Games, New Media and Learning in Argentina: An Interview with Ines Dussel (Part Three)

You’ve drawn heavily on the work of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiatve. What do you see as the most significant continuities and differences between their approach and what you are finding in Argentina?

I’ve been reading all the work done by the initiative, and for me it stands out as the most encompassing and organized effort to understand what is going on. I think I provided some of our keys for reading this work already, but let me try and summarize them.

One is the idea of a public culture. That there is something such as a common public sphere that has to be reconceptualized beyond Habermas’ notion of the argumentative skills and rhetorical plays but that still includes some notion that there is something to be done together and for everybody, is an uncommon approach in most studies of new technologies. I think we share an engagement with an idea of public culture that remains open and subject to debate, and does not get captured by the state, the market, or the isolated individual.

The second has to do with the kind of learning that young people are doing with and in new media, trying to approach in an honest, more open way these new practices. We liked very much the notion of “genres of participation,” as they help organize what we are seeing in our research. And what I liked particularly is that schools are not left out of the map, but are considered as part of this media ecology. I support the idea that schools can be helpful in organizing interesting and relevant experiences for young children which are not immediately accesible to everyone, and which bear other issues in mind than merely the audiences’ tastes. Of course, this means changing the ways in which schools are working with new media, which, as said before, have been focused around issues of safety and potentials threats to children’s integrity, when they have not been totally derogatory on the value, ethics, or productivity of young people’s activities in and with new media.

We also agree with the general search for a balance between the celebration of new, creative, and democratic forces that are mobilizing the digital culture, and the skepticism about some trends that we do not see as democratic and that tend to extend and reshape current social divisions and inequalities. [When I use "democratic," I am pointing to some discussions in contemporary political philosophy that show how evanescent this term might be, but that still hold to an impulse towards more justice and equality (for me, Jacques Rancière or Bill Connolly are good referents of this kind of view).]

Finally, it is difficult for me to point to a difference, but I would say that we bring to our study different concerns that have to do with different “localities” and cultures, as I was saying in the last question. Lately, with the team at Flacso we’ve been reading more about changes in authorship, in the balance between the emotional and the rational in terms of learning, in our notions of a common culture, archive or memory (and memory is a cherished thing in Argentina, where it immediately refers to the last dictatorship and to a quest for human rights and justice), and also the need to maintain the differences between simulation and “real life” (I’ve been reading with great pleasure Sherry Turkle’s discussions on this). I would say they are more politically- and ethically-oriented issues. These topics are not directly addressed by the MacArthur papers, but there are none the less many links to their approaches.

As you do so, you seem to be very aware of the existing visual culture of schools. For example, you told me about research which suggests students are sometimes overwhelmed by films they see in the classroom and do not always remember what they were supposed to teach. How can designers of educational games sidestep those problems?

In the research we are doing on the visual culture of schools, many students referred to their memories of remarkable activities organized by teachers using fiction films or documentaries, or asking them to bring pictures about social issues. Students liked them a lot, and valued them as great learning experiences. But when we asked about what they thought they had learned with those activities, they could not refer to any specific content. For example, a student said that her Biology teacher showed the class an image of the cell and that it caught her attention, and that she learned like in a fingers’ snap, but she could not name any concept nor “title” for that image. The same happened in social studies or history lessons: students had vague memories about the activities, but all remembered the intensity of the feelings provoked by the viewing.

This is something that interests me a lot, and that I put along a series of readings I’ve been doing on visual studies, attention and learning. Historically, pedagogy has thought that there is an equivalence, a direct relationship, between seeing and knowing, but psychology and our own historical experience shows that that is not the case. We need to “know” something to be able to “see” it (I am aware that these are complex terms and there are deep philosophical debates around each one but let’s keep it simple for the sake of the argument). What are children learning when they “see” something in the classroom? Are they learning what we want them to learn, or something completely different?

The examples mentioned above relate, for me, to something that you’ve referred to in previous works: the “wow” effect, the emotional impact of media on people. When using images in classrooms, we might get that “wow” feeling, as when the first student says, “wow, the teacher caught my attention,” but from that we cannot deduce that she learnt the structure of the cell or anything in that neighborhood.

How to sidestep this problem is a difficult question. The first thing I would say is not to take learning for granted. We have to be aware that the intensity of stimuli and the excitement of the game might provoke them to learn something altogether different from what we wanted them to learn with these activities.

And the second thing I would say is that this doesn’t imply that we have to become more explicit of our message or the “content” we want to convey. On the contrary, my reading of these examples is that form and content are divorced in some pedagogical activities, and that “forms” are compelling and complex while “content” is straightforward and unidimensional, and so young people’s attention is caught by the more complex and interesting stimuli and do not attend to the content. So, I would say we should struggle to produce better materials that are more consistent in their forms and contents.

You also told me about research you have been doing about the image banks which teachers draw upon in thinking about the world and how these may differ from those which their students bring into their classes. Can you share some of this research with my readers?

Yes, of course. I wrote an essay on teachers’ visual culture, based on the findings of an activity I’ve done in online courses with teachers. I ask them to post a powerful image of our culture. The idea of “powerful image” draws on visual studies and refers to images that impact us for any reason, that have a lasting effect not only personally but also socially.

In this activity, it struck me that most of the teachers chose shocking images that come from photojournalism: the Biafra child, Kevin Carter’s Pullitzer picture of a little girl in a Sudanese village, anonymous pictures of children in famine, in war refuges, or hurt or killed by political violence. They endorse a “hyperrealism” that, while it aligns itself with a progressive rhetoric, might have troubling effects as a visual discourse on the social. Most pictures were of children, and children were almost always depicted among ruins. No “happy,” meaning no optimistic, narrative was to be found in most pictures (and when it appeared, it was in the line of the Benetton-multiculturalism: black child with white child taking hands and smiling to each other). Also, it was surprising that the Argentinean teachers spoke a “Global visual Esperanto,” as Nick Mirzoeff calls it: the images were from Albania, Africa, Palestina, New York, Central America, Brazil, and not many depicted Argentina’s landscapes or events. The pictures are all serious, and engage in the performance of denunciation. There is almost no ironic image, nor images that refer to advertising or cultural industries. My guess is that, if the same question was posed to young people, the number of advertising images, and of images of their own production, would be much more significant than in the teachers’ selections.

My interest in this essay is with global visual imaginaries, and the visual culture of teachers. There is much more I could say on this, but let’s refer the reader to the essay that has been published in a book edited by the National Society for the Study of Education, whose title is Globalization and the Study of Education, and edited by Fazal Rizvi and Tom Popkewitz.

You have been involved in a number of games and learning initiatives. Can you describe some of the work you are doing and explain what kinds of pedagogical and design principles are informing this work?

With my research team at Flacso, we started doing educational documentaries in 2002. We produced eight 30-minutes videos that developed a program to address issues of discrimination and inclusiveness in middle and secondary schools. We tried to build complex and subtle plots, to present the stories always in a dignified way, and never construct people as passive victims. We were always thinking of how and when the teacher would be using these materials, so time constraints and also pedagogical problems of what to show and how to show it were present from the beginning (and we made pilot tests with teachers to make room for that).

But seen from today, I think that at the beginning we were more aware of the conceptual and political dimensions of our work than about the aesthetic aspects of it. And it was a great experience, because we learned a lot about the tensions between content and form. As soon as we started to work with teachers and students, we realized that there were many unexpected things in their reactions to our videos, and that they had to do with the context in which they were seen, with their prior experiences with these type of videos, and with our own pedagogy. And most of all we had to learn to work through and with the emotions elicited by the documentaries.

This drove us to media studies and also to visual studies, and this intersection is still very interesting to me. The question of which type of knowledge is produced by an image, as posed by the French historian Georges Didi-Huberman, remains a potent, even a burning issue, as he says. Sometimes images touch us at a sensitive level, without being able to put it into words, and yet they do produce important effects on us. Could these effects be called a learning or be considered as knowledge?

I am not interested in measuring it, but on understanding what is it that they do to us. Will it last? Will it be attached in our memory to some meanings? Will we, as the students I found in our recent research, just remember the intense emotion we felt without being able to conceptualize or rationalize anything about it? Maybe this is not a bad thing, but we should be aware of which kind of learning or effects some images produce on us.

We then moved to do an animation piece on global warming which was also very exciting, and since 2007 I’ve been engaged in a team run by Analía Segal, a colleague and friend of mine, that produces videogames. Analía had extensive experience on simulations and games in social studies, and some years ago she decided to experiment with new media, and I joined her. We wanted to explore the potentialities of videogames for learning: they can offer complex narratives, they use a visual language that is closer to young people’s visual culture than the schools’, they promote learning through immersion in a given situation and mobilize intuitive, bodily language that is scarcely mobilized by traditional schooling, among many other possibilities. The team includes people from different disciplines in the social sciences and young game designers who are key to the project. We know that educational materials are not magical solutions to anything, but believe that they can contribute to make classroom more interesting and more challenging. This might be a poor goal for an educational reformer but it is good enough for us as development team.

One of our principles was to produce materials that were not offered by the cultural industries, neither by their topics nor by their aesthetics. We did research on alternative groups that are working on serious games, and decided to focus on sustainable development and produced three or four games on this subject. The first one is called “Urgent, Message” and is about a messenger in the near future who has to deliver different things to different places, always considering time, cost, and environmental impact.

The second one is called “Villa Girondo” and is a multi-player game. We wanted to explore a different game structure. This one deals with the relocation of a village due to the planned construction of a water dam. Players are asked to assume different roles in the community and decide whether the village will be relocated or not. The tension between progress and sustainability is explored, as well as the centrality and complexity of citizens’ involvement in environmental issues.

In the development of the videogames, we included a working group with teachers with whom we discuss and test the games at different stages. And we are doing research on the first developed prototypes to understand how they interact with the real dynamic of classrooms. The questions that interest us are both related to the design of the game and to the pedagogical skills needed to use it in classrooms. Which kind of interactions are promoted by the rules of the game? How important and effective are teachers’ interventions? What kind of strategies do young people use when playing the game? Are there constraints by playing the game at school? Which reflections are opened up by the game? Which ones are picked up by the teachers and which ones are left aside, and why? These are some of the questions we are investigating in schools these days.

I was impressed by the distinctive look and feel of the games you shared with me. To what degree is the goal to create games which reflect the national culture of Argentina as opposed to following the “neutral” or “odorless” design practices that shape many commercial video games? Why might it be important for students in your country to see games which look and feel like the culture around them?

Well, I like your comment and take it as a compliment. As I said before there is a relation between form and content. We believe that it is important to provide students with different aesthetics, less standardized and more related to their daily life. But it doesn’t mean that one has to close down aesthetic diversity. So while we don’t want to follow mainstream games in their options, we do not support any kind of localism that tends to isolate cultural productions. On the other hand, this would be impossible as we are all visual subjects in a global culture.

We hope our games can be played by any child or young person who is interested in these topics. For example, the relocation of villages has been a common problem in Latin America. We include some excerpts from documentaries that give more information and context about real life situations. We believe it is important that schools pick up these debates and provide interesting and challenging opportunities to unfold the complexities involved. In that respect, videogames can be really helpful.

Inés Dussel graduated from the University of Buenos Aires in Educational Sciences and got her Ph.D. at the Dept of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a Principal Researcher at Flacso/Argentina, a centre for research and graduate teaching in the social sciences, and Educational Director of Sangari Argentina. She’s currently interested in the intersections between schooling, new media, and visual culture, and is doing research and producing materials for classroom teaching.

Games, New Media and Learning in Argentina: An Interview with Ines Dussel (Part Two)

Can you tell us something about the context of this debate in your country? For example, how much access to students have to new media technology outside of school? How much exposure do teachers as a class have to new media in the course of their everyday life?

I would say that most students have access to technology, although the frequency and intensity is heavily dependent on socio-economic backgrounds. The main divide is between urban and rural/semi-rural populations, because even in low-income groups in big cities there is a push towards having multi-functional cell phones that allow most of the operations one can do on the internet. Of course, the problem is the soaring costs of the broadband or the phone service, which are still terribly high in the region. In Portugal, and in some Brazilian cities, there are state policies being effected that subsidize broadband connections to low-income populations (5 euros per month or less). This might be a really democratic move in the near future in most of Latin American countries, but we are not there yet. Anyway, I was surprised to read some recent educational research that shows that almost 50% of the children from low-income families report to have Internet connections at home. This means it is spreading quickly.

But the divide, as many people are arguing, is moving from access to use. In a research we are currently doing at FLACSO on schools and visual culture, we find a clear distinction between the type of uses young people from middle and upper classes are doing, and the ones done by young people who come from low-income families, and especially those in semi-rural areas. The first ones are making sophisticated videos, have large collections of images and music, and produce multimedia reports for schools, while the latter make basic powerpoints and have smaller collections of pictures and music, generally with less reflection on what it is, and what for, they are collecting. As always, there are exceptions, but this seems to be the trend. That is why I believe schools could be very important in providing a wide range of experiences that enrich young people’s engagement with the media.

