Desmond Wong and the Art of CarneyVale

I am gladly turning over my blog today to Geoffrey Long, a CMS alum who is currently the Communications Director and a researcher for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, as we seek to showcase one of the lab’s major success stories.

As someone who has watched this game take shape from a simple concept into a full-fledged title, I am busting out of my buttons here. This is a real testament to the value of what GAMBIT is trying to achieve and the team which its director Philip Tan has pulled together. But it is also further validation of the idea that creative and innovative games, from Flow to Portal, can come from university- and school-based research and training programs.


Thanks, Henry!

The Independent Games Festival recently announced the finalists for this year’s Seamus McNally Grand Prize, and all of us here at GAMBIT were thrilled to find our game CarneyVale: Showtime included on the list. Showtime, which was developed by the GAMBIT Singapore Lab using XNA and is available for download now on Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE community service, is the spiritual sequel to our summer 2007 prototype game Wiip. We sat down Desmond Wong, a recent graduate of Nanyang Polytechnic who was the lead artist for both Showtime and Wiip, to discuss how art was used to link the growing CarneyVale franchise together.

CarneyVale: Showtime
CarneyVale: Showtime

How was the art style chosen for Wiip?

During the concept stages of Wiip, the team was trying to settle on a suitable theme for a whipping game. We tried all sorts of ideas and eras ranging from cowboy western to jungle tribal. However, none of the themes had that special factor to them, they felt too overused and unoriginal. Eventually, the idea of being a ringmaster settled in. We knew it would be cool to be a raging ringmaster with a ferocious whip, and the idea of a mysterious circus quickly came into play.

My initial concepts for Wiip were very dark and creepy, with outlandish animals and clowns. Although interesting, we knew that we needed something cuter and more approachable. Fortunately, the team had another artist who drew really cute and wonderful things. We had her take a stab at the early concepts, and she came up with her own cuter renditions. Eventually, the final product ended up as something both cute and creepy at the same time, a perfect balance between the two.

Art trailer for Wiip

How did the art style change between Wiip and Showtime?

Slinky

If Wiip was the growing child, then Showtime is the maturing teenager. For Showtime, the art style took a more circus city feel to it. It was literally a city with circus performances on its streets. With that, we could have all assortments of neon signs, glowing lights and bustling color. The genral rendering of the characters also took a more mature turn. instead of kiddy characters, the characters in Showtime are more proportionate and grown. The style of shading also changed, employing more tones of shade and detail.

Despite all the changes, the art style was generally kept to roughly the same feel. The bright and colorful characters and scenery were still present, and the quirky designs never disappeared. It was just an art style evolving as time went on.

Who or what would you cite as the inspirations behind CarneyVale’s art style?

Environment

The biggest inspirations for the art style for Showtime were definitely Cirque du Soleil and Las Vegas. I remember the team watching video performances by the Cirque du Soleil troupe, and the costume designs just blew my mind away. Las Vegas was also a huge inspiration to the art style. Being a city circus, I looked to Las Vegas for its neon lights and signboards to give life to CarneyVale. I also used Las Vegas a lot when trying to merge a circus and city together. I would look at photos of that city, and imagine it with circus elements on it, and it would always work.

Artists such as Yoji Shinkawa also give me tons of inspiration. Famous for his work in the Metal Gear series, what I really like about his works is his ability to generate such a distinct style of his own. The way he paints and conceptualises his ideas are what I respect most about this particular artist.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/video.aspx?vid=9c5941d9-8996-41e6-aaa1-e2c127bf19b2" target="_new" title="CarneyVale: Showtime trailer ">Video: CarneyVale: Showtime trailer </a>
The trailer for Showtime

How did you consciously use the art style to tie Wiip and Showtime together?

Slinky

The colors were the main things. When I was working on Showtime, I made sure that my color palette contained all the colors I used with Wiip. This was mainly the reds and yellows, however, I made sure to inject new tones and colors to keep things fresh. I also made sure to include the familiar red and white curtains from Wiip in Showtime as well. This served as a link between the two games, and added a distinct circus vibe to the game as well.

The general details for the items in the world were also kept consistent to tie the two games together. For example, I employed a certain motif in Wiip that I reused on some of the props in Showtime to keep the world whole and seamless. Most importantly, the narrator for Showtime is the main character from Wiip. No better way to tie two games together than that.

What’s your usual workflow like? How do you go about creating a piece of art for the game?

Cannon Concepts

Usually I start with an idea. Ideas can come from anywhere. I got the idea for the Grabber prop by walking past those toy machines where you had to direct a hand to grab the toy you wanted. When I have a general idea down, I take it to the paper and pen. I sketch my ideas out and make sure to do as many variations of it as I can. I also find it very useful to get input from the people around me at this stage when the idea is still fresh and at its infant stage.

Around this point, I start choosing the best few concepts and proceed to creating art for the game. I use Photoshop to draw out and color the art, and once that is done, I export it out and get it ready to be put into the game. From here on, it’s mostly seeing what works and what does not. For example, the launcher for the missile looked good on paper, but when it was put into the game, it was a little too big and bright. The good thing is that once the art is there, it’s mostly just tweaking to strike the perfect balance between making it look good and work well too.

If you were to do a third game in the series, what new types of imagery would you like to explore?

Wiip took place inside a busy circus tent, and Showtime took place in a bustling city at night. For the third installment, I would really like to see how the game would look like in outer space. We initially wanted to bring Showtime into space for the last few performances, but scrapped the idea in the end. What I really want to try is actually put Slinky in a world where gravity is at its weakest. The image of Slinky doing a double back flip in slow motion while floating upwards is too good to throw away.

Being outer space, I could go crazy with the art style. There are just so many quirky things an artist can design when he isn’t restricted. Imagine shooting through the stars on a flying comet as you are flung through rings of fire in front of a multi-colored nebula. It would be nothing short of legendary.


The winner of the Independent Games Festival’s Seamus McNally Grand Prize will be announced at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this March. Keep an eye on the GAMBIT Updates blog for more details.

Mapping Maps

This weekend, Project New Media Literacies will host an event which brings together educators and new media specialists to brainstorm about ways we can integrate new media technologies — especially Google Earth, Google Maps, mobile phones and handhelds — and new media literacies into the teaching of maps and cultural geography. As we get ready for this “ideation” workshop, I thought it was a good time to share an essay written last year by Colleen Kaman, one of the CMS graduate students, on the role which maps play in shaping her intellectual development. Kaman is now writing a thesis about new media and the human rights struggle in China. She is a researcher at the Center for Future Civic Media, where she is helping to draft a white paper outlining what we mean by “civic media” and where she blogs for the Center’s website.

Maps and National Geographic: of Stories Untold

by Colleen Kaman

One of my earliest memories of the world was the globe that my father brought home. It was almost certainly something he had come to own in exchange for dental work because he often accepted payment this way. I was six or seven and found it magnificent. It stood on a smooth wooden base, tall enough so that I could peer at eye-level while studying the shapes and colors and lines, trying to imagine what might exist in the faraway dots. I remember spinning the orb, glimpsing the spot my dad and I had marked to locate our hometown near Lake Michigan from the blur of countries and oceans. I loved to trace my finger along the horizontal Mercator lines and imagined that they were paths from here to there, wherever that might be. The blank spots on the map, bounded by the intersections between latitude and longitude but otherwise vacant of any suggestion of what might exist there, worried me a bit. I figured the lines might be a kind of rail that I might slip along, allowing me to circumnavigate the world without sliding off into the unknown. Those blank spaces were also a constant source of fascination – and the conflicting desire to understand what I was looking at and to be surprised by it.

Sometimes I spun the globe as hard as I could, waiting in anticipation for the foreign-sounding place my pointed finger would land when it finally came to a stop. I would find places with names like Helsinki, Zinder, Christchurch, or Tashkent. I studied the names, but the words meant very little since I hadn’t even seen a picture of these places. So instead I would imagine what I might find there. Part of the excitement of looking at a map was staring for hours at the continents while letting my mind wander. After all the very nature of exploration was “an assertive action in the face of uncertain assumptions, often involving false starts, missteps, and surprises”(Turchi, p12). Perhaps it was this desire to explore that lead me to increasingly wonder what happened in all that empty space on the map? What stories weren’t revealed?

By the time the globe disappeared from our house, almost certainly the victim of my mother ‘s harsh discouragement of my father’s tendency to barter by eventually banning many of the items that arrived this way, I had discovered National Geographic magazines. They were the perfect combination of detachable foldout maps between the glossy images and fabulous stories of faraway people and places sparked my imagination. My parents enjoyed sharing visions of the future (for example, assuming we survived a Soviet attack, we might one day get all of our food in pill form) rather than tell stories about the family’s history. Maybe this is why I became obsessed with finding places where history existed in the present. I found it in the pages of National Geographic. I thrilled at the images and texts about women in brightly colored dresses, men riding elephants down the streets of Bangkok, young boys racing water buffalo, and a tiger amid lush foliage, and a gaucho riding along the pampas of Argentina was like peering into a jumble of a world rich in narratives and histories. I saw the maps as the common language that we all spoke; it would take a few years and another experience for me to realize that maps could mean different things to different people.

I remember watching the 1984 Olympic games held in Sarajevo, at that time part of Yugoslavia, on television. I was eleven years old. I loved the gymnastics and skating the best but would watch all the events I could when I got home from school. I cheered for the U.S. athletes, especially against the Soviet or German teams. Still, I found the footage of this Socialist country enticing, and resolved that this would be the first foreign nation I would visit when I could. I took great pleasure in finding the places on the map where the Olympic athletes lived. I could better imagine their stories once I’d rooted national identity to place (Malkki, 1992) and touched the name of an athlete’s hometown on the map with my fingers, seen how the words might nestle within the topography, see how far it was from the sea and from other borders. Sometimes a country stood on its own, geometric and stoutly sure of itself the way the state of Nebraska or Kansas looked. But usually they leaned or draped across one another in some fashion. In either case, the global map reflected a world of absolutes. There were no vague spaces or what Trinh Minh Ha has called ‘bleeding boundaries’ but rather as nations fixed in space and on a map “as a discrete spatial partitioning of territory … in the fashion of the multicolored school atlas”(Malkki, 1992).

But increasingly, these borders seemed arbitrary. As I watched the East and West German athletes compete, I considered how the straightest, firmest lines of the national borders never seemed to hold the way the crooked lines of the rivers and arched topographies of mountain ranges did. I had seen old maps of the Roman, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires as well as depictions of the borders during the Second World War. I knew from school that the USSR had swallowed up numerous countries, including my father’s ancestral home of Lithuania. I tried to imagine its faint outline on maps at the time and hoped for freedom for them. I’d been taught in school that the thick borderlines on the global map would tend to change only in favor of creating modern, post-ethnic democracies around the world. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution that same year only confirmed this worldview. What I never considered was that the clear lines of nationhood might fracture in other places, and the future might hold the dissolution of nation-states.

When I heard about the intense ethnic rivalries between numerous groups, including Bosnian Serbs and Croats Yugoslavia in late 1980s, I studied the world map in search of any fault lines that might explain how the country that had been a symbol of the late-twentieth century’s hard fought willingness to overcome the ethnic divisions that had wrought such destruction during the first and second World Wars. I knew that in the past and as a place called the Balkans it had been prone to terrible ethnic divides, but on my map the nation called ‘Yugoslavia’ looked hale and whole. By 1989, National Geographic magazine published a map, the first that I remember seeing, that suggested the depth of the ethnic problems . This map’s multiple colors clearly illustrates what Edward Tufte has called the “struggle between (the) maintenance of context and enforcement of comparison”(76). It represents the numerous fractures between different ethnic groups while continuing to imagine Yugoslav ‘nationhood’, this time in the lack of continuity within the national boundaries. Identity is still territorialized, now seen in terms of various colors (to label as well as for aesthetic reasons)(Tufte, 81) but now also as a cultural construct (although apparently one that doesn’t extend beyond the borders). Malkki, quoting Akhil Gupta (1988), offers insight into this conceptualization of people and space in general as ‘images of break, rupture, and disjunction. The recognition of cultures, societies, nations, all in the plural, is unproblematic exactly because there appears an unquestionable division, an intrinsic discontinuity, between cultures, between societies, etc.’ At the risk of sounding callous or naive, one of the most personally heartbreaking moments of the war for me occurred with the destruction of the famed Mostar bridge (built1566) in 1993. It was the first time I really grasped that that the world was far more complex than the one I saw on my map – that it might look different to somebody else, or that the geo-political nature of a map might obscure culture, identity, and ideology.

