Leaving on a Jet Plane…

…Never Coming Back Again.

Well, not quite. Right now, I am in the midst of my big move from Boston to Los Angeles. As you are reading this, my house is being over-run by movers who are packing up all of my best loved things — my comics collection, my big screen tv, my books, my DVD library, and all of the other things which make for a well lived life — and are loading them onto a truck. On July 1, my wife and I will get on an airplane and fly out to the west coast to begin our new life there. We’ve found a cool new loft in downtown Los Angeles in a classic art deco building and are ready for a total change in orientation and life style. Everyone who used to be far away will now be close.

By September, I will be fully immersed in my new position as Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Art. I will be teaching two classes, a graduate course on New Media Literacies and an undergraduate class on Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment. I will be flying back and forth for the next year to make sure my current students at MIT are able to complete their thesis and to finish off some of the research projects we have been running through the Comparative Media Studies Program.

I’ve done my best to keep the blog entries flowing through this past year of dramatic transitions. I am going to take a few weeks now to focus on the move but expect to be back before July is over. I’ve got lots of interesting interviews, a backlog of ideas to spell out, and some other big plans for the blog in the months ahead. So don’t go away. I just need some time to make my big move.

MIT 1989-2009 IHTFP

Documenting the Digital Generation

The George Lucas Educational Foundation recently launched an exciting new website — Digital Generation — which offers a wealth of videos which will be relevant to anyone who wants to better understand the new media literacies, participatory culture, and young people’s online lives, themes which recur here with great frequency. I have been looking the site over closely as I am getting ready to teach a graduate seminar on new media literacy at USC this fall. I certainly will be using the materials on this site as a resource for sparking classroom discussions and giving my students a more immediate experience of some of the writers we will be reading.

First, the site brings together substantive conversations with what they are calling “Big Thinkers.” These include some key participants from the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiatives, including Katie Salen talking about learning with and through games, Howard Gardner talking about ethics and education, Sasha Barab talking about virtual worlds and participatory culture, John Palfrey talking about “Born Digital” youth, James Paul Gee on assessment and games, and yours truly speaking to parents and educators about our changing media landscape. Here’s Mimi Ito from the Digital Youth Project talking about what her ethnographic research has shown about the ecology of informal learning.

Second, the website offers some vivid and engaging portraits of typical American teens and their relationship to new media technologies and practices. There’s so much that I find commendable about these videos — starting from the fact that they define new media in terms of its opportunities rather than starting from the conflict and controversy approach which defined for example PBS’s Growing Up Online documentary last year. Key to this is the centrality of the young participant’s own voice in describing what these new tools and communities mean to them, coupled with supportive comments from teachers, parents, and other adults who remain part of their lives. The picture that emerges acknowledges that there are sometimes generational conflicts around the deployment of these media but also models strategies for working through those disagreements in ways that allow everyone to tap into the opportunities and route around the risks posed by the online world. Young people’s lives are shown to be conducted across and through a range of different media platforms, rather than, say, identifying one kid as a gamer or another as a social networker. The technologies are shown as supporting a range of different social roles and relationships rather than necessarily directing young people to develop in predetermined directions. There are great examples here of gifted teachers who embrace the informal learning which is taking place in and around participatory culture and linking it in meaningful ways to the school curriculum. These stories allow us to see new media practices as an expansion of rather than distraction from traditional forms of learning. These are the kinds of stories I wish we could see more of in mainstream media rather than sensationalized newsreports which are designed to provoke moral panic over the topic of the week. Right now, that topic seems to be sexting.

This video about Sam is one of my personal favorites. Sam is a young drama queen — in all of the best senses of the word — and it’s clear that she is deploying a range of new media tools to produce, critique, edit, and restage her own persona (as well as to direct her friends in their own identity play activities).

And this portrait of Luis shows a young man as he uses new media tools to juggle a range of social responsabilities. Part of what I love here is the ways that his mastery over these technologies allows him to be a dutiful son, a caring brother, an active citizen, and a mentor to other youth.

And surrounding each of the youth portraits are samples of their own media productions and links to sites which are meaningfully part of their own lives. These young people are allowed to share their own insights and experiences through the site, alongside the credentialized experts (and “Big Thinkers”) and this is clearly as it should be, given how much each of them has to say about digital culture.

Finally, the site offers videos which provide portraits of significant youth-focused organizations and the work they are doing to promote the new media literacies. These groups include several with whom Project NML has been collaborating, including New York City’s Global Kids and Chicago’s Digital Youth Network. This video, for example, shows a workshop on digital storytelling and talks about the Remix World project. I’ve had the chance to get to know Nichole Pinkard and Akili Lee, visit their school, and see their students in action. What they are doing is, in the words of one of the young people featured here, “totally sick.”

These samples only scratch the surface. You should allow yourself the time to explore this rich new resource for media literacy education.

Boy and Girl Wonders: An Interview with Mary Borsellino (Part Two)

You describe a number of recent texts which have drawn implicitly and explicitly on the figure of Robin. I wanted to get you to comment on a few of these. I was surprised for example to see that Dexter had made such significant references to Robin. What do you think is going on there?

Heaven knows! The references to Robin in the Dexter books and TV series are one of the most interesting recent uses of the Robin figure, simply because they’re so removed from our ordinary understanding of Robin as a pop figure. Out of all the fantasy figures a serial killer could potentially imagine himself as, why does he return again and again to Robin imagery? It may partly be because Dexter’s vigilante training by his adoptive father is such a crucial element in who he is: without that education, he wouldn’t be able to thrive in the world, just as Robin is defined by Batman’s influence.

It may also relate to the fact that Dexter’s origin story is a dark mirror to Robin’s: both are orphaned as children and taken in by a crime fighter. Comics to this day experiment with ‘what if’ scenarios: what if baby Kal-El’s capsule had crashed in Russia, things like that. The Dexter novels are almost a what-if of what could happen if Robin’s childhood trauma created a sociopath rather than a child hell-bent on stopping bad guys.

What aspects of Robin did Eminem evoke in his “Without Me” music video?

Primarily the daredevil-trickster-troublemaker aspects; he’s made a career out of being the village fool who’s not scared of saying that the emperor has no clothes. Eminem most obviously borrows Robin’s costume and some of the 60s TV show’s set pieces — walking up walls and things like that — but on a deeper level, Eminem borrows Robin’s eternal boyhood, and the freedom that youth brings with it. I think it’s really interesting that three of the current musicians whom I cite as drawing most heavily on what Robin represents and offers — Eminem, Pete Wentz, and Gerard Way — are all in their thirties, and yet all three are still seen very much of being the voice of a generation that’s only just over half that age. Eminem’s got a teenage daughter and yet he’s not yet percieved as a ‘grown up’ himself. How does he manage that? I think the answer lies partially in the way he employs tropes like Robin in his persona. He’s a boy who never grows up.

Given your analysis of the character, which writer do you think has offered us the richest, most nuanced depiction of Robin and why?

This is a tough one to answer, because the nuances of Robin come about because of the opportunity later writers have to build on what earlier writers laid down as foundations. So I could rattle off an answer and say Devin Grayson’s Nightwing/Huntress series was an excellent depiction of the way Robin’s sexuality might develop when he reaches adulthood, and what

qualities he ends up attracted to in a partner or Andersen Gabrych’s grasp of what qualities Batman is drawn to in Robins, and why those are exactly the worst qualities for a Gotham vigilante to have, is the stuff of epic gothic tragedy — but Grayson and Gabrych’s especial genius in their work isn’t simply telling great stories; it’s taking the disparate pieces of such a disjointed history and melding them into a coherent, nuanced whole.

There have been, of course, many attempts to depict Robin outside his/her relationship to Batman — as a member of the Teen Titans or as an adult figure on his own right. What impact have these efforts had on the public perception of this figure?

I’m not sure that Robin’s able to remain Robin all that well once the relationship with Batman is pushed to the back. I love the whole Teen Titans concept, but it and ‘Robin’ as a role seem to inevitably become mutually exclusive: it was in Teen Titans that Dick Grayson quit being Robin and instead became Nightwing. The Robin of the Teen Titans cartoon became Nightwing, as well, in a storyline set in the future, and there’s a strong narrative thread throughout the cartoon of Slade acting almost as a surrogate Batman for Robin to clash with.

Robin with Batman is the protege, the squire, the ward: the student, essentially. Robin with the Teen Titans is no older than Robin with Batman, but with the Teen Titans he’s the leader, rather than the student. There’s too much cognitive dissonance between the two roles, and so time and time again it breaks down: either Robin quits the Teen Titans, or quits being Robin. Both outcomes have happened numerous times in the comics.

Mary Borsellino is a freelance writer in Melbourne, Australia. She has published essays about subjects such as the shifting portrayals of Batman’s childhood family, a feminist critique of the TV show Supernatural, and gender in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. She is currently working on a series of YA novels which will begin release later this year and which have been described as ‘Twilight for punks’. Mary is the Assistant Editor of the journal Australian Philanthropy.

You can download her book, Boy and Girl Wonders: Robin in Cultural Context here.

Boy and Girl Wonders: An Interview with Mary Borsellino (Part One)

Robin didn’t start with Robin. Robin won’t end when Robin ends. In fact, it’s arguable that Robin’s already begun to move on from Robin.