Teachers, on the other hand, do not have a special relationship to new media as a class, that is, because they are teachers. Quite the contrary: pre-service training has started to include it as a curricular content only in the last two years, and it is still a marginal trend, though increasingly important in some groups (who can be considered as “early adaptors,” as in the work you are doing in the New Media Literacy project). But most of the times, one can see young teachers in low-income schools who do not have an email account or don’t even know about the possibilities that new media offer. I ask myself how it is that nobody in their training, which did not happen in the 1980s but only three or five years ago, told them that having an email account and navigating the internet is important not only for them as professionals who are concerned with knowledge or as citizens of this world, but also for them as teachers in their relationship and their cultural offer to their students.

I think that this has to do with some prejudice on the part of the teacher training institutions that assume that new media is kind of a “sumptuous consumption” for low-income populations who are not getting the basics (decent employment, food, electricity or water) and so that it should not be included as a basic content. What they are overlooking is that today access and use of new media is part of the “basics,” of being a member of the local or global community, of getting to be informed and participate in a public culture, even of getting a job.

And children and young people know this better than the training institutions, which are falling behind. In our research, we found multiple examples of young people from low-income families whose relatively-poor use of IT is still pivotal for themselves and their parents in doing budgets for contract works, making a website for home repairs or other informal jobs, or connecting to family in other provinces or neighbouring countries. These uses might not be as sophisticated as others, but are none the less very effective and important in helping them get better material and emotional conditions.

Most teachers do not use new media in these ways, nor do they recognize that their students are doing these kind of things with the computers. The kind of activity they privilege in classrooms, when they do anything, is that of seeking information (all they see in the internet is a gigantic library), and sometimes asking their students to write a report, preferably text-only, or produce a powerpoint with some images, but generally without further reflection on the combination of text, sound, special effects or rhythm that is implied in multimodal texts, as Gunther Kress and many others have emphasized.

So, as research notes in other countries, in Argentina the uses promoted by schools are poor when compared to the actual things young people are doing at homes or with their friends in cybercafés. It is slightly different in middle- and upper-classes, but overall I would say there is still a small proportion of schools that are promoting richer, innovative uses of new media.

How has new media been perceived by the Argentinian public? Is it still read mostly as a threat or is there an awareness of the opportunities it represents?

Well, part of the answer refers to what I said before. For some people, those in the middle classes, new media are a luxury that comes after some basic issues have been guaranteed for the society as a whole. And while this argument is sensible (you cannot think about the internet if you’re not eating or have no electricity), it is not true that one thing can be solved without the other. As the examples mentioned above show, low income families use the internet to improve their work opportunities and to enrich their support networks in multiple respects. It is part of having a wider horizon and range of possibilities.

On the other hand, the public debate is still organized around moral terms which are dichotomic, and I would say that they tend to go for the pessimistic side of the dichotomy. Talks of threat, safety, danger, not only for the children but also for the Spanish language (fear of Anglo-influence) or for “the world as we know it,” are visible in most of the media coverage on new media. Teachers tend to endorse this view, and complain about the supposed empoverishment of writing and oral skills that new media are causing in young people (with the support of traditional agencies like the National Academy of Letters, who has produced a report on this, with doubtful empirical evidence but with lots of media coverage).

But there are some perspectives that are trying to build a more balanced approach, which value the opportunities while they point to the challenges the new media are posing to us. My own concern has been to produce something in that line. I believe that a deeper discussion is needed that addresses the profound changes brought about by new media, part of which I signaled when talking about the 1-to-1 strategy. I particularly like Bernard Stiegler’s discussion in The YouTube Reader on the breakdown of the synchronized access to a flux of programmed texts such as the ones provided by broadcast TV, and the emergence of a cardinal access that can be produced and controlled by the user. I think that there are many issues to be debated around the possibility of a common, public culture that goes beyond what each ones of us chooses to look at, consume, produce in our individual screens and in our own time or pace; and that is why I also do not want to give up on the presence of a common screen in the classroom, be it the blackboard, the smart board, or any other common point of attention. In that respect, I also align myself with the comments done by you, Mimi Ito, and many others, on the reports done through the MacArthur Foundation initiative, that posit the discussion of new media in the light of the production of a public culture.

I got a sense from some of the questions I was asked that new media is understood through some of the same paradigms that were applied to broadcast media — concerns that it exposes Latin Americans to cultural imperialism from Hollywood and elsewhere. How big a concern do you think this is for parents and educators?

I believe that anti-Americanism is more prevalent among progressive intellectuals (including educators) than among the general public, but I do not know of any serious study on this so I will speculate in the next paragraphs. There might be a reemergence of a certain nationalism or LatinAmericanism in the last decade, after the 2001 crisis which put the region in the verge of a collapse, and also backed by the center-left governments in the region that have stressed a rhetoric of autonomy and self-determination for Latin Americans. And of course Bush’s government has done lots to increase the anti-imperialist rhetoric. I know that the rates of disapproval of Bush in Argentina were among the highest in Latin America, and that people welcomed Obama’s election as a hope of a new external policy in the US.

But these are the only data I recall to make a statement about the public’s relation to the US, and I don’t think this translates into a relationship to broadcast media or anti-Hollywood: blockbusters are the same ones than in the US, with the exception of some Argentinean films. But even speaking of “Argentinean films” is ambivalent: the best Argentinean filmmaker today is Juan José Campanella, whose movie El secreto de sus ojos(The Secret in Their Eyes) won the Oscar for foreign films in 2010. Campanella works in LA and has directed some episodes of House, M.D. and other major TV series in the US. So whether his narrative style and aesthetics is anti-Hollywood remains quite debatable… I don’t think he even considers that a problem or a question that deserves attention.

Anyway, in some respects, your perception is right in terms that anti-imperialism is a significant force in terms of how educators react to new media (I’m less sure about parents). Many teachers feel that they have to defend the nation and the Spanish language against any kind of imperialism, and that they have to do it in the schools, through their teaching. I would say that, as a general rule, teachers in Latin America are more politicized than in the US, and think of themselves as constructors of the nation, as producers of a new type of citizen.

I did my Ph.D. in the US, at UW-Madison, and I was surprised when teachers said that their primary task was to develop the full potential of the individual child and spoke almost exclusively in psychological terms. You don’t see that kind of talk in Argentina or in most Latin American countries. Even the less politicized teachers make reference to the nation, to the society, to social functions and ideals. They might do it in a conservative way, but they still feel part of a social mission, of a political project.

But the question you raised takes me in another direction, that is how the global and the local are negotiating in and through new media. Being an otaku in New York or in a small village of Salta, Argentina, is similar and different, in ways that we need to analyze much more carefully than simply celebrating cosmopolitanism and global culture, or rejecting it by refuging ourselves in an anti-Hollywood or anti-US culture position. Watching a TV series like 24 in the US might reaffirm a certain power narrative about geopolitics and the imperial domination, but when seen in Latin America it might say quite the opposite.

I like very much the work done by Carlos Monsiváis, a wonderful Mexican cultural critic who just passed away, on the dispositions and sensitivities of the audience in our region -which is extremely diverse, of course. He said that, contrary to Hollywood’s happy ending movies where the cowboy saves the girl, it is very likely that in Latin American melodramas the girl dies right before her hero comes to her rescue. For him, melodrama was a “structure of understanding,” a “unifying device for experience” that was built into politics, religion, and social bonds. This structure (which he thought of as something loose, not rigid) comes from the verbal blocks of 19th century novels, the filmic melodrama, or TV’s telenovelas.

So, following his lead, I would say that for most Latin American viewers there is not an epic of triumph when seeing these TV series, but we put them along or inside a narrative that is sadder, more nostalgic, definitely not victorious (may be it derives in identifications with the bad guys, which is extremely dangerous). Images and audiovisual texts might be the same, but the locality of the viewing makes a great difference in understanding the narratives in which they are inscribed, and the meaning which we produce. So yes, going back to your question, I would say that locality plays a role in new media, and the structures of understanding still seem more local than global.

Inés Dussel graduated from the University of Buenos Aires in Educational Sciences and got her Ph.D. at the Dept of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a Principal Researcher at Flacso/Argentina, a centre for research and graduate teaching in the social sciences, and Educational Director of Sangari Argentina. She’s currently interested in the intersections between schooling, new media, and visual culture, and is doing research and producing materials for classroom teaching.

Games, New Media and Learning in Argentina: An Interview with Inés Dussel

Earlier this summer, I shared with you some of my experiences in Buenos Aires where I was a speaker at the VI For Latinoamericano de Educacion, hosted by the Fundacion Santilla, an event attended by education ministers and educational researchers/policy makers from many of the Latin American countries.

My host for the event was educator and public intellectual Inés Dussel who is one of the co-authors with Luis Alberto Quevedo of a new white paper exploring the impact of new media on education in Latin America, Educacion y nuevas technologias: los desafios pedagogicos ante el mundo digital. I was deeply impressed by Dussel and her colleagues: she is highly engaged with the work we’ve been doing through the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiative, as well as the debates taking place in South America around these same topics. I wanted to be able to share more of her perspectives with English-language researchers and educators in hopes of brokering more conversations between educators in the North and the South who are confronting the ways that rapid media change is reshaping the lives and interests of their students.

While I was in Argentina, you released a significant report which sought to explore the impact of new media on educational practices in Latin America. What were your major goals for this project?

The report was commissioned by the Organization of IberoAmerican States (OEI) and the Foundation Santillana, which is affiliated to a major publishing house in the Spanish-speaking world. They organize annual conferences that bring together Ministers of Education from throughout the Southern Cone, educators, and media people. It is an important venue for public policy and debate in education.

The 2010 Forum, on which you were the guest speaker, was devoted to the pedagogical challenges of IT technologies in the region. Luis Alberto Quevedo and myself were asked to write the discussion paper, which actually turned into a 60+-pages report. Both Luis Alberto and myself have been working on these issues for a number of years, and run together an online course on education, visual culture and media designed primarily for educators. Above all, we share an active engagement with public debate in and around media, both in public and commercial media, although Luis Alberto has a more sociological take on this and I bring a pedagogical concern with what people learn from their experiences with the media.

Our goal with the report was to provide a broad frame that helps organize a discussion around the different alternatives that are being explored either by public policies or by the schools themselves in the introduction of IT. We talk about four major strategies: a) organizing computer labs in schools, b) getting one laptop to every child (1-to-1) either by joining the OLPC initiative or through major commercial firms, c) having portable carriages with laptops for planned, alternate usage in classrooms, and d) introducing electronic boards in each classroom. Each strategy has different assumptions about the extent to which IT should permeate the daily life of schools and of course imply different costs and mobilization of resources.

In the report, we were also interested in taking a look at the production of content, especially the work done by teachers with the use of blogs or video production for educational purposes, and by the Argentinean Ministry of Education, which has done an interesting TV series for rural schools called Horizontes (Horizons) whose impact on school practices we want to investigate. These schools usually have only one teacher with multi-grade classrooms, so IT technologies can be a great help in supporting teachers who usually exhaust themselves in their daily work.

We could only get a glimpse at content issues and DIY media production in the report but it seems promising, and we are currently doing research to get a better understanding of what is going on. And finally, we made a review on the changes on teacher training, looking in particular at changes in curricular contents, and discussing whether there are new teaching figures appearing in the landscape of schools (IT specialists or audiovidual assistants, among others). So, as you can see, the scope was broad and it calls for more research and more writing, which is the step in which we are currently engaged.

Which models have gotten the greatest traction in Latin America and why?

So far, the most extended strategy in the region is to equip computer labs, but research shows that, while it was helpful in the 1990s to get at least some teachers interested in IT, today it tends to confine the novelty to a marginal place in the curriculum and does not contribute to a deeper discussion on the big changes brought about by digital culture in the production and circulation of knowledge in our societies. Also, it has been noted that computer labs usually get trapped in the micro-politics of schools, with power games around who’s got the key or privileged access to the lab (the same can be said about any innovation in schools, of course, but the concentration of computers in one space contributes to a more centralized struggle around access and control).

There is also a particular Argentinean context that has to do with the scarcity of resources: the first reaction of school principals and teachers when they get computers or even books is to lock them off so that they are not lost or ruined by usage. This sounds absurd, but it has to do with an entrenched learning that in schools you don’t get good things too many often, so you better preserve them, even though this might mean not using them at all…

So, as we all know but tend to forget, innovations and new technologies in schools have to negotiate with multiple levels of adaptation and with different school dynamics that produce unexpected effects. Sometimes they are able to mobilize creative, wonderful energies and forces in the schools, and sometimes these effects are undesirable. When involved in the innovations, we tend to forget about the latter.

