Ludic Narrans:Drew Davidson Talks Crossmedia Communication (Part Two)

This is the second installment of my interview with Drew Davidson, Director of the Entertainment Technology Center Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University, about his recently published Crossmedia Communications textbook. In this section, we talk about dvds, games, toys, amusement park, fan culture, electronic publishing, and much much more.

I am often asked whether people really want to engage actively with entertainment properties or prefer to sit back and let the entertainment come to them. How do you address this question through your book? What insights do you offer about what might motivate a consumer used to more passive forms of entertainment to jump into these more interactive formats?

On the one hand, it’s like Jesse Schell put in his recent talk at DICE

that the future is already all around us, so it’s going to be hard to avoid. While Schell is not directly talking about crossmedia, I still think his point applies. More and more crossmedia experiences are already being created, so it’s going to be hard to not engage just because they’re around so much.

On the other hand, I think it’s a matter of degree of interactivity, and some formats can serve as a gateway to more interactive ones. For instance, the DVD. The DVD lets you sit down and just watch a movie from start to finish, but there are also lots of extras you can watch that show you “making of” stories, deleted scenes, different endings, extended versions, etc. And also, some DVDs let you click a button during the movie that will play more information about the particular scene your watching. In fact, some stories have been created that can only be watched on DVD, where you’re able to unravel scenes from a variety of perspectives (and that’s not even addressing the types of interactive DVDs the porn industry has created).

But what’s interesting about DVDs as an example is that they enable people to both passively watch and also to take a little more control of how they experience the story. Granted, it’s not necessarily a robust form of interactivity, but it’s one that my parents take advantage of all the time. So, it can serve as a way to introduce and entice them into more interactive formats.

Similarly, I hope that the textbook can introduce people into the phenomenon of cross-media communications and entice them to explore it more deeply. And what I like about the example of DVDs is that illustrates how this doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, it can be a both/and one. People can enjoy both more passive formats, as well as more interactive ones.

When designing a crossmedia property, are we trying to design a unified experience which will be shared by most consumers or an experience which may have multiple points of entry to support a range of diverse and dispersed sets of consumers?

I think it’s more toward the latter from a design perspective (and from how it’s currently playing out with consumers) although I could see how the major media conglomerates would like it to become more mainstream so that more fans are participating across more media.

One of the more successful design strategies that has evolved is to have a tentpole experience around which you can create a crossmedia property. A tentpole is a major media experience that supports a lot of other smaller related media experiences. This can enable a scaffolded narrative experience with various layers, each requiring a little more effort then the tentpole. So more casual fans can enjoy the tentpole, and that could be the extent of their experience. While more dedicated fans can dig deeper and find the various related media that guide them more fully into the fictional universe. And hardcore fans can find and explore it all.

Your book talks about a range of forms of crossmedia experiences which are rarely talked about. For example, you spend part of a chapter on theme parks. So, in what ways can theme park experiences be used to extend our experience of a fictional world? What theme park attractions do the best job of expanding our experience of a property rather than simply adapting the property from one medium to another?

Theme parks can provide the opportunity to have an embodied experience within a fictional universe. In general, I think most of them are really just adaptations of a story from another medium (or stand on their own). But even so, having an embodied interaction can enhance and expand your experience with a story. Being able to feel like you’re actually there in the narrative universe is something theme parks can do.

Some attractions make the most of this. The Spider-Man ride at Universal tries to give you a feeling of what it’s like to be Spider-Man. And even more so, the Pirates of Caribbean ride gives us a sense of a being a pirate, and it inspired the movies (which fleshed out the narrative). And in the Battle for Buccaneer Gold ride, you got even more actively involved as you took on the role of a pirate.

Jesse Schell, who designed the ride, commented that as the design team watched people experience the ride, they noticed that everyone is really just seconds away from acting like a pirate. By inviting people to participate, the ride gave people permission to act like pirates, which enabled them to act, and feel, like a part of the fictional universe

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You discuss toys as another kind of media extension. When are toys part of the story and when are they simply a commodification of the story?

Like theme parks, I think toys are generally just a commodification of a story. As such, they don’t really add to a narrative. But in the same vein as theme parks, they can also enhance our experience of a story by enabling us to bring a part of the fictional universe into our space.

At the very least, they are little collectibles on our desks that remind us of an experience we enjoy. And some toys are more directly a part of the story. Webkinz is a good example of toys that help take you into a world. Pokemon takes this a step further with collectible cards that are part of a game, and a television show that shares tips and tricks on how to play.

Either way, a toy can serve as a representation of a narrative universe.They can extend the story into our world, helping make it feel like a part of our daily lives.

You talk about media producers “listening” to their audience. To what degree is crossmedia entertainment shaped by audience expectations and emergent forms of participation? To what degree is it shaped top-down by the commercial and creative imperatives of professional storytellers?

I think the answers to these questions are being discovered as we speak. Designers, producers and fans are figuring it out as we go. Lost is a great example of a television show with a dedicated (and vocal) group of fans, and writers that have stated publicly about how much they pay attention to their fans, and producers who have supported the show’s development within this environment.

Designers and producers can use the internet to check the pulse of fan commentary as well as communicate directly with the fans. They often host their own sites with active blogs and inside scoop on how the story is progressing.

The internet also enables audiences to organize and coordinate so that they can better make themselves heard. There are influential entertainment blogs and community sites that help provide a gathering point people as well as a diversity of websites for, and by, fans that focus on specific crossmedia experiences.

Granted, they can only have so much influence, but it’s not insignificant. Fans of the quickly cancelled Firefly television show rallied to try and save the show. While they weren’t able to keep the show alive, they were able to rally enough support to help the movie Serenity get made.

And then there’s the great example of Lost Zombies which started as a zombie documentary being generated by the community, and has evolved to incorporate

a bunch of different media. People are able to get directly involved in the Lost Zombies experience from A to Z.

And so, I think the ad-hoc back and forth is evolving into a more coordinated dance between all the parties involved, and the experiences of fictional universes are evolving with them.

Near the end of the book, you raise the issue of “too much content.” Is it possible for crossmedia producers to generate so much content that it smothers fan participation?

There’s a finite variable involved, which is the time that we can commit to all of these experiences. Particularly if you consider crossmedia experiences that have serialized television shows as the tentpole for everything else. But even without that, these experiences can demand a lot of time commitment from the fans, so it would be tricky to get fully involved with a bunch of crossmedia narratives all at once.

This gets back to the idea of how crossmedia experiences can be designed around tentpoles. I think it’s fair to say that most people, have time to engage with several tentpole experiences. And the rest of the crossmedia opportunities can be found by more passionate fans who want to spend more time with a particular fictional universe. So, it seems that across a fan’s mediascape there would be some tentpoles as well as various layers of crossmedia engagement for select fictional universes they really enjoy.

This also gets back to the idea of how content producers should listen to their audiences. If there is a good synergy amongst all the participants, there should be enough content for fans who want it. If not, there can be too much (or too little even). An example of too much can be found with the Flash Forward television show. The producers tried to jump start fan participation by having short interstitial “ads” telling viewers that certain weird moments in the show were important. So instead of allowing

fans to develop and explore more freely, it felt like they were trying to force feed a deeper interest level from the start.

For as much planning at it takes to create crossmedia narratives, the audience will become fans on their own terms and in their own time. So, I think turning a firehouse of content onto an audience can smother deeper participation. By doling content out more discreetly, you can entice fans to take the time to dig deeper into the fictional universe.

You built a dvd that accompanies the book. What does it contribute to our understanding of crossmedia? To what degree does it put the book’s ideas

into action?

The purpose of the DVD-ROM is to enable students to put the ideas in the book into action. This happens in a couple of ways. First of all, there are a lot of media examples on the DVD-ROM (images, short videos and music). The media was created by students and interns at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon.

Then, I collaborated with Alice Robison who helped go through the textbook and create objectives and questions for each chapter as well as a semester-long student project that connects the ideas in the book with the media on the DVD-ROM, so that students can actively practice how to design and develop a crossmedia experience and explore all the issues and concepts involved.

Also, crossmedia is put into play in the book itself. Two gifted artists, Angela Love and Eun Jung Lee, created images to relate to the content in each chapter. Angela did interpretative illustrations and Eun Jung created information graphics. In both cases, the imagery is another way into the topics covered in the text. This gives students the opportunity to see and discuss how images can relate to, and enhance, words.

Building on this, each chapter has perspectives shared from different professionals in the field. Over thirty experts shared their thoughts and ideas about crossmedia. This helps to expose students to various points of view on the topics found throughout the book.

Considering all of the above, this crossmedia textbook project was truly realized through the expertise and efforts of a talented interdisciplinary group of people. I think it all came together well and helps make the textbook and accompanying DVD-ROM a solid overview of crossmedia communications.

Tell us a bit more about ETC. press and what you are trying to achieve with this publishing venture?

Well for those who don’t know, ETC Press is a small experimental academic publishing imprint that I helped start at CMU in 2008. We’re interested in exploring and expanding the notion of publishing. Authors retain ownership of their intellectual property and all of our titles are released under Creative Commons licenses. You can see more about our mission and our titles

at: http://etc.cmu.edu/etcpress/

I think one of our main goals is to enable the sharing of ideas and to help influence discussion around topics related to entertainment technologies. So we work hard to make our texts as available as possible. We have our titles priced as inexpensively as possible, while also offering free digital downloads, along with versions on our website as well as through various formats and web archive sites to help share them as far and wide as possible.

We’re also really interested in playing around and across multiple media and having multiple versions of texts. We’re interested in crossmedia communications and encourage and support projects that are willing to experiment with the participatory nature of content creation and academic discourse. So, we invite people to play with us.

Drew Davidson is a professor, producer and player of interactive media. His background spans academic, industry and professional worlds and he is interested in stories across texts, comics, games and other media. He is the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University and the Editor of ETC Press. He completed his Ph.D. in Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to that, he received a B.A. and M.A. in Communications Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He chaired Game Art & Design and Interactive Media Design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the Art Institute Online and has taught and researched at several universities. He consults for a variety of companies, institutions and organizations and was a Senior Project Manager in the New Media Division of Holt, Rinehart and Winston. He was also a Project Manager in Learning Services at Sapient, and before that he produced interactive media at HumanCode. He helped create the Sandbox Symposium, an ACM SIGGRAPH conference on video games and served on the IGDA Education SIG. He works with SIGGRAPH on games and interactive media and serves on the ACTlab Steering Committee, and many review boards and jury panels. He founded the Applied Media & Simulation Games Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is the lead on several MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative grants and has written and edited books, journals, articles and essays on narratives across media, serious games, analyzing gameplay, and cross-media communication.

