Over the Rainbow: John C. Tibbetts Opens Archive of Interviews

Over the past year or so, I’ve been enjoying an active correspondence with John C. Tibbetts, a long-standing film researcher, who recently put out a three volume collection of highlights from American Classic Screen, a publication which in its day represented an important bridge between the world of film buffs and cineastes, on the one hand, and film scholars on the other. For a period of time, academic film scholars seemed eager to burn some of these bridges, gaining academic respectability at the expense of cutting themselves off from fans and journalists who shared their passions for film. Tibbetts is one of the film scholars who has kept these bridges very much in tact, working through the years as a practicing journalist, as well as teaching at the University of Kansas. He’s recently opened a remarkable website which showcases several decades worth of interviews with some of the top creative talents of the era, one which as he explains below is fearless in bridging high and low and cutting across a range of different media. Whatever your interests, there is sure to be material here which will be invaluable to you.

“OVER THE RAINBOW”: A STATEMENT BY JOHN C. TIBBETTS, UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS

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I want to thank Henry Jenkins for this opportunity to welcome you to my new website, “Over the Rainbow,” administered through the University of Kansas. It contains hundreds of my video and audio interviews spanning 35 years with pop and classical figures in the arts and humanities. The address is: kuscholarworks.ku.edu/dspace/handle/1808/6581. Now in progress, and accessible to scholars, fans, and enthusiasts, “Over the Rainbow” has grown to more than sixty video interviews and soon will include hundreds more video and audio interviews. Eventually, they will be accompanied by brief annotations and illustrations to alert the viewer/reader to their contents.

How did I gain access to these interviews (I prefer to call them “conversations”)? Opportunities for contacts were numerous. Before gaining my tenure as an associate professor in Film and Media Studies at the University of Kansas in 1998, I worked as a full-time radio and television broadcaster and free-lance journalist for CBS television, the Christian Science Monitor radio network and newspaper, Voice of America, National Public Radio, and several classical music radio stations. At the same time I edited the National Film Society’s house magazine, American Classic Screen.

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A NOTE ABOUT THE INTERVIEWS

These conversations encompass the worlds of “classical” and “pop” culture, with artists and performers “high” and “low,” from the scholar’s studio to “drive-by” encounters on the road–at backstage rehearsals, in private homes, movie premieres, music festivals, academic conferences, science fiction/horror cons, etc. As you will see, it could be argued that I have shown little discrimination in these subjects, be they “high” and “low,” or somewhere in between. So be it. That’s the world we live in; the media borders are porous. As Henry Jenkins has declared, “Today we are trying. . . to build bridges, to open larger conversations, and to join forces with fans and industry alike as we explore the new directions being taken within media culture.”

Thus–to cite a few examples of these “bridges,”–you will find here conversations about music with blues man “Screamin'” Jay Hawkins” in a Kansas City bar and with opera star Luciano Pavarotti in the back of a luxury limousine. There are talks about gothic horror with popular novelists Stephen King and Robert (Psycho) Bloch; and with academics Professors Richard (The Age of Wonder) Holmes and Harold Schechter (The Bosom Serpent). Composer Jerry Goldsmith talks about composing for Star Trek, and “classical composer” Virgil Thomson remembers composing for Orson Welles and Robert Flaherty. Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and classical violinist Nigel Kennedy demonstrate techniques of improvisation. Comic book artist Bob Kane talks about creating Batman, and award-winning children’s book illustrator Chris Van Allsburg remembers writing The Polar Express and Jumanji. Movie soundtrack composer Ry Cooder and Professor Charles Hamm trace American blues traditions to 19th-century African-American roots. Hollywood mainstream directors James Cameron and Tim Burton talk about Aliens and Batman, and international filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci and Peter Weir discuss their work in the Italian and Australian “New Waves.”

While on the road, like a modern-day flaneur, I’ve always kept my microphones and cameras at the ready. I found Ray Bradbury at Disney’s WED studios while working on EPCOT’s “Spaceship Earth”; Robert Altman at Kansas City’s fabled 18th and Vine locations while shooting Kansas City; concert pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy backstage at a Duesseldorf concert hall after a recital; historian Kevin Brownlow in the basement of his London Photoplay offices while finishing his documentary, The Tramp and the Dictator; Chevy Chase at a barbecue on the rim of the Grand Canyon after finishing National Lampoon Vacation; Jeremy Brett backstage in a West End theater before a performance of The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes; Arthur Conan Doyle’s daughter, Dame Jean Bromet, in her London flat dispensing tea and cakes while recalling her father’s forays into Spiritualism. George Burns in a Las Vegas casino while talking about Oh, God!; and slugger Bo Jackson in the Kansas City Royals dugout before a ballgame.

