Man Without Fear: David Mack, Daredevil, and the Bounds of Difference (Part Four)

If Project Superior pulls the superhero genre into the space of independent comics, then a range of recent Marvel and DC projects have pulled the independent and avant garde comics artists into the realm of mainstream comics publishing, again via the figure of the superhero. Here, again, they seek to motivate the experimentation through appeals to character psychology. In this case, DC invites us to imagine what its superhero sagas would look like if they were produced by the denizens of the Bizarro World, noted for their confusion and often reversal of the norms of human society.


Matt Groenig (The Simpsons) shows the Justice League characters as being blown out of the pipe of Bizarro Superman, helping to set up the premise of the collection as a whole. If Project Superior is drawn towards forms of abstraction, the Bizarro comics have more room for the ugly realism that we associate with certain strands of indie comics, a tendency to deflate the heroic pretensions of the characters through various forms of the grotesque, as in this image by Tony Millionaire,


or the everyday, as in these images by Dave Cooper,


Danny Hellman


and Leela Corman.


These superheros are very down-to-earth, their human faults and foibles on full display; the heroes are often shown off-duty doing the kinds of things their readers regularly do. These images depend on our pre-existing relationship with the superheros for much of their pleasures. Project Superior depended on generic versions of the superhero, while these stories work with Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the others, with the artists incorporating just enough of the familiar iconography and color palette to make it easy to recognize which characters are being evoked and spoofed.


Anyone who has read a Batman comic will no doubt recognize much of the debris in the Bat Cave depicted in this drawing by Kylie Baker, yet his cartoonish style is very different from what we would expect to see within the Batman franchise itself. This Jason Little page depicts the superheroes as bath toys, suggesting that they only come alive in the imagination of the child who is playing with them.


Mack himself relies on the image of superhero action figures, in this case of Marvel characters, in Wake Up, as another way into the tortured imagination of his young protagonist.


Mack’s work involves a fascinating blurring of the distinction between graphic novels and artist books. Artist books are artworks which are intended to explore the nature of the book as a genre. Sometimes, they are printed in limited editions. More often, they are one of a kind items. They play with the shape, texture, and format of the book in ways that are idiosyncratic to the individual artists. They often are focused on the materiality of print culture rather than on the content of the book.

Nothing could contrast more totally with the cheaply printed, mass produced and circulated comic book. Historically, the art work which went into producing the comic was presumed to have no value and was often discarded once the book has been printed, much as we might toss the manuscript once the words have been set into type.

Yet, Mack is very interested in creating pages which are artworks on their own terms. He deploys innovative techniques and unexpected pigments (such as coffee grinds) to construct his images. Often, he layers physical and material objects onto the page so it is not a flat representation but something with its own shape and feel. Mack publishes books which remove these images from their context in the unfolding stories of his graphic novels and call attention to them on their own terms as artist’s constructions, often describing and documenting the techniques which went into their production. His process has been documented in a film called The Alchemy of Art, which shows him creating some of the images contained within Vision-Quest and includes his comments on the process. Here, the printed comic becomes almost a byproduct of his creative process which is concentrated on the production of beautiful one-of-a-kind pages.

Throughout Vision-Quest, Mack calls attention to the often invisible but always important framelines and buffers in his layout by using physical materials rather than drawn lines to separate out his panels. In other instances, he glues objects such as leaves or bird’s wings directly onto the page in what amounts to the graphic novel equivalent of Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight.



In other cases, he creates designs which play with the orientation of the page, demanding that we physically turn the book around in order to follow the text or the action.



In his own graphic novel series, Kabuki, he plays with the notion of origami — encouraging the reader to think of the page as something which can be folded and sculpted rather than simply part of the printed book.




In each of these cases, Mack builds on practices associated with the art book movement, but deploys them in relation to mass produced artifacts. He wants us to remain conscious that we are holding a printed object in our hands that has particular properties and expects particular behaviors from us. Here, again, he has both built upon and broken out of the visual language of mainstream superhero comics.

This is not what a superhero comic is “supposed to look like”, even if it is telling the kind of story which might be readily accepted if communicated through a different style or mode of representation. Exploring the ways that Mack pushes against these expectations even as he operates at the heart of one of Marvel’s cash cow franchises is what helps us to understand the “bounds of difference.” And in the process, it helps us to understand how diversity operates within a genre which has otherwise come to dominate the comics medium.

Man Without Fear: David Mack, Daredevil, and the Bounds of Difference (Part Three)

Last time, I explored some of the ways that David Mack’s visual style defines itself outside of the mainstream conventions of superhero comics. Today, I want to start with a recognition that Mack is not the only experimental comic artist who has sought to engage with the superhero genre. In so far as it defines the expectations of what a comic book is, at least in the American comic book, artists often seek to define themselves and their work through contrast with the superhero genre.


Daniel Clowes’ The Death Ray is a thorough deconstruction of the superhero myth, depicted through multiple genres, though most often read in relation to our stereotypes about serial killers and school shooters. Note here Clowes’ self conscious use of primary colors — red and yellow — to set up the lurid quality of the more fantastical sequences in the book, often standing in contrast with the more muted colors of realistically rendered scenes.

Project Superior is a recent anthology of superhero comics drawn by some of the rising stars in the independent comic worlds, resulting in work which further defamiliarizes the conventions of the genre.




I particularly admire a series of red, yellow, and blue images created by Ragnar which reduce the superhero saga to its basic building blocks. There is no story here, only the elements which get repeated across stories. This Doug Frasser story is clearly intended to suggest Daredevil though not in ways that would illicit a legal response from Marvel.


This one by Rob Ullman which combines a play with iconic elements and a much more mundane sense what kinds of work superheroes perform.


Here, Chris Pitzer further abstracts the characters into a series of geometrical shapes with capes, while following the basic narrative formulas to the letter.


These experiments are interesting because they explore the potentials for abstraction or realism which exist on the margins of the mainstream industry. There is also a great pleasure in watching these gifted cartoonists use the codes of mainstream companies as resources for their own expressive play.

We can see similar forms of abstraction in Mack’s work in the Daredevil franchise. So, for example, this page from Wake Up is as fascinated with the color red as anything found in Project Superior.


And we see throughout Vision Quest Mack’s fascination with reading the central characters through various forms of abstraction, often involving pastiches of the work of particular modernist artists.




This play with abstraction can be understood as part of the process by which Echo wrestles with her own identity, especially given the many overlays of other’s performance she has absorbed through the years as she has exploited her powers on Kingpen’s behalf.

Or consider the various ways that Mack deconstructs Wolverine, one of the more iconic characters in the Marvel universe and thus one which will remain recognizable even in a highly abstracted form.



Mack is interested especially in three aspects of Wolverine’s persona — his animal like ferocity, his claws, and his metal-enhanced skeleton — which become, in the end, all that remain of the character in some of these images. Wolverine becomes a set of claws without a man much as the Cheshire Cat becomes a grin without a cat.




Note how Mack uses the frame lines to pick up the shape and impact of the claws or how he incorporates photorealistic renderings of animal bones to remind us of the skeletal structure which gives the character his strength and endurance. By this final panel, Mack uses Exacto blades to suggest Wolverine’s claws and shows us only the human bones beneath his skin. Here, the abstraction serves the purpose of creating ambiguity since as we read this story it is not meant to be clear whether Echo met the actual superhero or whether this Wolverine is a projection of her shamanistic vision.

Mack’s collaboration with Brian Bendis seems to rely heavily on his capacity for abstraction. For Wake Up, Mack is asked to depict the world of the superhero as seen through the eyes of an emotionally disturbed child who has watched his father — the Frog — die at the hands of Daredevil and who has struggled to process what he saw.



Here, Mack’s movements between highly realistic and more abstracted images are meant to convey objective and subjective perspectives on the action. The child endlessly draws images of superhero battles and as the story progresses, we learn how to sequence those images to match the voices he hears in his head. Needless to say, there are clear parallels to be drawn to the movement from single images to sequences of images which constitutes the art of comic book design. As with Vison-Quest, the story refocuses on a secondary character — Ben Urich — with Daredevil seen only in terms of his impact on their lives. We can see the focus on the subjective experience of an emotionally disturbed character as a historic way that modernist style gets rationalized in more mainstream projects — starting perhaps with the ways The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari frames German expressionism in terms of the world as seen through the eyes of a patient in an insaine asylum or for that matter, how Hitchcock absorbed aspects of Salvador Dali’s surrealism into Spellbound, another film set at a mental hospital.

The Final Part Comes on Friday.

Man Without Fear: David Mack, Daredevil, and the Bounds of Difference (Part Two)

This is part two of a four part series exploring how David Mack’s visual style challenges the conventions of the superhero comic.

Mack helped to introduce Echo (Maya Lopez) as a character in Parts of a Hole. Her backstory is classic superhero comics stuff. Here’s how her backstory gets described in the Marvel Universe Character Wiki:

When she was a small girl, Maya Lopez’s father, a Cheyenne gangster, was killed by his partner in crime, the Kingpin. The last wish of her father was that Fisk raise the child well, a wish the Kingpin honored, caring for her as if she was his own. Believed to be mentally handicapped, Maya was sent to an expensive school for people with learning disabilities. There, she managed to completely replicate a song on the piano. After that, she was sent to another expensive school for prodigies. She grew into a gifted and talented woman. Upon visiting her father’s grave with Fisk, she asked how he died. Fisk told her that Daredevil had killed him.

Maya was sent by the Kingpin to Matt Murdock to prove Matt’s weakness. He told her that Matt believed he was a bad person, and that she was the only way to prove him wrong. (As Maya believed him, it would not appear to be a lie when she told Matt.)

Matt Murdock and Maya soon fell in love. She later took on the guise of Echo, hunting Daredevil down. Having watched videos of Bullseye and Daredevil fighting, she proved more than a match for Daredevil. She took him down and nearly killed him, refusing only when she found out Matt and Daredevil were one and the same. Matt managed to correct the Kingpin’s lies. In revenge, Echo confronted Fisk and shot him in the face, blinding him and starting the chain of events that would lead to his eventual downfall.

All of this provides the backdrop for Vision Quest. As the title suggests, Maya goes out on her own to try to heal her wounds and think through what has happened to her. The result is a character study told in stream of consciousness, which circles through her memories and her visions, often depicted in a highly iconic manner. This, for example, is how Quesada depicts the moment where Kingpen kills Maya’s father in Parts of a Hole.


