A New “Platform” for Games Research?: An Interview with Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort (Part Two)

Henry: Does Platform Studies necessarily limit the field to writers who can combine technological and cultural expertise, a rare mix given the long-standing separation between C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”? Or should we imagine future books as emerging through collaborations between writers with different kinds of expertise?

Nick: We definitely will encourage collaborations of this sort, and we know that collaborators will need all the encouragement they can get. It’s unusual and difficult for humanists to collaborate. When the technical and cultural analysis that you need to do is demanding, though, as it is in a platform study, it’s great to have a partner working with you.

Personally, I prefer for my literary and research collaborations to be with similar “cross-cultural” people, such as Ian; I don’t go looking for a collaborator to balance me by knowing about all of the technical matters or all of the cultural and humanistic ones. It is possible for collaborators on one side to cross the divide and find others, though. Single-authored books are fine as well, and it’s okay with me if the single author leans toward one “culture” or the other, or even if the author isn’t an academic.

Ian: I also think that this two culture problem is resolving itself to some extent. When I look at my students, I see a very different cohort than were my colleagues in graduate school. I see a fluency in matters of technology and culture that defies the expectations of individual fields. So in some ways, I see the Platform Studies series as an opportunity for this next generation of scholars as much as it is for the current one, perhaps even more so.

When you think about it, popular culture in general is also getting over the two culture problem. There are millions of people out there who know something about programming computers. As I’ve watched the press and the public react to Racing the Beam, it’s clear to me that discussions of hardware design and game programming are actually quite welcome among a general readership.

Henry: What relationship do you see between “platform studies” and the “science, technology and society” field?

Nick: A productive one. We’re very much hoping that people in STS will be interested in doing platform studies and in writing books in the series. Books in the series could, of course, make important contributions in STS as well as in digital media.

Ian: Indeed, STS already tends strongly toward the study of how science and technology underlies things. Platform studies has something in common with STS in this regard. But STS tends to focus on science’s impact on politics and human culture rather than human creativity. This latter area has typically been the domain of the humanities and liberal arts. One way to understand platform studies is as a kind of membrane between computing, STS, and the humanities. We think there’s plenty of productive work to be done when these fields come together.

Henry: Why did you decide to focus on the Atari Video Computer System as the central case study for this book?

Ian: We love the Atari VCS. It’s a platform we remember playing games on and still do. In fact, the very idea for platform studies came out of conversations Nick and I had about the Atari. We found ourselves realizing that a programmer’s negotiation between platform and creativity takes place in every kind of creative computing application.

Nick: Another factor was historical. While contributing to the cultural understanding of video games a great deal, game studies hasn’t looked to its roots enough. A console as influential as the Atari VCS deserved scholarly and popular attention beyond mere retro nostalgia. We wanted to bring that sort of analysis to bear.

Ian: Finally, I’ve been using the Atari VCS for several years now in my classes, both as an example and as an exercise. I have my Introduction to Computational Media class program small games on the system as an exercise in constraint. I also taught a graduate seminar entirely devoted to the system. Moreover, I often make new games for the system, some of which I’ll be releasing this spring. So overall, the Atari VCS is a system that has been and remains at the forefront of both of our creative and critical interests.

In fact, I’ve continued to do platform studies research on the Atari VCS beyond the book. A group of computer science capstone students under my direction just completed a wonderful update to the “Stella” Atari VCS emulator, adding effects to simulate the CRT television. These include color bleed, screen texture, afterimage — all matters we discuss in the book. I have a webpage describing the project at http://www.bogost.com/games/a_television_simulator.shtml.

Henry: You focus the book around case studies of a number of specific Atari titles from Adventure and Pac-Man to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Can you say more about how these examples allowed you to map out the cultural impact and technical capacities of the Atari system?

Nick: The specific examples gave us the opportunity do what you can do with close readings: drill down into particular elements and see how they relate to a game, a platform and a culture. But we wouldn’t have found the same insights if we had just picked a game, or six games from different platforms, and got to work. We used these games to see how programmers’ understanding of the platform developed and how the situation of computer gaming changed, how people challenged and expanded the 1977 idea of gaming that was frozen into the Atari VCS when they put this wonderful machine together.

Ian: We also chose to focus on a specific period, the early years of the Atari VCS, so to speak, from 1977 to 1983. These games in particular allowed us to characterize that period, as programmers moved from their original understanding of this system — one based on porting a few popular coin-op games — to totally different and surprising ways of making games on it.

Henry: Platform Studies seems to align closely with other formalist approaches to games. Can it also be linked to cultural interpretation?

Nick: Formalist? Really? We were indeed very concerned with form and function in Racing the Beam, so I won’t shun the label, but we tried to be equally attentive to the material situation of the Atari VCS and the cartridges and arcade games we discussed. For instance, we included an image of the Shark Jaws cabinet art so that the reader could look at the typography and decide whether Atari was attempting to refer to Speilberg’s movie. We discuss the ramifications of using a cheaper cartridge interface in the VCS design, one that was missing a wire.

Ian: We should also remember the technical creativity that went into designing a system like the Atari VCS, or into programming games for it. The design of the graphics chip, for example, was motivated by a particular understanding of what it meant to play a game: two human players, side by side, each controlling a character on one side of the screen or another.

By the time David Crane created Pitfall! many years later, those understandings had changed. Pitfall! is a one-player game with a twenty minute clock. But it’s also a wonderful mash-up of cultural influences: Tarzan, Indiana Jones, Heckle and Jeckle.

Nick: I’ll admit that ours is a detailed analysis that focused on specifics (formal, material, technical) rather than being based around broad cultural questions: it’s bottom-up rather than top-down. We’re still trying to connect the specifics of the Atari VCS (and other platforms) to culture, though. The project is not only linked with, but part of, cultural interpretation.

Ian: I’d go even further; there’s nothing particularly formalist about a platform studies approach, if formalism means a preference of material and structure over cultural reception and meaning. If anything, I think our approach offers a fusion of many influences, rather than an obstinate grip on a single one.

Henry: There is still a retro-gaming community which is deeply invested in some of these games. Why do you think these early titles still command such affection and nostalgia?

Ian: Some of the appeal is related to fond memories and retro-nostalgia, certainly. Millions of people had Ataris and enjoyed playing them. Just as the case with the Apple ][ or the Commodore 64 may have introduced someone to computing, so the Atari VCS might have introduced him or her to videogaming. So part of the appeal of returning to these games is one of returning to the roots of a pleasurable pastime.

Nick: That said, we resist appeals to nostalgia in the book and our discussions about it, not because nostalgia and retro aesthetics are bad, but because it would be a shame if people thought you could only look back at video games to be nostalgic. There are reasons for retro-gaming that go beyond nostalgia, too. It’s driven, in part, by the appeal of elegance, by a desire to explore the contours of computing history with an awareness of what games are like now, and by the ability of systems like the Atari VCS to just be beautiful and produce really aesthetically powerful images and compelling gameplay.

Ian: It’s also worth noting that there is a thriving community interested in new Atari games, many of whom congregate on the forums at AtariAge.com. For these fans and hobbyist creators, the Atari is a living platform, one that still has secrets left to reveal. So the machine can offer interest beyond retro-gaming as well.

Henry: What factors contributed to the decline of the Atari empire? How did that decline impact the future of the games industry and of game technology?

Nick: I think it takes a whole book on the complex corporate history of Atari to even start answering this question. Our book is focused on the platform rather than the company. Scott Cohen’s Zap!: The Rise and Fall of Atari is a book about the company, and my feeling is that even that one doesn’t really answer that question entirely. We’re hoping that there will be more books on Atari overall before too long.

Ian: There are some reasons for Atari’s decline that are connected specifically to the Atari VCS platform, though. It turned out to be incredibly flexible and productive, to support more types of game experience than its creators ever could have imagined. No doubt, Atari never imagined that third-party companies such as Activision would come along and make literally hundreds of games for the system by 1983, cutting in on their business model right at the most profitable point. But the system was flexible enough for that to happen, too.

Nick: That’s why Nintendo did everything they could, by license and through technical means, to lock down the NES and to prevent this sort of thing from happening with it. The industry has been like that ever since.

Ian: As we point out in the book, this was a bittersweet solution. Nintendo cauterized the wound of retailer reticence, but it also introduced a walled garden. Nintendo (and later Sony and Microsoft) would get to decide what types of games were “valid” for distribution. Before 1983, the variety of games on the market was astounding. So, on the one hand, we’re still trying to recover from the setback that was first-party licensing. But on the other hand, we might not have a games industry if it wasn’t for Nintendo’s adoption of that strategy.

Henry: Can you give us a sense of the future of the Platform Studies project? What other writers and topics can we expect to see? Are you still looking for contributors?

Nick: Yes, we’re definitely looking for contributors, although we’re pleased with the response we’ve had so far. We expect a variety of platforms to be covered — not only game systems, but famous early individual computers, home computers from the 1980s, and software platforms such as Java. Some families of platforms will be discussed in books, for instance, arcade system boards. And although every book will focus on the platform level, we anticipate a wide variety of different methods and approaches to platforms. While getting into the specifics of a platform and how it works, people may use many different methodologies: sociological, psychoanalytic, ethnographic, or economic, for example.

Ian: In terms of specific projects, we have a number of proposals in various stages of completeness and review. It’s probably a bit early to talk about them specifically, but I can say that all of the types of platforms Nick just mentioned are represented.

There are a few different types of book series; some offer another venue for work that is already being done, while others invite and maybe even encourage a new type of work to be done. I suspect that Platform Studies is of the latter sort, and we’re gratified to see authors thinking of new projects they didn’t even realize they wanted to pursue.

Henry: You both teach games studies within humanities studies in major technical institutions. How do the contexts in which you are working impact the approach you are taking here?

Ian: Certainly both Georgia Tech and MIT make positive assumptions about the importance of matters technical. Humanities and social science scholarship at our institutions thus often take up science and technology without having to justify the idea that such topics are valid objects of study.

Nick: I have to agree — it’s very nice that I don’t have to go around MIT explaining why it’s legitimate to study a computing system or that video games and digital creativity are an important part of culture.