Inevitably, there are those deliciously unexpected incidents that flavor many of these conversations. Tape recorder in hand, I follow Maurice Sendak backstage while he paints scenery for a performance of the opera version of Where the Wild Things Are. I accompany Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder to the Smithsonian Institute, where they gaze in rapt amazement at the installation of the “Fiftieth Anniversary of Superman” display. Venerable concert pianist Charles Rosen interrupts our talk with a sudden discourse on Hollywood “B” movies. I clamber aboard the Memphis Belle B-17 bomber (now housed at Mud Island, near Memphis) with members of the original crew during on-site conversations about their participation in William Wyler’s titular 1943 documentary classic. I watch while Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. illustrates his swashbuckling memories of working with Max Ophuls on The Exile by brandishing a sword he kept in his apartment’s umbrella stand. I listened while an ageing Adriana Casellotti (the voice of Disney’s Snow White) punctuates her memories of the film with shrill reprises of “Someday My Prince Will Come.” While talking about Back to the Beach, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon suddenly launch into their “Beach Party” theme song. A stark naked Tony Bennett changes costumes during a photo shoot in Los Angeles. Kermit the Frog likewise appears nude (courtesy of Jim Henson’s open hand) when he interrupts Henson’s remarks about Sesame Street. Instead of closing our conversation about The Color Purple with the traditional handshake, Steven Spielberg extends his hands for a quick game “patty-cake. Look closely, and you’ll see Debra Winger punctuating her remarks by munching on a potted plant. Brian Dennehy responds to my invitation to offer career advice to his young co-star, Tyrone Power, Jr., in Cocoon 2 with these immortal words: “Use a little less lip gloss, kid!” Avant-garde composer John Cage finds sudden inspiration for a discourse on “found music” when an ice cream truck tinkles out its melodies below our window. And my tape recorder is rolling while Clarence “Ducky” Nash (the voice of Donald Duck) breaks up a restaurant crowd with one of Donald’s squawking tantrums.

The old adage that the bigger they are the nicer they are certainly holds true in my experience. Tops on my list of Good Guys are directors Ron Howard and Richard Donner; actors Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Bridges, and DeForest Kelly (“Bones” on Star Trek); academics Jacques Barzun and Susan Sontag; and ragtime composer Max Morath and opera composer William Bolcom. In particular, I’ll never forget my many interviews with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Long ago, during his Conan the Barbarian days, Arnold’s consummate professionalism and his love of publicity already marked him as a born politician. The losers. . . well, discretion bids me hold my tongue, but can you spell T-0-M-M-Y L-E-E J-O-N-E-S?

A NOTE ON MY AUTOGRAPHED PORTRAITS

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Soon to accompany the interviews on the “Over the Rainbow” web site are hundreds of my sketches and paintings of the interview subjects. This hobby–or whatever it is–began long ago in 1966 when author Ray Bradbury inscribed my portrait of him with greetings from the characters in his stories. Not only did that launch a friendship I cherish to this day (Ray is in his late 80s now), but I was inspired to capture more likenesses and inscriptions. They now number more than 300 images.

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My portraits have had their advantages during my interviews. Sometimes they triggered unexpected conversations with the subjects. Gene Hackman showed me some of the sketches he makes between takes on the movie set, and Julie Andrews and Whoopi Goldberg confessed what they really want to do is write children’s books. Maybe strangest of all, Broadway superstar Mary Martin told me that she paints portraits too! But not the conventional views of faces; no, she’s talking about drawing the backs of their heads. “You see,” she explained, “when I was on stage during the run of The Sound of Music, I got to know the Von Trapp kids by the backs of their heads during the “do-re-mi” song. So I gave them each a drawing of the backs of their heads. And since then, I’ve given all my friends portraits of the backs of their heads. It’s become my trademark! I also blush to admit that in swaps for my art work, fantasy illustrator Joseph Mugnaini doodled fantastic designs on my Hollywood hotel stationery, Bob (“Batman”) Kane tossed off a drawing of the Dynamic Duo in the bar of the Sheraton-Universal Hotel, and Chuck Jones dashed off a Daffy Duck/ “Scarlet Pumpernickle” drawing in his Hollywood office.