The second alternative, which is actually becoming the most common nowadays, is the 1-to-1 strategy of equipping every child with a netbook. In Uruguay the Plan Ceibal, effective since 2007 and based on OLPC, has been very successful in doing that with all elementary school children in public schools (around 320,000 students, ages 6 to 11). Uruguay is a relatively small country, with a flat land, and is one of the most socially egalitarian in the region, so in many respects it has not gone through the challenges of connectivity that other countries are undergoing right now, especially when there are high mountains with blind spots for telecommunication, lots of isolated villages, or heavily marginalized groups with a predictable feeling of resentment towards State policies (which might derive in high levels of theft or destruction of equipment), challenges that countries such as Argentina, Chile, or Perú are facing. Argentina’s government has recently started a program called ConectarIgualdad (ConnectEquality) that will provide 3,000,000 secondary school students in public schools with netbooks, manufactured by commercial firms. It is probably the largest single investment in the region, and we are all eager to see how it will work.

The third and fourth alternatives (portable carriages with laptops and smart boards) are being implemented in small scale, and more research is needed to understand their effects. Both seem interesting ways of making a smoother transition into the digital culture than the 1-to-1 strategy, because they are closer to the way in which classrooms are organized today. But apparently the 1-to-1 option is the route that the educational systems are taking in our region. It might be interesting, though, to keep these other possibilities in mind, as we don’t know yet how effectively the 1-to-1 strategy is going to work, and also because we don’t think this should be an “either/or” option: school systems are large conglommerates of people and institutions and they should be able to incorporate new media through many different strategies that might be useful for different purposes.

What are the goals of Latin American governments in seeking to expand access to new media?

Our reading of initiatives like the 1-to-1 option is that they are great strategies for digital inclusion, and the main effects are not only to be seen on children’s lives but on their families’. In Uruguay and Argentina, the fact that the netbooks are going to public school children means that they are helping to bridge the digital gap in terms of access (middle and upper classes have fled to private schools some decades ago).

There’s an ad from the Plan Ceibal in Uruguay that is rich in images about the social progress that rural children will make with their laptops. The song is performed by Jorge Drexler (Oscar winner with the film The Motorcycle Diaries, about Che Guevara’s youthful journey across South America) and says something like this: “I want to be a sailor/ on the Austral sky/ without getting away from my haven/ under the shadow of my ceibal” (which is a common tree in the pampas). The symbolic aspect of having an opportunity for growth and development without being forced to migrate to a big city or to a foreign country is something that is really strong in the Latin American context, and points to a transformation in the economy and the politics of our societies. I want to stress the complexity of the symbolism that is being mobilized: it is conceived as part of the rights of every citizen; it also has overtones of deep quests for social justice in Latin America and it implies an affirmation of local development not in a nostalgic mood but with hope for the future. This is a major change, and, from my point of view, quite an interesting and promising one.

Surrounding these initiatives there is, however, a significant lack of discussion about what it will mean for schools and classrooms to have children connected to individual screens, presumably moving at their own pace in a rich environment with multiple alternatives and pathways to be followed. This sounds fantastic on one level, but it is also terrifying for most teachers who have no clue about how to handle these new situations.

A person who is doing research in Uruguay told me some days ago (two or more years after they started) about the kind of problems teachers get when some students are not able to connect, which sometimes can happen to almost 50% of the class. The netbooks might have software or hardware problems, and at any rate teachers are not prepared to deal with them and do not have a technical aid at hand. Thus, the classroom sequence they prepared most likely starts to sink. When you encounter this kind of problems, you cannot simply tell the students with failing equipment to shut up and let other children work (in fact you can, but this won’t make things any better!). There are things to be done in these situations, but what I mean is that teachers should have a repertoire of alternatives that they don’t have yet.

The training they are receiving is on software and, as far as I know, there is no organized training or discussion about the pedagogical situations they are facing. This is something that could be dealt with if there were more concerns about pedagogical issues and about the skills and practices that are needed to implement these changes.

There is also not much reflection on the demand for new content and sequences for teaching that this change will place on teachers and school administrators, and unfortunately there has been no significant investment so far to put up to this challenge. In educational journals and in mainstream media there are lots of apologetic talks on the “School 2.0,” most of the times in de-politicized terms, that propose an ideal of a direct (un-mediated) access to information and knowledge and that assume the model of the business websites for participation. In this view, with the Internet 2.0 children will (finally!) be free from the domination of the teacher and the institution of schooling, and the rhetoric promises that, instead of having ill-trained teachers, young people will be able to access any site and get all the expert advice that they want from top scientists and thinkers.

The mainstream rhetoric is no different, at least from what I’ve read, from what you hear in the U.S. or in Europe. I have many problems with these arguments, among them, the derogatory view they have of actual schools and teachers and the uncritical privileging of expert knowledge, but probably the largest difference lies in the assumption that there is an access to knowledge that is un-mediated by existing social knowledge or institutions.

Let me give just one example of this difference, referred to the type of production children and young people do with digital media. As Sonia Livingstone, Mimi Ito and Julian Sefton-Green have shown in their work, tyoung people’s uses of digital technologies are not necessarily creative, but tend to be shaped by their own culturally-mediated practices with existing media. For instance, some years ago the Ministry of Education developed an interesting program on short-film making with digital media (camcorders, simple editing programs, a notebook) in low-income schools in the northern provinces of Argentina -the ones with the highest levels of exclusion and poverty, and lower performance rates in schools. The program was led by a great team that included popular educators and young filmmakers (interestingly, Argentinean film industry is booming and the film schools are producing many graduates who have trouble finding a job, so teaching is actually an option for many of them, and while this is bad for the young graduates, this is a great opportunity for schools to involve people from the creative industries).

During its first year, the program was very open about the kind of topics and styles that students could use, and the short films that young people produced were all in the line of TV reality shows, with topics such as drug addiction, juvenile crime, teenage pregnancy, etc. The aesthetics was mimicking that of the TV shows such as Cops or alike. Most of these young people lived in small villages with different problems than the ones narrated by these sensationalist shows, but the students, when left on their own, had a hard time imagining other narratives or alternative aesthetics than the ones they learned from the TV shows (Julian Sefton-Green and David Buckingham’s work in the UK show the same thing). So, after discussing this development, the second year of the program the organizers decided to ask the students to produce short films based on their dreams and with a surrealistic approach. The range of genres and of topics was much more interesting this second time, when actually the framing was more clearly defined in a top-down manner.

For me, this example speaks about the inescapable connections between the kind of productions and uses that young people do with new media and the cultural industries. When I say this, I do not intend to demonize cultural industries; but being naïve about the kind of constraints that are at play is no good either. I like very much Mimi Ito’s Engineering Play, because it shows all the nuances of media production in the case of videogames, the different genres, but also all the range of practices in media use or consumption by young people. What I want to stress is that the most likely outcome of this “non-mediated” (which in fact means non-mediated by schools or teachers) access will be in fact mediated by young people’s experience with the media outside schools, which is far from being pure or uncontaminated by social class, cultural habitus, etc..

Inés Dussel graduated from the University of Buenos Aires in Educational Sciences and got her Ph.D. at the Dept of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a Principal Researcher at Flacso/Argentina, a centre for research and graduate teaching in the social sciences, and Educational Director of Sangari Argentina. She’s currently interested in the intersections between schooling, new media, and visual culture, and is doing research and producing materials for classroom teaching.

How New Media is Transforming Storytelling: A New Video Series

Kurt Reinhard from the Institut für Theorie, Zurich University of Applied Sciences and Arts, recently posted on Vimeo a fascinating series of short videos on the future of storytelling. The videos juxtapose the perspectives of some key thinkers in this space, including Clay Shirkey (NYU), Joshua Green (UCSB), Ian Condry and Nick Montfort (MIT), Dean Jansen from the Participatory Culture Foundation, Joe Lambert from the Center for Digital Storytelling, and, hmm, Henry Jenkins (USC), among others. Each video is between five and ten minutes long and tackles some of the ways that shifts in the media environment are changing the nature of stories and storytelling.

This opening installment sets the stage with a broad overview of the nature of media change.

Storytelling Part 1: Change of Storytelling from ith storytelling on Vimeo.

Here’s a segment that deals specifically with the issues around transmedia storytelling and entertainment.

Storytelling Part 3: Transmedia from ith storytelling on Vimeo.

This one deals with storytelling in relation to social networks.

Storytelling Part 4: Potential of Social Media from ith storytelling on Vimeo.

Another explores collaborative production of stories through processes like crowdsourcing.

Storytelling Part 5: Collective Storytelling from ith storytelling on Vimeo.

And this one explores issues of motivation within participatory culture.

Storytelling Part 8: Motivation to Participate from ith storytelling on Vimeo.

I certainly intend to use these videos in my own teaching. Indeed, I am using segment one to launch my Medium Specificity course later today. There’s a real power in hearing the voices of people who are so passionate and thoughtful about the nature of media change and its impact on the kinds of experiences we are able to share with each other.

The video series is intended to call attention to the launch of a new collaboration between European institutions to explore the processes, practices, and literacies surrounding stories and storytelling. Beyond Reinhard’s own people at Zurich, he says that the following other researchers are going to be contributing to this project:

* Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main, Verena Kuni

* European Institute for Participatory Media Berlin, Jasminko Novak

* Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Axel Vogelsang

* University of Zurich, Chair of Marketing and Market Research, Wolfgang Kotowski

* Zurich University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Jörg Huber

* coUNDco Online Marketing Agency Zurich, Florian Wieser

Comics and the City: An Interview with Jorn Ahrens

In 2007, I attended a really exciting conference in Berlin which brought together comics scholars from the United States and Europe to talk about the intersections between comics and the city. Here’s a blog post that I wrote about the conference at the time. More recently, the conference organizers Jorn Ahrens and Arno Meteling have published a book, Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence which builds upon the conference, including many of the key papers presented as well as some edited for the collection. My own work on Retrofuturism in the comics of Dean Motter was included in the book in a slightly different form that the version I shared with readers of this blog.

The book is organized around five key themes: History, comics and the city; Retrofuturistic and nostalgic cities; Superhero cities; Locations of crime; and the City-Comic as a Mode of reflection. I have really been enjoying reading some of the other contributions to the book. Among the comics and artists represented in the collection are The Yellow Kid, Jason Lute’s Berlin, the works of Eurocomics masters such as Francois Schuiten and Jacques Tardi, Batman’s Gotham City, Ex Machina, Promethea, Spider-man’s New York, Will Eisner, From Hell, 100 Bullets, Carl Barks, and Enki Bilal.

Hoping to call attention to this collection, I reached out to Jorn Ahrens, who teaches Cultural Sociology at the University of Giessen, to share some of his own thinking about the intersection of comics and urban studies. Here’s what he had to share.

A central premise of the book is that comics have played a key role in producing and reproducing images of the city. Why is there such a close connection between this medium and the urban imagination?

Joern: The medium itself stems from the emergence of urban culture, especially from a mass media that can not be imagined without the urban environments of modernity. That way, from the beginning, comics can be seen as a medium in and by which a modern urban culture reflects itself by establishing certain narratives and images that help to clarify the self-understanding concerning in which “reality” people might be living apart from their nearest life-world. Comics can do that so profoundly, because they are the first medium that successfully combines the elements of word and image which means that they create a double representation of the world. Word and image both reflect on the social world they are produced in and they may also comment each other. With regard to those very new and unconvenient urban environments they massively participate in the construction of specific imagologies of the contemporary, which is: images of the cultural reality that, although they remain being images, help create access to reality and its perception.

Are there specific ideas about the city which originate with comics or do you see comics as primarily replicating ideas which are in broader circulation?

Joern: I see primarily the coincidence of the historical emergance of an environment of mass society, most clearly accentuated in modern urbanity with its implementation of the modern self, speed, a stone-born-nature, etc. and new types of mass media of which the comic is one. This coincidence, in my view, feeds a very particular and reflexive relation between the comic and the city. The film, too, is involved in this development. However, I see the comic being special here when its frozen sequentiality also corresponds with the frozen architecture of the sublime that the modern city contunally tries to realize.

What have comics added to our understanding of what it means to live in the city?

Joern: Especially they added a kind of commonly shared iconography of the city. Comics made the city readable. The city as social realm strongly refers to communication via images. Comics help turning these images into cultural narratives and aesthetics and to create outstanding icons of modern identity, landmarks of our self-understanding that are, by definition, not bound to specific cities or nations.

Your book cuts across some key divides which shape how comics get discussed, discussing commercial and art comics, American and European comics, historical and contemporary comics side by side. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of adopting such an inclusive approach?