Ian: Additionally, at Georgia Tech we have strong relationships between the college of liberal arts, the college of engineering, and the college of computing. I have many colleagues in these fields with whom I speak regularly. I have cross-listed my courses in their departments. We even have an undergraduate degree that is co-administered by liberal arts and computing. So there’s already an ecosystem that cultures the technical pursuit of the humanities, and vice versa.

I also think technical institutes tend to favor intellectual experimentation in general. We often hear cliches about the “entrepreneurial” environment at technical institutes, a reference to their tendency to encourage the commercial realization of research. But that spirit also extends to the world of ideas, and scholars at a place like Georgia Tech are perhaps less likely to be criticized, ostracized, or denied tenure for pursuing unusual if forward-thinking research.

Dr. Ian Bogost is a videogame designer, critic, and researcher. He is Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC. His research and writing considers videogames as an expressive medium, and his creative practice focuses on games about social and political issues. Bogost is author of Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (MIT Press 2006), of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (MIT Press 2007), and co-author (with Nick Montfort) of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press 2009). Bogost’s videogames about social and political issues cover topics as varied as airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands, and tort reform. His games have been played by millions of people and exhibited internationally.

Nick Montfort is assistant professor of digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Montfort has collaborated on the blog Grand Text Auto, the sticker novel Implementation, and 2002: A Palindrome Story. He writes poems, text generators, and interactive fiction such as Book and Volume and Ad Verbum. Most recently, he and Ian Bogost wrote Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press, 2009). Montfort also wrote Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (MIT Press, 2003) and co-edited The Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1 (ELO, 2006) and The New Media Reader (MIT Press, 2003).

A New “Platform” for Games Research?: An Interview with Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort (Part One)

Any time two of the leading video and computer game scholars — Ian Bogost (Georgia Tech) and Nick Montfort (MIT) — join forces to write a book, that’s a significant event in my book. When the two of them lay down what amounts to a new paradigm for game studies as a field — what they are calling “Platform Studies” — and apply it systematically — in this case, to the Atari system — this is something which demands close attention to anyone interested in digital media. So, let me urge you to check out Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, released earlier this spring by MIT Press.

In the interview that follows you will get a good sense of what the fuss is all about as the dynamic duo lay out their ideas for the future of games studies, essentially further raising the ante for anyone who wants to do serious work in the field. As someone who would fall far short of their ambitious bar for the ideal games scholar, I read this discussion with profoudly mixed feelings. I can’t argue with their core claim that the field will benefit from the arrival of a generation of games scholars who know the underlying technologies — the game systems — as well as they know the games. I certainly believe that the opening up of a new paradigm in games studies will only benefit those of us who work with a range of other related methodologies. If I worry, it is because games studies as a field has moved forward through a series of all-or-nothing propositions: either you do this or you aren’t really doing game studies. And my own sense is that fields of research grow best when they are expansive, sucking in everything in their path, and sorting out the pieces later.

That said, I have no reservations about what the authors accomplish in this rigorous, engaging, and ground-breaking book. However you think of games studies as an area of research, there will be things in this book which will provoke you and where Bogost and Montfort are concerned, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Henry: Racing the Beam represents the launch of a new publishing series based on what you are calling “Platform Studies.” What is platform studies and why do you think it is an important new direction for games research?

Nick: Platform studies is an invitation to look at the lowest level of digital media — the computing systems on which many sorts of programs run, including games. And specifically, it’s an invitation to consider how those computing systems function in technical detail, how they constrain and enable creative production, and how they relate to culture.

Ian: It’s important to note that platform studies isn’t a particular approach; you can be more formalist or materialist, more anthropological or more of a computer scientist, in terms of how you consider a platform. No matter the case, you’ll still be doing platform studies, as long as you consider the platform deeply. And, while platform studies is of great relevance to the study of video games, these studies can also be used to better understand digital art, electronic literature, and other sorts of computational cultural production that happens on the computer.

Nick: In games research in particular, the platform seems to have a much lower profile as we approach 2010 than it did in the late 1970s and 1980s. Games are developed for both PC and Xbox 360 fairly easily, and few scholars even bother to specify which version of a such game they’re writing about, despite differences in interface, in how these games are burdened with DRM, and in the contexts of play (to name just a few factors). At the same time, there are these recent platforms that feature unusual interfaces and limited computational power, relative to the big iron consoles: Nintendo’s Wii and DS and Apple’s iPhone.

Ian: And let’s not forget that games are being made in Flash and for other mobile phones. Now, developers are very acutely aware of what these platforms can do and of how important it is to consider the platform level. But their implicit understanding doesn’t always make it into wider discussions, and that understanding doesn’t always connect to cultural concerns and to the history of gaming and digital media.

Nick: So, we think that by looking thoroughly at platforms, we will, first, understand more about game consoles and other game platforms, and will be able to both make better use of the ones we have (by creating games that work well with platforms) and also develop better ones. Beyond that, we should be able to work toward a better understanding of the creative process and the contexts of creativity in gaming and digital media.

Henry: What do you think has been lost in game studies as a result of a lack of attention to the core underlying technologies behind different game systems?

Nick: For one thing, there are particular things about how games function, about the interfaces they present, and about how they appear visually and how they sound which make no sense (or which can be attributed to causes that aren’t really plausible) unless you make the connection to platform. You can see these in every chapter of Racing the Beam and probably in every interesting Atari VCS game.

Ian: And more simply put, video games are computational media. They are played on computers, often very weird computers designed only to play video games. Isn’t it reasonable to think that observing something about these computers, and the relationship between each of them and the games that they hosted, would lead to insights into the structure, meaning, or cultural significance of such works?

Here’s an example from the book: the graphical adventure genre, represented by games like The Legend of Zelda, emerged from Warren Robinett’s attempts to translate the text-based adventure game Colossal Cave onto the Atari VCS. The machine couldn’t display text, of course, so Robinett chose to condense the many actions one can express with language into a few verbs that could be represented by movement and collision detection. The result laid the groundwork for a popular genre of games, and it was inspired largely by the way one person negotiated the native abilities of two very different computers.

Nick: More generally, the platform is a frozen concept of what gaming should be like: Should it come in a fake wood-grain box that looks like a stereo cabinet and fits in the living room along stereo components? Should it have two different pairs of controllers and difficulty switches so that younger and older siblings can play together with a handicap? Only if we look at the platform can we understand these concepts, and then go on to understand how the course of game development and specific games negotiate with the platform’s concept.

Henry: Early on, there were debates about whether one needed to be a “gamer” to be able to contribute to games studies. Are we now facing a debate about whether you can study games if you can’t read code or understand the technical schematics of a game system?

Nick: All sorts of people using all sorts of methods can make and have made contributions to game studies, and that includes non-ethnographers, non-lawyers, non-narratologists, and those without film studies backgrounds as well as people who can’t read code or understand schematics. Games are a tremendous phenomenon, and it would be impossible for someone to have every skill and bit of background relevant to studying them. We’re lucky that many different sorts of people are looking at games from so many perspectives.

That said, whether one identifies as a “gamer” is a rather different sort of issue than whether one understands how computational systems work. If your concern is for people’s experience of the game — how they play it, what meaning they assign to it, and how the experience relates to other game experiences — then the methods that are most important to you will be the ones related to understanding players or interpreting the game yourself. But if you care about how games are made or how they work, it makes a lot of sense to know how to program (and how to understand programs) and to have learned at least the bare outlines of computer architecture.

Ian: Even if you want to thoroughly study something non-interactive, like cutscenes, won’t you have to understand both codecs and the specifics of 3D graphics (ray tracing, texture mapping, etc.) to understand why certain choices were made in creating a cutscene? How can you really understand Geometry Wars without getting into the fact that vector graphics display hardware used to exist, and that the game is an attempt to recreate the appearance of those graphics on today’s flat-panel raster displays? How could you begin to talk about the difference between two radically different and culturally relevant chess programs, Video Chess for the Atari VCS (which fit in 4K) and the world-dominating Deep Blue, without considering their underlying technical differences — and going beyond noticing that one is enormously powerful and other minimal?

Nick: I certainly don’t want to ban anyone from the field for not knowing about computing systems, but I also think it would be a disservice to give out game studies or digital media degrees at this point and not have this sort of essential technical background be part of the curriculum.

Dr. Ian Bogost is a videogame designer, critic, and researcher. He is Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC. His research and writing considers videogames as an expressive medium, and his creative practice focuses on games about social and political issues. Bogost is author of Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (MIT Press 2006), of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (MIT Press 2007), and co-author (with Nick Montfort) of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press 2009). Bogost’s videogames about social and political issues cover topics as varied as airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands, and tort reform. His games have been played by millions of people and exhibited internationally.

Nick Montfort is assistant professor of digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Montfort has collaborated on the blog Grand Text Auto, the sticker novel Implementation, and 2002: A Palindrome Story. He writes poems, text generators, and interactive fiction such as Book and Volume and Ad Verbum. Most recently, he and Ian Bogost wrote Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press, 2009). Montfort also wrote Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (MIT Press, 2003) and co-edited The Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1 (ELO, 2006) and The New Media Reader (MIT Press, 2003).

How Susan Spread and What It Means

I’ve done four interviews over the past few days — with the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Mainichi Shimbun (Japan) — which in one way or another have touched on the dramatic story of Susan Boyle, the dowdy and musically gifted contestant on Britain’s Got Talent who has become the new queen of both broadcast and participatory media.

What I’ve been telling all of them is that Boyle’s success is perhaps the most spectacular example to date of spreadability in action, and indeed, since we’ve discovered a fair number of busy corporate types out there who don’t feel like reading the eight installments of “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead,” I figured I’d use this space to spell out again some core principles of spreadable media and show how the Boyle phenomenon illustrates how they work.

The statistics are moving so fast that it is impossible to keep track of them but here’s the basic data points as reported on Monday by the Washington Post:

According to Visible Measures, which tracks videos from YouTube, MySpace and other video-sharing sites, all Boyle-oriented videos — including clips of her television interviews and her recently released rendition of “Cry Me a River,” recorded 10 years ago for a charity CD — have generated a total of 85.2 million views. Nearly 20 million of those views came overnight.