In less smartypants language, what I mean is that the ingredients which were brought together to create the character of “Robin,” Batman’s red-and-green-and-gold-wearing sidekick, were ingredients which already shared numerous common elements. And once Robin could no longer embody these elements, other pop culture arose to take over the character’s place.

Or so goes the opening paragraphs of Mary Borsellino’s fascinating new work, Girl and Boy Wonders: Robin in Cultural Context. The self-published text, which can be downloaded here, explodes with new insights and information about Batman’s oft-neglected and marginalized sidekick, the kinds of information that could only come from a dedicated aca-fan. I will be honest that despite being a life-long Batman fan, I had never given that much consideration to Robin’s cultural origins, his contributions to the series, or his influence on our culture. Works like William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson’s The Many Lives of the Batman or Will Brooker’s Batman Unmasked have made significant contributions to our understanding of the mythology around the dark knight, but most of them given short shrift to his “old chum.” Borsellino argues that Robin’s marginalization, sometimes in response to homophobia, sometimes in response to a desire for a “more mature” caped crusader, is part of his message. The character has special appeal, she argues, for “those readers and viewers who are themselves marginalized.”

I checked in with Borsellino recently, asking her to share some of her insights with my readers.

This project emerged in part from your own very active involvement in Project Girl Wonder, which responded to what you saw as DC’s neglect of Stephanie Brown. Can you give us some background on this controversy? What were the issues involved? Why was this character so important to you? What was the outcome of the campaign?

Actually, Project Girl Wonder came about out of the project. I was so immersed in the potential meanings of all the stuff going on with Robin in comics, and so tuned in to the rapid decline of relevance with DC’s mandated interpretation of Robin. The idea of Stephanie Brown as Robin was so fresh and strange as a direction, but was handled so clumsily and with such obvious institutionalised sexism that it was pretty vile to witness, both as a cultural observer and as a fan who’s also a feminist.

Essentially, for those not familiar with the character or with Robin’s larger back story: when the second Robin, a boy named Jason, died, Batman created a memorial out of his costume in the Batcave. Stephanie was the fourth Robin, and her costume was different to the three boys who’d had it before her in that she sewed a red skirt for herself. Just a few months after her first issue as Robin was released, Stephanie was tortured to death with a power drill by a villain, and then died with Batman at her bedside.

The sexualised violence alone was pretty vomitous, but what made it so, so much worse for me was that Batman promptly forgot her. DC’s Editor in Chief had the gall to respond to questions of how her death would affect future stories by saying that her loss would continue to impact the stories of the heroes — how sick is that? Not only is the statement clearly untrue, since the comics were chugging along their merry way with no mention of her or her death, but it was also an example of the ingrained sexism of so much of our culture. Stephanie herself was a hero, and had been a hero for more than a decade’s worth of comics, but the Editor’s statement made it clear that he only thought of male characters as heroes, and the females as catalysts for those stories. It was a very clear example of the Women in Refrigerators trope, which has been a problem with superhero comics for far, far too long.

Long story short, I got together with a few like-minded comics fans and set out to petition DC Comics into giving Stephanie a memorial like Jason’s — to acknowledge that she was just as much a hero, and just as much Robin, as any of the boys. It made such a clear and striking image: a costume in a memorial case, just like Jason’s now-iconic one, but this time with a little

red skirt on it as well. We couldn’t have asked for a better logo for our cause.

We were lucky enough to have some invaluable help, both outside comics and inside. Shannon Cochran wrote a wonderful, in-depth article about the situation for Bitch magazine; we were a Yahoo site of the day; the webcomic Shortpacked ran a sharply funny strip about it all; and several comics writers working for DC — Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison, in particular — dropped references to the absence/potential presence of a memorial case for Stephanie into comics.

In the end, DC glossed it all over by having a storyline where Stephanie shows up, miraculously alive this whole time, and having the current Robin say to Batman “oh! you always knew she was alive! no wonder you never made her a memorial case!”. Despite the fact that stories in the interim had featured Stephanie’s death, autopsy, burial, and appearances as a spirit in the afterlife. Nope, Batman knew she was alive the whole time! Good job with the damage control there, DC.

Still, a live heroine’s better than a dead one any day, so I count the whole thing as a victory in the end.

Critics have written a fair amount about how Batman’s persona was inspired by earlier popular heroes, including Sherlock Holmes and the Douglas Fairbank’s version of Zorro. What popular figures helped to inform the initial conception of Robin?

Within comics, the most direct inspiration was Junior, who was Dick Tracy’s young offsider. Robin was the first time that boy helper figure was put into a superhero costume, but Junior was playing the detective’s assistant role years before, and screwing up in all the same ways Robin so often does, ending up as a hostage and things like that. More widely, you’ve gone halfway to answering your own question — Sherlock Holmes had Watson there, to listen to his theories and help solve the mysteries. The sidekick role has been around a long time, and provided the template for Robin’s role.

Culturally, the figure of the daredevil boy hero is an ancient one, dating back through epic literature of the middle ages to the statuary and myths of Greece and Rome. Robin just gave the archetype a new costume.

You suggest that the marginalization of Robin as a character has helped to make the sidekick a particularly potent point of reference for other groups who also feel marginalized. Explain.

The two examples I use in my book are queer fans and women, though I also know readers who’ve used this same framework for class and race. As a queer person, or a woman, or someone of a marginalised socio-economic background, or a non-Caucasian person, it’s often necessary to perform a negotiated reading on a text before there’s any way to identify with any character within it. Rather than being able to identify an obvious and overt avatar within the text, a viewer in such a position has to use cues and clues to find an equivalent through metaphor a lot of the time.

A recent example of this is Spock and Uhura in the new Star Trek movie. Uhura has always been vitally important as a role model to women of colour — even Martin Luther King Jr thought so. And she still fulfils that role in the new movie. The narrative themes of racial discrimination and of the conflicts which dual cultural heritage can bring with it are in the movie as well, but they’re not the story of Uhura, because Gene Roddenberry was committed to the idea of a future where the crew of a starship could be mixed-race without remark. The character who offers these is Spock: he’s the one with all the ‘outsider’ cues in his makeup, which I think goes part of the way to understanding why the recent Star Trek movie has seen a massive re-emergence of Kirk/Spock slash on the fannish landscape: female fans and those seeking a queer reading are drawn to that sense of marginalisation, of the ongoing fight to be recognised as present and worthy.

I got off-topic a bit there, sorry — my reason for bringing up Spock and Uhura was to demonstrate that ‘otherness’ as part of a character’s construction isn’t necessarily bound directly to traits such as race or gender. It can stand for them, but does so obliquely. And Robin, by being put down and rejected by wave after wave of commentators and creators, has

come to embody anything that’s been sidelined or disregarded, anything that’s rejected in the relentless quest to make Batman as heteronormatively masculine and dour as possible. Just as those who fight against personal discrimination can find an avatar in Spock, those who struggle to re-establish their voice in dialogues where they’ve been silenced can find an avatar in the way Robin is pushed out of the way by official texts.

Many know of the ways that DC has struggled with the homophobia surrounding the relationship between Batman and Robin. How has this concern shaped the deployment of Robin over time? Are there any signs that in an era of legalized gay marriage, our culture may be less anxious about these issues?

We also live in an age of Prop 8, alas. I live in Australia, and both Australia and America recently switched from a longstanding conservative leadership to a potentially more progressive government — but both Prime Minister Rudd and President Obama have gone on-record as saying that they believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. Progress hasn’t yet progressed as far as I’d like to see it go, frankly.

And I think DC Comics is an absolute trainwreck mess at this point, to be even more frank. You only have to look at All Star Batman and Robin, by Frank Miller and Jim Lee, to see what a disaster the company’s current concept of a flagship book is. The writing’s incredibly sloppy, sexist, homophobic, and unengaging. “That is so queer” is used by Robin as a slur.

Batman calls Robin “retarded” and declares himself “the goddamn Batman”. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so awful.

It hasn’t always been that bad, of course, but right now it appears to me that DC is more anxious than ever about potential gay readings. And then there’s Christian Bale, who has stated outright that he’ll go on strike if anybody tries to incorporate Robin into the movie franchise. His Batman is so joyless that it’s no wonder everybody went starry-eyed for the Joker — the guy may be a psychopath, but at least he seems to know that running around Gotham City in a stupid outfit is meant to be fun.

You argue that Robin is in many ways a “transgender figure.” Explain.

Robin crosses all sorts of imposed gender boundaries, both literal and figurative. Carrie Kelley, for example, the young girl who becomes Robin in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, is referred to by a news broadcaster as ‘the Boy Wonder’; she looks completely androgynous in-costume, and so is assumed to be a boy. Dick Grayson and Tim Drake both assume female identities to go undercover in numerous stories — Dick even played Bruce’s wife on one occasion back in the forties — and Stephanie Brown’s superhero identity before she became a Robin, the Spoiler, is thought to be a boy even by her own father.

Those are just the literal examples of gender transgression. There’re also a lot of background cultural cues coming into play, in the way the Robin costume looks, the way different backstories for the Robins are structured, and how sidekicks function in adventure narratives — all these elements work against the notion of pinning Robin down as definitively male or female as a character; the only classification which really fits is that of being constantly in-motion between options and unclassifiable.