Joern: The greatest disadvantage is, of course, that the field is too broad–you will always miss something. The nice advantage of the approach is that we are able to offer a sort of panorama that covers all these aspects that you are mentioning and in which combination only you might get that kind of overview we had in mind.

Yet, you also made a decision not to include Japanese comics in your mix. Why? What might such comics have told us about the nature of the urban imagination in comics?

Joern: Well, that’s kind of an odd story that tells you more about the adventures of editing a book than of conceptualizing it. The answer to this question is far off from intellectuality. As you know, the idea to realize the book based on a conference we held in Berlin in 2007–and that involved a manga section for we, of course, believe manga to be one of the aesthetic and narrative core genres to presently approach urbanity in comics. Unfortunately, we have been victims of some evil curse that, one by one, took away from us any manga author after we grasped him or her. One disagreed with the book’s concept, one was depressive, one was moving house, two just vanished and never answered e-mails again. It’s a pity. If ever one or two manga scholars would show up who don’t vanish again after two seconds, I’d plea for a special supplemental printing.

Some of the comics you discuss deal with specific real world cities while other cities are the projection of the author’s imagination. How do these different strategies allow reflection on the urban experience?

Joern: The urban experience is a genuinely imaginative one. It comes up as a dreamworld or as “cities of the fantastic” to put it with the comics by Schuiten and Peeters. Take Berlin, City of Stones, for example–there you can find out that the dealings with the real, historically accurately depicted city are always involved into discourses of imagination about the city and its reality. On the other hand, truly imaginated cities, used as parables or simply as topographies unlimited to the author’s imagination, like in the works of Marc-Antoine Mathieu, might give room to communicate deep insight about the nature and concept of the modern city in general. Of course, the modern city is a diverse thing, nevertheless there seem to be some core principles that can be elegantly stated by the means of “graphic literature”.

Are different genres of comics apt to lend themselves to utopian or dystopian conceptions of the city?

Joern: I wouldn’t put it that way. In my view it is rather the city that creates a utopian or dystopian notion to the use of genre. The use and representation of the city itself, may it be in graphics or plot, determines what the genre communicates its readers.

Joern, you focused your essay on 100 Bullets. Can you explain to readers who may not be familiar with this independent title why you think it is especially significant in understanding the themes of the book?

Joern: What fascinates me in 100 Bullets is that this series creates a kind of double imagination of contemporary urban society and culture. So, firstly, we have quite a decent documentary-like approach that presents highly realistic depictions of the urban life from the far upper class down to homeless people. But at the same time this comic is fully aware of its artificiality (as any media product is one) which it shows by its emphasization of aesthetic stylization and narrative cliché. That way 100 Bullets aptly crosses out the distinction of seemingly reality and creates a double representation of the cultural and social environment it is set in that covers both documentation and deconstructing reflection. Hence, in my view 100 Bullets comes up as one of the most fascinating examples for the immanent capacity of popular culture to unfold complex meditations on the medium and society while it still provides a greatly entertaining narrative and exciting artwork. So, with which subject can that be done better than by covering the presently floating images of the modern city and its characters?

The book brings together comics scholars from Europe and North America. What did you see as the differences in the status and approach of comics research in these two contexts? Where do you see common ground between the researchers?

Joern: I think, the main difference still is the divide in the formal canon. European and North American scholars still often refer to quite a different collection of works stemming from the two quite different traditions in comic culture (and Europe, of course, is far from being a homogeneous comic topography itself). This is not banal or only a problem of data overview. Hence, the different approaches in style, format, and narration also produce a different understanding of the medium and its intellectual reflection. Comics here and there are absolutely not the same and yet–they are. Common ground, then, can definitely be seen in the goodbye to the concept of high culture as much as to the struggle between high and low in general. Research in comics stems from a wide understanding of culture that does not doubt the legitimacy and productivity of mass culture. This is the comic studies’ advantage in comparison to film studies. Comics never really had their cinephilia that desparately made them try to be acknowledged as art, too, as we still have to face it in film studies. So, I’d say that comic studies are lustily participating in entering a new self-understanding of modern culture.

Jorn Ahrens is Stand-In Professor in Cultural Sociology at the University of Giessen. His research focuses on cultural theory, popular media, questions of the self, violence and myth. His publications include “How to Save the Unsaved World?: Visiting the Self in 12 Monkeys, Terminator 2, and The Matrix,” in A. Holba and K. Hart (eds.) Media and the Appocalypse (2009) and “Der Mensch als Beute. Narrationen anthropologischer Angst im Science Fiction-Film” in Zeitschrift fur Kulture-und Medienforschung (2009). Ahrens was a visting scholar with the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT.

ARGS, Fandom, and the Digi-Gratis Economy: Interview with Paul Booth (Part Three)

As I read your discussion of “database” narratives, I was reminded of Otaku: Database Animals which was recently translated into English from the original Japanese and has a number of key arguments to make about the way the model of the database is impacting fan creative expression. Do you know this work? If so, how would you position your arguments in relation to its core claims about the encyclopedic nature of Otaku culture?

I hadn’t heard of Otaku: Database Animals until I saw your question, but after reading it, I can definitely see the connection between Hiroki Azuma’s work with database cultures and my own work with database narratives. I think there are some truly interesting parallels as well as some differences between my thinking and Azuma’s which elucidate some of the more conceptual ideas in both. For Azuma, Otaku culture seems to reside in a similar place in society as does fan culture: “those who indulge in forms of subculture strongly linked to anime, video games, computers, science fiction, special-effects films, anime figurines, and so on” (p. 3). But I think what intrigues me most about his analysis of Otaku is the way it plays so heavily into cultural theory.

Namely, the shift from modernist culture to postmodernist culture in Japan can be chartered, according to Azuma, through the relationship Otaku have to the media texts they enjoy. This philosophical sea change represents a shift from a mode of fan action based on narrative to a mode of fan action based on the database. I hate to simplify the complex philosophical argumentation and the wealth of examples Azuma brings to the table; but in brief, modernist media texts maintain a “grand narrative” behind the tale – that is, we watch to try and figure out the “deep inner layer” of the story. Each individual mode of narrative – television show, action figure, video game, etc. – represents a minute glimpse into this grand narrative, and by piecing them together, we can find the “truth” behind the complex narrative. In contrast, the postmodernist media text has no “grand narrative,” and instead each individual media text exists solely in relation to other media texts, forming a database of information. From this database, Otaku can construct any number of individual narratives. Thus, for Azuma, even derivative works (what I would call fan-created texts) have equal value in this model, for these derivative works contribute equally to this database.

I agree that fan-created texts can, indeed, have equal value for fans as do extant texts. However, while Azuma focuses his work on the move from narrative culture to database culture, I tend to look more at the relationship between the database and the narrative in fans’ digital texts. Indeed, I look at how fans represent the linear causality of narrative within the inherently non-linear structure of the database. For example, Azuma describes the encyclopediazation of characters from Otaku culture into massive online databases that allow Otaku to create their own characters from common attributes (TINAMI searches). He writes that this database culture is opposed to narrative, even describing it as “non-narrative.” In contrast, I describe the way wikis promote modes of fan expression that use and play with narrative form, like narrative re-purposing and textual spoiling.

For example, I examine Lostpedia as a fan-created wiki that reconceptualizes narrative from a linear model to a hypertextual model. Delving into narrative theory, I argue that fans read the discourse of Lost, re-write the story, and then re-present that story in a new context on the wiki, thus transferring the temporality of Lost into a spatial reconstruction of the narrative events. Ultimately, like in Otaku: Database Animals, this argument presents a postmodern view of media texts as divorced from definitive authorship, but one that emphasizes the connection between narrative and database.

You talk in the book about “ludicity.” Can you explain what you mean by this word and what it might suggest about the relationship between fan expression and play?

Ludicity is related to one key concept that I return to again and again throughout the book: a particular “philosophy of playfulness” that seems to inhabit contemporary media use. By using the word “ludic,” I don’t necessarily mean that all media are games, or even game-like, but rather that the manner in which contemporary audiences use media is playful, fun and exuberant. We don’t watch YouTube, for example – we interact with it, play with it, and search for clips that match the mood we may be in. Today’s media are certainly interactive, but the manner of that interaction simulates more closely the way one might play with a game rather than the way one might watch a film.

This playfulness is one reason I believe the Alternate Reality Game features heavily as a metaphor for contemporary media. To “play” an ARG is a vastly different experience from “playing” a board or video game. For one, playing an ARG relies on not knowing whether you are playing or not – the “magic circle” defined by Johan Huizinga envelopes all media. To play an ARG hinges on making all media interactions playful, for a player may never know if an interaction is part of the game or merely real. In contrast to traditional games, therefore, ARGs are boundless.

For fans, this philosophy of playfulness emerges in their interactions with the extant media text. One can often read a sly “wink wink/nudge nudge” feeling from fan-created texts, one that playfully remarks upon the intertextual relationship between fan worlds. I call this feeling “ludicity” in the book, poaching the term from Tom Brown’s “The DVD of Attractions’?: The Lion King and the Digital Theme Park.” I use the term “ludicity” to refer to the playfulness – silliness, even – with which contemporary media audiences can engage with media texts. For fans, the playfulness of the fan content indicates a close, lively relationship with the text. For example, fans seem to assert this ludicity in the way they articulate the illegality of their fan fiction in their disclaimers. One fan text remarked, “Yes, I blatantly stole ideas from both Battlestar Galactica and Return of the Jedi … please don’t sue me for doing it. This is for amusement and nothing more.” The author here understands copyright (“I blatantly stole ideas”) and the necessity for acknowledgment (“This is for amusement and nothing more”), but playfully skirts the issue of legality/illegality (“please don’t sue me”) with a humorous comment.

Ludicity as a concept of (and in) media studies helps to acknowledge that, despite the seriousness with which we examine fans and other media audiences, it is often matched with a converse silliness – which simply makes studying fans much more interesting.

Some critics might argue that your book is drawn towards the fan boy cannon, focusing on such works as Heroes, Lost, Doctor Who, and Battlestar Galactica. Is there something specifically masculine about the forms of fan productivity you are discussing? What would your argument look like if you applied it to shows, such as Supernatural, White Collar, or True Blood, which have a stronger female fan following?

I think it’s important to note, though, that just because a show may be weighted masculine, that doesn’t mean the fan culture that surrounds it is. While there may be a more masculine bent towards the fan objects I examine, I’m not entirely convinced that a show necessarily geared “feminine” or “masculine” plays out that way in fan discussion. Especially in the cases of Doctor Who and Heroes, I see many female fans participating in online discussions and fandom (and of course both BSG and Lost have many female fans).

But your larger question is quite intriguing – is there something specifically masculine about the fan creativity I discuss in the book? To be honest, I don’t think there is. One of the conceptual guides I use to describe fan content creation throughout the book is the “Web Commons,” or a conception of the web as a source for community and communal action. To conceptualize the web as a commons (and I am far from the first to do so: Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons is instructive here, as is Yochai Benkler’s in-depth The Wealth of Networks) is to see its primary function as facilitating communities. My research on fans looks at fans from this angle – not as primarily producers but as members of a community. If anything, I would gender this emphasis on community as a more feminine-style discourse; but I’m cautious to do so because I don’t think fans in the Web Commons can be so essentialized. Ultimately, I think that fans do what we all do – join communities, discuss their passions, and find commonalities with others which they can share.

An interesting concern here is the attempt to link work on the narrative complexity of contemporary television (such as the work of Jason Mittell) on the complex practices which fans deploy in processing those narratives. Do the new complex narratives depend on the kinds of participatory infrastructure fandom expands? If so, do they rise and fall with their fan bases?

I’m really interested in complex narratives and how they function within our culture of decaying attention spans. We are often warned that we live in a multi-tasking society, where students spend more time on Facebook than they do writing papers, that we are faced with so many screens we can’t focus, and that our attention span is atrophying. But the success of shows like Lost, Heroes, The Sopranos, and other long-form complex narratives seems to indicate that at least some portion of the population embraces complexity. Even contemporary cinema provides a glimpse into this tension: Christopher Nolen’s Inception is one of the most complex narratives from Hollywood in a long time, and it’s also been incredibly popular this summer, raking in nearly 150 million dollars in its first two weeks. It has also led to hundreds, if not thousands, of online discussions.

I think that there is a link between the complexity of a narrative and the fan practices that accompany it. If there wasn’t an audience for complexity, these types of narratives wouldn’t get made. But success is not always guaranteed. The case of FlashForward is a good example, as on the surface it would seem to be a textbook case of narrative complexity: a serial narrative, an expansive cast of character, multiple (global) locations, deep mysteries and mythic undertones. Yet, the show never truly caught on, and lost viewers nearly every week. Perhaps with some more time, the show would have succeeded – a second season may have saved FlashForward. But the networks seem to want television that hits that perfect storm of complexity and clarity – a tall order given that many complex narratives deliberately take time to understand. For every Lost there are loads of Happy Towns.