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Ludic Narrans:Drew Davidson Talks Cross-Media Communication (Part One)

One of my first classes at USC was in transmedia entertainment and storytelling and I plan to be teaching a large lecture hall class on transmedia in the Cinema School starting in the 2011-2012 academic year. My growing interest in transmedia is one of many reasons I have ended up here. I want to be closer to the entertainment industry to be able to watch some of the changes that are unfolding as this emerging conception of popular entertainment really takes root and I want to be in a position to influence the entertainment workers in training.

Think about how the generation of “movie brats,” such as Spielberg and Lucas, influenced the American media. For generations, directors emerged from one or another of the guilds, bringing with them specialized skill sets. Robert Wise was an editor; William Cameron Menzies was an art director; most of them knew how to work with actors, but few of them had an integrated perspective on all of the technical skills required to produce a movie. With the rise of film schools, we got directors who knew the full vocabulary of their medium, who knew how to speak to workers with more specialized skills (who often trained alongside them and spoke a shared language) and who knew the history and genres that constituted their tradition. As Hollywood begins to embrace transmedia, a common concern is that there are few people who fully understand how to tell stories or create entertainment experiences in more than one medium: comic book people don’t know how to think about games, say, or television people have limited grasp of the web. My own hope is that the Film Schools will once again be the space where future media makers get exposed to a broader range of different kinds of media and also develop the social relations and vocabulary to meaningfully collaborate with others who have specialized in different modes of expression.

For this to happen, transmedia entertainment needs to emerge as a subject not simply at USC but at film schools all over the country. And, indeed, I am hearing more and more from other faculty who are starting to teach such classes at their own institutions. That’s why it is such good news that Drew Davidson, Director of the Entertainment Technology Center Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University, has produced a new textbook designed to introduce undergraduate critical studies and production students alike to the world of what he calls “crossmedia entertainment.” (Full disclosure: the book includes a short piece by me which offers my definition of transmedia.) I have long admired Drew Davidson’s contributions to the space of games studies, especially through the Well Played books, which offer smart, engaging criticisms of specific games by some of the top games scholars in the world, and his earlier book, Stories in Between is a hidden gem which already poses important questions about new and emerging forms of storytelling.

This new book, Cross-Media Communications: an Introduction to the Art of Creating Integrated Media Experiences will play a central role in shaping how concepts of “cross-media” or “transmedia” expression get taught, encouraging educators around the world to explore some of these intriguing concepts in their classrooms. Over the next two installments, I will be sharing this interview with Davidson about the book and about his thoughts on all things crossmedia.

What are your goals for this book? Are we far enough along in identifying and explaining these new techniques that there is a space for an undergraduate textbook on crossmedia? Is the book focused on developing critical understanding, practical skills or both?

My primary goal was to try and create an introductory textbook to this topic, so I was aiming for a freshman-level book. An inspiration was the various textbooks currently out that focus on mass communications. I thought it would be interesting to do something similar, but with a specific focus on how media communications are tending more than ever to be threaded together.

Thinking about where we are in our understanding of cross-media techniques and how media experiences can be threaded together, we could go back to Plato’s concept of ekphrasis (roughly, using one medium to relate another). So it’s been around for some time, particularly if you think of advertising campaigns since the advent of mass media. There are some sophisticated ad campaigns that link together various media (e.g. print, radio, tv and collectibles) in ways that are primarily meant to get us to consume. And

more recently, there is the increasing ability for us to also join in the creation of these experiences. Plus, as you’ve pointed out so well, the current generation of students are accustomed and acclimated to being this (inter)active with their media experiences. So, I think it’s a good time to try and engage this topic in a textbook.

That said, I worked to create a textbook that is more broad than deep. It is meant to provide a good overview of the critical concepts involved as well as some practical application experience in a design and development context. It’s a starting point and foundation for more in-depth study and practice of cross-media communications. The exercises, illustrations and information graphics in the book and DVD-ROM are meant to introduce students to the design process, and the professional perspectives throughout the book help give students a sense of the range of ideas involved. From here, students could work on their design skills specifically while also digging more deeply into concepts covered by people like yourself, Christy Dena, Kurt Kurt Lancaster, Monique de Hass, Jonathan Gray/a>, Max Giovagnoli, and Geoffrey Long (just to name a few). This textbook can be a way to show the various opportunities for them to consider.

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What do you see as the role of academic programs in preparing the next generation of crossmedia designers and/or in educating an audience to become better consumers of existing transmedia properties?

To borrow a term from alternate reality games, I think academic programs can serve as a rabbit hole for both the preparation of crossmedia designers and the education of audience members. By helping introduce both groups to crossmedia, academic programs can then guide them deeper into what it has to offer.

For designers, courses of study could be developed to help teach students both the practical skills as well as the conceptual rigor they would need to create crossmedia experiences that took full advantage of the interplay of all the media involved together.

From a perspective of audience members, a crossmedia 101 course could introduce students to exemplars of crossmedia experiences and illustrate their fundamental characteristics. Subsequent courses could help students develop a deeper critical literacy that would help enable in-depth analysis of crossmedia.

In both cases, academic programs can help shape the understanding and direction of the field as it continues to develop. Going down the rabbit hole would just be the start of the adventure.

There has been a jumble of terminology around this topic. I prefer to use “transmedia.” Frank Rose talks about “deep media.” and you went with “cross-media.” Do you see “transmedia” and “crossmedia” as two words to describe the same thing or as capturing different aspects of this new aesthetic?

To be honest, I think they’re all fairly synonymous, and I think they could be interchanged for the most part. That said, here’s how i see some of the distinctions and specific emphases between the three terms.

I like how you use transmedia to describe narrative universes that we can experience through multiple entry points which are accessed through various media. For me, this terms serves as a foundation for the other two.

Deep media is similarly about exploring experiences that take place across media. But it seems to have more of a focus on how the internet is performing as the glue that helps hold the narrative together and enables a deeper experience of the story.

And crossmedia focuses more specifically on how the audience needs to become interactively engaged in order to experience narratives that occur across, between and through various media. So the focus is more on how interactive you get.

But even just trying to point out these distinctions shows that they are quite subtle. Personally, I feel comfortable with all three terms and how they define this aesthetic.

Your discussion of “crossmedia” places a particular emphasis on interactivity. So, can you share with us what you mean by interactivity? Does this imply that other kinds of narratives are consumed passively? In a networked culture, are there any kinds of narrative which do not spark some form of participation and interactivity?

I think all communication is inherently interactive in nature, narratives included of course. But different media can enable different levels and types of interactivity. I like Espen Aarseth’s distinction on how digital media can enable us to interact more directly within an narrative experience and help shape it through our interactions; whereas with other media (like books and film) we also interact, but with less agency within the

experience.

Building on this, I’ve noodled around with the notion of ludic narrans, or playful stories. Looking at Johan Huizinga‘s idea of homo ludens, and how humans begin life in a playful pre-linguistic consciousness as babies where we’re solely homo ludens as we literally learn everything through play as we interact with the world. And then we learn language, and a new phase of consciousness begins, one that dominates, shapes, and constrains our worldview for the rest of our lives. We are now homo narrans, as we

discursively talk about what we play, what we learn, what we feel, believe, think, etc. But I don’t think being homo narrans erases our foundational homo ludens nature; we are always already homo ludens, it¹s just now we talk about it.

Looking at how interactivity can be found in crossmedia, I believe Aarseth’s notion of interactivity evokes a type of narrative experience that has definite para-linguistic activities involved; meaning is conveyed across media through gesture, space, color, sound, activity and agency. I think one of the reasons these experiences are so compelling is that they enable us to tap more directly into our pre-linguistic homo ludens consciousness as we can playfully engage with them. Of course, we then step back and talk about it, which engages our discursive homo narrans consciousness. So we have

ludic narrans, playful stories.

Drew Davidson is a professor, producer and player of interactive media. His background spans academic, industry and professional worlds and he is interested in stories across texts, comics, games and other media. He is the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University and the Editor of ETC Press. He completed his Ph.D. in Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to that, he received a B.A. and M.A. in Communications Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He chaired Game Art & Design and Interactive Media Design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the Art Institute Online and has taught and researched at several universities. He consults for a variety of companies, institutions and organizations and was a Senior Project Manager in the New Media Division of Holt, Rinehart and Winston. He was also a Project Manager in Learning Services at Sapient, and before that he produced interactive media at HumanCode. He helped create the Sandbox Symposium, an ACM SIGGRAPH conference on video games and served on the IGDA Education SIG. He works with SIGGRAPH on games and interactive media and serves on the ACTlab Steering Committee, and many review boards and jury panels. He founded the Applied Media & Simulation Games Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is the lead on several MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative grants and has written and edited books, journals, articles and essays on narratives across media, serious games, analyzing gameplay, and cross-media communication.

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Hollywood Goes “Transmedia”

“At the heart of the entertainment industry, there are young and emerging leaders (such as Danny Bilson and Neil Young at Electronic Arts or Chris Pike at Sony Interactive) who are trying to push their companies to explore this new model for entertainment franchises. Some of them are still regrouping from their first bleeding-edge experiments in this space (Dawson’s Desktop, 1998) — some of which had modest success (The Blair Witch Project, 1999), some of which they now saw as spectacular failures (Majestic, 2001). Some of them are already having closed doors meetings to try to figure out the best way to ensure more productive collaborations across media sectors. Some are working on hot new ideas mased by nondisclosure agreements. All of them were watching closely in 2003, which Newsweek had called ‘The Year of The Matrix,’ to see how audiences were going to respond to the Wachowski brothers’ ambitious plans.” — Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006).

I’ve been so busy dealing with end of term matters that I have not yet had a chance to publicly acknowledge here the extraordinary news that the Producers Guild of America has officially recognized the title of “Transmedia Producer.” Here’s how the official prose defines the concept:

A Transmedia Narrative project or franchise must consist of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on any of the following platforms: Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, Mobile, Special Venues, DVD/Blu-ray/CD-ROM, Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts, and other technologies that may or may not currently exist. These narrative extensions are NOT the same as repurposing material from one platform to be cut or repurposed to different platforms.

A Transmedia Producer credit is given to the person(s) responsible for a significant portion of a project’s long-term planning, development, production, and/or maintenance of narrative continuity across multiple platforms, and creation of original storylines for new platforms. Transmedia producers also create and implement interactive endeavors to unite the audience of the property with the canonical narrative and this element should be considered as valid qualification for credit as long as they are related directly to the narrative presentation of a project.

Transmedia Producers may originate with a project or be brought in at any time during the long-term rollout of a project in order to analyze, create or facilitate the life of that project and may be responsible for all or only part of the content of the project. Transmedia Producers may also be hired by or partner with companies or entities, which develop software and other technologies and who wish to showcase these inventions with compelling, immersive, multi-platform content.

