Futures of Entertainment Podcasts

This will be my last post of 2007, barring unforeseen circumstances. The blog is going to go down for a little bit to allow us to switch servers and hopefully provide better service in the future. The blog is also going down because I am exhausted from the term, want to spend time with my family, and need to catch up on other writing and regroup my thoughts so that I have interesting things to share with you all when I return next year.

Before I sign off though, I wanted to let you know that the podcasts of the Futures of Entertainment 2 conference are slowly but surely being posted on the CMS homepage. So far, the following podcasts have appeared:

Opening Remarks by Joshua Green and myself, laying out what we see as some of the most important media trends of the past year.

Metrics and Measurement

Panelists: Bruce Leichtman, Leichtman Research Group; Stacey Lynn Schulman, Turner Broadcasting; Maury Giles, GSD&M Idea City

As media companies have come to recognize the value of participatory audiences, they have searched for matrixes by which to measure engagement with their properties. A model based on impressions is giving way to new models which seek to account for the range of different ways consumers engage with entertainment content. But nobody is quite clear how you can “count” engaged consumers or how you can account for various forms and qualities of engagement. Over the past several years, a range of different companies have proposed alternative systems for measuring engagement. What are the strengths and limits of these competing models? What aspects of audience activity do they account for? What value do they place on different forms of engagement?

Fan Labor

Panelists: Mark Deuze, Indiana University; Catherine Tosenberger, University of Florida; Jordan Greenhall, DivX; Elizabeth Osder, Buzznet; Raph Koster, Areae

There is growing anxiety about the way labor is compensated in Web 2.0. The accepted model — trading content in exchange for connectivity or experience — is starting to strain, particularly as the commodity culture of user-generated content confronts the gift economy which has long characterized the participatory fan cultures of the web. The incentives which work to encourage participation in some spaces are alienating other groups and many are wondering what kinds of revenue sharing should or could exist when companies turn a profit based on the unpaid labor of their consumers. What do we know now about the “architecture of participation” (to borrow Kevin O’Reilly’s formulation) that we didn’t know a year ago? What have been the classic mistakes which Web 2.0 companies have made in their interactions with their customers? What do we gain by applying a theory of labor to think about the invisible work performed by fans and other consumers within the new media economy?

And don’t miss the webcast of the MIT Communications Forum event, Forum: NBC’s Heroes: “Appointment TV” to “Engagement TV”?

The fragmenting audiences and proliferating channels of contemporary television are changing how programs are made and how they appeal to viewers and advertisers. Some media and advertising spokesman are arguing that smaller, more engaged audiences are more valuable than the passive viewers of the Broadcast Era. They focus on the number of viewers who engage with the program and its extensions — web sites, podcasts, digital comics, games, and so forth. What steps are networks taking to prolong and enlarge the viewer’s experience of a weekly series? How are networks and production companies adapting to and deploying digital technologies and the Internet? And what challenges are involved in creating a series in which individual episodes are only part of an imagined world that can be accessed on a range of devices and that appeals to gamesters, fans of comics, lovers of message boards or threaded discussions, digital surfers of all sorts? In this Forum, producers from the NBC series Heroes will discuss their hit show as well as the nature of network programming, the ways in which audiences are measured, the extension of television content across multiple media channels, and the value producers play on the most active segments of their audiences.

Keep an eye on the Comparative Media Studies Program Home page and the Futures of Entertainment 2 Conference website for the roll out of the other conference podcasts.

Live Action Anime? Only at MIT!

anime5.jpg

When I heard several months ago that some of my MIT colleagues and students were helping to stage a performance of Live Action Anime, I knew I had to be there. I anticipated the experience with a kind of “only at MIT” amusement — not sure what to expect but knowing that the results would be dazzling.

The performance, Madness at Mokuba, opened with a spectacular battle between two giant robots (see the image above) staged against the backdrop of projected anime images and accompanied by an awe-inspiring soundtrack of metallic clanks and engine sounds which instantly reminded me of my first experience watching RoboTech and Star Blazers several decades ago. I didn’t know what live action would look like but as the performance continued, I was more and more impressed with the craft and research which went into this performance.

The show was staged by SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, and Technology, a collective of artists and researchers established in 2003, which seeks to explore “connections between acts of performance, formations of culture, and interventions of technology toward an end of

original theatrical storytelling.”

Madness was scripted by Ian Condry, an associate professor of Japanese cultural studies in the MIT Foreign Language Program. Condry is the author of the recently published Hip Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization. Some readers will recall an interview with Condry I ran some months ago about his research into Japanese popular culture. Condry is now working on a new book, tentatively titled Global Anime: The Making of Japan’s Transnational Popular Culture, which emerges from field work spent in Tokyo animation studies. (I was lucky enough to tag along with Condry during one his trips to Japan, getting to visit Studio Ghibli, and getting some behind the scenes perspectives from the producer of Pokemon. I’ve described some of my impressions of seeing cosplayers in Yoyogi Park in a previous blog post.)

Condry runs the Cool Japan program, a joint efforts between Harvard and MIT, which regularly brings to Cambridge leading researchers, producers, writers, and others involved in the production and distribution of Japanese popular culture. In an e-mail interview, Condry shared some of the thinking which went into this production:

One of the things that interested me about the live action anime project is that it got me thinking about the many ways that anime crosses over from the “virtual” to the

“real.” The most obvious example is cosplay and the many forms of licensed merchandise,

such as toys and models, that in effect bring anime through the screen and into

people’s hands. When fans take anime and manga characters, and use them to create their

own fanzine manga (dôjinshi), a similar kind of translation effect is underway, that

is, taking imagined characters, re-imagining through our own minds, and the creating

something new in the world.

