How We Help Spread Political Messages…

Today’s entry is being cross-posted to our new website for the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, a joint venture between the Comparative Media Studies and the Media Lab. The website will regularly receive blog posts from all of us involved in the center, will showcase new projects developed by our researchers, and will otherwise offer a guide to the ways people are using new media technologies to strengthen civic engagement at the local level. Check it out and tell us what you think.

I’m scarcely “General Betray-us” yet Moveon.org has declared war on me!

Or so it seemed when I opened my e-mail the other day and discovered that a former student (actually, now multiple former students) had sent me this customized video from the leftward leaning political organization, suggesting what would happen if I didn’t vote for Obama. Of course, the jokes on them! — I voted early since I will be speaking in Eugene, Oregon early next week and then racing back to Boston to watch the returns. If you are depending on my vote to put the guy over, it’s already in the bag. Trust me, America, I’m not nearly as bad as this attack ad would seem to suggest.

Of course, what I’m doing right now — sharing this video with you — is precisely what the organization was hoping would happen. This is a beautiful example of how spreadable media is contributing to this campaign season. In Convergence Culture, I described the efforts of True Majority, a political organization founded around the principle of “serious fun,” and how they had built playful campaign videos (like one where Donald Trump fires W.) in the hopes that people would pass them along to their friends and family members. Research suggests that political messages are far more effective if they are delivered by someone you know and so the challenge is to get average citizens excited enough about political media that they will help to circulate it.

Four years ago, the activists were using the term, “viral media,” and I suppose they still are. If I had my way, the term and “memes” along with it would be retired from our vocabulary of talking about how media circulates. There’s something sick and unhealthy about the concept of viral media. The term, “viral” operates off a metaphor of infection, assuming that the public are unwilling carriers of messages — yet I doubt very much that the students who sent me this video were in any sense unwilling or unknowing about what they were doing. The concept of “viral media” strips aside the agency of the participants who are sending along this video for their own reasons — in this case, a mixture of political zeal and personal affection and probably some sense that I would find the video intellectually interesting. The term, “meme,” implies that culture is “self-replicating” rather than actively reshaped by the choices made by individual consumers and subcultural communities.

So, the folks at MoveOn probably thought they had created “viral media.” In fact, they created a powerful example of “spreadable media.” What makes it powerful is that they made it easy for individuals to customize the content of the video to make it more personally meaningful or more important, to make it meaningful in specific social contexts, to make it meaningful in relation to their social networks. The content is playful and fun; there’s a certain fascination with the mechanisms which imprint personally significant names over the repurposed video content; there’s some delight in seeing myself praised by conservative pundits and even by George W.

As we pass this content along, it facilitates conversations among friends and it allows us to signify to each other our mutual recognition and respect for the civic rituals which surround the political process. When people send me this video, they intend it as a gift — which is to say, they intend it to reaffirm the social ties we feel towards each other. Its circulation is certainly meaningful on Moveon’s terms — they hope that I will not only affirm its message but pass it along to someone else — but it is also meaningful on our terms which may be quite different. I could, for example, construct and send one to my socially conservative brother (as a friendly ribbing from Blue America to Red America) and he might pass it along to his friends at work (expressing outrage against what left-wing organizations are saying about that closet socialist and Moslem). And so the process continues.

We’ve been spending a fair amount of time through the Convergence Culture Consortium reflecting on the properties of spreadable media over the past year. One CMS graduate student, Sheila Seldes, applies this concept to the free circulation of Michael Moore’s Slacker Uprising over at the Convergence Culture Consortium’s blog and we will be discussing the concept of “spreadability” at the Futures of Entertainment III conference Nov. 21-22.

The political use of spreadability is particularly interesting: while media companies are clearly ambivalent about our ability to take their content and spread it among our friends, political campaigns actively solicit our help in moving their message throughout our social networks. Indeed, much of the emerging literature on civic engagement suggests that such social networks may be replacing the kinds of social organizations which Robert Putnam saw as at the center of American civic life. Most political organizations rely on us to relay meaningful content to others in our friendship circle because they lack the money to launch an all-out media blitz around their message (Obama’s “shock and awe” advertising strategies for the final weeks of the campaign is a notable exception.) I believe that if we study the circulation of political content, we may develop a better understanding of the mechanisms which encourage spreadability and the kinds of choices consumer/citizens make when they decide to pass a video along to their friends.

So, here’s another fascinating example of spreadable media content. While it lacks the built-in capacity for customization, it has the added feature of a certain kind of “remember when” nostalgia. This video specifically reminds us of the original Whazzup Budweisser Beer commercial from 2000. I’m sure that it’s still stuck in your head if you were at all conscious in 2000 but here’s a copy if you want to go back and compare notes.

The original spot has a special place in the literature on “viral media.” Aired during the Super Bowl, the spot became an instant classic, one that people spoke about, but more importantly, one which was widely parodied across a range of digital communities. And each time we saw the soundtrack of the video applied in a new context — members of the Clinton Administration, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Superfriends, and so forth — the core branding message got repeated. Bud certainly spent a lot of money for the initial exposure but then many people furthered their promotional aims by sending a succession of pastiche videos along to their friends.

So, part of the power of the new video is that it reminds us of our own role in spreading the original video. it helps that the original video came out during the 2000 campaign which George W. Bush in the White House and thus represents an ideal marker of the passing of time and of what has happened to America over those eight years. The soundtrack implicitly asks us whether we are better off now than we were eight years ago and demands to know what we are going to do about it. The frat boy humor of the original video evokes a more carefree time (suggesting “goofing off” with college friends) as a contrast to the adult responsibilities and dire consequences which confront these same characters today. Even our annoyance over being reminded of the “Whazzup” campaign also can be directed towards a president who famously uses fraternity style nicknames for the members of his administration, as Oliver Stone’s W has brought back to everyone’s attention. Nostalgia is often a spur for the circulation of spreadable media content but in this case, memories of the past are designed to provoke a particular kind of historical consciousness.

Or let’s tackle a final set of videos which have been spreading over the final weeks of the campaign. The first is a video where someone re-purposed footage of John McCain for comic effect: in this case, the video draws a parallel between McCain’s mannerisms and those of a particular super-villain much beloved by comic book fans. The analogy between McCain and the Penguin is one that I’ve seen surface many different ways in recent weeks, but never more effectively than in this video. And the video works because it gives us a new comic frame through which to interpret McCain’s mannerisms.The video doesn’t offer us a deep political analysis: at best it allows us to put a name on something which might have been unnerving us all along. Whatever meaning it carries comes, however, from the social transactions which occur around us, through the ways that circulating the video to others reaffirms our own political commitments and links them to deeper social ties.

The Penguin analogy, however, may also allow us to make sense of this other video which has been circulating without much explicit commentary — an excerpt from the 1966 Adam West Batman series featuring a debate between Batman and the Penquin. For people of my generation, this video carries enormous nostalgic value. This is a much valued segment of our childhood imaginary. Yet, the repurposing of this footage right now forces us to read the scene through a totally different lens and in turn, the content of the video gives us layer upon layer of satirical commentary on the recent Presidential debates. Once again, this is content I’ve felt compelled to share with my students, my friends, my family, and now, my blog readers for a variety of different reasons. I am not an unwilling or unknowing participant in this process; this is not “self-replicating” culture; there is simply a powerful alignment between my social goals and the political agendas of those who have excerpted and recirculated this content.

Thanks to John Campbell, Kelly Whitney, and Joshua Diaz for calling these examples to my attention.

A House United: How are Cultural and Political Preferences Related?

Earlier this year, I wrote a post for the PBS Media Shift Idea Lab blog, answering “What Does Popular Culture Have to Do With Civic Media?.” The post was a reaction to a Communication Forum conversation I moderated between Cass Sunstein (Infotopia), now a legal advisor to the Obama campaign and his fellow Harvard Law School Professor Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks). One of the CMS graduate students had tried to get the law professors to reflect on the political uses of popular entertainment and I sought to expand upon that issue here. Here’s part of what I wrote:

While ideological perspectives certainly play a role in defining our interests as fans and media consumers, they are only one factor among others. So, we may watch a program which we find entertaining but sometimes ideologically challenging to us: I know conservatives who watched The West Wing and laugh at The Daily Show; I know liberals who enjoy 24 even if they might disagree about the viability of torture as a response to global terrorism. Television content provides a “common culture” which often bridges between other partisan divides within the culture, even in the context of culture war discourses which use taste in popular media as a wedge issue to drive us apart.