Mary Borsellino is a freelance writer in Melbourne, Australia. She has published essays about subjects such as the shifting portrayals of Batman’s childhood family, a feminist critique of the TV show Supernatural, and gender in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. She is currently working on a series of YA novels which will begin release later this year and which have been described as ‘Twilight for punks’. Mary is the Assistant Editor of the journal Australian Philanthropy.

Calling Young Gamers. Share your AHa! Moment!

My friends, Alex Chisholm and Andrew Blanco from the Learning Games Network asked me if I could use this blog to help them spread the word of some exciting new activities designed to engage young gamers/media makers and to encourage reflection on the value of games for education. Both are causes close to my own heart, as regular readers will know. Here’s what Blanco has to say about the initiative:

Lights. Camera. Action! Tell us what you think a learning game looks like. Share a story about a connection you made between something you did in a game and something you had to learn in school.

From the Learning Games Network (LGN) comes an interesting inspiration for user-generated content. A recently established 501(c) (3) non-profit organization, established by former MIT CMS Director of Special Projects Alex Chisholm, the MIT Education Arcade’s Eric Klopfer and Scot Osterweil, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Kurt Squire, LGN was formed to spark innovation in the design and use of video games for learning. In addition to bringing together an integrated network of educators, designers, media producers, and academic researchers who all have a hand in creating and distributing games for learning, they’re also bringing forth opportunities for youth to contribute to conversations, research, and development. It’s a no brainer for today’s students to share their perspectives in a more participatory role as the future of education is shaped.

The first of two efforts is a video contest, notable in its invitation to students to help inform educators and designers with their own thoughts on video games as tools for learning. Requiring entrants to create their own two-to-three minute YouTube videos, the contest offers two themes from which students can choose.

(1) The first challenge asks them to describe an “aha moment” they’ve personally encountered: “If you’ve experienced that spark of realization, that moment of epiphany between an idea from a game and something you learned — at school, at home, or anywhere else — tell us about it in your video.”

(2) The second puts students in the role of teacher or coach, asking them to describe an

idea for a learning game they would employ to help others learn: “What kind of game would it be? What would it help players learn? Why would your video game be a better way to learn something? In your video, tell us what challenges players would face and how they would learn from them.”

Contest rules can be found at http://www.aha-moment.org. Students must be 13 years old and above to enter; there are separate categories for middle school, high school, and post-secondary students. Thanks to sponsorship by AMD, the first place prize for each category is a 16-inch HP Pavilion dv6 series notebook, powered by an AMD Turionâ„¢ X2 Ultra Dual-Core Mobile Processor. Deadline for submissions is midnight on July 31, 2009.

A second, longer term initiative is LGN’s Design Squad. With game design and production requiring many rounds of iteration during which details are play-tested,tuned, and enhanced, Design Squad members will learn about the development process and the integration of gaming into both formal and informal learning settings, as well as serve as a pool of rapid-reaction testers and reviewers during the creation of learning games by LGN and other organizations that are part of its network. This is a great opportunity for students to play an important role in creating innovative new learning games, enabling them to contribute to design discussions, play testing, production reviews, and early marketing concepts. LGN aims to amplify the voices of today’s students among the companies, writers, and designers that are trying to better understand how games are both a powerful media for education and a challenge to develop if one doesn’t understand what makes an engaging and rewarding experience.

LGN is looking for highly motivated, creative, and articulate middle school, high school, and undergraduate students to (a) participate in exclusive workshops and online sessions with leading learning game designers, producers, marketers, and researchers;(b) regularly review and test learning games that are in development; and, (c) work both locally and virtually with LGN member organizations across the U.S. Design Squad members in the Boston area will work with the LGN team in its newly established Cambridge studio, a stone’s throw from the MIT campus. Interested students between the ages of 13 and 20 can send a note to designsquad at learninggamesnetwork dot org. Or, if you’re a teacher or parent who would like to nominate a student, please contact LGN.

LGN plans to review inquiries and send applications to interested or nominated students

through the end of July before announcing the LGN DS 2009-2010 team in time for back-to-school.

Questions about the Learning Games Network can be directed to Andy Blanco, Director of Program and Business Development, andy.blanco at learninggamesnetwork dot org.

Risks, Rights, and Responsibilities in the Digital Age: An Interview with Sonia Livingstone (Part Two)

A real strength of your new book, Children and the Internet: Great Expectations and Challenging Realities, is that it combines ethnographic and statistical, qualitative and quantitative approaches. What does each add to our understanding of the issues? Why are they so seldom brought together in the same analysis?

I’m glad you think this is a strength, as it’s demanding to do, which may be why many don’t do it. The simple answer is that I am committed to the view that qualitative work helps us understand a phenomenon from the perspective of those engaged in it, while quantitative work helps us understand how common, rare or distributed a phenomenon is.

Personally, I was fortunate to have been trained in both approaches, starting out with a rigorous quantitative training before launching into a mixed methods PhD as a contribution to a highly qualitative field of audience research and cultural studies. While I don’t argue that all researchers must do everything, I do hope that the insights of both qualitative and quantitative research can be recognised by all; as a field, it seems to me vital to bring these approaches together, even if across rather than within projects.

You begin the book by noting the very different models of childhood which have emerged from psychological and sociological research. How can we reconcile these two paradigms to develop a better perspective on the relationship of youth to their surrounding society?

I hope that the book takes us further in integrating psychological and sociological approaches, for I try to show how they can be complementary. Particularly, I rebut the somewhat stereotyped view that psychologists only consider individuals, and only consider children in terms of ‘ages and stages’, by pointing to a growing trend to follow Vygotsky’s social and materialist psychology rather than the Piagetian approach, for this has much in common with today’s thinking about the social nature of technology.

However, this is something I’ll continue to think about. It seems important to me, for instance, that few who study children and the internet really understand processes of age and development, tending still to treat all ‘children’ as equivalent, more comfortable in distinguishing ways that society approaches children of different ages than in distinguishing different approaches, understandings or abilities among children themselves.

One tension which seems to be emerging in the field of youth and digital learning is between a focus on spectacular case studies which show the potentials of online learning and more mundane examples which show typical patterns of use. Where do you fall?

Like many, I have been inspired and excited by the spectacular case studies. Yet when I interview children, or in my survey, I was far more struck by how many use the internet in a far more mundane manner, underusing its potential hugely, and often unexcited by what it could do. It was this that led me to urge that we see children’s literacy in the context of technological affordances and legibilities. But it also shows to me the value of combining and contrasting insights from qualitative and quantitative work. The spectacular cases, of course, point out what could be the future for many children. The mundane realities, however, force the question – whose fault is it that many children don’t use the internet in ways that we, or they, consider very exciting or demanding? It also forces the question, what can be done, something I attend to throughout the book, as I’m keen that we don’t fall back into a disappointment that blames children themselves.

As you note, there are “competing models” for thinking about what privacy means

in this new information environment. How are young people sorting through these

different models and making choices about their own disclosures of information?

There’s been a fair amount of adult dismay at how young people disclose personal, even intimate information online. In the book, I suggest there are several reasons for this. First, adolescence is a time of experimentation with identity and relationships, and not only is the internet admirably well suited to this but the offline environment is increasingly restrictive, with supervising teachers and worried parents constantly looking over their shoulders.

Second, some of this disclosure is inadvertent – despite their pleasure in social networking, for instance, I found teenagers to struggle with the intricacies of privacy settings, partly because they are fearful of getting it wrong and partly because they are clumsily designed and ill-explained, with categories (e.g. top friends, everyone) that don’t match the subtlety of youthful friendship categories.

Third, adults are dismayed because they don’t share the same sensibilities as young people. I haven’t interviewed anyone who doesn’t care who knows what about them, but I’ve interviewed many who think no-one will be interested and so they worry less about what they post, or who take care over what parents or friends can see but are not interested in the responses of perfect strangers.

In other words, young people are operating with some slightly different conceptions of privacy, but certainly they want control over who knows what about them; it’s just that they don’t wish to hide everything, they can’t always figure out how to reveal what to whom, and anyway they wish to experiment and take a few risks.

You reviewed the literature on youth and civic engagement. What did you find? What do you see as the major factors blocking young people from getting more involved in the adult world of politics?

I suggest here that some initiatives are motivated by the challenge of stimulating the alienated, while others assume young people to be already articulate and motivated but lacking structured opportunities to participate. Some aim to enable youth to realise their present rights while others focus instead on preparing them for their future responsibilities.

These diverse motives may result in some confusion in mode of address, target group and, especially, form of participation being encouraged. Children I interview often misinterpret the invitation to engage being held out to them (online and offline) – they can be suspicious of who is inviting them to engage, quickly disappointed that if they do engage, there’s often little response or recognition, and they can be concerned that to engage politically may change their image among their peers, for politics is often seen as ‘boring’ not ‘cool’.

In my survey, I found lots of instances where children and young people take the first step – visiting a civic website, signing a petition, showing an interest – but often these lead nowhere, and that seems to be because of the response from adult society. Hence, contrary to the popular discourses that blame young people for their apathy, lack of motivation or interest, I suggest that young people learn early that they are not listened to. Hoping that the internet can enable young people to ‘have their say’ thus misses the point, for they are not themselves listened to. This is a failure both of effective communication between young people and those who aim to engage them, and a failure of civic or political structures – of the social structures that sustain relations between established power and the polity.

