, but I really can’t bring myself to care about that. There’s something wrong with me, I suppose. I’m missing the ‘caring about philosophy’ gene).

Every time I read what Deborah had written, I laughed and got excited and thought about stuff, and had more that I wanted to say. In the end we were almost late with our contribution simply because it was so hard to let go – there was always just one more paragraph that I just *had* to squeeze in, inspired by something she had said.

And so – thank you so much for setting this up. I am awe of your energy, your passion, your ideas, your networks, your organisational ability. How do you find time to sleep?

Lori Morimoto:

Throughout the Gender and Fan Culture conversations, I’ve been continually interested in

the degree to which women comprise a much muddier field of fan commentators than do men.

It doesn’t seem to be an exaggeration to say that, for the most part, participating men

have been firmly situated within mainstream academic culture – their fannish activities

notwithstanding – while many of us female participants have a more tangled relationship

to that culture. As a graduate student teetering on the edge of academic employment,

I’ve been encouraged by the extent to which women outside of academia have nonetheless

managed to publish and otherwise contribute to scholarly discussions about fandom; yet,

the ways in which our lack of affiliation with recognized institutions hampers our

ability to conduct and disseminate our research is dismaying. This situation seems, in

some ways, to mirror fans’ relationships to the media they consume (and produce), and, in

this sense, something we might engage with more transparently as ‘aca-fans’.

Gender and Fan Culture (Wrapping Up, Part One)

Last May, I announced my plan to host an ongoing conversation between male and female scholars around the topic of gender and fan culture. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect when I made that announcement. I felt like the moment was right to celebrate a generation of younger scholars — male and female — who were doing groundbreaking work in the areas of fan studies and cult media. I was hoping that the series would give me a chance to get to know these researchers and their work better. While I had read some of the recent scholarship, it had been hard to sort out the emerging players on the basis of one or two essays. I knew, however, that the field was now more methodologically and theoretically diverse than any one had yet acknowledged and I also knew that many of these people, working in different disciplines and operating with different social networks, did not know each other.

I had been distressed by suggestions that there was a growing disconnect between the work male and female scholars were doing in this space and concerned that the roots of fan studies in feminist scholarship and female cultural practice might get lost. I was interested in the ways that the entertainment industry was embracing new models of audience participation but often with unequal and differential treatment of forms of participation that were historically coded as masculine or feminine (an issue I raised in Convergence Culture in relation to the Star Wars fan cinema competitions.) I felt then that the best way to break down some of the walls was to pair up male and female scholars, who shared similar interests but who might not have known each other, for the purpose of a public conversation. My hope had been that if we chose a sufficiently diverse set of scholars, we would complicate existing assumptions about how gender impacted fan culture, suggesting some overlap as well as some differences in cultural preferences, interpretive practices, cultural activities, and social communities.

I also wanted to explore how a blog might be used in a community building activity, creating a space of dialog rather than monolog, enabling a different kind of exchange among scholars than might occur in the more structured and familiar space of an academic convention, and at the same time, I wanted to push others to embrace a new mode of scholarly discourse which engaged with the general public rather than remaining within a purely academic space.

Those were my hopes for this series. Each participant brought their own hopes to this project and that accounts, in part, for some of the mixed signals which have always circulated around this project. Some saw the discussion as centrally about breaking down walls between individual scholars or perhaps of building a new social network around this topic which would include both male and female researchers. My hope was that if we got to know each other better, we’d be more likely to hang out together at conferences, more likely to construct anthologies or conference panels that were more inclusive and diverse. Some hoped that the project might offer new theoretical perspectives in the field — helping to revise the language of feminist scholarship to reflect emerging media and cultural practices or more generally, raising new questions which we might address through our scholarship. Some hoped that the project might provide support for younger researchers who needed to demonstrate to their advisors or tenure committees that fan studies was a legitimate field of research, one which was generating scholarly interest around the world. Still others hoped that the project might call attention to structural factors and systemic discrimination which resulted in the unequal treatment of women in the academia.

Perhaps the project’s biggest success was its most mundane. We’ve just had a project in which 44 academics from all over the world all met their deadlines. A few posts have been late by a day or so. But the vast majority got their work in on time — an act which is almost without precedence in my experience.

Thanks to everyone involved for their hard work, their personal engagement, their intellectual honesty, and their willingness to stage these exchanges in public. I realize that all of you were playing without a net — taking professional and emotional risks, trusting your partners and the others involved in these exchange, to respect your thinking as a work in progress.