To qualify for this credit, a Transmedia Producer may or may not be publicly credited as part of a larger institution or company, but a titled employee of said institution must be able to confirm that the individual was an integral part of the production team for the project.

By all accounts, Starlite Runner’s Jeff Gomez, a long time friend and a key thinker/creator in the transmedia space, has been a key player behind the scenes lobbying the Guild to accept this new classification. The specifics of the definition of transmedia is still being debated widely, including this interesting piece on the responses of people who would be eligible for the new title and this one from long time crossmedia advocate Christy Dena. The Guild is already saying that video games were excluded from the list of potential media by oversight and that it will be amended soon to include games. Dena has raised two important criticisms of the definition — the idea that work must straddle at least three media (disallowing projects which integrate in deep and meaningful ways only two platforms) and the emphasis on storylines as opposed to other potential kinds of transmedia experiences.

The reality is that our definition of what constitutes transmedia is still very much evolving, as can be witnessed from the various discussions of the concept at the Transmedia Hollywood: S/Telling the Story conference, which was organized in March by Denise Mann of the UCLA Producers Program and myself. As we brought together people from across the media industry to discuss these emerging trends, we found some included all forms of franchise entertainment as transmedia and others had much narrower definitions which insisted that the different media platforms be integrated to tell a single story. There was disagreement about the value of various proposed terms, including not only transmedia, cross-media, and “deep media.” There were recurring disagreements about transmedia as a mode of content as opposed to a mode of marketing. And finally, transmedia’s aesthetics was still being defined and with it, the issue of whether this is something really new or an expansion of long-standing practices. Around the edges, you could hear hints that transmedia should be extended from a focus on storytelling to a more expansive understanding which includes notions of performance, play, and spectacle that can not be contained within a more narrative-centric definition.

From the beginning, transmedia has been a site of experimentation, innovation, and exploration at the heart of the mainstream media. Many of us have seen the signs of transmedia practices emerging from some time — mostly taking shape around forms of marketing because that’s how such projects could get funded, mostly reflecting the logic of a more integrated media industry with strong economic imperatives for creating entertainment experiences across platforms. Yet, the phrase “transmedia” (and its various counterparts) have created a space where aesthetic and cultural concerns can re-enter the discussion. If media artists are going to be pushed to extend their offerings across platforms, shouldn’t they be thinking about how these practices can be exploited to create richer aesthetic experiences, to support the creativity and engagement of fans, to deepen the meaningfulness of the stories and performances they are staging?

As such, the transmedia discussion has always moved across registers and as a consequence, needed to be expansive, to include anyone who wants to engage with these topics and who is willing to put these ideas into practice. While the Transmedia Hollywood conference drew criticism from some quarters for having too elastic or “vague” a definition of its core concept, this very expansiveness is what allows us to bring many different voices to the table, to map diverse kinds of experiments, and to promote new innovations and explorations. From my perspective, there is a use within the academic world for clearer, more precise definitions, but there is also a value more generally for a more slippery conception, at least while we are still undergoing such rapid evolution. My hope is that the definition and borders of the concept will be debate everytime two or more transmedia advocates have gathered.

I respect the value of a Guild having a clear definition of what transmedia is, and from where I sit, the PGA definition is as good a one as we are going to get right now, but I also hope that we all do what Dena did in her blog post and push back on any attempt to too quickly formalize the limits or boundaries of this practice.

For those who missed the Transmedia Hollywood events, I am happy today to share with you the webcasts of the panels. We hope that these programs provide a useful resource for people in and around the media industry who are stilling trying to make sense of “all this talk about transmedia entertainment.”

9:45–10:00 am

Welcome and Opening Remarks

Denise Mann, Associate Professor, Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, Annenberg School of Communication, USC

10:00–11:50 AM

Panel 1: “Reconfiguring Entertainment”

Moderator: Henry Jenkins

Panelists: Mimi Ito, Associate Researcher, University of California Humanities Research Institute (Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software; Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media; Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life)

Diane Nelson, President, DC Entertainment

Richard Lemarchand, Lead Designer, Naughty Dog Software (Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune; Uncharted 2: Among Thieves)

Nils Peyron, Executive Vice President and Managing Partner, Blind Winks Productions

Jonathan Taplin, Professor, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California; CEO, Intertainer.

John Underkoffler, Oblong, G-Speak (Technical Advisor for Iron Man, Aeon Flux, Hulk, Taken, and Minority Report)

12:00–1:50 PM

Panel 2: “ARG: This is Not a Game…. But is it Always a Promotion?”

Moderator: Denise Mann, Associate Professor, Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Panelists: Ivan Askwith, Senior Content Strategist, Big Spaceship (clients include NBC, A&E, HBO, EPIX, Second Life, and Wrigley)

Susan Bonds, President/CEO and Alex Lieu, Chief Creative Officer, 42 Entertainment (I Love Bees, Dead Man’s Tale, Why So Serious?, Year Zero)

Will Brooker, Associate Professor, Kingston University, UK (Star Wars; Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture; The Bladerunner Experience; Using the Force; Batman Unmasked)

Steve Peters and Maureen McHugh, Founding Partners, No Mimes Media (Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Nine Inch Nails, Pirates of the Caribbean II)

Jordan Weisman, Founder, Smith & Tinker (The Beast, I Love Bees, Year Zero)

3:00–4:50 PM

Panel 3: “Designing Transmedia Worlds”

Moderator: Henry Jenkins

Panelists: David Brisbin, Art Director/Production Designer (Twilight, New Moon, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Drug Store Cowboy)

Danny Bilson, THQ (The Rocketeer, Medal of Honor, The Flash, The Sentinel)

Derek Johnson, Assistant Professor, University of North Texas

R. Eric Lieb, Partner, Blacklight Transmedia. Former Editor-in-Chief, Fox Atomic Comics; & Director of Development, Fox Atomic (28 Weeks Later; Jennifer’s Body; I Love You Beth Cooper)

Louisa Stein, Head of TV/Film Critical Studies Program, San Diego State University (Limits: New Media, Genre and Fan Texts; Watching Teen TV: Text and Culture)

5:00–6:50 PM

Panel 4: “Who Let the Fans In?: ‘Next-Gen Digi-Marketing’”

Moderator: Denise Mann

Panelists: J.D. Black, Vice-President, Marketing, Sony Imageworks Interactive (digital campaigns for Surf’s Up, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, 2012, District 9, The Boondocks)

John Caldwell, Professor, UCLA Department of Film, TV, Digital Media (Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Film/Television Work Worlds; Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film/Television; New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality; Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television)

Alan Friel, Partner, Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon LLP

John Hegeman, Chief Marketing Office, New Regency Productions (marketing campaigns for Saw 1 & 2, Crash at Lionsgate; The Blair Witch Project at Artisan)

Roberta Pearson, Professor, University of Nottingham (Reading Lost; Cult Television; The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches)

Steve Wax, Co-founder and Managing Partner, Campfire (HBO’s TrueBlood, Audi’s The Art of the Heist; Discovery Channel’s Shark Week marketing adventure, Frenzied Waters).

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Hip Hop Goes Transmedia (Part Two)

Hip Hop Goes Transmedia

by Marguerite de Bourgoing

4. Collaborate

While hip hop is notoriously an individualistic expression, the collaborations give depth to what is otherwise an individualistic expression, and independent rappers are no exception. They need to support each other to attain their common goal. Collaborations often have the strategy of reaching out to each other’s followers. Beefs (verbal fights) are equally standard and entertaining in hip hop but fans also like to see artists united and collaborating. This goes back to the idea of movement. The idea of collaboration is exemplified in the rapport producers have with artists (who make the beats and often the arrangements for the songs). The DJ is also often the third element to the association, Producers in hip hop are mainly their own persons, and while many producers have a special relationship with one or several artists, it is by no means exclusive. All hip hop albums with hardly any exception, feature other artists.

El Prez in one of the interviews he gave us, was comparing the scene to superheroes in comic books, aware that the fans like to see the artists get together. Indeed to push the comparison there are different factions of superheroes that also interact with each other more or less loosely. For a fan spotting the cameos in the music videos is part of the construction of this mythology. Watching the video of an up and coming rapper artist like Fashawn (who chose his name because he wanted it to sound like a superhero), it is fun to spot how many artists briefly appear, showing the wide backing he has amongst the hip hop community.

5. It ain’t hard to tell

Rappers are great storytellers, therefore they already have the gift of word, inherited from a great oral tradition of storytelling. It’s how you build that story that makes it effective on a transmedia level. Stevie Crooks (named after the brand Crooks and Castle) wears a ski mass during some of his performances and affects a kind of robin hood persona “in the eyes of crooks the industry has fell in this category fueling him to steal hiphop back and bring the Essense, love ,passion, and pure soul that we once knew”. The infamous Speak is very vocal about his Jewish Mexican origins and has a provocative flow “I like to play shows and amaze the crowd with fantastic raps and pelvic thrusting. I enjoy balloons, confetti, dancing, bubbles, chaos and hood rat girls with English accents and pro nails.” U-N-I (you and I ) emphasis their relationship with their fans, by posting or retwweting the pics they send them of them with their merchandise. El Prez dropped his latest mixtape of President’s day. Enigmatic rapper Blu who’s first album was a critical success names himself on twitter @herfavcolor and tweets that way: “Only5%OfTheTwittsInMyBrain MakeItToThePage”, “AnyBodyRememberWhenkubrickTookItToJupiter, OhBoyIsInThatCrazyRoom, Boom,InsertLadyGagaVidsRightThere, Climactik!”, “LatePass..IActuallyWantedToMeetKanyeTilIJustDiscoveredAmberRose,Wow,HeHasNoReasonToSayAWordtoAnyOneElse,BravoBravoBravo!”

6. It’s a man’s world but it would be nothing without a woman

One of the problems today in hip hop is the lack of good female rappers. Regularly I read tweets asking where Lauryn Hill is. Murs famously said “women can’t rap”. The hip hop audience has a higher level of male and it is an overall male dominated world. However, don’t underestimate the power of women. At LA Stereo we featured a few female emcees like Sirah.

Some of the female fans are the most vocal, and while some artists have specifically a more male audience, for an artist to succeed he needs to appeal cross genre. With a few exceptions for a story to be truly transmedia it should to be embraced by men and women. Despite the numerous mention of “ho’s”, there is an overall strong percentage of strong and intelligent women acting on the LA hip hop scene. Yeah you know if you’ve made it if you feature on the 2DopeBoyz ( a blog run by two guys who are very vocal about their tastes and distates) but in LA you still haven’t quite made it if you haven’t been endorsed by Devi Dev. A radio personality, she’s like a friend with a motherly approach to the artists. As a proper journalist she masters the art of the tweet evolving effortlessly between compte-rendu of concerts, anodyne facts and conversations with the artists. She’s able to tell off up and coming Nipssey Hussle about throwing gansta signs on stage. She’s the voice of reason commenting on why there are too many rappers, why it’s not recommended to date a rapper, and she has a wide public appeal without ever falling into demagogy.(On that chapter lets not to forget that LA Stereo was started by two women Kristin Guillory and myself).