I had a boyfriend in college who covered his room with photos from National Geographic magazine. For the most part, he used images of remote places around the world that had been pulled from issues dating from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, peppered with the occasional image from the beginning of the century. There was a certain romance to what he had created, to look at many images and places morphed into one ‘world,’ It also distilled National Geographic‘s parallel history with the field of Anthropology, the study that came of age in the Victorian Era of collecting curiosities and that famed anthropologist Clifford Geertz described as a “science born in Indian tribes, Pacific islands, and African lineages.”

In the end, I refused to sleep in the room more than one night because I found the whole experience too creepy. As much as I liked many of the individual images, I also found the assemblage of photos effectively divorced the images from any sense of place or ‘authentic’ experience and cultural ties in favor of consumer-oriented tourist’s gaze of what Arjun Appadurai (1988) calls ‘natives’ who ‘are not only persons who are from certain places, and belong to those places, but they are also those who are somehow incarcerated, or confined, in those places.’ Moreover, I now believe that these lines of nationhood were largely the imaginations of mid-twentieth-century geo-political elites and that they tend to fail in part because notions of nationhood and ‘nativeness’ rarely express themselves along lines as clear and as smooth as those found on a map of this sort. Such maps assume a national unity and ‘rootedness’ within the straight thick borders that flatten cultural, ethnic, territorial differences (Malkki, 1992) and construct space and place in a manner that reveal a Western expectation that “we live in singular cultural worlds (i.e. imagined communities)” – and that a choice has been made between one world and another (Robins, 2008). Despite this problematic aspect of National Geographic‘s magazine, the images and maps they contain embody but one type of meaningful visualization of the geography of knowledge in the world.

My definition of a map has once again broadened significantly in recent years. The geo-political variety no longer seems quite as interesting as it once it, but still I find the concept of ‘mapping’ intriguing and deeply meaningful. Recently, I was staying in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at an apartment that was about two blocks from the site of a bombing of a school that killed several children. It was a pretty street in a ‘good’ part of town and had every sign of being a safe place. A guard directed traffic. The air was fragrant with the smell of jasmine. Parents walked children dressed in crisp white uniforms home from school. Nothing about the place suggested violence. I looked at the location on a (local) map and still found no sign that this might have happened. I find myself thinking once again about narrative and about the multiplicity of attachments and meaning that people around the world form to places through living in, remembering, and imagining them. How might the resident of Colombo map this experience into all of the other meanings of place and identity? A map might not hold all of the answers but it remains a powerful tool to remember stories that might otherwise be forgotten.

Bibliography:

Cosgrove, Denis E. and Veronica della Dora (2005) “Mapping Global War: Los Angeles, the Pacific, and Charles Owens’s Pictorial Cartography.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95 (2).

Malkki, Liisa. (1992) “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 1, [Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference] (Feb.), pp. 24-44.

Parameswaran, Radhika. (2002) “Local Culture in Global Media: Excavating Colonial and Material Discourses in National Geographic.” Communication Theory 12 (3), 287-315.

Robins, Kevin. (2008) “Media and Cultural Diversity in Europe.” (unpublished manuscript).

Tufte, Edward. (1990) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press LLC, Cheshire, CT.

Turchi, Peter. (2004). Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. Trinity University Press. San Antonio, Texas.

Turkle, Sherri. (ed) (2007) Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Going “Mad”: Creating Fan Fiction 140 Characters at a Time

Fan fiction. Brand hijacking. Copyright misuse. Sheer devotion. Call it what you will, but we call it the blurred line between content creators and content consumers, and it’s not going away. We’re your biggest fans, your die-hard proponents, and when your show gets cancelled we’ll be among the first to pass around the petition. Talk to us. Befriend us. Engage us. But please, don’t treat us like criminals. — WeAreSterlingCooper

This is a pretty good statement about the contradictions many fans are experiencing

as they try to interact with media producers in what we’ve been promised is a

new era of “interactive media”. This was written by Bud Caddell, a strategist for

a New York based digital think-tank, Undercurrent, who is also a fan of the AMC

television drama, Mad Men, and “tweets” under the name of Bud Melman, a mailroom clerk at Sterling Cooper advertising. In short, he’s an industry insider who is also a fan and someone who consults in advertising who in his spare time enjoys pretending to be a mail clerk at an advertising firm in the 1960s.

Got that? Good. Don’t make me repeat myself.

Seriously, the fact that Caddell can be both an industry insider and a fan simply demonstrates the degree to which those lines are blurring from all sides in our contemporary convergence culture; the fact that his fantasies have something to do with his real world identity should also not be a shock to anyone who understands the

psycho-sociology of fandom. Some have argued that Caddell is not a “true

fan” because he’s also a “marketer,” but that’s like saying one can’t be both an academic and a fan at the same time. For the record, I’d also call myself a fan of Mad Men! We’re all all multitudes within ourselves.

In his ‘mundane’ guise as Bud Caddell, media consultant, he’s posted a fascinating account of how fan fiction emerged around Mad Man through the unlikely channel of Twitter and how this fandom, like so many others, faced legal challenge from the producers of the program they were hoping to help promote.

I am sure that I will lose cool points if I confess that the joys of Twitter have largely escaped me. Anyone who reads this blog knows that brevity is a virtue I do not possess and the idea of blogging at 140 characters at a time is not a hobby I plan to embrace anytime soon. I like to tell people that I am a marathon runner, not a sprinter, but the reality is I just don’t know when to stop. But I’ve been following this story peripherally for a while and was glad to finally get a more detailed and systematic account of what happened. Caddell’s account should be required reading for all fans and aca-fen but also for all brand executives and content producers.

As Caddell explains, sometime around the start of the second season of Mad Men, fans began to use the blog platform, Tumblr.com, to post a kind of advice

column, written in the voices of the program’s characters, responding to questions from fans, capturing the twisted sexual and interpersonal politics of the early 1960s. Soon, some of these same fans migrated, in character, to Twitter. With a few days after Don Drapper (the ad man protagonist of the series) began tweeting, he had some 3000 subscribers to his update, and his Twitter feed was soon joined by others written by Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Betty Draper, Roger Sterling, and a dozen or so other characters — primary and secondary — from the series.

We can think of these tweets as fan fiction in its most spared down form — these tweets

represented attempts to get inside the heads (or inhabit the bodies) of fictional characters and see the represented events from their perspective. Francesca Coppa has made the provocative argument that fan fiction might be understood as much as a kind of theater performance as it is a prose genre. (See her essay in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet). So, lets think of what was going on here as a kind of performance art.

Initially, many assumed that the tweets were a new promotional device launched

by AMC and their digital advertising agency, Deep Focus. Deep Focus CEO

Ian Schaffer, after all, runs a blog which has enlightened things to say about social media and audience engagement around brands.

Caddell says that he himself initially believed the activity was a deft example of what brand guru Faris Yacob calls “transmedia planning” (Check out this blog post

where I account how the concept of “transmedia planning” has emerged in the brand realm in response to Convergence Culture‘s account of “transmedia storytelling.”) Caddell created his own character, Bud Melman, so he could join the fun:

As an employee in the mailroom, he could have the curse and the good fortune of being invisible, which means I could tweet about what happened before or after the scene you saw on television.

Caddell, the industry insider became an unlikely fan advocate, when Twitter suspended the accounts of nine of the primary Mad Men characters, including Draper, Olson, and Joan Holloway, in response to a Digital Millennium Copyright Act “cease and

desist” notice from AMC’s lawyers. Caddell created the website, WeAreSterlingCooper.com, (and the manifesto quoted above), in order to call attention

to this conflict between the fans and the network, not to mention to aggregate the various Mad Men feeds.

As an industry insider, Caddell notes, he was deeply confused by the industry’s response to these practices. Mad Men‘s viewership had been declining sharply during the second season and there was every reason to think that these activities, small scale though they might be, were helping to generate fan interest and buzz again. The fans involved had offered to work with the series producers and promoters, seeking to better coordinate their efforts rather than creating brand confusion. As Caddell explains:

One element of entertainment and media that consumed me at the time as a marketer was the idea of what to offer fans to consume between commercial breaks, episodes and seasons. The twitter characters could provide other fans a way to play and interact between Sundays when the show aired. From a practical perspective, each single character by themselves was a novelty, but together they could weave an intricate web of conversations and events to follow.

Some sense of this potential was realized when Melman and some other fans staged a Twitter-based short story arc involving “a meeting at the Tom Tom Club for drinks and

shenanigans” just to show what could happen if they coordinated their efforts.

(Here, they start to sound more like the kinds of Role Play Game/Fan Fiction

writing activities that occurs in LiveJournalLand.)

So far, these overtures have had a chilly reception. Mark Deuze has suggested at

least two reasons why production companies get anxious around such activities:

the creative department’s desire for creative control, the legal department’s concerns about controlling copyright. Here, we can add a third: the promotional department’s fears about losing control over their brand message. Of the three, the last is perhaps the most absurd, since in reality, these companies lost control a long time ago; the fans can do pretty much anything they want with these brands and with a high level of visibility and going after them is a bit like Brier Rabbit pummeling away at the tar baby. Yet, even pretty innovative companies are getting trapped in the internal politics around television production and promotion, incapable of forming meaningful partnerships with their most active and visible fans, and thus almost certain to start acting in ways that are going to leave them, to continue the metaphor, looking “stuck up”.

As Caddell writes as a fan in the report’s conclusions:

AMC saw most of us as stealing something that was theirs. When in reality, we were expressing our affinity for the characters and the show.

Shifting perspectives and writing as an industry insider, he concludes:

We shouldn’t threaten fans with legal notices and we shouldn’t isolate them. We should cultivate the relationships we’re either lucky or gift to have and help them with their expression of their fandom. Brands should offer as much content in as many types to its audiences with the hopes that they feel to compelled to rearrange them and add novel elements to tell their own stories. We fight to insert ourselves in the conversations of real people, and that is exactly what happened with the Mad Men characters on Twitter. If we cling to this sense that we are the sole owner of creative work, we’ll continue to isolate that work from the actual world and the human beings we work to affect.

Fans have consistently raced out ahead of content producers and brand executives in their understanding of the potential of “transmedia entertainment.” They are testing new tools, moving into new communities, embracing new forms. Rather than seeking to silence or control them, creative agencies need to observe, document, and where-ever possible, join the game. Caddell’s dual status allows him to quickly translate what he’s learned as a fan into what his industry needs to learn. I just hope some of them are ready to read and take notes.

Thanks to Joshua Green for calling this report to my attention. Green, a CMS postdoc, and Madeline “Flourish” Klink, a CMS grad student, are listed as consultants on the report.

“We Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”: Jack Driscoll on Community Journalism (Part Two)

You describe a range of projects in the book including those involving youths and senior citizens. What generational differences, if any, did you observe in the ways they thought about their roles and responsibilities as journalists?

Young people are much more technologically adept in general. Older citizen journalists often get tangled up in the technology.