There have certainly been times when I have been frustrated by one or another side of the exchange, fearing that our project would not be allowed to succeed, worrying that one or another of us would fall into gender traps, but I have to say that in the end, I have felt encouraged by the quality of your contributions and encouraged by the recognition of the overlap between these different intellectual projects.

There is still a lot of work to be done — no doubt.Most if not all of the women included very clearly saw themselves as part of a shared intellectual field called fan studies and most of them saw themselves also as actively connected to the social network of fandom. For many of the men involved, neither was necessarily true. They would have described their work in some other category of research — transmedia storytelling, consumer research, cult media, creative industries, audience studies, global studies — within which the study of fandom mattered but might not be the central focus of their interests. The stakes for the two groups in this conversation were different, accordingly. Some have suggested the conversation would have looked different if I had reached out as broadly to bring in female scholars who were not working on fandom per se but were working on other related areas. But I had wanted to include everyone who asked to participate and there were just more women lined up at the start of this than men. I consider it a major victory under the circumstances that I was able to find a male counterpart for every female participant.

My hope is that these exchange has helped all of us to think more clearly about what fan studies contributes to and draws from these other fields of inquiry, but it may also indicate some of the challenges we face if we want to bridge between the genders in terms of our social and professional networks.

The other thing that we’ve struggled with in this discussion series has been the different modes of communication within the existing social networks of male and female scholars. I have been struck by the number of female participants who have expressed discomfort with blogs or the number of male participants who have said that they didn’t feel at home on Live Journal. The result has often been parallel conversations along similar tracks, compounded by misunderstandings about the style and tone of the exchanges which emerge from discursive practices in the two spaces.

Again, this points to work which still remains to be done if we are going to learn to listen and respect each other’s points of view. And more interestingly, I am finding myself pondering the correct way of interfacing between the two worlds. Male scholars, for example, often write to me to tell me that they are creating a blog and I have used this space to publicize their efforts. Female scholars are more likely to start a Live Journal page than to start a blog. Live Journal seems a much more personal and private space so sending large numbers of readers of this blog trampling through some one’s Live Journal seems inappropriate. Or for that matter, it doesn’t always feel right to take something which is being discussed in LJland and bring it into the blogosphere.

So, what’s the solution? Do these two different modes of communication represent a kind of gender segregation? If more and more important conversations impacting our research take place within these online spaces, then how does this impact the scholarship which we produce?

The nature of this exchange, the challenges of writing as aca-fen, is that we have personal and professional stakes within this conversation and where misunderstandings occurred, it has often struck me that they emerged from a confusion between different orders of discourse.

And in some cases, I fear that structuring the discussion around male and female “teams” may have solidified gender borders even as the project here was to break down such rigid categories. I am reminded of the work of Barrie Thorne who has described the kind of “gender work” which occurs within schools where the easy classification of children into “girls and boys” plays itself out in the playground culture as well: even when many boys and girls play together in their own neighborhoods, they tend to gender stratify in the school space, because those categories are ever present in the way they think of themselves.

I know that I have found myself feeling protective at times when one or another male scholar has been “under attack” or uncomfortably implicated when they said something that was ill-considered or inappropriate, even though in my own work in fandom I have always felt comfortable interacting with female fans and often more at home working with female scholars. So, in some ways, the pairings served our various causes and in some ways, they provoked the very behaviors and attitudes they were meant to resolve. But, even this may be instructive if they forced us to confront some of the factors which divide us and if we learn from each other in the process.

This work isn’t done. It has only begun. I hope to continue to find ways to use this blog to host important conversations within our emerging field. I hope to use my role as a conference organizer to create other contexts which bring together scholars of diverse backgrounds and interests to share work with each other. I have always found myself recommending participants here to other editors and conference organizers, including people who were not on my radar when the project began. I have already found myself making more extensive reference to participants in my own writing and speaking. My early work on fandom had centrally been about gender and sexuality issues, my more recent work less so, and so I am finding myself struggling to build stronger and more visible connections between the two bodies of work as I look towards the next phases of my research.

Let me close my comments by thanking everyone who participated and especially Kristina Busse who has been my partner in crime making this whole thing possible.

Starting on Friday I will run comments from others who participated in the exchange. I haven’t heard back from everyone and I still welcome further comments on the process — either posted here as comments on the blog or if necessary, I will devote another set of posts to wrapping up the series. I want to make sure that everyone who wants to be heard gets a chance to speak.