Now consider the way this same event gets depicted early in VisionQuest.


Mack’s page combines multiple modality — multiple ways of depicting the world — with highly iconic and abstract images existing alongside hyper-realistic images of the same characters. This radical mixing of style is a hallmark of Mack’s work, constantly forcing us to think about how things are being represented rather than simply what is being represented. Consider this abstract rendering of the key events — Fisk is reduced to his big feet and legs, much as he might be seen as a child, while the breakup become Matt and Maya is rendered by the figure of the child ripping a picture of the two of them in half.


We are operating here within the theater of Maya’s mind, yet she is also presenting these events to us with an open acknowledgment that as readers we need to have her explain what is taking place.


Once the book has established these rich icons, they can be recycled and remixed for emotional impact. This image builds on the first in several ways. Mack juxtaposes a more mature version of Maya with her child self here and the childlike drawings are repeated to again represent key emotional moments in her life. While Mack repeats the purple of the earlier image, the dominant color that we associate with Maya on this page is red, a color which captures her passion and rage. She has moved from a vulnerable child victim into someone who has the capacity to strike back at those who have caused her pain.

Let’s pull back for a moment and try to establish some baselines for thinking about what may constitute “zero-degree style” in the superhero tradition. While his work was considered bold and experimental at the time, Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil has helped to establish the stylistic expectations for this particular franchise. Miller’s style was hyperbolic — though nowhere near as much so as in his later works, including The Dark Knight Returns, 300, and Sin City. Yet, he also allows us to see some of the ways that superhero style orientates the reader to the action. The goal is to intensify our feelings by strengthening our identification with the superhero and with other key supporting characters. For this to happen, the pages need to be instantly legible. We need to know who the characters are and what’s going on at all times, even if you can use minor breaks in conventional style in order to amplify our emotional responses to the action.


One of the most basic ways that superhero comics do this is through the color coding of key characters, especially the hero and villain, who are depicted in colors that will pop off the page and be distinctive from each other. Electra was designed to in many ways compliment and extend Daredevil so it is no surprise that she is depicted here with the same shade of red.


On the other hand, the highly codified colors of the Marvel universe allow us to instantly recognize the Hulk on this cover simply through the image of his arm and the contrasting red and green prepares us for the power struggle which will unfold in this issue.

A second set of conventions center on the depiction of action and the construction of space through framing. Miller was especially strong in creating highly kinetic compositions which intensify the movement of the characters.


In this first page, we see Daredevil falling away from us into the city scape below, while in the second Miller uses extremely narrow, vertical panels set against a strong horizontal panel to show the superhero’s movements through space.


Both of these pages break with the classic grid which is the baseline in these comics, but their exaggerated framing works towards clearly defined narrative goals. This next page breaks with our expectations that each panel captures a single moment in time by showing multiple images of the Daredevil in a way intended to convey a complex series of actions.


while here we seem to be looking straight down on the action in the top panel and subsequent panels are conveyed in silhouette, though again, there is such a strong emphasis on character motivation and action that we never feel confused about what is actually happening here.


This next image shows other kinds of formal experiments which still fall squarely within the mainstream of the superhero genre — notice how the text becomes an active element in the composition and notice how the falling character seems to break out of the frame, both ways of underlying the intensity of the action.


Now, let’s contrast the layering of text here with the ways that Mack deploys text in Vision-Quest.


Notice for example the ways Mack deploys several different kinds of texts — printed fonts, handwritten, and the Scrabble tiles each convey some aspects of the meaning of the scene. We have to work to figure out the relationship between these different kinds of texts, which suggest different layers of subjectivity that are competing for our attention. When I first read this book, I was especially moved by the ways that the hand print on Echo’s face — which elsewhere in the book is simply another marker of her supervillain identity — here becomes a metaphor for the last time her father touched her, moments before his death, and the sense memory it left on her, an especially potent metaphor when we consider the ways that the character is alligned with hypersensitivity and a powerful “body memory” which allows her to replicate physically anything she has ever felt or seen. While the sounds and dialogue emerge from the action in the case of Frank Miller’s pages, they are layered onto the depicted events in Mack’s design, part of what gives the page the quality of a scrapbook, recounting something that has already happened, rather than thrusting us into the center of the action.


The key elements of Miller’s style come through here — the use of color to separate out the characters, dynamic compositions which emphasize character action, repeated images of the character within the same frame, flamboyant use of text, and the bursting through of the frame, all combine to make this a particularly intense page.

Where most superhero artists seek to covey this sense of intense action in almost every frame, Mack seeks to empty the frame of suggestions of action, seeming to suspend time. Consider this depiction of Daredevil battling Echo from Quesada’s work for Pieces of a Hole.


The splash page traditionally either indicates a particularly significant action or a highly detailed image, both moments of heightened spectacle. Mack, on the other hand, often empties this splash pages so we are focusing on the character’s emotional state rather than on any physical action.


Having established these conventions of representation, the mainstream comic may tolerate a range of different visual styles as different artists try their hand on the character, often working, more or less, within the same continuity. So, we can see here how Tim Sale plays with color to convey the character’s identity even through fragmented images which focus on one or another detail of Daredevil’s body.


Or here we see how Alex Maleev creates a much more muted palette and a scratchy/grainy image which marks his own muted version of the hyperbolic representations of the character in earlier Daredevil titles.


The mainstream comics allow some room for bolder formal experiments but most often these come through the cover designs rather in the panel by panel unfolding of the action.



Mack’s artwork functions this way in relation to Bendis’s Alias, where he was asked to design covers that did not look like conventional superhero covers and that might be seen as more female-friendly, reflecting the genre bursting nature of the series content which operates on the very fringes of Marvel’s superhero universe.



The tension between genres is especially visible on this later cover from the series which shows how its protagonist is and is not what we expect from women in a superhero comic.

Man Without Fear: David Mack, Daredevil, and the Bounds of Difference (Part One)

Last fall, I delivered one of the keynote talks at the Understanding Superheroes conference hosted at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The conference was a fascinating snapshot of the current state of comics studies in North America. It was organized by Ben Sanders to accompany a remarkable exhibit of comic art hosted at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art — “Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of a Superhero,” . The exhibit consisted of original panels scanned the entire history of the superhero genre – from its roots in the adventure comics strips through the Golden and Silver age to much more contemporary work.

The conference attracted a mix of old time fan boys whose interests were in capturing the history of the medium and younger scholars who applied a range of post-modern and post-structuralist theory to understanding comics as a medium. In between were several generations of superhero comic writers and artists who brought an industry perspective to the mix. Charles Hatfield delivered a remarkable keynote address talking about the technical sublime in the work of Jack Kirby and my keynote centered on the fusion of mainstream and experimental comics techniques in the work which David Mack did for Daredevil.

The presentation was really more of a talk than a paper so it’s taken me some time to get around to writing this up, but I had promised some of my readers (not to mention Mack) that I would try to share some of the key ideas from the talk through my blog. A number of readers have asked about this piece so I appreciate their patience and encouragement. In honor of Comic-Con, where I am, as you read this, I am finally sharing with you my thoughts about David Mack’s Daredevil comics.

Images from Mack’s work here are reproduced by permission of the artist. Other images are reproduced under Fair Use and I am willing to remove them upon request from the artists involved.

This paper is part of an ongoing project which seeks to understand what a closer look at superhero comics might contribute to our understanding of genre theory. Several other installments of this project have appeared in this blog including my discussion of superheroes after 9/11 and my discussion of the concept of multiplicity within superhero comics.

At the heart of this research is a simple idea: What if we stopped protesting that comics as a medium go well beyond “men in capes” and include works of many different genres? No one believes us anyway. And on a certain level, it is more or less the case that the primary publishers of comics publish very little that does not fall into the Superhero genre and almost all of the top selling comics, at least as sold through specialty shops, now fall into the superhero genre. It was not always the case but it has been the case long enough now that we might well accept it as the state of the American comics industry. So, what if we used this to ask some interesting questions about the relationship between a medium and its dominant genre? What happens when a single genre more or less takes over a medium and defines the way that medium is perceived by its public – at least in the American context?

One thing that happens, I’ve argued, is that the superhero comic starts to absorb a broad range of other genres – from comedy to romance, from mystery to science fiction – which play out within the constraints of the superhero narrative. We can study how Jack Kirby’s interests in science fiction inflects The Fantastic Four and other Marvel superhero comics in certain directions. We can ask why it matters that Batman emerged in Detective Comics, Superman in Action Comics, and Spider-Man in Astounding Stories.

But second, we can explore how the Superhero comic becomes a site of aesthetic experimentation, absorbing energies which in another medium might be associated with independent or even avant garde practices. And that’s where my interest in David Mack comes from, since he is an artist who works both in independent comics (where he is associated with some pretty radical formal experiments in his Kabuki series) and in mainstream comics (where he has made a range of different kinds of contributions to the Daredevil franchise for Marvel.)

Certainly, most comic books fans understand a distinction between underground/independent comics and mainstream comics but there is surprisingly fluid boundaries between the two. In many ways, independent or underground comics were often defined as “not superhero” comics and therefore still defined by the genre even if in the negative. Throughout this essay, I am going to circle around a range of experiments which seek to merge aspects of independent comics with the superhero genre.

My primary goal here is to map what David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristen Thompson describe in Classical Hollywood Cinema as “the bounds of difference.” Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson draw on concepts from Russian formalism to talk about the norms which shape artistic practice and the ways they get encoded into modes of production. By norms, we mean general ways of structuring artistic works, not rigid rules or codes. Norms grow through experimentation and innovation. There is no great penalty for violating norms. Indeed, the best art seeks to defamiliarize conventions – to break the rules in creative and meaningful ways and in the process teach us new ways of seeing.

Genres are thus a complex balance between the encrusted conventions, understood by artists and consumers alike, built up through time, and the localized innovations which make any given work fresh and original. The norms thus are elastic – they can encompass a range of different practices – but they also have a breaking point beyond which they can not bend. This breaking point is what Bordwell and Thompson describe as “the bounds of difference.” They have generally been interested in the conservative force of these norms, showing how even works which at first look like they fall outside the norms are often still under their influence. They have shown how the classical system has dominated Hollywood practice since the 1910s and continues to shape most commercial films made today.