It shows how inaccurate in some ways the distinction between virtual and real is, and I

think that partly explains why debates about the division between the two worlds has

slackened in recent years.

During fieldwork research in Tokyo, I have also been struck by how often the term “real”

(riaru, in Japanese) comes up when anime creators talk about what makes particular works

distinctive. Anime creators always struggle with challenge of bringing the “real” into

the “virtual” space of animation.

The original Mobile Suits Gundam series, which began airing in 1979, is looked back on now as the moment when “super robot” anime, with its happy heroes, child audiences, and 30-minute resolutions, gave way to “real robot” anime, in which war was represented in a

more realistic manner. Real had other connotations in this context as well. In real

robot anime, so-called heroes are often despised for their violence and wanton

destruction, audiences were older, and the stories seldom had clean-cut endings, but

rather meandered through the gray zones of war’s ambiguities, hypocrisies, and senseless

violence. Gundam turned robots from heroes into mere weapons of war.

In the end, the notion of live action anime may be paradoxical, but it also reflects

some of the most fascinating aspects of anime as a medium.

Anime fans have long debated whether Anime is best understood as a genre (or perhaps a set of related genres), as an aesthetic style, as a mode of production, or as a transmedia phenomenon. Informed by Condry’s theories and research, the MIT show managed to cover all of these bases and then some.

The show’s characters (see below) each embody archtypes from the anime tradition, collectively taking us on a tour of its core genre elements and linking them to larger trends in Japanese society and culture, including “giant robots, a Japanese schoolgirl, a lovelorn otaku, a masterless samurai, a gamer woman, evil media magnates, and a vengeful deathgod who all battle for truth, justice, and the anime way.”

anime%201.jpg

As the story opens, the protagonists, including Schoolgirl and her sidekick, Sam Rye, and their arch rivals, Flux and Ota Ku, are preparing their robots for the Makuba Institute of Technology’s annual giant robot battle. Yet, something strange is going on. Their classmates are falling prey to VIRTIGO, a strange mental illness which involves altered states of consciousness. We learn that the illness has been manufactured by an evil media conglomerate (The Infinite Channel Network) in order to produce a state of constant consumption, transmitted through the use of flash rhythms similar to those that alarmists claimed caused epileptic seizures when Pokemon was first released. Falling prey to what is described as a “Neo-Postmodern Trans-subjectivity syndrome,” victims “fall from one reality into another.” As the corporate scientists spell out their plans to use anime to achieve global dominance, they become the vehicles for Condry and the show’s cast to explore the historical evolution of the anime movement. As scenes from Astro Boy, Gundrum, Neon Genesis: Evangelion, and Pokemon, among other defining texts in the anime tradition, are projected on the wall, the cast stages a gender-bending re-enactment of key moments, such as the creation of Astro-Boy. There’s a very funny re-enactment of Pong with actors moving a giant cardboard ball between two massive paddles. Cyberpunk has long been a vehicle for authors and animators to reflect upon the influence of media on contemporary culture and this high tech plot provides an ideal vehicle for Condry to express his own insights into the cultural and economic factors which have enable anime to straddle genres, to reach across multiple media platforms, and to shape youth culture world-wide.

The performance loving captured the anime aesthetic. While the performers are live, the voices are dubbed, capturing the slight mismatch between lips moving and spoken language which is part of most westerner’s experience of watching anime. (During the question and answer period, one anime saavy spectator asked when they might see the subtitled edition of this performance and offered to help launch a fan sub project!) The soundtrack wittily samples effects from classic games and anime which sparked some audience members to shout out the references — and trust me, at MIT, a high percentage of those attending the show were deeply immersed in games, anime, and other aspects of geek culture.

The acting style was designed to convey some of the limited animation techniques most closely associated with anime — even including repeated gestures which hint at the longstanding practice of recycling footage at certain generic moments — transformation scenes for example — in some series.

The show’s director, Thomas F. DeFrantz, who is a Professor of Theater Arts and the current head of the MIT Program in Women’s and Gender Studies, shared with me some reflections about the stage design and choreography for Madness:

To construct movement for the piece, I often had my dancers think of themselves as if ‘in camera.’ I asked, “if you were the animator, how would you draw this moment?” The piece is based on stillness, rather than on motion. In many anime, you don’t see every bit of a gesture, just the edges. This took a technique of ‘clenching’ the body, strangely enough, to reveal the edges of each silhouette that stood for a character emotion. More than anything, we had to work against the casualness of everyday gesture, in which there might be many silhouettes of little interest to an animator or someone watching anime. For this work, we had to focus on the silhouettes that could reveal character, attitude, and opinion all at once. The performers developed their ‘signature poses’ and we worked from those to generate a language of motion. In the end, it was much harder than I thought it might be, to go through the entire piece in this sort of ‘physical karaoke’ but without ever speaking a word. It helped us reconsider the importance of breath and sound as components of human expression, because in the live action anime, working with the pre-recorded soundtracks, the performers never got to make a sound.