They approach issues differently. The youth have strongly held opinions and aren’t afraid to express themselves, be they nationally or international in scope. The older generation tends to shy away from letting fly with their political opinions especially. They have sort of a been-there, done-that attitude in many cases. I’d love to see research on how the young, middle-aged and seniors differ in their approach to political expression, especially when it comes to writing.

Obviously subject matter differs wildly among the young and the old, who don’t know Eminem from an enema.

The young tend to go at each other more, arguing and debating, sometimes getting personal, whereas the seniors have only occasional flare-ups that die down quickly. I suspect they do a lot of internalizing.

Both groups pride themselves on high ethical standards. The youth seem to be very cognizant of their audience, the fact that it is mostly other children or teenagers. No adult needs to monitor what they publish. Left to their own devices, they are quite careful.

The teen-aged editors (well, one was 12) who ran the Junior Journal seemed to think more about themes than do the seniors. Every issue would have a dozen stories on one particular theme. There would be 30 or 40 other stories as well. They were much better at outreach than the seniors who tend to do their own stories but seldom reach out to others to contribute stories or photos or artwork.

A lot of online chatter takes place among the youth as they prepare their editions, whereas the seniors do most of their communicating face-to-face. In both the Melrose and Rye groups there are still members who don’t have computers. They type their stories and someone scans them, or they write their stories in longhand and someone retypes them. One woman has a computer but never looks at her email. Still, she writes regularly and knows everything going on in the town.

Can you describe your own transition from Editor of the Boston Globe to someone helping to facilitate community journalism? What did you have to unlearn as a professional in order to embrace citizen news reporting?

When I was Editor of the Globe, an online community project was started in a crime-ridden Boston neighborhood of about 5000 by an MIT grad student and his wife. They enlisted teenagers to operate the site, which was Mac-based. Users ranged in age from age 6 to 80. I was fascinated how they used the site to tell what was going on in the community, working out an arrangement with the police department whereby users of the site could easily report a street light or traffic that wasn’t working. Using their website, they organized fairs and plays and other community activities that created healthy dialogue between old and young, something that hadn’t been occurring. It was a private site, so the teens went door to door and got permission to provide an email link to those willing. The result was a map on the site where you could click on a particular address and get an email box to write the person who lived there. Communication was crackling throughout the community.

I was made a part of the community, so I decided I could salt the website with stories every day. Every morning I would select stories from the Globe that I thought were particularly germane to that community and feed an electronic copy into their system. Sometimes they were what I call reactive stories–happenings from City Hall or the police department or wherever. Sometimes they were how-to stories on raising children or tips on cooking for special holidays.

When I left the Globe, after almost 40 years, I stayed connected with a media group formed by the MIT Media Lab in the late 1980′s called News in the Future. Most of the major newspapers were involved, along with some from other countries as well as television and radio entities. The projects the students and faculty came up with, large and small, were quite exciting. I had been chairman of the Globe‘s overall Planning Committee, so I knew the challenges coming down the pike. But to my amazement and frustration most of the media outlets ignored all the ideas, not the least of which was electronic paper and ink (Hearst being the exception).

Still, I thought community journalism was a plausible route to go with newpapers taking the lead to organize them and incorporate them. The only tricky part was figuring out a method of compensation. But that was a detail.

None of them seemed interested.

I didn’t give up. I figured out another approach that would be a stepping stone. A lot of newspapers were part of a successful program called Newspaper in the Classroom. The held one-day training sessions with teachers on how to use newspapers as a teaching device in the classroom, then produced lesson plans and then delivered newspapers to the schools, charging a low bulk rate. So a pupil would learn math by learning about baseball box scores or stock tables, or about geography by tracking ongoing news stories, or…well, you get the idea.

Given how well that worked in developing the newspaper-reading habit, I suggested to newspapers that they publish high school newspapers on their websites. Boston.com, for instance, would have a schools subsection with all the Boston school newspapers and all the suburbs. No takers.

So I approached a newspaper sponsor from Italy and another from Brazil about ten years ago. They leaped at the idea. Three of us from MIT spent a day with 200 teachers in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a while later Agencia Estado, a leading newspaper, opened its website to 100 schools in the region of Curitaba. The experiment worked well until a change of government apparently curtailed the program.

Meanwhile La Republicca in Italy advertised a similar program on kataweb.com.it. Today that one newspaper–about the size of the Boston Globe–carries 7400 school newspapers from junior high schools and high schools in 84 cities.

At about that point I gave up on US newspapers and started working with citizen groups for their sake not for the newspapers’ sake.

Major adjustments for me were lack of resources and a rejection of hierarchy. The first is a continual problem. They don’t need hardly anything in the way of financial resources but there aren’t enough people to thoroughly cover a community, even the size Rye (5300 population). Operating as a flat organization can be time consuming at times, but I have learned to relish operating by consensus. Someone has to orchestrate the functioning of meetings. Melrose and Rye have solved that by rotating the person who chairs alphabetically.

I tend to be a stickler about conflict of interest, certain ethical concerns and style consistencies (is it 3 p.m. or 3 P.M.?; is it spring or Spring?; if nine is spelled out, why isn’t twelve?, etc.). I’ve learned to look the other way when someone wants to write about the accomplishments of a volunteer group they belong to (although we insist they disclose their affiliation) or someone uses Photoshop to slightly alter a picture. But I am so swept up in the enthusiasm of the participants that I tend to honor the wisdom of the group over any personal journalistic prejudices I might harbor.

Americans are increasingly getting their news from national papers,

though there has also been a rise of micro-local news on the web. What happens to the middle ground between the two in this evolving informational system — news that occurs on a state or regional level?

I am now climbing on my white horse. I am very angry with publishers and broadcast executives. And a few editors. They have abrogated their responsibilities by cutting staff to the bone (especially reporters) and by dumbing down the news (TV has been particularly guilty of this). I don’t have the statistics at my fingertips, but there are studies showing dramatic decreases in the numbers of reporters covering state houses. That trend started long before newspaper profit margins started narrowing.

Some fast measures need to be taken. Technology can play a role. Public legislative sessions at every level need to be televised. Techniques for searching video archives need improvement. Better reporter tools would help. And there need to be more collaborations among media outlets. It’s ironic that Associated Press is apparently under siege at a time where that formula for coverage is more relevant now than ever. It’s also ironic since newspaper websites from their inception have been replete with AP stories even though newspapers claimed they were devoting staff to generate web articles. It hardly every happened.

Only recently have the newspaper newsrooms and their websites begun to combine forces. Editors were reluctant to ask their reporters to write a quick web story on a breaking news story, then turn around and write a different story for the next morning’s newspaper.

One answer is for citizens, whether they are journalists or not, to keep the pressure on state and regional governments to make records and meeting minutes available online in a timely fashion.

We typically think of news as valuable as a product — the newspaper and the information it includes — but many of your arguments about community journalism center on the value of participating in the process of identifying and generating the news. What do you see as the value of everyday people involving themselves in the process of reporting the news?

Somehow the activism of the Sixties petered out, and we became largely a nation of couch potatoes. Bowling Alone, the book by Prof. Robert Putnam captured that trend. Even now we go to local government meetings (Selectmen, Planning Boards, etc.) and no one shows up. However, average citizens are beginning to wake up to the fact that they don’t know what’s going on in their own hometowns. As taxes go up, they begin to take it personally. They want to know what’s happening and may even want to get involved in a particular issue from time to time. Little by little they are becoming aware that their local newspapers are letting them down. They are becoming aware that their elected officials don’t want them to know what’s happing. Last week I received an off-the-record email from someone working in Town Hall, saying, “The only way I know what’s going on is by reading your publication.”

Clearly those who get involved in reporting the news learn more about “what’s going on”, convey what they have learned to readers and, we would hope, a better informed populace translates into better governance.

You reference James Carey’s concept of news reading and writing as a ritual, suggesting “News is not information but drama.” Can you elaborate on this claim? I’ve often argued that civic engagement is as much a structure of feeling as it is a structure of information. How does community journalism impact the ways people feel about their communities?

Everyone has his own metaphor, I suppose. Carey, who shared some of his thinking in the halls of MIT a few times, was especially thoughtful about the ritual. He used drama as his metaphor, which I thought was an improvement over my use of orchestra or orchestral arrangement when I was at the Globe. Perhaps I overdid it, because they gave me a framed baton at one point.

News has its ebbs and flows, and to some extent the readers’ attention is affected by changes in patterns. Sometimes those shifts are caused by the news itself that is driven by inaugurations or Congress voting on a budget or weather or fires and shootings and the like. That’s called reactive news. Then there is proactive news, where a decision is made to probe a specific area: the latest trends in education, the mobile lifestyle, how other invaders have extricated themselves from countries they occupied…

In either case–reactive coverage or proactive–the journalist, community or otherwise, is trying to read the audience; trying to inform, respond to their needs and interests, provide them with what they need to know and what they ought to know and maybe even entertain them.

Publications, online or otherwise, need to figure how to engage readers; how to draw on them. This is not done by running insipid contests: Vote yes if you think we should withdraw from Iraq by June; vote no if you think that is too early. Or, vote yes if you think actress X should have her children taken away from her, or no if you think she should keep them.

The receiving of news should not be strictly a cerebral activity. News should be tweaking the imagination, angering, frustrating, moving a person to sadness and joy. It should at the same time be molding a true depiction of the community you live in with all its flaws and all its richness. It is very much an emotional engagement.

Most of your projects are rooted in geographically local communities where people at least some of the time meet face to face and write about people they’ll know. Is it possible to imagine community journalism operating on a global scale through online communities or would the process necessarily change without the face to face contact?

My experience is mostly centered on seven years working with youth between the ages of 10 and 18 from 91 countries.

Again, we come to the question of mission. Members of the Junior Journal wanted to reform the world. Not a bad mission. Plenty to work with.

The problems they addressed cut across geographic boundaries: war, environment, abuse, etc. It was fascinating to hear how these issues were handled in India and South Africa and Mexico and Russia and the United Arab Republic and China and Argentina and Australia and on and on.

What started as a group of 30 wound up with well over 300. Their only face-to-face contact was among the 30 originators for five days before they started their publication. The individual reporting aspect didn’t seem to be that adversely affected. Recruiting of writers didn’t seem to be a problem. But the inability to recruit and train editors proved to be the publication’s downfall as little by little editors reached an age where they were too old and going off to college. If even a quarter of the group could have met for a few days once a year the Junior Journal would be humming today.

In short, even though they had no editor-in-chief and arrived at all major decisions by email consensus, the importance of a leadership group being in sync and understanding one another, even though they might argue a lot, was essential to survival.

But let me proffer another model. Perhaps we should call it a “confederacy” model. It could be all-volunteer or commercial. This would be a loosely connected set of community publishing groups with similar missions that operate independently within a state, region, country or world, but are tied together electronically. Perhaps they would use the same publishing software, although not necessarily. They would be able to use each other’s stories. They would share a joint archive. Perhaps they could share a database of theme photographs and graphics. They might share a set of guidelines for issues of style, usage and publishing matters such as libel, copyright, etc. They could develop an internal, fully electronic help desk.

“Hello, desk? How do you handle photos of children under 12?”

“Waterloo: If the child is identifiable, we don’t use the photo without permission of the parent or guardian.:

“Sarasota: If the photo is taken at a school, we consider permission from the headmaster as equivalent to parental permission (in loco parentis).

“Austen: We never run photos of children that show them in awkward situations.”

Perhaps there could be a repository for investigative projects that other groups could use for hints on doing their own investigation. Even better, what if there were jointly reported stories?

I remember when working for United Press we often received or sent messages to all bureaus saying something like: “We are doing a story on the impact of the economic crunch on social service agencies. Please survey some of the agencies in your region for anecdotal information, making sure you touch base with small, medium and large agencies. Please send us a memo of not more than 2,000 words by next Friday.”