7. We were scholars before colleges

Hip hop is an art form that exists in a society with a strong written tradition yet it is an art form that travels mainly orally (many of the artists we interview tell us they don’t write their rhymes down). This explains how it embraces easily a visual aesthetic and some of the other aspects described above, as it isn’t assigned to a rigid structure. It’s a reminder how oral cultures manifest themselves in ways that aren’t just verbal. Hip hop is an art form that has developed its own mythology, world, and prophets within contemporary society. It is an art form that constantly references itself as well as the previous eras as expressed with the practice of sampling. Most of what enables it to exist and survive within society is its own rebellious attitude, contradictions that it has to deal with, overall characterized by a “… don’t give a f*** attitude”. Therefore it is fluid form that references itself and follows its own evolution, inhabited by its own doubts, certitudes and celebrations. In a very Nietschean way, Nas a more introspective rapper announced that hip hop was dead, while jay-z epitomizes the Renaissance man in hip hop who has everything (you can check his impressive resume here). All the rappers in the world are emulating both attitudes. Hip hop has a backbone yet is fluid in its manifestations. However, to exist in hip hop you ultimately have to be embraced by the community of rappers, made of the pioneers, the golden era, etc. It’s actually remarkable how that older community is still active. On Twitter one can follower rev from Run DMC who gives spiritual words of advice or legend rapper and producer QTip.

To conclude hip hop is still a vital genre that is making the most of the digital revolution we are going through as it shows its constant capacity of adaptation, innovation and creativity.

To fin out more about LA Stereo you can find us on Twitter @LAStereotv, become a fan on Facebook, subscribe to our Youtube channel and join the community http://www.lastereo.tv.

Marguerite graduated from Oxford University and the Sorbonne Paris IV, with an M.A. in Art History and in Philosophy. She then worked for two years at the Cinémathèque française in Paris where she developed a passion for cinema. During this time she assisted Marc Riboud, a photographer from Magnum, with whom she explored the language of documentary. She moved to London where she lived for six years, working as a Production Coordinator on factual programs, before joining Discovery UK in the programming department. Recently Marguerite moved to L.A and completed the Annenberg Online Communitites Program MA at USC to define and develop new audiences online, particularly for documentaries. She’s currently developing her own franchise LA Stereo.tv with the help of her team: documenting the rise of the independant hip hop scene, and urbansalt.com with former classmates: curating the LA street style.

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Hip Hop Goes Transmedia (Part One)

Transmedia Entertainment keeps getting more and more buzz these days — and so over the next handful of installments, I am going to be sharing with you a range of different perspectives on the concept.

Today, I am running the first of two installments showcasing the work of Marguerite de Bourgoing, one of the USC students who took my transmedia entertainment class last fall. de Bourgoing has been developing a grassroots media franchise, LAstereo.tv, which deploys YouTube and social network sites to showcase the Los Angeles hip hop scene. de Bourgoing represents the Trojan spirit at its best — a social and cultural entrepreneur who is taking what she’s learned as a media maker and deploying it to serve her larger community. de Bourgoing shared some of this work with us during the class and I’ve wanted her to talk about it for my blog since. In this account which follows, she both shares some of the videos she’s been producing and also talks about the way LA Hip Hop artists are using new media to expand the community around their live performances. It’s a perspective on transmedia we don’t hear very often here and further helps us think about the impact of media convergence on our culture.

Hip Hop Goes Transmedia: Seven Laws

by Marguerite de Bourgoing

Hip hop by essence is a fertile terrain for transmedia; born from the practice of sampling (borrowing a beat and reusing it in a different context), it also incorporates dancing and graffiti. As those aspects evolved they have become more independent, but contemporary hip hop trends like jerkin (from L.A) remind us how intricate style, music and dance still are.

With LA Stereo we document the current LA scene characterized by a strong rise of independent artists. Up and coming artists are using digital means to communicate directly with their fans, taking in hand their own marketing, using that power to leverage distribution deals or cut out the middle man. In parallel the independent practice of the arts is flourishing around that movement leading to what some are calling an “L.A renaissance”. New digital means of expression enable the genre to multiply itself and evolve across different platforms. LA Stereo is a translation of that broader movement broadcasting everything hip hop in L.A. The team is made of a DJ (Val the Vandle), the tastemaker, a photographer (Kasey Stokes), the eye, a rapper (Belvi), the lyricist and thinking head, a journalist (Rebecca Haithcoat), and a filmmaker (myself) also the producer.

Here are the seven practices of transmedia inspired by my observation of this movement in the past year or so.

1. Spread your brand: Open Mic

Hip hop today feeds from both an active online and offline presence that contaminate each other. A good performance generates new fans who in return will follow you online to know what you are up to. Similarly a well-presented project with a good backing from blogs and other artists will generate a strong online buzz that in turn should translate in a greater attendance. In any case both online and offline are crucial to get the word of mouth going. In hip hop every artist is its own brand (for lack of a better word) with an active online presence that started with MySpace a few years ago and today culminates with Twitter. Twitter more than Facebook is a fertile terrain for transactions of all sorts: business, artists to artists, fans to artists, artists retweeting other fans. It’s used for promotion, casual conversations, to express opinions, and indicate what the artists are up to. Independent artists control that aspect of their communication. Many artist are avid experimenters using gimmicks such as bubble tweet, twitpic, but also tumblr, blog and other devices. That online presence extends itself to file sharing. The music is now available online, often for free, as artists generate mixtapes or leak tracks as part of their process of reaching to fans. The bigger music labels have recuperated this practice as they also “leak” songs of established artists before the albums drop. Music videos have been re-apropriated by the independent artists as a strong visual support for the music. Many are made independently and often demonstrate more creativity than the mainstream ones. (Here’s a making of Basicali’s “Nobody Cares” music video that was shot in a Mac store and edited in 24 hours).

2. Keeping it real: be authentic yet marketable

Classically, hip hop feeds from an aesthetic of authenticity and yet isn’t adverse to being commercialized, even for underground hip hop. Hip hop artists are pioneers in the way they have marketed themselves to brands and have used that to be successful. Run DMC years ago sported the Adidas look and Adidas ending up creating a special pair of sneaker for them. Today the LA independent rappers sport clothing brands such as Diamonds, and Crooks and Castle. The owners recognize their artistic potential and influence within the community and the artists are proud of that association. Style plays a big role in hip hop therefore it’s natural that clothing brands are amongst the first to sponsor hip hop artists. Young rapper Skeme for instance is developing his own hat with Nicky Diamond. This association often stems from the artist’s originality as they express their own individuality. Taking it all the way, some artists develop their own merchandise, like group U-N-I who despite being courted by record labels have so far decided to go independent, and created a line of hats, that they promote in turn by wearing them on the cover of their album.

3. Be the change you want to see

After the Obama election: the biggest transmedia movement to date, arguably any successful transmedia franchise is a movement. For an artist/group to be successful it is important to strike your audience’s imagination with something bigger than yourself. The idea of unity has always been a strong theme in hip hop. Today a movement is emerging in California dubbed the “New West” or the “LA Renaissance”. Many of the current artists or groups endorse that idea of movement whether it is consciously or not. This translates in the names choices from Pac Dic (Pacific Division), to U-N-I ( you and I), or even El Prez (short for el president). They promote a new kind of cool as revealed by “Mayor” the new LA anthem “Just another day out in sunny LA there’s dealers in the streets and the coppers don’t play, got my 501 jeans, my crew neck sweater saggin in my pants cuz i don’t know better (….) feelin so good i think i might run for mayor”.(Pac Div) It’s in response to what the LA hip hop – west coast- was known for: inventing the very successful gansgta rap franchise. Well today the new generation, who was mostly under ten during the LA riots, has swapped this image for a more chilled and hedonistic approach. Instead the LA rappers are some of the biggest spokespersons for the “Cali lifestyle”. It’s part of what the LAX Paper Boys recently called the “just be cool” (JBC) attitude and that they were able to show when they organized in a very short amount of time, a benefit concert for Haiti with all the actors on the LA hip hop scene.

4. Collaborate

While hip hop is notoriously an individualistic expression, the collaborations give depth to what is otherwise an individualistic expression, and independent rappers are no exception. They need to support each other to attain their common goal. Collaborations often have the strategy of reaching out to each other’s followers. Beefs (verbal fights) are equally standard and entertaining in hip hop but fans also like to see artists united and collaborating. This goes back to the idea of movement. The idea of collaboration is exemplified in the rapport producers have with artists (who make the beats and often the arrangements for the songs). The DJ is also often the third element to the association, Producers in hip hop are mainly their own persons, and while many producers have a special relationship with one or several artists, it is by no means exclusive. All hip hop albums with hardly any exception, feature other artists.

El Prez in one of the interviews he gave us, was comparing the scene to superheroes in comic books, aware that the fans like to see the artists get together. Indeed to push the comparison there are different factions of superheroes that also interact with each other more or less loosely. For a fan spotting the cameos in the music videos is part of the construction of this mythology. Watching the video of an up and coming rapper artist like Fashawn (who chose his name because he wanted it to sound like a superhero), it is fun to spot how many artists briefly appear, showing the wide backing he has amongst the hip hop community.

To fin out more about LA Stereo you can find us on Twitter @LAStereotv, become a fan on Facebook, subscribe to our Youtube channel and join the community http://www.lastereo.tv.

Marguerite graduated from Oxford University and the Sorbonne Paris IV, with an M.A. in Art History and in Philosophy. She then worked for two years at the Cinémathèque française in Paris where she developed a passion for cinema. During this time she assisted Marc Riboud, a photographer from Magnum, with whom she explored the language of documentary. She moved to London where she lived for six years, working as a Production Coordinator on factual programs, before joining Discovery UK in the programming department. Recently Marguerite moved to L.A and completed the Annenberg Online Communitites Program MA at USC to define and develop new audiences online, particularly for documentaries. She’s currently developing her own franchise LA Stereo.tv with the help of her team: documenting the rise of the independant hip hop scene, and urbansalt.com with former classmates: curating the LA street style.