Vidder Luminosity Profiled in New York Magazine

A little over a month ago, an editor from New York Magazine wrote me to see if I might nominate what I saw as “the best online videos.” I saw this request as an opportunity to promote the amazing work that goes on in the fan vidding community, work which is frequently not discussed when people are talking about the vernacular creativity of YouTube. After consulting with some friends in that creative community (including long time reader Laura Shapiro), and corresponding with the artist herself, we decided to nominate Luminosity, who ranks among the very best of contemporary vidders. Here’s the letter I wrote nominating her:

The tradition of fan video making long predates the rise of YouTube and our current fascination with remix culture. For several decades, fans, mostly women, have re-edited footage from their favorite films and television shows, setting them to music, as a way of expressing their complex feelings towards their favorite media franchises. These women produced compelling videos when it was hard,editing on their home vrs, and now, they have achieved incredible sophistication and virtuosity now that they can use digital editing equipment. Luminosity is among the best of this current generation of fan video-makers: one need only look at a few of her works to see the range of different styles and interpretations she brings to her material. “Vogue” merges the music of Madonna and the images of the recent Hollywood blockbuster, 300, into a

compelling consideration of masculine spectacle, one which plays with our expectations about gender and sexuality. “Bite me, Frank Miller,” Luminosity says, blurring the lines the original work constructs between the hypermasculine Spartans and the perverse Persians. “Women’s Work” offers a feminist critique of the place of sexual violence in the CW television series,

Supernatural, while “Ecstatic Drum Trip” spins wrecklessly out of control, offering us a mad rush of images, drawn from the science fiction series, Farscape. These represent just three of the more than 30 videos which she has posted on the web so far, each transforming content from mass media into the raw materials for her own expressive activity. Much of contemporary remix culture falls back on parody but these fan videos seek to convey the emotional intensity which fan women feel towards these original

works, taking us into the heads and hearts of their favorite characters. These fan videos can be funny (as “Vogue” suggests) but they can also be deeply moving (exploring the pain and loss which surrounds some of our favorite characters.) These videos communicate more if you know the shows on which they are based but they represent on their own mood poems or character

sketches which pack a powerful punch.

(Those of you who have followed the Gender and Fan Culture conversation series this summer and fall will already know Luminosity’s work which was referenced by Francesca Coppa in her discussion with Robert Kozinets.)

Well, the New York editors must have liked what they saw because Luminosity is profiled, alongside a range of other independent and amateur media artists, in a special issue which explores “the New Online Star System.”

Here’s how the story begins:

Luminosity is the best fan that shows like Friday Night Lights, Highlander, Farscape, and Buffy ever had–but she can’t use her real name in this interview for fear that their producers will sue her. As a vidder–a director of passionate tributes and critiques of her favorite shows–Luminosity samples video in order to remix and reinterpret it, bending source material to her own purposes…We emailed with Luminosity about her meticulously crafted videos, including “Women’s Work,” her loving critique of violence in Supernatural, and Vogue/300, her hysterical riff on those hunky Spartans.

The interview which follows is respectful of her accomplishments and seeks to reclaim a place for women’s creative work in the larger history of online video. Luminosity speaks, for example, about the politics behind “Women’s Work,” which remains one of her most controversial videos. Like many other fans of Supernatural, I have admired what she accomplishes here, showing how fan vids can be used for feminist critique of popular culture, but have wondered if the critique may be misplaced, given how much work the series does to make us care about its female characters, how complex the friendships which emerge between the men, especially, Sam and these women, as compared with the representations of sexual violence in many other works in the horror tradition. But Luminosity offers a thoughtful response to these concerns:

“Women’s Work” is a critique of the eroticization of the violence done to women in all media, not just Supernatural. Women are sexually assaulted, murdered, and then laid out in artistic tableaux, chopped into pretty, bloody pieces. They usually further the plot, but they’re hardly ever a part of the plot. We wanted to point out that in order for us to love a TV show–and we do–we have to set this horrible part of it aside. A lot. Often. Sisabet [the co-vidder of the project] and I believe that we could have made this vid using almost any show, from Heroes to CSI, but we are fans of Supernatural. We care so much about a show that we want share it, make an argument, highlight a character or situation, lampoon something, evoke a mood. I’ve also made four other Supernatural vids that celebrate the show, the arc, the relationship between the brothers and the genre itself.

I can appreciate the critique of the horror genre as a whole, which has historically relied heavily on the victimization of women, but I remain concerned that this video holds Supernatural accountable for what it takes from the genre but not what it adds to it. That said, I see it as a credit to the power of this particular work that people want to argue with it — “Women’s Work” makes a clear and unambiguous statement which forces us to think more deeply about the series in question and that’s what I think vidding at its best can achieve.