So, a fan group online is apt to be far more diverse in its perspectives than a group defined around, say, a political candidate or a social issue. This is not to suggest that fan communities do not form firm consensus perspectives which block some other ideas from being heard, but they form them around different axis — such as desired sets of romantic partnerships between characters — which may or may not reflect ideological schisms. There may be rich discussions, then, about the philosophy of education which should rule at Hogwarts, just not on which character constitutes the most appropriate life partner for Harry Potter.

At the same time, the nature of popular culture means that it continually raises social, political, and ethical issues; popular media projects something of our hopes and fears and as such, it provides us a context for talking through our values.

Two recently released studies shed further light on the relationship between our cultural preferences as fans and our political commitments as citizens, suggesting that our media consumption habits may break more sharply along political lines than I might have previously imagined.

The first comes from Nielsen IAG which looked at the ways cable viewership broke down according to political preferences. Specifically, the research is conducted as part of their ongoing effort to understand the nature of media “engagement.” As they explain in their blog, “Engagement” refers to the amount of attention paid to a television program by the average viewer. Nielsen measures TV engagement by questioning a representative panel of viewers about their recall of specific telecasts’ content.”

Their research suggested that those programs on cable which received the highest overall engagement scores also received the most “bipartisan” interest — meaning that they attracted and “engaged” viewers from across the political spectrum. Yet, they also identified some programs whose viewerships broke decisively along ideological lines.

Among those programs attracting the greatest Democratic viewership were: The Colbert Report (Comedy); The Deadliest Catch (Discovery); It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX); Ax Men (History); Tin Man (SciFi); My Boys (TBS); and I Love New York (VH1).

Among those programs attracting the greatest Republican interest were South Park (Comedy); Cash Cab (Discovery); Damages (FX); Battle 360 (History); Doctor Who (SciFi); The Bill Engval Show (TBS) and Rock of Love With Bret Michaels (VH1).

Among those programs attracting the greatest interest among independents were The Cleaner (A&E), Real Housewives of Orange County (Bravo), The Next Food Network Star (Food), HGTV Design Star (HGTV); Army Wives (Life), The Hills (MTV), What Not to Wear (TLC), and Saving Grace (TNT).

It is significant that the study was conducted using cable-based programing. Historically, cable has been associated with narrow-casting strategies which target specific demographic groups and niche communities, while network television has adopted a broadcast or “consensus narrative” model which seeks to appeal to the broadest possible viewership.

Personally, I am a little surprised that I watch more shows on the Republican list (Damages, Doctor Who) than on the Democratic list (The Colbert Report). This takes me back to all of those old jokes that “my Tivo thinks I’m gay.” Now, the Nielsen company thinks I’m Republican. But this brings us back to my original point that even where shows do seem to skew towards particular ideological perspectives (I suppose we can read Damages as expressing an outrage over the abuses of “trial lawyers” or Doctor Who fans make see John McCain as a bit like a Time Lord in that he had been an eyewitness during many other historical periods), they never absolutely break down according to purely ideological commitments and that makes them a particularly vital space for us to have conversations about our hopes, ideals, and values as a nation.

The Second Study was conducted by the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center and Zogby International and released Sept. 19 2008. Their key finding was that consumption of entertainment properties broke decisively along political lines, though again, not absolutely. As their press release reported, “While 22% of conservatives said they ‘never’ enjoy entertainment that reflects values other than their own, just 7% of liberals felt the same way. At the other end of the scale, just 11% of conservatives said they ‘very often’ enjoyed programming that ran counter to their personal philosophies, compared to 20% of liberals and 18% of moderates who said the same thing.” Their research identified House as “one of the very successful TV shows with almost an equal number of adherents across the political spectrum.”

The report divided Americans into three different taste communities, Reds, Blues, and Purples. Here’s part of their description of each:

Reds

Reds are the largest ideological group in the U.S. They tend to live close to other family members and they’re much more satisfied with their spiritual, family and personal life than the rest of the nation. ….Reds tend to get their news from cable TV and radio, and they much prefer Leno to any other late-night programming…. Their favorite fictional TV shows are House and CSI; their favorite summer movies were Indiana Jones and The Dark Knight.

Blues

Blues are the second largest ideological group in the country. Almost all of them think the U.S. is on the wrong track, and they are far more likely than the rest of the country to be unsatisfied with their personal, family, business and social life. They are more tolerant of the media than other Americans, but they are more likely to get their news from comedy shows than from any of the network TV newscasts. More than any other group, they get their news online, and they use Wikipedia…. They like The Dark Knight and Iron Man, and their favorite TV show is 60 Minutes. Many Blues dislike reality programming – more than Reds and Purples. For late-night, they prefer The Daily Show.

Purples

Purples are the smallest ideological group, and in many ways they fall between the Red and Blue camps…. Like Blues, most get their news from the Web, but they are more likely than any other group to use the Web to find information about celebrity gossip, TV shows, movies, games, music, fashion, shopping, books, relationships and sports. Purples are more likely than Reds or Blues to say playing games and listening to music is the most enjoyable thing to do online. Unlike Blues, Purples prefer MySpace to Facebook (it’s a tie for Reds)…. Purples say watching TV is their favorite leisure time activity, and their top three shows are Law & Order: SVU, 60 Minutes, and CSI. Purples like reality programming more than any other group, and American Idol is their favorite. They prefer Letterman and Leno over all the other late-night programs.

Those of us who have read Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction shouldn’t be surprised to learn that tastes operate as a system: those of us who share a significant number of preferences in common are more likely to find overlaps on other preferences, even those which superficially seem unrelated. Here, it is clear that political and cultural preferences are closely aligned, especially as they relate to openness to embrace new ideas or to experience works which reflect a “foreign” perspective.

Here are a few other data points from this research which I found particularly interesting (text taken directly from the Center’s Press Release):

  • Fox News wins the prize for the most politically divisive TV channel (70% of conservatives watch it daily and only 3% of liberals).
  • Over 82% of conservatives say they never watch MTV. The only other station from our list that they watch less is Univision (84%).
  • Who has a sense of humor? Not only do liberals give Comedy Central a big thumbs up (31% watch it daily, compared to 6% of all other respondents), you are more likely to find them watching comedies than moderates or conservatives.
  • Out of 15 TV and film genres, “arts” emerged as the one with the highest positive correlation to liberal viewers and the highest negative correlation to conservative viewers. In other words, while 48% of liberals prefer arts programming, only 17% of conservatives do. At the other end of the scale, less than 5% of liberals say they do not like the genre at all, compared to almost 25% of conservatives.
  • Out of 15 musical genres, conservatives were more likely than the rest of the respondents to listen to only two of them: country and gospel. What genre are they least likely to listen to, compared to the rest of the respondents?…World music is also the music genre where we see the greatest difference between conservatives and liberals.

Given this data, here’s the fun question to discuss over lunch today: If this presidential election represents a moment of political realignment, what impact will it have on the entertainment programming which gets produced and consumed over the next few years? And for that matter, might House turn out to be, ironically, the series which teaches us all how to get along? Or turning the lens around, does your fandom attract more red, blue, or purple viewers and why? Talk among yourselves — but also talk to someone who believes differently than you do.

Thanks to Joshua Green for calling the Nielsen study to my attention.

Listening to Pod People

We’ve had an exceptionally strong line-up of speakers through the Comparative Media Studies Colloquium series this term. If you haven’t already subscribed to our podcast series, you might want to check out some of the podcasts which have recently gone live on our site. Taken collectively, these podcasts reflect the interdisciplinary character of the CMS colloquium series, featuring speakers here involved in performance studies, science-technology-and-society studies, journalism, and the history of the book. You can check here for forthcoming events.