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Thinkers Welcome: New Resources on Participatory Culture and Learning

Today, I want to flag for you some exciting online resources which emerged from two conferences on new media and education which I attended and participated in earlier this semester. The first is the TEDxNYED conference, which brought together some of the top thinkers about new technology, learning, and civic media, for an intensive one day session. Speakers included Amy Bruckman, Andy Carvin, Jeff Jarvis, Neeru Khosla, Lawrence Lessig, Jay Rosen, George Siemens, Mike Wesch, David Wiley, and others. There was something about speaking as part of an “A-Team” of speakers — you bring your best work to the game — and so each talk was surprising, engaging, informative, and mind-blowing. The TED podcasts are all gems and you can see this set of talks here. They just went up over the weekend.

Since this is my blog, I am claiming the right to post my own video here. This talk emerged from some of the work I’ve launched since coming to USC on participatory culture and the public sphere. I’ve assembled a team of wickedly smart PhD candidates from Annenberg and the Cinema School who meet with me every week to try to identify and interprete case studies where our involvements as fans and gamers spill over into forms of public advocacy and activism. I’ve already showcased some of this work on the blog in the past and you will be seeing more in the months ahead.

As for the other podcasts, I wanted to flag two in particular which were of special interest to me because they represent the voices of classroom teachers who are trying to translate the abstract insights about new media and learning into day to day interactions with students on the ground. Chris Lehmann is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and Dan Meyer teaches high school math outside of Santa Cruz, California. Whenever academics gather to talk about education, there’s some tendency to knock teachers. Or at least teachers become “collateral damage” in our critiques of educational institutions and practices, as if they were simply agents of the structures in which they serve. Yet, in fact, there are many greater teachers, librarians, and other educators out there who “get it,” who have a grasp of the significance of the cultural and technological changes we are describing, and why they matter to young people. It was great to see their voices represented at the TEDx conference and I am happy to share those talks here.

I was honored to be asked to be the Conference Chair for the first MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Conference and to be able to propose “Diversifying Participation” as the main theme for the event. Diversifying Participation brought together several hundred educators, scholars, activists, community leaders, and journalists to share their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities participatory culture represents in the lives of young people. Our goal was in part to push the entire DML community to grapple more directly with the importance of enabling and promoting diversity within participatory culture. The plenary sessions of the conference have also recently been posted on line and may give you some sense of the event if you were unable to attend.

Digital Media and Learning Conference 2010 Introduction and Opening Keynote from Shane Depner on Vimeo.

Introduction: David Theo Goldberg, Connie Yowell and Henry Jenkins (Conference Chair)

Opening Keynote: “Living on the Digital Margins: How Black and Latino Youth are Remaking the Participation Gap” S. Craig Watkins

Digital Media and Learning Conference 2010 Plenary Panel from Shane Depner on Vimeo.

Digital Media and Learning: The State of the Field

Session Chair: Heather A Horst

Presenters: Amanda Lenhart, Brigid Barron, Eszter Hargittai, Joe Kahne, Kevin Leander and Lynn Schofield Clark

Discussion Moderator: Mimi Ito

Digital Media and Learning Conference 2010 Closing Keynote and Closing Remarks from Shane Depner on Vimeo.

Closing Keynote: “Youthful Participation – what have we learned, what shall we ask next?” Sonia Livingstone

Closing Remarks: Henry Jenkins

By the way, I’ve gotten some questions about my discussion of 19th century zine publishing. My key source is: Paula Petrik. “The Youngest Fourth Estate: The Novelty Toy Printing Press and Adolescence, 1870-1886,” in Elliot West and Paula Petrik (eds.) Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950. (Kansas City: U of Kansas P, 1992)

Finally, for those of you who heard about the great webinar which Project New Media Literacies ran last week on Collective Intelligence and Education, you can listen to a recording here. We will be running monthly events through the summer centered on the different skills identified in my MacArthur white paper. You should join us for some of the future sessions. It’s a great way for us to engage with educators — both classroom teachers and teachers in training — who want to integrate the new media literacies into their pedagogical practice.

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Choose Your Fictions Well

By now, hopefully, you have read Peter Ludlow’s account of recent events in Second Life and perhaps have also followed along with the comments and disputes that have surrounded this post. By now, hopefully, you’ve started to form your own opinion about what happened, why it happened, what it all means, and perhaps, what constitutes the borders between griefing and anti-griefing in this context. The following set of comments were crafted between Ludlow and myself as we reflected on these events and what they may tell us about the interplay between fantasy and politics in virtual worlds. We hope it will provide a springboard for further discussion both on this blog and elsewhere.

Choose your fictions well.

by Henry Jenkins and Peter Ludlow

In 2004, the two of us spent a lot of time reflecting on the Alphaville elections in The Sims Online. Those elections culminated in a contest between the self-declared incumbent Mr-President and Ashley Richardson, an avatar guided by a 14 year old girl from Palm Beach Florida. Initially, both of us marveled over the intensity of political activity surrounding the campaign, including a debate on national radio, and then, the aftermath of those elections, when it was discovered that the voting system had been rigged on Mr-President’s behalf by notorious Alphaville mafioso, JC Soprano.

Coming so shortly after the 2000 elections, there was a sense that even in play, American democracy was broken. That was our first thought. But as we looked more closely, we discovered that the two candidates were playing very different games, understanding their investments in this online game world in very different terms — one earnestly seeking to represent the interests of her constituency as if this were a student government election being played out on a much larger scale, the other playing a game where his transgressive fantasies of being a corrupt politico in a world controlled by organized crime could be more fully explored.

The problem was that the open-ended structure of The Sims Online, which both was and was not a game, and which supports, like James Paul Gee suggests, multiple sets of goals and multiple paths to success, did not force players to actively negotiate between competing perceptions of what was going on. Both could play their own games, explore their own fantasies, and it became an issue because their actions impinged on each other’s experience and impacted a much larger community of players. In other words, at least two different games collided in that moment.

As we flash forward to this new set of entanglements involving the Justice League in Second Life, we are struggling to figure out if we’ve made any real progress – in terms of making more explicit the competing frames of play which shape our experiences of online worlds, in having conceptual models which help us to figure out how seriously to take player’s actions within virtual worlds, or even in terms of making real any hopes we have that virtual worlds can allow us to experiment with alternative models of what democracy looks like. Clearly, Second Life is if anything even more open ended than Sims Online in terms of its capacity to support participants with very different orientations and interests. It is perhaps the best embodiment of what Yochai Benkler talks about in The Wealth of Networks — a place where differentially motivated groups and individuals co-exist within a mixed media ecology or a shared virtual world. Clearly, both the Alphaville elections and the recent JLU incident in Second Life reflect this feature of virtual worlds –different goals and narratives can coexist — but apparently they cannot coexist peacefully indefinitely. Eventually the diverse goals and narratives collide.

Colliding narratives are a matter of routine in large virtual sandboxes like Second Life. Furries collide with Goreans, and both collide with military roleplay groups. In one famous case reported in the Alphaville Herald, a group of refugees from World War II Online colonized Second Life and soon came into conflict with a virtual gangster known as One Song and his plans to build a megamall next to their WWII roleplay sim (a conflict which led to One Song torching their headquarters — a scale model of the Reichschtag — which in turn led the WWII Onliners to dress as jihaddists and attack One Song’s cybersex brothel, eventually taking it offline for a while). Even the military roleplay groups can come into conflict, as when one roleplay army attacked a space age Second Life army using only muskets.

Of course whether the goals and narratives are in collision, it is fair to say that not all of them are created equal. Some are praiseworthy and some demand reflection and critique.

Consider the praiseworthy first. We are interested in the ways that participatory culture can pave the way for greater civic participation and political engagement. The point of interest is the trajectory which takes a young person from being engaged creatively and expressively with a popular culture phenomenon to being courted as a potential activist whose actions matter in the “real world.” For example, consider how the members of the Harry Potter Alliance have sought to make real the fantasy identities constructed around “Dumbledore’s Army” in the J.K. Rowling books — seeking to model their real world efforts at social change on the representations of activist identities constructed across the Harry Potter franchise, including organizing public interventions in the guise of “House competitions.”

Or we might point to the ways that indigenous groups and environmental activists in many parts of the world (China, Brazil, the Middle East) have adopted the identity of the Na’Vi from James Cameron’s Avatar as a mask through which to engage in real world interventions. Doing so gives them an empowering fantasy which can shape their own behavior and doing so can deploy a shared vocabulary of images which may generate much greater media attention. There is of course a long history of adopting the mask of the “other,” or even fictional identities, in the name of social change. Isn’t there a similarity to be drawn between painting yourself blue as a Na’Vi and painting yourself red for the original Boston Tea Party? Utilizing the trappings of fictional narratives can empower us to do things in the real world that perhaps we otherwise could not.

It is easy to see that the JLU incident in Second Life began with a similar sort of motives; clearly being a superhero in Second Life was an empowering fantasy for the participants. It allowed them a model of what meaningful intervention might look like and they were able to map that model onto the politics of Second Life in ways that made them feel heroic and larger than life, which empowered them to take action on behalf of their communities. Yet, at the same time, what we see is that it matters what fantasy provides your starting point.

As a long time comics fans, we can’t help but note that the Justice League offers a problematic set of fantasy identities — certainly a different set of utopian visions of political transformation, than say the characters within the Marvel Universe. The problem is that there is a kind of moral certainty which runs through the DC universe — a sense that good guys can do no wrong, a troubling alignment of their interests with those of the state (“truth, justice, and the American way”), and a representation of pure evil in the form of the bad guys, all of which attract people with a certain way of seeing the world.

Reflecting on the consolidation of data in the JLU wiki and the violations of expectations about privacy, we cannot help but think of the ways the recent Dark Knight movie dealt with precisely the same issues: Batman can solve crimes more quickly if he can deploy surveillance equipment to spy on the citizens of Gotham City yet he faces an ethical debate about whether it is the right thing to do. The film ends up allowing him to spy on the public this one time, not to mention to take such actions as kidnapping business leaders, yet he pays a price in terms of moving back into the shadows, falling out of the good graces of the public.

It is worth pondering whether such fantasies entered into the mind of Kalel Venkman, as he pushed his campaign against griefers further and further. And we wonder what would have happened if the popular culture which inspired his particular kind of role play had adopted a different set of ethical and political values. We might ask “Who Watches the Watchmen?” though we are also reminded of Spider-man’s “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.” Both Watchmen and Spider-Man offer more complex representations of what motivates superheroes to act and what factors can or should offer a check on their relentless war against the bad guys? The problem with Superman, oddly enough, was diagnosed by Lex Luthor himself (in the recent movie), in a passage that Haruhi Thespian quoted when he informed the JLU that he was working for their enemies at Woodbury University: “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind. No, I don’t want to be a god. I just want to bring fire to the people. And… I want my cut.”