The seven-minute video that was first posted on YouTube and then widely circulated online easily eclipsed more high-profile videos that have been around for months. Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin has clocked in 34.2 million views, said the folks at Visible Measures, while President Obama’s victory speech on election night has generated 18.5 million views.

But it’s not just in online video where Boyle, the unassuming woman from a tiny Scottish town, has dominated. Her Wikipedia entry has attracted nearly 500,000 page views since it was created last Sunday. Over the weekend, her Facebook fan page was flooded with comments, at some points adding hundreds of new members every few minutes. The page listed 150,000 members at 1 p.m. Friday. By last night there were more than a million.

By comparison, the 2008 Season finale for American Idol, one of the highest rated programs on American broadcast television, attracted almost 32 million viewers, or between a third and a half the number of people who had watched Susan’s video as of Monday of this week. So, what’s happening here?

Contrary to what you may have read, Susan Boyle didn’t go “viral.” She hasn’t gained circulation through infection and contagion. The difference between “viral” and “spreadable” media has to do with the conscious agency of the consumers. In the viral model, nobody is in control. Things just go “viral.” In the Spreadability model, things spread because people choose to spread them and we need to understand what motivates their decision and what facilitates the circulation.

While she originated on British broadcast television, her entry into the American market was shaped more by the conscious decisions of 87 plus million people who choose to pass her video along to friends, families, work mates, and fellow fans than by any decision by network executives to put her on the airwaves in the first place.

This is not to say that the original video was not professionally produced and edited in such a way as to maximize the emotional impact of what happened to her at that particular talent composition. This is not to say that our interest in the content wasn’t shaped by our general familarity with the genre conventions of reality television (leading us to expect another William Hung kind of moment) or by our particular perceptions and investments in one Simon Cowell, whose boyish grin and sheepish expression represents the ultimate payoff for her spectacular performance (which we can appreciate because we’ve seen American Idol and know what a tough-minded SOB Simon can be). And that’s not to say that the visibility of Susan Boyle hasn’t been amplified as she’s gotten interviewed on Good Morning America and spoofed on the Tonight Show, to cite two examples. We have to understand the Susan Boyle phenomenon as occurring at the intersection between broadcast media (or to use Amanda Lotz’s term, television in the post-network era.) In other words, this is convergence culture at work.

The Susan Boyle phenomenon would not have played out the same way if there wasn’t YouTube, if there weren’t social networks, if there weren’t Twitter. Indeed, the very similar video of Paul Potts making a similarly surprising success on the same program generated nowhere near the same level of circulation a year ago (though it may have also prepared the way for the public’s interest in this story). What allowed the Susan Boyle video to travel so far so fast was that it could travel so far so fast.

For most of the people who saw it and decided to pass it along, they had a sense of discovery. They could anticipate that they were sharing the video with people who probably hadn’t seen it already, precisely because the content was not yet being broadcast on commercial television. The fans found Susan Boyle before the networks did — much like that old saw that by the time a trend makes it to the cover of Time Magazine, it’s already over. There was an infrastructure in place — across multiple communication systems — which would allow anyone to share this content with anyone else who they thought would like to see it with minimal effort. We can send links. We can embed the content in our blogs.

The role of Twitter in all of this is most interesting. Twitter Twits did what Twitter Twits do best — they tweeted alerts about an interesting bit of content and were able to embed micro-links so their followers could quickly access the content. I think of Twitter as like a swarm of bees that spread out in all directions, searching for interesting materials to share. When someone finds it, they come back to the hive, do a little honey dance, and send the swarm scampering behind them. This is how collective intelligence outsmarts the broadcast decision-makers: The Twitter Tribes can figure out what content the audience wants to see because the Twitter Tribes are the audience, making decisions in real time.

Equally important is that we had the agency to decide which content we wanted to pass along — out of all of the possible video clips posted on YouTube last week or indeed, out of all of the many segments of media content which are circulating around us.

We believe that we can only understand what happened here by identify the choices which consumers made as they decided to pass along this content and not that content. The USA Today on Monday sought to identify a range of different motives which shaped the decisions to pass along this particular content: “Vindication . . . Surprise . . . Guilt . . . Shame . . . Psychology . . . Hope . . . Distraction . . . Empowerment . . . Authenticity . . . Spiritual Solace.”

There’s no need to identify a single cause for why people spread this content. Different people spread this content for different reasons. Hell, often, the same person spreads this content for different reasons. I sent the link via e-mail to my wife with a note saying “want to feel warm and fuzzy,” to a close friend with a note suggesting “this will crack you up,” and to my Twitter and Facebook mobs with the suggestion it illustrates something important about reality television because you wouldn’t believe this if you saw it in a movie. My sharing of the video meant something different in each of these relationships. We can certainly identify a range of common reasons for why the emotional structure of this video might motivate people to circulate it.

Does the wide-spread circulation of reality television suggest the triviality of what constitutes public interests? I don’t think we can answer that question without knowing what we are using Susan Boyle to talk about. Her meaning doesn’t reside in the video itself — we won’t exhaust it no matter how many times with watch it. The meaning rests in the conversations that Susan Boyle enables us to have with each other. As it starts to circulate, the Susan Boyle video gets inserted into all kinds of ongoing conversations across a range of different communities, so that I’ve stumbled into prayer circles for Susan Boyle; I’ve found scientists talking about how someone with that body could produce such a sound; I’ve seen discussions amongst Karaoki singers about her techniques, and I’ve seen reality television fans trying to explain why her success would never be possible given the rules of American Idol which exclude someone her age from competing in the first place. Susan Boyle circulates because she’s meaningful on many different levels and after a while, all of this has started to go meta so that we are spreading Susan’s videos to talk about how fast they are being spread.

For many of the people who are spreading her videos, the transaction is understood through the lens of a gift economy. We share her because she allows us to make someone we care about have a somewhat better day. We share her because of what she allows us to say about ourselves, our world, and our relationships. I sent Susan to my wife as something like a Facebook Gift — a short, quick, friendly gesture on a day when we weren’t going to see each other until much later.

Yes, there were other groups who had other motives for getting me to pass along the content — the producers of the programme and the network on which it aired, perhaps YouTube itself — but their motives had very little to do with why I chose to share that video with people I cared about. So my circulation of the video needed to be negotiated between their interests and mine.

The fact that YouTube makes it easy to embed the content makes it easier for me to share it. The fact that Bit.ly allows me to reduce the length of the url allows me to tweet about it. And all of these technical innovations makes it that much easier for the video to spread, but at the end of the day, it also spreads because I and all the rest of us have become more literate about social networking, because we are linked to more people and have more regular contact with them, because we now often interact with each other through sharing meaningful bits of media content.

Keep in mind a fundamental fact: many of the 97 plus million people who downloaded the video are part of a surplus audience from the perspective of the people who produced and marketed Britain’s Got Talent. Indeed, beyond a certain point, Susan Boyle’s rapid visibility becomes a liability rather than an asset. Keep in mind that Boyle stars in a British program which does not get commercial distribution in the United States. I can’t turn on a television network — cable or broadcast — and watch the next installment of Britain’s Got Talent. I can’t go on Hulu and download that content. And I can’t at present go on iTunes and buy this content. Market demand is dramatically outpacing supply.

What I can do, though, is consume illegal downloads of the series via various torrents or fan distribution sites, which have the flexibility to get the content into circulation without having to negotiate international deals or work through protectionist policies which make it hard to bring international content into the American market. Even with Cowell’s production company already having working relations with multiple American networks, my bet is that he can’t get that show on the air quickly enough for Americans to be able to catch up with the Brits.

Sure, Simon Cowell has already signed her to a contract and talks about how “”there’s every chance Susan Boyle will have the number one album in America” if she appears on Oprah . But the record can’t go on sale fast enough to capitalize on this burst of public interest and by the time it reaches the market, there’s a good chance that her 15 minutes of fame will have expired.

Wired tells us that even where the media producers might have made money from the spread of Sarah’s video, they are so far choosing not to do so: “a Google spokeswoman responded to our e-mail and phone queries with some surprising news: “That video is not being monetized.” We’ve contacted Sony (Simon Cowell’s label) and FremantleMedia (the show’s producer, owned by RTL Group not Sony as appeared in this update earlier) to try to determine why the $500,000 or more Boyle’s video should have generated so far is apparently being left on the table — despite the fact that both companies are confirmed revenue-sharing partners of YouTube.” So, whatever calculations have gone into getting us to help spread this video, they don’t make sense in terms of a simple and direct economic equation. This isn’t about counting impressions and raking in the cash.

Keep in mind that what we’ve seen so far is her first appearance in a season long competition and the implication of this blockage becomes clear. I’ve argued here that piracy often reflects market failures on the part of producers rather than moral failures on the part of consumers. It isn’t that people will turn to illegal downloads because they want the content for free. My bet is that many of them would pay for this content but it is not legally being offered to them. We can compare this to the global interest generated by Ken Jenning’s phenomenal run on Jeopardy: Jeopardy was already syndicated in markets around the world so when he generated buzz, he drew people back to the local broadcaster who was selling the content in their markets. They could tune in and see day by day whether he stayed in the game. Right now, everyone’s still acting as if Susan Boyle was only one video but they will wake up tomorrow or the next day and discover that lots of those people want to see what happens to her next.

When many of us write about the global circulation of media, the American circulation of British reality television isn’t necessarily what comes first to mind. Indeed, there’s some kind of mental block in terms of understanding this content as international in the first place. Yet, there is already a strong fan base in the United States for British media content which had already been downloading and circulating Britain’s Got Talent, even though no commercial producer had guessed that this series might generate this kind of American interest. And that fan base is now in a position where they may need to service Susan’s growing audience.

Part of the reasons Americans like Susan Boyle is that she’s so damned British. USA Today says her story is like “a Disney movie,” but it isn’t: it’s like a British movie, like Calendar Girls or Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, one of those down to earth dramas where average Brits cut across class and taste boundaries and do something extraordinary. The mixture of gritty realism, portly stars, eccentricity, class consciousness and wild-eyed optimism is what draws many of us to British media in the first place.