Playing with Stuff: The Material World in Performance

This presentation / lecture / infomercial examines the nature and implications of object performance both as a global cultural tradition and as a contemporary medium that dominates our culture. While performing objects traditionally include puppets, masks, icons, and other “things”, the more recent innovations of film, television, and the internet can also be seen as aspects of our need to play with stuff. In all cases, the central dynamic of this form involves a focus on the material world instead of humans. The talk will be accompanied by images from 20th-century avant-garde film and performance work. John Bell began his performance work with Bread and Puppet Theater, after which he earned a Ph.D. in theater history at Columbia University. He is a founding member of the award-winning Great Small Works theater company of Brooklyn, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, and Director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut. This spring he will be directing a “Living Newspaper”-style production about the politics of global healthcare with MIT students. His latest book, American Puppet Modernism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), examines particular moments of puppet, mask, and object theater in the United States over the past 150 years. He is a trombonist with the Somerville-based Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band, and organizer of the upcoming October 12th HONK! Festival Parade from Davis Square to Harvard Square.

The Campaign and the Media 1

MIT Communications Forum LogoHow have American news media responded to this historic presidential campaign? Is it true, as many have suggested, that the influence of newspapers and television has declined in the digital era? Have the media become more partisan and polarized? More preoccupied with polls and campaign strategy than with substantive issues? Has the coverage by traditional media been qualitatively different from that by online news sources? In this first of two forums on the campaign and the media, noted journalists Tom Rosenstiel, who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington D.C., Ellen Goodman, a syndicated columnist, and John Carroll, a local reporter and media critic who teaches at Boston University, offer report cards on the current state of American political journalism.

Co-sponsored by the Center for Future Civic Media and the Technology and Culture Forum

Submarine Media: Sounding the Sea with Cyborg Anthropology

This presentation delivers a first-person anthropological report on a dive to the seafloor in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s three-person submersible, Alvin. Meditating on the sounds rather that the sights of the dive, Helmreich explores multiple meanings of immersion: as a descent into liquid, an absorption in activity, and the all-encompassing entry of an anthropologist into a cultural medium. Tuning in to the rhythms of Alvin as a submarine cyborg, he shows how interior and exterior soundscapes create a sense of immersion, and he argues that torquing media theory to include water as a medium can make explicit the technical structures and social practices of sounding, hearing, and listening that support senses — scientific, everyday, and anthropological — of embodied sonic presence. Stefan Helmreich is an anthropologist who studies life scientists, from those who engage in the computer modeling of living things (Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World, University of California Press, 1998) to those who work in deep-sea environments (Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas, University of California Press, 2009). He is particularly interested in the limits of “life” as an analytical category for contemporary biology

Communications Forum: Books and Libraries in the Digital Age with Robert Darnton

A pioneering scholar of the Enlightenment and of the history of the book, Robert Darnton is the director of the University Library and the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard. A former Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur Fellow, his books include The Business of the Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopedie, The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History, and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France. He has written extensively on the impact of digital technologies on the culture of print and on the responsibilities of libraries in the computer age.

In this Forum, Darnton discussed and took questions about the emergence of the discipline of the history of the book, the future of books and reading, and his own vision of the ways in which new and old media can reinforce each other, strengthening and transforming the world of learning.

What Would You Say to The Corporations?

One of our CMS grad students, Flourish Klink, has taken the opportunity to speak to some media companies about fan fiction, and she’s looking for input. She asks:

What would you say to the people who own the stories you write fanfic for?

I’m going to have a number of opportunities in the future (some of them in the immediate future) to talk to media companies, the people who set policies about how their company views fanfic. To them, I’m a window into the fan community. I’m an expert. I’m a chance for them to learn more about what we all do. But I don’t want this to just be about what *I* think. I might forget something that’s important.

So what would you like to say to the corporations? What would you tell them about how they can work with fans? What would you explain to them that they don’t understand? How would you suggest that they balance their interests and yours? I want to know. And if you tell me, I might be able to pass them on.

You can reply here or at the appropriate post on her weblog.

Playing Columbine: An Interview with Game Designer and Filmmaker Danny Ledonne (Part Three)

In making the film, you are choosing to tell your own story, yet you are also interviewing some of your harshest critics. Watching the film, I kept wondering about the dynamics of some of those interviews. What was it like to interview the organizers of Slamdance or Jack Thompson or the Columbine survivors about their reactions to your work?

I decided early on that making a film about this topic was not merely a matter of editorializing my own perspective. When I told people I was making a documentary, many imagined a bombastic, Michael Moore approach of framing the story with my narration, maintaining a strong on-camera presence as the “main character,” or generally centering the film on me. Frankly, I found the debates this subject matter engages to be far more interesting than my own opinions on it; I filmed many of the presentations I gave during this time and cut out almost all the material as more exciting, articulate ideas arose during other interviews.

Many of the interviews with my harshest critics were not conducted by me at all. I knew that in order to conduct a more impartial interview, I would be better served by having other filmmakers sit down with Parents Television Council president Tim Winter, Denver resident Roger Kovaks (who initially ousted my anonymity after being outraged by SCMRPG) or anti-videogame activist Jack Thompson. Often times I prepared the questions myself and watched the footage with great interest as their points of view were very insightful as I began to reflect on my own. If given the chance, I recommend everyone take the opportunity to interview their most outspoken critics!

My interview with Slamdance Film Festival director Peter Baxter was very challenging because he seemed rather disinterested the entire time. It seemed to me that every question I asked was met with the phrase, “well like I just told you…” as though I was simply not listening. When Brian Crecente of Kotaku interviewed Peter, he reported much the same experience: “I spent forty-five minutes on the phone trying to get him to answer the question of ‘why.’”

During this interview, while Peter would shower videogames as a “powerful” art form with praise, he seemed generally disengaged from his own decision to pull SCMRPG and questioned the effectiveness of other game developers protesting his decision by boycotting the festival. He more or less deferred to legal advice he’d received and a court of law that he imagined would ruin his festival (never mind that no legal threat–specific or vague–was made of Slamdance in connection to SCMRPG).

The film draws some parallel between your game and others about current events, ranging from what sounds like a pretty exploitative game about the Virginia Tech Shooting as well as games about Waco and Darfur. Are all of these games equally valid? What criteria should we use to determine whether they represent appropriate or meaningful responses to the events they depict?

In my eyes, all games are equally valid insomuch as they offer us opportunities to evaluate their game rhetoric. That means that I can think critically about Tetris as well as Manhunt. As protected speech in this country, both games should enjoy the same open discourse in a pluralistic society. How much time I choose to spend playing either of these games is up to me as a media consumer–hopefully a well-informed one. I think the best way to illustrate how I would answer this question is to give you a specific example.

Recently there was a game released by a young Australian man called Muslim Massacre. The title had obvious reference to mine so I wanted to play the game and evaluate it using my own admittedly biased criteria. I did not find the game itself overtly offensive as I read the game as satire–much in keeping with a film like Team America: World Police which I enjoyed immensely. I projected my own political views onto the game when I determined it was an effective videogame caricature of US foreign policy and the US media’s representation of Muslims.

As one might predict, the game came under immediate scrutiny by the Western and Arab cultures. I emailed the game’s creator after reading a letter of apology he posted in response. However, the game’s creator replied to my email indicating that the apology was fake and designed to offend and dupe more people. This, to me, eroded the credibility of the game developer; he was less interested in socially-engaging discourse from his work and more interested in executing a juvenile stunt with a videogame as its central function. While that many invalidate the game developer, I still see the same initial value I held in the game itself; Muslim Massacre remains valid to me because I can identify with the cultural criticism it represents to me–whether the game’s creator meant it or not.

This is why my film raises the point of authorial intent. In some ways, it is irrelevant whether I made SCMRPG to create a dialogue, make money, encourage school shooters, gain attention for myself, or to save the whales. The game stands on its own as a valid expression–free for interpretation and conjecture. I believe that my decision to stand behind the game, author an artist’s statement, and argue for its value in the press has helped my credibility as a multimedia artist. The game stands alone, however–as all cultural artifacts ultimately do when we engage them.