The costume and make-up were equally iconic, designed to transform the student performers into cartoon characters. Here, for example, is a portrait drawn by castmember Ashley Micks of Ota Ku, one of the young people who helps overcome old school rivalries and work together to defeat the evil corporations.

anime%20Ota.jpg

Milo Martinez, an undergraduate major in the Comparative Media Studies Program, describes the challenges he faced bringing this larger-than-life character to the stage:

I can honestly say that Live Action Anime was an experience worth having. As a Dancer, Cosplayer, and Anime-fan, I saw it as a perfect fit for me. The entire piece is gesture based, and a lot of focus was placed on creating phrases with our bodies. “How can our body say this sentence for us?” was a common question we asked ourselves while constructing the choreography. Since our voices were “dubbed over” we had to make sure that our movement could speak for us.

We were very particular in everything we did, each character had a walk, pose, attitude, and each needed to agree with the others. As an Anime fan, it was important to me to try and make my movements big and crazy, if it looks like it hurt, then it probably did. How fast can I run from this side of the stage to the other? How high can I jump? A lot of this show I pushed my body to its limits to try and create a character that had indeed walked out of a screen.

As his comments suggest, Milo came to the show with extensive experience in cosplay, a form of costuming and performance which thrives within the anime fan community. Indeed, Milo was interviewed on camera as part of a series of short documentaries on cosplay we have been producing for Project nml (New Media Literacies). Here’s a segment from this documentary, which is still in production, which features Milo talking about his cosplay experience and suggests the ways that these fans are, as Condry has suggested, already involved in finding ways to translate the look and feel of anime into physical reality.

From Zoey’s Room to Project NML: An Interview with Erin Reilly

Yesterday, I introduced you to Matthew Weise, a producer from our GAMBIT lab, and a key figure behind our games research efforts. Today, I wanted to introduce you to another researcher who recently joined the CMS community — Erin Reilly, Research Director of Project nml.

The New Media Literacies (NML) project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, is developing a theoretical framework and curriculum for K-12 learners that integrate new media tools into broader educational, expressive and ethical contexts. NML is partnering with classrooms and after school programs around the country to test curriculum prototypes created by CMS students and program affiliates.

Before coming to MIT, Reilly was co-creator of Platform Shoes Forum’s model program Zoey’s Room, a national online community for 10-14 year-old girls, encouraging their creativity through science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Zoey’s Room has proven results in advancing STEM and Media Literacy skills. In 2007, Erin received a national educational Leaders in Learning Award from Cable in the Classroom for her innovative approach to learning through Zoey’s Room. A recognized expert in the design and development of thought-provoking and engaging educational content powered by virtual learning and new media applications, Erin has been a featured speaker, panelist and keynoter at several industry events. Erin serves on the Working Committee of Pop!Tech (http://www.poptech.org), an internationally acclaimed technology event that can be seen on PBS and the Technology Committee of the Maine Arts Commission.

Knowing how many of my readers have a strong interest in the use of new media for education, I asked Reilly to share some of her insights from working on Zoey’s Room and to give us a preview of what you can expect to see from Project nml in the coming year.

Tell us about Zoey’s Room. What were the goals of this project and how do you measure it success?

Zoey’s Room is a safe, online educational community developed by Platform Shoes Forum to creatively engage 9- to 14-year-old girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The goals of Zoey’s Room are to encourage middle school girls to:

• Learn science, technology, engineering and math skills in a fun, collaborative online environment by completing online activities and offline challenges on their own or in a group.

• Behave responsibly and ethically online and to be Internet Safe

• Participate and share in an informal learning environment, and

• Be better prepared for the technological demands of a future workforce.

Fewer than a dozen Science, Technology, Math, Engineering (STEM) websites are currently available online for middle school girls right now. Of them all, Zoey’s Room is the only STEM website that features a multicultural character “Zoey” who appeals to both rural and urban girls. Zoey hosts her own chat room for girls every day after school. She encourages girls to explore STEM topics through fun challenges called Tec-Treks, that expand their knowledge on a range of 21st century skills. Additionally, each month, Zoey leads informative chats with “Fab Female”, women role models who have STEM professions. This unique interpersonal connection, along with the collaborative nature of the Tec-Treks, encourages girls to become more interested in STEM careers.

We measure the success of Zoey’s Room not on the number of its members but on the girls’ safety, progress in academic fields, and retention in the program. The extensive research behind Zoey’s Room allowed us to develop a practical application, which includes an on-going assessment of each member’s participation and learning. Evaluative tools include a benchmark survey taken when a girl first joins the program, annual assessment polls, and one-on-one feedback from online members and adult facilitators.

Specifically, a sample of 100 girls participated in the Zoey’s Room 2006-2007 benchmark and final survey. When asked the answers to very specific STEM questions we put to them in the survey, the majority of girls got 12 out of 13 of the answers right–which proves to us that they actually learned terms and concepts and principals of certain STEM topics by doing the various Tec-Treks. But beyond statistical measures, what girls are saying about Zoey’s Room matters the most.

“Math is my favorite subject – I’m (now) interested in numbers and problem solving”

“We need more ideas like Zoey’s Room; being a girl is hard and we need all the support we can find since it’s hard to discover that at home, with our friends, or our schools.”

“I think that Zoey’s Room is the best idea in the whole entire world. On Zoey’s Room, a safe environment is provided where questions can be answered and girls actually have a voice.”

What factors have historically limited young girl’s comfort with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math? How has Zoey’s Room overcome these problems?