Of course there are a multitude of factors that play into whether or not a show succeeds, not least of which is the quality of the writing (a fault that is difficult to forgive in today’s market). But fan participation does, I think, have a major factor on shows that air. The work of fans to keep Star Trek alive and thriving is well documented, and other shows have had similar help: Roswell, Jericho, Firefly, Family Guy, and Futurama, just to name a few. But I think, just as Sharon Ross does in Beyond the Box and Jonathan Gray does in Show Sold Separately, that it’s also the indirect work that has a great effect on whether shows survive or not. What I mean is that fans can actively petition a network to keep a show on the air, and/or they can participate online to keep communication about the show alive. By keeping a show in the popular discourse, by creating spreadable media that can be shared among fans and non-fans alike, fans can have a grassroots effect on media, and I think this is where the Internet and digital texts have the greatest power.

Along these same lines, fans also demonstrate that our society’s attention span isn’t necessarily atrophying – it’s simply moving onto different texts than what we’ve concentrated on before. We are intrigued by complexity, narratives, and games – playful texts that challenge as well as entertain. By using the lessons learned from studying complex (fictional) narratives, we can experiment with new ways to harness this attention. Games such as World without Oil or Ghosts of a Chance tell stories in ways that connect with the types of complexity that we do concentrate on, but also harness that storytelling for social good and educational purposes.

You offer a fascinating rethinking of the gift economy in relation to digital media: “The new gift, the digital gift, is a gift without an obligation to reciprocate. Instead of reciprocity, what the gift in the digital age requires for ‘membership’ into the fan community, is merely an obligation to reply.” Can you explain the distinction you are making here between reciprocation and response? Does the obligation to reply create as strong a set of social ties as the obligation to reciprocate?

This is one of the key assertions of the book: that the gift economy itself functions differently in a digital space than it does in traditional spaces. The reason for this difference is, I think, due to the fact that it has to be situated complementary to the commodity economy. The mashup of the two, the “Digi-Gratis” economy, isn’t just about the interaction between the gift and the commodity, but is also about the way each changes the other through that interaction. In traditional gift economies, of the type originally described by Marcel Mauss, there is a three-part structure that governs gift exchange: the giving of the gift, the receiving of the gift, and the reciprocation of the gift. Mauss is quite direct about this third obligation: “The obligation to reciprocate worthily is imperative. One does lose face for ever if one does not reciprocate, or if one does not carry out destruction of equal value. The punishment for failure to reciprocate is slavery for debt” (p. 54).

To envision the digital economy as a type of gift economy, as Rheingold’s The Virtual Community does, means a change in the type of interaction presented both by the communities and by the technologies involved. Instead of reciprocation, which implies equality in interchange, I argue that digital environments instead embrace the reply. That is, instead of giving back equally, as would participants in a traditional gift economies, fans in the Digi-Gratis economy need merely respond to the “gifts” they’ve been given. For example, posting a video on YouTube may garner a few video responses, but to participate in the community formed from this content-creation, one need only respond with a comment. To “give” a blog fan fiction post to a community does not mean that the author wants the community members to each write their own story, but rather to comment on the original post. To create a MySpace profile of a character from Gilmore Girls or Doctor Who doesn’t mean that everyone must create a profile, but that fans should reply through accepting a friend request.

In traditional gift economies, the power of the gift resided in its tangibility and transferability. That is, it was valuable because once it was given, the owner no longer possessed it. In the digital, unlike in a traditional gift economy, the gift does not disappear after the giving. When one “gives” a blog fan fiction entry, it is public and universal, and one does not lose it. To reciprocate is therefore unnecessary – one acknowledges the presence of the blog gift (usually with positive reinforcement or constructive criticism) through a response, but does not have to fill the void the gift left.

While I think the social ties created by replying instead of reciprocating are different, I don’t think they’re any less valued in the fan community. The community lies at the heart of the fan practices I observed for the book, and both the gift and the reply function to cohere that community. It’s not that members of the community necessarily fit into prescribed roles. Many repliers also write their own fan-texts and similarly await their requisite replies. But at least in the fan communities I observed, the heart of the interaction remained the strength of the community that was formed by the social ties. In that respect, at least, the gift and the reply seemed to form a more consubstantial relationship with each other – that is, they go hand-in-hand in constructing a digital community.

Paul Booth, Assistant Professor of new media and technology at DePaul University, is a passionate follower of new technological trends, memes, the viral nature of communication on the web, and popular culture (especially film, television and new media). He studies the interaction between traditional media and new media and the participation of fans with media texts. He received his Ph.D. in Communication and Rhetoric from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Paul teaches classes in communication and technology, popular culture, science fiction, fandom, new media, and the history of technology. His book Digital Fandom: New Media Studies investigates how fans are using “web 2.0″ participation technology to create new texts online, and how their works fits into our contemporary media culture. He has also published articles in Critical Studies in Media Communication, New Media and Culture, Narrative Inquiry, The Journal of Narrative Theory, American Communication Journal, and in the book Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy. He explores topics in video games, science fiction, social media, politics, philosophy and narrative theory. He is currently enjoying a cup of coffee.

ARGS, Fandom, and the Digi-Gratis Economy: An Interview with Paul Booth (Part Two)

You describe the role which British fans have played in helping to reconstruct and restore missing episodes of Doctor Who. Can you describe the situation for us and tell us what it suggests about possible collaborations between media companies and their consumers?

The case of the missing Doctor Who episode is, I think, one of the clearest cases of the “Digi-Gratis” economy, and particularly instructive in the way media companies and media audiences can reciprocally empower one another. During the early years of Doctor Who, the BBC erased many of the recordings of the show in order to save tape (this was a common practice at the time and not considered unusual at all). Richard Molesworth has written an extensive history of the production of Doctor Who that describes the multitude of reasons why this erasure occurred. One of the most pivotal early serials, “The Invasion” (1968), came from the sixth season of Doctor Who – and the BBC did, in fact, erase episode one and portions of episode four. They simply did not exist.

Or so the BBC thought. It turns out that many fans of Doctor Who, especially in the early years of the show before the invention of the VCR, collected bootlegged audio recordings of the episodes. These fans would hold microphones connected to cassette recorders up to the television speakers and audio record entire episodes as they were broadcast. Some kept these recordings for years, tucked away in shoe boxes under beds or carted from one home to the next.

When the BBC started to release DVD collections of Doctor Who serials, the erasure of the tapes became an issue: how to release an “authorized” collection if huge portions were missing? The short answer is that some of these audio recording fans of Doctor Who collaborated with the BBC and an animation studio called Cosgrove Hall to present an authorized animation of the missing episode that included a remastered original audio track culled from the scores of illegally bootlegged recordings from forty years previous. By combining the audio tracks from these recordings, the BBC created a master-track that was then animated by Cosgrove Hall to re-present the missing footage.

To me, it is a perfect representation of how the “Digi-Gratis” economy functions. For the commodity economy, the BBC was able to sell its DVD and finance the restoration. For the gift economy, the fans were able to respond to the positive emotion they had gotten from Doctor Who by giving back to the show. To look at this interaction as only one or the other is to limit that interaction: it is more meaningful to the fans that they participated and more meaningful to the BBC that they were able to create a product to sell. Both groups benefited; neither one at the others’ particular detriment. I think it’s particularly instructive for both media companies and audiences to see this interaction as a lesson. Doctor Who has a strong emotional resonance with fans, much stronger than many shows on the air. It would have been just as easy – and probably cheaper – for the BBC to link the episodes with voice-over, or had actors re-create the script. But by respecting the work and energy of fans, the BBC ultimately created a more robust product that acknowledged those fans’ illegal practices.

(The story of Cosgrove Hall and the re-making of the serial can be found in the documentary Love Off-Air, produced by James Goss and Rob Francis, for the DVD of Doctor Who: The Invasion.)

Throughout the book, you draw heavily on a novel called Club Dumas. What new insights does this book offer for those of us working in fan studies?

Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas tells the story of Lucas Corso, an expert antique book collector, who uncovers a literary conspiracy among the world’s elite book collectors. What fascinates me about this book is the way it specifically details two different popular conceptions of fans. On the one hand, Corso is an active reader of classic literature, who is able to piece together clues that have been inserted into various books throughout the ages to assemble a vast meta-narrative of literature. On the other hand, the evil literati in the book represent the opposite conception: the popular image of fans as fanatical, anti-social, and limited in human encounters.

While an interesting yarn in its own right, Pérez-Reverte’s novel also demonstrates something that Roberta Pearson pointed out in her chapter of Fandom: namely, while we associate fan studies most strongly with genre fiction (mainly sci-fi, horror, romance, mystery, etc.), one can truly be a fan of anything – including, in the case of the characters in The Club Dumas, even ancient occult manuscripts. By opening up fandom to outlet, we universalize fandom. Fan scholars can apply the tenets of fan studies in a variety of cultural arenas, to explore new dimensions in cultural studies.

Indeed, good fiction can often spark relevant cultural studies arguments in new and exciting ways. For example, the Footage in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is a direct and prescient representation of both spreadable media and what I call database narratives. In the novel, Cayce and other Footage followers have to reconstruct a meta-narrative from individual units of the film presented to them as narrative information. Published in 2003, though, Pattern Recognition helps us in 2010 recognize different ways media is spread – this fiction has become useful for analyzing contemporary cultural endeavors.

You examine Star Wars Uncut as offering an alternative model of fan authorship. Explain. How does it resemble or differ from the forms of fan fiction which other accounts have explored?

It seems that empirical data about fans can really only come from one of two sources. We can either ethnographically study fan communities, by joining fan groups, participating in fan discussions, or otherwise involving ourselves with fans; or, we can analyze fan-created texts that populate fan culture. In the ethnographic study, we can easily look at groups of fans – at fandoms – and see how the interaction between fans helps to stimulate interest in the objects of study. In the textual analysis, we can easily look at the creations of individual fans to form inductive conclusions about fandom. It is relatively easy to study either communities or texts, but it is relatively difficult to do both at once.

Star Wars Uncut is, in my opinion, a way of tying the two objectives together: at once, it is a textual analysis of a fan community and a study of a fandom-created text. According to its website, the creator of Star Wars Uncut, Casey Pugh “became interested in using the internet as a tool for crowdsourcing user content. Star Wars was a natural choice to explore the dynamics of community creation on the web – the response from fans has been overwhelming worldwide and the resulting movie is incredibly fun to watch.” In practicality, individuals choose a 15-second clip from the original Star Wars (Episode IV, thank you very much) and remake it however they want as long as they follow the timing of the original precisely. Fans have submitted animated scenes, scenes filmed in restaurants or garages, and even one “acted” by the fans’ dogs. The 15-second clip is then uploaded to the Star Wars Uncut server where the original music and dialogue from the film are inserted. All the clips are reassembled in the “Star Wars” order. The finished movie is thus the collaboration of literally hundreds of fans, each creating one moment out hundreds for the finished product.

To see Star Wars Uncut as a fan-authored text is slightly erroneous – not only is it the product of a collective, but it’s also so completely adherent to the original Star Wars (the timing has to be perfect) — it can hardly be called fan fiction. Instead, I like to think of this as a form of “Digi-Gratis Fandom.” It’s not fan fiction because it’s the work of a collective (a fandom), and it’s representative of this mashup between the commodity economy (Star Wars) and the gift economy (individual submission to Star Wars Uncut).

I think it’s also telling that other groups have started to emulate the Star Wars Uncut model. For example, David Seger is crowdsourcing Footloose as Our Footloose Remake, and noted filmmakers Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald are making “Life in a Day” by compiling hundreds of YouTube videos. More ecologically-minded participants may also be interested in projects like “One Day One Earth,” which similarly documents one day in the world’s history via YouTube. To study fandom presents a useful way of examining these new crowdsourcing initiatives.

Throughout the book, you are exploring new forms of fan productivity and creativity which have emerged in response to the emerging affordances of the wiki, the blog, and other web 2.0 platforms. What do you see as some of the most promising experiments in fan expression? Why have fans been such early adapters and innovators of new media platforms?

In my opinion, one of the delights of studying fans and fan-created texts lies in observing how fan expression can be applied in areas outside fandom. As new technologies have emerged in our digital culture, we tend to examine them using traditional media descriptions; so, for example, when we talk about blogs we’re mainly talking about blog entries and we tend to slight the important contribution of the blog comments (the important work of Roger Ebert in this discussion is a valuable exception). In my analysis of Battlestar Galactica fan blogs, for instance, I observed that the fiction itself functioned differently from what we might expect: that is, the blog entry (which was the main fiction story) served as a starting-off point for many complicated and intricate discussions about the meaning of that entry in the comment section of the blog. The community of fans, actualized through the comments, seems to be the focus of the blog in its entirety. The entry presupposes the comments, in a Derridean reversal of sorts.