In the film, Jack Thompson talks about the backlash against him in the games blogosphere as a threat to his own free expression rights. What similarities and differences do you see between the responses to Thompson and the responses your game has received from some of his allies?

John Bruce Thompson, disbarred attorney at law, is an interesting fellow. I find his self-fueled conviction fascinating–so much so that I made a music video about his crusade entitled When Jack Thompson Talks to God that can be found on YouTube. Jack was so enamored with this video that he called my phone at 5am on a Sunday morning demanding that I call him back (so he could threaten me and tell me that I’m “messing with the wrong guy.”) What a charming voicemail, indeed.

What Jack and I share is the experience of being a controversial public figure–one that includes receiving hate mail, death threats, and assaults on our characters by people who will never know us. Some of his criticism in the film is directed at the immature antics against him–people who oppose Jack’s point of view and see fit to mail sex aid products to his wife. He has also carved himself a unique cornerstone as the arch-nemesis of game culture (or at least its bumbling court jester).

Generally Thompson and I are not attacked by the same people; often I can imagine that those would have sympathy for Jack’s position are the ones emailing me with clear information as to how quickly I am going to Hell. Similarly, I have won support from those who imagine that I have created a headache for people like Jack Thompson. To put this in general demographic terms, Jack Thompson is attacked by gamers and I am attacked by their parents.

Unlike Thompson, I do not feel entitled to press and don’t use it to establish my professional credentials (Jack Thompson predictably introduces himself as the man who predicted Columbine on the Today Show and appeared on 60 Minutes twice). Also unlike Thompson, I do not believe I am on a personal mission from God to accomplish my goals.

What advice would you have for other game designers who find themselves in

similar controversies in the future? What do you wish you had known going into

this struggle that might have changed how you approached things?

At the end of my documentary, I try to provide just such advice. Let me summarize it here:

1. Do not be afraid of controversy. It can be a useful tool to spread your message. Just make sure you have a message. You will gain respect from people for standing behind what you believe in.

2. Stand behind your creative decisions. While some people will always call you “pretentious” or “vapid,” articulate your intentions and design choices. It may not change everyone’s mind, but it will challenge them to think more carefully about their suppositions.

3. Welcome allies and actively form new ones. I slowly discovered that for every email I received from an angry person, there were ten more that silently supported my efforts even if they could never take up such an effort themselves.

4. Take creative risks. There are boundaries on all fronts to push with regard to the creation of media. If you don’t push them, someone else will. If you are a creative person and really love what you do, ask yourself what impact you want to leave on the world.

I read that “well-behaved women rarely make history.” That is not just true for women.

Playing Columbine: An Interview with Game Designer and Filmmaker Danny Ledonne (Part Two)

The film suggests that generating controversy is a tribute to the artistic accomplishments of the game. Is this to suggest a bad or banal game couldn’t generate controversy? To what degree is the controversy about the subject matter of the game rather than its execution, given the fact that the film also tells us that many of the critics have never played Super Columbine?

Controversy generated for its own sake is a pointless exercise that is soon forgotten and rarely culturally impactful. While some charge SCMRPG with being just that, the inclusion of a discussion forum–augmented by an artist’s statement and my commitment to defending the project–is a testament to the ongoing discourse I sought to create. What makes SCMRPG an important cultural discussion point is that it is, by your own admission, a “perfect storm” for discussing matters of videogame violence, representation of real events in digital culture, and the future of videogames as an expressive medium.

I do think that the polarizing effect the game has on people (those who play it and those who do not) indicates its overall cultural value. Very little of social impact has been received with universal praise. The polemical presentation of the game certain denotes controversy as an aesthetic choice. Ours is a culture where so often the only way to be heard outside the established information channels is by being provocative and challenging social taboos. In some ways, the act of being offended is really one of being intellectually challenged–by encountering an unfamiliar or difficult idea. Some people handle this challenges better than others; we see those that are easily offended as the very same who rally to censor media and regulate creative expression. I have no problem with the allegation that SCMRPG is a “bad game” since it works outside the expectations of what a “good game” is supposed to be. But I would hardly call SCMRPG “banal,” Henry.

The controversy around SCMRPG is largely one of the subject matter and not its execution. Only when I give talks at game design schools am I taken to task for my design choices. For example, the Associated Press, Christian Science Monitor, or Parents Television Council were not complaining with:

“Why did you hide a book in the upstairs classroom that you need to complete the last part of the game? I had to start over!”

“The hallway is really hard to sneak through. I couldn’t even tell those were security cameras until my friend showed me!”

“The graphics suck, noob.”

Instead, the mainstream press attacked the very notion that a game like SCMRPG could exist! Heavens, we can have a film or book or magazine article about Columbine but a VIDEO GAME? This was the tone of much of the initial reporting. Eventually, however, a few credible journalists for Wired and other publications began to take the proposition of a game about Columbine seriously–and their articles reflected that. Consequently, their readership reported a greater understanding of the game and larger social phenomenon of digital media for change.

You position the game in relation to the serious games movement. What does the concept of “serious games” mean for you and how does it relate to forms of nonfiction in other medium, including documentary films like Playing Columbine? What do games add to the mix in terms of shaping our understanding of real world events and processes? Would Playing Columbine have worked as a game?

As I have come to understand it, the traditional definition of “serious games” has virtually nothing to do with kinds of social issue-driven games like SCMRPG. Let me try and analogize.

The serious game has been akin to a training manual–such as the airline safety card or a “how to use your new vacuum” tutorial booklet. The military, medical, and corporate sectors use these serious games as pedagogy; these games do not make rhetorical claims. The kinds of games that Playing Columbine showcases are different. They are more like editorials in the New York Times or a polemical book on bookshelves or downloadable on the web. These are games that make arguments; these are “games with an agenda” as Persuasive Games’ Ian Bogost says.

Let’s pull this down to first principles. Why do you think games are an art form? What kind of art are they? What criteria should be used to evaluate games as art?

Throughout my travels in interviewing game developers, their critics, and those affected by videogames in relation to school shootings, no one claimed outright that videogames are not an art form. Most recognized that there are some games perhaps more artistic than others, that some art is appropriate for youth whereas other art is not, and that videogames are a relatively new art form with much potential and boundaries yet to be defined. Some people think the Grand Theft Auto series represents the future of immersive, state-of-the-art gaming. Others revile at the notion that one would call such a game “art” at all. These are inevitably conversations of subjectivity rather than concrete empirical claims.

For myself, I think games are a synergy of existing media traditions of visual arts, graphic design, musical composition, the written word, and the cinema. Of crucial distinction to, but certainly not exclusion from other art forms is the interactive nature of games–the elements of role-playing and narrative authorship being chosen in whole or in part by the audience (“the player”). Interactive media therefore combines many of the art forms we are familiar with but adds to them a significant degree of audience participation. Not audience control, however; aspects of the game physics, narrative, world design, etc. are not generally defined by the player as these are simply the pre-ordained “rules of the game.”

I am not sure we ever got around to calling board games, card games, or table top role playing games as an art form or a “medium.” Which is too bad; these earlier societal distinctions would have paved the way for a less misunderstood reception of game design. Videogames have as much in common with chess as they do with Starship Troopers.

In terms of how games as art are evaluated, clearly the existing systems are ill-equipped; games are currently evaluated as products. A typical evaluation of a videogame in a popular magazine or online publication might read:

Graphics: 9

Sound: 8.5

Play Control: 9.5

Challenge: 8

Replay value: 7

As one might imagine, games like SCMRPG would fail rather miserably by these traditional standards and indeed in 2006 PC World declared it the 2nd Worst Game of All Time (just behind E.T for the Atari). When reviewed by Jason Rohrer for Arthouse Games, SCMRPG was praised for its bold use of the form to critique a contemporary social event. Perhaps then the question of “games as art” asks more of the player than the ability to score points and navigate pristinely-rendered 3D environments; perhaps games as art are those which challenge the player emotionally or intellectually rather than strategically or tactilely.