Congrats to Luminosity for the visibility her work is starting to receive. Here’s hoping that the coverage leads to greater recognition not just for her work but for other cutting edge fan media makers.

I haven’t spent enough time yet working through the other articles in this special issue. There’s a tremendous number of links here as a range of critics have curated what they think is the best work out there on the web. Even a quick browse through the articles New York has assembled will suggest the creative energy that has emerged as we have lowered barreers for creative artists of all kinds to get their work into circulation via the web.

This may be a good time to also alert my readers to a major event in the realm of Do-It-Yourself Media Production, which is coming up at the University of Southern California this February. I am excited to be able to participate in a plenary event along with Howard Rheingold, Yochai Benkler, John Seely Brown, Joi Ito, and Lawrence Lessig on the Future of DIY Media.

Here are the details of the event:

24/7: A DIY VIDEO SUMMIT

February 8-10, 2008 School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California

Conference web site: http://www.video24-7.org

Blog: http://diy.video24-7.org/

Spaces are limited for attendance at the academic panels and the workshops. The video

screenings are free and open to the public.

24/7: A DIY Video Summit will bring together the many communities that have evolved

around do-it-yourself (DIY) video:artists, audiences, technology providers, academics,

policy makers and industry executives. The aim is to discover common ground, and to

chart the path to a future in which grassroots and mainstream, amateur and professional,

artist and audience can all benefit as the medium continues to evolve.

This three-day summit features:

SCREENINGS OF DIY VIDEO

On February 8 and 9, there will be screenings of DIY video that are

open to the public. These will feature curated programs on design video, activist

documentary, youth media, machinima, music video, political remix and video blogging.

The video program will culminate in an evening program and reception on February 9 that

will draw from all of these video genres.

ACADEMIC PROGRAM

Registered attendees will have access to the academic program on February 8 and 9 that

features panels on The State of Research, The State of the Art, DIY Media: The

Intellectual Property Dilemma andDIY Tools and Platforms.

WORKSHOPS AND BIRDS-OF-A-FEATHER MEETINGS

On February 10, the day will be devoted to practical and hands- onworkshops for

registered attendees on topics such as intellectual property, media creation,

distribution and new-media design tools.

Attendees will also have the option of organizing their own birds-of- a-feather meetings

to connect with other attendees.

From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Six): Common Threads

This is the final installment in our multi-part series showcasing the serious game projects of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. We haven’t exhausted our projects but this sample gives you a taste of the range of different paradigms we have deployed. Here, I offer my own thoughts about what these projects have in common, suggesting that they collectively represent a distinctive contribution to the field of games and education.

Over the past decade, researchers associated with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program have been exploring the pedagogical potentials of computer and video games. Rather than adopt a one-size-fits-all solution, we have explored different models for what might constitute the ideal learning game. In the process, we have tested different genres and delivery platforms and mapped alternative models of collaboration between academic institutions and commercial partners.

Underlying these games have been some core principles:

1. Our games are designed to fit within specific learning contexts, addressing the real-world problems that educators confront. Each represents a different strategy for addressing such factors as the structure of the school day, limited access to technology, the teacher’s unfamiliarity with games, and integration within existing curricular frameworks, all of which might prejudice teachers, parents, or principles against game-based learning. Our goal is to develop games that can be used widely across a range of schools and communities, not simply prototypes for laboratory research.

2. Our goals are never to displace the teacher but rather to provide teachers with new resources for doing what they do best. Our games are part of a sequence of learning activities, introducing new concepts or providing experiences that can become the basis for further discussions and writing exercises. Game play often occurs outside of the classroom, much as homework extends and supports schoolroom learning. For example, the Palmagotchi encourages kids to keep an eye on their evolving ecosystems at odd moments throughout the day, while teachers can work through problems from the games to explain basic principles. Increasingly, our games are designed to support customization and localization, so teachers can adopt the games to their own instructional goals.

3. We share a belief that play represents a meaningful strategy for making sense of the world around us: the best games inspire a process of exploration and experimentation. As students play games, they test hypotheses about how the world works, revising them based on their experiences; they develop new strategies for solving problems; and they make new connections between previously isolated bodies of knowledge. These games are designed to tap what students already know (as occurs when they get into character for a role-playing game like Revolution), and they help young people master complex problems that might otherwise seem insurmountable (as when they cite multimedia materials to draw connections between current and historic events in iCue or when they tap different kinds of expertise to solve the real world challenges posed by Charles River City).