Again, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

For more reflections on Couch Potatoes Sprout, see Ellen Hume’s post about the book for the new Center for Future Civic Media blog.

John S. (Jack) Driscoll has been Editor-in-Residence at the MIT Media Laboratory since 1995. Previously he was at the Boston Globe newspaper for nearly 40 years, seven as Editor. He is the author of Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism.

“We Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”: Jack Driscoll on Community Journalism (Part One)

One of the pleasures of living and teaching at MIT for the past 20 years has been the chance to build ongoing relations with a fascinating cast of characters, many of whom have been regulars at the MIT Communication Forum events that are run by my colleague, David Thorburn. These events have attracted people from across the campus, from neighboring universities, and from the greater Cambridge area, many of whom have been coming regularly for a decade or more to listen to smart, citizenly discussions about democracy, new media, and public life. The Center for Future Civic Media partners regularly with the Communication Forum to host events, including ones this coming semester on Popular Culture and the Political Imagination and on Race and the 2008 Elections. I met Jack Driscoll at one or another of these events. Our paths have criss-crossed off and on through the years. And for the past year or so, he’s been actively involved with our new Center for Future Civic Media, a joint CMS-Media Lab effort funded by the Knight Foundation.

Jack’s an amazing guy! He fully embodies the classic concept of a “gentleman of the press.” He spent forty years of his life working with the Boston Globe — that’s a newspaper for those of you who only get your information on line — and for seven of them, he was the editor. Many of his generation were confused, frustrated, even enraged by the growing competition digital media has posed to traditional forms of civic communication. But Jack was fascinated. He migrated to the MIT Media Lab where he’s been working to help construct the future of what he calls “community journalism” first through the News of the Future group and now through our Civic Media center. He’s been doing work on the ground with senior citizens in local communities in New Hampshire and with young people in a virtual community which spans the globe. He hasn’t just built prototypes to demonstrate the potentials of new tools and technologies; he’s helped to inspire and instruct, advise and mentor, and most importantly, sustain publications over extended periods of time.

Driscoll recently published a book, Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism, which shares some of his experiences and offers sage advice about how and why community journalism may become an important part of the contemporary newscape. What I love about the book is its emphasis on journalism as a practice and a process rather than simply a product, since it is clear that working on these publications is empowering to those who become involved, changing the ways they think about themselves and their communities.

I was lucky enough to get a chance to pick Jack’s brain about community journalism and to be able to share his perspectives with you here. As you read this, you have to picture this ruddy faced man with gray hair, a sparkle in his eye, and a broad toothy smile. Jack represents what was best about the old style journalism and he represents a bridge to what may be most vital about the future of civic media.

You begin the book with the quotation, “now anyone with a computer is a newspaper.” So this begs the question — what is a “newspaper” and thus, what are the differences between individuals or communities publishing the news and the kind of work that has been performed by professional journalists.

The “computer-is-newspaper” analogy refers to each of them in their roles as vehicles for transmitting information to a wide audience. In the early days of the printing press there is evidence that citizens took advantage of the newspaper mechanism as a vehicle to spread their views in the form of flyers and pamphlets and then as periodicals that evolved into newspapers. When James Franklin started his weekly newspaper in 1721, he is said to have invited readers to contribute. One of those readers was his 16-year-old brother Benjamin, then a James’s typesetter, who thought that was a pretty good idea, so pretty soon he started writing essays under the name of “Silence Dogood”.

The flatbed press worked pretty well in those days, because the population was small and time was not of the essence. As the printing-press technology became more advanced, citizens played a lesser role, relegated to Letters to the Editor. Before email, we’d get more than 300 letters a day at the Boston Globe and print 10 or 12.

As time passed, citizens became receptacles for news and information. It was a one-way street. The computer changed all that.

Citizens have responded slowly for the most part, but we do have bloggers and we do have digital photos and video unfurled when there is a major news event, and we now have twittering.

The most lumbering form to arise is community journalism. Folks have the image of group publishing as being a really difficult process. The reason I wrote this book was to demystify the process. In short, it’s not that difficult, it’s rewarding and it’s fun.

Without sounding like a Harvard Business School professor, “mission” is the key word in describing the difference between individual and group publishing. Bloggers come in a variety of forms: In some cases they are voicing strongly held opinions, in others they are aggregators or instructors; some are champions of causes. You like to think their mission is to elevate the level of discussion either on a broad range of topics or a specialized field. For the most part I think they are succeeding.

Community groups so far seem to be the product of a spirit of public service and frustration. The youth I worked with from around the world were bursting to have their voices heard. They were not happy with the way their world was being run, but the adults in their lives had pretty much kept a thumb on them. The Junior Journal was an outlet to let ‘er rip. To their credit they didn’t just pontificate. They did research and reporting. They had their own experiences to speak from. I remember one vivid story about a child soldier, age 12, who was used as a spy by his Sierra Leone unit, because he could slip in and out of enemy camps easily. When I asked how the writer could know so much detail, the editor responded, “Because he was the child soldier.”

With adults there seems to be a feeling that their communities are not being covered in the media. Newspaper staff cutbacks have exacerbated the problem. It’s not just the institutional news, but the stories about the fabric of the community, the personalities, the achievements of groups of individuals, the problems, the culture.

The Melrose SilverStringers have been around for 13 years but rarely write about their local government. They seem to leave that to the local weekly newspaper. Rye, N.H., on the other hand, tries to keep up with the local boards while at the same time writing about issues, trends and people. Community groups enhance the ability to cover issues, because of the variety of amateur interests in the group: the history buff, the energy enthusiast, the horticulturist, the climatologist, the expert cook, etc.

One member of the Rye group is a former operator of a small ski slope in the next state. There is absolutely no place to ski in Rye, a flat seacoast town, but he has a strong readership whether he is writing about Stowe, Vermont, or Vail, Colorado. He writes from experience, not just because of his business background but also because at age 80 he still skis. And lots of residents of Rye go skiing, too. So he has developed a following.

Community groups have found that the word “localized” refers to stories of high interest in their local community. Travel is one of those topics. An early Melrose story described a local couple’s adventures traveling in the Northwest of the U.S. in an Airstream trailer. One of the highest number of hits in Rye was for a story about a trip to Quebec City. That was 18 months ago, and the story still is getting hits.

And so in community groups, if you have enough diversity, you can reflect the range of special interests of a city or town over time.

I’m deliberately sticking with the three communities featured in the book, but when we look at the spectrum of community groups now sprouting elsewhere, you see the local news/feature groups but you also see more and more communities of interest. A lot of them center around health and self-help issues. They tend to be experiential, and their stories react to the news about new treatments, new medications. Their mission is to share, hoping to improve the lives of others.

Finally, I would suggest that community groups tend to do more original reporting than bloggers. The best bloggers, like the best mainstream media columnists, tend to build their blogs around research and reporting; the good bloggers do a lot of research; then there are large numbers who simply are expressing their views with maybe a few links thrown in from time to time.

Can you explain the concept of “community journalism” as you outline it in the book? Do you see this as a specific kind of “citizen journalism”? What difference does it make that the projects you describe involve many people in a community working together as opposed to the model of the lone blogger?

The other day five of us were in the throes of publishing the January edition of Rye Reflections. It could be done by one person, but we divvy up the responsibilities and turn it into an enjoyable 60 or 90 minute exercise. That’s community at work.

As we were finishing up, another member of our group wandered into the room we were working in at the Rye Public Library and was clearly excited. He wanted to tell us of an interview he had had that morning with a blind man who is well known in the town for his upbeat attitude and willingness to get out and about, with help. He shared that the man had spent a couple of hours before the 9 a.m. interview cutting wood outdoors. It was 5 degrees that day.

Someone in the group suggested he interview a longtime elected official who takes the blind man to the bank and the Post Office and the local coffee shop. Someone else suggested he talk to one of the regulars on the 10-seat van that takes seniors food shopping, because the blind man is known for entertaining the other passengers, often quoting poetry and telling stories. That’s community helping to add dimensions to a story that one person might not scope out alone.

When the Junior Journal editors–of which there were 12, one for each month–planned their editions, they tried to come up with a theme each month that would resonate throughout their global community. Issues ranged from AIDs, war and peace, and protecting the environment; to children-specific issues such as child workers, child soldiers, suicide; to cultural issues such as wedding customs or celebrations of holidays. They did this as a collaboration, via email, with a certain amount of give-and-take involved as they shaped the idea and more give-and-take as they shaped individual stories with their reporters. Again, it is people working together to enhance the quality of what they are presenting.

And so in community journalism you get a collaborative effort, a sharing of wisdom and experience, that hones the final output. And, almost as a by-product, you experience a form of social networking in the process.

Then there is the critiquing process. It exhibits itself in the editing process but it tends to go beyond that as members develop trust in the group and learn to be open and honest about commenting on the works of others.

Media literacy? As community journalists they better understand the basics that go into creating a story, they become much more astute in analyzing the work of mainstream media.

In Rye we actually engage in community-building activities that have evolved rather than being imposed. At our weekly meetings we start off by going around the table and giving each person a chance to share whatever they wish. It might be about a family matter, an amusing experience, a comment on national politics. Like many periodicals, Rye Reflections prides itself on its recipes, so occasionally a writer will cook up one of her (occasionally his) creations and bring it to the meeting to share. An annual potluck dinner at the seashore has evolved with some members putting on a skit and it now looks as though there will be an annual end-of-year home gathering, because one couple in the group went to Sweden last year, raved about the glugg and invited the Rye “Surfers” to their house for a meeting followed by some goodies washed down with glugg (not too strong, I should add).

At one level you could say that community journalism proves that two minds are better than one. But there also is the diversity of minds that enriches the publication. It may show up in the form of liberal, conservative, libertarian or whatever; it may show up in knowledge about the history or ethos of a community; it may show up in the form specialities (gardening, climatology, sports, culture, etc.) or in the forms of photographic or videographic expertise…

When some of these special-interest members combine, you sometimes get fascinating results. Whoever thought that a massive email conflict among several members of the Junior Journal over Kashmir, would evolve into a marvelous article co-authored by a Pakistani girl and an Indian girl or that two writers, one an Israeli and the other Palestinian would call for cooler heads in the Middle East or that an article about a lesbian being harassed in school would be published, because a passionate online discussion over the incident resulted in a consensus that it was a story that needed to be heard.

Much of the book assumes that traditional journalism style, ethics, and

practices provide the best models for community practices. Yet, there are many other possible models for what community journalism might look like and the circumstances of producing community journalism is very different from a professional newsroom. What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of modeling community journalism after established news practices?

I feel a little like the circus barker: “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.”

Citizens haven’t begun to tap the potential of community activity that will soon take on much more of an advocacy mantel, in my opinion. And, I’d guess, it’ll take off in directions we haven’t imagined.

The traditional approach has been adopted so far, because most average citizens prefer to walk before they run. They are tending to ape mainstream media. But the most important reason is because they seem themselves filling a vacuum that is coincident with the sudden rise of online computing. Most localized groups see themselves as supplementing traditional media, picking up the slack.

We’ve seen blogging take on a major role in politics, especially on the national level. Community sites won’t be far behind. And not far behind that will be special-interest groups within local communities and regions.

Still, there are some advantages to the traditional model. It promotes diversity of interests and opinions. Much like academia. Participants tend to keep each other honest but at the same time learn from one another. The model will have longevity, whereas advocacy models will tend to either splinter over issues or die out as the issue becomes less cutting-edge.

The disadvantage is that checks-and-balances make story generation hard work. Stories need to reflect all sides. They need to stand up to peer review.