In my work, I have been more interested in exploring the edge cases, especially looking at the transition that occurs when an alien aesthetic gets absorbed into the classical system. This was a primary focus of my first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetics and it’s a topic to which I have returned at various points throughout my career. In this talk, I want to use David Mack’s work for Marvel to help us to map “the bounds of difference” as they impact mainstream superhero comics.

We can get a better sense of why Mack’s work represents such an interesting limit case by sampling some of the reviews for Daredevil: Echo – Vision Quest from Amazon contributors, each of whom has to do a complex job of situating this work in relation to our expectations about what a mainstream superhero book looks like:

If you’d like to see Daredevil swinging through New York City beating up bad guys, this is not the comic for you. Although this is technically Volume 8 of the recent Daredevil run, it isn’t exactly part of the regular continuity. The five issues that make up this volume were going to be a separate miniseries, but when Bendis and Maleev needed a break from Daredevil (after the Issue 50 battle with the Kingpin), the Echo mini was published under the Daredevil title instead.

This has led to an unfairly bad reputation for this beautifully painted, dream-like exploration of identity and willingness to fight for a cause. Daredevil subscribers expected more of the plot and action that had filled the series to that point, and this meditative break was frustrating, particularly considering the point that Bendis had halted the main plot.

If you are a fan of Alias (the comic) or Kabuki, this is for you. If you would like to gaze in awe at the poetic writing, beautiful painting and stunning mixed-media art of one of the most creative men in comics, buy this comic. You won’t regret it.


I think if this had come out as a graphic novel, or as a seperate mini, I may have enjoyed it more. But imagine being engrossed in an intelligent, gritty fast-paced work and then being forcefed an elaborate, artsy character study on a relatively minor character. … This should have been a seperate mini or graphic novel. Instead we get the equivalent of a documentary on Van Gogh between Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2.


This book is a sadistic deviation from thier storyline and is writen and draw by David Mack. This is a (…) crap fest about a very minor character and her hippie like journey to discover her past. …He then further expresses his impotency in the field by using chicken scratch drawings and paintings to move the story along with hardly ANY dialog. THis book is an artsy load of crap that should not be affiliated with Daredevil or Marvel.

Each of these responses struggles with an aesthetic paradox: Mack’s approach to the story does not align with their expectations about what a superhero comic looks like or how it is most likely structured – yet, and this is key, the book in question appears in the main continuity of a Marvel flagship character. There is much greater tolerance as several of the readers note for works which appears on the fringes of the continuity – works which is present as in some senses an alternative, “what if?” or “elseworlds” story, works which more strongly flag themselves as site of auteurist experimentation.

There is even space there for the moral inversion involved in telling the story from the point of view of the villain rather than the superhero: witness the popularity of Brian Azzarello’s graphic novels about Lex Luther and The Joker. But Mack applies his more experimental approach at the very heart of the Marvel superhero franchise and as a consequence, the book was met with considerable backlash from hardcore fans who are often among the most conservative at policing “the bounds of difference.” Vision Quest is not Mack’s only venture into the Daredevil universe: David Mack wrote Parts of a Hole which was illustrated by veteran Marvel artist Joe Quesada; David Mack then contributed art to Wake Up, written by Brian Michael Bendis, perhaps the most popular superhero script-writer of recent memory. In both cases, then, Mack’s experimental aesthetic was coupled with someone who fit much more in the mainstream of contemporary superhero comics. The result was a style which fit much more comfortably within audience expectations about the genre and franchise.



We can see the difference in these two images, the first drawn by Quesada for a Mack Script, the second as drawn by Mack based on his own conception. Both combine multiple levels of texts to convey the fragmented perspective of Echo, the protagonist, as she confronts her sometimes lover, sometimes foe Daredevil. The use of bold primary color and the style of drawing in Quesada’s version pulls him that much closer to mainstream expectations, while the deployment of pastels and of a collage-like aesthetic falls outside our sense of what a superhero comic looks like. The subject matter is more or less the same; the mode of representation radically different and in comics, these stylistic differences help to establish our expectations as readers.

The Night Of a Thousand Wizards

hogsmeade 2.jpg

It’s 1:15 AM and the natives are getting restless. Young lasses dressed as British school girls are bumping and grinding to “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again!” in front of the Three Broomsticks pub. Us older folks have taken to the benches outside the Owl Post, watching the festivities with wistful eyes. Harry and Voldermort have locked arms together and are skipping through the streets of Hogsmeade. And the Buttertbeer is flowing freely tonight!

This is the Night of a Thousand Wizards — well, in the end, when they got some more guest passes, it ended up being something like 1.7K wizards, but who is counting. Altogether, more than two thousand hard core Harry Potter fans have come to Orlando to attend Infinitus 2010, which the organizers described to me as the largest gathering of enthusiasts of J.K. Rowling’s franchise ever.

And as a result of arrangements made before they even started construction on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they’ve been invited into the park after hours (from 11-1:30 or thereabouts) to see for themselves what Universal’s Islands of Adventure had constructed. My wife, Cynthia (my photographer) and I are embedded journalists amongst the fans –and I put it that way because while I consider myself a serious enthusiast of the Harry Potter world, I do not know a fraction of what most of the people around me know about the series. For the past three summers, I’ve come to speak and spend time with these fans and each year I come away with a deeper respect for their knowledge, their commitment, their creativity, and their passion.

There have been discussions at the past few conferences about whether the fandom will survive the completion of the current film series, which wraps up with the two part version of Deathly Hollows all too soon, and how they are going to make the transition to a world where there will be no new Rowling-sanctioned Harry Potter content. Anyone who questions the strength and commitments of these fans must not have heard that the Harry Potter Alliance, an activist/charity group which has used Rowling’s world as a platform for their own civic activities, had just won $250,000, beating out more than 200 other organizations, in an online competition to show support, sponsored by the Chase Manhattan Bank.

For tonight, at least, as people are singing Wizard Rock songs on the boats transporting them from the hotel to the theme park, as they are parading through Seuss Landing, across the Lost Continent, and into the Eight Voyages of Sinbad auditorium, there’s no question in anyone’s mind that Harry Potter fandom is here, loud and strong. As I look around the auditorium waiting for the program to begin, I see Snape dancing in the aisles and I see Harry and Voldermort, not yet the BFF they will become before the nights over, staging their own duels in front of the crowd. They don’t need anyone from the park to entertain them.

But I see something more — I see the fans who have spent more than a decade editing websites, writing fan fiction, organizing conferences, producing podcasts, performing and recording their own Wizard Rock songs, and creating activists organizations, all gathered together in one place and one time to celebrate what they had built together from the resources that Rowling, Scholastic Press, and Warner Brothers has provided them. There will be no Muggles in Hogsmeade tonight! We are indeed all Wizards here!

If there was a mainstream journalist in the house, they would no doubt have had trouble seeing past the costumes: that seems to be where the line between the fan and the mundane world comes. Not every fan wears a costume but the wearing of costumes seems to be where the nonfans start to draw the line, start to look at us as strange, so for the moment, look past the costumes and think about what the people in this room have created around a book they cared about and the costume just becomes another extension of the creative spirit.

The conference organizers had to negotiate hard for the fans to be allowed to wear the costumes into the park that night. Universal didn’t want there to be any confusion between who the “guests” were and who the “cast members” were — largely for liability purposes. They wanted to demarcate who worked there and who played there. The fans were to wear their membership bags at all time, but in the end, the fan organizers were allowed to bend the rules for this one night and the fans were invited to come dressed as they wished, a hodge-podge mixture of characters, some named, some generic, from the world Rowling created.

Before the fans even arrived in the park, they had an emotionally intense experience. Lena Gabrielle had written and Mallory Vance had directed an original musical depicting the final battle from Deathly Hollows, which was performed by a large cast of amateur and semi-professional performers, many of whom had surprisingly strong voices and acting skills, and the rest made up in spirit for what they lacked in polished. The play should not have been anywhere near as good as it was. A Soul number performed by the Death Eaters after the presumed death of Harry Potter was a highlight here. And tears were flowing (mine among them) as certain key moments of loss and transformation were restaged for an audience that knew the original book inside and out. There were more than thirty named characters in the production and this crowd knew each of their stories well. Watching this, I had a clearer sense of the challenge the filmmakers are going to face in turning Deathly Hollows into a feature, given the sheer density and intensity of its final chapters.


Now, inside the Sinbad auditorium, there’s a little bit of friction. The Park’s PR people and designers have plopped themselves in front of the room clearly wanting to hear the fan’s praise for the years of work which went into the design, development, and construction of this attraction. And they get plenty of appreciation from the crowd. But they also get a bit more than they expected, given that your best fans are also often your sharpest critics.

They’ve basically brought us to a holding area while they finish sweeping the regular guests out of the park and making the Hogsmeade area pristine and clean. Cluster by clusters, the fans are walking down the aisle and pushing out the doors again — they don’t want to wait, they want to get inside as soon as possible. Sure, they want to hear about the design process which included substantial contributions by the production designers and art directors, not to mention the cast, of the Warner Brothers films. But most of them have already seen the promotional videos that have been circulating on the web and on television for months. They already know this stuff. What they want to do is come and spend as much time as they can in the Wizarding World area which these guys have built for our entertainment. (And I am hoping as I watch this that the designers know what a compliment this really is). Enough words, time to play.

Others, however, have some questions to raise. For one thing, because this is Universal, where most of the attractions are thrill rides, the rides have weight and size limits, and some of the folks gathered here are not going to be able to ride them. There’s a humiliating process outside several of the rides where people get stuffed into a cart to see if they can lower the protective rails over their bodies. Fandom is a place where people of all shapes and sizes are accepted, while the Wizarding World has more exacting and discriminating standards which leave some of the participants feeling crushed (literally and figuratively). Keep in mind also that height requirements will leave many of the books’ youngest fans waiting outside, though there are not very many of them in the house tonight.

Others are expressing the usual fan concerns about continuity issues — how is it that Ollivanders, the wand shop, which the books and films tell us is in Diagon Alley, gets included in Hogsmeade, while the Novelty Shop there is Zonko’s Joke Shop, the Hogsmeade establishment rather than the more fan friendly shop owned by Fred and George Weasley. And all the park can say is that this is the way Rowling wanted it and that she authorized Ollivanders to have a branch office closer to the school, which just never got mentioned in the books.