4. We seek to make every element of the game design intellectually meaningful and personally rewarding: from the knowledge transfer system in Revolution to the puzzle design in Labyrinth, from the card-based interface of iCue to the exchange mechanisms in Backflow. We want to make sure that students and teachers spend more time acquiring valued skills and knowledge and less time mastering the game technology.

5. We see game play as a social rather than an individual learning opportunity. We build into these games opportunities for students to share insights with each other (through, for example, the exchange of theories within the AR simulations or of strategies in the in-game FAQ in Labyrinth), and in the process, to foster peer-to-peer learning. Students are most likely to master information when they use it to solve problems and share it with others, articulating what they have learned.

6. Last, but certainly not least, we design our games to be fun. These games were designed by gamers and we’ve learned what we can from existing entertainment titles. A game that fails to engage the student will fail to motivate learning, no matter how rich its intellectual content may be.

Taken as a whole, these principles shift our focus away from the design and deployment of serious games and onto the processes and resources that support serious gaming.

Sources

Jenkins, Henry with Ravi Purushotma, Katherine Clinton, Margaret Weigel, and Alice J. Robison, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” report prepared for the MacArthur Foundation, Fall 2006. http://www.projectnml.org/files/working/NMLWhitePaper.pdf

Squire, Kurt and Levi Giovanetto (Forthcoming), "The Higher Education of Gaming," Work in Progress, presented at Games, Learning and Society Conference, Madison, Wisconsin, 2005.

Francis, Russell. "Towards a Theory of a Games Based Pedagogy," Transforming Learning Experiences Online Conference, JISC Innovating e-Learning, March 2006.

http://www.online-conference.net/jisc/content/Francis%20-%20games%20based%20pedagogy.pdf

Wright, Talmadge. “Creative Player Actions in FPS Online Video Games: Playing Counter-Strike.” Game Studies Dec. 2002. http://www.gamestudies.org/0202/wright/

From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Five): iCue

In part five of our series on serious game projects involving the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, we focus on iCue, a soon to be launched collaboration with NBC News. iCue emerged from conversations between the MIT Education Arcade and NBC News in early 2006. Product development is being managed by NBC News and the NBC Technology Growth Center in New York, with portions of the information architecture, technical implementation, and game engine being executed with iFactory in Boston. The MIT Education Arcade continues to work with NBC News to research user behavior and performance, supporting NBC’s product and educational programming development. Project leaders include Alex Chisholm, Eric Klopfer, Scot Osterweil, and Jason Haas (MIT); Adam Jones, Nicola Soares, Laura Sammons, Michael Levin, Kathy Abbott, Soraya Gage, Mark Miano, and Beth Nissen (NBC); and Glenn Morgan, Sean Crowley, and Ruth Tannert (iFactory).

iCue: Tapping Social Networks to Foster Civic Awareness

By Alex Chisholm

NBC News has been working with the MIT Education Arcade to develop iCue, a web-based educational media product that is at once a media archive, a portal for learning activities and games, and a social network connecting teachers and students around the country in shared learning activities designed to enhance their understanding of current events and American History. The project was designed to address the seismic shifts in the ways young people acquire news and information about the world around them, shifts which are having an adverse impact on the markets for network news. Gone are the early evenings when families gathered around the television to catch up on the day’s events as narrated by genteel anchormen such as John Chancellor, David Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite. Today’s audiences, especially young people, consume news and information through channels that are available 24/7 across the web, mobile phones, and other handheld digital media devices. One need only glance at year-to-year Nielsen ratings data to recognize the steep downward trend in viewers of the evening network news broadcasts. During the May 2007 television sweeps period, network news viewers across the “Big Three” – ABC, CBS, and NBC – totaled roughly 21 million per night or just less than 7% of the U.S. population. By contrast, Apple sold 21 million iPods during the 2006 holiday shopping season. NBC has embraced the iCue project in hopes of better understanding how this generation of news consumers will relate to their content, while providing a resource for teachers and students to enhance critical thinking and writing skills across the curricula of U.S. History, Government and Politics, and English Language and Composition.