Sonia Livingstone is Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is author or editor of fourteen books and many academic articles and chapters on media audiences, children and the internet, domestic contexts of media use and media literacy. Recent books include Audiences and Publics (2005), The Handbook of New Media (edited, with Leah Lievrouw, Sage, 2006), Media Consumption and Public Engagement (with Nick Couldry and Tim Markham, Palgrave, 2007) and The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture (edited, with Kirsten Drotner, Sage, 2008). She was President of the International Communication Association 2007-8.

If you’ve enjoyed this interview, you can hear Sonia Livingstone live and in person this summer at the 2009 Conference of the National Association for Media Literacy Education

(NAMLE)to be held August 1-4 in Detroit, MI. Her keynote address for this biennial conference — the nation’s largest, oldest and most prestigious gathering of media literacy educators — is scheduled for Monday, August 3 at 4:00 pm in the Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit.

The conference – four days of non-stop professional development on topics such as teaching critical thinking, gaming, media production, literacy, social networking and more! — will feature more than sixty events, including keynotes, workshops, screenings, special interest caucuses and roundtable discussions. Among the special events are the launch of the new online Journal of Media Literacy Education, the Modern Media Makers (M3) production camp for high school students, and a celebration of the 50th

anniversary of Detroit’s famous “Motown Sound.”

The conference theme, “Bridging Literacies: Critical Connections in a Digital World” speaks to the educational challenges facing teachers, schools and administrators in helping young people prepare for living all their lives in a 21st century culture. Complete details and online registration are available here.

Risks, Rights, and Responsibilities in the Digital Age: An Interview with Sonia Livingstone (Part One)

The first time I saw Sonia Livingstone speak about her research on the online lives of British teens, we were both part of the program of a conference organized by David Buckingham at the University of London. I was impressed enough by her sober, balanced, no-nonsense approach that I immediately wrote a column for Technology Review about her initiative. Here’s part of what I had to say:

A highlight of the conference was London School of Economics professor Sonia Livingstone’s announcement of the preliminary findings of a major research initiative called UK Children Go Online. This project involved both quantitative and qualitative studies on the place of new media in the lives of some 1,500 British children (ages 9 to 19) and their parents. The study’s goal was to provide data that policymakers and parents could draw on to make decisions about the benefits and risks of expanding youth access to new media. Remember that phrase — benefits and risks.

According to the study, children were neither as powerful nor as powerless as the two competing myths might suggest. As the Myth of the Digital Generation suggests, children and youth were using the Internet effectively as a resource for doing homework, connecting with friends, and seeking out news and entertainment. At the same time, as the Myth of the Columbine Generation might imply, the adults in these kids’ lives tended to underestimate the problems their children encountered online, including the percentage who had unwanted access to pornography, had received harassing messages, or had given out personal information….

As the Livingstone report notes in its conclusion: “Some may read this report and consider the glass half full, finding more education and participation and less pornographic or chat room risk than they had feared. Others may read this report and consider the glass half empty, finding fewer benefits and greater incidence of dangers than they would have hoped for.” Unfortunately, many more people will encounter media coverage of the research than will read it directly, and its nuanced findings are almost certainly going to be warped beyond recognition.

The last sentence referred to the ways that the British media had reduced her complicated findings to a few data points about how young people might be accessing pornography online behind their parents’ backs.

This week, Sonia Livingstone’s latest book, Children and the Internet: Great Expectations and Challenging Realities, is being released by Polity. As with the earlier study, it combines quantitative and qualitative perspectives to give us a compelling picture of how the internet is impacting childhood and family life in the United Kingdom. It will be of immediate relevence for all of us doing work on new media literacies and digital learning and beyond, for all of you who are trying to make sense of the challenges and contradictions of parenting in the digital age. As always, what I admire most about Livingstone is her deft balance: she does find a way to speak to both half-full and half-empty types and help them to more fully appreciate the other’s perspective.

Given the ways I observed her ideas getting warped by the British media (read the rest of the Technology Review column for the full story), I wanted to do what I could to make sure her ideas reached a broader public in a more direct fashion. (Not that she needs my help, given her own skills as a public intellectual.) She was kind to grant me this interview during which she talks through some of the core ideas from the book.

In the broadest sense, your book urges parents/educators/adult authorities to

help young people to maximize the potentials and avoid the risks involved in moving into the online world. What do you see as the primary benefits and risks here?

My book argues that young people’s internet literacy does not yet match the headline image of the intrepid pioneer, but this is not because young people lack imagination or initiative but rather because the institutions that manage their internet access and use are constraining or unsupportive – anxious parents, uncertain teachers, busy politicians, profit-oriented content providers. I’ve sought to show how young people’s enthusiasm, energies and interests are a great starting point for them to maximize the potential the internet could afford them, but they can’t do it on their own, for the internet is a resource largely of our – adult – making. And it’s full of false promises: it invites learning but is still more skill-and-drill than self-paced or alternative in its approach; it invites civic participation, but political groups still communicate one-way more than two-way, treating the internet more as a broadcast than an interactive medium; and adults celebrate young people’s engagement with online information and communication at the same time as seeking to restrict them, worrying about addiction, distraction, and loss of concentration, not to mention the many fears about pornography, race hate and inappropriate sexual contact.

Indeed, in recent years, popular online activities have one by one become fraught with difficulties for young people – chat rooms and social networking sites are closed down because of the risk of paedophiles, music downloading has resulted in legal actions for copyright infringement, educational institutions are increasingly instituting plagiarism procedures, and so forth. So, the internet is not quite as welcoming a place for young people as rhetoric would have one believe. Maybe this can yet be changed!

Risk seems to be a particularly important word for you. How would you define it

and what role does the discussion of risk play in contemporary social theory?

I’ve been intrigued by the argument from Ulrick Beck, Anthony Giddens and others that late modernity can be characterised as ‘the risk society’ – meaning that we in wealthy western democracies no longer live dominated by natural hazards, or not only by those. But we also live with risks of our own making, risks that we knowingly create and of which we are reflexively aware. Many of the anxieties held about children online exactly fit this concept.

My book tries to show how society has created an internet that knowingly creates new risks for children, both by exacerbating familiar problems because of its speed, connectivity and anonymity (e.g. bullying) and generating new ones (e.g. rendering peer sharing of music illegal). These are precisely risks that reflect our contemporary social anxieties about children’s growing independence (in terms of identity, sexuality, consumption) in contemporary society.

As you note, some want to avoid discussion of “risk” because it may help fuel the climate of “moral panic” that surrounds the adoption of new media into homes and schools. Why do you think it is important for those of us who are more sympathetic to youth’s online lives to address risks?

I have worried about this a lot, for it is evident to me that, to avoid moral panics (a valid enterprise), many researchers stay right away from any discussion or research on how the internet is associated not only with interesting opportunities but also with a range of risks, from more explicit or violent pornography than was readily available before, to hostile communication on a wider scale than before, and to intimate exchanges that can go wrong or exploit naïve youth within private spaces invisible to parents. I think it’s vital that research seeks a balanced picture, examining both the opportunities and the risks, therefore, and I argue that to do this, it’s important to understand children’s perspectives, to see the risks in their terms and according to their priorities.

Even more difficult, and perhaps unfashionable, I also think that we should question some of children’s judgments – they may laugh off exposure to images that may harm them long-term, for example, or they may not realise how the competition to gain numerous online friends makes others feel excluded or hurt.

Last, and I do like to be led in part by the evidence, I have been very struck by the finding that experiences of opportunities and risks are positively associated. Initially, I had thought that when children got engaged in learning or creativity or networking online, they would be more skilled and so know how to avoid the various risks online. But my research made clear that quite the opposite occurs – the more you gain in digital literacy, the more you benefit and the more difficult situations you may come up against.

As I observed before, partly this is about the design of the online environment – to join Facebook, you must disclose personal information, and once you’ve done that you may receive hostile as well as valuable contacts; to seek out useful health advice, you must search for key words that may result in misleading or manipulative information. And so on. This is why I’m trying to call attention to how young people’s literacy must be understood in the context of what I’m calling the legibility of the interface.

You argue that we should be more attentive to the affordances of new media than

its impacts. How are you distinguishing between these two approaches?

Many of us have argued for some time now that the concept of ‘impacts’ seems to treat the internet (or any technology) as if it came from outer space, uninfluenced by human (or social and political) understandings. Of course it doesn’t. So, the concept of affordances usefully recognises that the online environment has been conceived, designed and marketed with certain uses and users in mind, and with certain benefits (influence, profits, whatever) going to the producer.

Affordances also recognises that interfaces or technologies don’t determine consequences 100%, though they may be influential, strongly guiding or framing or preferring one use or one interpretation over another. That’s not to say that I’d rule out all questions of consequences, more that we need to find more subtle ways of asking the questions here. Problematically too, there is still very little research that looks long-term at changes associated with the widespread use of the internet, making it surprisingly hard to say whether, for example, my children’s childhood is really so different from mine was, and why.

Sonia Livingstone is Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is author or editor of fourteen books and many academic articles and chapters on media audiences, children and the internet, domestic contexts of media use and media literacy. Recent books include Audiences and Publics (2005), The Handbook of New Media (edited, with Leah Lievrouw, Sage, 2006), Media Consumption and Public Engagement (with Nick Couldry and Tim Markham, Palgrave, 2007) and The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture (edited, with Kirsten Drotner, Sage, 2008). She was President of the International Communication Association 2007-8.