Others are expressing their concern that so many of the dishes created for the park — from Pumpkin Juice and Butter Beer to Chocolate Frogs, Candied Humbugs, and Gummy Skulls — are confections which should be off limits to people with diabetes and other diet-based concerns, while the park designer explains, not fully convincingly, that there is less sugar in Butterbeer than in some of the things served at Starbucks and tells the fan who had expressed the health concerns about the high sugar content that she should simply indulge herself for the evening. (As a Diabetic myself, I wasn’t very pleased with the suggestion that we can just opt out of our conditions.) Just when it starts to look like this could get ugly, the program ends and people start to move through the gates and past the Hogwarts Express train and into the streets of that enchanted village.


Make no mistake about it. This is a magical place. Some of the fans spoke of weeping the first time they entered this space. Others described it as a kind of homecoming as they were at last able to enter a world they had previously known only through their imagination. Suddenly, it became clearer that The Wizarding World is not about rides and attractions: it’s about an environment which conveys through sights, sounds, taste, smell and touch, which makes tangible what had felt so vivid in our minds before, and as the fans said again and again all night, they really cared about the details. You can sip the Butterbeer (a concoction which mixes Root Beer and Butterscotch); you can smell the steam coming out of the train; you can feel the speed of a Quidditch match; you can see the wonders of the magical school; and everything is accompanied with the movie’s soundtrack.

Please do not quote me Baudrillard’s comment that Disneyland is fake so it can trick us into believing the rest of America is real. Don’t pull out Umberto Eco’s discussion of “Hyperreality” and the ways that the “absolute fake” is realer than the real. These are, to put it bluntly, pseudo-insights.

Everyone here knows that Hogwarts isn’t real. What would it even mean to create a “real” Hogwarts. At best, they can judge this environment for its fidelity to the details of the film — and that’s a set of criteria which comes up frequently here. Even there, the analogy is not right. As we are told, the film producers never made a large scale version of Hogwarts — what we see is a combination of models and digital effects and some isolated sets. There never was a full reconstruction of Hogsmeade — we don’t get to wander its streets and see from one end to the other in the films.

But just as often the fans are talking about how it “feels right,” how it achieves a kind of emotional integrity, which fits their impressions of the world where one of their favorite stories is set. This is where the postmodernists get it wrong. They start with a basic contempt for the content of the stories represented in the theme park and so they do not invest themselves deeply enough in the experience. For them, it is about surfaces and empty signifiers. There’s nothing empty here — all of the details matter here and are meaningful in relation to the books and the fantasies they inspire.

For the people here, the park is a play set, and I mean this in two senses. First it is a site of play — a invitation to flesh out this world through their own creative and imaginative acts of performance. The Wizarding World is something like the action figures I discussed in my essay on He-Man a few months ago. And second, it is a set — a place where they perform, where community rituals can be staged.

I don’t like to draw analogies between fandom and religion, since the comparison is always misleading, especially given the historic association of the word, fan, with false worship. But let’s think of this as a ritual space. When tribal communities dance wearing clay masks and straw costumes, they re acting “as if” they were the animal spirits. The performance is a recognition of shared beliefs and mutual emotional experiences. They’ve all worked to construct the costumes so they know that they are not “real” but it does not diminish the emotional intensity of the experience.

Cornel Sandvoss has proposed we use the concept of “Heimat”, “homeland,” to describe the kinds of emotional experiences when fans are allowed to visit spaces associated with the production of their favorite programs. For Sandvoss, we experience this Heimat when we visit these places through texts or physical places. That seems a very good concept for talking about what these fans, myself among them, were experiencing — a sense of coming home. I like this analogy because it pulls the intensity of experience out of the realm of the spiritual and plants it much more appropriately in the realm of the cultural.

Hogworts is a special place in the utopian imagination of the fan community. For many who grew up reading the books, it represented a vivid alternative to their own school experiences, a space where their gifts were recognized and valued, where learning served a higher purpose, where they were part of a community that grew to feel a deep commitment to each of its members, and where their acts of resistance to unreasonable authority had a larger significance. As they grew deeper into the fandom, they set their stories here and fleshed it out with their own imaginations: it is a space they created through their own ink, blood, and tears. And it was also a shared space which became associated with close and lasting friendships and a larger sense of collective identity. And this space, however over-commercialized, represents the closest the community is going to come to an actual homeland.

One of the great things about the design of the park is that once you are inside the Harry Potter area, you don’t see outside it — you can’t see the other attractions and areas; nothing jars you from the immersiveness of the experience. Well, very little. It is a typically hot and muggy night in Orlando. During the day, the sun can broil your flesh through your SunScreen and at night, you are going to be soaked with sweat no matter what you do, so there was something pretty amusing about the piles of snow on the roofs of the Hogsmeade buildings or the Snow Wizard and Snow Owl (pun no doubt included) which decorates one of the spaces. The snow looks real but unless they pumped substantial air conditioning into the open air attraction, it isn’t ever going to feel quite real.

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But you can wander past the various shops mentioned in the books, looking through the windows to see the wands, the Quidditch equipment, a display showcasing Prof. Lockhart’s books, the Owl Post Office, the Boars Head on the wall of the pub, and a display for Puking Pestles which features a green-faced victim spewing an endless flow of purple vomit. Go inside the Hogwarts castle and you will pass through Prof. Sprout’s greenhouse, Dumbledore’s study, the halls full of talking paintings, and the dorm space where the Gryffindor Students live. And then you enter an intense, multimedia experience, which combines digital effects, cinematic projections, and physical models, to send you flying through the Chamber of Secrets, past the Whomping Willow, into the Forbidden Forest, and across a Quidditch match in progress. Here, you are lead on by Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter, in new footage shot specifically for the attraction. It is intense and jolting, but oh so very immersive.

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I can’t tell you about the other two rides, both of which are roller coasters, since I am a notorious roller coaster wimp, and I spent much of my time wandering the streets, watching people, and yes, buying stuff. I was personally disappointed that most of the merchandise targets fans of the two Houses most often discussed in the books — Gryffindor (Harry, Hermione, and Ron) and Slytherin (Draco), but under-represents the two other houses (Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw.) I have been sorted several times — an important ritual inside the fandom — and have always ended up Ravenclaw (Luna Lovegood’s House) so I have to dig around to find a Ravenclaw banner to take back for my office. This is certainly an area where the park’s priorities could better allign with those of the fans.


The park has made a conscious decision not to feature impersonators of the major characters here. Since they involve the film’s actors in the rides and presentations, they did not want to try to recast them with street performers in the park. So one of my favorite moments came when I saw a row of Beauxbatons, who were hired to pose for photographs with guests, taking great pleasure in being photographed next to fans dressed as Snape, McGonigle, Sprout, and some of the other Hogwarts teachers. This is the moment that the Park management had feared where the lines between staff and guests were starting to break down. Indeed, everywhere I looked, the working staff was getting into the spirit of the evening, asking the fans questions, trying to learn the lyrics to Wizard Rock songs, showing off their own knowledge of the mythology, and otherwise, paying respect to how much the fans knew and loved these stories. In practice, the staff were themselves fans — even if they hadn’t been before they got these jobs — as they had come to spend so much time inside this park.

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If the park is empty, except within the rides, of the characters from the series, the shops evoke moments from the novels — for the most part, happy parts when they went on holiday down to the nearby village, where they congregated over food and drink, where they stuffed themselves with candy, and where they played pranks on each other. In many ways, Hogsmeades functions for the characters much as it functions for us as tourists — as a place to escape your fears and worries. Rowling does a good job establishing this space and then gradually as the series continues, introduces threats and dangers here, showing how the evil that can not be named has penetrated even the safe spaces in the students’ lives, leaving them no escape to do battle. But the Hogsmeades here is not a dark place — indeed, it has been removed from a narrative context. The park is structured around places and not events. We see no signs that the Dark Lord may be returning. And that frees us to construct our own stories here, much as fans construct their own stories on the blank screen and share them through cyberspace. There is such a strong contrast between the emphasis on character and incident in the play we saw earlier this evening and the emphasis on place and activity here, yet we need to realize how much the fans bring the characters, the stories, the events, with them where-ever they travel.

When it came time to leave, there was some experience of trauma. Some of the fans grumbled it was like being thrown out of their home. But many of them were already making plans to come back.

Here’s a final treat — a photograph shot at the China Pavilion at EPCOT. One of the men depicted in this image is the author of the above blog post. The other is a subtle impersonator. I leave it to the reader to decide which is which.

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Reinventing Cinema: An Interview with Chuck Tryon (Part Two)

Below is the second installment of my interview with Chuck Tryon, author of em> Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence

Your chapter on digital distribution has much to say about Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films, especially about their model of organizing house parties around viewing of their progressive documentaries. What does digital distribution offer such filmmakers? Greenwald is increasingly moving from the distribution of full length documentaries to the much more rapid dispersal of short videos via YouTube and Facebook. How might this shift reflect changes in the way independent and documentary filmmakers are relating to digital distribution?

Robert Greenwald has been a brilliant innovator when it comes to skillfully using social media for political purposes, and I find his work fascinating because he has typically managed to navigate between detailed, but accessible, policy analyses and using available social media tools, from email lists to blogs and web video, to build an audience for his work (and for Brave New Films in general).

To some extent, I think his initial success grew out of the alienation and anger felt by many on the left at the beginning of the Iraq War and, later, after George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, so he was able to build an impressive infrastructure using the “house party” model, but at some point, I think it became difficult to sustain the sense that these new documentaries were unique events, so I’ve been impressed with his attempts to craft shorter and more timely responses to ongoing events, such as the war in Afghanistan and more recently, the oil spill in the Gulf. These videos can circulate quickly and can often have a more immediate impact through tools such as Twitter and Facebook, and because new videos are available on a daily basis, it can encourage the people who watch and share his videos to see political participation as an ongoing, daily process, rather than an occasional activity.