Designed initially as a resource for students taking courses as part of the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) Program, iCue includes video clips from the NBC News and Universal radio and film archives to support teaching and learning of core concepts, people, and places. In subsequent years, NBC plans to support additional subjects in World History, Literature, Language Learning, Science, and Mathematics across the K-12 curriculum. iCue deploys an innovative media player modeled upon a technology students have used for decades in the classroom, in the library, and at the kitchen table: the index card. NBC has designed its “CueCard,” a two-side media player that plays video on its face and then “flips” onscreen to enable students to annotate, comment, share, and discuss multimedia materials as part of online discussion groups organized around their own social, or learning, networks. Students collect CueCards in their online digital portfolio for reference, cataloging them for use in their online writing exercises, activities, and games.

Games? What happens when the card “technology” is considered into the domain of gaming? First, there are the traditional card games such as Go Fish, a matching game, or Poker, a complex strategy game. Then, there are the collecting of baseball and other sports cards and the fantasy sports games that are fueled by players’ performance statistics. Or, consider the global collecting, role-playing, and strategy card games such as Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, which have inspired a generation of kids to master and manipulate hundreds of fictional characters and their attendant powers and properties the way a NASA systems analyst might analyze complex data sets.

Each card represents a unique set of people, places, things, and ideas – embodying information students need to master for their coursework. The CueCards interface allows students not only to view and annotate media artifacts, but also to share and play with those cards to map connections among the represented concepts. In one challenge, students are asked to put into chronological order a series of CueCards that represent different events in the Civil Rights era, encouraging students to think about timelines in the U.S. History course. In another, students are challenged to match video clips and newspaper articles of Japanese internment camps of the 1940s with reports of suspected “terror” suspects at Guantanamo Bay after 2001. In yet another, students are asked to make connections between the suffrage campaign of Susan B. Anthony and the presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Through our formative research, we have observed students drawing on pre-existing knowledge, new ideas presented via the CueCards, and peer-to-peer discussions to generate new conceptual maps; their “answers” draw on different kinds of evidence – video, newspaper, and primary documents – to demonstrate solutions. Students share the pathways they have found with teachers and peers, inspiring both online and classroom discussion around important events and concepts. The process shows history not as something fixed, which is often the impression after reading a traditional textbook or encyclopedia entry, but as a dynamic and evolving discipline as students draw many different links between events and agents and resolve conflicting perspectives.

We are mapping and analyzing the thinking processes that shape students use of iCue. Do they focus on one type of resource over another in solving the game’s challenges? How do they integrate information from several media sources and how does this affect what they learn? How will teachers use iCue to supplement their classroom and homework assignments? How do different socio-economic levels, urban vs. rural geographies, and varied Pre-AP educational offerings affect students’ iCue experience? To qualify this, we are evaluating student understanding in several ways: (1) concept mastery exercises (e.g., fill in the blanks, multiple choice questions, etc.) both within and outside of the game; (2) group discussions with students; (3) player performance, where awareness and mastery of important concepts can be measured by student advancement through game levels and scoring; and, finally, (4) natural language-based research tools that enable us to analyze forum discussions and blogs. Our aim is to tap students’ interest in games, participatory culture, and collective intelligence to get them to engage more closely with history and current events.

Alex Chisholm is founder of [ICE]3 Studios, a media research and development consultancy that creates transmedia entertainment and educational properties, and is currently developing several projects with NBC Universal, including an educational media product for NBC News, fan research around NBC’s Heroes (with IPG Media’s The Consumer Experience Practice), educational games for NBC Weather+Plus, and online games for NBC Olympics-Beijing 2008. He is Co-Director of the Education Arcade at MIT, and over the past seven years has collaborated on research, product, and program development with Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Sony Pictures Imageworks, the American Theatre Wing, LeapFrog, NBC Universal, and the MacArthur Foundation.

From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Four): Labyrinth

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This is part four of a multipart series documenting the thinking behind some of the key serious games initiatives which have come out of the Comparative Media Studies Program over the past few years. Learning Games to Go was a partnership between MIT’s Education Arcade, Maryland Public Television, Macro International, and Johns Hopkins University, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The ongoing project began in early 2006. Participants in the design process included Kristina Drzaic, Dan Roy, Alec Austin, Ravi Purushotma, Elliot Pinkus, Evan Wendel, and Lan Le, under the leadership of Scot Osterweil. The game was designed and storyboarded by students and staff of the Comparative Media Studies Program, with final development handled by Fablevision, a publisher and software developer. The completed game will be distributed by Maryland Public Television, which has also taken on responsibility for teacher training. For more information about the project, check out Dan Roy’s CMS Masters Thesis, “Mastery and the Mobile Future of Massively Multiplayer Games.” Images here show original artist sketches by CMS students Evan Wendel and Kristina Drzaic, coupled with their final execution by Fablevision.