I welcome all of you to visit my web site at the University of Kansas. You may find a few insights and provocations amidst some of the laughs and tom-foolery.

John C. Tibbetts (tibbetts@ku.edu)

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John C. Tibbetts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Kansas, where he teaches courses in film history, media studies, and theory and aesthetics. His most recent books are Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography (2005, Yale University Press), Schumann: A Chorus of Voices (2010, Amadeus Press), and the three-volume American Classic Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2010). Forthcoming is Voices of Wonder: Conversations on Classic Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror.

How Learners Can Be On Top of Their Game: An Interview with James Paul Gee (Part Four)

Despite your title, you spend less time here talking about “gender” than might be expected from other books which talk about women and gaming. What roles does gender play in your analysis? What claims are you making about the different kinds of experiences and identities female players construct around games?

For me, the book is not about gender. It is about women and girls who take gaming beyond gaming to become designers within well-designed passionate affinity spaces that change their lives and the lives of others. It about these women and girls because we believe that what they are doing, how they are doing it (e.g., combing technical modding with modding for emotional intelligence and social interactions), and what they are accomplishing is on the cutting edge of where all of us are going–male or female.

Women and girls are leading the way here as they are in many other areas of society. There has been lots about modding for games like Half-Life and its connections to technical skills–and indeed this is important. But much less has been written about modding the Sims to create challenges and game play that is simultaneously in the game world, in the real world, and in writing things like graphic novels.

Such modding is the force that sustains a passionate affinity space that builds artistic, technical, social, and emotional skills. We wrote the book because these woman and girls rock, not because they are women and girls.

Also I had a sin to expiate. I had left the Sims and women gamers pretty much out of my first book on games. Betty helped me see that The Sims is a real game and a very important one because it is a game that is meant to take people beyond gaming. She helped me see that how women play and design is not “mainstream” (see comments above) but cutting edge, the edge of the future. If it were leprechauns that were the cutting edge of the future I would have written about them.

In the case of The Sims, you have a designer — Will Wright — who has been outspoken in his desire to empower his users to construct community and build their own content around his games. How does this goal on the part of the designer impact the kinds of stories you can tell about these women’s relations to this particular game?

See answer above. Will Wright is doing in an extreme way what lots of game designers want to do: empower people to think like designers, to organize themselves around the game to become learn new skills that extend beyond the game, and to express their own creativity. Many say the Sims is not a game–and I myself used to believe that. But as Derrida would remind us, what we find marginal is often actually central. Out book argues that games like the Sims–and gaming beyond gaming–will eventually be the new center of gaming or maybe something eventually all together different.

As you get into forms of cultural production such as fan fiction, I start to wonder why is it important for you that this a book about gaming rather than about the much wider array of forms of participatory culture that have emerged in a networked society.

It is important to me because I do not want to compete with you for the participatory culture space. Further, I want to stress production, though I know well you care about production as well. There are some–not you–who in education celebrate participation in a mindless way. They argue that just because people are participating they are learning. But people can participate in ways that allow themselves to be “colonized” by a group or to gain much less than others in the group or even to be used as an example that makes others look good. I think a demand that everyone learns to produce and design–to be a “priest”–can mitigate these dangers, though I am sure that dangers remain.

I know you have expressed in the past great skepticism that our current schooling system can adjust to the potentials of this more participatory culture. Without school involvement, how do we insure a more equitable access to the kinds of formative experiences you describe in the book? On the other hand, how does a school culture so focused on standardized processes and measurements maintain anywhere near the flexibility to respond to personal passions that you’ve identified in The Sims?

What I have called “situated embodied problem-focused well-designed and well-mentored learning” will either come to exist primarily for elites who will get it 24/7 on demand across many institutions and their homes or it will be given to everyone.

In the first case, the regular (“mainstream”) public school system will continue to teach the basics accountably and will exist to produce service workers. In the second case, we will have to reinvent a public sphere and transform our view of society, civic participation, markets, and what constitutes justice, fairness, and a good life. We are headed the first way right now, but there is always hope for the future. Both you and I are trying to push the train to the second future and not the first, though, in the end, in the future the real actors and activists in this “game” will be younger (and often browner) than we are.

The current accountability regime MUST be removed. It is immoral, stupid, and counterproductive. We define accountability around teachers failing to teach children. This is like doing accountability for surgeons by waiting to see how many people they kill and then getting rid of them if they kill too many.