Although I think these rapid responses are incredibly powerful, other independent and documentary filmmakers still focus on creating special events, using tools such as OpenIndie and similar tools to invite audiences to request that a film play at a local theater. One of the most successful films to use the OpenIndie model was Franny Armstrong’s environmental documentary, The Age of Stupid, which used the service to build demand for simultaneous screenings in over 500 theaters in at least 45 countries. Thus, in addition to building and sustaining an audience online through short videos, many filmmakers are seeking to turn their screenings into unique experiences where audiences will feel more like participants than viewers


In the book, you describe a splintering of independent films with South by Southwest becoming the key festival for filmmakers who do not wish or are not able to compete at Sundance. What can you tell us about the current status of these “mumblecore” filmmakers?

The mumblecore label was always somewhat amorphous, but it illustrated the power of collaboration in an era democratized media production. This sense of collaboration, or incestuousness, depending on your perspective, is illustrated in a series of charts designed by mumblecore filmmaker Aaron Hillis, showing the degree to which these filmmakers have cooperated with–and learned from–each other.

Some of my favorite filmmakers from the movement, including Andrew Bujalski, continue to produce engaging work outside of the Hollywood system, while others, such as the Duplass brothers, have had films, including Baghead and Cyrus, distributed by studio specialty divisions such as Picturehouse and Sony Pictures Classics. Arin Crumley, one of the filmmakers behind Four Eyed Monsters, has joined forces with Lance Weiler to participate in the creation of tools that will help independent filmmakers promote and exhibit their films. But one of the more significant compliments to mumblecore’s influence came from New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott, who argued that mumblecore actress, Greta Geriwg, might be one of the most significant actresses of this generation in his assessment of her “naturalistic” performance in the Ben Stiller film, Greenberg. So, even though the mumblecore label is less widely used, many of the filmmakers in the movement have been able to develop successful careers either within Hollywood or as independent filmmakers.

Much has been written about the fact that there is no longer a Pauline Kael among film critics. Instead, our most well known critic today is Roger Ebert, who has moved from television to the blogs and Twitter as platforms for sharing his views on film. Behind Ebert, there is an army of film bloggers who are sharing their thoughts about cinema. Is the result a stronger or weaker film culture? What do you see as the strengths and limitations of these two configurations of film criticism?

To some extent, I think it’s easy to romanticize the past and the contributions of critics such as Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Susan Sontag, especially when so many newspapers and magazines are either firing their film critics or relying upon freelance writers for their reviews. But this nostalgia for an earlier form of film criticism obscures some of the ways in which film blogs are helping to reinvent film culture.

Because of my own experiences as a film blogger, I’m probably biased on this point, but I think that film blogs have strengthened film culture immensely, in part because those critics are now held accountable by the bloggers who read and respond to their reviews in highly public ways. But although there may be thousands of dedicated film bloggers, I think the blogosphere is structured in such a way that a small number of critics still wield a huge influence, such as Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, and Harry Knowles. Similarly, many film bloggers, such as Karina Longworth and Matt Zoller Seitz, are often incorporated into more mainstream venues. At the same time, bloggers such as David Hudson aggregate the most significant film news on the web, directing the attention of readers to the most significant film news of the day, ensuring that most film critics and cinephiles will continue to have access to significant ideas about film as they are unfolding.

Ebert’s remarkable transformation through social media is fascinating. Ebert has always been engaged with his audience, though his “Answer Man” column, but blogging and Twitter have deepened that engagement. One recent example of this engagement is Ebert’s recent column ( in which he rethought an earlier column where he claimed that video games, by definition, cannot be art. His original column provoked thousands of comments, many of them offering sophisticated arguments about the definition of art or about video game aesthetics, challenging Ebert to at least acknowledge some of the limitations of his original argument


As you note, many of those producing short films for YouTube see them as “calling cards,” which they hope will open doors for them inside the film industry. Five years into its history, how well has YouTube functioned as a pipeline for promoting and developing new filmmaking talent?

I’m probably not as attentive to these “calling card” stories as I ought to be, but I’ve been able to trace a small number of filmmakers who have been able to use YouTube as a means of opening doors inside the film industry. One of the more famous examples is a Uruguayan visual effects specialist, Fede Alvarez, who created a short, Panic Attack, that has generated nearly 5 million views and, along with it, an agreement from Mandate Pictures to back a $30 million film.

Other success stories would certainly include Paranormal Activity, where a group of do-it-yourself filmmakers succeeded in developing grassroots enthusiasm for their movie online before seeing the film get picked up by Paramount, initially with the purpose of remaking it, before realizing that the filmmakers had already succeeded in creating enormous demand for their film.

Some of the more successful YouTube “calling cards” rely on humor, including parody of more familiar texts, in order to build an audience familiar with the original. One of the best examples here is High School Sucks The Musical, which was picked up for distribution by Lakeshore Entertainment after the filmmakers were able to generate interest in the film through their YouTube channel.

A number of other filmmakers, many of them living outside the US, have managed to raise some funding for their films online, operating outside of the Hollywood industry with the hope of securing some combination of theatrical, DVD, and television distribution. The Finnish filmmakers behind the satirical Star Wreck web series have used their web popularity to raise funding for their Iron Sky film, while the Madrid-based Riot Cinema Collective is working on The Cosmonaut. Many of these filmmakers invite viewers to support in a film project by buying a CD of songs “inspired by” the film or a t-shirt featuring the film’s logo, encouraging those audiences not only to become “invested” in the film’s success but also to become participants in a word-of-mouth campaign to get others to watch it.

There are certainly other cases that I’m forgetting, but these are a few that have crossed my radar. These cases seem to show that YouTube (or any other video sharing site) can be used to develop and promote a wide range of new talent.

Cineastes worry about young people who are watching films on their iPod, iPhone, and we presume now, their iPad. To what degree is this a red herring? What do we know about the consumption of films on such mobile devices?

From what I can tell, the alarmism over youthful audiences consuming movies on mobile devices is considerably exaggerated. Certainly people, including many adults, will sometimes watch movies on mobile devices during times of enforced waiting, such as a long plane trip (note the presence of Redbox kiosks in airport terminals), but I’m pretty skeptical of arguments such as those by older critics, who depict today’s youth as enthralled by watching movies on their iPods. In fact, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Foundation, TV consumption on an iPod represents only a small slice of overall media consumption. Further, teens and young adults remain avid moviegoers, as a quick visit to a local multiplex will confirm, and there is some evidence, including a recent study by the Nielsen Company, that teen media consumption may be more traditional than we typically assume. Many of these assumptions about teen media practices seem related to a combination of fears about youth and about new technologies.

The Pew Internet and American Life studies also do an excellent job of tracking practices of online video viewing habits, but at this point, the perception that people are dropping cable TV for online video seems overstated, part of what NewTeeVee refers to as the “cord-cutting myth”. While this may change thanks to Hulu Plus and other online TV subscription services, it seems clear that people will continue to consume media on multiple platforms.

What new platforms or practices do you see as having the most likelyhood of “reinventing cinema” in the next few years?

I typically shy away from predicting future trends, and in some ways, I think we will continue to see some forms of stability within the film industry: people will still go to blockbuster films at local multiplexes or watch movies on whatever home screens are available. And fans will still blog about and remix those movies in order to participate in a wider cultural conversation. I have been fascinated by the degree to which Redbox initially placed the industry in turmoil through its dollar-per-day rentals, but it appears that the industry response to Redbox is now relatively settled, but I do think that Redbox is symptomatic of a declining emphasis on collecting or owning DVDs, especially among casual movie fans who are seeking a night’s entertainment. Redbox also illustrates the fact that residual technologies such as the DVD may have a longer future than we might have initially predicted.

I’m also interested in the streaming video service, Mubi, which initially marketed itself toward a globalized cinephile culture by distributing a number of American indie and international art house movies online in high-quality streaming versions. They have recently contracted with Playstation to stream movies through their PS3 game console and seem to be positioning themselves as a go-to site for socially-networked cinephiles. Both of these phenomena point to the ways in which non-theatrical audiences are consuming movies in new ways. Rather than collecting DVDs that may only be viewed a couple of times, if at all, Redbox and Mubi illustrate an ongoing trend towards temporary access to a movie.

I am optimistic that DIY and independent filmmakers will continue to build a more effective distribution network through the technologies and tools available to them, whether through crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter or sites such as OpenIndie that allow filmmakers to map the location of their audience in order to schedule theatrical screenings. The best filmmakers will find creative ways to use transmedia storytelling techniques to build an engaged audience. Film bloggers will continue to serve a curatorial function, identifying movies that their readers will find interesting or entertaining. Rather than a single dramatic change, the medium of film will continue to evolve as filmmakers, scholars, critics, and fans continue to engage with social and technological change.

Chuck Tryon is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Fayetteville State University, where his teaching and research has focused on various aspects of film, television, and convergent media, including digital cinema, documentary studies, political video, and on using technology in the language arts classroom. He is the author of Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence (Rutgers UP, 2009). He has also written several essays on the role of YouTube in the 2008 election, including “Political Video Mashups as Allegories of Citizen Empowerment (” (with Richard L. Edwards) for First Monday, and “Pop Politics: Online Parody Videos, Intertextuality, and Political Participation” for Popular Communication.

He has also written about Twitter for AlterNet and published an early essay on using blogs in the first-year composition classroom for the journal Pedagogy . He frequently writes about film and media at The Chutry Experiment where he has been blogging since 2003.

Reinventing Cinema: An Interview with Chuck Tryon (Part One)

I first discovered the gifted film and digital media scholar, Chuck Tryon, through his blog, The Chutry Experiment. Tyron was an early adapter of blogs as a vehicle for academics to comment on contemporary developments in media and has made the relationship of digital technologies and film production a particular area of emphasis in his work. As I am writing this header, his blog is engaging actively with the debates about the artistic merits of computer games, sparked by the latest set of comments by Roger Ebert, while other recent posts have dealt with transmedia entertainment (in response to Jonathan Gray) and Do It Yourself Filmmaking (in conversation with filmmaker Chris Hansen). His book, Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence, is ground-breaking in its attention to the many different forms of “digital cinema,” from the use of digital technologies for production, distribution and exhibition to the ways DVD commentary tracks are reshaping the public’s appreciation of cinema and the ways that film-related blogs are reconfiguring the nature of film criticism. He has so much to say there that is of interest to the readers of this blog that it was inevitable that I would do an interview with him for this site. If you are not reading his blog or his book yet, you need to do something about that right away.