Labyrinth: Playing with Math and Literacy

By Scot Osterweil

Conflicting expectations place a major burden on our educational system. We expect our schools to be inclusive of all types of learners, while demanding a unitary measure of student success and a one-size-fits-all curriculum. We expect teachers to be talented professionals while paying them low salaries and even lower levels of respect. We expect schools to overcome problems of poverty, class, and race while we have no solutions for these problems in the society at large. And we demand that all our schools be above average (displaying our own failure to grasp math and statistics).

Game-based learning is similarly burdened by conflicting expectations. Educational games must be open-ended and exploratory, but they must “cover” the curriculum. They should be content-rich, but they can’t cost much to produce. They should be engrossing, but shouldn’t take too much time from classroom instruction. Children should enjoy them as much as commercial games, even though they address topics that students don’t appear to be interested in. All of these contradictions are enough to send a game designer screaming from the room. The good news is that educators are finally paying attention to the power of games for learning; the challenge of all good design is to find solutions for competing needs.

Our mandate with the Learning Games to Go (LG2G) project was to create a game that addressed middle school math and literacy.2 The game needed to be mobile and to employ cutting-edge technology, but it also had to address the needs of underserved populations who have little to no access to mobile technology, especially of the cutting-edge variety. To make our job harder, we were determined to create a game that would make a difference in the marketplace, not just a demonstration project that would never be seen beyond its test audience. We learned a good deal by talking with middle school teachers. Needing to prepare their students for high-stakes tests, teachers were leery of committing precious class time to new technology, but they identified ideas that weren’t getting through to their students and hoped we could somehow take care of them. They didn’t want to introduce technologies they couldn’t manage themselves, but they lacked the time to master new technologies. Teachers recognized the attraction of games to their students, but they couldn’t justify games – with all the social baggage the word carries – to administrators and parents.

Labyrinth (working title) sought to resolve these competing demands – it is a puzzle adventure game in which you, the player, wander the corridors of an underground factory populated by monsters. These monsters have been kidnapping people’s pets, apparently for nefarious purposes. Your job is to uncover the monsters’ secret plans, free the pets, and restore order to the world. Along the way you solve a host of confounding puzzles. And along the way we hope we’ve solved the challenges presented to us as designers.

The Class Time Dilemma

Teachers tell us that in a high-stakes testing environment, their days are full just covering the mandated curriculum. They can’t imagine spending large blocks of time on a game. Labyrinth can largely be played as homework. It is web-served, so no matter where kids play the game, teachers can log on and assess how students are progressing through the challenges.

If kids play the game on their own, they are more likely to engage with it in a spirit of discovery and experimentation. Kids need the opportunity to approach mathematical problems with the same determined inventiveness they exhibit when mastering somersaults or shooting hoops. Labyrinth players will be exposed to a host of new skills to master at their own pace and in their own fashion. When the core concepts underlying the puzzles are eventually introduced in school, kids will be “ready to learn,” having achieved mastery over the same concepts through game play.

Imagine a teacher coming into a classroom and saying, “Today I’d like to introduce variables. I know I’ve never used the word here before, but I also know you students are already experts on the subject, because you’ve all mastered this puzzle.” She then projects a Labyrinth puzzle and discusses how it relates to the topic. She gets the students comparing notes about how they solved the puzzle, and she helps them connect their own experience to math concepts. She uses the puzzle as a visualization tool to make textbook ideas more concrete, and perhaps this process actually fortifies her own understanding of the concept, improving her teaching along the way. Far from asking her to devote hours to the game, we’ve given her a way to quickly incorporate the game into the lesson she was already preparing to teach.

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What About the Curriculum?

No single game can treat every subject in a given curriculum, but Labyrinth adheres to the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. We know from our work with educators that many prescribed concepts are never fully mastered by struggling math students. All but the best curricula, even those that adhere to the NCTM standards, teach math procedures without promoting real understanding of the underlying concepts. So, we focused Labyrinth around the “big ideas” of mathematics, including proportionality, variables, graphing, geometry and measure, and rational numbers. For example, students encounter a vending machine, and have a set of coins of unmarked denominations. They must develop strategies for feeding the coins into the machine so that they can figure out which coins have which values (i.e. solving for variables). While playing, they develop mental models of variables and devise strategies for solving such problems. They are building a scaffolding of ideas, models, and habits of mind that they will be able to apply to their formal schoolwork and to their lives as thinking adults.