The larger question for each of us to answer when we ask ourselves how to evaluate art–whether in games or cinema or literature–is what we expect it to accomplish. A great number of people will not tolerate a subtitled, foreign language film or a videogame that offends their assumption that games are escapist entertainment. Indeed, the concept that films could affect social change was hotly contested by filmmakers, distributors, and critics for decades. As the boundaries of what a game can be expand, the evaluation for games as art becomes more charitable.

I Have Seen the Futures of Entertainment …And It Works!

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For the past two years, the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT has been happy to offer its Futures of Entertainment conference, bringing together key thinkers from academia and the media industry in substantive conversations about trends which may change popular culture as we know it. You can sample discussions at the 2007 conference of such topics as Fan Labor, Cult Media, Advertising and Convergence Culture, Metrics and Measurements, Academic-Industry Relations, and Heroes: From ‘Appointment TV’ to “Engagement TV.’ This year’s event will be held at MIT on Nov. 20-21 and we are opening registration for the event as of today.

Here’s what you can expect this year:

Convergence culture has moved swiftly from buzzword to industry logic. The creation of transmedia storyworlds, understanding how to appeal to migratory audiences, and the production of digital extensions for traditional materials are becoming the bread and butter of working in the media. Futures of Entertainment 3 once again brings together key industry leaders who are shaping these new directions in our culture and academic scholars immersed in the investigation the social, cultural, political, economic, and technological implications of these changes in our media landscape.

This year’s conference will work to bring together the themes from last year – media spreadability, audiences and value, social media, distribution – with the consortium’s new projects in moving towards an increasingly global view of media convergence and flow. Topics for this year’s panels include global distribution systems and the challenges of moving content across borders, transmedia and world building, comics and commerce, social media and spreadability, and renewed discussion on how and why to measure audience value.

Confirmed speakers for this year’s conference include: Kim Moses – Executive Producer, The Ghost Whisperer, Javier Grillo-Marxuach – The Middleman, Lost, Medium, John Caldwell – UCLA, Production Culture (Duke University Press), Henry Jenkins – MIT, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (NYU Press), Alex McDowell – Production Designer, The Watchmen, Kevin Slavin – Area/Code, Grant McCracken – Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture (Indiana University Press), Donald K Ranvaud – Buena Onda Films, Amanda Lotz – University of Michigan, The Television Will be Revolutionized (NYU Press), Gail De Kosknik – UC Berkeley, How to Save Soap Opera: Histories and Futures of an Iconic Genre, Joe Marchese – socialvibe.com, Amber Case – Cyborg Anthropologist and Social Media Consultant, Hazelnut Consulting, Mauricio Mota – New Content (Brazil), Alisa Perren – Georgia State University, The Media Industry Studies Book (Blackwell Publishing), Sharon Ross – Columbia College Chicago, Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet (WileyBlackwell), Nancy Baym – University of Kansas, Personal Connections in a Digital Age (Polity Press), Alice Marwick – New York University, Vu Nguyen – VP of Business Development, crunchyroll.com, Lance Weiler – Director Head Trauma and The Last Broadcast, Gregg Hale – Producer Seventh Moon and The Blair Witch Project with more to come.

Friday, November 21

Consumption and Value

Where does value come from in the media evolving media landscape? In a medium rooted in the popularity of content, who or what is the source of media value? Does it lie in the properties themselves, or in what people do with these properties? Do creative companies create value or does value creation also occur on the consumption side, as audiences discover hidden potential in existing properties, make their own emotional and creative contributions to the mix, and spread the brand to new and previously unsolicited markets? Might we also see value as originating from those who simply sit and watch? “Attention” can be thought of as a core product produced by media companies – under advertiser-supported models, media properties attract audiences whose attention is sold to advertisers seeking to reach groups of people. While this is not always the case, the increasing significance of product placement suggests even goods sold directly to audiences are subsidized by the sale of their attention. Especially with the rapid emergence of user-created content, can we consider audiences participants in the creation of the value media properties hold? How do we account for the non-monetary value of media properties? How should gains from media value be distributed through the networks of creatives who collaborate in its production?

Panelists to be announced.

Making Audiences Matter

Audiences seem to present a constantly moving target. Migratory, skilled at avoiding advertising, and increasingly looking like producers, working out who the audience is and what they are doing is an evolving challenge. How do we create better relationships with audiences who look less like “consumers”? In a media landscape that looks to increasingly value broad distribution over concentrating attention, how do we uncover audiences and connect them with content? What does an “engaged” audience look like, and how do you know when you’ve got one? What do you do once you’ve found one?

Panelists include: Kim Moses, Executive Producer, The Ghost Whisperer; Gail De Kosknik, How to Save Soap Opera: Histories and Futures of an Iconic Genre (with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington), UC Berkeley; Kevin Slavin, Area/Code; Vu Nguyen, VP of Business Development, crunchyroll.com

Social Media

Moving lives online, creating conversations across geography, connecting with consumers – how is social media defining the current entertainment landscape? As people not only put more content online, but conduct more of their daily lives in networked spaces and via social networking sites, how are social media influencing how we think of audiences? Video-sharing platforms have changed how we think of production and distribution, and Facebook gifts point to the value of virtual properties, how are these sites enabling other processes of production or distribution practices. Spaces where commercial and community purposes intertwine, what are the implications for privacy, content management, and identity construction of social media? How have they impacted notions of civic engagement?

Panelists include: Alice Marwick, NYU; Joe Marchese, socialvibe.com; Amber Case, Hazelnut Consulting.

Cutting Global Deals

The Internet has altered transnational media flows, making it easier to move content across national and geographic boundaries, but complicating the economic structures that support these flows. How do we manage global distribution in the current context? What is the impact of the Internet on the interactions between local audiences and globalised content? What is the role of international audiences as taste-makers, and what can that tell us about making content relevant to multiple local audiences? How do we balance international distribution windows with audiences who move content themselves?

Panelists include: Donald K Ranvaud, Buena Onda Film; Nancy Baym, Personal Connections in a Digital Age (Polity Press), University of Kansas; Mauricio Mota, New Content (Brazil).

Saturday, November 22

When Comics Converge

The last few years have seen a steady expansion of comic book creators, characters and audiences into a range of different mediums. Television programming to successful Hollywood franchises seem respectful (mostly) of the source material. The graphic novel and the short run series have burgeoned and been mainstreamed. Comic-con has expanded to a key event for the entertainment industry. Many established producers in other media are looking towards comics as a platform for creative expression or for extending their narratives (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, and Supernatural, for instance.) What contributions do comics make to convergence culture? What makes comics such a rich recruiting ground for new content or creative talent? Why are other media producers so aggressively courting comics fans?

Panelists include: Javier Grillo-Marxuach (The Middleman); Alex McDowell, Production Designer, The Watchmen; Alisa Perren, (Co-editor with Jennifer Holt) The Media Industry Studies Book (Blackwell Publishing), Georgia State University.

Franchising, Extensions and Worldbuilding

Media convergence has made the complex intertwining of multi-platform media properties more and more common-place, yet the creation of storyworlds that extend beyond a single text is not a recent development. With a history that includes sequels, spin-offs, and licensed products, what is the future for the media franchise? Is there a material difference between creating media franchises or transmedia properties? What is the role of television programs or films in anchoring wider narrative franchises, especially when they extend beyond media and into the “real world”? What is the significance of the creative individuals who contribute to franchises, including creatives, professionals, and fans?

Panelists to be announced

At the Intersection of the Academy and the Industry

What are the challenges of bringing the academy and the industry together? How do we negotiate working across these two worlds?

Panelists include: Amanda Lotz, The Television Will be Revolutionized (NYU Press), University of Michigan; John Caldwell, Production Culture (Duke University Press), UCLA; Grant McCracken, Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture (Indiana University Press).

More speakers will be announced in the coming weeks, but surely our line-up is already strong enough that you will not want to miss this event.

Coming Soon: The Second Part of a Three Part Interview With Danny Ledonne

Playing Columbine: An Interview with Game Designer and Filmmaker Danny Ledonne (Part One)

Danny Ledonne’s Super Columbine Massacre RPG! has been the center of controversy since it was released in 2005, on the sixth anniversary of the shooting at a Colorado high school which sparked international controversy surrounding the links between video games and real world violence. Some have embraced the game as a powerful demonstration of how games can force us to re-examine controversial issues from new vantage points. Others have condemned the game in the harshest terms possible, suggesting that it exploits a deep human tragedy. In 2006, PC World declared the game #2 on its list of “The 10 Worst Games of All Time.”