Ultimately, the way fans interact with new technologies presents new forms of expression online. Another example I look at in the book is the wiki. Fans who contribute to Lostpedia, for instance, rework the confusingly multi-linear narrative of Lost into an inherently linear story on the wiki. But the way fans do this is through intense interaction and group collaboration. Like with Star Wars Uncut, the crowdsourcing inherent in Lostpedia indicates a shift in the manner of textual creation by fans.

One danger that I faced while writing this book was in mythologizing fans. Fandom, it must be noted, is not a panacea that cures all that ails media. At the risk of waxing lyrical about fandom, though, fans do seem to populate the extremes of media use, and many early adaptors of technology do seem to be fans of one sort or another. One thing that I’ve noticed about fans is that there seems to be a desire to delve incredibly deeply into whatever text they’re examining: it’s not enough to understand the plot as we see it, but we have to understand character motivations, subconscious desires, etc. Perhaps this intense commitment to the text extends to technology as well: the desire to learn everything about a technology may lead fans to greater and more rapid adoption of new technology?

You write of two competing pulls on all forms of fan writing – “one connecting it to a larger corpus of work and the other building a more cohesive document.” What are some of the strategies fans deploy to try to resolve these competing tensions?

At its most basic, fan writing lies at the intersection of a palpable tension. On the one hand, fan writers must somehow link their writing to the extant text. Whether it’s a relatively weak connection (setting the action in the same universe), or a strong connection (filling in the gaps between moments on screen, perhaps), the effect is the same: there must be some sort of intertextual link between the fan writing and the main text. On the other hand, though, fan writers must also create a work that stands on its own, that becomes its own text. To be too subservient to the extant text is to rely too heavily on unoriginal material. Fans must put their own spin on the larger corpus, but must also create a document unique unto itself. In order to do this, fans have to reference internally unique moments in the fan text – an “intra-textual” reference. Even an inherently derivative work - Star Wars Uncut – has to make itself somewhat unique to stand out and be noticed (hence the self-conscious nature of many of the clips).

These competing pulls, it should be noted, are not entirely unique to fandom. Mikhail M. Bakhtin described a similar type of tension inherent in language in his “Discourse in the Novel.” For Bakhtin, language has two distinct pulls. One, the centripetal, pulls all language to a single, unified language, a correct way of speaking. The other, the centrifugal, pulls language away from a central discourse, towards a constructed view where language mutates and adapts to changes in culture. For Bakhtin, every utterance exists between these two pulls: one, trying to tie the utterance to a larger, unified discourse and the other trying to find alternate meanings and themes within the utterance.

To resolve these tensions, speakers of a language must make sense of a slew of material, much of it intuitively. Through context, genre, and other methods of cultural organization, the “proper” form of language becomes apparent. For example, we train children in school to write in the “correct” way, which is often vastly different (and may not be applicable in) their “real world” lives. To teach grammar and “proper” English is to take a decidedly monolithic look at language – yet the language students use on Facebook or in text messaging is decidedly different. SMS shorthand, Leetspeak, or Netlingo are not incorrect, given their situational context.

One of the interesting things that I found in my exploration of fan fiction on blogs is that the resolution of this intertextual/intra-textual tension resides in the dual nature of the blog form. Since fan blogs are made up of both fiction entry and non-fiction comments, the blog form as a technology helps to solidify this tension – one half of the blog document can refer back to the extant text (intertextually) while the other half can refer to the blog itself (intra-textually). The technology complements the writing. Taken as a whole, then, fan writing online uses technology in a new way to resolve old tensions.

Paul Booth, Assistant Professor of new media and technology at DePaul University, is a passionate follower of new technological trends, memes, the viral nature of communication on the web, and popular culture (especially film, television and new media). He studies the interaction between traditional media and new media and the participation of fans with media texts. He received his Ph.D. in Communication and Rhetoric from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Paul teaches classes in communication and technology, popular culture, science fiction, fandom, new media, and the history of technology. His book Digital Fandom: New Media Studies investigates how fans are using “web 2.0″ participation technology to create new texts online, and how their works fits into our contemporary media culture. He has also published articles in Critical Studies in Media Communication, New Media and Culture, Narrative Inquiry, The Journal of Narrative Theory, American Communication Journal, and in the book Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy. He explores topics in video games, science fiction, social media, politics, philosophy and narrative theory. He is currently enjoying a cup of coffee.

ARGS, Fandom, and the Digi-Gratis Economy: An Interview with Paul Booth (Part One)

This week marks the official release date for a new book, Digital Fandom: New Media Studies, which makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of a range of topics which run through this blog.

It’s author, Paul Booth, has consented to give me an interview where we talk together about the ways that he thinks Alternate Reality Games can shed light on the practices of online fandom, about how we might push beyond the opposition between producer and consumer, about how we might better understand the interplay of the commercial and gift economy as it effects fandom, and about new forms of expression which have emerged as fans work together through social networking sites.

His responses here only sample the richness of this particular book, which draws heavily on digital and literary theory, to encourage us to rethink some of the classic paradigms in fan studies. The work is cutting edge both conceptually and in terms of its range of examples (which include various forms of crowd-sourced and wiki-based forms of fan collaboration that have received limited attention elsewhere.)

The central metaphor for understanding digital fan culture comes from the world of Alternate Reality Games. What can ARGs teach us about new media platforms and processes? What do you see as the similarities and differences between fans and gamers?

To me, Alternate Reality Games are an incredible synthesis of media texts, platforms and outlets. Constructed through a variety of technologies, ARGs are paradoxical: they seem to be ubiquitous and yet they are also fleeting and ethereal. As such, it’s very difficult to point to a particular space and say “this is an ARG.” They seem to exist in a sort of “space between” media; that is, they are only visible through the contrast with what they are not. They seem to thrive through media camouflage. I’m reminded of the David Fincher film The Game (1997), where Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is caught up in a game that he can’t tell from reality. Events that occur in the narrative may or may not be authentic interactions, and he is never sure whether he’s playing a game or actually caught up in a series of dangerous adventures.

By viewing the ARG in this liminal state, we can begin to see connections to the way new media platforms and processes function in a converged media environment. That is, ARGs, like new media texts, function precisely because they exist as transmedia entities. Similarly, we’re beginning to see media texts that transmediate: shows like Lost and Heroes, which tell much of their stories outside of the television; Webkinz, which takes real-world plush toys and lets children play with them in a web environment; or YA book series like The 39 Clues, which ask participants to read the book and investigate clues online.

These examples, of course, bring up another similarity between ARGs and contemporary media: the economics of them. Many ARGs exist to promote or advertise a product, as “ilovebees” promoted Halo and “The Beast” promoted the film A.I. As we embark upon a more mediatized culture, so too do we find ourselves immersed in a more commercialized culture as well.

It is this connection to contemporary digital media that provides a link between ARGs and fan culture as well. I don’t mean to suggest that only fans play ARGs, or that only ARGs cater to a fan base; rather, the connection is more symbolic. Fans of contemporary media and players of ARGs both interact with their requisite text in similar fashions. Fans make explicit the implicit active reading we all do when we pick up a book, watch a television show, or experience some form of media. Similarly, ARG players have to actively participate in the construction of the game itself, often uncovering hidden facets of the game, or participating in the development of narrative elements. Both for fans and for players of ARGs, the contemporary transmedia environment facilitates and encourages playfulness and engagement with many different media.

You are trying to push back on metaphors based on “market or commodity economics.” What do you see as the key limits of such metaphors and how does your focus on ARGs seek to transform them?

So much of our discussion about media is based on these metaphors that we often forget that they are, indeed metaphors at all. For example, when we talk about “consumers” and “producers” of media, we’re engaging in a discourse that uses gastronomic language to describe commodity economics. In other words, we talk about media in the same way that we talk about food. And the natural end result of this metaphor certainly portrays fans (and other active audiences) in a rather negative light: if media companies “produce” and audiences “consume,” then what fans create through rewriting or remixing is “garbage” (or worse: a very nasty metaphor indeed). I think this metaphor ultimately limits the conversation, so even if one talks about “productive consumption,” one still remains mired in this commodity mindset.

I think that while there is value in seeing media companies as “producers” and audiences as “consumers,” a great deal of excellent work has also recently problematized this conception. I’m thinking of your work in Convergence Culture, Axel Bruns’ research in Blogs, Wikipedia, Second life, and Beyond, and Lawrence Lessig’s excellent Remix. What these books have done, and what I’ve tried to do in my book, is to look at the metaphors we use to describe media creation and media reception in different ways.

One of the main paths I follow in the book to re-look at these metaphors is to see how a different economic model – the gift economy – could work to establish a new way of describing fandom in the digital age. Both Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and your blog post about the gift economy were quite influential to my thinking in this respect. In contrast to a traditional commodity economy, a gift economy values the social relationships the exchange of gifts brings. I think that if we re-examine the media creation process from a gift economy point of view, what we find is that the categories of “producer” and “consumer” simply don’t function in the same way anymore. Instead of media “products” being made for “consumers,” content “gifts” are exchanged between both creators and receivers. The media text is a gift, which the receiver can reciprocate through attention, feedback, fandom, or even purchasing advertised products. A gift economy metaphor implies a stronger relationship between content creators and content receivers, with more potent feedback implied between the groups. There is also a greater collaborative potential between audiences and creators, and a more fluid dynamic between the two. I certainly don’t deny the economic imperative behind media consumption in general, but I think that in concert with a commodity economy metaphor, the gift economy helps create a more complete picture.

To me, ARGs represent an amalgam of the gift and the commodity economies. I’ve already mentioned that ARGs are often marketing campaigns, which is a strongly commoditized cultural activity. But I think it’s crucial to mention that participants in ARGs can devote hours and hours of time and energy to completing the ARG without ever once purchasing the product or watching the media text the ARG advertises. When I mention I study ARGs, the most common question I receive is, “why would someone invest so much time, for free, on a game”? And I think that’s a commodity way of looking at ARGs. Instead, if we look at them as gifts, we can argue that players and participants are using their time and energy to respond to the pleasures they experience in the game. The gift and the commodity economies are not enemies; but rather mutually react with each other. This union of the gift and the commodity is what I call the Digi-Gratis economy.

You discuss the emergence of a “Digi-gratis” culture which operates as a “mashup” between market and gift economies. Explain. How is this different from the hybrid economy Lawrence Lessig has discussed in some of his work?

The “Digi-Gratis” economy is a term that I use to describe the mutually beneficial relationship between the gift and the market economies within contemporary media and culture. As I was saying above, it is difficult to see either the commodity metaphor or the gift metaphor as the ultimate metaphor for understanding the relationship between media audiences and media creators. But through a lens which ties both metaphors together, we can more fully appreciate the extent of contemporary content creation.

The term “mashup” is particularly instructive here, because it implies that neither metaphor dominates the relationship. We typically think of a mashup as a sample from one text remixed with a sample from another text to form a third text. Importantly, a mashup relies on the knowledge of both requisite texts that the audience brings with it: for example, in Mark Vidler’s “Carpenter’s Wonderwall,” the music of The Carpenters is remixed with the music of Oasis to form a unique entity, the power of which comes from that particular interaction. We have to know The Carpenters’ and Oasis’ original songs in order to fully appreciate Vidler’s masterful mashup.

I believe that the concept of the mashup can be instructive for understanding more than media issues, and in fact can describe cultural concerns as well. The “Digi-Gratis” economy is one such mashup. As the name implies, it becomes most relevant in observing the way audiences and creators interact in digital environments. The “Digi-Gratis” economy thrives because neither the gift nor the commodity economy outweighs the other. Instead, through mutual reciprocity, their mashup forms a third type of encounter – the “Digi-Gratis.” In many ways, it is similar to Lessig’s conception of the hybrid economy, insofar as it does describe an interaction between two different economic styles, and that this interaction blossoms through digital technology.

But one crucial difference between the hybrid and the “Digi-Gratis” economies is that issue of the mashup metaphor. For Lessig, the hybrid emerges in spaces where one economy must dominate over the other. In turn, this dominance implies a focus on one end of the production/consumption dynamic. As Lessig says in Remix, the hybrid economy “is either a commercial entity that aims to leverage value from a sharing economy, or it is a sharing economy that builds a commercial entity to better support its sharing aims” (177). One always dominates.

Alternately, the “Digi-Gratis” implies a mutual relationship between the two economies, and places no emphasis between production and consumption: both are weighted equally. To give a recent example, Old Spice’s use of viewer questions and the Old Spice man’s (Isaiah Mustafa) answers has been a web hit on YouTube, Reddit, Twitter and other social media. To look at the interaction solely through a commodity metaphor limits the range of complex meanings available to the audience/viewers/responders. Audiences have had a powerful role to play not just in the creation of content, but in the focus of their attention as well. The “Digi-Gratis” metaphor offers a chance to view these interactions as meaningful in and of themselves, while not ignoring the complex interactions between commodities and gifts.