Reports like “Shortchange Girls, Shortchange America” (1991) and “Gender Gaps” (1998) by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) were the catalyst for starting a program like Zoey’s Room. Through aggregated research and internal studies, these reports uncovered the need for schools to provide equitable education for girls in the areas of STEM. AAUW found that to instill math, tech and science skills in girls; we need to educate girls to be designers, not just passive users of technology- and Zoey’s Room encourages that. Given the social and collaborative nature of girls, a girls-only self-paced learning environment seemed a natural platform. The next step was to make this environment engaging and attractive to girls by including community tools.

Though girls today are more apt to be interested in technology, they are still not pursuing further as advanced courses or career aspirations. According to a more recent report,” What We Know about Girls, STEM, and After-school Programs” (Cheri Fancsali, Ph.D. for Educational Equity Concepts) girls are much less likely to major in science-related fields in college; less likely to complete undergraduate and graduate with STEM degrees. Beyond that, women comprise a disproportionately low percentage of the STEM workforce, earn less, and are less likely to hold high-level positions in STEM careers. What does that mean for our society? Today, eight of the 10 fastest growing jobs in the U.S. are computer related. By 2010, jobs in the technical and mathematical fields are expected to increase by 67%. If this trend continues, not only does it seriously cripple young women’s potential financial earning power, but as more jobs in the future demand technological proficiency, this trend can be a detriment to the nation’s intellectual resource pool.

In the last five years, numerous studies have documented concrete methods to get girls re-engaged into learning “hard skills.” Programs for girls combining hands-on activities, role models, mentoring, internships, and career exploration have improved girls’ self-confidence and interest in STEM courses and careers and helped reduce sexist attitudes about STEM (Campbell and Steinbrueck, 1996; Ferreira, 2001).

The AAUW Commission also stressed the need for adult female role models to engage younger females in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math for girls to begin reshaping their own perceptions about these fields as career choices. A recent Girl Scout Research Institute (GSRI) study showed that girls tend to make career choices based on their role models rather than their academic interests.

Joseph Bernt, an Ohio University professor of journalism, and one of the authors of a nationwide study funded by the National Science Foundation about the media’s influence upon middle school children found “this age group spends more time interacting with media than in school or with family, or even with their peers. This means that media has to start providing better role models for girls. Zoey’s Room is our example of creating a fun, creative, positive use of media. By harnessing the media for education, we hope to inspire girls with other role models.

In a recent column, I argued that the term, “digital natives,” masked lots of differences in young people’s access to and participation within digital media. What kinds of differences in skills and access have you observed through your work on Zoey’s Room?

I think we’ve grown up in a culture that we have to label everything, but by doing this we limit the truth of who people really are. Using labels like digital natives and digital immigrants is just another way of stereotyping people. Anyone who’s participated in community online knows that it’s these places where stereotypes are broken down. The anonymity of the web allows for the girl you’d never hang out with in school to become one of your closest allies online. It’s a congregation of girls interested in a particular subject rather than hanging out on a particular social norm that sets precedence in the school cafeteria.

Children have to learn technology skills just like we adults. The only way they are going to learn the skills are by trying it out or asking for help. This metaphor makes it sound that every kid is a native to the digital environment. It doesn’t take into account that kids and adults all have different experiences with digital technology. And it also doesn’t take into account the guidance and supervision that happens in communities and the positive results occurring when an informal mentorship happens between an adult and a child online. It really depends on how much access they have to the technology in order to be comfortable. These skills are unevenly distributed across our population and can easily be seen in the Zoey’s Room membership. We have many home-schooled girls using Zoey’s Room who are much more savvy online than girls who doesn’t have a computer at home and only get to use the computer when she meets with her after-school Zoey’s Room club.

The chat and message boards on Zoey’s Room are filled with peer-to-peer sharing of how to do something online. (See the below image for example of girls sharing how to change fonts within chats).

zoeysroom-thumb.png

The message board tech tips wouldn’t be filled with this information if girls came into the program knowing how to do everything digital.

[Read more…]

The Future of Sandbox Games

Last summer, we launched our new GAMBIT lab, which brings together students and researchers from around the world, to work together to develop projects which stretch our understanding of the medium. Thanks to a grant from the National Research Foundation and the Media Development Authority of Singapore, more than fifty faculty and students from nine different universities and polytechnics in Singapore come to MIT to work with our students, faculty, and staff, in a rapid design and development process. Students working on this project are able to go from conceptualization to user-testing, developing a finished, playable game in a little over eight weeks.

Matthew Weise is one of the people we’ve brought to MIT to help supervise the production process. Weise is equal parts gamer and cinephile, having attended film school before segueing into game studies and then game development. Matt is a producer for GAMBIT and a full-time gamer, which means he not only plays games on a variety of systems but he also completes (most of) them. Matthew did his undergrad at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where he studied film production before going rogue to design his own degree. He graduated in 2001 with a degree in Digital Arts, which included videogames (this was before Game Studies was a field). He continued his research at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, where he worked on Revolution with The Education Arcade. After leaving MIT in 2004 Matt worked in mobile game development for a few years, occassionally doing some consultancy work, before returning to work at GAMBIT.

Matt, along with Clara Fernandez and Philip Tan, two other alums of the CMS graduate program who have returned to MIT to oversee the launch of the GAMBIT lab, have been the primary writers of a recently launched blog, affiliated with the lab, which showcases games research at MIT, offers reviews of innovative games, and shares commentary on trends, ranging for public policy to product placements, which are impacting the current games sector. Check it out!