Communal Growing Pains: Fandom and the Evolution of Street Fighter

This is another in a series of essays by my CMS graduate students exploring what personal narrative might contribute to the development of media theory. In this case, Begy blurs the line between games research and fan studies to talk about how he reads the Street Fighter games.

Communal Growing Pains: Fandom and the Evolution of Street Fighter

By Jason Begy


In mid October 2007, Japanese game developer Capcom announced what many fans, myself included, thought they never would: the fourth series in the long-running Street Fighter franchise. It had been some eight years since the release of the last official installment, Street Fighter III: Third Strike, and the declining popularity of 2D fighting games made another entry seem unlikely. The announcement of the new game generated enormous buzz within the community: for years whenever Capcom mentioned “unannounced projects” our collective heart skipped a beat, only to be disappointed. This time our wishes were granted, but we were ill-prepared for the full ramifications.

The online focal point of the Street Fighter community is the forum at Shoryuken.com. Here fans gather to discuss strategy (for Street Fighter and countless other fighting games), organize local meet-ups and online matches, share fan fiction and fan art, buy and sell all manner of goods, and generally hang out. The forums are known to be somewhat rough: new members are expected to quickly figure things out on their own. This is partially because many of the members are expert players and they come to interact with each other, not guide beginners through the basics. The community is at once tightly-knit and tightly-wound, which makes gaining acceptance extremely difficult yet extremely rewarding.

When Street Fighter IV was released on February 17, 2009 in the United States, all of the gaming press pointed to Shoryuken.com as the place to go for information, strategies, and tips, and the forums were literally and figuratively crippled. Literally because the servers could not handle the traffic, causing the site to continuously crash for several weeks; figuratively because many of the new members created severe social disruption. The best way to illustrate this is probably an analogy: imagine a thousand people spontaneously showing up at Gary Kasparov’s house demanding to know how the pawn moves and you are not far off. The publicity also drew in countless trolls simply looking to cause trouble. This influx lead to the phrase “09er,” which is derogatory slang for members who joined in 2009. It generally means someone who is disruptive, ignorant, and a fair-weather fan. This is not to say that all new members exhibited such behavior, but a great many did.

External tensions aside, the new members have created conflicting emotions in myself and other older fans. On the one hand, our genre of choice has been declining for nearly fifteen years, so a major new release and public approval is a nice affirmation of our tastes. Furthermore, fighting games are fundamentally social. Playing against other people is the only way to experience these games to their fullest, so a large group of new, eager players is certainly a welcome sight. On the other hand, these new members are quick to say that they have “always” been fans, which usually means they played Street Fighter II (the most popular game in the series) and not the eleven or so games between then and now, which begs the question of whether they will jump ship again when they get bored.

While it sounds strange, I find such statements deeply troubling: to leap from one entry to another while maintaining that you have “always” been a fan is to completely disregard what makes Street Fighter special. But even worse they cast a shadow of doubt over my own status as a “fan.”


The source of these feelings is rooted in my own long history with the Street Fighter franchise. I first encountered Street Fighter II sometime in early elementary school and was immediately mesmerized. It was like nothing I had experienced before: two characters face off in one-on-one martial arts combat, first to win two rounds wins the match. The game could be played against a computer-controlled opponent or against another person. To control their character each player had an eight-way joystick and six attack buttons, corresponding to three punches and three kicks of different speed and strength.

In addition to their basic punches and kicks, each of the eight characters had a variety of “special moves” that were activated via special sequences of directional inputs and button presses. The inputs for these special moves were not given to the players, who were left to discover them for themselves. Each character also had a variety of “combos.” A combo is a sequence of normal and special moves that is uninterruptible and usually requires a higher degree of skill to execute. These too were different for each character and left to the players to discover.

I am not sure what it was exactly that I found so compelling. I certainly found the game fun, but there was something else. The Street Fighter characters themselves were unique: each was full of personality, hailing from different countries and having different fighting styles. Each character’s punches, kicks, combos and special moves were different, often drastically so. (Well mostly different anyway, back then Ken and Ryu were practically identical, but I will return to their divergent evolution later.) This meant that the experience of playing the game was dependent on the character used, leading to a great deal of variability.

As time wore on, my interest in the game waned; I became focused on other games and activities, and the series carried on without me. While I was peripherally aware of the new games and spin-offs, I was not particularly interested. Then during my sophomore year of college some friends introduced me to Street Fighter Alpha 3. This was the first Street Fighter game I had played in at least five years. In many ways Alpha 3 is far beyond Street Fighter II: the graphics and sound are far superior, there are many more characters, and the combat system is much deeper. My introduction to this game brought two significant realizations. The first was that I still loved playing Street Fighter, and the second was that I had missed out on a lot.

While I was ignoring Street Fighter, Capcom had been quite prolific in the genre. In total five Street Fighter II games were released, followed by four Street Fighter Alpha games, and three Street Fighter III games. There were also two spinoff series: Marvel vs Capcom and Capcom vs SNK. The former series saw four releases, and pitted characters from Street Fighter and other Capcom franchises against characters from the Marvel universe. These games were preceded by two Marvel-only fighting games. The latter series saw two releases, and included characters from Street Fighter and various SNK-developed fighting games (SNK is another Japanese game developer famous for their 2D fighting games). The games were not released in the order I have listed them here, rather multiple series were simultaneously “current.” For example, Street Fighter Alpha 3 was released after the first Street Fighter III game. Needless to say this was an enormous amount of content, and since my initial exposure to Alpha 3 I have invested a lot of time, money and effort locating, acquiring and playing all of these games.


I recognize that the story of my own “return” to Street Fighter is not unlike those I labeled “invaders” into the community. To be fair, to dedicate oneself to a single genre for fifteen years is to severely limit one’s gaming experiences, and one can hardly be blamed for wanting to play other games. For me personally, as I aspire to be a scholar of the medium, devoting large amounts of time to a single genre becomes counter-productive. So am I not in some ways also a fair-weather fan, devoting time and attention when I can, or is convenient? I have not played seriously for almost two years now, and have never played in a tournament setting. These are troubling questions: who am I to say who is or is not a fan when I myself ignored Street Fighter for so many years? When I no longer have the time to dedicate to the game? Do I have a right to call myself a fan, and if so, to distinguish between established fans and newcomers? Something of an answer, I hope, lies in what I have learned by exploring the series’ development.

In playing all of the old games, I discovered that just as the series as a whole has a history, so do the game’s characters, some of whom have been included in every entry. In each game every character has his or her own story, which changes from game to game. Ryu’s story in Street Fighter II is not the same as in Street Fighter III; it is not even consistent between the various entries in each series. A character’s story in a game is presented at the end of the single-player mode, after the player has defeated his or her final opponent. As such a given game will contain many contradictory stories, resulting in the continual question of what is or is not canon. However, these ongoing narratives are far less significant than the formal history of the characters.

In a long-running, multi-branched series like Street Fighter there is a constant tension between providing new content and maintaining the brand. For 2D fighters in particular there is also the question of character balance: in an ideal world all characters are equally powerful and viable, yet provide unique play experiences. This is of course impossible, and the games are constantly being adjusted to improve game balance. Characters are added and removed with each release; those that stick around never play exactly the same way twice. Moves and combos are added, removed, and altered. Each character thus has two stories: the traditional story shown when the game is beaten, and the history of their mechanics. The fun of finding and learning long-forgotten Street Fighter games is tracing this history of form, which tells the story of the characters’ development in a much more direct and immediate way than a traditional narrative. By looking at these games in sequence one can literally watch a character grow and evolve, learning new techniques, altering the old, removing the ineffective.

Sometimes this mode of storytelling is more intentional than others. The characters Ken and Ryu are perfect examples. In Street Fighter I these two are the only selectable characters; in terms of mechanics they are identical. In Street Fighter II there were eight selectable characters, but Ken and Ryu were still identical: they had the same attacks and special moves, and were distinguishable only by minor differences in appearance. As the Street Fighter II series progressed, Ken and Ryu slowly drifted apart. Ken became weaker and faster, while Ryu became slower and stronger. While these changes were originally intended to create greater variability in the gameplay, they began to become incorporated in the backstory as well. Ken became the hot-headed American, Ryu the stoic Japanese warrior.

While this evolution is interesting, it creates an inherent contradiction. As discussed above, Ken and Ryu were mechanically identical in the first two Street Fighter games. Later on the Street Fighter Alpha series was released, and Ken and Ryu’s differences are fully realized. Yet, according to the diegetic narrative, the Alpha series occurs between Street Fighter I and Street Fighter II. Furthermore, games in the spinoff Marvel vs Capcom and Capcom vs SNK series were released alongside the main Street Fighter games, but are not part of the official chronology. So while characters were evolving throughout those games as well, their stories in them do not count in the larger narrative. As a result, the characters exist in two separate timelines: the formal timeline, which tracks the evolution of fighting game design, and the narrative timeline, which is the character’s diegetic history. Consequently, players unfamiliar with the formal history miss the enormous amount of meaning being transmitted through the game’s mechanics. There is much more meaning and information here than in the diegetic history because most of the latter is deemed non-canon.