Biography

Paul Booth, Assistant Professor of new media and technology at DePaul University, is a passionate follower of new technological trends, memes, the viral nature of communication on the web, and popular culture (especially film, television and new media). He studies the interaction between traditional media and new media and the participation of fans with media texts. He received his Ph.D. in Communication and Rhetoric from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Paul teaches classes in communication and technology, popular culture, science fiction, fandom, new media, and the history of technology. His book Digital Fandom: New Media Studies investigates how fans are using “web 2.0″ participation technology to create new texts online, and how their works fits into our contemporary media culture. He has also published articles in Critical Studies in Media Communication, New Media and Culture, Narrative Inquiry, The Journal of Narrative Theory, American Communication Journal, and in the book Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy. He explores topics in video games, science fiction, social media, politics, philosophy and narrative theory. He is currently enjoying a cup of coffee.

On Mad Men, Aca-Fandom, and the Goals of Cultural Criticism

A few weeks ago, Jason Mittell published a provocative essay on his blog, Just TV, which sought to explain why he dislikes Mad Men, an essay which he framed through reference to the concept of the Aca-fan as cultural critic. The fact that Jason dislikes Mad Men and I like the series is not that significant in and of itself, but Jason uses the essay to challenge some preconceptions about how taste formations work and to trace the trajectory of his relationship to the series. Here are a few excerpts from what he had to say:

Mad Men is lodged squarely within my habitus: along with other cable series from channels like HBO, Showtime and FX, it’s part of the wave of “quality television” serial dramas that has raised the medium’s cultural value in the 2000s (as Lynne Joyrich discusses in this volume), and served as the object of much of my own scholarly research and personal fandom over the decade (see Mittell 2006). The show is steeped in cultural references that resonate with my own background as a media scholar, flattering my otherwise esoteric knowledge of U.S. advertising and media history. Nearly every television scholar and critic with whom I interact loves the show, making it required viewing for people in my professional and personal taste circles – in fact while I was writing this essay, Facebook encouraged me to become a fan of the show, noting that 61 of my friends had publicly declared their allegiance. In short, it’s a show seemingly designed for me to love, and I have tried to fulfill that prediction by giving myself over to it.

Why did this predicted affection fail to take hold? In exploring this question, I highlight my own aesthetic response to shed some light on the mechanics of taste and televisual pleasure. In looking closely at Mad Men, I’m trying to avoid becoming an anti-fan, as I respect too many people who like the show to actively lobby against or condemn their pleasures. As Jonathan Gray has explored, anti-fans are affectively invested in their own dislike of a cultural object and enjoy sparring with its fans, rather than passively ignoring the existence of the object of their distaste (Gray 2003). Yet simply by expressing and explaining a negative attitude toward something beloved by some, fans often rise to defend their tastes and attempt to argue against critics. In discussing my own reactions with my many Mad Men-loving friends, we quickly engaged in arguments as to whose experience and judgement was more valid and true to the show, and typically ended in an awkward and unsatisfying détente of agreeing to disagree.

I found Mittell’s essay enormously valuable — both in sorting out my own complex and often unsettling relationship to the AMC drama and in terms of raising important questions about the place of the autobiographical and subjective in academic criticism. Game designer and theorist Ian Bogost, on the other hand, was disappointed with the essay, seeing it as illustrative of bigger problems he has with the stance of the Aca-Fan in debates about culture. (I should note in passing that I consider both Jason and Ian to be gifted critics and good friends.) Here’s part of what he wrote at his blog:

A critic’s job, in part, is to explain and justify his own tastes, and to act as a steward for those tastes on behalf of a constituency of readers. People tend to circle around the critics we respect and, more so, agree with because we come to trust their taste. There are pros and cons to such a tendency, the most obvious downside being that we can avoid stretching our minds by surrounding ourselves with only like-minded ideas.

But for the academic critic, I think the stakes are higher. One can like or dislike something, but we scholars, particularly of popular media, have a special obligation to explain something new about the works we discuss. There are plenty of fans of The Wire and Mad Men and Halo and World of Warcraft out there. The world doesn’t really need any more of them. What it does need is skeptics, and the scholarly role is fundamentally one of skepticism.

Thus, the only thing that disappoints me about Jason’s essay is that I didn’t learn anything new about Mad Men.

Both Jason’s original post and Ian’s critique of it have sparked extensive discussion and comments, involving many of the top thinkers in the space of fan studies and cult media, and if you did not follow them, you probably should take a look. As often happens, the discussions devolved a little as they went forward with side issues taking over from the central concerns, but there was still much at both forums that should spark thoughts about criticisms.

I weighed in enough at Ian’s blog that I don’t need to repeat all of my thoughts here. I should note that I was engaging there with the larger issue of aca-fan criticism and had not at the time had a chance to read Jason’s essay fully.

Having done so, I must say that I disagree with Ian’s central claim that the essay is too self absorbed and doesn’t teach us much about the series. The discussion the piece generated at Jason’s blog suggests otherwise. Many people there found themselves testing their own embrace of the series against Jason’s critique in a way which helped them to better understand their own relationship to the series. Much of the discussion centers on how we are supposed to feel about these characters and thus what kinds of pleasures one derives from the series.

Much like Vic (on The Shield) or Tony (on The Sopranos), I find my feelings towards Don Draper and the other characters shifting almost scene by scene. One scene may cause me to admire Don for his creative vision and intuitive understanding of the culture around him, the next may lead me to despise him for his lack of self-consciousness about how he treats the people in his life. He charms me and he repulses me. Part of that fascination has to do with how closed off he is from intimate emotional expression.

Much of my own interest in the show comes in trying to make sense of my parent’s generation. I was born in 1958 and was a child, about the age of the Draper offspring, at the time the events depicted on the series took place. My life was deeply shaped by the cultural forces the series tries to capture, including the shifting values around race, gender, and sexuality, which represent the most loaded moments on the series. I respond to the series often as if I was eavesdropping on adult conversations after they thought I had gone to bed. My father couldn’t have been more different from Don Draper on so many levels and yet, I do recognize the forces of emotional containment and stoicism that shape this character in my relations with my father (now deceased.) So, as I watch the series, I find myself drawn into both a search for traces of my parents and their friends in the program’s character and in a search for signs of the dramatic changes which the culture underwent in the 1960s. Read in this way, I do not have to have sympathy for a particular character or even for any of the characters in order to be emotionally engaged by the series. For one thing, the characters are drawn with sufficient complexity and nuance that I find myself drawn towards them or repelled almost scene by scene. For another, I have enough affection for the people from Don’s generation who have touched my life that I will watch the series out of respect for them and out of a desire to cut through the emotional wall that sometimes blocked me from fully knowing why they felt and acted the ways that they did.

Of course, I recognize that the series represents an interpretation of those times, one seen through a modern lens, but the references to smoking early in the series aside, I don’t think the point is simply to express the superiority of our current values but rather to understand the values and behaviors as part of a social system. The series has a strong sense of the ways characters are performing for each other, suggesting how the set of values and practices were mutually reinforcing and thus extraordinarily difficult to change.

Yet, I do see in some of the characters the potential for growth as they respond to the changing cultural environment around them. And that’s why, for me, it is very important to watch more than one season of the series in order to understand the evolving nature of the characters (as well as to see the brittleness of some of the characters, such as Roger, who seem charming and dominant in the beginning but show limited capacity for growth.) That said, one of the more interesting strands on Jason’s blog has to do with how much of a series one must watch in order to be able to cast a judgment about it, given the almost impossible challenge of doing justice to the complexity of a long form drama such as Mad Men, as well as the obligations of the critic in relation to works they do not like.

In the course of the discussion at Ian’s blog, I referenced the manifesto which Tara McPherson, Jane Shattuc, and I wrote as the introduction to our book, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, “The Culture That Sticks to Your Skin.” When we published this book in 2002, we saw it as building the case for newer perspectives in cultural studies — including but not restricted to those coming from the then emerging aca-fan community. We used the introduction to sketch out the defining traits of this new mode of cultural criticism and then used the thirty something essays published there as illustrations of these approaches in action. I will say that I would have been proud to have included Mittell’s Mad Men essay in the collection because it speaks to many of the central concerns of that book and the current debate seems to me to suggest that the issues Hop on Pop posed are far from resolved.

I wanted to sketch here briefly the traits we saw as identifying this alternative cultural perspective, since I think they might provide a vocabulary which could inform some of these discussions:

We began the essay with reference to the Cyberpunk movement and Bruce Sterling’s suggestion that they were writing in response to a shift from monumental technological achievements to technology that was everyday and intimate, that “stuck to your skin.” We drew an analogy between that and the position of a generation that had grown up in a world where writing about popular culture had gained a certain degree of academic acceptability and we had the freedom to write about forms of cultural expression which were central to who we were and how we saw the world.

“Like the cyberpunks, we are interested in the everyday, the intimate, the immediate; we reject the monumentalism of canon formation and the distant authority of traditional academic writing. We engage with popular culture as the culture that ‘sticks to the skin,’ that becomes so much a part of us that it becomes increasingly difficult to examine it from a distance. Like the cyberpunks, we confront that popular culture with a profound ambivalence, our pleasures tempered by a volatile mixture of fears, disappointments, and disgust. Just as the cyberpunks intervened at the point where science fiction was beginning to achieve unquestioned cultural respectability, we are the first generation of cultural scholars to be able to take for granted that popular culture can be studied on its own terms, who can operate inside an academic discpline of cultural studies….The hard fights of the past have won us space to reexamine our own relationship to the popular, to rethink our own ties to the general public, and to experiment with new vocabularies for expressing our critical insights.”

We then outlined a series of identifying traits of this “emergent perspective” in cultural studies:

1.Immediacy — a trait we associate with “intensification (the exaggeration of everyday emotions to provoke strong feelings or a release from normal perception), identification (strong attachments to fictional characters and celebrities), and intimacy (an embedding of popular culture into the fabric of our daily lives, into the ways we think about ourselves and the world around us.)” We offered these trait as a critique of “objective” or “distance” scholarship as blinding us to many defining characteristics of popular culture.

“The challenge from our emergent perspective is to write about our own multiple (and often contradictory) involvements, participations, engagements, and identifications with popular culture — without denying, rationalizing, and distorting them….We can draw on our personal experiences and subjective understandings to critique the popular as well as to embrace it. Even fans are far from uncritical in their relations to cultural producers.”

We linked this concept to shifts in women’s studies and queer studies that had embraced the “intimate critique” or “writing from a standpoint,” which acknowledged the subjective in exploring cultural issues.

2. Multivalence — Here, we were arguing against either-or perspectives, insisting on writing that acknowledged the complexity of the popular. We noted, for example, that for some groups which have been consistently marginalized in our culture, they may not be able to describe themselves as fans of dominant cultural productions.

“Their engagement with popular culture cannot be dispassionate, disinterested, or distanced. The stakes are simply too high. Their writing acknowledges the pleasures they have derived from engaging with popular culture as well as their rage and frustration about its silences, exclusions and assualts on their lives. These writers express contradictory responses to the materials of everyday culture and their own dual status as avid consumers and angry critics.”

While I have chosen to frame my own perspective of culture in terms of being an aca-fan, because the fan communities within which I have participated for almost 40 years have helped to define how I see the world, and while I often embrace others who share my vantage point, this discussion was intended to signal the validity of many different vantage points from which to frame cultural critique. It simply insists that the writer be honest both about their stakes in their object of study and about the contradictions that they see within the works they are examining. For me, there is nothing “comfortable” or indulgent about taking seriously these two demands. And Mittell’s essay demonstrates an ongoing process of self-reflection and self-questioning, exploring contradictions in the text and in his own relation to it, while offering respect for those who differ with his perspective. Not everything written under the “aca-fan” banner does so, to be sure, and so I see Bogost’s critiques as a challenge to re-examine our own critical practices and theoretical positions.

While these two traits arose in the course of the discussion at his blog, the remaining traits we identified did not and they also help to round out our expectations about what would constitute quality scholarship in this tradition:

3. Accessability — We challenged our fellow scholars to take the steps needed to open up their cultural analysis and critiques to a wider public, recognizing that academics are not the only ones who are concerned with the place of popular culture in their lives and suggesting that there is a political stakes in creating resources that are valuable to readers beyond the ivory tower. In a sense, both Mittell and Bogost, along with many other academic bloggers, embody this challenge to expand the address of cultural criticism so that it might engage with fans, policy makers, journalists, industry insiders, artists, and a range of other publics. I am proud of how much progress our field has made along these lines over the past eight years.