Every time the controversy started to die down, some new development shoved the game back into the news, whether it was attempts by the news media to link it to a Canadian shooting or the decision by the directors of Slamdance’s games festival to withdraw the film, a decision that led to strong support from many invested in the idea of games as art or simply the value of free expression. Ledonne’s game has been a model for other serious games projects and has been a focal point for discussion about whether there are some topics which can not or should not be explored through this medium. For an overview of the controversy, check out this Wikipedia entry. You can see the game yourself and make up your own mind about its merits.

Now, Danny Ledonne has produced Playing Columbine, a compelling documentary which allows him to tell his own story. This film will be extraordinarily valuable as a classroom resource for those who want to spark discussions about games as a medium. It will also be a useful film to share with skeptics who doubt that games can deal with serious topics.

Danny was kind enough to agree to an extensive interview for this blog, one which takes us through the various controversies as well as examines the process of producing this documentary. You will see that I adopt a devil’s advocate posture here, pushing Ledonne to pull down to first principles and explain his own thought process concerning the Super Columbine game and Playing Columbine. I hope this three part interview will spark further reflection on these very important topics.

Ledonne is a graduate of Emerson College’s film program. He has worked as director of photography on KiskaDEE, as editor for An Awakening Journey, and shot and edited Kenya Jidaya. He is a native of Colorado and currently lives in Washington DC where he owns Emberwilde Productions.

What were motives for making the Super Columbine Massacre RPG? It sounds like you had not done much work in games before this. Why did you think games were the right medium to say what you wanted to say about Columbine?

I have answered the question of “why did you make this” many times–probably so many that I have begun to wonder why I am asked so often what my motives were. I suppose releasing a highly controversial game on the Internet, free of charge, and setting up a discussion forum does make one wonder. I guess if I had charged five dollars per download it would be evident that I was trying to make money and then the question would shift from “why” to “how could you?”

SCMRPG is my first game and perhaps my last. What most outsiders to the creation of games do not understand about game design is how specialized a field it is–involving a multitude of skills from computer science and programming to graphic design and (hopefully) a flare for storytelling. Games generally cannot be made without a set of highly acute skills and usually a great deal of training. My efforts were amateur and my game certainly reflects that–but even then the results were only possible because I had a game creation program (RPG Maker) to act as middleware between an untrained user and a finished game concept.

Columbine had been a subject of considerable importance in my own life. I was a sophomore in high school at the time of the shooting in another Colorado high school. I listened to the same music, played the same videogames, and at times even had similar feelings of anger or depression as Harris and Klebold (the shooters). Amidst all this was a media frenzy and subsequent political fervor over a “culture of violence” replete with condemnation toward Hollywood, the music industry and videogames (in short, the best ways to decompress after another day of high school). As a politically powerless teenager, I had no real way to challenge the official assumptions as to why the shooting occurred. Among my friends, though, the consensus was that the real causes of Columbine could not be answered by pointing to Doom, Natural Born Killers, or Marilyn Manson.

Years later in the fall of 2004, I came across RPG Maker and it occurred to me that the RPG form could yield a deep and complex story-driven environment for a game. As a fan of such games as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, I had always taken an interest in this game genre. Because I was 22 and not 12, my interest in games was not one of childish fantasy but of contemporary reflection and examination. In some ways, Columbine had been a latent thread in my life and the opportunity to explore it in interactive form seemed especially promising since the event itself was inextricably linked to videogames. While authors, politicians, moral pundits, musicians and filmmakers had contributed their thoughts to understanding Columbine, no game developer had (probably for reasons of sensibility and an interest in preserving company relations). As an outsider to the game developer world, I could afford to take those risks–though the ramifications to follow were quite surprising nonetheless.

The film suggests you grossly underestimated the interest and backlash your game generated. Why do you think the game spread as far and as fast as it did? What aspect of the reaction surprised you the most?

It is worth mentioning that for a long time the game received the kind of underground, subdued exposure that I expected it to get. I posted the game online around April 20th, 2005 to coincide with the sixth anniversary (not the best word to use here, I know) of the shooting. For over a year, it remained an Internet anomaly–receiving about 10,000 downloads. I more or less went back to my life of working as a youth mentor, honing my filmmaking craft, teaching Tae Kwon Do, and volunteering as a community radio station DJ.

I posted the game anonymously for many reasons, some practical and some ideological: 1) I was aware that the approach of using a videogame to represent a school shooting would generate outrage from those unwilling to acknowledge games as a socially-conscious medium. 2) I was interested in fostering discussion not about myself and my motives for creating the game but rather the shooting at Columbine itself. 3) I had no interest in furthering a career in game design so putting my name to the work in some attempt to be “discovered” or “recruited” was unimportant. 4) The larger experiment was one of digital culture; I wished to combine musical, photographic, and textual elements gleaned from the web, assemble them in a piece of software, and finally release this reassembled contextualization onto the Web for further discourse. I did not know why, per se, but that the possibility to do so did not exist a decade earlier and this experimentation seemed interesting to me as a multimedia artist. It was as though the Internet itself assembled this game–as though it were a living information machine giving birth to a new creation.

It was a full year later around April 20th of 2006 that the game began to get the attention of gaming blogs like Kotaku and Watercooler Games. Not long after this, the game crossed over into the mainstream press. By the time the Washington Post article ran in late May of 2006, the game was getting 8,000 downloads per day and despite several PayPal donations to keep the game online, my server crashed. It was also at this point that my identity became sought after and I chose to publicly defend my game amidst harassing emails and death threats. Before long, the game was back online at several download mirrors. Little did I know the controversy was just beginning. To date the game has received nearly 700,000 downloads on the main mirror location–although the real number will never be known since it is being shared in so many decentralized ways.

What were the biggest misunderstandings people had about the game?

Misunderstandings can be miniscule or they can be gigantic. Among the smallest misunderstandings was that I was a former Columbine High School student who made the game as an act of catharsis to personally grieve or process the tragedy. Among the largest were that I made the game for money, I made the game to get on television, or that I made the game to encourage school shootings.

On some level, I welcome one form of misunderstanding because I enjoy eliciting a broad range of responses from my work. Many elements of the game have personal interpretations to me but others view them differently. The water fountain, for example, gives the exact particle content as described by Denver’s municipal water authority when Eric or Dylan drink from it. Some have taken this to be meaningless, others a joke, while some have observed that this is commentary on the notion that whatever caused the shooting, it wasn’t what was in the water.

The larger opportunity here is not misunderstanding but rather self-understanding. A game like SCMRPG can take players to an ethical situation they have never been to before. It can challenge them with a role not of mindless power but of tormented anguish, revenge, or anger. In doing so, players often reflect on their own feelings of childhood depression or angst while at the same time interacting with a pivotal event in US history. I do not have a specific expectation for what that understanding is supposed to yield. That is the beauty and perhaps the danger of art.

Which criticisms of the game hit you the hardest? Were there moments when you questioned your own creative choices?

At first I was hesitant to keep the game online. However real or imagined the charges are, the legal implications of producing controversial media can be intimidating. And that is precisely what I have faced from time to time. As one can imagine, various groups and individuals have sought to take SCMRPG off the Internet–using a variety of tactics from baseless claims of personal injury to draconian interpretations of copyright law (the game features the same media posted all over the Net and in news reports and documentaries which employed Fair Use in Copyright).

The major point of introspection occurred at the time of the Dawson College shooting in Montreal in the fall of 2006. Here I had successfully defended the game’s right to exists for the entire summer and I thought I was in the clear for future projects and a kinder, gentler Inbox. However, on September 14th, my phone began ringing at 8am and did not stop quite literally for days. I cannot tell you how many emails I received threatening me with violence, legal action, or both. I replied to as many as I could, patiently diffusing allegations the mainstream media had whipped up about a game they had never played and did not understand. In the weeks to follow I formed new alliances including one survivor of the shooting, Joel Kornek. Having initially written me in anger after leaving the hospital and learning of my game on the news, we soon leveled with one another and set about to collaborate. The results of that collaboration are my documentary and his suicide prevention website, killthinking.com.