The Literacy Component

While Labyrinth is primarily a math game, it is also designed to promote literacy. Literacy in the 21st century will not just be about reading text, but about making sense of a whole range of communications media, learning to become a producer of new media content and a participant in online communities (Jenkins et al., 2006)

Two features of the game target these new literacy skills. Labyrinth replaces cut scenes with comics, using sequential storytelling to relay back story and other information needed to navigate through the game world. Comics employ a wide variety of powerful visual devices, while still giving children the freedom to read and reflect at their own pace. Comics are the perfect bridge between watching and reading. And we wanted young people to develop better skills at understanding the interplay between words and images.

Labyrinth also promotes writing. We know that kids who otherwise don’t write may spend hours posting hints and solutions to game FAQ websites. Accordingly, we’ve built the FAQ right into the game, and given kids the incentive to write. Students playing the game are enrolled in teams with fellow students. To improve the team’s overall performance, players will aid lagging members by writing messages that help them solve the game challenges. The puzzles have different solutions every time they are played. To give effective aid to their teammates, kids can’t just share answers, but need to communicate problem-solving strategies. We contend that if students read and write about their thinking, there will be benefits to their reading, their writing, and their thinking.

Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students

Disadvantaged kids don’t uniformly have access to the same technologies at home. They are most likely to have video consoles, but development licenses for the Xbox and Playstation are prohibitively expensive, and are not usually granted to educational game producers. The same licensing difficulties apply to popular handheld devices like the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, though there are signs that “thinking games” are gaining acceptance on these platforms. Cell phones are mobile, but not ubiquitous with our target audience, and the proliferation of incompatible platforms makes cell phone development extremely expensive.

Thanks to after-school programs and libraries, as well as the rapid penetration of broadband, the Internet-enabled computer seems to be the device likely to reach the most kids through more hours of the day. A web-served game can be accessed anywhere, and thus affords all players, including the underserved, maximum mobility.

A game developed in Flash can be played on almost any connected computer and won’t be blocked by school or library networks, as it won’t need to be downloaded. There isn’t a better platform if we are serious about bridging the technology gap. A Flash game will also be stable on the widest range of devices. We are researching the potentials of playing Labyrinth on handheld computers and hope, by the end of our funding cycle, to identify and develop specifications for the specific handheld technology that has the broadest reach. In the not-too-distant future it should be possible to port Flash games to devices like the Nintendo DS, which at this moment looks like the handheld with the greatest potential penetration of the market.

Overcoming the Classroom Technology Hurdle

Labyrinth makes few demands on teachers. Once the teacher has inputted a class list, students can log on directly without teacher assistance. As with any other good electronic game, built-in tutorials let players gradually master challenges without additional instruction. Teachers can turn their kids loose on the game, and then wait a week and ask students to teach them how to play. In doing so, students will display competencies teachers don’t realize they possess.

Although we hope teachers will also play and master the game, we want to respect the constraints under which they work. If teachers don’t have time to learn the game, there will still be a mode in which they can play single puzzles and introduce them into class discussion.

Overcoming Resistance to Games

Finally, we hope that Labyrinth will be a game that is both entertaining and thought provoking, capturing young people’s imaginations while still earning the acceptance of teachers and the approval of parents. Our approach respects all that is inventive and exploratory in play while challenging students to grow intellectually. If we succeed in these goals, we hope to offer a model for what a good learning game should be, one that resolves the contradictory demands schools place on this emerging technology.

Scot Osterweil is the project manager for the Education Arcade and is currently running “Learning Games to Go,” a federally funded project designed to develop mobile games that teach math and literacy to underserved youth. Formerly the Senior Designer at TERC, a nationally known research & development center devoted to math and science education, Osterweil designed Zoombinis Island Odyssey, winner of the 2003 Bologna New Media Prize. This is the latest game in the Zoombinis line of products (Riverdeep/TLC). Scot is the creator of the Zoombinis, and with Chris Hancock he co-designed the multi-award winning Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, and its first sequel, Zoombinis Mountain Rescue. Scot is the also the designer of the TERCworks games Switchback and Yoiks!, the latter also with Chris Hancock.

Scot’s other software designs include work on the educational products Tabletop II, Tabletop and Tabletop Jr., and IBM’s The Nature of Science. At TERC he participated in research projects on the role of computer games in learning, and on the use of video in data collection and representation. Previously, he worked in television, on the production of Public Television’s Frontline, Evening at Pops, and American Playhouse, and as an animator on a wide range of programs. He is a graduate of Yale College with a degree in Theater Studies.