4. Particularity — We summed this up quickly as “details matter” and went on to explain why overly generalized criticism and the sweeping dismissals of whole sets of cultural practices of the previous generation was no longer adequate to the new contexts in which popular culture was produced, circulated, and consumed. We saw the push away from broad theory and towards specific case studies (and within that, case studies that were attentive to as many details as possible) as embodying this shift in the nature of criticism.

5.Contextualism – Here, we sought to counterbalance our focus on meaningful details with a recognition of how they illustrated and embodied large trends in our culture. As we wrote,”

we view popular texts not as discrete entities that stand alone but instead exist in relation to a broad range of other discourses, placing media production and consumptions witihin a social and cultural configuration of competing voices and positions. Rather than cannonize a text for its intrinsic or inherent value, we try to understand and articulate more fully the framework within which individual texts are produced, circulated, and consumed.”

6. Situationalism – Basically, this trait calls for attention to the contexts within which we are writing, recognizing that we write from a perspective of local knowledge and within our own historical moment, rather than seeking criticism which is universal and timeless.

I am not doing justice to the complexities of this essay, which examines a broad array of different scholarly, critical, and intellectual projects, and would urge you to track down the book and look through its contents. There are many essays there which illustrate the complexities and challenges of creating this kind of criticism. Many of them, I suspect, would embody the kinds of cultural criticism that Bogost has called for at various points during this exchange. These traits set exacting standards which we impose upon ourselves as critics. I don’t always meet these standards in my own work, either on the blog or in my publications, but these are the criteria by which I judge my own performance and by which I measure the quality of other people’s writing.

Like Bogost, I’d love to see more ongoing discussions about the goals and roles for cultural criticism in the 21st century. If nothing else, Jason’s Mad Man essay has helped open up such a conversation and that’s more than it’s reasonable to expect from any given piece of critical writing. Thanks, Jason and Ian, for the provocation. I am going to be traveling this week and so my ability to respond will be circumscribed, but I would be happy if this post might serve as a fresh start to get out of the entanglements caused by competing understandings of what a fan is and to focus instead on competing ideas about how and why academics should write about popular culture. We received surprisingly few reactions to our own 2002 provocations along those lines, so I would be happy if we could restart the conversation now.

No, You Do Not Have to Be A Gamer to Like Inception!

Last week, Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times ran a provocative blog post about the mixed reception surrounding the film, Inception, in which yours truly was quoted heavily.

Here is what he quoted me as saying:

If Inception plays especially strongly with a young audience, it’s probably because they instinctively grasp its narrative density best, having grown up playing video games. “When it comes to understanding ‘Inception,’ you’ve got a real advantage if you’re a gamer,” says Henry Jenkins, who’s a professor of communications, journalism and cinematic arts at USC. ” Inception is first and foremost a movie about worlds and levels, which is very much the way video games are structured. Games create a sense that we’re a part of the action. Stories aren’t just told to us. We experience them.”

Even though the density of Inception can be off-putting to older moviegoers, it’s a delicious challenge for gamers. “With Inception, if you blink or if your mind wanders, you miss it,” says Jenkins. “You’re not sitting passively and sucking it all in. You have to experience it like a puzzle box. It’s designed for us to talk about, to share clues and discuss online, instead of having everything explained to us. Part of the pleasure of the movie is figuring out things that don’t come easily, which is definitely part of the video game culture.”

Goldstein did a good job of compressing almost half an hour of conversation about critical response to the film into a few substantive paragraphs. In no sense do I feel misquoted there — indeed, he drew on my conversation as background to frame other parts of his discussion as well.

I have, however, been bemused by the ways that my claims here have traveled through cyberspace and gotten a bit more distorted by each new contributor. So, Entertainment Weekly‘s blog picked up on Goldstein’s story and shifted the ground just a bit. It’s headline reads “Inception — Only Good if You are Young?” And on Twitter, several people rephrased the claim, ” Do you have to be a gamer to like #Inception?” By the end of the week, when someone tweeted that they only “partially agreed” with my claims about the film, I wrote back to say that I only “partially agreed” with them too since people were responding to a partial representation of what I had to say in the first place!

So, let me take a step back and sketch out what I thought I was arguing. I start from the assumption that differing responses to the film are at least partially shaped by differing interpretive strategies. I discussed this concept back in my book, Textual Poachers, in relation to arguments made by reader-response critic Peter J. Rabinowitz about how genre impacts reading.

Peter J. Rabinowitz has suggested that genre study might productively shift its focus away from properties of fictional narratives and onto the ‘strategies that readers use to process texts,” seeing genres as ‘bundles of operations,’ conventions, and expectations that readers draw upon in the process of making meanings. As Rabinowitz puts it, ‘reading’ is always ‘reading’ as.”…Different genres evoke different questions readers want to ask and provide alternative rules for assigning significance and structure to textual content. Rabinowitz distinguishes between four basic types of interpretive strategies: (1) ‘rules of notice’ which give priority to particular aspects of narratives as potentially interesting and significant while assigning others to the margins; (2)’rules of signification’ which help to determine what meanings or implications can be ascribed to particular textual features; (3)’rules of configuration’ which shape the reader’s expectations about likely plot developments and allow the reader to recognize what would constitute a satisfactory resolution of that plot; (4) “rules of coherence” which shape the extrapulations readers make from textual details, the speculations they make about information not explicitly present within the story. The reader’s experience, he suggests, thus requires an initial decision about what genre(s) will be most appropriately applied to a given narrative and then the systematic applications of those genre rules to the process of comprehending the textually provided information.

Of course, the ability to mobilize the interpretive strategies associated with a genre rest on having access to and familiarity with that genre in the first place as those of us who teach freshman film classes discover when we try to expose students to westerns or musicals or any other genre which has not been part of their repertoire of consumption. That’s the sense in which gamers have an “advantage” — they have a set of skills, literacies, competencies, expectations, call them what you want, that they bring with them to the theater and which shapes the range of strategies they have available to them which helps them to make sense of a film like Inception.

So, this brings us back to my claim about games and Inception. I am not saying that it would be impossible for a non-gamer to enjoy the movie. It doesn’t represent, after all, such a dramatic break with other films which have come before it. In the interview, I drew analogy to the way D.W. Griffith cross-cut between four different historical periods, intensifying the movements between them as we neared the climax, in his silent classic, Intolerance. I would also agree with Entertainment Weekly‘s Darren Franich that it is less complicated than many art films or even, in his example, some classic film noirs. Yet, it interests me that the discussions around Inception are the kinds of discussions we might once have had around an art film in the 1960s or even an indie film like Nolan’s own Memento, yet they are occuring around a summer blockbuster. The genre elements are part of what makes the film popular, part of what makes it fun and pleasurable to play the game that Inception offers us.

David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson have offered a brilliant analysis over at their Observations on Film Art blog about the role that exposition plays in maintaining clarity as we move between the different levels of the film. Indeed, they suggest that the presence of exposition across the film replaces character development in many cases, insuring that we can in fact follow the different levels or layers at work here.

I would also argue that at the start of the film, the audience is required to make a leap of faith, entering into a world whose rules are not immediately clear (especially in the opening sequence) and which are still being laid out to us in the final segment. This is very much like the experience of a gamer jumping into the game without always knowing the rules or properties, trying out new ideas and bumping into walls, until they learn how it works. Bordwell’s discussion of the film’s opening segment (which he calls a “training exercise”) suggests that it may function as a “tutorial” or “sandbox” level — such as we see in games where our first level of play allows us to test our capacities and rehearses skills we will need later in the game. So, at the most basic level, I would say that gamers have a predisposition to embrace certain kinds of open-ended experiences, figuring out what’s going on as they go, which is different from the notion of clear expositional foundations we would association in classical Hollywood narratives. Indeed, gamers may have an expectation, as I suggested, that the film not lay everything out for us at the start but expects us to make an effort to figure out the pieces as we go. This is part of what makes an experience like this more intense and immersive. I couldn’t believe it when I realized how long I had been in the theater, not having glanced at my watch during the duration, indeed, not having breathed very much while watching Inception.

This is not to say that the film abandons us altogether to our own devices. Genre plays an important role here in terms of helping us to map what’s going on and understanding what matters in the film. We can read it as a straight forward action film or as a science fiction film — think Total Recall. But there is also the possibility of making sense of it in terms of the conceptual vocabulary that games provide us — so that we can understand the final sequence as moving between “levels” or “layers,” each with a well defined task or “mission”, each with a visually distinctive environment (not unlike the fire or ice levels in classic Nintendo scrollers like Mario Brothers or Mega Man), each requiring a different set of skills to master and a different set of obstacles to overcome. I am leaving aside claims that the film may pay tribute to specific games in its visual references: Bordwell cites Assassin’s Creed II, Meigakure, and Shadow of Destiny. And Kristin Thompson closely examines a claim that the film was inspired in part by an episode from The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion.

Entertainment Weekly asks, “Is Inception the first great video game movie? Not based on one specific game, but rather, on the whole stylistic structure of video game storytelling?” Well, not the first certainly, since I think there’s a strong argument, say, that Run Lola Run builds on a different set of properties from games, and the same could be said for The Matrix movies, but it does mean that cinema may be learning things from games which come through more interestingly when it is not trying to directly adapt games to the screen but is simply trying to produce movies that speak to a generation of movie goers who have grown up gaming. One reader asked why not just make an Inception game in the first place. I’d argue that these films deploy a language borrowed from games precisely to explore experiences which would be difficult to achieve in a game. I think thinking of Run Lola Run as a game helps us to explore the theme of choice and consequence which runs through the film, yet the filmmaker has the capacity to make every choice offered a meaningful one while in games, many choices are necessarily arbitrary and uninteresting.

Thinking about Inception as a game or at least a film for gamers might also speak to the ongoing critical discussion of its lack of development at least in terms of its secondary characters. Kristin Thompson writes,

“The characters’ goals, apart from Cobb’s, arise from the premises of the dream-sharing technology. Of course, they want to get paid, but that’s assumed. Their actions all arise from the need to keep doing what they must to sustain the dreams and later from the need to improvise solutions to unforeseen problems that seem to violate the rules they have previously known. Why they need the money, whom they go home to when off-duty, how they got into this business, and all the other conventions of Hollywood characterization, are simply ignored.”

This is consistent with an argument which Mary Fuller and I made about games in 1995. The very nature of an interactive narrative serves to strip characters of psychological depth — game characters are often glorified cursers, vehicles we use to move through the game worlds, rather than characters into whom we project sophisticated motives or anticipate character development. Their goals are assigned from the beginning. They are defined through their capacity for action and their missions. The need for an open-ended structure means that we do not expect them to learn through their experiences nor do we expect their actions to be motivated through psychological realism. Choices become relatively arbitrary, having more to do with resources and capacities, than drives or needs. I don’t think this lets Inception off the hook in terms of character issues, but it is interesting to think of this shift in the function and nature of characters as an extension of the game-like logic I am describing.

Bill, a reader, sent me an email with an interesting question about my argument:

“I agree with you in the LATimes article where you say gaming experience may have a lot to do with someone’s appreciation of the movie Inception. However, I’d like to propose another possibility. I’m not sure many members of past generations understand or accept the film’s premise. As DiCaprio’s character describes it, conscious experience is not a literal transcript of the world, but an ongoing process of virtual construction by the mind. Although this premise has scientific merit, it is not widely known or embraced by the majority of tradition-bound Americans.”

Here’s my response:

“I would agree totally with you that the film’s perspective on reality and perception also has a generational slant. It’s interesting though that the films and television shows which take on some of this philosophical/spiritual argument are often associated with games and other digital media — so I would see The Matrix, the final episode of Lost, and Inception, as all part of the same conversation about our relationship with the real world. We may as a culture be more open to such ideas because of our experience of the digital, just as people in the industrial age were more apt to think of a clockmaker god, or people in the early 20th century started to understand repetition compulsion in terms of a phonograph record in their heads. As Sherry Turkle suggests, we use technologies as tools to think with and a key question we use them to consider is the nature of consciousness.”

This exchange would suggest that the game analogy extends from the formal structure of the film to the spiritual or metaphysical level on which it also tries to operate.

Now, coming back to Goldstein’s original blog, he takes my discussion of gamers and maps it onto what he sees as generational differences in people’s response to the film. I would point out, however, that the age span of active gaming expands with each passing year: more younger players are entering the game market, more older players are continuing to play into adulthood, and more seniors are trying games through multiplayer worlds and the Wii controller, let aside casual games. So, let’s be careful about assuming there’s a correlation between being young and being a gamer. After all, I’m over fifty and I still play games.

I hope this at least clarifies what I meant. I have only seen the film once and I have a feeling that I would need to see it many more times before I could offer anywhere near an adequate analysis, so take these as provisional observations about a work which I am sure many of us will continue to debate for a long time. It’s exciting to have a summer film which sparks this kind of discussion!