This dualistic history then gives rise to the possibility of different “interpretive strategies,” to borrow a phrase from Stanley Fish (168). Fish was interested in how readers make sense of texts, so in an application to video games it is worth noting that players make sense of both the fiction and mechanics of the game. In the case of Street Fighter, a player “interprets” both who the character is and how he or she functions in the game. For example, consider an experienced player sitting down to a new Street Fighter game. This player’s interpretive strategy will likely be to apply franchise knowledge to this new game. The player may recognize the character Ken and interpret him as the “same” Ken from other games. When playing as Ken he or she will naturally look for special moves and combos that exist in other games and have carried over into the new game. The experienced player thus sees the characters are dynamic and evolving, an impression that becomes stronger as more games in the series are played.

A player new to the series, however, is more likely to see the characters as static, or will at least be unaware of any change. In the games themselves references to formal changes are very rare, almost nonexistent, hence new players can only interpret the character within the context of the one game. This is a conscious design choice: if Capcom required players to be familiar with prior games many potential new players would be alienated. As such in any given game the characters must seem complete enough to provide a satisfying experience and not confuse the player.

In Fish’s terms one could say these two types of players belong to different “interpretive communities:”

Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions. In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around

(Fish 171).

The two interpretive communities to which fans of Street Fighter belong can generally be described as those who base their understanding of a game on other Street Fighter games, and those who do not; or to put it a different way, those who see the characters as dynamic and those who see them as static.

As with readers of a text, players of a game will likely assign intentions to the author (the developer), in this case Capcom, and here we can see the difference between the two communities. The characters-are-dynamic community will assign intentionality based on formal changes from game to game. For example, if a combo is made harder to execute from one game to the next, this community assumes Capcom thought it was too powerful before, while the removal of a character indicates Capcom thought they were unpopular. As Fish says, such strategies exist prior to reading, or playing, because the player is already aware that some aspects of the game will be different (even if that assumption is based solely on the title it will almost certainly be correct). On the other hand, those who see the characters as static will likely assign intentionality differently because for them there is no prior context. As such each community “writes” their own version of a new Street Fighter game.

However, unlike the processes of interpreting literature that Fish was writing about, within the overall Street Fighter fan community there is a fairly consistent flow from one community to the other. Currently there are many people playing Street Fighter IV who are not familiar with any other game in the franchise, but as soon as they play a second Street Fighter game they will look for familiar characters and try similar strategies, thus beginning movement to the other community. In this instance Fish’s model breaks down because the characters-as-constant interpretation can be definitively disproven, whereas Fish was interested in how people can effectively maintain and defend drastically different interpretations of the same text. Even if there is disagreement within the Street Fighter community over the reasons for the change, the fact that the characters do change is fairly apparent. One could argue that Ken in Street Fighter II is not the same character as Ken in Street Fighter III, and hence there are two separate, constant characters named Ken, but this debate seems unlikely to arise amongst the fan community. Regardless it is clear that Capcom wants us to regard them as the same.


While I find these ideas fascinating, the question remains: am I a fan? Can one distinguish between a fan and someone who is merely interested? I may have just demonstrated a relatively large body of esoteric knowledge, but it is entirely possible to come to the same conclusions while despising these games. I think that, at the very least, I can say that the effort expended here qualifies me as fan of Street Fighter, even if not in the traditional sense. (This is sort of a Cartesian approach: I write obsessively, therefore I am.) This idea shows how fandom is a spectrum where the rewards gained are proportional to the investments made. By investing in the series as a whole one gains access to the multiple layers of meaning present in each game and acquires new interpretive strategies. However, different people will invest differently and should not be criticized for making different choices.

In the Street Fighter community new players are essential. They bring new challenges, new opportunities, and give Capcom more reason to keep Street Fighter alive. Right now there is a great fear that new and returning fans will eventually get bored and stop playing, just like they did after Street Fighter II. If they do it will prove to Capcom that there is no market for 2D fighting games anymore, and then there might never be another Street Fighter game. To prevent that the best thing is to be patient with newcomers and make them feel welcome, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum. Hopefully with time their investment in the series will grow and they will decide to stick around.


Fish, Stanley. Is There A Text In This Class? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Jason Begy graduated from Canisius College in Buffalo where he earned a BA in English (2004) and spent much of his time working for Canisius’ Department of Information Technology Services. Begy’s undergraduate thesis argued that the rules and mechanics of chess and go were a reflection of the religious traditions of Catholicism and Buddhism, respectively. In 2008, Begy completed an MS in Technical Communication at Northeastern University in Boston, where his coursework focused on information design for the Web and information architecture for internal corporate and university networks. When it comes to game studies, Begy would describe himself as a ludologist and as such believes that the best way to study games is through their rules and mechanics. Begy is part of the research team supporting the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT games lab.

The Radical Idea that Children are People

This post is another in a series of essays written by the graduate students in my Media Theory and Methods proseminar last term. They were asked to try their hands at integrating autobiographical perspectives into theorizing contemporary media practices. As noted previously, the result was a strong emphasis on the informal learning which takes place around participatory culture.

The Radical Idea that Children are People

by Flourish Klink

The original iMac is instantly recognizable. Its cute curvy body and its Bondi blue back are iconic; one might go so far as to say that it is the most iconic personal computer that has ever been released. For me, the Bondi blue iMac represents more than just a turning point in the fortunes of Apple Inc., or even a turning point in Americans’ computing habits. It represents a key, unlocking the door of the adult world.

In 1999, I was twelve years old. All my friends were having their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and I was feeling more than a little left out. Since my family wasn’t Jewish, and my mother wasn’t quite enough of a hippie to hold a “moon party” to celebrate my menses, my parents decided to buy me an iMac for my twelfth birthday. Even though it was advertised as “affordable,” I knew at age twelve that this was an exorbitantly costly present: a thousand three hundred dollars! It was too large a number for me to put it into any kind of context. (Now that I am older I can say: a thousand three hundred dollars is three months’ rent on a crummy graduate student apartment, and it was probably more than that in 1999. Scheiße!)

The iMac itself, however, wasn’t the important thing. I’d been around computers forever, and I knew what they could do: they could help me draw things, write things, calculate things, program things, blah, blah, blah. All that was exciting, but it got old fast. What was important was the cords that attached to the iMac. You see, I was about to become the only one of my friends to have an internet connection of her very own. No more arguing over whether I should hog the family computer long after my homework was finished. No more begging my father to hurry up so I could get online. Just me and the information superhighway, me and the vast world of online communities, me and all the knowledge I could possibly cram into my malleable young brain.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, a third of all teens share their media creations online with others. At twelve, I was ready to be part of that demographic. In fact, I was thrilled. Most of my friends didn’t share my single-minded passion for fiction writing and textual exegesis. Actually, “textual exegesis” makes it sound like I was interested in Hemingway or Joyce or something equally high-minded. The fact is, my friends just weren’t interested in chronicling the rules of spell casting in the Harry Potter world (you might say “Crucio!” to cast the Cruciatus Curse, but you never Crucio someone; rather, you Cruciate them). I didn’t know it, because I didn’t know anyone who was involved in the world of media fandom yet, but I was a budding fangirl.

As soon as that iMac came into my life, I began connecting with people online, exploring Harry Potter fan sites, joining mailing lists, posting fanfiction, making friends. The stories I wrote weren’t very good – I was twelve years old, and I wanted to explore emotions that I had only the most inchoate and vague experience with. But my writing skills were good enough that I attracted the attention of not just other preteens but also adults, good enough that I was able to take my place in the online community as a valuable participant. In Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling, Jim Gee calls spaces like the Harry Potter fan community “affinity spaces,” and cites their value as locations for learning.

My experiences support his claim. I couldn’t tell you about almost anything I did in high school; a few fantastic teachers are easy to recall, but even the details of what I learned in their classes is fuzzy and dim. Yet I can remember the experience of getting feedback on my fanfiction as if it were yesterday; I can remember how much I struggled to write my first fanfiction novel, and I can remember reading Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style because I translated it into Harry Potter terms (“Headmaster Dumbledore is a man of principle, and his principal goal is to keep Lord Voldemort from rising again,” et cetera). I was driven to write, to read, to found a non-profit company, for heaven’s sakes, all before I reached the age of sixteen. In comparison, my time in high school seems empty, void, a place-holder that let me get that precious diploma and hightail it to college as fast as possible.

I believe that my internet connection, as symbolized and enabled by that beautiful Bondi blue iMac, inspired me to pursue my goals – but I also believe that it helped me fill an enormous lack in my life. Trapped as I was in the suburbs, too young to drive and be mobile, I could not find a community where my own particular expertise was respected and valued. I felt trapped in my twelve-year-old body, frustrated that everyone around me saw me as a kid. (Actually, I wonder if I wouldn’t have felt just as trapped even if I lived in an urban area, even if I was able to seek out other people like me in the physical world: “on the internet, nobody knows your a dog,” but in person, everybody knows that you’re only twelve.) My internet connection gave me the opportunity to try on a new role: the role of an fan author and editor. That role wasn’t one that was tied to my “kid” status. Anyone could be a fan author, anyone could be a fan editor, and if I could do those things as well as anyone, I could earn the right to be just as important and respected as an adult.