We are used to talking about things that could only happen in America. Well, Susan Boyle is something that could only happen in Great Britain — get used to it because the next one will be something that can only happen in India or Japan. When we talk about pop cosmopolitanism, we are most often talking about American teens doing cosplay or listening to K-Pop albums, not church ladies gathering to pray for the success of a British reality television contestant, but it is all part of the same process. We are reaching across borders in search of content, zones which were used to organize the distribution of content in the Broadcast era, but which are much more fluid in an age of participatory culture and social networks.

We live in a world where content can be accessed quickly from any part of the world assuming it somehow reaches our radar and where the collective intelligence of the participatory culture can identify content and spread the word rapidly when needed. Susan Boyle in that sense is a sign of bigger things to come — content which wasn’t designed for our market, content which wasn’t timed for such rapid global circulation, gaining much greater visibility than ever before and networks and production companies having trouble keeping up with the rapidly escalating demand.

And as we discover we like someone like Susan Boyle, we seek out more information. Suddenly charity records she made years ago spring up videos on YouTube. Suddenly there’s a flood of interest on Wikipedia about this previously unknown figure. And people are seeking out videos of Elaine Paige, the queen of British stage musicals, who Susan identified as her role model. Many Americans had never heard of Paige before so we can chart dramatic increases in downloads on her videos though they are dwarfed by the Susan Boyle original. Most of the thousands of comments posted on the Paige videos make unfortunate comparisons with Susan Boyle, suggesting that even though she has been a much bigger star historically, has a string of commercial successes, that for this week at least, Susan Boyle’s got a more dedicated fan base. Just to give us a baseline, some of the Elaine Paige YouTube videos reach more than a million viewers, where-as the rest don’t get over 100,000. My theory is that Susan Boyle’s fan base have discovered some of them and not others, accounting for the huge gap in traffic.

Or consider the fact that Susan Boyle gained more than a million Facebook subscribers in less than a week at a time when Oprah and Ashton Kutcher have been battling it out to see who could be the first to get a million subscribers on Twitter. (Yes, Facebook has a much larger user base than Twitter but it’s still an impressive accomplishment!) This is not to say that long-term Oprah could help Susan Boyle open up her record to a much larger audience, just that in this frenzy of interest, she doesn’t need Oprah or any other old style broadcast celebrity to turn YouTube on its ear.

So, that’s what Susan Boyle can teach us about Spreadability. So what happens next? Talk among yourselves. And while you are at it, spread the word.

Babylon 5’s JMS Heads to MIT — Buy Your Tickets Online

The annual Julius Schwartz Lecture, being held at MIT on May 22nd, now has tickets available for sale online.

This year’s speaker is J. Michael Straczynski (AKA JMS), best known for his role as the creator of the cult science fiction serial Babylon 5 and its various spin-off films and series. Straczynski wrote 92 out of the 110 Babylon 5 episodes, notably including an unbroken 59-episode run through all of the third and fourth seasons, and all but one episode of the fifth season. His television writing career spans from work on He-Man, She-Ra, and Real Ghostbusters through to The New Twilight Zone and Murder She Wrote. He followed up Babylon 5 with another really solid science fiction series, Jeremiah. In more recent years, he’s enjoyed success as a screenwriter, most recently writing the script for The Changling, Clint Eastwood’s period drama, and as a comic book writer, who both works on established superhero franchises, such as Spider-Man, Supreme Powers, Fantastic Four, and Thor, and creates his own original series, such as Rising Stars, Midnight Nation, The Twelve, The Book of Lost Souls, and Dream Police. He was one of the first television producers to actively engage his fan community online and has consistently explored the interface between digital media and other storytelling platforms. His work for The Twelve has been nominated for this year’s Eisner Awards.

Tickets are also available in person at Hub Comics in Somerville and Comicopia in Boston’s Kenmore Square.

Buy yours today, as they’re expected to go fast.

Ghouls Just Want to Have Fun: Doug Gordon on the Zombeatles (Part Two)

Is there a connection to be drawn between the return of the Zombeatles and the publishing success of books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Can we expect other “classics” to go Zombie when they are no longer a living part of our culture?

There most certainly is a connection to be drawn between the return of the Zombeatles and the publishing success of books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This is further evidence that the zombies are taking over. Zombies started by eating the stupid people first since they were the easiest to catch. As the stupid human food supply dwindled, zombies were forced to use more brainpower to hunt down the smart people. This “Smart People Diet” allowed the living dead to evolve in a Darwinian manner. Call it “natural selection” or perhaps “unnatural selection” would be more appropriate. Whatever you call it, it’s clear that zombies are on the verge of taking over and establishing their own zombie-centric society, complete with their own zombified version of arts, entertainment and popular culture (of which The Zombeatles and books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are an integral part).

Yes, as zombies continue to take over, we can expect more classics to go zombie when they are no longer a living part of our culture. For example, it won’t be too long before we such zombified classics as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men And Zombies; Arthur Miller’s Undeath of A Salesman; Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Undead and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (Maybe He’s Been Waylaid by Zombies?).

And, of course, it goes without saying that Angus MacAbre (“Scotland’s Funniest Zombie Comedian”) is going to try to get his piece of the pie with his Monster Mashups for Zombies. This is the latest addition to Angus’ phenomenally successful line of “For Zombies” instructional books. The series launched in the early ’90s with three titles – Dummies For Zombies, Geniuses for Zombies, and Idiot Savants for Zombies. These books covered the best ways to eat dummies, geniuses and idiot savants and offered a wealth of information about the nutritional content of their respective brains.

Now Angus is extending the “For Zombies” brand with Monster Mashups for Zombies. It’s the perfect study aid for the zombie student. Monster Mashups for Zombies are “CliffsNotes” meet the “For Dummies series,” with a modern mashup twist because Angus has condensed not one, but two, classic works of literature into one flimsy book.

The debut title is On the Road to The Road, a literary mashup of Jack Kerouac’s slacker bible, On The Road,” and Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling, critically-acclaimed The Road. It’s the story of two young hipsters who hit the open road in search of kicks, only to be confronted by the post-apocalyptic downer of a father and son on a journey, while trying to

avoid cannibals and zombies. Okay, Angus has taken a bit of artistic licence by including zombies but, the way he sees it, it’s not that much of a stretch (“Zombies are just basically cannibals with really bad skin”). Angus maintains that his Monster Mashups for Zombies titles will offer an easy and entertaining form of “one-hour smartenizing” that will have students away from the books and back getting blotto with their slackass friends in no time.

The zombie apocalypse will even infect public radio. Before you know it, the airwaves will be filled with the intellectually nutritious sounds of NZR, National Zombie Radio. Popular NZR programs will include: A Scary Home Companion“with Garrison Karloff; This American Unlife with Ira Gass; and the wacky news quiz program, Wait, Wait…Don’t Eat My Brain. And, of course, there’ll be no avoiding the undeadpan, autobiographical humor of zombie humorist David Zedaris, author of such droll best-sellers as Me Form Coherent Sentence Later

This Afternoon and When You Are Engulfed In Zombies.

Other reporters have learned that the Zombeatles want to develop a transmedia

franchise. Can you share some of your plans for future extensions of the Zombeatles?

I certainly can. The Zombeatles will be part of an exciting entertainment extravaganza called “Zombiepalooza.” This postmodern vaudeville show will feature the Fab Gore performing their hits live and undead. It will also feature a screening of the film, The Zombeatles: All You Need Is Brains, and the undeadpan comedy stylings of Angus MacAbre (“Scotland’s Funniest Zombie Comedian”), the host of All You Need Is Brains.” People will be encouraged to come dressed as zombies and there will be interactive zombie prom and zombie fashion show elements. We’ve got a “Zombiepalooza” scheduled for Shank Hall in Milwaukee on Friday, July 10th. We’re also working on taking the “Zombiepalooza” to Chicago and other locations to be announced.

We’ve also got plans for a Broadway musical revue called Zombeatlemania (“Not the Zombeatles, But An Incredible Simulation”); Ice Station Zombie: The Zombeatles On Ice; and a zombie-oriented children’s TV/web series called Angus MacAbre’s House of Angst (It’s Dawn of the Dead meets Pee-wee’s Playhouse.)

Angus MacAbre is planning on teaming up with Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock to produce a documentary in which Angus will spend an entire month eating nobody but McDonald’s employees and customers. The working title is Would You Like Thighs With That?

There are also plans for books (The Consumer’s Guide to the Zomniverse by Angus MacAbre” and Angus MacAbre’s Zomnibus, among them), comic books and such video games as Rock Band: The Zombeatles and Angus MacAbre’s Radioactive Haggis.

We’re also planning to tap into the lucrative (and tender) youth market with a TV series called Alaska Nebraska. This show will focus on the wacky misadventures of an average zombie teen girl who lives a double life. By day, she’s a mild-mannered student but by night, she’s a famous zombie pop singer named Alaska Nebraska. We figure this can’t miss.

I hear you are contemplating a Zombie-owned and operated amusement park. Wouldn’t this just become a tourist trap?

No, the tourist trap is just a very small part of “Angus MacAbre’s MacAbreville.” MacAbre

describes MacAbreville as “a dark version of Disneyland, but without the cloying corporate namby-pambiness. MacAbre says that in this age of heightened anxiety and extreme sports, the public needs an extreme theme park, or an “ex-theme park” for short.

MacAbreville features several intriguing “lands,” such as “Hitchcockland” (“The suspensefulest place on Earth”). As the name indicates, Hitchcockland” features attractions and restaurants based on the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Visitors will line up for hours to experience “The Vertigo Bell Tower of Terror” and “The Birds: Voyage Across Bodega Bay.”

Another MacAbreville land is “Tarantinotown,” where a bloody, non-linear time is guaranteed for all. Based on the cinematic oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino, Tarantinotown will feature such popular eating spots as the Hawaiian fast-food joint “Big Kahuna Burger” and the 1950’s-themed “Jack Rabbit Slim’s.”