If you’d like to know more about how GAMBIT contributes to undergraduate education in games at MIT, check out this recent story written by Game Tap‘s Jonathan Miller. Weiss is spearheading the development of a new game, GunPlay, which is featured in the story:

Consider GunPlay, one of GAMBIT’s four undergrad research projects this semester. Using the Source engine made famous by Half Life 2, the students are creating a first-person shooter that doesn’t feature any weapons or ammunition. Instead, GunPlay is based on the childhood game of guns in which kids used their hands as makeshift pistols and yelled out “bang!” in order to shoot.

While the early prototype is still running in the Half-Life 2 universe, the final coat of graphics will feature children scampering about a playground. The team has already replaced the Half-Life weapons with children’s hands. Instead of bullets firing from a pistol, a voice yells out “bang!” You can also switch to a shotgun (“ch, ch, bang!”) or a machine gun (bangbangbangbangbang). It’s, quite simply, hilarious.

The point of GunPlay is somewhat more profound. First-person shooters are often denounced by politicians and parenting groups for their ultra-violent gameplay. But what if you remove the bullets and the blood and make the exact same shooter with smiley-faced grade schoolers? Is a child shooting another child with his imagination, using the exact same gameplay mechanics as Doom or Halo, still violent?

And then consider what reactions would have been if the team had chosen to take a completely opposite direction that bordered on obscene. GAMBIT faculty member Matt Weise points to Raph Koster, who examined how context affects gameplay. Imagine if, for example, that instead of placing colored blocks in Tetris that you were organizing corpses in a Nazi death camp puzzle game. It’s graphic and profane and not a game you would ever want to see. But it is nonetheless an important way to examine violence in games.

It’s this kind of dialogue that Weise hopes will get game designers and critics thinking. Is it the act of pulling the trigger that can be considered violent, or does it depend on context, be it the playground, Auschwitz, or the fictional City 17? Answering these questions through research is at the very core of GAMBIT’s mission. “Whatever you can do to get people talking and increase discussion on designing games is a good thing,” Weise says.

Still, the team behind GunPlay is focused on making the game fun to actually play. Some challenges ahead include creating an argument system for when one Child 1 shoots Child 2 but Child 2 says that Child 1 missed. While this argument was common on the playground when we were kids, how do you incorporate it in a videogame? Use a voting system? A bully meter? Such are the dilemmas for a game designer.

I asked Matt to share with my readers what he’s thinking about these days. What follows are his thoughts on Assassin’s Creed and Sandbox Gaming.

The Future of Sandbox Gaming

by Matthew Weise

Chris Kohler over at Wired has written a brutal review of Assassin’s Creed.

[T]he open-world concept does absolutely nothing for Assassin’s Creed‘s gameplay. I simply can’t see any reason why they decided to go this route other than the fact that sandbox games are the hip new thing that all the kids are doing these days. Yes, it’s initially very impressive to look upon and roam about this vast, detailed world. But a progressive, linear series of deliberate challenges would have suited the concept so much better.

Sandbox is a term often used but rarely defined. There is a general awareness that the term refers to open-ended game design, but there are many types of open-endedness. In the loosest sense almost any game that does not funnel player navigation into some obvious path could be considered sandbox. The most commonly cited example of this is Grand Theft Auto, with its giant world freely navigatable by car. Recent titles identified as sandbox games often take GTA as a model, as in the case of Spider-Man 2, Mercenaries, or Saint’s Row. All these games feature massive worlds, rapid navigation systems for travel, and amusement park-like mission design.

Although Kohler never defines exactly what he means by sandbox it feels like he’s using the popular definition, citing the incompatibility of stealth with a GTA-style massive world. “How do you make an open-world Metal Gear Solid? Apparently you don’t,” he concludes.

Ironically, I’ve long considered Metal Gear Solid–and many stealth games in general–sandbox games. I’ve used the term sandbox to refer to any game world–regardless of size and scope–that offers free-roaming, open-ended gameplay. For example, I’ve always felt Mario64 is the greatest sandbox game ever made because of its ingenious non-linear level design. Levels in Mario64 do not rely on multiple paths but instead allow for improvisational play based on a simple, elegant rule set. In my view this is what all good stealth games do as well. Games like Thief, Tenchu, and Hitman are based largely on open-ended spaces designed for improvisational play. And even once-linear series like Splinter Cell and Sly Cooper seem determined to adopt more open-ended design with each new installment. I’d say stealth has the market cornered on sandbox design in a way no other single genre has… which is why Creed‘s inability to create a deep sandbox experience is so interesting.

Assassin’s Creed‘s problem is that it’s too much GTA and not enough Mario64. The cities are massive and the player can run, jump, and climb effortlessly over every building. This lies in stark contrast to stealth games like Hitman, which also have fairly large environments yet limit the player’s actions in ways that create tension and strategy. It’s not the complexity of the world in Assassin’s Creed that’s the problem. The problem is that the player’s super-human abilities negate most of that complexity. One can easily imagine a version of Assassin’s Creed in which Altair is far more mortal, enemies far more deadly, and climbable structures far more limited. It’s also easy to imagine a world where targets are available at all times. Then it would be entirely up to the player to decide how and when to perform a hit–sort of like deciding how and when you get a star in Mario64. In the current game, though, it’s as if the designers feared Creed would be too short if players were simply allowed to use the freedom they were given, hence the GTA-style mission design in which the people you are supposed to assassinate only “appear” after you complete task A, B, and C.

When I think of open-ended world design I tend to think of worlds that don’t involve such limitations. Call it the result of a childhood playing Ultima. I think of worlds in which, if you need to kill the dragon in the cave and you happen to have a drill, there’s no reason you can’t just drill straight down, bypassing all his little traps, and kill the bastard. That’s open-ended to me. That’s sandbox. The pleasure of such incredible agency is much more satisfying than any forced narrative structure.