It’s a busy world, it seems. More hectic than I remember my parents experiencing, even with ten children in the family. So there is a question as to how much time adults will be willing to spare for community journalism, whatever form it takes. (There are, of course, commercial forms appearing here and there. They, of course, tend to be traditional in approach.)

For teenagers, however, I see a lot of possibilities. I have a bias, but my experience tells me that online youth groups would function best outside of the school framework, which tends to stultify their creativity. They have a lot to offer, and the future is theirs. Libraries, girls and boys clubs, etc., would be ideal settings.

John S. (Jack) Driscoll has been Editor-in-Residence at the MIT Media Laboratory since 1995. Previously he was at the Boston Globe newspaper for nearly 40 years, seven as Editor. He is the author of Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism.

Reconsidering Family Photographs

Not so many years ago, I was visiting my parent’s home in Atlanta. As we were sprawled around the living room, glancing through the Sunday papers, my mother let out a gasp, “It’s like I’ve seen a ghost!”

She passed the paper over to me and showed me a photograph, which I was pretty sure I had seen several times previously. It depicted Martin Luther King being led through the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta following one of his many arrests for civil disobedience. It was being reproduced this time in anticipation of a PBS special about King. “Yes, I’ve seen this picture of King before, Mom.”

“No,” she said, “it’s Pap!” I looked more closely at the photograph, searched my memory, and realized that one of the deputies escorting King was my late grandfather. Needless to say, I was now as stunned as my mother by the discovery that my grandfather had been involved in King’s arrest.

Now keep in mind that I never really knew “Pap,” my mother’s father, who had passed away in the late 1950s when I was a little over a year old. He was someone who lived for me primarily through old photographs — including many that are included in my own yellowing baby book. He was the kindly looking man who had given me my first haircut, since he had spent much of his life running a barber shop in downtown Atlanta. There were pictures of him bouncing me on his knee as a newborn and there were snap shots of him receiving visitors from his hospital bed shortly before his death. There are even photographs showing the huge mound of flowers at his grave-side. Family legend is that half of the city passed through his barbershop and a goodly portion of his friends and associates had turned out for his last rites. From old family stories, I knew that he had helped to run the city’s draft board during World War II and that his own oldest son had ended up in a POW camp in Germany. My father liked to tell a story about sitting in Pap’s patrol car and having baby Henry reach up and pull the siren, creating a minor ruckus.

It was hard to reconcile these images and stories about my grandfather with the popular representations of King’s captors and tormentors, hard to reconcile the photographs in my baby book with the all too familiar images of King’s followers being knocked down by fire hoses or besieged by attack dogs. So, the new information passed over me with a wave of shock and shame. As a white southern male who grew up in the south during the civil rights era, I have always struggled with issues of liberal guilt, not sure about my ability to talk meaningfully about race, unsure how to acknowledge my own complicity in a system of white privilege. And here, suddenly, the issue was asserting itself with a new degree of urgency.

For me, this era of segregation was perhaps best summed up by two childhood memories, which suggested the transitions Atlanta underwent in the period of my childhood. When I was about five or six, my parents dropped me off at the Decatur Courthouse to attend a “Toys for Tots” performance of Peter and the Wolf. My parents were going to meet me outside after and I went in proud at being on my own for perhaps the first time in my life. After the concert, I wandered outside, eager to find them, and they were nowhere to be seen, having gotten turned around and exited the building in the wrong direction. Not particularly paniced, I must have decided that I should just try to walk home and so I headed out on my own, wandering through street after street for the better part of an hour, while my frantic parents turned the city upside down. What I remember from that day was wandering through an entire neighborhood without saying any white faces. Disoriented, I had moved into the black section of the still segregated city and for the first time, I experienced what it was like to be in a minority position. I was growing up in an almost entirely white world yet I hadn’t realized it until that moment. I’ve always been fascinated by a Flannery O’Connor short story which described more or less the same experience — a young child separated from his parents who finds himself encountering a world where there are no white faces.

When I was a child, my father had owned his own construction company and I spent a fair amount of time playing on building sites, collecting bottles for the deposit money. One day, I found myself playing with several other children my age who happened to be the offspring of black construction workers. What did we do? We were collecting big black blocks of tar with the stated plan of creating our own tar baby, inspired by a recent screening of Walt Disney’s Song of the South. Once our parents learned of our creative project, there was a general awkwardness. Though both sets of parents had taken us to see the movie, there was an understanding, even then, that this was not an appropriate thing for little black and white children to be doing together. The Uncle Remus stories were too closely associated with a history of race and racism and the tar baby embodied sticky problems none of them knew how to talk with each other about. Even as a child I saw there was something wrong with this picture.

As I grew older, I would struggle with my identity as a white southerner. There were times in late elementary school when I would wear confederate flags on my belt buckle. Those flags were never intended as statements of racism, but rather as assertions of my own racial pride. My family had lived in Georgia for many generations. We had old photographs that showed my great-great-grandfather in his Confederate uniform. I had no “mother country” that I could trace my heritage back to and this was the source of some discomfort by the late 1960s and early 1970s when many of my classmates were proclaiming their ethnic pride. For me, the Confederacy had been that mythical past to which I could trace my roots — not a living symbol of the current divisions between the races — but over time, I came to realize that in embracing this symbol that I could cause a great deal of pain for others. Could I be proud of who I was and where I came from without it becoming an assertion of white supremacy?

Through the years, I’ve resented the ways that the south has been made into a kind of national scapegoat. As a southerner growing up when I did, I always knew I had to confront racism, one way or another, and decide where I stood. Atlanta might call itself “the city too busy to hate” but there was never any easy way to escape the burden of self reflection. Some of my friends growing up were racists and made no bones about it. Some of them have spent their lives battling the Klan or contributing to the Southern Poverty Law Center. But all of them understood that racism had something to do with who they were and how they related to the other people around them.

When I was in graduate school in the Mid-West, I was struck by the unthinking racism of many of my students. I remember that one fraternity at a big ten university held a “Martin Luther Koon” birthday party, where people had come in black face, played craps, and eating water melon and fried chicken. Some of my students went to the party, not sure what to expect, and some of them told me later that they hadn’t really thought this could be hurtful to anyone. It was all a big dress up game to them, having grown up in the rural midwest and having had little exposure to actual African-Americans. They had never been forced to confront the implications of their own racism and so they imagined racism as something that happened in the south that had nothing to do with their lives. It isn’t that I didn’t know people growing up who would have held such a gathering but they would have known what they were doing. Being there would have been a conscious choice — for better or not. Yet, having the image of a racist south has so often been used as a way to deflect that kind of self examination and thus to simplify the history of race in America.

And so, my first response to seeing the image of my grandfather arresting King was one of shame to see someone who was so beloved in my family history play such a controversial role in the history of the nation. I didn’t want anyone to know about that connection. I didn’t want to talk about it. I certainly didn’t know how to talk about all of the feelings that this image brought up for me.

But, then something else occurred to me,and that was the possibility that this same photograph might be found in the family albums of King’s grandchildren and that through this shared image and the history behind it, our lives were complexly intertwined.

When I had looked at the photograph before, my grandfather had been just one more faceless white southerner in the background of the photograph. Yet, now, he was pushed into the foreground in my consciousness. And the photograph became a way of thinking about the subjective experiences that at once connected and separated people of different races who came of age in the same city and in the same generation. There would always be a constant set of shifts between who was in the foreground and who was in the background depending on whose perspective was being brought to bear on this image. And indeed, I was reminded of photographs of my mother’s childhood where black maids might be seen in the background of family portraits — people who, in that classic southern formulation, were always seen as “part of the family” but who were the matriarchs of their own families with their own histories which no one in my mother’s household could have told you.

We can not easily separate out these different subjective responses to these shared images. Given the degree to which black and white lives imposed on each other even in the most segregated days of the south, we would always be visible in the background of each other’s photographs and always appear as shadowy, not fully understood figures in each other’s narratives.

This sense of connection to this historical moment, of course, also changed the ways that I have come to read accounts of King’s life and his political mission. King has always been an inspiration to me — not the least through his capacity to imagine the possibility of social transformation and cultural change, his faith that a dark chapter of American history could give rise to something more hopeful. I have come to respect King’s utopian imagination — which comes through especially in the “I Have a Dream” speech. King used “hope” as a resource through which to frame a powerful critique of the limitations of his society. By imagining a world where white and black children could play together, he was able to embody the ways that his own society fell far short of those ideals and he and his followers were able to transform that critique into an agenda for change. He described a better way and inspired many to pursue it.

As I have read these historical accounts, I recognized that the whole politics of civil disobedience meant that King counted on white men of conscience who would be shocked into action when he provoked reaction and retaliation for his protests. The point of civil disobedience was to force the system to react and in doing so, to show its excesses and contradictions. In some cases, the white men who arrested King were cast as embodiments of racist traditions and practices whose rage was turned against them through a kind of political judo. In other cases, the goal was to provoke more thoughtful men to question the institutions and practices to which they had committed their lives by forcing them to play out the contradictions between their own sense of justice and what the system required them to do.

There were white southerners who actively supported King and his movement. King wrote in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail in 1963:

I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some-such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle—have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty n-word lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.

I will never know what kind of person my grandfather was or how the experience of arresting King might have changed him. I like to imagine him as someone like Ralph McGill whose respect for basic human dignity made him question the society of which he was a part. I like to imagine that if he had lived much past that moment, he might have been part of the change which the south underwent during the early days of my childhood. I will never know what he was thinking that day, though I’ve studied the photograph trying to give meaning to his cryptic expressions, trying to read motives into the body language of a man whose personality is totally unknown to me, beyond the stories my mother used to tell about him. I wonder what it says that my mother never knew that her father had been one of those who had arrested King.

When Barack Obama spoke about the confusion and anguish that still surrounds the relations between white and black America in his campaign speech in response to the Wright controversy, I was touched. Here’s what he said about his own grandmother:

I can no more disown him [Wright] than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

I understood what he meant. I can not “disown” my grandfather. In fact, the process of struggling to make sense of this photograph has strengthened my emotional connections to him. It has made him more real as a figure in my own personal narrative. I can’t excuse him for what he did, even though, of course, like so many others, he was “just doing his job.” I can’t hide from who my grandfather was or what he did and I can’t use my guilt and anxiety as an excuse not to speak up about race in America today.And I can’t allow myself to feel good about myself as if somehow I had escaped that racist past into some post-racial society where “race no longer matters” just because I voted for Obama.

I cringe every time I hear a commentator talk about how voting for Obama allowed whites to feel better about themselves, knowing that on some levels, of course, it was true that I saw my vote as one step towards undoing what my grandfather had done so many years ago. I am reminded of the work Justin Lewis and Sutt Jhally did about Cosby, which described the “enlightened racism” they found in white responses to the series. Many of them felt that seeing Cosby and his family as “people like us” meant they had escaped racism, that they were no longer accountable for any legacy of harm and discrimination, and that race no longer caused any obstacles to advancement and thus no forms of affirmative action were required.

This week, we will watch the first African-American man (well, significantly, a mixed race man) become President of the United States. Some have described Obama as part of a “Joshua generation” of African-American leaders. King had seen into the promised land, like Moses, but was not able to lead his people there. Obama, the story goes, and his contemporaries were going to be able to build the new society and thus in some small way fulfill King’s dream for a more just society. I wept when Obama clinched the presidency and I am sure I will weep when he takes the Oath of Office. But this, too, is too simple a response. There is still much we need to overcome.

The “Obama moment” requires us to take risks, to ask hard questions, to venture into uncomfortable territory, and to have an honest conversation about race in America. We can’t wish race away but we have to re-examine the complex ways that our lives are intertwined and have impinged upon each other. We need to be having this conversation at all scales, large and small, local and global, online and off, and through many different channels of communication. The “Obama moment” offers us all a chance for redemption and transformation but it won’t come easily.