I began to realize that making meaningful media sometimes has a personal cost–and perhaps it always should. My creative choices have always been questioned. Sometimes my answers strike people with more satisfaction than others. I think such questioning (of ourselves and of others) is very healthy, though–not just for creative efforts but in general; I’m writing you in a time of national leadership that bombs first and asks questions later. We would be living in a better world if we were just a little less certain of our own hubristic convictions.

All of these debates came to a head around the Slamdance Guerilla Games

competition. What are your thoughts about those events, looking back on them

several years later? Do you have any clearer sense of why the festival made the

decision to pull the game?

If the Dawson College shooting was the low point in the discourse of SCMRPG, Slamdance pulling it from the Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition would have to be the high point. For the first time, I was not defending my game in solitude but with some solidarity–often from game developers far more talented and established than I. If it weren’t for this competition and the controversy that pulling out the game created, the dialogue about games with a social agenda would be slightly further behind. Finally game writers and cultural critics began to take notice of the double standard our culture has imposed on games in comparison to other popular media. Finally the game wasn’t the central scrutiny of every article it was mentioned it. Finally the wagons were being circled and the case was being made in the larger culture for Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

In terms of why the game was pulled, I think the most likely answer is the most disappointing: Peter Baxter was unwilling to assume the same legal risks of showing a controversial game as showing a controversial film. In the service of obscuring this double standard, circular logic abounds: music clearance issues which had previously been vetted were reintroduced, “moral obligations” which had been previously weighed, and the imagined loss of sponsorship when in fact a sponsor only left upon the game’s removal rather than its inclusion.

As I write this, the Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition has completely fizzled; entrants into the last iteration of the program have been refunded their entry fees. While film festivals such as Slamdance want to celebrate independent game making, the task must be taken with utmost respect and courage for the medium. In the meantime, several substantial game industry events are held annually to celebrate independent games and game developers are deeply appreciative of them.

Why Universities Shouldn’t Create “Something like YouTube” (Part Two)

Universite de Montreal is developing a new web strategy, they intend to

integrate web 2.0 features. They are thinking about letting students become

publishers, but they fear a teacher backlash. Is this fear reasonable? What

would be the worst case scenario?

When we create more open platforms, we destroy old monopolies of information. That can be a brutal blow for those who gain their self worth from their role as the dispersers of that information. So, yes, when you open it up to students to submit materials, teachers feel threatened. There are some legitimate concerns here, having to do with the credentializing of information and the liabilities of the university. For most of us, credibility on the web is situational: we are not so much assessing content as we are assessing the reputations of the sources of that content. We tend to put our greatest trusts in the institutions we would trust for information in the physical world. So, many people who sought information from Universite de Montreal or MIT will make a general judgment about the reputation of the institution and then apply it to all content which gets circulated.

For me, a lot of this has to do with how we frame the materials — as a reference work (which meets certain criteria of reliability, which many faculty members would be hard pressed to meet) or as a space for investigation, deliberation, and discussion (where there are ongoing conversations about the value of different content being circulated). Most academic web resources represent the former; Wikipedia and YouTube would be better understood as the latter. The need is to be clear about who is contributing the content and then you need to create a context where the community has the literacy practices and collective intelligence processes to take ownership over critically engaging with the materials being shared.

Everyone in the university would need to have a stake in insuring the integrity of the process and that means being highly critical and skeptical of anything that gets submitted, whether by a student or a teacher.

Can a platform upstage the learning process ? By that I mean that students

would get lost in a pile of information and would no longer be able to know

what to use ?

A platform certainly can upstage the learning process if by a platform you mean a technology. It is not at all unusual for faculty members to become enchanted

with one or another kind of hardware and not think through its pedagogical implications. We can see some of the ways universities have embraced Second Life as an example of this process. Second Life has some remarkable affordances which can support powerful new kinds of learning, but it’s also a challenging technology to learn how to use. There’s no point in using it for things that can be done just as easily through more traditional learning platforms and there’s no point in using it if it takes much longer to learn how to use the program than it is going to be possible to use the program for instruction. In

other words, we have to do a cost/benefit analysis and know why we are using this platform, why it is better than traditional means, what it allows us to do that we couldn’t do otherwise, what challenges it poses to learners, and so forth.

On the other hand, I would argue that a process or a community is less likely to upstage learning because for the most part, it comes with its own pedagogical logic and if you work within that logic, everything you do will ultimately contribute to learning. Again, the choice of the community needs to be aligned to the pedagogical goals, because the community will impose its own goals which will often be more deeply motivating.

Is there more value in sharing ( as with OpenCourseWare) or in mashing and

allowing expression ?

For me, they are two parts of the same process. When I hand you a printed book, which couldn’t be more fixed in its content and couldn’t be harder to reconfigure, you are still going to pay attention to only those parts that are of interest to you; I can’t determine whether you read the whole thing; I can’t determine what parts you cite in other works you write; and indeed, the book only becomes valuable when you can take out your yellow pen, mark up the passages that are meaningful to you, compare them with other books on your shelf, and use them as resources for your own explorations and ruminations.

So, why should we imagine that digital resources are any different? Once you share them, they are going to be sampled and remixed, if they are of any value to the person who receives them. That’s at the heart of the learning and research processes. So, the question isn’t whether to allow remixing; you can’t stop it and you really wouldn’t want to if you could. The question is whether to facilitate it or for that matter, whether to increase the visibility of what readers do with the content you provide. In the end, that boils down to the question of whether you want to be part of a conversation or whether you simply

want to publish.

In our participatory culture, though, keep in mind that publishing as an end unto itself is having diminishing return and people are much more likely to be drawn towards spaces which enable and support meaningful dialog. You can try to block it, if you wish, but you are also cutting yourself out from the marketplace of ideas, so what’s the point?

Should all this self-expression be recognized ? Where can we draw the line between « artistic self-expression » and bad work ?

The point is that I don’t draw the line; the community draws the line. A society where there is lots of bad work out there is ultimately more generative than one

which supports only excellent work. It provides points of entry for more people who are encouraged to try things, be bad, get feedback, and do better. A society which circulates only excellent work creates too strong a barrier to access and thus discourages most people from producing anything. The result is that we lack the diversity we need for collective decision making or shared cultural experiences.

So, the goal should never be to get rid of bad work; the goal should be to develop mechanisms which helps us to identify what we see as valuable or meaningful work according to our own criteria. There are a number of different mechanisms which allow us to do so: we can have gatekeepers who curate the materials and use their personal reputation to bestow recognition on work they consider valuable; we can have some kind of system of aggregation, such as Digg, where many people vote on what’s valuable and the “best” stuff rises to the top; we can have some system of collective deliberation in which we have ongoing debates about what constitutes good work and what works are

good. All of those mechanisms can be found at work in one or another site online.

We still don’t fully understand how these mechanisms work and what kinds of areas each works best. And universities would have a lot to contribute into research in these areas if they would free themselves from the burden of feeling like they can only support excellence.

A lot of bad work could tarnish the reputation of a university. How can it reconcile openness and the promotion of itself as a supplier of good knowledge?

It depends on what the university is trying to sanctify: is it seeking to guarantee the integrity of the product (in which case, every bit of content needs to be vetted) or the integrity of the process (in which case, the university is creating a space where people learn through vetting each other’s content.) Is the reputation of a university based on the fact that they gather together lots of people who know things or is it based on the fact that they create a context where the ongoing questioning of information takes place?

What is the role of universities in this new « knowledge society » ?

Universities have gathered together many forms of expertise into one institution and they have provided the time and space for those expertise to be exercised

around compelling questions. They have developed processes by which questions can be asked and answers can be debated, where information can be produced, exchanged, and evaluated, and where expertise can be exchanged between many different minds. So, how do universities expand those functions and processes beyond their brick and mortar campuses? How do they open up these conversations to include a larger public who wish to continue learning beyond their undergraduate years or who wish to learn things that are not available to them at their local level? Universities can potentially play an enormous role here but it requires them to rethink their interface with their public and indeed, requires them to expand their understanding of what constitutes the constituency for higher learning.