Far better to have accountability back when teachers and surgeons were trained, which means radical changes in Schools of Education and universities. Surely we should not wait to see how many patients they kill or kids they screw. Teachers are punished if a kid’s test scores go down, but scores could go down for many reasons, not just what the teacher did in one year. This is like punishing a surgeon when a patient dies in back surgery because his wife poisoned him–and lots of things are poisoning our children, not, by any means, mostly teachers.

What we need accountability for is curriculum and pedagogies, not teachers per se (who should have been well trained and then held to high standards that most of them can and do meet, as in the case of surgeons). Today curricula and pedagogies are often politicized, seen as right wing or left wing. If we could agree on a common measure (say a NAEP test or some other test we can come to agree on), a measure that is given to a sample of students (not given to all), so that it cannot be taught to, then we can simply say which curricula and pedagogies correlate with strong or weak results on the common measure. This is what we do with drugs and surgical procedures.

In the end, though, we MUST change our assessment system or we will never have new learning, since assessment systems, in an accountability regime, drive what is taught and how it is taught. Today’s games and other digital media allow for learning to be so well designed that finishing the “game” means you have learned and mastered what it being “taught”. No one needs a Halo test after finishing Halo on hard and no one should need an algebra test after finishing an equally well-designed algebra curriculum.

Furthermore, games and digital media can collect, mine, and artfully represent copious moment-by-moment data on a great many variables. So we can, with such data, assess learning across time in terms of growth; we can discover different trajectories towards mastery and use this information to help learners try new styles; and we can compare and contrast learners with thousands of others on hundreds of variables tracked across time (as we already do with Halo for instance).

When the day comes where we can contrast such assessments (based on growth, trajectories, multiple variables represented in ways that inform and develop learners, and comparison among thousands of people sorted into a zillion different types for different purposes) with our now standard “test score”–one number taken on one day–the game will be over. The choice will then be stark. Either we will develop only some or we develop everyone. The bell curve will be gone. No one needs always to be “in the middle” (“mainstream”). Everyone can, in some places and at some times, be at the very top of their game.

James Paul Gee is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University. He is a member of the National Academy of Education. His book Sociolinguistics and Literacies (1990, Third Edition 2007) was one of the founding documents in the formation of the “New Literacy Studies”, an interdisciplinary field devoted to studying language, learning, and literacy in an integrated way in the full range of their cognitive, social, and cultural contexts. His book An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (1999, Second Edition 2005, Third Edition 2011) brings together his work on a methodology for studying communication in its cultural settings, an approach that has been widely influential over the last two decades. His most recent books both deal with video games, language, and learning. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003, Second Edition 2007) argues that good video games are designed to enhance learning through effective learning principles supported by research in the Learning Sciences. Situated Language and Learning (2004) places video games within an overall theory of learning and literacy and shows how they can help us in thinking about the reform of schools. His most recent books are Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays (2007); Woman as Gamers: The Sims and 21st Century Learning (2010) and Language and Learning in the Digital World (2011), both written with Elizabeth Hayes. Prof. Gee has published widely in journals in linguistics, psychology, the social sciences, and education.

How Learners Can Be On Top of Their Game: An Interview with James Paul Gee (Part Three)

The part of your arguments for affinity spaces which get the most push-back from my students are your claims that “a common passion-fueled endeavor — not race, class, gender, or disability — is primary.” To many, these seems like a very utopian claim for these spaces, which you have been careful to describe as not “communities” in the way that term is most often used. Yet, surely, inequalities impact participants at all levels, from access to the technology to access to basic skills and experiences, to access to the social networks which support their learning. How can we address these very real inequalities while recognizing that there are indeed ways where class, race, and gender matter differently in the kinds of spaces you are describing?

The statement that passionate affinity spaces are focused on a shared passion (and shared endeavors and goals around that passion) and not race, class, and gender (while allowing people to use such differences strategically as their own choices) is not an empirical claim, it is a stipulation. Something is not a passionate affinity space if it does not meet this condition. So perhaps there are none. But, then, such spaces become a goal and an ideal and we can talk about how close or far away from that goal and ideal we are.

On the other hand, it does little good to follow the standard liberal line that race, class, and gender are always and everywhere one’s determining identities. This, for example, locks an African-American child into always being “an African American”. A white kid can be a “Pokémon fanatic” or an expert modder, but the African American kid is always “an African-American Pokémon fanatic” or an “African-American modder”.