One of the most popular MacAbreville attractions is the rollicking intellectual thrill ride, “Baristas of the Caribbean.” What if Starbucks Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz opened several Starbucks coffeehouses on the Caribbean island of Haiti, where legend has it that living people can be turned into zombies through two special powders entering into the bloodstream, usually through a wound? And what if the malevolent Starbucks Haiti District Manager, Tor McAllister, turned his baristas into zombies so that they’d be willing to work extra-long shifts for extra-less money? And what if these zombie baristas started eating their customers? Well, then you’d have one of MacAbreville’s most popular attractions, “Baristas of the Caribbean.” Enjoy this satirical, splash-filled boat ride! Laugh at the Animatronic-Audio Zombie Baristas as they chow down on their Animatronic-Audio customers (“That pompous businessman yelling into his cell phone really got his just desserts, didn’t he, Jessica?” “Actually, Gary, he just ended up as that barista’s dessert!”). All this murderous mirth and mayhem takes place to the jaunty strains of the attraction’s catchy worldbeat theme song – “Tall, Grande, Venti (A Barista’s Life for Me).” In a clever albeit inevitable cross-promotional move, MacAbre has ensured that the Baristas of the Caribbean CD soundtrack can be purchased at your neighborhood Starbucks.

What relationship exists between fans of Zombie music and the “Deadheads”?

As far as I can tell, there’s no relationship between fans of zombie music and “Deadheads” (Grateful Dead fans). However, “Undeadheads” (fans of legendary zombie jam band, The Ungrateful Undead) are a huge part of the zombie music scene. Many “Undeadheads” will travel to as many Ungrateful Undead shows as possible in as many different locations as possible (even such farflung locales as Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts and Transylvania). Many Undeadheads display a fanatical allegiance to the Undead; some go so far as to conduct entire conversations by quoting from such classic Undead songs as “Dire Werewolf” and “A Touch of Grey Matter.”

Theodor Adorno and others from the Frankfurt School warned us decades ago that

the repetition of basic formulas in popular music would numb the audience, making them brainless followers of the culture industries. Is this how Zombie music was born? Or might we see Zombie music as simply the latest in a series of resistant subcultural communities who have asserted their own identities only to be coopted by major labels?

As you might imagine, Henry, there’s a lot of debate about how zombie music was born.

Some do indeed subscribe to Theodor W. Adorno and the Frankfurt School’s theory that the repetition of basic formulas in popular music would numb the audience, making them brainless followers of the culture industries. But there are also those zombie critics such as Greil Carcuss and the so-called Frankenberry School who believe that zombie music is the latest in a series of resistant subcultural communitites that have asserted their own identities, only to be co-opted (or “cannibalized,” so to speak) by major labels. Now with the digital revolution in music distribution, the major zombie record labels have lost a lot of their influence and their ability to cannibalize has been dramatically compromised. Zombie musicians are now cannibalizing each other and, in a few extreme cases, themselves.

I was fascinated to learn that Zombies not only have developed their own popular culture but also their own cultural critics. Is there a possibility that we will see undead theorists one of these days and if so, what can you tell us about their thinking about contemporary music?

Yes, I think we’re already seeing the emergence of undead cultural critics with the work of Greil Carcass. Carcass has established himself as the thinking zombie’s undead cultural critic by placing undead contemporary music in a much broader cultural context, a context that includes film, literature and politics. I’m thinking especially of such seminal works as Mystery Brain in which Carcass draws parallels between zombie rock and the cultural archetypes to be found in such classic zombie literary works as Moby-Dick versus the Zombies and Bartleby, the Scrivener meets Ginger Nut, the Office Zombie.

You’ve shared with us something of Zombie music and comedy through the film. I

was left wondering about other forms of popular culture among Zombie-Americans.

Do Zombies like horror films and if so, what gives them a fright? What kinds of

reality television are being produced for zombie consumption?

Horror films are not as popular among zombies as you might expect them to be. Much like people, zombies consume movies primarily as a form of escapism, so horror films are a little too realistic and slice-of-life for them. Having said that, zombies are terrified of the big-screen adaptations of Richard Matheson’s classic novel, I Am LegendThe Last Man On Earth (1964) and I Am Legend (2007). The idea of such a small human food supply strikes fear in the very hearts of the undead. Such small-cast Ingmar Bergman films as Scenes from A Marriage also scare zombies for the very same reasons.

There’s all kinds of reality television being produced for zombie consumption, including Monster Chef (a horrifying version of Iron Chef featuring such ghoulish gourmets as “Zombie Chef,” “Vampire Chef,” “Werewolf Chef” and “Invisible Chef”); America’s Got Zombies; So You Think You Can Shamble; Extreme Makeover: Haunted House Edition; and Is Your Brain Bigger Than A 5th Grader’s?)

If any of my readers would like to contribute body parts to support the band, where would they send them?

They can send them to me via dougmgordon@gmail.com or directly to The Fab Gore at

beeftone@gmail.com. Thank you for your time, consideration and interest, Henry. And thank you for the very intelligent and very perceptive questions.

Doug Gordon is a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio’s/Public Radio International’s Peabody Award-winning program, “To The Best Of Our Knowledge.” Originally from Canada, Gordon has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (Major: Creative Writing) and a Creative Communications diploma (Major: Journalism). When not trying to make public radio more entertaining, he can be found working on various creative, artsy multimedia projects.

Ghouls Just Want To Have Fun: Doug Gordon on The Zombeatles (Part One)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you will have noticed that zombies are taking over the entertainment industry.

Case in point, the Zombeatles. You can get a taste of their music in this highly popular YouTube video, “A Hard Day’s Night of the Living Dead.” Some readers may find the band hard on their eyes and ears, but others will quickly fall under their spell.

The Zombeatles first caused a stir in Madison, Wisconsin, where I did my graduate work, so I’ve been hearing alerts about their appearances for some time, and figured it was time to do a shout out to them here. At first, I was horrified by the prospect of Zombies performing on State Street, but then I realized that this perspective was small-minded of me. Cultural Studies scholars have long been committed to lending their voices to those who are voiceless in our society and to helping our readers to understand phenomenon which may disturb or disrupt the operations of the dominant system. Clearly, learning to appreciate Zombie music (and tracing its roots back to the cultural experiences of Zombie-Americans) requires us to think outside the box. It has required much less flexibility on the part of the media industries who have proven all too eager to cater to the tastes of any significant consumer niche and who are constantly trying to dig up new talent to circulate through the global media marketplace.

A new documentary, All We Need is Brains, recounts the story of the rise of the Zombeatles in all of its gory details, sharing not only some hit songs, such as “I Want to Eat Your Hand,” “Hey, Food,” and “P.S. I Love Eating You.” I had a chance to watch the film over the weekend and while it churned my stomack and made my blood curdle, it also opened my head to some new experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise. This may make me sound like a spinless intellectual but this film helped me to wrap my brain around the Zombeatles. Here’s a preview of the documentary which is circulating on the web.

You can order your very own copy here. And if this music makes your heart skip a beat or two, you can also order their new album, Meat the Zombeatles. Neither is going to cost you an arm and a leg and it’s safe to say that you won’t ever hear anything like their music again.

Doug Gordon, a Wisconsin Public Radio producer, has emerged as the mouth of the Zombeatles and he agreed to share with us what’s on his mind. He certainly provided me with a lot of information to sink my teeth into. So let’s give him a hand for helping out here.

Can you give us a little background on the Zombeatles and how they impacted contemporary popular music?

Jaw Nlennon and Pall IcKartney met as art students in Pool of Liver, England back in 1957. They were bitten by some skiffle zombies. The skiffle zombies transmitted the “solanum” virus that creates zombies (as discussed in Max Brooks’ book, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead“) to Nlennon and IcKartney. These skiffle zombies were also suffering from “rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu” (or, as it’s more colloquially known, “a bad case of loving you”); this infectious disease was also passed on to Nlennon and IcKartney when the skiffle zombies bit them.

The combination of these two diseases transformed Nlennon and IcKartney into music-loving zombies. They soon developed a voracious appetite for human brains and for writing and performing original songs about their voracious appetite for human brains. The old adage, “Write what you know,” was clearly not lost on these unlively lads. They formed a zombie skiffle group called The Gory Men. Guitarist Gorge Harryson joined the combo a short time later. The band realized that they would probably be able to rock out a bit more if they had a drummer so they tried to recruit Eat Breast to pound the skins for them. Breast was reluctant to join The Gory Men because of their name, as he felt it was a little too “on the nose.” So the band changed their name to The Zombeatles and Breast took his place behind the drum kit.

However, The Fab Gore’s producer, Gorge Mortem, had reservations about Breast. Mortem thought that Breast couldn’t keep up with the other Zombeatles; he couldn’t eat enough brains. So Breast was dismissed and replaced by Dingo Scarr, the recently-deceased drummer for the popular zombie rock combo, Rory Sturm und Drang and the Curried Brains.

Angus MacAbre (“Scotland’s Funniest Zombie Comedian”) and legendary undead rock critic Fester Fangs (of Rolling Tombstone Magazine) first encountered the Zombeatles at The Cadavern Club in Pool of Liver. Fangs was instrumental in bringing The Fab Gore to public attention and MacAbre was instrumental in bringing the public’s brains to The Fab Gore.

The Zombeatles’ impact on popular music was immense and immeasurable. As Fester Fangs wrote: “The Fab Gore brought a certain frenetic frisson to rock and roll. Their songs about eating brains really dug deep into the heart of the public’s collective brain (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors). With such classic songs as “I Wanna Eat Your Hand” and “Ate Brains A Week,” The Zombeatles performed a kind of figurative electroconvulsive therapy on both popular music and popular culture, which left the rest of the music industry looking brain-dead (pun pretty much unavoidable).” (from “Eat ‘Em Raw: The Cannibalization of The Zombeatles,” as reprinted in Psychopathic Reactions and Cerebral Cortex Guano: The Work of A Legendary Undead Rock Critic, edited by Greil Carcass).

Zombie music has long been an underground phenomenon. Why do you think it is surfacing now?

I think it’s surfacing now because the “underground” can only stay under ground so long before the mass media and popular culture “dig it up” (so to speak) and it becomes part of the mainstream. I’m not saying that zombie music is part of the mainstream yet but I think it’s well on its way. Take, for example, Angus MacAbre’s blatant attempt to cash in on the success of the popular American indie rock band Vampire Weekend by forming his own band called Zombie Workweek. This is the kind of derivative cannibalization that the music industry is famous for.