Throughout the book, you address a range of “crisis scenarios,” predictions that in one way or another digital media is going to bring about the “death” of cinema as we know it. Why are such scenarios so persistent? What do they tell us about the ways that the film community is responding to technological change?

I’m fascinated by the crisis narratives about the “death” of cinema, in part because they are so deeply interlinked with debates about the nature of the film industry and about the definition of film as a medium. I think these narratives are so persistent, in part, because these definitional questions are important for both scholars and filmmakers alike. They also speak to debates about the role of technological change in everyday life. These questions have become even more acute with the introduction of digital media. After all, what is film when you no longer use digital technologies to record, produce, and project movies? And what happens when these tools become democratized so that “anyone” has access to tools that allow them to make professional-quality films?

Within the broader film industry, I think the response has been a perpetual cycle of adjustment and innovation. Studios have succeeded by promoting new films in terms of spectacle and visual novelty, as we saw with the success of James Cameron’s Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, while also seeking to exploit all of the new platforms where films can be viewed. These moments of crisis have been treated in a variety of ways and have been the subject of intense debate within the independent film community. Most famously, at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival, Mark Gill, a former president of Miramax, worried that digital cinema was leading to a glut of “flat-out awful” films competing for limited screen space, while adding that social media tools have the potential to sabotage a studio’s marketing efforts, arguing that in an age of texting, “good buzz spreads quickly, bad buzz even faster.” Others, however, including indie film producer Ted Hope, have celebrated the democratizing potential of digital tools by defining cinema as an experience. Some studios and entertainment journalists have expressed concern about the power of social media in spreading “bad buzz” about a film. In particular, there was a brief discussion of a “Twitter effect” that was helping to amplify negative word-of-mouth about some poorly-performing films. But for the most part, there seems to be widespread acceptance of the role of social media in shaping how audiences consume films.

Your book title talks of “Reinventing Cinema.” In what ways is cinema reinventing itself to take advantage of the affordances of digital media? How will cinema be different a decade from now than it was ten years ago?

When I first coined the book’s title, I’d hoped to inflect it with a grain of skepticism. In many ways, I think there are a number of continuities between past and present. After all, movie theaters still play a vital cultural role, with teens and young adults continuing to see movies in significant numbers. The excitement over the Twilight films, to focus on the most recent example, shows that audiences still crave the opportunity to share in a significant experience with a wider moviegoing public.

But there is a clear sense that some things are changing. Although I am reluctant to predict all of the changes, I think a few of the following are likely: we will continue to see the window of time between the theatrical debut and the DVD (or streaming video) release of a movie, with the dual hope of curtailing piracy and of increasing DVD sales. Within a few years, Hollywood films may even follow the logic of many independent filmmakers in releasing their films available theatrically and online simultaneously. DVD sales will likely continue to decline as consumers become more selective about the movies they buy, in part due to the cheap availability of streaming video. And we will continue to see cases of filmmakers and studios experimenting with versions of transmedia storytelling. We will see occasional cases of crowdsourced or crowdfunded films break through into theatrical distribution, even if those instances are relatively rare. And this is probably obvious, but I think we will continue to see an incredibly vibrant fan culture expressed via blogs, YouTube, and other social media tools.

You speak of DVDs as producing “new regimes of cinematic knowledge.” What do you mean? Can you give us some examples?

To some extent, I was building upon an observation by former New York Times film critic, Elvis Mitchell, who provided an early and astute assessment of the ways in which DVDs were being promoted and marketed as offering behind-the-scenes access to how films are produced, a phenomenon he described (favorably) as “the rise of the film geek.” Although DVDs could easily be promoted in terms of superior image quality, audiences also embraced the “extras,” such as commentary tracks and making-of documentaries that offered behind-the-scenes descriptions of how movies were made or what might have motivated a specific decision by a director.

Of course, there is a long history of fans having access to additional knowledge about the films they consume. Criterion pioneered many of the “extras” in the laser disc format in the 1980s and ’90s, but the novelty of the DVD is that this cinematic knowledge is now being mass-marketed, creating the emergence of the “film geek” that Mitchell described.

Certainly the DVDs for the Lord of the Rings films are a tremendous example of the encyclopedic knowledge that fans can gain from watching these supplemental features, as Kristin Thompson details in her book, The Frodo Franchise. But you could also look at the use of commentary tracks by film critics and scholars, including Roger Ebert’s glowing commentary track for Alex Proyas’s tech-noir film, Dark City, which helped turn the film from a box-office disappointment into a critically-appreciated film. Criterion has helped to cultivate a wider culture of film appreciation through its detailed extras, including contributions from film scholars, such as Dana Polan’s commentary track for The Third Man.

There is a persistent anxiety that special effects may blur our perceptions, confusing us about what is real and what isn’t. Yet, as you note, special effects are also always on display, inviting our awareness of the manipulations being performed and our appreciation of how the effects are achieved. Will there be a point when these contemporary digital effects are so “naturalized” and “normalized” that they will start to become an invisible aspect of film production?

I think we will likely continue to be fascinated by how special effects are produced, even while many of those effects are relatively seamlessly integrated into the film. Although some shots use digital effects seamlessly, many films are marketed on the strength of innovative special effects, a contradiction that played out in the promotional materials for James Cameron’s Avatar, a film that itself was billed as “reinventing cinema.” Promotional articles emphasized Cameron’s attempts to create a fully immersive environment not only through digital effects but also through his use of linguists to create the Na’vi language and botanists to help imagine the plant life of Pandora, knowledge that might make us conscious of the sheer amount of labor required to create such a believable “illusion.” Because novelty is one of the strongest marketing hooks a film can have, I think there will continue to be some form of tension between producing seamless effects and promoting those effects in order to cultivate our appreciation of them.

As you note in your book, digital projection has been closely tied to the rise of 3D. This may be the one area where change has been most dramatic since your book was published. What would you want to add about the recent push for 3D if you were revising the chapter now?

I feel like I could write another chapter on 3D based just on what has happened in the last year. When I was writing the book, 3D was really just on the horizon. Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf adaptation had made a minor splash, and it seemed clear that 3D films would play a major role in enticing movie theaters to switch from using film projectors to using digital projection, even though Beowulf itself was a relatively awful film with murky images and cheesy effects, so I’ve been fascinated to follow some of the recent changes in 3D projection and I’m hoping to write about them in a future project. With DVD sales declining, studios seemed to be embracing 3D as a means of attracting audiences back into the theater, and a number of high-profile directors, including James Cameron, saw 3D as potentially offering deeper immersion into cinematic narrative.

Certainly the huge financial success of Avatar initially inspired increased curiosity about digital 3D, with many viewers reportedly seeing the film multiple times so that they could “upgrade” their viewing experience from 2D to 3D or even IMAX 3D, and the initial novelty regarding 3D also likely helped Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which was converted to 3D in post-production, to find a wider-than-expected audience.

More recently, however, there appears to a critical and audience backlash developing against 3D, especially for “fake 3D” movies such as Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender that were converted to 3D in post-production, a backlash that was exacerbated when a number of theaters significantly increased ticket prices for 3D films, making it more expensive for a family of four to go out for a night at the movies.

Chuck Tryon is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Fayetteville State University, where his teaching and research has focused on various aspects of film, television, and convergent media, including digital cinema, documentary studies, political video, and on using technology in the language arts classroom. He is the author of Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence (Rutgers UP, 2009). He has also written several essays on the role of YouTube in the 2008 election, including “Political Video Mashups as Allegories of Citizen Empowerment (” (with Richard L. Edwards) for First Monday, and “Pop Politics: Online Parody Videos, Intertextuality, and Political Participation” for Popular Communication.

He has also written about Twitter for AlterNet and published an early essay on using blogs in the first-year composition classroom for the journal Pedagogy . He frequently writes about film and media at The Chutry Experiment where he has been blogging since 2003.

Girls, Gaming, and Gender: An Interview with Game Designer and Researcher Jennifer Jenson (Part Two)

Below is the second installment of my interview with York University’s Jennifer Jenson, a designer who has been doing significant research on gender and children’s play with video games. You can find more about the 3G summit she is participating in here and here, including information about sponsorship.

You suggest that much research on gender and games seeks to identify static “preferences” while gender is being “performed” in specific contexts. Yet the search for preferences seems calculated to identify design principles which seek to mediate inequalities in production and access to games. How might the more performance or actor-centered approach you are advocating lead to design principles that might address these concerns?

The inequalities in production and access to games are much more complex than a pink-colored bandaid can hope to cover, so by understanding first and foremost that preferences are a moving target that games companies and others can’t hope to tackle, then certain other structural inequities become illuminated.

First, that it is very common for girls and women to have access to games through their male partners and relations — sisters play on their brothers’ and fathers’ xboxes, but rarely have primary access. So this means that they aren’t necessarily making decisions about what to purchase, and when to purchase. I think here, Nintendo has been incredibly successful in reaching some of this audience in their Wii advertising, and in the games that have been developed, simply because they have directly addressed a family audience in their marketing and advertising. This of course is still not directly addressing girls — and maybe that is just fine, but women don’t always equate to family. When it is the case that everywhere one turns, the subject of address is a male gamer it makes sense to me at least on some level that women do not feel like they are part of the gamer audience, and to get a sense of how this still works, you need only open a game magazine. The first point would then be: in order to cultivate a gamer audience that is female, it would make sense to begin to actually address them—which isn’t the same thing as addressing them as mothers or as the pink people, something that should go without saying, but still doesn’t.

Second, while it has been pointed out a number of times over the years that the repertoire of available avatar choices if a player wants to play as something that is marked as a female character is not only far less, but also tends to be hyper-feminized, it remains the case that design choices are consistently being made to reinforce this. One easy ‘fix’ here seems to me: design games with choice, and choices driven by players’ active production and play–ironic, satirical, smart and ‘savvy’ — with character avatars.

And finally, it has been the case for nearly 30 years now that women have not chosen to enter computer science and engineering fields, that they have stayed away from programming courses and careers in computer-based industries, and the fact that so few women are a part of the games industry means that the above two issues persist. This inequity falls on the shoulders, I think, of educators and educational institutions who have (with a few exceptions) not been able to turn the tide of so few women participating in the kinds of secondary and higher education that might lead them to career paths as game designers, and here I don’t mean by assuming that that inequality will be made up through the ‘art production’ side of things. We in education need to examine how it is we teach those subjects and who we encourage and at times actively discourage from those related areas, as well as actively promote programs of the kind that we are participating in like the 3G Summit, as at the very least, for a short period of time, it puts girls roles chances are they might not have experience before.