We are never, none of us, one thing all the time. Sure, the world continuously tries to impose rigid identities on all of us all the time. But it is our moral obligation–and one necessary for a healthy life–to resist this and to try to create spaces where identities based on shared passions or commitments can predominate.

In reality, the real identities that count in life most–that define us and make us who we are–are rarely named. They are identities like “a person who would never kill someone because they did not share his or her religion” or “a person who would rather love and be loved than be rich” and a great many more such as these. These sorts of identities constitute our most significant form of human sharing and bonding. And such identities are where the deepest divisions among people occur.

It may be here that I diverge from some others. I have repeatedly seen people who are pissed off because someone said they or their work were not “mainstream”. If someone called my work “mainstream” or called me “mainstream” I would be insulted. If I discovered that my work or myself was “mainstream”, I would retire or find something else to do. Note, by the way, that NO good academic wants to be mainstream. If something–say, what they teach in high school–is called “mainstream history”, you can bet no good young historian wants to do it and you will find next to no one, old or young, in a good history department with such a sign on his or her door.

Chibi-Robo, Ico, Psychonauts, and Shadow of the Colossus are not mainstream games. They are however great games and their designers will be long remembered when many mainstream designers are long forgotten. Remember, too, that 19th century America had only two world-class poets (Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman) and at the time neither was remotely close to mainstream. One never published and the other published his own book himself and reviewed it under various names. The monk Mendel wanted to be a high school biology teacher, but he failed his state teacher’s test and was relegated to the monastery’s garden. He was unknown in his time, entirely non-mainstream, and yet also the only man in his time who actually knew biology (including Darwin, who knew less than nothing about genetics), though no one knew that until much later.

Throughout the book, you celebrate “grit” as a key virtue of these new forms of cultural participation. How are you defining “grit”? Is this a skill that is valued as much in contemporary schooling?

“Grit”–originally used by Angela Duckworth in a somewhat different way–is passion plus persistence. Human expertise is a practice effect, it requires hours of effort, practice, and persistence past failure. This is unlikely to happen without passion. School has a very hard time producing grit because different people have different passions (and school is about everybody learning the same thing) and passions are something people choose (and school is often not about choice). Furthermore, interest is kindled into passion inside things like passionate affinity spaces and related sorts of social formations and these are hard to come by in schools.

In modern developed countries, only grit will lead to work or lives that are rewarding, given that most jobs will be service jobs. The passion one develops may well be in an out of work space and off market. But there has to be some space where a person has a sense of agency, intelligence, control, and creativity.

Some people have a good deal of grit at school because they believe that putting up with even badly designed schooling will lead to a good college and a successful career. It will lead to a good college, but no longer necessarily to a good career.

The world is full to bursting with educated and talented people, many of whom can compete for the same jobs across the world. Being just good at what others are also good at, in standard ways developed in standard sorts of education, will just put one in competition with millions of well-trained Chinese and Indians and many many others across the globe. In my own view, one needs to have a passion for something and master it in a creative way–it almost does not matter what it is. It could be, for instance, carving art out of avocado pits.

Whatever it is, avocado pits included, you will find via the Internet a critical number of people across the world with whom you can join with for social learning and among whom one can rise to status, respect, and a sense of real contribution and, in some cases, profit (there is not a lot of competition, at least yet, for the top places among avocado artists and, thus, a whole area is waiting to become “hot”).

Many of the projects coming out of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative embrace the importance of passion-driven or interest-driven networks. Yet, increasingly, we are being asked to think about young people who do not have or have not yet discovered driving passions of the kinds the book discusses. How do you respond to critics of “geeking out” as an educational ideal? What can we do for kids who “just don’t care”?

A person who cannot find a passion is going to be in trouble in our modern world as far as I am concerned. Many people will gain status, respect, control, and creativity off market (since not everyone can gain these things on market for profit in a world where, in developed countries, only 1/5 of people will be well paid). But all people need to gain these things.

All our schools and institutions are set up very poorly to help kids find their passion. We want to teach “what every citizen should know” in things like science and math (and we succeed, all Americans pretty much know the same things about science, mathematics, and geography, which is nothing).

We think we can force people to learn things. We treat collaboration as cheating. We do not give kids the time–and places where the cost of failure is low–to try out a variety of interests and identities in an attempt to discover passion or passions. We do not let kids engage with professional-like tools and activities in areas like urban planning, game design, or journalism.