Zombie music is just riding the zombie zeitgeist. As June Pulliam so eloquently put it in her essay, “The Zombie,” which appears in Greenwood Press’ Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares: “The zombie itself is a malleable symbol – representing everything from the horrors of slavery, white xenophobia, Cold War angst, the fear of death, and even apprehensions about consumer culture – and has become an icon of horror perhaps because it is quite literally a memento mori, reminding us that our belief that we can completely control our destiny, and perhaps through the right medical technology, even cheat death, is mere hubris.”

Are the Zombeatles simply a revival band or do they bring their own fresh material?

The Zombeatles are a revival band only in the most literal sense of the word “revival” – that is to say that The Fab Gore breathed new life into popular music as only the living dead are capable of doing. The Zombeatles gave pop music a metaphorical Heimlich Maneuver; they transmogrified rock and roll from the bloated, maggot-ridden corpse it had become, replacing the figurative rigor mortis that had set in with a revolutionary, new, riboflavin-enhanced approach to rockin’ and rollin’.

The Zombeatles influenced countless acts. Can you imagine The Zommonkees’ recording their 1966 debut single, “Last Brain in Clarksville,” without The Fab Gore paving the way with such classics as “Ate Brains A Week”? Not bloody likely. And who can deny the Fab Gore’s influence on The Zomzombies’ big hits “Thyme Is The Seasoning,” “Smell Her Slow” and “She’s Not Rare”? The Zombeatles even inspired a fictional parody band called The Zomrutles.

Your press materials suggest that the Zombeatles “went viral” after they were showcased by Rob Zombie as part of a Halloween promotion on YouTube. What happened next? How many people were infected? Could this viral spread have been prevented through sanitary measures?

It’s like that old TV commercial for shampoo… “And they’ll tell two friends. And they’ll tell two friends. And so on. And so on.” Friends kept telling friends about the Rob Zombie-endorsed Zombeatles’ music video, “A Hard Day’s Night of the Living Dead.” These friends told other friends. As of right now, 1,121,999 people (give or take a few) have been infected. This number is based on the fact that there have been 1,121, 999 viewings of the video on YouTube. Of course, some of these viewings could have actually been re-viewings by the same person(s). And there’s no telling how many people that would apply to. I’m confident, though, that YouTube founders Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim are working on the cutting-edge technology that will allow us to determine this in the very near future. When I hear back from them, I’ll definitely get back to you, Henry.

As for the question of whether or not this viral spread could have been prevented through sanitary measures, I really can’t say for sure. All I know is that it’s important to wash your hands immediately before and immediately after using YouTube.

Doug Gordon is a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio’s/Public Radio International’s Peabody Award-winning program, “To The Best Of Our Knowledge.” Originally from Canada, Gordon has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (Major: Creative Writing) and a Creative Communications diploma (Major: Journalism). When not trying to make public radio more entertaining, he can be found working on various creative, artsy multimedia projects.

Getting Philosophical about Legend of Zelda: An Interview with Kristina Drzaic and Peter Rauch

Are video games philosophical texts? They certainly encourage players to make choices and explore what their consequences may be and in mapping those consequences, they can help us to see the world through certain moral and ethical lenses. The challenge, of course, is to encourage players to reflect on the logic shaping their actions and the game’s responses, to move from playing the game to examining themselves and their decisions. A recent book, Luke Cuddy’s The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy, sought to apply a range of philosophical concepts and debates to the long-standing Zelda video game series.

A pair of my former students, Peter Rauch and Kristina Drzaic, both from our graduate class of 2007, contributed to the book and agreed to share some of their perspectives on the blog. I’ve had the pleasure to watch both of them grow as game theorists — and in Kristina’s case, as a designer who now works in the Australian games industry. Both of them did thesis projects for our program which centered around games: Kristina’s dealt with game secrets and included a Zelda case study while Peter’s dealt with the application of moral philosophy to game design. Their piece for the book, “Slave Morality and Master Swords”, showed what happened when they mashed up their two projects — not unlike combining chocolate and peanut butter to produce a new great taste sensation!

Here’s what they had to say about the experience.

Why might Legend of Zelda be singled out for philosophical exploration? Is this book an acknowledgement of its long-standing commercial success or do you think it is a particularly “philosophical” game?

PR: I thought it was a bit strange, honestly. In working with Kristina to develop our ideas, though, I began to get a sense that the Zelda series is more than just the sum total of the individual games that make it up. It’s also the Zelda brand, and the fan culture, the connections between the games, and the way they fit together in the minds of players. The fact that it’s commercially successful is very important in the sense that commercial success ensures both the production of a large number of source texts and the gathering of a large fanbase that responds emotionally to the idea of a Zelda game. At a purely textual, narrative level, Zelda‘s built from some pretty standard genre conventions, and while they might not be original, they are pretty easily amenable to this kind of examination. Stories about heroes just seem to help people think about the nature of their world.

KD: That is an odd thing about exploring the Philosophy of Zelda. Peter and I both agree that the game series of Zelda is not, narratively speaking, a morass of intriguing philosophical questions. Every Zelda game has the same plot and In the Zelda world morality is fully black and white, good and evil. While replaying the same plot might sound boring, it isn’t. Each game looks different, feels different, and behaves differently. Players keep coming back because the play itself is the attraction.

The act of play is where the philosophical questions become interesting. As you work your way through the game world you can subvert the seriousness, the story, and the philosophy itself through your play. In this way, Zelda is a good case study for how philosophical questions can function within a videogame; our book explores the experience of the player vs. the reality of the game.

The contributions to this book have branched out in many different directions. While Peter and I looked at how players of a game can subvert an intended game design and message, other contributors explored death, identity, time, art, utopia and so on.

In the essay, you describe some of your own pleasures in the game, yet I assume you both have separate and distinct personal histories as Zelda players. What can you tell us about your relationship to this game?

KD: As a kid I had an Apple computer for gaming, not a Nintendo console and so I missed out on the early Zelda games. My sole exposure to Zelda was through the Zelda television show.

If I remember correctly, I thought that if a game warranted its own TV show that game must be absolutely, positively the best game ever. Oh yes, if it is forbidden it must be better.

A few years later I tasted the forbidden fruit; My family got an N64 and I finally finally played the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The game reached far beyond any imagined expectations, (and happily it was far better than the completely cheesy tv show I loved at age 7.) This game is special: it revolutionized game storytelling and had a sense of world depth that games today still struggle to match. At the time of its release I played the game three times in a row, felt moved to create a Zelda fansite and spread legends about secrets within the game itself. No game before or after has ever been this amazing to me.

Most importantly this game shapes how I play and design games today. When you explore a Zelda world you find the world rewards you for being curious. What could be better than a game that encourages the participant to question and explore the world that surrounds them?

PR: I was five and my brother was seven when the NES launched in the states, so I kinda grew up with the Nintendo brand. We got Zelda for Christmas, and played it to death–I actually discovered the “second quest” cheat before the magazines made it famous, but none of my friends ever believed me. Bastards.

Anyway, Zelda was pretty much the only thing in its genre for years, and each successive game seemed to get better. I fell out of contact with the series when I started undergrad, but I’m getting caught up now. It’s a weird feeling revisiting a series that kept improving while you weren’t playing it. Somewhere between coming home, and coming home to find that your house has been remodeled.

Your essay begins with a discussion of a gliche in the programming of Ocarina of Time which allows the character to defy the laws of physics in this fictional world. How can we understand the pleasure players take in exploiting this cheat in the system? How do we relate this pleasure to traditional understandings of what it means to identify with a character?

KD: Defying the laws of a game is an illicit pleasure. In the case of flying, the glitch play meant being able to explore the space in a new way and see incomplete construction and the game world’s edge. The experience of flying in Zelda was like gaining access to the Disneyland Magic Kingdom underbelly or peeking behind the stage of a play. In flying through the air and playing with glitches you get to see things that are not meant for your eyes. It destroys the fiction but it also gives you, as a player, great freedom and mastery over the space.

Glitches of course, never help players “win” a game. They are deterimental, they might end in a game crash, but it is always intriguing to see a game break and wonder what rule is broken and how it changes the space you inhabit.

PR: Playing with glitches is something I generally don’t try to do; my whole approach to games is about “reading” the rules and looking for that one

optimal path they point to. One of the fun things about working with Kristina is that we take such different things from the same games. That’s kind of the essay in microcosm, actually.

You evoke Roger Callois’s classic distinction between Ludus and Paidia here to explain the experience of playing this video game. Can you explain what you mean by these two terms and describe the different modes of game play experience they evoke for you?

PR: I know videogame studies (or whatever we’re calling it this week) is a relatively new field, and I can’t make a universal generalization analogous to how lit students feel when they have to read Important Canonical Text X for the first time. Still, in talking about Callois with classmates and friends, it always seems to devolve into a nitpicky discussion about whether or not it makes sense to completely separate improvisation and freedom from rules and restrictions in terms of play. In practice, it’s hard to identify any actual case which has only one, and it’d be pretty silly to try to

derive some sort of ludus/paidia ratio from a given text. Gonzalo Frasca helped out by suggesting a cleaner distinction in which ludus games pointed the player toward a desired end condition and paidia games did not, and even though game designers are busily trying to break down that distinction, it’s still pretty useful for describing games on a case-by-case basis.

Conveniently, Frasca’s distinction also works well for looking at different play styles within a given text, which is pretty much where Kristina and I ended up going.

You close the essay with some speculations about Nietsche’s Beyond Good and Evil as a way to understand the different constraints and demands games place on gamers. How do you get from Zelda to the ramblings of “mad anti-semitic Germans”?

PR: First of all, if there are Nietzscheans reading this who are upset by the term “mad anti-semitic Germans”–or mad anti-semitic Germans who resent being lumped in with Nietzsche–I sincerely apologize, and hope you’ll still buy the book. That said, two things academic gamers, at least those in my neck of the woods, can’t seem to stop talking about are narrative/fiction and vague ideas of “meaningful” play. I’ve always operated under the assumption that, to the extent a game can deal with meaning, moral or otherwise, it does so primarily at a narrative level. Granted, non-narrative games don’t exist, so it might be a bit of a straw man.