It’s true that Assassin’s Creed offers some interesting dynamics. Kohler mentions how absurd it is that your targets–which are really just bosses–will follow you to the ends of the earth in an effort to kill you should you botch a hit. This is sort of stupid, but that doesn’t mean it can’t result in an interesting experience. Once I was being pursued by a target who had spotted me. He began following me up a ladder to a rooftop, brandishing his sword. Instead of engaging him in a swordfight I waited until his head peaked over the roof’s edge, quickly grabbed him by the face, and threw him to his death. I have to admit I found this both hilarious and satisfying. It gets hard after a while, though, to see such character behavior as anything but predictable A.I. since all bosses seem to display this suicidal quirk. And even if there were deeper dynamics to be explored in each boss encounter, you cannot actually go back and explore them without restarting the chapter and sitting through endless unskippable cut-scenes. So while there may be some depth to Creed‘s dynamics, you’ll likely never see them since you’ve got basically one chance at each boss.

Part of me wonders if a good chunk of Creed‘s problems might gave been solved by a manual save system. In most stealth games I find myself wanting to perform tasks perfectly, which means I like to replay certain moments over and over in an effort to perform them in exactly the way I find the most dramatically satisfying. Creed actively prevents this: you have to live with your mistakes. While I respect that philosophy in the abstract, I think it undercuts Assassin’s Creed. Altair is a badass; the player is not. Therefore the player has to make mistakes in order to assume the role of their avatar. By the time I’ve replayed a Hitman level six times in order to achieve the Silent Assassin rating, I feel like I’ve become an assassin. The ability to engage in such trial and error in Creed might have totally altered the experience.

It will be interesting to see how sandbox gaming evolves in the future. Are we going to get bigger worlds with shallower dynamics or smaller worlds with deeper dynamics? Or maybe there doesn’t have to be a trade off. I still don’t believe sandbox games, stealth or otherwise, have to sacrifice depth for size. Hopefully a game will come along that will prove this someday. Maybe it will be Assassin’s Creed II.

Ellen Hume Joins the CMS Team

MIT’s new Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM) has announced that Ellen Hume will join the center as research director, effective Jan. 28.

A joint effort between the MIT’s Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies Program, C4FCM, founded earlier this year with a $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation, develops new techniques and technologies to promote and enhance civic engagement in local communities, providing people with new means to share, prioritize, organize and act on information relevant to their communities.

As research director, Hume will collaborate closely with C4FCM principal investigators Chris Csikszentmihályi, associate professor of media arts and sciences; Henry Jenkins, Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities and co-director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program; and Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and head of the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, to define the priorities and plans for the new center.

Hume is currently founding director of the Center on Media and Society at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she created the New England Ethnic Newswire. Previously, she served as executive director and senior fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and as executive director of PBS’s Democracy Project, where she developed special news programs that encouraged citizen involvement in public affairs.

Hume was a White House and political correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, national reporter with the Los Angeles Times and regular commentator on PBS’s Washington Week in Review and CNN’s Reliable Sources program. Hume wrote “Media Missionaries” (2004), a report for the Knight Foundation about American journalism training abroad, and the award-winning “Tabloids, Talk Shows and the Future of News” (1995) for the Annenberg Washington Program. She holds a B.A. in American History and Literature from Harvard University and honorary doctorates from Kenyon College and Daniel Webster College.

As part of its four-year grant from the Knight Foundation, C4FCM will study and identify best practices in existing uses of civic media; develop new tools and techniques based on best practices; partner with local groups to test these tools in real community settings; and monitor the results to inform the next phase of development.

Whereas many other research efforts support and study interactions in distributed, virtual communities, C4FCM focuses explicitly on geographically local communities. The Center uses the term “civic media” to refer to any form of communication that strengthens the social bonds within a community or creates a strong sense of civic engagement among its residents.

“This Ain’t Your Gramma’s Embroidery!”: An Interview with Jenny Hart

Every year, I ask the students in my graduate proseminar on Media Theory and Methods to interview a media maker and to try to get a sense of the theoretical assumptions underlying their work. In part, this exercise is designed to give students some experience in conducting and interpreting interviews. In part, it is intended to get them out of the classroom and testing how the ideas we’ve been exploring in academic terms throughout the course relate to what’s happening on the ground.

Every year, I am astounded by what students come up with — especially the diversity of media represented in an average cohort in our program. And so, off and on, I am going to be sharing with you a few of the essays I received which I felt would be of particular interest to regular readers of this blog. This first deals with the relationship between art, craft, and popular culture, a recurring theme in this class, brought home by Whitney Trettien’s interview with Jenny Hart, an artist who works in embroidery. Enjoy.

“This Ain’t Your Gramma’s Embroidery!”: An Interview with Jenny Hart

by Whitney Trettien

Jenny Hart is, first and foremost, an artist. Her work has been shown in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, London; she has been featured in the magazines Spin, Rolling Stone and Bust, to name a few. Many of her pieces are in the private collections of celebrities, including Carrie Fisher, Ben Harper, Tracey Ullman, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor.

Yet most would dismiss her medium as mere hobby-craft, a distraction for middle-aged housewives. Hart paints with embroidery thread on cloth canvasses.