Should we be focused on redesigning the contexts where play takes place rather than redesigning the games themselves?

I like this question — I think that redesigning the context of play certainly helps. In our work, we have talked about it as “unfettered, hands-on access” to, in this case, playing games. Once we do that, we find that girls play, much like the boys.

Is it possible to use game design in ways which encourages players to perform gender differently? What assumptions are we making about the relationship here between the impact of game design and the impact of social norms?

I think the main assumption in terms of social norms is that the only two available genders are male and female — by not allowing for a range of ‘other’ choices, we are automatically black boxing gender — reducing it to binary sex-based characteristics that in some very real sense do not allow for a lot of ‘play’.

The question of how to design games differently to encourage players to perform gender differently is to open up choice, giving players more freedom of movement — whether or not they choose that would be an interesting question, but allowing for greater choice will at the very least mean that there is more opportunity for that kind of play to happen.

Can you tell us more about your own work as a game designer? In what ways has the theoretical and ethnographic work you’ve done on gender and games informed the games you are making and vice-versa?

Luckily, the work I have done as a game designer has been, first and foremost, playfully engaging with a fabulous colleague and a team of amazing student programmers, artists, researchers, and play testers, and most of that has been focused on how best to design games that have some educational value, use and impact.

Over the years we have figured a lot out about what that means, and I won’t go into that so much here, but I will say that one thing we have figured out is that designing games for education is not about trying to make games that “teach” them something, instead it is about making games that provide opportunities for play and engagement in ways that aren’t possible through textbooks or even making a film.

For example, last year we completed a game whose (unlikely!) content is Baroque music, and when we have watched students at all age levels play with that game, we have seen active engagement with a form of music that none of them have ever listened to before or ever experienced. On leaving the game, what is so interesting is that we often find students humming the tunes that they had been playing with — and that means what we were able to create is a rich experience of Baroque music that they probably never would have had, and just might be interested in finding out more.

How the work on gender and gameplay is inflected in this work is very much in attempting to design for player choice and agency but to interrupt the usual kinds of choices that might be available, for example, in an early game we designed on contagious disease, players customized their avatars with colour choices that did not include skin tones, and we worked very long and hard with artists to draw different kinds of avatars that were not hyper-masculinized or feminized.

You have argued that some progress might be made in these debates if we split apart concepts of sex and gender. Can you describe a bit more what this distinction might contribute to research in this area?

As you probably realize, this is a rather dodgy question, and rather than delve into that certainly perilous territory, from a PR perspective anyway, I’d just refer to people like Donna Haraway’s still cutting edge analysis of the distinctions at stake here, and how and why they matter. If only people would read that work, they could surely figure out the rest of themselves. Instead, it seems that bad ideology continues to trump good analysis and the question keeps getting obscured.

As you note, male experience and preferences have been taken for granted in much of this research. What would we gain if more time was spent exploring the construction of/performance of masculinity in relation to games?

What we do not have to date is a careful exploration of masculinities at/in play in games, and I think what such a perspective might offer is nuance and identities that are masked by the blanket presumption that all men play games and they play them a certain way. This of course is not the case, but the fact is we do not have many accounts of boys and men’s play, and it would be worth knowing something about the group of men who have played console games together since they were 10, and continue that play into adulthood, or about those who play xbox live sports games at certain times every weekend, or even about the young man labeled “addicted” to videogames — what about their stories? And then again, what about the men who play bejewelled and not much more and love it?

Studying men/boys might also reveal the complexities of identities and play, and might also reflect something back on the subject positions of women and girls in those relations. One way of being able to cling to stereotypes about women is to not pay attention to men either, so the presumptions don’t get challenged from the hegemonic side of things, and obviously won’t get challenged from the subordinate one either.

Dr. Jennifer Jenson is Associate Professor of Pedagogy and Technology in the Faculty of Education, York University, Toronto, Canada. She has published on gender, technology and digital games and games and education, among other topics. She also, with a team of folks, including Suzanne de Castell, designs games for education — recent titles include: Contagion, Tafelmusik: The Quest for Arundo Donax, and Epidemic: Self Care for Crisis. In addition to a strong penchant for Victorian fiction, her favorite game at the moment is Wario Ware DIY.

Girls, Gaming, and Gender: An Interview with Game Designer and Researcher Jennifer Jenson (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Mindy Faber, the co-organizer of The 3G Summit: The Future of Girls, Gaming and Gender which she described to me as “a visionary 4-day initiative that brings 50 urban teenage girls together with five leading women game designers and scholars for intensive dialogue, inquiry, game-play, and mentorship. It is organized by Open Youth Networks, Interactive Arts and Media and The Institute for Study of Women and Gender in Arts and Media at Columbia College.” The designers involved with the event look like a who’s who of women who have been doing cutting edge thinking about gender and games and who have also been demonstrating the potentials for developing alternative models of game and play (including two associated with the University of Southern California):

  • Mary Flanagan (artist and scholar, author of Critical Play)
  • Tracy Fullerton (game designer, educator and writer; Cloud; “flOW; “The Night Journey”
  • Jennifer Jenson (scholar of gender and technology, York University)
  • Susana Ruiz (independent game designer Darfur is Dying and Finding Zoe)
  • Erin Robinson, Indie Game Designer PuzzleBots and Nanobots
  • As Faber explained:

    Because the five women use such different approaches to game design, there is no uniform curriculum or pedagogy. Each of the five teams, consisting of ten girls, one near peer and another woman game facilitator will undoubtedly produce some surprising and intriguing game concepts that are likely to challenge many assumptions we have about what girls like to play. Important to the process is that we do not impose on the girls what types of games they should make or on what platform. Rather we want to remove obstacles that say “you can’t do this “or “only this is a real game” and release their imaginations.

    I am proud to have made an early contribution to the research in this area through From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, which I co-edited with Justine Cassell, now at Northwestern University. More recently, the MIT Press has published a follow up book, Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming. I interviewed the editors of that book, Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, and Jill Denner here on the blog when it was first published. The shift from “games” in the original collection to “gaming” in the follow up volume says a lot about the shift from a focus on games as programs to the focus on the process and contexts through which play takes place in and around games.

    It was exciting for me to see this project, not only exploring these questions, but applying our emerging understanding of gender and games to help make a difference for a group of young women. There is still such a burning need for women in the games industry and in computer science more generally.

    I had a chance to interview York University’s Jennifer Jenson, one of the designers participating in the 3G Summit, both about the event and her perspective on gender and games. Both on her own and through her collaborations with Suzanne de Castell, Jenson has been doing some of the most theoretically sophisticated and conceptually advanced research in this space — especially through introducing perspectives from performance theory to challenge some of the first generation of researchers’ and the industry’s assumptions about how gender impacted children’s play with computer and video games. The interview will appear in this post and a follow-up piece later this week.

    Tell us about this forthcoming workshop which you and other female/feminist designers are conducting. What do you hope to achieve? What kinds of researchers do you hope to work with?

    One of the primary goals of the workshop is to put the tools for game design development and production in the hands of girls, with near peer and other structured support in an effort to encourage them to see themselves potentially in those roles in future. It continues to be the case that the numbers of women in the games industry compared to men is shockingly low (somewhere around 10%) with most of those positions being in human resources. Not only are women under-represented in the games industry, but they are also underrepresented, and have been for nearly 25 years in fields like computer science and engineering. So a workshop like 3G Summit is an invaluable opportunity for girls at this age to begin to imagine that they might want to do something like this in the future.

    Is the goal of this boot camp to impact games research, game design, or both?

    My understanding of the boot camp is that it is meant to both impact game design and game research. And as an educator and someone who has worked with girls and women to support their enjoying the pleasures as well as the uses of new technologies since my PhD work, which is now getting on to be nearly 2 decades, and it has also meant, I hope, to impact on the girls themselves. In fact, for me, that would be the number one goal! On the first point, it is a high concentration of girls working with 5 mentors and other near peer mentors to construct games that are meaningful to them, and that can’t help but make ripples in terms of game design. I am thinking of it in terms of having a mini-incubator of concentrated talent and raw enthusiasm that can’t help but produce very interesting results. In terms of a research agenda, I think this will contribute to growing body of work that examines young people’s production of digital games, which has been around for quite a while now — many have been working for example, for sometime now with kids and game production, work that started to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990’s, which saw very early on the positive critical thinking and learning skills that could be developed when young people see their roles as producers, not just consumers of games. In this changed landscape of production, of as you have written, a ‘participatory culture’ in which individual consumers can take up productive roles in the creation of media, including games, it is critical that girls see themselves in these roles, and especially in relation and in this case, girls seeing themselves as producers of games. And as people who can make a real difference in the kinds of games being made — which really do need some new inputs, new value bases, and new ideas to get beyond the persistently profit-driven design choices that commercial game companies (no surprise, of course) have made and continue to make. Games can do a LOT more, and do it a lot better than what we have so far seen, not just for girls, but for everyone.

    As you’ve noted, researchers have been examining gender and games since at least the early 1980s. What has shifted over this time in terms of actual women’s relationship to games and how have these shifts been reflected in the research being produced?

    With this question I’d like to start with the fact that most often when people write, think, and do research on “gender and games” what they are really talking about is girls/women and games — what we don’t have so much to date is a notion of how things might have shifted for boys/men. Recently, Lawrence Katz, a labor economist, speculated that one reason the crime rate in the U.S. might have so significantly dropped, despite the economic recession was that video games had been keeping “the young and idle” busy, and I think that is a provocative starting point for a current study of players in this case, primarily male, as women commit violent crimes at rates much lower than men. The reason why I began here is that much of ‘gender and gameplay’ research has indeed focused on women and girls and gameplay, and we know a bit more about their play and how things have changed over the last 30 years. We know, for example, that at least in terms of self-reporting more women and girls are playing games than they once did in the past — the Entertainment Software Review Board, for example. Of course we also know that the kinds of games being played by women, how frequently and how long they play for matters enormously, yet the ESRB and other studies seem disinclined to pay much attention to this — what we call “raising gender only in order to dismiss it as a problem”.