Still, while rule systems can be used to refer to or play with ideas about morality, the ideas cannot be spontaneously generated from the rule system. What I found in thinking about Zelda that led me to apply Nietzsche was that when you stripped out all the “musts” and “shoulds” the player faces in trying to play a game “correctly,” i.e. to its completion, all you have left is “can.” At that point, the player can either put down the controller and do something more meaningful with his or her life — not something I’d generally recommend — or start generating their own “shoulds.”

The hell with what Link wants to do, I want to throw explosives at chickens for half an hour. In Zelda, it’s not possible to do traditionally “good” or “bad” things without interacting with the authorial narrative, because the narrative gives those actions their moral meaning. When that’s out, it becomes a game about taking this avatar with an extremely limited set of actions and trying to make him do things the designers didn’t want him to do.

How did you come to write this essay together? How does it merge ideas you’ve been working on separately for your thesis projects in Comparative Media Studies?

KD: Oddly it was not nearly as daunting a task as Peter and I first envisioned. My thesis, Oh No I’m Toast! Mastering Videogame Secrets explored the pleasure of playing a game the wrong way, and this kind of subversion means for a player. I’d even used Zelda as an example.

Peter’s thesis, Playing with Good and Evil: Videogames and Moral Philosophy, provided the other half of our analysis; how does the act of player subversion complicate the relationship between player and avatar? We decided to keep things simple: start out explaining how players might play a game in a variety of ways, for the game, against the game, and breaking the game. Then we used Peter’s framework to explore what this meant philosophically in terms of a player/avatar relationship. Even though Peter wrote from Boston and I from Australia the essay wove itself together like magic. Google Docs helped.

One might say it all came together as a kind of symbiotic beast.

PR: I think of it as more of a chimera, myself, but I suppose “symbiotic beast” works well. I think I’ve got a black spider-suit somewhere in the back of my closet.

Kristina Drzaic is a game writer, game designer, a filmmaker and a contributor to The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am. Kristina earned her Masters Degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT where she designed games with the Education Arcade and the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. She also holds a BA from the Unversity of Notre Dame. Kristina currently lives in the Land of Oz designing an secret game with 2K Games Australia. You can follow Kristina on twitter at http://twitter.com/poniesponies

Peter Rauch is a graduate of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, where he studied the intersection of videogames, narrative, and moral philosophy. “Slave Morality and Master Swords” is his first print publication. He is currently at work on a number of projects in and out of academia.

Reinventing the Television Studies Textbook: An Interview with Jason Mittell (Part Two)

As you wrote the book, you clearly struggled with the issue of how to balance the classic examples in the field, many of which reflect the successive generations of television scholarship, with the need for contemporary examples which are relevant to the current generation of students. How did you resolve that issue?

I hope I resolved it! The book was based on my own course (also entitled “Television and American Culture”) which has evolved over the past decade. I initially began teaching the course as a chronological history of broadcasting, starting with radio, moving through network television, and ending up in the convergent present – there are good textbooks to frame such a historical narrative. But I found that students taking the only television-centered course in the curriculum were itching to talk about the contemporary context – while I would highlight how early radio frames our understanding of 1990s internet, or 1950s single-sponsorship helps explain contemporary product placement, I found that the course wasn’t working well to either capture the historical or the contemporary, and needed to be restructured.

When I shifted to a topical format that mirrors the structure of the book, I found that historical examples could work well to help explain what students think they know about the present. Thus it’s essential to understand All in the Family to grasp South Park or Chappelle’s Show, or the 1950s quiz show cycle to contextualize the 2000s reality boom. While the book is not a substitute for a television history text or course, I hope it’s complementary to such histories, and lends itself to various teaching contexts. If a curriculum has only one TV-centric course (like at Middlebury), the book can frame the medium while introducing its history; if there are other courses in television history, the references should build on that exposure and knowledge to deepen students’ understanding. And the book hopefully stands alone outside the teaching context, serving as an introduction to the academic study of television for readers of all ages with an intellectual interest in media. Or at least that’s what I was aiming for.

A current debate in television studies centers around our tendency to focus on hip programs with self-reflective elements or on ensemble cast dramas to the exclusion of other genres and formats which often have much higher viewership. How did you confront this challenge in designing your textbook?

When choosing examples and areas to cover, my first imperative was to pick examples that spoke to students and encouraged them to look deeper into the shows that they know and enjoy. So while using programs like South Park, The Simpsons, Lost, and The Daily Show as examples does cater to my own tastes, it is really motivated by student interest – I have found that students get really excited when I tell them about my research on The Wire and Lost, much more than my work on Dragnet! Contemporary programs that get high ratings, like Two and a Half Men and NCIS, are not on the radar of most undergraduates, and thus fall short as pedagogical examples.

Additionally, I have no doubt that the historical significance of the more groundbreaking and “hip” shows will be more long-lasting than many of today’s conventional hits, and thus tackling innovations is a better long-term strategy than looking at today’s typical television. For example, John Fiske’s examination of Hart to Hart in Television Culture is a great analysis, but virtually incomprehensible to readers today who have never heard of the show. Todd Gitlin’s account of Hill Street Blues from the same era is much more readable and relevant because that more innovative show has lingered in consciousness and curricula.

That being said, I made a conscious effort to include sections on reality television, game shows, talk shows, soap operas, the news, and educational television. The world of television programming is so vast and expansive that it’s impossible to be comprehensive. I didn’t attempt to account for every genre and programming trend, but hopefully readers won’t come away with the common misconception that important or interesting television only airs in primetime on networks or premium cable.

I was struck looking at the references in your book by how much television studies has expanded and matured as a field over the past decade. How did the current state of this field impact the decisions you made in creating this book?

The primary job of a textbook is to synthesize the field into an introductory framework; given the growth of television studies in recent years, this was both exciting and daunting. I didn’t want to structure the book by methodology or theoretical approach, which is an organization that some other television textbooks use, so I mapped out the key elements of television and looked for scholarship addressing those core aspects. It also feels like the field has moved away from theoretical modeling and more toward an applied mode – take the approaches to the medium developed in previous eras, and provide detailed historical and analytical accounts of a wide range of examples and moments. Thus it was a rich vein of scholarship to mine.

It was interesting to see what facets of television have not gotten much scholarly attention, and frame the book to invite further investigation. One large area that seems to have been underexplored in recent years is advertising – besides a few specific case studies (like your own work on American Idol) and the typical broad jeremiads against commercialism, I found a lack of culturally-oriented accounts of the contemporary advertising environment, which is undergoing such rapid transformation. This is certainly a fertile area for any graduate students looking for a new project!

There were two smaller areas that seem to have been outside the main thrust of television studies, but I strategically included to inspire more research: copyright and media literacy. Both of these realms are inspiring a tremendous amount of activism and scholarship in other fields, but they have not been addressed by American television scholars as much as I would hope (I do think media literacy education is more central to British television scholarship). Again, I hope the brief sections on these areas will encourage further research.

Others have argued that there has been much more work on the ideological and economic dimensions of television, especially in regard to television audiences, than to the aesthetic dimensions. What challenges did you find in writing the chapters that deal with more formal issues?

A good indicator is that Chapter 5, “Making Meanings” (about the formal dimensions of the television text) is the only one without any endnotes! Not to suggest that there is no scholarship in this area, but it certainly has been less explored than issues of industry, reception, and representation. Most of the core scholarship on the formal elements of television is quite dated today, dealing with examples and modes of production that are less central to contemporary television. In some ways, scholars have been reluctant to return to questions of form and aesthetics due to the politicization of the field (which I’ve written about elsewhere concerning Lost). But I also think it’s because there hasn’t been a recent tradition to build on, and the comparable scholarship from the 1970s is hard to update. So I hope these chapters help lay things out enough to encourage scholars to build on this foundation.

Chapter 5 was in many ways the most difficult to write because of the vast number of terms and ideas that need to be laid out. I was trying to distill a vast formal vocabulary and framework into a succinct chapter, accounting for the variety of television styles spanning fiction and non-fiction, live and recorded onto various media. This is compounded by the fact that the majority of American high school graduates have not been exposed to any formal media education – while we can assume that a college-bound student has at least been exposed to some basic concepts of literary style, there are no guarantees that anybody has been taught the basics of editing and camerawork. Students do know a lot as savvy media consumers or self-taught producers, but the lack of consistent terminology and conceptual framework means that an introductory media course has to cover a lot of ground. So the sections on form and aesthetics is a large “brain dump” of material, that will hopefully be clear enough to provide a solid foundation for students to engage in their own analyses of television programming.

You provide a good deal of original research and analysis in this book. What do you see as the relationship between this textbook and your other scholarly projects, such as you work on genre theory and television, or your analysis of complexity in contemporary television narrative?

When I started the textbook project, my Genre & Television book had recently been released and I was starting to build my narrative project. I conceived as the two modes of writing as distinct – the textbook would be synthesizing other people’s research, and the narrative book would be my own ideas more in line with my first book. But as I got deeper into the textbook, I found that these two modes of writing were far less distinct from one another than I had thought. The textbook does build on others’ works more fully, but I’m still framing arguments, selecting examples and evidence, and guiding readers through a narrative. I also became enamored of a more accessible writing style – while I’ve always tried to write with a minimum of jargon or density, looking back on early publications shows how much my writing style has changed (hopefully for the better!). So I anticipate that even though the ideas will be less synthetic, I hope that the tone and style of my narrative work is more like the textbook than my earlier scholarship.

The other key influence on my writing has been blogging. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how gratifying it is to be able to put up an essay in progress and see the hits accumulate, knowing that people are reading your work, engaging with it, and offering feedback. The textbook has been out in print for a little over a month now, and I feel like it’s less public than it was when I was posting chapter sections on my blog – reading a book is so private and detached from the author. I hope the textbook’s website becomes a place of more active engagement and community once it is adopted and used in classes, but that’s still an unchartered model. In planning my book on narrative, I’m striving to find ways to capture the engagement and immediacy of blogging, even while achieving the more archival mode of book publishing – but that’s a topic for another interview.

Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media

Culture, and Chair of Film & Media Culture, at Middlebury College. He is the

author of Genre & Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American

Culture (Routledge, 2004), Television & American Culture (Oxford UP,

2009), numerous essays in journals and anthologies, and the blog Just TV. He

is currently writing a digital book on narrative complexity in contemporary

American television.