“I work with embroidery in multiple ways,” Hart told me; “as fine art, as illustration, as a hobby-craft.” Although she dropped out of art school to study French, Hart now shows her work in galleries and frequently collaborates with contemporary artists, such as Kevin Scalzo and Jon Langford.

hart%20one.jpg

“Aw Nutts” by Jenny Hart and Kevin Scalzo. 2002. Hand-embroidery on satin and felt.

One of her recent pieces, “Oh Unicorn,” invites the viewer to break down the arts/crafts dichotomy through its tender treatment of its subject and its “non-traditional media” – deerskin embroidered with her own hair, a process she has described as “embroidering with air”.

hart%20two.jpg

. “Oh Unicorn.” 2005. Hair embroidered on leather.

When the swatch of deerskin makes up the back of a jacket or purse, the needlework is mere embellishment; when pinned to a gallery wall, though, the delicacy of the lines illuminates the artistry in hobby-craft, and the craftwork required to make art. Says Hart, “I introduce themes in patterns that typically are not used but have an obvious (at least to me) relationship to needlearts,” both underscoring and obscuring her relationship to contemporary embroidery aesthetics.

It’s clear in Hart’s work that her artistic predecessors are not the darlings of the modern art world, but comic artists and illustrators like Moebius and George Herriman. “I grew up reading my older brothers’ stash of independent comics,” Hart admits. “Zap, Weirdo, Neat Stuff, Heavy Metal, Love and Rockets, Ranzerox – I love illustration and great comics. They also are a great inspiration to me for embroidery.” One of her most recent works, “Girl with Japanese Clouds,” uses the iconography of manga to express quiet grief, while much of her portraiture draws upon the conventions of classic illustration.

hart%20three.jpg

“Girl with Japanese Clouds.” 2006. Hand embroidery on denim

“I’m working on an embroidered comic series this upcoming year,” Hart says, adding that she has collaborated with comic artists in the past.

Hart, though, is quick to note that unlike comics, her work is not narrative. “I see my work as having a memorializing quality,” she says. “This has to do with the medium – embroidery, often used on quilts and for heirlooms – and the format, portraiture.” Despite needlework’s long history in both art and storytelling – the Bayeux Tapestry is a typical example – today, embroidery is seen as a decorative craft, a means of ornamenting a useful object. Hart’s portraits, however, allow embroidery to stand on its own, freeing her work to play with the concept of ornamentation. She often does so by ironically “decorating” not an object, but her subject. In “Jim Goad,” for instance, the notorious author’s head floats above the phrase “Nolite me culpare,” while flames, a dying snake and revolvers adorn the edges of the fabric.

[Read more…]

Reconsidering Digital Immigrants…

Editor’s note: The blog will run at a reduced schedule this week and next. I plan one more post this week and three posts at the start of next week. Then, the blog is going to be shut down for a while as we move to a different server and deal with some of the aftermath of the cyber-attack we received earlier this term. This may mean that I don’t get back into the full swing of things before the start of the new year. Sorry for the inconvience. Hopefully this will allow us to resolve some of the issues we’ve been having with the comments section of this blog.

I have written here in the past about my growing discomfort with the phrase, “digital natives” — which like all metaphors helps us to see some aspects of the world clearly while masking others.

Like many of you, I first encountered these metaphors in the work of Marc Prensky and saw them as a powerful new way of thinking about generational differences that were creating an impass in debates about media literacy education. Prensky laid out these metaphors in a 2001 essay for On the Horizon which has been widely read and cited.

Here’s some of what he claimed:

Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century….

It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than most educators suspect or realize….

What should we call these “new” students of today? Some refer to them as the N-[for Net]-gen or D-[for digital]-gen. But the most useful designation I have found for them is Digital Natives. Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.

So what does that make the rest of us? Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants.

Prensky’s deployment of the concept, as he himself has acknowledged, tapped a much larger history of use of these metaphors in talking about cyberculture. danah boyd and I have been corresponding lately, trying to track down some of the roots of this phrase. She finds, for example, that the same metaphor surfaces in John Perry Barlow’s “Decleration of Independence for Cyberspace,” one of the landmark documents of the first phase of the so-called “digital revolution”:

You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.

Prinsky has also pointed towards a passage in Nicola Griffith’s science fiction novel, Slow River (1995):

Those born before 1960 had the hardest time adjusting to change. They were the ones who would suddenly stop in the middle of the street as if they had vertigo when som shop window flared or called out, or get that haunted, bewildered look when the PIDA readers changed again, or the newstanks swapped to a different format.

It was a very specific expression: hollow-cheeked, eyes darting, looking for somewhere to hide. I had seen that same look on the faces of war refugees, or the foreign-speaking parents of native-speaking children. Older people were immigrants in their own country. They had not been born to the idea of rapid change – not like us.

And Prensky’s use of the term in Digital Games-Based Learning references Douglas Rushkoff’s Playing the Future: How Kids’ Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos who wrote, “kids are natives in a place that most adults are immigrants”

Talk of “digital natives” helps us to recognize and respect the new kinds of learning and cultural expression which have emerged from a generation that has come of age alongside the personal and networked computer. Yet, talk of “digital natives” may also mask the different degrees access to and comfort with emerging technologies experienced by different youth. Talk of digital natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digital divide in terms of who has access to different technical platforms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural experiences and social identities. Talking about youth as digital natives implies that there is a world which these young people all share and a body of knowledge they have all mastered, rather than seeing the online world as unfamiliar and uncertain for all of us.