Now, looking back through the mists of time, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I could help other kids have similar experiences to mine. If I could find some way to introduce teens to affinity spaces that would provide them room to learn and grow the way that Harry Potter fandom did for me, I’d do it in an instant. Unfortunately, you can’t force anyone to discover an affinity space. As young, idealistic English teachers learn every day, just because you love a book doesn’t mean you can make everyone else love it (sorry, Ms Christiansen; I still think that Harry Potter was more formative for me than The Catcher in the Rye). If I had discovered the online fan community through a class, I might still have liked it – but then, I might have rejected it, slotting it firmly into the category of “work” rather than “play.”

Then, too, there’s the problem of the digital divide. I felt awfully overlooked, sometimes even dehumanized and objectified, as a pretty little twelve-year-old, but I wasn’t nearly as overlooked as a kid whose parents couldn’t afford to buy her a shiny new iMac – and I wasn’t anywhere near as overlooked as a kid who’d never gotten to interact with a computer at all, or a kid whose literacy skills were so poor that they couldn’t participate effectively in online discussion. For privileged young me, the internet was a saving grace, but I was starting with so many advantages that it seems short-sighted to take me as a case study.

So what can I learn from my childhood experiences? What can I give youth that’s as valuable to them as Bondi blue idol was to me? I think that the first answer has to be “don’t give them anything.” That power relationship has got to go. That’s what the computer really did for me: it gave me access to a space where no adult could tell me what to do. In the Harry Potter books, Harry was taking on adult roles, taking on challenges that would be difficult for grown-ups even though he was only a kid; online, I was doing the same thing. Since then, though, I’ve – well – I’ve aged. I’ve become less and less likely to think of preteens as individuals with hopes, dreams, expertise, knowledge and more and more likely to think of them as kids. When I was 12, I never believed this day would come, but at 22, it’s easy to forget how I felt ten years ago.

I can’t give every preteen I meet a shiny new iMac, and I can’t teach them how to use it, and I can’t instill confidence in them, and I can’t lead them by the hand into affinity spaces and make them like it. I can try to make it so that they don’t need the same measure of escape that I did. I can try to make sure that I don’t just slot them into the category of “child” and forget about them, and I can try to make sure that they know I respect, trust, and believe in them. I can do that much.

Flourish Klink co-founded one of the largest Harry Potter fan fiction sites, FictionAlley.org, a project which was nominated for a Webby in 2004 and a Prix Ars Electronica award in 2005. She was one of the young fan fiction writers interviewed for Convergence Culture, already identified as a key writer and editor while still in high school. Her undergraduate career focused on the classics and religion, interests that she learned to combine with her growing fascination with digital media and fan culture. She earned a BA in religion from Reed College in 2008, where her undergraduate thesis explored the question: Can one have a Catholic religious experience in virtual reality? The project ultimately centered on religious communities within Second Life. At MIT, Klink has become a valuable member of the Project NML team. Her personal website is at madelineklink.com.

Multiculturalism, Appropriation, and the New Media Literacies

Liz Losh, a friend of Project NML, attended our recent conference which showcased, among other things, a Teacher’s Strategy Guide we’ve been developing around “Reading in a Participatory Culture.” I’ve written about the project here before. Though the activities are designed to be adaptable to a much wider range of books, the guide uses as its starting point Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and its appropriation by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, an African-American playwrite and director, who has staged a contemporary, multiracial version of the classic novel. At the conference, we were able to bring together some of the teachers who have been field testing the guide this year through school and after-school programs, share some of the war stories, and lay out some of the premises guiding this research.

Losh wrote a thoughtful piece in her blog about her perceptions of the opening presentations at the conference, which included some reservations she had about how our approach would play out in a multicultural classroom. Jenna McWilliams, who was a key collaborator in developing the Teacher’s Strategy Guide, has responded to many of Losh’s core concerns. In the spirit of healthy debate, I wanted to focus on what Losh says about our deployment of the concept of appropriation and in the process, share with you some of the ways that our work does factor in issues of multiculturalism.

First here are the two key issues Losh raises:

I find myself overcoming my hesitation to ask if certain kinds of remixing, recontextualizing, and mash-up might be problematic for multicultural classrooms, based on what I heard from the group’s introductory overview for the day. For example, quoting Henry Jenkins’ line that “by being conservative in content, we can be radical in approach” could be read as a defense of the conservative canon that has excluded many from literary recognition and their place in the historical record. This impression might be further supported by the group’s assertion that they were emphasizing “multidisciplinarity” rather than “muliculturalism.”

My comment about “conservative in content” is taken a bit literally here: what I meant was that given our belief that the new media literacies represent a paradigm shift in how we teach the entire curriculum rather than an added on subject, we were going to start by modeling new ways to approach subject matter already in the curriculum. If we teach these traditional subjects differently in a participatory culture, then it will help people to understand the changes which are taking place in our media environment. Approaching these topics also makes it easier for these materials to get into schools and provides some cover for teachers who are fighting the good fights in the trenches, trying to change schools from within.

As Jenna notes, this last statement is a misinterpretation of a single sentence on one of McWilliam’s slides during the opening presentation. In fact, while I think we need to reframe what we mean by “multiculturalism,” I see multiculturalism as an absolutely central concept to the work we are doing around “Reading in a Participatory Culture,” though as you will see, I see it not as a static concept but rather one which is also undergoing some significant changes at the present moment.

Furthermore, although appropriation may be celebrated in remix culture, there may be some forms of appropriation that represent and potentially reify the exploitation of people of color and the repression of their calls for social justice. After all, even the most racist minstrel shows claimed to be appropriating aspects of black culture that white performers had observed. When Elvis and other white singers popularized material from the “colored” entertainment spectrum, the lack of compensation to the original creators of that music stung many black musicians badly.

In fact, both of these issues were ones that concerned us deeply as we developed this project. While I understand why Liz read Jenna’s comments the way that she did, the selection of Moby-Dick was not simply a product of my belief that we could push further methodologically if we started with materials which are already part of the traditional curriculum. Indeed, if that were the case, we probably would not have started with Moby-Dick, which because of its length and complexity, has been systematically pushed out of the high school classroom.

Rather, the decision was inspired by the growing body of scholarship which looks at Moby-Dick as a representation of the whaling ship as a multicultural society where sea men of many different ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds came together and worked towards a common goal. As Wyn Kelly, my collaborator, points out in our guide, Melville does not depict a world without conflict but he is honest to the multiracial composition of 19th century American culture.

The focus was also inspired by the imaginative and transformative interpretation of the book constructed by our creative collaborator, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, and his passionate belief that Moby-Dick and some of the other classics taught through schools have something to say to current generations of readers and offer resources through which minority students can make sense of their current experience. Certainly there is an ongoing debate about which novels should be taught in schools, but the result of that debate should not simply be the replacement of Melville by Morrison. Ideally, both would be taught in dialogue with each other so that we have a richer understanding of how debates about race run through the American literary tradition and ideally, multiculturalism doesn’t just shape which books we teach but also how we teach them. Someone like Pitts-Wiley can teach us to read Moby-Dick through new eyes and in doing so, help us to better understand what it means to live in a multicultural society.

While Losh picks up on our use of M.C. Lars’s “Ahab” video in one of our activities, she seemingly misses the fact that the central example of appropriation in this guide is Pitts-Wiley’s own remixing and rethinking of Moby-Dick. Early in the guide, we share with educators some of Pitts-Wiley’s own concerns about the history of white appropriation of minority culture and his sage advice to educators about the politics and ethics of remixing. What he has to say is worth sharing at length here:

When I came in contact with the new media literacies, many of the concepts were new to me, like the fascinating concept of remixing and appropriation. That’s an incredible choice of words to use in this new field: appropriation. I have spent much of my creative life trying not to appropriate things.

I write a lot about African-ness — African culture and black people and this country’s relationship to Africa. I’ve never been to Africa, but I have a sense of its culture and its people from things I’ve read and seen. I believe in spiritual villages, villages of connection. If you write a poem it’s a key to the village of poets. It’ll let you in. Once you’re in, all the poets are there. It doesn’t mean that you are going to be heralded and recognized as great or anything like that. All it means is you have a key to the village. I’ve always felt I’ve had a key to the village of African culture. But I was very determined to never, for instance, write a play in which I said, “I am a product of the Mandinka people,” or, “the Zulu people,” or I’m going to use their language as if I truly understand it. No, I don’t. But I had a sense of the humanity and the cultural connection, and I had to go to the village of the elders and say, “I have this word and I think it means this. What do you think?” Sometimes in that spiritual place the elders would say, “It’s a good word, you may use it.” Sometimes they would say, “It’s not a good word, it has no value.”

So when I came across the word “appropriation” in the new media literacies I thought to myself, I’m a product of a black culture where so much of what we’ve created has been appropriated and not necessarily for our benefit. The great jazz artists were not necessarily making money off of jazz. The record companies were making money. Our dance forms, our music, our lingo, all of those things have been appropriated many, many times and not necessarily in a way in which we profited. So when I saw the term used I had a lot of concern about it. I still have a lot of concern about it, because does that mean that everything is fair game whether or not you understand its value? Can you just use whatever you want because it’s out there? Before you take something and use it, understand it. What does it mean to the people? Where was it born? It doesn’t mean that it’s not there to be used. It’s like music in the air: it’s there for everyone to hear it. But don’t just assume because you have a computer and I can download a Polynesian rhythm and an African rhythm and a Norwegian rhythm that I don’t have a responsibility to understand from whence they came; if I’m going to use gospel music I have a responsibility to understand that it’s born of a people and a condition that must be acknowledged.