Many of the revisionist superhero fantasies which came out of the 1980s — including those by Frank Miller and Alan Moore — raised the question of whether superheroes helped to create the villains they battled or at least attracted them to particular geographic locations. Think about the Batman/Joker relationship: “You created me and I created you,” Tim Burton told us. Would there be costumed bad guys if there were no costumed good guys?

The Superhero’s battle against evil becomes meaningless if there is no more evil to be battled. And so this revisionist argument goes, the Superhero starts to manufacture villains for his or her rogues gallery to fight, or perhaps, in the more fascistic versions of the superhero genre, starts to project evil onto innocent bystanders. Would the Woodbury campus on Second Life even exist without Kalel Venkman as an enemy? Woodbury leader Tizzers Foxchase has confided that he uses Kalel to keep the Woodbury kids engaged and to prevent their virtual campus from turning into the ghost town that most virtual campuses have become.

So, again, we can see what happened here as an outgrowth of a particular kind of fantasy being played out in the virtual world. Maybe Kalel Venkman even took a certain pleasure in “crossing lines,” moving from the pure virtue of the classic DC superheroes towards a darker vision of the dark knight working from the shadows, doing what constitutionally regulated authorities could not do, in order to redeem a world which is otherwise beyond hope.

That said, we can only speculate on what sort of civic fantasies are at play here — for example, what fantasies motivate the various griefer groups (the W-Hats, the channers etc) as they seek to get their LOLs by engaging in what they surely know is anti-social behavior? There is often a sense that virtual worlds allow us to enact transgressive fantasies freed of their real world consequences and if anyone objects, they are just taking things too seriously. This takes us all the way back to Julian Dibbel’s “A Rape in Cyberspace” and the debate about Mr. Bungle the Clown and whether his actions are simply a form of nasty-minded play or whether they can be understood as “rape” by those most invested in their characters and the integrity of their virtual community.

On the other hand, perhaps the greifer memes about “serious business” do offer an important counterpoint to the corporate take-over of the internet. Maybe someone should take issue with the corporatist narrative about the purpose of the world wide web by offering that it ought also to be a place for play and silliness. Whether or not such lines of defense are exculpatory, they are certainly taken on by griefers, as interview after interview with griefers in the Herald has shown.

For that matter, what kinds of civic fantasies have governed the Woodbury group, with their sense of rightous indignation at being falsely accused, with their efforts to plant spies in Kalel’s headquarters and thus flirt with risk? Or for that matter, what about the Alphaville Herald‘s conception of itself as a muckraking publication trying to rip the masks off the members of the Justice League? Are they all playing different games here or does each contribute something to the game which the others need in order to work through their fantasies, a warped version of Richard Bartle’s ecology of player types?

Our point is not that these competing narratives are wrong or disingenuous, it is rather that they need to be investigated and critiqued, for these are the narratives and strategies for play that are weaving the foundations not just for virtual worlds but for our future online lives. And of course, as cases like the Harry Potter Alliance show, they also motivate our “real life” actions and attitudes.

No doubt by this point some readers are thinking that all of these people have too much time on their hands, that they are taking events in virtual worlds too seriously. This criticism actually packs two criticisms within it. First, there is the assumption that the virtual world itself is of little interest. Second there is the assumption that only the confused would use fictional narratives and trappings guide their real lives. On this latter point, no one who is using Harry Potter or the Na’vi to inspire their real life actions is confused into thinking they are wizzards or very tall blue extraterrestrial beings. Similarly, Kaleel Venkman presumably does not believe he has superman powers. These features of fictional characters do not transfer into the real world. Clearly. But what does transfer are the norms, attitudes, virtues and vices of these characters. We cannot jump over tall buildings with a single bound, but we can adopt Superman’s ideas of what is right and his sense of self-certainty. The question, of course, is whether we *ought* to adopt such norms and attitudes.

As for the first question — whether what transpires in virtual worlds matters — this is a question that could have been intelligibly raised several years ago, but not today. Virtual worlds are rapidly becoming important platforms for work, socializing, education, and play, and given the amount of time that our children will spend in such worlds it is important to reflect on the norms that are being uploaded into those worlds today.

Clearly for virtual worlds to work they have to be open to play and experimentation, which requires suspending some of the rules that govern real world civic life. Yet, at the same time, some forms of political play fray the social contract which holds the world together, disrupting the experience of others, and destroying the infrastructure they all need in order to have meaningful experiences there. The story of the JLU invites us to ask the question — at what point did the campaign against griefers become itself a kind of griefing, which did more to damage than to defend the integrity of other participant’s virtual lives? Or to put it another way, the sandbox can allow many forms of roleplay and many competing narratives, but when the game becomes too big it impinges on the play and narratives of others. Playing well together is something we were supposed to have learned in kindergarten, but as this story shows, doing so is not as easy as it seems.

Watching the Watchers: Power and Politics in Second Life (Part Two)

This is the second part of an account of recent events in Second Life written by Peter Ludlow, a long-time observer of virtual worlds, a professor in the Philosophy Department at Northwestern University, and the co-author, with Mark Wallace, of The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid Which Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse, published by the MIT Press. As with any other representation of complicated and controversial events, different people will have different perspectives on what happened and different assessments of the motives and actions of the people involved. The essay is presented here in the hopes of sparking discussions about the blurring of politics and fantasy in virtual worlds, a topic to which we will return in the next installment.

Watching the Watchers

by Peter Ludlow

In 2008, a member of the Justice League quit and gave an interview to the Herald, detailing the operations of the Justice League, claiming that they were keeping massive intel on Second Life users, were abuse reporting people capriciously, sometimes successfully getting them banned without cause, and that members of Linden Lab were complicit in these operations. These charges were dismissed by the League. Tizzers Foxchase and the Woodbury kids needed the smoking gun if their charges were going to stick, and so they began to plot an infiltration operation.

Infiltrating the Justice League would not be easy. Clearly any friend links to Woodbury would raise red flags. Nor would it work to just create a new avatar and ask if it could join Woodbury. New avatars are dangerous for obvious reasons. What one needed was a clean avatar with a reasonable age on it. Kalel certainly knew that it would be a nightmare if details of his operations ever made it into the wrong hands. So whoever took ran the avatar would have to be special – someone who had a reasonable rez date on their avatar, no friendship links to Woodbury, and who could disarm the seemingly paranoid Kalel and pass as an anti-griefing do-gooder. In 2009, the Woodbury kids found just such a player.

Haruhi Thespian was an avatar without an agenda, and a certain kind of élan. As it turns out, she was a thespian in real life and an award winning improv actor. Perhaps she had just the right stuff to infiltrate the Justice League. One day she was chatting with the Woodbury kids and they asked if she would be willing to undertake the operation. Harui decided that it sounded like fun and Operation Wrong Hands was born.

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Kalel shows Haruhi the JLU “command center”

Haruhi was quickly admitted into the Justice League, but there were lingering suspicions. One day it seemed to Harui that her cover had been blown:

13:57] Kalel Venkman: I have to admit I’m having trouble figuring you out.

[13:57] Kalel Venkman: You just seem like the perfect applicant, and that’s just uncommon.

[13:58] Haruhi Thespian: hehe, is that a compliment?

[13:58] Kalel Venkman: Every now and then we get a really good one that hits all the marks.

[13:59] Kalel Venkman: Anyway, it’s just so rare, it takes me by surprise when it happens.

[13:59] Haruhi Thespian: I dont know what to say hehe

[13:59] Haruhi Thespian: >.<

[14:00] Haruhi Thespian: I’m so good its Criminal? (quote from the anime Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya)

[14:01] Kalel Venkman: Sort of.

[14:01] Kalel Venkman: We’ve got a pile of people from Woodbury trying to sneak their way into the JLU, and on the whole they’re not very clever.

[14:01] Kalel Venkman: If somebody did get in, it would have to be somebody who looked like as good an applicant as you do.

[14:02] Haruhi Thespian: it seems I’ve applied at a bad time >.<

[14:02] Haruhi Thespian: thats unfortunate

[14:02] Kalel Venkman: And at the same time, we’ve just gone through an episode with JB Hancroft.

[14:03] Kalel Venkman: Now he was a problem, because nobody trusted him, and everybody was afraid to say so.

[14:03] Kalel Venkman: And I had nagging doubts too, but I suppressed them, thinking it was just me.

[14:03] Haruhi Thespian: Its understandable I guess

[14:03] Kalel Venkman: Always listen to your gut feelings, Haruhi. They’ll never steer you wrong.

[14:04] Haruhi Thespian: I’ll take that advice to heart

While in chat with Kalel, Haruhi was also in skype with Tizzers Foxchase and other Woodbury students. Haruhi told them she thought her cover was blown. Tizzers suggested that Haruhi talk to Kalel about boy troubles. The misdirection worked.

[14:04] Haruhi Thespian: So… this is kinda awkward? hehe, I’m sorry

[14:06] Haruhi Thespian: Hey Kalel, can I ask you for some advice?

[14:06] Haruhi Thespian: its about RL boy troubles

[14:07] Kalel Venkman: Sure.

Days later, Haruhi downloaded the JLU wiki and posted it to the Woodbury IRC channel, and from there it was reposted to numerous locations on the Internet. Within days it had been reproduced all over the internet.

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Haruhi gets access to the JLU database

In an interview given to the Herald after the fact, Haruhi described Kalel as a kind and loving man who thought he was doing good. How Haruhi was able to maintain the disconnect is far from clear. In comments to the interview a disgusted reader summed up his feelings about the act of betrayal: “this makes for really unappetizing reading. Ick.”. Another reader offered that this is simply the price one has to pay for being a spy:

It’s the nature of spying that those who find themselves in that role have to go to unpleasant places and do things that in normal circumstances they would balk at. … Personally I take my hat off to Haruhi for being willing to carry out this role and to then show a sense of morality and decency in her subsequent actions.

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Haruhi informs the JLU of her actions

Whatever the moral standing of Haruhi’s actions, one thing is clear: Haruhi had opened a Pandora’s Box.

The Justice League did not merely have a data base on Second Life users. It had a massive data base on Second Life users. It contained 1,700 pages of information and misinformation on users, ranging from chat logs, to presumed real life identities of avatars (including real life information), to a history of the abuse reports that they had filed — and many many abuse reports had been filed.

Predictably, the content of the Justice League data base was posted on various web sites. Kalel, understandably furious, responded in a scattershot fashion by filing Digital Millennium Copyright Act take-down notices, bizarrely arguing that the chat logs etc were his intellectual property. When some Internet service providers complied, the materials were moved to safer havens in Canada and ultimately Montenegro. Woodbury sympathizers organized the material into a searchable database.