    In your writing, you suggest that much current work on gender and games falls into a series of “gender traps,” which replicate hegemonic assumptions about gender rather than critique them. What are some of these “gender traps” and what advice would you offer to researchers who want to think around them?

    Hmmm…, I’d say again these two things: Trap #1 Gender = Sex further means just women/girls and Trap #2 raising the ‘issue’ of gender simply in order to dismiss it as any kind of serious challenge or problem.

    You have challenged the common claim that girls do not like competition and prefer cooperation within their game play. On what grounds?

    On the BASIS of 6 years of grounded, video-based ethnographic fieldwork with games in which we have observed girls and boys and their gameplay over at least a year, and sometimes two or three years on a weekly basis. In that work, we have seen girls perform and enact what can only be called “competition” — and this ranges from friendly barbs like “you’re going to die” to much more aggressive enactments, including bumping of controllers to throw another gamer off course, active ‘trash talking’, intense pleasure demonstrated when someone wins, and so on. When we compare these kinds of play to the play of boys from the same community and the same place, we see the same kinds of competition. The important thing here to note is that all too often in studies of girls playing games, past research has not systematically looked at the difference between novice and expert play. This has resulted in mistaking “facts about how girls play” with facts about how novices play. In our work (I work quite closely with Suzanne de Castell at Simon Fraser University) we have been able to show that once we ‘level up’ the girls and they become more expert their play looks very much like the boys: engaged, competitive, and mainly just having fun.

    Dr. Jennifer Jenson is Associate Professor of Pedagogy and Technology in the Faculty of Education, York University, Toronto, Canada. She has published on gender, technology and digital games and games and education, among other topics. She also, with a team of folks, including Suzanne de Castell, designs games for education — recent titles include: Contagion, Tafelmusik: The Quest for Arundo Donax, and Epidemic: Self Care for Crisis. In addition to a strong penchant for Victorian fiction, her favorite game at the moment is Wario Ware DIY.

ARG 2.0 (Part Two)

V. New Directions

[Studio] execs are mired in next-quarter earnings, and ARGs and other transmedia extensions require time to take root and build active, invested communities. It is decidedly a long-term investment, the fruits of which [may] not be fully realized until a significant period of time post-launch. As such, most studios aren’t willing to make the investment needed to bake those components in from the beginning or allocate the funds/resource necessary to ensure their ongoing success (Gennefer Snowfield, Transmedia LA 2010).

Perhaps if ARGs weren’t so demanding on marketing budgets, studio executives would be more willing to “bake them in from the beginning” and hang onto them for the long term. One way around this problem is to develop replayable, ongoing ARGs that engage fans in practices rather than the mere consumption of additional layers of a property via interactions with puzzles and in-game characters. Unlike the labor-intensive PM-centric traditional ARG model, such solutions have the capacity to produce the bulk of their content and interactivity through the emergent effects of a ruleset. These kinds of ARGs might not be the future of storytelling; but perhaps they are the future of story facilitating.

Over the past few years, several major ARG projects have attempted to engage fans in the co-creation of narrative content by using a ruleset to structure and guide participation. One of the most well-known of these projects is World Without Oil (Ken Eklund et al, 2007), a collaborative production game that invited players to speculate about what their lives would be like in the event of a sudden oil shock. While this game retained many of the characteristics of the traditional ARG, including an event-driven and time-sensitive structure, it shifted the emphasis away from the collective solving of puzzles and toward the production of content.

In this manner, it effectively turned the tables on the players – instead of in-game events alerting participants to the existence of new PM-created content to decode and analyze, the fictional events that structured the overarching narrative of World Without Oil signaled the players to imaginatively engage with the story world and create – and share – their own content. Unlike previous efforts at “user-submitted content,” which often merely offered players a chance to upload their own media artifacts as a kind of bonus activity, in World Without Oil, the players had no other option – collaborative production was the game, full stop.

Further, the content the players submitted would feed back into the game system and in turn was incorporated into the evolving narrative, minimally as an entry on the individual player’s profile page, and maximally as a curated or “featured” item on the game’s home page. A simple and flexible set of rules governed the players’ participation: they could create one of several types of media artifacts; they could work within the bounds of the fictional world or strike out on their own; they could choose to build on the work of other players or make reference only to their own imaginings; and so on. In short, the players were given enough structure such that they knew generally what they were supposed to do, but enough freedom to approach things in a manner that best suited their own interests and competencies.

In his seminal essay on Linux, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (2000), Eric Raymond noted that “[it] may well turn out that one of the most important effects of open source’s success will be to teach us that play is the most economically efficient mode of creative work.” But by providing players with a sandbox within which they can meaningfully engage with the world of a media franchise or institutional cause, game designers do more than just streamline the production process. They also win hearts and minds. As veteran ARG writer and player Andrea Phillips told me in a recent interview, “once you’ve given your audience official permission to collaborate with you in any meaningful sense, they’re yours forever, hook, line, and sinker” (Watson 2010).

World Without Oil and other early collaborative production ARGs such as the Playtime Anti-Boredom Society’s SFZero (2005) were among the first of a wave of games to articulate simple rulesets via social networking platforms in order to structure participation. Games like Top Secret Dance Off (2008), Superstruct (2008), and Evoke (2010), all designed by World Without Oil collaborator Jane McGonigal; Must Love Robots (2008), designed by Jim Babb and Tanner Ringerud; and, Austin Hill and Alex Eberts’ Akoha (2010), further iterate the design of online collaborative production games, adding in new elements such as achievement badges, unlocks, leaderboards, and other player profiling and progress-tracking systems. In some cases, these games, such as SFZero, Top Secret Dance Off, and Akoha, limit or eliminate their structural dependence on time-sensitive events, resulting in ongoing game activities that further lower the bar to entry by doing away with the need for “Story so Far”-style summaries.

These kinds of games draw heavily from casual game design, and reflect an awareness of the powerful affordances of social networking platforms to construct asynchronous and persistent play activities. Further, since the challenges in these games are individual rather than collective, players can effectively customize how and when they participate according to their own desires, available time, and range of skills – an impossibility in traditional ARGs designed to be played by a “hive mind.” And since the experience is also inherently social – the point of these games, after all, is to share content and co-create narratives – powerful collective intelligence effects emerge nonetheless, as metadata-rich knowledge archives are produced from the aggregate of the players’ contributions and interactions (Institute for the Future 2009; Shirky 2008).

Many similar games and activities have appeared over the past few years that do not operate under the aegis of ARGs or pervasive games, but are nonetheless good illustrations of this kind of participation design. Kongregate, for example, is a website for independent video game designers that is itself a game, awarding players points, badges, and collectible Magic-like game cards in exchange for playing other players’ games, having their own games played or rated, and accumulating friends on the network. By adding these layers of game play to what otherwise would be yet another banal social networking hub for Flash programmers, Kongregate not only motivates additional acts of collaboration and production, but creates valuable brand identity and allegiance that extends across the entire range of player-produced games hosted on its servers. This kind of productive social metagaming promises to explode over the next couple of years as Facebook’s Open Graph and other (perhaps more legitimately “open”) social media standards take hold (Messina 2009; Schell 2010).

Of course, studios and other large media companies aren’t always well-received when they attempt to enter domains of independent or fannish production. In such gift economies, to paraphrase Lessig, the studios’ money is poison. And while “corporately endorsed produsage or the commercial harboring of produsage communities may enable a wider variety of remixing and mashup activities to take place” (Bruns 2008, 324) within a studio-friendly intellectual property framework, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find examples of industry-sanctioned fan production sites that have failed.

Fortunately, then, collaborative production is not the only way of getting around the accessibility, replayability, and scalability problems inherent in traditional ARG design. Experience designers like Jeff Hull build ambient location-based narratives that retain much of alternate reality gaming’s tried-and-true transmedia storytelling componentry, but drop its dependence on time-sensitive events and collective problem-solving. Hull’s The Jejune Institute (2009) is literally embedded into the fabric of the Bay Area, narrating the evolution of a strange New Age self-help cult through diverse physical and virtual artifacts, including websites, guerilla poster art, a low-powered radio broadcast station, and a physical “headquarters” space on an upper floor of a downtown office tower. The goal, Hull writes, “[is] to present . . . interactions everywhere across the civic realm, so that trap doors and side hatches exist all around you, all the time, [fused] into the urban landscape” (Watson 2010). Players who tumble into The Jejune Institute‘s trap doors discover a world waiting there for them to explore – a kind of off-kilter transmedia theme park that is meant to be visited and experienced rather than analyzed or “solved.”

Finally, it’s important to note that, for some use cases, there is good reason to make ARGs less accessible, less replayable, and less scalable. Massive player populations are not always a good thing. As we have seen, such mega-games are not only expensive to run and maintain, but often have to make critical creative compromises in order to broaden their appeal. In cases where the aim is to create or mobilize an elite core of players who can then go on to evangelize for a brand or cause, difficult-to-access once-in-a-lifetime events that cater to small crowds of self-identified “lead users” can actually have much more impact than campaigns designed to attract hundreds of thousands of participants. As Dena (2008b) notes, in many cases “[designers] could improve the ‘accessibility’ of ARGs but to do so would remove important triggers to hard-core player production and enjoyment.” The trick, of course, is to continue to find ways to appeal to a hard-core population that is extremely savvy about storytelling and game design. In this respect, the elite or hard-core ARG must by necessity remain an elusive and dynamic form.

VI. Conclusions

By moving away from the time-sensitive and event-driven structure of traditional ARGs, designers can create more open-ended games that work better as engines for asynchronous participation and community building. Doing so ultimately means replacing a text-centric storytelling mentality with a systems-centric story facilitating approach. This kind of approach is not an abdication of authorship or aesthetic responsibility; rather, it is a shift from the domain of literal content creation to that of procedural content creation. Such a shift has the potential to break the designerly logjams that have afflicted ARGs since the early 2000s, moving mass-audience iterations of the form toward more accessible, replayable, and scalable designs.

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Jeff Watson is an interdisciplinary media practitioner with a background in screenwriting, filmmaking, and game design. His doctoral research in Media arts and Practice at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts focuses on investigating how ubiquitous computing and social media can enable new forms of storytelling and civic engagement.For more insights from Jeff Watson, you can check out his website or follow his Twitter flow.