[Read more…]

“We Had So Many Stories to Tell”: The Heroes Comics as Transmedia Storytelling

“We had so many stories to tell and there was only so much room in the TV show — so we decided that we could tell these alternative stories in the comics. The stories could be deeper, broader and reveal more secrets about our characters. It was also a way to tell stories that would be otherwise unproduceable on our show.” — Aron Eli Coleite and Joe Pokaski on the Heroes comics.

From time to time, I have used this blog to point towards key steps in the evolution of what I have been calling transmedia storytelling. For a good overview of the concept, check out my Transmedia Storytelling 101 post. Here’s part of my definition:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe.

This concept has been more fully developed through a series of recent CMS thesis, which you can access on line: Ivan Askwith discusses Lost as an example of how media extensions can be used to enhance audience engagement; Geoffrey Long discusses the aesthetics of transmedia entertainment with a focus on the Jim Henson corporation; Sam Ford explores how transmedia storytelling might expand the reach of contemporary soap operas; and Alec Austin develops an approach to genre conventions which helps to explain the interplay of different elements in a transmedia system.

My thoughts have returned to transmedia entertainment having recently read the graphic novel edition of the first season’s comics for Heroes, which comes with a wonderful Alex Ross cover, and which includes an interesting conversation between Executive Producer Jeph Loeb and series writers Aron Eli Coleite and Joe Pkaski about the impulses which led them to use comics to build out the world of Heroes on the web. This post is also inspired by the conversation which I had with Heroes producers Jesse Alexander and Mark Warshaw at the MIT Communications Forum a few weeks ago. The webcast version of that exchange can not be found on the web and includes rich discussions of how Heroes fits within larger industry trends that stress “engagement” rather than “appointment” television.

Comics have emerged as a key vehicle for constructing transmedia narratives — in part because they cost less to produce and are thus lower risk than developing games or filming additional material. (See my discussion of the contributions of comics to the Matrix franchise in Convergence Culture.) So, in the past year alone, we’ve seen Joss Whedon turn to comics to create a “8th season” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we’ve seen Supernatural generate comics designed to flesh out some of the backstory of the Winchester brothers, and we’ve seen Battlestar Galactica use comics to fill in the gaps between seasons in the series. Of these, however, Heroes was the only series to be releasing comics on a weekly basis via the web to coincide with the rolling out of the series episodes, resulting in comics that are much more fully integrated into the flow of the series narrative. Indeed, I felt a bit at a disadvantage reading these stories in a book form without reviewing the series episodes on DVD at the same time.

Many of us feel that the Matrix franchise took the concept of transmedia storytelling too far, too fast, to achieve reasonable embrace from a mass viewership. There were gaping holes in The Matrix films which could only be filled if you had spent time with the comics, the game, and the anime. And the production company had not done an adequate job in educating the public about the integral role of these other media channels to the experience as a whole. I hear this again and again from people who read Convergence Culture: they liked the first Matrix film but were turned off by the sequels because they didn’t seem to add up to anything and they had no idea that most of these others series related materials existed.

In the interview about the comics, Coleite and Pokaski took a very different tactic:

Our first rule going in was that you didn’t have to read the comic to enjoy the show, but it created an enhanced experience if you did. On the other side, we wanted people who did watch the show and read the comic to feel rewarded — that they were taking part of something larger and give them real emotional and important stories — not just fluff or filler.

And of course, the presence of the comics are signaled within the television series itself. By the start of the second episode, we’ve seen Hiro reading 9th Wonders comics, which, within the fiction, is produced by Isaac Mendez, and learn that the comics may hold a key for understanding what’s happening. Hiro repeatedly consults the comics to discover what he needs to do next and to make sense of his mission, much as other characters are studying Issac’s paintings to foretell and hopefully escape their fates.

And of course, there’s such a clear fit between comics and the content of Heroes that it would be a crying shame if they had not sought to integrate comics into the series in some way. Yet, if Heroes draws upon the superhero medium, it does not fit within the mainstream of that genre, at least as it is currently constituted within the comics marketplace. Heroes pushes into a darker, more psychologically nuanced, more “realistic” and less fantastical version of the genre which is much more likely to be published by Image or Dark Horse or Vertigo or Wildstorm than by DC and Marvel’s main flagship series.Jeph Loeb (the series producer) and Tim Sale (the comics artist who creates Issac’s paintings) ,u>have worked for both DC and Marvel, but in that work, they have combined their distinctive look and themes with mainstream characters like Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man. It’s amusing that DC published the Heroes graphic novel when they would almost certainly have turned down Heroes as a comics series if there hadn’t been a successful television series (not to mention some high powered artists and writers attached.)

While there are certainly some segments in the anthology of Heroes stories which do not rise above “fluff or filler,” most of the stories do achieve some degree of emotional impact — at least for those of us who are already invested in the characters — and in that sense, the stories function very much like very good fan fiction — fleshing out secondary characters, filling in back story, and providing “missing scenes” which round out the action depicted on the screen. The stories are told in what the authors call a “Haiku style” — that is to say, “short and purposeful, every panel meaning something”, offering complex stories in five page installments. Essentially, the writers broke down the pages of a monthly comic into a series of shorter chunks and rolled a chunk out every week as opposed to delivering the whole each month. In some cases, the story is completed in five pages, like the back of the book segments in a classic superhero comic, and in other cases, the stories get serialized over multiple installments. As you read through this first volume, you can see the authors experiment with the benefits of longer or shorter chunks of narrative and the center of gravity moves towards greater serialization as this volume continues.

[Read more…]