Maybe it’s time for more of us to take another look at our family photographs and see what’s been hiding there all the time.

Loomings 2009: What Obama Might Have Learned from Moby-Dick

The following post was written by Wyn Kelley, a Melville scholar, who is collaborating with Project NML (New Media Literacies) on our teacher’s strategy guide on “Reading in a Participatory Culture.” The work we’ve been doing on Moby-Dick would not have been possible without Wyn’s passion for the topic and her commitment to teaching. More than any one else, she helped me to see that there are fans of serious literature just as there are fans of popular culture and that we have much to learn from each other about how we engage with texts that really matter to us. She recently shared with me these interesting reflections on Obama’s reading preferences and what they might tell us about his vision for the country. I wanted to share them with you — along with my own best wishes on the dawning of a new era in American history.

“Loomings 2009″

by Wyn Kelley

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”

“WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.”

“BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.”

After September 11, 2001, some commentators wondered if Melville’s phrases in the opening of Moby-Dick prophesied a twenty-first-century war in Afghanistan. This year, as we observe a new inauguration, his words about an election for the presidency might seem strangely apt as well. Few have considered, however, whether “WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL” matters to the government of the United States.

Now, apparently, it does. According to a statement on his homepage at Facebook, as well as in various interviews and profiles, incoming president Barack Obama’s favorite books are Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. What does this information suggest about our new president?

Song of Solomon, the story of an African-American man searching for his identity, seems a likely inspiration for Obama’s account of a (somewhat) similar quest, Dreams from My Father. But Moby-Dick? One would hardly associate Obama with Captain Ahab, a man of furious passion bent on revenge. Nor does he much resemble Ishmael. As verbally inclined as Melville’s narrator, Obama nevertheless has assumed political leadership, whereas Ishmael prefers the role of observer.

Perhaps he is an island prince, like Queequeg? Yes, he comes from a distant Pacific island, but Obama has taken his place within American society as Queequeg never does. Does he, like Bulkington, have a soul that can “keep the open independence of her sea”? It may be too soon to tell.

One possible answer appears in Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father. In contemplating an early failure when working as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama describes himself as like “the first mate on a sinking ship” (166). Call me Starbuck?

Ishmael portrays Starbuck as a “long, earnest man.” He admires his valor: “Looking into his eyes you seemed to see there the yet-lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted through life.” Ishmael pays tribute to his “august dignity,” which he associates with a “just Spirit of Equality, which has spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind!”

Starbuck, however, goes down with the Pequod. Obama took the helm of what he saw as a sinking ship and steered it to Washington.

On further reflection, we might conclude that Obama is less like Melville’s human characters and more like the whales, who maintain their equilibrium in widely diverse regions. “Oh, man!” says Ishmael, “model thyself after the whale! . . . Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. . . . [L]ike the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.” Perhaps our new president has the whale’s “rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness” with which to endure the hazards of nature–or American politics.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Faculty at MIT and has published

extensively on Melville. Other projects include working with the New Media Literacies

group at MIT and the Melville Society Cultural Project at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

in New Bedford, MA.

Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: An Interview with Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, and Jill Denner (Part Two)

There’s an emphasis throughout the book on user-generated content. One can argue that modding and other user-generated forms of content have made it easier for women to repurpose existing games to better meet their interests. Yet, one could also argue that this reliance on user-based solutions has marginalized female-interests into narrow niches rather than reshaping the design of commercial games. What do you see the gains and losses surrounding user-generated content?

CARRIE: I applaud tools to place modding and customization in the hands of more players. But these new tools will not stop advocates for girls to grow their technological comfort and expertise from wanting them to pursue the more difficult (and more powerful) advanced forms of customization through programming. Hopefully even when in-game toolsets for customization are available, it will still be possible to dig deeper and change the game even more.

JILL: The chapter I wrote with Shannon Campe describes the types of games made by 126 middle school girls, when they are given the tools and supports to design and program their own games. In fact, we found that girls’ games were not highly gendered. Instead, many used humor to play with, explore, and challenge gender stereotypes. At the same time, they created games that addressed topics of great interest to them, such as fears about getting into trouble at home or school, and on moral decisions. These are topics that are relevant to many teens (male and female) but are completely absent from the most widely accessible games.

YASMIN: It’s one of these unpredictable and interesting twists in the history of gaming that for once researchers interested in gender and games predated a paradigm shift in what you now call participatory culture. User-generated content carries with it the high and low: most of what is generated is not particularly compelling, if only for personal reasons, but then there are always a few examples that rise to the top. It’s a gain because so many interesting developments are happening on the margins of gaming in discussion boards, machinima – this is what makes gaming an interesting experience. It’s a loss if we see player-generated content as the answer to the gender issue. It’s not. There is a place for professional design and production and consequently the people there need to become more cognizant about how inclusive or exclusive certain design decisions are.

All evidence suggests that adult women constitute the largest market for casual games. Has this market dominance led to any shifts in the decisions made by game designers serving this space? Does the book offer any insights into why more women play casual games than platform games?

CARRIE: Adult women tend to have less free time and the free time they have is available in shorter chunks of time. That makes games they can pick up and play in short blocks of time more possible and more appealing. Some casual games are available on platforms, but purchasing the console and getting it out and setting it up can be more than a casual commitment. Using the PC for games and the rest of life is in line with multitasking games and the rest of life.

Casual game companies are adopting approaches to acquire a sophisticated understanding of their market. Part of the beauty of online games is an ongoing connection with the player and continuous collection of play data. The game companies I am familiar with involve their most avid players and other volunteers as beta testers, and prior to beta, conduct frequent play tests before deciding the next game is ready to shift. Once a game company has a successful property, they start working with that audience to expand and improve. I don’t see the market and the game company as being totally separate. Game design is becoming quite an intimate dialog.

YASMIN: This is really one of the areas deserving more attention research-wise; it just popped up when we started pulling together the book edition. To begin with the name alone ‘casual’ is of course a misnomer. It implies that these games are not as hardcore or serious as platform games because they don’t require hundreds of hours of game play. Some however argue if you compile all the hours spend on casual games albeit distributed you end up with similar levels of involvement.

TL Taylor also made the observation that many of these word and puzzle formats found among casual games have a longstanding history of women playing them. So what we see is not the sudden emergence of the women gamer or a new genre but rather a continuation of traditional game play moving onto a new platform. It might be worthwhile to untangle all these different aspects …

When we first edited our book, we were often asked why it mattered whether or not women played games. A decade later, what evidence has emerged which might offer a better response to this question?

CARRIE: I think games are still in the process of oozing into all walks of life. So the “one decade later” mark is not an end point but a stepping stone. There will be more change in the next ten years than there were in the last ten years. Games are sometimes and will increasingly be necessary for some jobs, and recommended for personal physical, emotional, and cognitive health. The Pew Foundation report on teens, gaming, and civic life reported that 99% of teens play games, and those who play more were more likely to be active in civic life.

I admit I am a blatant enthusiast, but games offer the curious mind a way to experience, learn, and play outside of the mundane constraints of the physical world. They are important for socialization and for maintaining and performing interpersonal relationships. They are part of participating in modern culture. Also, as games for health, games for learning, and games for social change continue to grow, playing games will be increasingly necessary.

JILL: The chapter by Elisabeth Hayes directly addresses this question. There has been a steady decline in student enrollment and graduation from computing majors in college, and a corresponding decline in the US IT workforce. Hayes argues that gaming can build IT expertise, which may potentially help to fill this gap.

YASMIN: There is one particular reason why it matters now more so than 10 years ago whether or not women and girls play games. This reason is tied to the current interest in games as promising learning and teaching tools. If we consider games effective tools and bring them into schools for that reason, then we better pay attention to their design so that everyone can learn with them. Then of course it matters what outside of school experiences you have because there is ample evidence that this impacts students’ participation and success in the classroom.

The book offers some close consideration of the experiences of women working in the games industry. What factors might make this industry more challenging for women than for men to enter and maintain careers?

CARRIE: The huge barrier is programming. 95% of game programmers are male, and the proportion of females major in Computer science continues to decline. For the most part, those with a major voice in game design are the programmers and artists (also 85% male) who work on the game day after day. We either need to find ways to get more girls and young women interested in computer science, or else game development culture needs to open up roles for design consultants who don’t come from the ranks of programmers and artists, but contribute in other ways.

JILL: The chapters by Mia Consalvo, and by Tracy Fullerton and her colleagues, describe how the culture of the gaming industry prevents women from entering and staying. Factors include crunch times that force employees to choose between home and work life for extended periods of time, and a devaluing of games that have social value.

The growing emphasis upon “serious games” and educational games raises new questions about gender, since it would be a tragedy if the use of games in the classroom made it that much harder for girls to learn and embrace Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math related subjects. What should educational game designers learn from the research presented in your book?

CARRIE: Part 4 of the book (changing girls, changing games) includes 3 chapters about science, math, engineering, and technology (SMET) games designed specifically for girls. The Click Urban Adventure is a mixed reality detective game in which teams of girls work together using science to solve a mystery. Kristin Hughes at Carnegie Mellon University used extensive formative research to understand some of the needs and desires of urban middle school girls in Pittsburgh. She was able to match narrative types, science tasks, tools and technologies, characters and personas to create a game very well suited to her audience. Her research showed the game was successful in generating a sense of agency and interest in SMET. Thus, games for learning do not, necessarily, exclude girls.

Caitlin Kelleher developed storytelling Alice, a tool for constructing animated stories, and for learning programming along the way. Her hunch that girls would be more interested in programming in order to build a story rather than programming to create a rudimentary game proved to be right on target. Middle school girls who used the Storytelling version of the ALICE programming software instead of the generic version learned more programming, were more delighted with the end product, and were more interested in going on to study programming.

Mary Flanagan created Rapunzel, a game in which players cooperate and compete to program dance moves. She and her team struggled to embed key activist social values within gameplay, such as sharing, cooperation, diversity, autonomy, self-esteem, and authorship.

Taken together these three projects shows that educational games certainly can be designed to appeal to girls. They reinforce the appeal of story and character and remind that games embody values whether designers intend them to or not.

The Heeter and Winn chapter reports on an experiment in which we found that rewarding speedy play interfered with girls’ learning, whereas rewarding exploration slowed boys down and helped their learning but did not change girls play behavior positively or negatively. So the chapter does advise educational game designers to come up with ways to make a game “fun” other than including a time limit. As we teach in serious game design graduate classes, creating serious games is even harder than creating games. The audience is often forced to play and usually includes males and females. Learning outcomes, not just fun, must be considered. I am convinced we are all still learning how to make great games for learning. Making the experience good for all learners is part of the requirement.

A decade ago, the core question was whether we should design games specifically for girls or so-called “gender neutral” games to be played by boys and girls together. Is this still a burning question? If so, what new perspectives have emerged over the past decade?

CARRIE: That question makes me schizophrenic. In the collection of research citations on gender and gaming that I have been curating, the two most frequent tags are “gender stereotypes” and “what women want.” The gender stereotype research tends to complain about girls and women are portrayed or conceptualized in stereotypical ways that ignore the wide diversity of female-ness. The what-do-women-want research reveals gendered desires and offers suggestions about how to create games to appeal to females.

From a design research perspective, Alan Cooper’s proposition to “design for just one user” follows the tradition of designing products to “delight the few, please the many.” That perspective implies that very best games for me would be designed for me. Some of what delights me also delights most humans. Some of what delights me would only appeal to a handful of other telecommuting, cat loving 52 year old new media professors. Even just satisfying one player would require many different Carrie-games, not just one. Each of us is more than our gender. The call for “games for girls” is a gross generalization. And yet, of course, some game designs are likely to be more appealing, overall, on average, to females and others to males. Schizophrenic. Sorry.