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Meanwhile Herald editor Pixeleen Mistral began combing through the database and found example after example of disturbing revelations. Not only was she surprised to learn that she had been declared a griefer, but the claims of Linden complicity appeared to be supported. One particularly telling Wiki entry seemed to suggest that Linden employee Plexus Linden was revealing the real life identity of avatars.

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Pixeleen published a series of stories to the Herald, including passages like the above. Then the other shoe dropped. Kalel filed a DMCA take-down notice against the Herald! Six Apart, which owns the Typepad blog hosting service used by the Herald, removed the material, apparently without giving any thought at all as to whether the charges were frivolous. Pixeleen would have to counterfile.

This was going to be no simple matter. Counterfiling would require Pixeleen to reveal her real life information, and she had guarded her privacy for years. Understandably so. Crossing people in Second Life can lead to real life stalking. As previous Herald editor Peter Ludlow had learned, angering someone with an article could lead to real life confrontations that ranged from angry phone calls from the United Arab Emirates to orchestrated campaigns by users to call his university and try to get him fired (not unlike what had happened to a Woodbury University instructor).

Pixeleen Mistral was a petite 20 something female avatar with a sharp fashion sense and a bit ditzy on technical matters. Her typist, turned out to be Duke University computer scientist Mark McCahill, who in addition to being male, 6’5” tall, and having no apparent fashion sense at all, had been team leader in the development of the Gopher search program, team leader in the development of POPmail, and had worked with Tim Berners-Lee on the protocols for the World Wide Web. He was one of the gods of the Internet. He was also going to have to out himself.

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Tizzers’ alt and Pixeleen Chat (Intlibber Brautigan stands behind Tizzers)

Legally, if you file a DMCA counter notice, the service provider is required by law to restore the missing material in 14 working days. Several weeks after filing the counter claim McCahill contacted Typepad and asked them why they hadn’t restored the material. They responded that they had lost it and couldn’t restore it. McCahill of course had backed up the material, but disgusted, he moved the Herald from Typepad to another service.

As of today, this is where matters stand. Second Lifers continue to pour over the leaked materials, Kalel continues to file bogus DMCA actions, and feeble service providers like Typepad continue to enforce them.

It’s a sad state of affairs on many levels, not least because of what it says about our future in both the real and virtual worlds. How does this keep happening to us? Even in play are we condemned to be “defended” by institutions that overreact to evil and effectively become a greater danger than what they are trying to defend us from?

One cannot help but think of George W. Bush when reading Haruhi’s account of Kalel Venkman. A good hearted guy who “trusted his gut”, and decided he needed to protect us from some distant and obscure and poorly defined axis of evil, constructed out of a kind of guilt by association. A guy who would turn the place he cares about and wants to protect into a massive surveillance state. A guy who would recklessly apply laws in ways for which they were not intended, and a guy who just did not no how to back off or change his mind when it was clear that the only sane thing to do was to stop digging. And must it always be the case that the institutions that we rely on for communication and other infrastructure needs will roll over at the drop of a hat, forever opting to side with the censor whatever the legal position of the censor?

And then too one has to wonder how much more dangerous our world is because of people like Kalel and George W. Bush. Tizzers once confided to Pixeleen that the only way he kept the Woodbury crew together and engaged was by giving them an enemy to fight against: Kalel. Is it not at least equally plausible that what enemies we have are held together and galvanized by enemies like George W. Bush? – people with no sense of proportion and who fight blindly, not caring about the effectiveness of their methods or the innocents that are harmed along the way.

In the end, this isn’t a story about the virtual world imitating the real world, nor is it a story about how the real world imitates the virtual world. The problem is that neither the real world nor the virtual worlds are prior. They both seem to bubble up from some deep dark corner of the human mind. These events aren’t really about games or virtual spaces. The events are really about us and who we are.

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Watching the Watchers: Power and Politics in Second Life (Part One)

In early 2007, I ran an interview on this blog with Peter Ludlow, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at Northwestern University, and who has emerged as a key observer of how people are interacting within virtual worlds, such as The Sims Online and Second Life. Ludlow, along with his coauthor, Mark Wallace, wrote a book for MIT Press, The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid Which Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse, which I am planning to teach as part of a course I am developing this fall for the USC Journalism school on civic media.

Ludlow emailed me recently with news of some fascinating new developments in Second Life. It was a story which raised such fascinating issues about fantasy and play, about the shifting borders between pro-social and anti-social behavior, about rights and responsibilities, and about the governance of virtual worlds that I felt like I had to share it now. Over the next two installments, I will be sharing Ludlow’s account of what’s been happening in Second Life, an account which places it in the context of the larger history of virtual worlds. Afterwords, I will share a joint statement which emerged from our conversations together about what this all means.

Watching the Watchers

By Peter Ludlow

Dept. of Philosophy

Northwestern University

People who have spent time inside virtual worlds are familiar with griefers – game players (stereoptypically adolescent males) who engage in transgressive online gameplay to disrupt the online experience for others. The transgressive behavior might range from profanity, scatological behavior and racism to the writing of programs (scripts) that tax the servers of the virtual world to the point where it goes offline.

If you are familiar with griefers, then you are probably also familiar with user created virtual security operations that have emerged to counter griefers. For example, Ludlow and Wallace (2008) describe a case inside of (the now defunct) virtual world The Sims Online. Fed up with the behavior of a handful of griefers, a group of players formed a virtual paramilitary organization called “The Sim Shadow Government” (SSG). Organized into an executive branch, an intel branch, and a “war department”, the SSG monitored the movement of griefers inside of The Sims Online, followed them in the game, warned other users about them by using negative reputational tags, and often filed “abuse reports” with the game company (for example, reporting players for violations of the terms of service of the game company).

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SSG Intelligence Branch, organizational chart.

Some players inside of The Sims Online felt that the SSG went too far in their operations. Members of the SSG were quite capable of hounding people out of the game without benefit of fair hearing or trial, and they were also very close to the game monitors of the game company, yielding charges of favoritism. Protest organizations with names like “Freedom Gameplay” and “The Lightsavers” (dedicated to casting out the shadows) emerged and pushed back with anti-SSG propaganda and with griefing attacks against the SSG itself.

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Freedom Gameplay organizes against the SSG

This might seem like an odd and fleeting phenomenon, but in fact it is replicated many times over in virtual worlds. Trouble makers enter the world, and antibodies form to fight the trouble makers, apparently as a completely emergent phenomenon. The only difference is that as virtual worlds become more important and visually rich the intensity of the battles has risen dramatically. A recent episode from Second Life illustrates just how dramatically.

Second Life, of course, is a virtual world in which the developers provide users with robust tools to build and “script” objects, ranging from clothing and homes to vehicles and weapons. The result is that there is much user created content – some of it very edifying, some of it junk, and some of it obscene. For example, a Second Life griefer group known as the W-Hats had a property featuring giant penises, swastikas, and a “build” with a Death Star blasting the World Trade Center.

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The W-Hat “build”

Another griefer group, called the Patriotic Nigras (PN) routinely engaged in racist and transgressive behavior, targeting clubs inside of Second Life and took credit for griefing the Second Life political campaign headquarters for John Edwards (The W-Hats also took credit. The Edwards campaign blamed Second Life Republicans).

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John Edwards’ virtual campaign headquarters griefed. PN take credit.

The PN in turn had been spawned by an infamous internet web site known as 4chan – an online site famous for its adolescent hijinxs that included spamming their enemies with famous scatological internet content like “Tub Girl” and “Goatsee”. More specifically, the PN had been organized on /b/, a section of the 4chan site dedicated to transgressive behavior.

The PN actually came into existence in 2005, when members of 4chan (“channers”) decided to raid Habbo Hotel, a virtual world aimed at younger children. The channers created black presenting avatars with afros, and surrounded Habbo’s virtual swimming pool warning the children that “the pool is closed because of aids.” Thus were born the PN, and their slogan (still used) “Pool’s Closed”. A griefer organization like that with a permanent presence inside of Second Life was bound to be the virus from which a virtual vigilante group emerged.

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Pool is closed: 4chan invades Habbo Hotel, 2005

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Channers get transgressive.

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The PN comes to SL and attacks the Gay Yiffing Club (GYC) with self-replicating Marios

In 2006, a Second Life avatar by the name of Kalel Venkman decided to create a vigilante group to fight the likes of the PN, and he decided it would be fun to do it in the guise of comic book superheroes. He donned a Superman skin, and he named his group the “Justice League Unlimited.” Other familiar superheroes soon followed, including The Green Lantern, Batman, Wonder Woman, and others.

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A New Sheriff in town: the JLU

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JLU Members in happier times.

In real life, Kaleel was a late middle aged technical writer living in Simi California. He apparently had flex time, and he also appeared to have sufficient charm and gravitas to attract members to the Justice League and to keep them well organized and on mission. Their Justice League headquarters had a marvelous NASA quality control room, with monitors that displayed constant updates coming in from sensors all over the Second Life grid. The updates also informed the League members what representatives from the game company were online. As with the SSG, the Justice League had close contacts with employees of the game company (Linden Lab), and utilized those relationships in filing abuse reports against other players.

What perhaps began as a fun exercise in roleplay soon began to go awry. Overzealous Justice League members began abuse reporting heavily, and also began picking fights with unlikely groups within Second Life. For example, the Justice League was banned from Furnation (an area inside Second Life dedicated to players that like to don anthropomorphized animal costumes), because of their excessive vigilantism.

The JLU of course clashed with the PN, but the problem became determining who was really a member of the PN and who was simply in the orbit of the PN. Matters took on fractal complexity when some students of Woodbury University (a real life University with a virtual campus inside Second Life) became associated with 4chan and the PN. In what seemed like a bizarre case of guilt by association, the members of the Justice League took on the students of Woodbury University, at one point successfully getting Linden Lab to shut down Woodbury Island (the virtual campus). Naturally matters quickly escalated.

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Someone (presumably from the Justice League) contacted the administration at Woodbury University to complain about the faculty supervisor of Woodbury and to argue (in effect) that he was corrupting innocent youth and inspiring them to griefer ways. In turn, the students, led by the avatar Tizzers Foxchase (Jordan Belino in real life) turned up the heat on Kalel, to the point where a number of Woodbury students went trick or treating at Kalel’s house on Halloween. Kalel wasn’t home, so the students told his wife to tell him that Woodbury had been there. Kalel naturally flipped out.

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Tizzers Foxchase

Tizzers herself was not a member of the PN; she seemed to have not much more of an agenda than to fight the Justice League and defend Woodbury. For Kalel, however, the Woodbury claims of innocence were nothing more than Eddie Haskelling (“lovely hair Mrs. Cleaver”). Tizzers was a griefer in spite of her nice young lady rap, and that was that. The problem was that more and more people were starting to look like griefers to Kalel, including people who were his competition in the virtual world security business – or at least this was the claim of Intlibber Brautigan, a Second Life real estate mogul, famous for posting libertarian manifestos on the forums. If Intlibber was to be believed, the harassment from the Justice League had been financially motivated and astoundingly heavy handed.