Of course, in writing my adaptation of Moby-Dick it became very important that I didn’t appropriate anything that wasn’t in the novel from the beginning. People ask me, “Why Moby-Dick?” Because everybody was there, so I didn’t have to invent any people. It would have been different if I had to invent a whole race of people where I would make a decision that I’m going to set it in South Africa in 1700. I don’t necessarily understand South African culture so I wouldn’t have done that. On the other hand, I had a real concern about appropriating hip-hop culture and putting it into what we were doing because I’m not a product of the hip-hop generation. I’m very much an admirer of it. There I really had to go the source and ask the young people, “This is what I’m thinking. Is it appropriate? Is it real? Is it based in any kind of truth, in any kind of reality? What are your thoughts on this?”

If I could make any contribution to the new media literacies, it would have been to say to the appropriators, “Find the truth. Find the people. Go ask. Go talk to somebody. Do not count on a non-human experience in order to make a complete creation of anything.” So in remixing I was concerned also with who had access to appropriate things. If you’re media savvy, if you’re on the whichever side, left or right side, of the digital divide, you have access to unlimited knowledge. But does that mean that you know how to use that knowledge and you are respectful of its source?…

The first step in remixing novels is to stay honest to the original text. Put a value on that, understand it, appreciate it, and then start the remixing process. Edit down to the big questions. Why? What? Why is it important now? And then take the reins off, take the leash off, take the bit out of the mouth and let imaginations run wild, and be careful not to censor too harshly. I think censorship for respect, not necessarily of the original text, but censorship for respect of the reader so you don’t write in a vacuum. You write for things to be read, and I read things, “Well you didn’t care about anybody but yourself.” That’s not the purpose. This novel that we are working from was written to be read by others.

Somehow you have to create, not for yourself, but for others, and allow the students to find their own honesty. Encourage them to always go back to the original text, keep going back to the original text. That’s where the message is, that’s where there’s a certain amount of the truth. Otherwise all you’ve done is written your own story. You haven’t studied; you haven’t learned necessarily; you’ve just written your own text, and there’s a place for that, too. That’s important, to keep going back to the original text. There’s great stuff in the original text. In Frankenstein, Moby-Dick, Invisible Man, you keep going back and you’ll find that those people really had an idea about what they wanted to write about. Don’t copy them.

This video is one of a number we’ve produced which explore Ricardo’s own creative repurposing of Melville’s original novel. Here, the emphasis is both on the need to respect the integrity of the original work as well as on the creative and expressive use of language which Ricardo discovers through his interactions with his young multiracial castmembers.

At every step along the way, we were shaped by Ricardo’s ethical concerns, using Moby-Dick as a way of asking about how what we mean by multi-culturalism has changed over time, seeking to create a context where teachers can discuss remix culture with their students with a sensitivity to the historical contexts from which the appropriated materials emerged and with an awareness of the obligations that we owe to creative artists who came before us. Our activities call attention not simply to Melville’s representations of race, but also to the gender politics of the book: Ricardo’s stage production featured an Asian-American woman as Ahab’s contemporary counterpart.

That’s why I was troubled by what I see as Liz Losh’s misperceptions of our project, which rest on too easy assumptions that Moby-Dick can be dismissed as a dead text by a “dead white male” or that remix necessarily involves the exploitation of minority culture by white artists. My hope is that just as we are rethinking how and why we teach Moby-Dick, we may also rethink what multicultural education means in contemporary culture, rather than simply inheriting our categories from older identity politics movements. Here’s part of what I wrote about multiculturalism in the “Expert Voices” section of the guide:

The concept of “multiculuralism” emerges from an era of identity politics: In the 1960s and 1970s, each ethnic and racial group within a multi-racial nation began to recognize and insist upon the value of its own cultural traditions, began to push aside decades of racism and assert the dignity which came from being a member of a particular cultural community. As a result of these shifts in racial politics, schools increasingly broadened the range of literary texts being taught so that each member of the class would have a chance to encounter something which reflected her own heritage and background, could read about “someone like themselves,” and could see herself as someone who might make a valuable cultural contribution. This notion of multiculturalism, however, often starts from essentialism, assuming each of us belongs to one and only one group and that this historic identity should predetermine how we position ourselves in contemporary society.

Yet, a growing percentage of Americans come from mixed race, mixed religion, and/or bilingual families; they grow up within multiple cultural traditions, sometimes moving back and forth between them, sometimes creating their own mixed sets of cultural practices to reflect their “hybrid” identities. Recent cultural and political figures, from Tiger Woods to Barack Obama, have put a new face on race in America. Such figures invite us to move from a conception of multiculturalism within society towards multiculturalism as part of each individual’s construction of identity; rather than negotiating between groups, we are increasingly negotiating amongst competing, sometimes conflicting identities within ourselves.

As Frank H. Wu notes in his book, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, race is increasingly situational: “Race is meaningless in the abstract; it acquires its meanings as it operates on its surroundings….The same words can take on different meanings depending on the speaker, the audience, the tone, the intention, and the usage.” Sometimes, racial differences matter greatly; sometimes they matter very little, depending on the context. Sometimes, Wu notes, he is perceived as Chinese-American, sometimes Asian-American, sometimes simply Non-White. And the same will be true for many students in the class. In that sense, race is continually being negotiated moment by moment through interactions with other people.

As Ricardo Pitts-Wiley explains, part of what drew him to Moby-Dick was the fact that “everybody was already on the boat.” As Wyn Kelley comments, Melville depicts the Pequod Crew in particular and the whaling community more generally as multi-cultural on a social level. Each of the harpooners represents a different racial and cultural background: Queequeg, the South Seas islander; Daggoo, the African; Tashtego, the native American; and Fedallah, the Asian. Certain moments in the novel — especially the opening scenes where Ishmael finds himself in bed with Queequeg — heighten our awareness of racial difference, even as Moby-Dick suggests the ways that inter-racial taboos may be overcome through the bonding between men at sea.

There is a lot we can see about the history of race in America by studying how different illustrators have depicted these characters: sometimes exaggerating their differences, falling into crude stereotypes, and accenting the shock of an encounter between the “primitives” and the westerners. Sometimes they have been depicted with greater dignity or with an anthropological attention to the markings of their cultural backgrounds. An interesting exercise would be to bring in multiple editions of the book from the school library and to look at the ways these figures are depicted in the illustrations. You can encourage your students to ask questions about how the illustrators dealt with cultural and racial differences in the book and how they depicted the attitudes of the white characters towards their minority crewmates. You want to look for those moments where race matters most in the images and where, if ever, race seems to recede. Given that our dominant understandings of race are based on what people look like (that is, on recognizable visual differences), illustration is a place where it is difficult to escape from a consciousness about racial difference. A novelist can accent our awareness of racial difference or make us forget it for a period of time, much as one’s race may matter or not in the digital world depending on the consciousness of the people participating in a particular exchange.

On stage, race is also always visible, yet choices in casting may make race more or less central to our understanding of a particular character. So, for example, we might imagine a minority performer confronting a particular set of racial stereotypes. The actor might challenge those stereotypes either by working against them, portraying a character very different from our prevailing assumptions, or may create tension and discomfort by playing into the stereotype, exaggerating the cliches so that we become more aware of their implications, or the actor may accept the stereotype as the basis for the character and try to give it as much dignity as possible.

One could argue that race functions differently in the two stories being told in Moby-Dick: Then and Now: the adult version accents racial differences. The performance marks off each minority character as embodying a distinctive cultural tradition through the costuming, music, and other aspects of the characterization. The youth version defines its characters more through their relationship to each other than through their racial and cultural differences. In both cases, the crews are racially diverse, yet there is a different level of consciousness about racial difference in the two stories. Queequeg is defined by his race in ways that Que is not. This is not something that emerges from the script of the play, but it is very much what we experience in watching this particular performance…

All of this points towards the importance of negotiation as a social skill and cultural competency young people need to acquire if they are going to successfully operate in this modern context: they need to be increasingly aware of the nuances of their interactions within and across a range of different groups; they need to become more reflective about the identities that they embody and perform in their daily lives and about the social dynamics that emerge as they interact across cultural differences.

This is only a small part of what our materials have to say about multiculturalism and the racial politics of appropriation. It is not a question we ignore in working with these materials. We are trying to bring these issues front and center in the language arts classroom, just as we are trying to get teachers to engage with new forms of creative expression — including remix in hip hop and techno — that build upon materials borrowed, snatched, stolen from the culture and put to new uses. We see these ethical concerns as central to our definition of appropriation which stresses “meaningful remixing” of existing cultural materials, just as we are also introducing issues around fair use, copyright, and creative commons. I am proud of the work our team has done in this area. It’s certainly not above friendly fire and constructive criticism. And if our presentations of these materials don’t do justice to the nuance and care with which we treated these issues, then we have some more work to do.

Editor’s note: for some further reflections and responses to this question, see http://tinyurl.com/nf6eoa and http://tinyurl.com/mcjtxa.