In her chapter, “Are Boy Games Even Necessary?”, Nicole Lazzaro points out that designing for an extreme demographic reduces market size. An extreme male-typed game or an extreme female-typed game both leave out what players like most in most games. Games have changed enormously in the last decade, transitioning to become a mainstream medium and big business. With such an enlarged playing field, the answer from a business perspective is yes games for girls and games for boys and games for everyone. Gaming is large enough that it is beginning to resemble the magazine market. There can be very narrow market game franchises (paralleling the range of women’s interest magazines from Vogue to Ms.) and more mainstream game franchises (paralleling Time or Newsweek).

Gender and gaming researchers tend to be more interested in empowering girls and women to engage with technology than they are with increasing game industry revenues. Betty Hayes’ chapter points out that boys are more likely to engage in constructive, game-related activities such as modding, machinima, and creating fan web sites. These behaviors contribute to their IT expertise. Games for girls often do not include modding or recording, and therefore inhibit rather than facilitate tech expertise. Tracy Fullerton, Janine Fron, Celia Pearce, and Jackie Morie envision a “virtuous cycle” in which more women work in the game design industry, resulting in more games that appeal to girls, resulting in more girls becoming interested in becoming game designers. It doesn’t matter whether the games are for girls, or gender neutral (ugh, that sounds so bland). We just want more appealing games.

My own research with colleagues Brian Magerko and Ben Medler at Georgia Tech and Brian and Jillian Winn at Michigan State University is moving in the direction of considering player type and motivation. We are working to develop and study adaptive games that express different game features depending upon what each individual player enjoys the most. Thus, instead of creating a game for girls, or a game for everyone, we create a game that can transform to become better for each individual player.

YASMIN: Can a game, or anything else for that matter, ever be ‘gender-neutral’? And who decides? Game design can and should be more inclusive; one doesn’t need to disrupt the narrative to offer more options for customization of characters or levels that are now common place for most games. That said, if we deal with younger players and school contexts, we need to be deliberate on what choices we offer in game designs to facilitate learning for various players.

In film studies, there has been extensive discussions of whether feminism has implications in terms of production processes and formal practices. Is there such a thing as a feminist approach to game design and if so, what would it look like?

YASMIN: A book chapter by Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum suggests an approach on how designers can identify the values that impact their design decisions from the initial conceptions to prototyping and play testing. You can call this a feminist design approach, if you want, or just plain good design strategy that can help everyone design better games.

We pointed to the rise of game companies as sites of female entrepreneurship as one factor that might shift the gender content of games. Why do we still see so few games companies run by women?


CARRIE: It seems like that ought to have started to change by now. Soon, perhaps? A few years ago game industry professionals complained that innovation was stifled because the game industry giants controlled distribution channels. But the growth on online computer game and movement to open up access to consoles seem to have eased some of the roadblocks.

Also, the proportion of female programmers in the game industry was only 5% in 2005, and 13% artists. The industry retains an ethic of “you have to be there when decisions are made” and an expectation that only those who do the heavy lifting have earned a say at the game design table. I am hopeful that new roles will open up such as design consultant to permit much broader participation in game design.

Happily, the Serious Game Design MA program at my university has had close to 50-50 female/male ratio of students in the first two years we’ve offered it. From where I sit (in a San Francisco basement telecommuting to a Midwestern university), there is plenty of interest on the part of women, and some are intending to start companies. Hopefully this same experience is happening on a much wider scale.

Our book ended with a consideration of Female Gamers as offering an alternative perspective on the “girl’s game movement.” Your book includes an interview with Morgan Romine from Frag Dolls. Such groups continue to be highly controversial with both feminist supporters and detractors. How would you evaluate their contribution to the issues this book explores?

CARRIE: A writer at the Chicago Tribune called to interview me about the release of the last Lara Croft game, hoping, I think, that I would be outraged. My response was to say Angelina Jolie is really cool, and although Lara’s dimensions are ridiculous I am enormously glad to have a strong albeit ridiculous female character be the basis of a game franchise. I’ve had fun discussion with some of my male undergrad students in a gender and games special topics course, talking about what it feels like to them to play her.

But you asked about Frag Dolls. My response is similar. I celebrate every game conference attendee they beat (male or female). What a nice counter-stereotypical impression they walk away with. I hate the violence of video games and it bothers me that anyone enjoys blowing people and things up, even in a game. I love their confidence and their energy. They are being exploited, but they are also getting paid to do something they really enjoy. It is the birthright of Frag Dolls and other young women to contradict interpret and express the next generation of feminism.

YASMIN: The Frag Dolls are also opening a whole new chapter on the professionalization of gaming that is happening in the US; it has been around in Asia for quite some time. TL Taylor, one of our book contributors, actually examines in her chapter the ramifications of this change in the gaming landscape. A group like the Frag Dolls is just the most visible signpost of this change. As gaming moves into mainstream entertainment and professions, it can and will not escape the gender issues present in other industries as well. Ten years ago, the observations in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat seemed to focus on a group on the margins of technology while in fact, they were telltale signs of things to come. The chapters in Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat discuss the complex and continuing story of women and technology now situated in the context of gaming.

A Professor of Learning Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School

at Education, Yasmin Kafai leads research teams investigating learning opportunities in

virtual worlds, designing media-rich programming tools and communities together with

colleagues from MIT, USC and industry. In the early 90′s at the Media Lab she was one

of the first researchers to engage hundred of children as game designers in schools to

learn about programming, mathematics and science. While at UCLA, she launched virtual epidemics in Whyville.net, a massive online world with millions of players age 8-16, to help teens learn about infectious disease. She also studied how urban youth create media art, games, and graphics in Scratch, a visual programming language developed together with MIT colleagues. Her research has been published in several books, among them Minds in Play” (1995), Constructionism in Practice (1996 edited with Mitchel Resnick), and the upcoming The Computer Clubhouse: Constructionism and Creativity in Youth Communities (edited with Kylie Peppler and Robbin Chapman). She has studied in France, Germany and the United States and holds a doctorate from Harvard University.

Carrie Heeter is a professor of serious game design in the department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University. She is co-editor of Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives in Gender, Gaming, and Computing and creator of Investigaming.com, an online gateway to research about gender and gaming. Heeter’s innovative software designs have won more than 50 awards, including Discover Magazine‘s Software Innovation of the Year. She has directed software development for 32 projects. Her research looks at the experience and design of meaningful play. Current work includes design of learning and brain games which adapt to fit player mindset and motivation and persuasive games where the designer goal is to engender more informed decision-making on complex socio-scientific issues. Heeter also serves as creative director for MSU Virtual University Design and Technology. For the last 12 years she has lived in San Francisco and telecommuted to MSU.

Jill Denner is a Senior Research Associate at Education, Training, Research Associates, a non-profit organization in California. She earned her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology in 1995 from Teachers College, Columbia University. She studies gender equity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, with a focus on Latinas, in partnership with youth, schools, and community-based organizations. She edited the book Latina Girls: Voices of Adolescent Strength in the US (2006, NYU Press) and is the founder of Girls Creating Games where she conducts research on learning and technology in the context of after school programs.

Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: An Interview with Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, and Jill Denner (Part One)

In 1997, Justine Cassell (then a Media Lab faculty, now at Northwestern) and I organized a conference, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, for the MIT Women’s Studies Program. It was one of the first academic conferences I’d ever organized, but I had no idea what a big deal it was going to be at the time. We brought together feminists from academia and industry to talk about the emergence of the short-lived girl game movement and in the process, we tried to explore what it would mean to expand the female market for games. A year later, Justine and I published a book based on the conference through the MIT Press, which has since become a standard in the Games Studies Field.

Now, history has repeated itself: Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun, seeking to understand what has changed over the past ten years, have organized a conference — at UCLA — and now a book for MIT Press, Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming, which was released late last year.

Justine and I were invited to speak at the opening of the conference and wrote an essay for the book exploring our own shifts in understanding the issues of gender and computer games since the conference. There, we express our pride — and mild discomfort — at seeing ourselves transformed from junior scholars to senior statesmen thanks to the publication of this new book. Frankly, I’m more flattered than anything else to see a new generation of feminist gamers, game designers, and game scholars take up this banner and release an important new body of research around the still very timely topic of women and the games industry.

The book opens with reflections from several other veterans of our original event, among them Brenda Laurel and Cronelia Brunner, and continues to have essays which talk about women’s experiences working in the games industry, the growth of casual games as a market which strongly attracts female interests, the gender implications of work in the space of serious and educational games, and interviews with female game designers and with the leader of UbiSoft’s Frag Dolls, a female gamer guild.

I couldn’t let the release of this important book go without a shout out on this blog, so I asked the editors if they would agree to an interview about the book and about what has or has not changed about gender and computer games over the past decade.

It’s been more than ten years since Justine Cassell and I published From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. What motivated you to want to update that book?

JILL: The first book had such a large impact on those of us trying to understand the role of gender in gaming and in technology more broadly. It was helpful to have a mix of academic and industry perspectives, as well as voices from different sides of the “pink” games debate. But as you know, in the last ten years, gaming has changed a lot–it has moved from the margins to the mainstream. It is one of the fastest growing industries in the US. and games are no longer simply a source of entertainment for the most tech savvy. In fact, games are driving innovation in health, business, education, and beyond. New types of gaming experiences have led to greater participation by females, and new research has revealed a greater understanding of what, how, and why females play. But even though women and girls are playing games in increasing numbers, the gaming industry is still run by men, and women seem to be the primary group expressing concern about this. Thus, we felt it was important to follow the model of the first book, with updates from the field.

YASMIN: We actually met a conference where we observed (and participated in) a very prominent event, called “the gender panel”, that can be found at nearly any conference featuring female presenters with a mostly female audience. We wondered why nothing had changed in the ten years since the first edition had come out. We knew the field and the business of gaming was booming and that more girls and women were playing games. We titled the book edition for a reason Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat to open up the gaming community to the fact that gender issues are not just about equality in numbers and not just about differences in interests. The contributions in the book provide a broader perspective of what we need and can pay attention to when we study and design games for rich experiences.

Many more women play games today than they did ten years ago. Indeed, recent data released by the Pew Center for the Internet and American Culture implies that the gender gap we were discussing has significantly narrowed. What factors have encouraged more girls and women to play games?

CARRIE: At almost every age category, males spend more time playing games than females do. The magnitude of the gaming gap increases as children become young adults. My own research with Jillian Winn found in college, males have more free time than females and that free time is available in larger blocks of time. Available free time is associated with time spent gaming.

This statement of the near universality of gaming masks large variation in how much and what kinds of games teens play. The Pew report also says that boys play significantly more than girls and notes many significant gender differences by game genre. Boys play for more time and they play more and more different genres of games than girls do. The study asked whether teens played each of 14 common game genres. Boys play more action, strategy, sports, adventure, first-person shooter, fighting, role-play, survival-horror, and multiplayer games. Girls play more puzzle games. There is no significant difference in amount of play of racing, rhythm, simulation or virtual worlds games.

But your question was, what factors encourage more girls and women to play. Hardware and software technology is vastly more capable. Just look at how much computers themselves have advanced in 10 years. In 1997 Apple promoted “the blazingly fast (240MHz) PowerBook 3400.” Today’s 2008 a MacBook Pro runs at 1066MHz. The game industry has also grown into a multibillion-dollar marketplace. Game companies are seeking larger and new markets, and games are targeting females, either as the primary market, or more often, as part of a larger audience.

Games are getting more interesting, visually rich, more sophisticated, more diverse, more targeted and more ubiquitous. Games are a cultural medium. They are experiences to share and discuss. They are beautiful and surprising, funny and exciting.