Note: In response to the first installment of this interview, reader Chris Lott asks why the Creative Commons license for MIT’s Open Courseware initiative constitutes a “conservative” approach to Fair Use. I am not, in this case, concerned about reader’s making Fair Use of my materials. They are welcome to use them with attribution as far as I am concerned. But my problem is that as a media scholar, I need to be able to provide excerpts from other people’s media — especially corporate media — if my teaching materials and approaches are going to be accessible to people around the world who may not have ready access to American media. MIT’s position is that we have to clear rights for every piece of material that we include in our course materials, rather than asserting a broader understanding of Fair Use which would define such materials as being circulated for the purpose of critical commentary. I apply such a broader notion in my own blog but so far, the Open Courseware people will not accept this perspective and as a result, I’ve been locked out of contributing to this program. People often ask why not use materials under Creative Commons license and the problem is that the kinds of materials currently circulating under Creative Commons tends to be indie media, which is great, but in teaching media studies, I also have to deal with material by mainstream media and universities feel themselves vulnerable to the exagerated assertions of copy right by many corporate rights holders. I hope this further clarifies my position.

Why Universities Shouldn’t Create “Something like YouTube” (Part One)

I was recently interviewed by a Canadian journalist, Alexandre Cayla-Irigoyen

Chef de pupitre – Societe Monde, about OpenCourseWare, Collective Intelligence, and the modern university. Somehow, the interview questions sparked me to dig deep on some ideas that I hadn’t really formulated before and I figured the answers might prove interesting to blog readers. So I asked the reporter if I could run the transcript here, once he had gotten what he needed from it for his story.

I read your book (Convergence Culture) and also a couple of other of your publications. You argue that, right now, the school system is failing its children because they are learning more experimenting outside class than in it. Do you think that Internet and the tools that are being developed will help change this situation ?

The internet is improving opportunities for learning for at least some portion

of our youth, but most of what is most valuable about it is locked outside of

schools. For example, many American schools block all access to YouTube, to

social network sites, even to blogging tools, all of which are key sites for

learning. Schools are discouraging young people from using Wikipedia rather

than engaging with it as an opportunity to learn about the research process and

to engage with critical discussions around issues of credibility. The schools are

often frightened of anything that looks like a game to the point that they lock

out many powerful tools which simulate real world processes, encourage a ‘what

if’ engagement with history, or otherwise foster critical understanding of the

world.

As long as they react to these developments as risks rather than resources, then those kids who have access to this online world are going to be de-skilled as they enter the schoolhouse gates and those kids who don’t have access are going to be left further behind because they have been abandoned by the institutions which are otherwise best situated to address the digital divide in terms of technical access and the participation gap in terms of access to skills and experiences. So, yes, informal learning is taking place outside of school for those who are able to access it but the refusal of schools to engage with it further amplifies the inequalities between information haves and have nots.

Can such changes be implemented in university classes? Flexibility seems to be the key aspect of this new approach whereas the university classroom is typically governed by a rigid student-teacher relation (at the undergrad level at least).

Whatever their limitations in terms of bureaucratic structure, most university

instructors have much greater flexibility to respond to these challenges than the average public high school. Unfortunately, by the time we get to college, these gaps in experiences, skills, and resources will have already had a near lethal impact on those kids who are being left behind. It isn’t just that we will need to have a head start program to get them the technical skills they need to deploy these technologies. It is going to be much harder to give them the sense of empowerment and entitlement needed to allow them to feel fully part of the online world. They are going to be much less likely to play and experiment with the new technologies because they will be afraid of failing and looking dumb in front of classmates who will have been using these tools for more than a decade.

That said, we certainly do want to integrate these skills into college classes, because they are key to higher order thinking an research in most of our disciplines, because doing so is the best way of reaching a generation that expects to be able to participate in social networks and manipulate data through simulations. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking we can fix a decade’s worth of neglect through the public schooling system.

How can an institution recreate the type of communities you spoke about in your book ?

The kinds of communities I discussed in the book are what Cory Doctorow calls “ad-hoc-cracies.” They emerge quickly in response to shared interests and concerns. They last as long as people need the community to work through a common problems or query. They vanish when they are no longer useful to their members. They are radically interdisciplinary or I’d prefer, “undisciplined,” in that they draw together people with many different expertises and they deploy social networks which observe few of the barriers to interaction we experience in the physical world to bring people together who should be working together. They develop informal yet very powerful systems for vetting information and for carrying out deliberation.

Almost none of this holds with the average college class which has a fixed duration, a prearranged sequence of materials and problems, a disciplined border, a geographically narrowed location, etc. So, if we want to integrate these into our classes, they require

much greater flexibility in imagining what constitutes an educational context. They certainly involve developing projects which span disciplines, which link several classes together and requires students to build on each other’s work, and which may straddle multiple universities dispersed in space. All of this is easier said than done, of course, but we should be experimenting with how to achieve this goals since at this point it is even hard to point to many real world examples of what this would look like.

MIT has the OpenCourseWare program that seems to follow a more open logic. Does MIT have other programs that would help it achieve (or create) a more open, flexible and creative environment ?

The Open Courseware Initiative has very worthy goals — indeed, the vision

behind it is deeply inspiring to me. Universities like MIT should be opening up their resources to the planet. We should being supporting independent learners and providing materials to support education in parts of the world which do not have what major research institutions have to offer. The scale on which Open Courseware is operating now is astonishing and a real tribute to the people who developed it.

That said, I do not myself participate in Open Courseware. I freely give away my own content through our various blogs, podcasts, and online materials. But MIT has failed to assert a strong Fair Use defense which allows instructors to meaningfully quote from and repurpose existing materials as part of their instructional process. As a media scholar, my teaching centers on helping students understand other people’s media content and if I can’t quote from and share that content with the users of the Open Courseware, I can not meaningfully reproduce my instructional practices online. MIT had an opportunity to be a leader in the arguments about Fair Use, especially given the good will they have gotten through Open Courseware, yet they have chosen to take a very timid and conservative legal approach to these matters and as a consequence, I feel like it severely compromises the goals and ideals of the Open Courseware initiative.

I am thus a conscientious objector in my relation to this project. I am going into this here not to slam the Open Courseware people but to suggest that the ideals of free distribution of content by educational institutions are compromised by the current intellectual property regime and that we are not going to be able to meaningfully achieve the full ambitions of such a project until we develop stronger defenses around Fair Use.

At the present time, MIT is thinking about its next step in its Internet strategy (after the OpenCourseWare project), what are the options ? What should a university try to implement ?

Many universities are trying to figure out how they can build “something like YouTube” to support their educational activities. Most of them end up building things that are very little like YouTube in that they tend to lock down the content and make it hard to move into other spaces and mobilize in other conversations. In a sense, these university based sites are about disciplining the flow of knowledge rather than facilitating it. As I think about what makes YouTube YouTube, I see a number of factors:

  • Anyone can submit content at anytime and thus doesn’t have to operate from a base of academic and institutional authority. It respects multiple kinds of expertise, understands people are differently motivated, and appreciates that information can be posted for many different reasons.
  • YouTube content can be embedded on any website, blog, or social network page. It is spreadable and it gets value as it gets inserted into these various contexts, because they represent different social communities which are having ongoing conversations. YouTube sees information as something that can be used, not something that is simply stored.
  • YouTube provokes responses. Indeed, the most valuable content on YouTube is content which inspires other users to talk back, reframing and repurposing materials, coming at them from many different angles.
  • The content on YouTube can be reconfigured many different ways. It is not part of a structured curriculum; rather, it is modular, nonliner, unstructured. And as such, we are encouraged to play with it rather than being disciplined to approach it in set ways.

    So, I don’t know for sure what the next stage of an academic content system looks like but my own sense is that it should look MORE like YouTube and less like what university lawyers and department heads think will be “something like YouTube”.