“How about the meanness of the JLU in getting countless innocents permabanned from SL for the mere act of being a black avatar, or saying an internet meme in chat, or being falsely abuse reported with impossible charges (like “copybotting a megaprim owned by Michael Linden”), or participating in public protests.

Yes, these people deserve a lot more than “a little meanness”. Lets get it straight, they are snitches, rats, stool pigeons, LIARS, defamers, collaborators, trespassers, and instigators. Siobahn McCallen, who resided in my sims with her girlfriends yet worked with JLU in defaming me and encouraging my residents to leave. These sort of people don’t deserve niceness.”

Intlibber also complained that the tactics of the JLU worked to get innocent gamers banned:

“Anybody who teleports into a monitored sim within 5 minutes before a sim crashes gets logged to their db as a suspect, and given a score. The number of times this happens jacks up your score. Your score is further handicapped by how young your avatar is and what your payment status is (helps to catch throwaway alts quickly).”

Any account that scores too highly on this system gets automatically abuse reported by a bot to Linden Lab, no further investigation done by human hands.

The JLU contended that IntLibber had hired the PN to grief his enemies in the virtual real estate business, but no evidence was brought forward.

It wasn’t just their competitors that were marked as griefers; the Alphaville Herald, which had been reporting on griefers in virtual worlds since 2003, was a griefer media organ in Kalels eyes. The Herald‘s editor, an avatar Pixeleen Mistral was therefore also a griefer. Kalel came to falsely believe that Pixeleen was identical with me, and so I must be a griefer too. There were griefers everywhere, it seemed.

(More to Come. Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel)

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The Struggle Over What Gets Taught in Texas: An Interview with Rebecca Bell-Meterau

Like many of you, I have been reading with some horror about the culture war which has been taking place down in Texas over the revision of their social science standards, especially because Texas remains a key influence on national curriculum and textbook development. A group of highly reactionary candidates have gotten elected to the school board there, in some cases in races where they ran without opposition and where voters had limited access to information about their views, with the result that they are striping aside anything from the standards that may run afoul of their narrow ideological perspective. Even readers who have expressed concerns in the past about “political correctness” in American education probably are not happy at the thought that Thomas Jefferson no longer has a place in Texas schools.

Enter Rebecca Bell-Meterau, a media scholar from Texas State University, who has decided to run for the Texas School Board in order to provide a corrective to these reactionary trends. In the interview which follows, she shares her own story of how and why she got into this race. You have to admire her courage, intelligence, and civic responsibility, since I know very few academics in our field who have ever sought elective office, let alone who would be willing to engage under such trying circumstances. It’s sad to think how novel the concept of an educator running for the school board has become! She can use our support — moral or otherwise — as she gets ready for this tough race.

You are a university professor who is running for the Texas Board of Education. Can you share some of your academic interests?

I began my academic career looking at gender in film, but when I got to Texas, I quickly developed an interest in how race and cultural identity influence the production of film and other art forms. I participated in seminars on the study of the Southwest and learned a great deal about the history of Texas, Mexico, and surrounding states. I conducted numerous workshops for public school teachers on ways to incorporate media into their classes in English, history, and other subjects, including AP classes.

I also developed a service-learning curriculum, finding ways to connect the college classroom with the larger community, so that university students participate in service projects and group problem-solving activities and then “publish” their work for fellow students. I was asked by Texas State University President Jerry Supple to serve on president’s cabinet for two years to improve our retention of freshman students. We began at 68%, below average for an institution of our size, and we now have a 79% freshman retention rate, which is above average for a university of about 30,000 students. My experience is relevant in light of the soaring high school dropout rates in Texas.

How did you come to run for this office?

A number of colleagues had suggested that I run for the board, and then I began attending meetings, thinking that I would support anyone who emerged as the strongest candidate. After speaking before the group about what I would do as a board member (hypothetically), I received an email from a political consultant who told me I was clearly the best person to run. Our younger daughter saw this email and then convinced me to run by pointing out that I could actually improve the state of education in Texas, saving students from the boredom and frustration she experienced in public school. At that point, I decided that if I really cared about education, I needed to step up and do something to rescue Texas from disaster.

Many readers may not know that the Texas Board of Education has been involved in a series of heated “culture wars” over the state-wide curriculum in Social Studies. Can you share with us some of the context of these struggles?

Over the last ten years, extreme right-wing candidates have quietly taken over local and state school boards. In District 5, my opponent, Ken Mercer, ran unopposed by any Democrat in 2006. Their actions went under the radar of most people until recently. With the last round of curriculum decisions, the board has angered a number of Democrats, independents, and reasonable Republicans across Texas and the nation. Extremists on the board have voted to make outrageous revisions to a curriculum suggested by their own review committees–people they, themselves, selected. I will list a few of the more egregious examples, with my own responses:

In one of the most outrageous revisions, they removed “Enlightenment ideas” from the standard. They require instead that students learn about the “writings” of various thinkers. They removed Thomas Jefferson from a world history standard about the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on political revolutions from the 1700s to today, and the board placed Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone in the standard instead. Even conservative Republicans find elimination of founding father, Thomas Jefferson, one of the most important Enlightenment thinkers, and replacing him with Aquinas and Calvin to be absurd.

Democratic member Mavis Knight suggested this amendment: “Examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” Cynthia Dunbar and her fellow extremists maintained that the Founders did not intend to have separation of church and state.

They removed the concepts of “justice” and “responsibility for the common good” from a list of characteristics of good citizenship for Grades 1-3. I can’t imagine why they would find the concepts of justice and responsibility for the common good to be objectionable.

They removed a reference to propaganda as a factor in the United States entry into World War I. Most historians would acknowledge that every nation uses propaganda, and historians try to sort out what is an accurate portrayal of the facts of history. The board should reexamine the definition of propaganda.

They changed the word “imperialism” to “expansionism” in a U.S. history course standard about the United States’ acquisition of overseas territories in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The board should keep the term “imperialism” in order to avoid confusing students, especially when they go on to higher education, where the term is used to describe forceful acquisition of territories, particularly during this period.

Former Chair, Mr. McElroy, once called critical thinking “gobbledygook,” and the board’s systematic censorship of common terms supports this view. The board voted to delete any references to the term “democracy,” substituting the term “representative republic.” They also deleted the word “capitalism” and substituted the words “free enterprise” throughout the curriculum. They removed discussion of distinctions between sex and gender, fearing this would lead students to think about transvestites and transsexuals.

These battles matter well beyond Texas because Texas is one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the country and thus these standards have the potential to impact what’s included in the books taught in schools across America. Can you share some of the history of how Texas has impacted textbook publishing?

At one time, texts chosen by Texas were sold all over the country with no changes. Now, with the advent of desktop publishing, Texas still influences the content of textbooks, because publishers and authors do not want to create numerous small revisions. This is a nightmare for publishers and textbook authors, who do not want to produce inadequate, inaccurate texts, but they are essentially blackmailed into censoring information or altering content, for fear of not being selected by this huge market.

In addition to the textbook issue, Texas also serves as a model for the takeover of local and state school boards by extreme right-wing groups. These groups generally believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, that the United States is a Christian nation, that global warming is a myth, and that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the biology classroom as an alternative scientific theory.

While some may argue that most students don’t pay that much attention to textbooks anyway, those few students who do study their books tend to be the most conscientious and likely to succeed. Thus, the far right may be able to create a whole generation of extreme right-wing leaders who will take their place running the local, state, and national government of the future.

Is there an over-arching vision behind the changes the Texas Board of Education seeks to impose on textbooks?

The vision they have is a return to a worldview that was prevalent in earlier decades and earlier centuries. They do not respect modern science, teachers, reason, or critical thinking. Their notion of history is “American exceptionalism,” which maintains the idea that we are a special nation, chosen by God to fulfill a manifest destiny and spread Christianity throughout the world. Any criticism of the United States’ actions is viewed as treasonous, and any attempt to include more minorities or women in history is disparaged as liberal “political correctness.” They do not want to depict conflict or nuances in history; rather, they want to present the benefits of free enterprise and a unified portrait of the United States as superior to other nations and cultures in every way imaginable.

What do you think concerned citizens around the country can do about these issues?

Concerned citizens can comment in newspapers and on blogs, contribute to reasonable candidates for State Board of Education, spread the word among their social networks, and take concerted action to defeat this movement to return to the dark ages. They can request that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report provide a venue for good candidates to tell their side of the story. The current board makes for good comedy, but we also need to push the idea that there is hope, that the majority of Texans oppose the ridiculous changes these extremists propose to the curriculum and textbooks.

What changes would you try to implement if you were elected to the Texas Board of Education?

I would return to a reasonable process that respects the work of the review committees and scholars in the various subject areas. I would also recommend that we develop strict criteria for selection of the experts who comment on review committee recommendations. To whatever extent it is possible, I would explore how to repair the damage done by the current lame duck board. Actual textbook development and selection will be the responsibility of the next board. The board needs to take a leadership role in coordinating efforts to improve the state’s abysmal dropout rates. It needs to step back from partisan battles and stop micromanaging teachers and forcing publishers and schools to adhere to the outdated personal views of an extreme minority faction.

How many seats would have to change before the revisions in the curriculum could be reversed?

Seven seats of the fifteen-member board are up for election in November 2010. Theoretically, it would only take one new reasonable person on the board to shift the balance from extreme right to a moderate middle. The calculus is somewhat complicated by the fact that some Republicans who are unopposed promise to be more reasonable members of the board. Moderate Republican Tom Ratliff has beat extremist Don McElroy in District 9, and moderate George Clayton came out of the blue to defeat long-time Republican board member Geraldine “Tincy” Miller in District 12 (Dallas).

Democrat and Trinity University professor Mike Soto will probably replace Democrat Rick Agosto, who is not running in District 3 (San Antonio). Agosto often voted with the Republicans on social issues.

To assure a solid majority, the key disputed districts that must be won are 5 and 10, which have been gerrymandered to insure that no Democrat represent Austin. My opponent, incumbent Ken Mercer in District 5, has a strong extreme-right network, with which he defeated a moderate Republican opponent in the primaries. In District 10, Democrat Judy Jennings will run against whichever Republican wins the April run-off.

The board meets in the third week of May, and their proposed changes will be posted on the Texas Education Association website for thirty days prior to that for public comment. The meeting to finalize their proposed curriculum changes should bring protests from Texas and around the country. The final election will be on November 2, 2010.

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