YASMIN: The landscape of gaming in terms of genres and platforms has broadened over the last ten years. It has become socially acceptable to play games because a first generation of video game players has grown up and continues to play – all numbers indicate that indeed the gamer population is aging. In the last few years, we have seen a significant shift in who we consider a gamer: with the appearance of Wii older generations are gaming to stay fit both physically and mentally. Today, when we talk about gaming, we include all kinds of games from console games to FPS, sports, casual games, MMORPGS, and even virtual worlds that can have game components. We no longer play games only in arcades or basements but we play games everywhere. So it shouldn’t come as such a big surprise that girls and women are playing games too.

Some claim that these shifts make gender a less urgent consideration in our understanding of games culture. Yet, you argue that “it is still critical to consider gender in order to understand and improve on the design, production, and play of games.” Why? What issues have proven the most difficult to resolve?

CARRIE: Since we turned in the BBMK manuscript (in August, 2006), I have been developing an online gateway to research about gender and gaming. So far we have identified 362 citations dating back to 1982, including academic journals, conference presentations, books and book chapters as well as industry reports and web articles. The number of articles about gender and gaming has nearly doubled every five years since 1982. In other words, the topic is receiving more attention than ever.

Part of the reason for the fuss is the nature of the medium. We don’t hear a lot about gender differences in movie going. Or books. Or web browsing. Or even toys, despite the extreme gender typing of a lot of toy advertising. I could offer excuses for each. Movies in the theater are a group activity, and Hollywood is better served by targeting as large an audience as possible. There are so many books and so many toys it is hard to worry about the overall category. Web sites tend to be functional and only a small subset target one or the other gender.

So why the continually increasing attention to gender and games? Electronic games emerged as a male medium, and typical game mechanics retain the original shooting, fighting, racing, and sports mechanics. The programmers who make electronic games are still overwhelmingly male. Somehow the medium still retains heavy traces of its origin. Lots of games still feel like they are more for boys than for girls, based on look and feel, story, and player actions. Perhaps if books had been invented by girls and only girls could write them. Might not books for boys still be a bit off target as the medium grows into its larger cultural market?

JILL: Several of the authors in our book talk about the fact that there are more similarities than differences in what, why, and how males and females play digital games. However, there seem to be great differences in how males and females experience the games they play. For example, in the chapters by Nick Yee and Holin Lin, we learn how the social context of gaming plays a significant role in a player’s experience, and it appears that gender role stereotypes and discrimination are common across many settings and culture. In addition, the chapter by Elisabeth Hayes describes how different types of gaming experiences have the potential to increase IT capacity, but games that are more likely to be played by girls have fewer of the IT fluency building opportunities (e.g., modding).

YASMIN: I think in research and public media we have by far a much easier time to talk about differences in gender than about the construction or performance of gender. The story that girls don’t play games in as large numbers as boys do or that they play different games is easily verifiable and accessible: who hasn’t seen the difference in toy preferences and play first hand in their own family? It’s much harder to sell the idea that gender is performed and thus more malleable. Theory and research-wise you have to be much more attuned to nuances and how they might play out in different situations.

Many critics of our original book assumed it would be primarily focused on the representations of women in games yet neither books spend much time dealing with games on this level. Why not?

CARRIE: Here too, a lot of the explanation goes back to the nature of the medium. Hollywood movies and TV shows are visual, linear and not interactive. Those media are all about representation. Games are so much more than representation. They involve player actions in the game, their interactions with other players, and sometimes customization of their avatar. And, as you ask in more detail later, what happens on the screen is only part of the game. The physical and social context and interpersonal dynamics with other players help define and shape the experience of playing a game.

The annoying aspects of the portrayal of women in games are not very different from all of the other mass media portrayals of women. It is not the most interesting aspect of gaming, and the portrayal emphasis on hypersexualized beautiful young bodies is so pervasive that the complaint is more about society than about games.

YASMIN: The focus on the representations of women in games and advertisements is often the most visible and thus most accessible entrance point into gender and games. I concur with Carrie that the representation in avatars is only one part of the complex equation of how gender comes into game play. But even these representations are culturally bound as for instance Mimi Ito’s book chapter on gender dynamics in the Japanese media mix illustrates. In Japanese games male player characters often have features such as big eyes that would be considered part of feminized designs in Western games.

You write, “Today, in 2007, there has been a noticeable shift from pink or purple games to a more complex approach to gender as situated, constructed, and flexible.” What would be some compelling examples of this more “complex approach” to gender and game design?

CARRIE: I think researchers studying and theorizing about gender and gaming are the ones who are approaching gender as situated, constructed, and flexible. Game designers are learning to think more broadly about player motivations. Nicole Lazzaro’s chapter, “Are Boy Games Even Necessary,” calls for moving away from demographic targeting, in which extreme preferences are targeted, in favor of more mainstream, designing for mainstream (male or female) players. My own work is moving to focus on player motivations and player types. Although some player types may turn out to be more prevalent among one gender, the emphasis is on the motivations sought, not the gender seeking those experiences.

JILL: The more complex approach can be found primarily in MMOs, or other types of games that allow players to create their own identity. Players can choose to take on distinctly feminine or masculine avatars, or an animal avatar that is not clearly male or female.

A Professor of Learning Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School

at Education, Yasmin Kafai leads research teams investigating learning opportunities in

virtual worlds, designing media-rich programming tools and communities together with

colleagues from MIT, USC and industry. In the early 90′s at the Media Lab she was one

of the first researchers to engage hundred of children as game designers in schools to

learn about programming, mathematics and science. While at UCLA, she launched virtual epidemics in Whyville.net, a massive online world with millions of players age 8-16, to help teens learn about infectious disease. She also studied how urban youth create media art, games, and graphics in Scratch, a visual programming language developed together with MIT colleagues. Her research has been published in several books, among them Minds in Play” (1995), Constructionism in Practice (1996 edited with Mitchel Resnick), and the upcoming The Computer Clubhouse: Constructionism and Creativity in Youth Communities (edited with Kylie Peppler and Robbin Chapman). She has studied in France, Germany and the United States and holds a doctorate from Harvard University.

Carrie Heeter is a professor of serious game design in the department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University. She is co-editor of Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives in Gender, Gaming, and Computing and creator of Investigaming.com, an online gateway to research about gender and gaming. Heeter’s innovative software designs have won more than 50 awards, including Discover Magazine‘s Software Innovation of the Year. She has directed software development for 32 projects. Her research looks at the experience and design of meaningful play. Current work includes design of learning and brain games which adapt to fit player mindset and motivation and persuasive games where the designer goal is to engender more informed decision-making on complex socio-scientific issues. Heeter also serves as creative director for MSU Virtual University Design and Technology. For the last 12 years she has lived in San Francisco and telecommuted to MSU.

Jill Denner is a Senior Research Associate at Education, Training, Research

Associates, a non-profit organization in California. She earned her Ph.D. in

Developmental Psychology in 1995 from Teachers College, Columbia University.

She studies gender equity in science, technology, engineering, and

mathematics, with a focus on Latinas, in partnership with youth, schools,

and community-based organizations. She edited the book Latina Girls: Voices

of Adolescent Strength in the US (2006, NYU Press) and is the founder of

Girls Creating Games where she conducts research on learning and technology

in the context of after school programs.

How Brazil Is Reshaping the Futures of Entertainment

Regular readers of the blog know that appropriations of my images or ideas are like catnip to me — nigh on impossible for me to resist! Indeed, as someone who works on appropriation as a new media literacy, participatory culture and now, spreadable media, I am always intrigued by the ways that media theory is itself appropriated and spread beyond academic circles. So, please, anyone who wants to play around with my image, go ahead, but if I find it, I reserve the right to re-post and analyze it on my blog.

I howled with delight when Mauricio Mota from Brazil’s New Content shared this video he had produced during the final panel (on Global Flows, Global Deals) at the Futures of Entertainment conference we hosted last fall. Mota’s co-conspirator in generating the video was Ricardo Justus, who also joined us at the November conference.

Mota helped to facilitate the translation of Convergence Culture into Portuguese and was my host during a trip to Brazil earlier last semester; he’s been a key player in connecting the Convergence Culture Consortium to a range of Brazilian companies as we are seeking ways to better understand media development in what economists are starting to call the BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China), which represent some of the fastest developing high tech economies in the world. And he’s part of a smart group of thinkers, who call themselves the Alchemists, who are doing cutting edge work on transmedia storytelling and branding.

Mota’s video was intended to dramatize the connection between some of the ideas in Convergence Culture and the practices for promotion that have emerged in his native country. Specifically, the footage here comes from Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), released in 2007 and now one of the most commercially successful Brazilian films ever, despite having almost no conventional advertising or promotion. As Mota explained at the conference, a copy of the film was leaked to pirates while it was in the final stages of production and the pirates spread it across the countryside. It’s been estimated that 11.5 million people watched the illegal copy of the film.

This is piracy on a scale which would wake most American media executives up in a cold sweat. But Mota’s point is that it also insured an unprecidented level of visibility for the film. According to DataFolha, 77% of São Paulo residents knew about the movie, 180,000 people saw the film on its opening weekend in Sao Paulo and Rio, and by now, more than 2.5 million people have watched the film legally. (These statistics come from Wikipedia. Mota’s estimates are even higher, suggesting that by the time the video had been further pirated via torrents in 15 countries around the world, it may have been seen illegally by 13 million and legally by more than 5 million people).

So, how do we read this story — did the 13 million plus illegal views represent “lost revenue” to the company? Maybe some of them — but it’s also almost certainly the case that the legal box office returns would have been substantially lower if the pirated circulation of the film had not spread the word and heightened awareness about the title, while potentially lowering the cost of its promotion. Mota rightly sees this pattern as a paradox: loss of control may in this case have resulted in increased revenue and much greater cultural impact. In the process, Capitão Roberto Nascimento (the film’s antihero) became something of a cult icon and was subject to all kinds of grassroots appropriations (as suggested by the sample from a fan vid which Mota includes at the end of his own mashup).

Mota’s story about Tropa de Elite is a powerful illustration of the concept of spreadable media which ran through this year’s Futures of Entertainment event. I developed some of the basic framework for thinking about Spreadable Media through my opening remarks at the conference.

we explored them further throughout the first morning of the conference, with a panel on Consumption, Value, and Worth.

Different forms of cooperation between producers and consumers, including the concept of the moral economy, were central to my conversation with Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks).

Later this month, the Convergence Culture Consortium will be releasing what we hope will be a significant white paper which critiques the concept of viral media and offers an alternative model, one which respects the agency and motives of consumers in actively shaping the circulation of media content through a networked society and one which seeks to better understand the interplay between consumer capitalism and the gift economy in shaping the new era of web 2.0. Watch this blog for more on “spreadable media” in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, I wanted to use this post to signal that the webcast versions of the Futures of Entertainment conference have gone up over at MIT’s TechTV site and are available for all of you who were unable to attend the conference. In many ways, this was our best event so far in this series — in part because of a good balance between academics and industry people on each panel. Some of the highlights for me: Kim Moses, the Executive Producer, The Ghost Whisperer, sharing her insights on our Making Audiences Matter session; a very animated discussion of Franchising, Extensions, and World Building, which brought together perspectives from the world of wrestling, soap operas, and cult movies; and an especially provocative series of exchanges about the relationships between the academy and industry. But every panel has something to recommend it and every panelist made at least one contribution that changed the way I thought about the contemporary media landscape.

Given the latest news of the legal battle which is brewing around Watchmen‘s release, the exchange which I had with Alex McDowell, the film’s gift art director, and Georgia State University’s Alicia Perren, has been generating a fair amount of interest out there in the blogosphere. Mcdowell just shared with me a very interesting statement issued by one of the film’s producers, Lloyd Levin, about the legal struggles around the film’s production and distribution. This is a story which we are all following here at CMS with baited breath.