Upcoming Conference — Learning in a Participatory Culture

I’ve often written in this blog about the work we have been doing through Project NML developing curricular materials for in school and after school use to support the New Media Literacies. We will be hosting an event to showcase this work coming up next month and I wanted to encourage you to register and attend.

At NML’s May 2nd conference, we will share our new web-based learning environment, the Learning Library, and host a series of conversations and workshops about the integration and implementation of the new media literacies across disciplines. Workshops include “The Complexities of Copyright: Shepard Fairey v. the AP,” “Mapping in Participatory Culture: Boundaries,” “Using Wikipedia in the Classroom” and many others. Henry Jenkins’ closing remarks will address the future of NML and participatory democracy.

Panelists at this conference will include members of the NML team, educators who have been working with NML materials in the field, and educational researchers. The conference is designed to engage anyone with an interest in the future of education, especially high school teachers and after school coordinators. The format itself will be participatory – we hope that attendees will join the conversation, and leave the conference equipped with new ideas and strategies.

Learning in a Participatory Culture will take place at MIT, Cambridge MA, from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm.

Registration for this one-day conference is $35.00, breakfast and lunch included.

Registration is now open. For more, check out Project NML homepage.

Reinventing the Television Studies Textbook: An Interview with Jason Mittell (Part One)

I can think of very few examples of textbooks that have made original contributions to scholarship in media studies: Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art and Film History books may be the notable exception. I generally prefer not to use textbooks in my classes, exposing my students to cutting edge articles from books and journals, and increasingly to blog posts from key public intellectuals. Most textbooks homogenize and generalize, lacking the particularity and pointedness of other kinds of academic writing. They try to appeal to everyone, try to include everything that matters, and in the process, they mask the criteria which shape their construction of the field.

For these reasons, I was more than a little surprised to learn that Jason Mittell, who I consider to be one of the top thinkers in television studies, was tackling the task of writing a textbook for this field. Mittell has been working on late on the issue of complexity in television narrative, having already contributed to our understanding of genre and television. We share a common intellectual background — both being alums of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Communications Arts Program. Mittell is involved in our Convergence Culture Consortium and recently posted some interesting thoughts on his Just TV blog which compliments my focus on “spreadability” with what he calls “drillability.” You can learn more about Television and American Culture here.

I had a chance to read some of this textbook project in draft form and was excited by what I saw, so as soon as I heard Television and American Culture was being released, I contact Mittell to do an interview for this blog.

Let me be clear: Mittell has done what I would not have thought possible, creating a compelling, up-to-date wide-reaching, nuanced, readable, and engaging introduction to television studies, a textbook which does what we want a good textbook to do but doesn’t read at all like a textbook. As you will see, I wanted to get the genre theorist Mittell to reflect on textbooks as a genre and on the ways he chose to reinvent that genre through this project. In talking about Television Studies textbooks, Mittell also offers some reflections on why we should study TV and what the current state of the field looks like.

You open the book with a consideration of the Janet Jackson flap at the Super Bowl. What does this incident teach us about the range of different ways television functions in relation to American culture?

This was the first section I wrote during the book proposal process. I knew that the book’s core model would be to show how television, like all media, can be understood as spanning a number of facets that are often treated separately – this was based on the “circuit of culture” model emerging out of British cultural studies in the 1990s. For television, the six facets that I identified are commercial industry, democratic institution, textual form, site of cultural representation, part of everyday life, and technological medium – the first draft of the book actually had only six (very long!) chapters, each covering one of these facets.

In drafting the book’s introduction, I needed to come up with an example that would literally sell the book – to publishers looking at the proposal, to faculty reviewing the book for adoption, and to students on the core concepts and engaging tone to keep them reading. This was in late 2004, so the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” was still a current event, with ongoing legislative and judicial processes. It struck me as a perfect example to demonstrate this circuit of television in action, comprising the full scope of issues within an example that was very easy to write about – you don’t need to see the clip to understand the case study, while many other examples that I could have used required more familiarity with a program, channel, genre, etc. The only problem is that the writing process took long enough that what started as a hot-button contemporary example reads a bit dated for today’s students – and in a few years, it will be old news. So I’m keeping an eye out for a newer example to plug-in for the book’s revised edition.

Many textbooks strive for a “neutral” voice which balances out competing perspectives in the field. You do lay out competing arguments here, but as you note in your introduction, you also take sides, constructing your own arguments about key contemporary trends and programs. How do you see your book relating to the genre expectations surrounding the “textbook”?

When I decided to tackle a textbook, I spent some time reading through a number of textbooks on the market, both within media studies and other fields. What struck me most was how disengaging and dull the majority of them were. Even when they were written by authors who can be lively and compelling writers in their other scholarship, the genre of the textbook seemed to follow the edict of a lot of network television: provide least objectionable content. They present material in a seemingly objective, overly-simplified manner, and write without passion or personality.

I had no interest in writing such a book. And my experiences as a teacher suggests that forcing neutrality, oversimplification, and disengagement results in bad pedagogy and bored students. While I want students to grasp material such as the differences between broadcast networks and cable channels, that’s not the core of education to me – instead, they should be thinking about the significance of these systems more than simply recalling them. So I made it clear to interested publishers that I wanted to write a textbook with a more engaging voice and distinct argumentation – to quote my proposal, “By explicitly offering arguments and challenging assumptions, the book will be designed to engage students and force them to question their own positions, rather than the more typical textbook goal of recalling factual information.” Oxford University Press fully embraced this approach, encouraging me to write the book for a sophisticated and engaged reader, not the typical textbook model.

This approach is certainly forged by my experiences teaching at a top-flight liberal arts college like Middlebury. I work with students who are taking my course as part of a broader liberal arts curriculum, not a pre-professional track that typifies a lot of Communications departments. To fit into an institution like Middlebury College, I need to make the study of television an intellectually-engaging and interdisciplinary endeavor – I wrote this book in many ways to spread that approach of “television studies as a liberal art” more broadly to other types of institutions. I’m optimistic that a lot of faculty will find my book more engaging to teach because it “talks up” to students, rather than assumes that they need to be distracted by glossy photos and random sidebars. We’ll have to see how it’s received by both faculty and students, but I wrote the book that I want to teach from (or would have wanted to read as an undergraduate 20 years ago).

The cover of your book shows contemporary television projected across a range of different screens, some of which look like the boxes we’ve used for years, and

some represent mobile phones, computers, and other emerging platforms. Does the cover of the book signal the obsolescence of its content? At what point as we

explode the range of distribution options, does television cease to be television as a specific medium and begin to blur over into all of the other media around it?

When I started working on this book in 2004, YouTube didn’t exist, iPods had no video capabilities, and networks had only just begun to experiment with putting their programs online. By the time the book came out in 2009, the idea of television as defined by the box in your living room had lost its centrality. And there’s no doubt that the last five years are not the end of this core technological shift – honestly, I don’t know what “television” will mean in another five years. But I’m certain that the history of the medium and its industrial and regulatory systems will still matter – whatever technological ecosystem we’ll be living in during the 2010s and beyond, some remnant of television will matter, just as the lingering presence and influence of print, theater, cinema, and radio still matter today.

The cover was designed to signal the book’s engagement with technologies and programming of the past, present, and future. I suggested the idea of “lots of different shows on a variety of devices” to Oxford, and they came up with a design that I really love. But I’m sure in another decade, it will look like a dinosaur! Of course, the very idea of publishing a “textbook” might be arcane by then as well, so clearly I’ve embarked on a project with a potentially short half-life for both content and form.

You could argue that many of the topics you deal with here – convergence, digitalization, globalization, branding, shifts in audience measurement – are impacting all media. What do you see as the relationship between television studies and a more generalized media studies? Can we read the title of your blog, “JustTV,” as a statement of sorts about how you position yourself in the space between television and media studies?

I see television studies as both on the forefront of media studies, and in danger of being forgotten. In many ways, television studies has led the charge for a humanistic model of media studies, and it has really set the model for a mode of scholarship that is both theoretically sophisticated and accessibly written, socially engaged yet historically grounded. This is probably in large part due to the luck of the draw in its intellectual history, as the field came of age after the peak of high theory in film & literary studies, and was in the right place at the right time to introduce the British cultural studies model to America, in large part through the work of our mutual mentor John Fiske. When I look at the best of media scholarship today, whether it’s about videogames, popular music, or transmedia narrative, I see the influence of television studies of the past two decades and the model it helped establish.

But the danger of convergence is an assumption that all media are the same. This is certainly a lesson that the industry has faced repeatedly, as with ill-fated devices like WebTV, and I’ve seen similar scholarly missteps when academics trained in literature or film try to study a different medium as if it were simply another textual form (I won’t name names here…). Specific aspects of television, from regulation to ratings, help shape the medium to an extent that you can’t simply disregard the industrial systems and viewer practices that are unique to television. So my fear is that as television becomes more diffused – either through technological transformation or dilution across media – media scholars will neglect the specific practices and systems that shape our understanding of the medium. The specific lessons and facets of television studies shouldn’t be lost as the boundaries of the medium blurs.

As for the name of my blog, Just TV refers both to the dismissive reflex common to academics viewing television, and an attempt to delineate the blog’s scope. I do embrace broader issues in media studies, such as gaming, fair use, fandom, etc., but try to tie it to the specificities of television whenever possible. I hope that work like mine and many of my TV-centric peers helps legitimize the medium in the eyes of academia, just as the programming itself is becoming more accepted and embraced by scholars across disciplines. But I’m reminded of a wonderful talk that Charlotte Brunsdon gave at Society for Cinema and Media Studies a few years ago – she warned that “poor old television” might get lost in the transition from cinema studies to a digital-centric media studies, and called for scholarly spaces that still privilege television. Hopefully Just TV fits that bill.

Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media

Culture, and Chair of Film & Media Culture, at Middlebury College. He is the

author of Genre & Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American

Culture (Routledge, 2004), Television & American Culture (Oxford UP,

2009), numerous essays in journals and anthologies, and the blog Just TV. He

is currently writing a digital book on narrative complexity in contemporary

American television.