Rather, we define everything to be learned in terms of content names like “algebra” or “civics” even when this “content” might be best learned as a tool set for other activities like 3-D design. We let rich kids experience what passion and practice can bring one in the world and what the routes to success are, but we do not let poor kids have this knowledge. We treat certifications and degrees as more important that actual talent and achievements.

Now what about people who just “don’t care”? Barring serious illness, there are none. Every baby is born as a passion-seeking being. That is why children acquire their native languages and master much of their cultures without formal schooling.

One day, when my son Sam was a mere toddler, I found some plastic figures at the grocery store. I had no idea what they were. I brought a couple home and gave them to Sam. They were Pokémon and they led to interest, passion, and practice that made him a passionate gamer. That passion for gaming led, in ways no one could have predicted, to his current passion for acting and theater, on the one hand, and for Africa, on the other (since Age of Mythology hooked him on mythology and then on cultures beyond his own).

School is defined around outcomes it knows in advance, but does not meet for many children. Real learning kindles passions that make new kinds of people–and people capable of making themselves over again when they need to–but does not know or predict the outcome and does not, by any means, insist on the same outcomes for everyone.

MORE TO COME

James Paul Gee is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University. He is a member of the National Academy of Education. His book Sociolinguistics and Literacies (1990, Third Edition 2007) was one of the founding documents in the formation of the “New Literacy Studies”, an interdisciplinary field devoted to studying language, learning, and literacy in an integrated way in the full range of their cognitive, social, and cultural contexts. His book An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (1999, Second Edition 2005, Third Edition 2011) brings together his work on a methodology for studying communication in its cultural settings, an approach that has been widely influential over the last two decades. His most recent books both deal with video games, language, and learning. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003, Second Edition 2007) argues that good video games are designed to enhance learning through effective learning principles supported by research in the Learning Sciences. Situated Language and Learning (2004) places video games within an overall theory of learning and literacy and shows how they can help us in thinking about the reform of schools. His most recent books are Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays (2007); Woman as Gamers: The Sims and 21st Century Learning (2010) and Language and Learning in the Digital World (2011), both written with Elizabeth Hayes. Prof. Gee has published widely in journals in linguistics, psychology, the social sciences, and education.

How Learners Can Be On Top of Their Game: An Interview with James Paul Gee (Part Two)

Your most recent book, Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning, moves us from a focus on the kinds of learning which occurs inside the game as we play towards the kinds of learning which takes place around the game as people build upon it through the mechanisms of what you would call affinity spaces or what I call Participatory Culture. You describe this as “gaming beyond gaming.” What has motivated this shift of emphasis?

Women and Gaming is no longer our most recent book. Language and Learning in the Digital Age has just appeared (another book I did with Betty). My focus of late on passionate affinity spaces was caused by the influences of my son Sam (who claims correctly to have taught me everything I know about games), Betty’s wonderful work on her tech-savvy girls clubs, and, of course, you.

The first thing I ever wrote on passionate affinity spaces was motivated by a request that I write a paper about my take on “communities of practice”, a notion that has become very popular in a great many areas. In my view, this powerful notion has become attached to so many different things that it is in danger of losing any real meaning. When talking about such notions I think it is necessary to name what you mean very specifically and name it in such a way that it clearly indicates what you value. This is what you have done with “participatory culture” and what I did with passionate affinity spaces.

So why did I choose that term? First I wanted to argue that “interest” gets someone in the door but not out the door to any deep place unless it leads to lots and lots of practice and persistence past failure. To get such practice and persistence past failure an interest has to be kindled into a passion and an affinity space needs to be organized to help people to do this.

I use “space” rather than “community” because the word “community” carries a rather romantic connotation which it should not have. I also use the word “space” because the notion of “membership” is very complex in modern Internet spaces. People are “in” the space even if they are just lurking, but what makes them “members” is a much harder and, in some cases (though not all), a more flexible and fungible notion.

Passionate affinity spaces tend to follow the Pareto Principle (20% of the people produce 80% of the outcomes, 80% produce 20% of the outcomes), while school classrooms tend to follow (enforced) bell curves. I want to stress not just multiple forms and routes to participation, leadership, and mentorship in passionate affinity spaces, but also the opportunity for all people in the space to become producers, designers, and creators, as well as mentors to others.

All passionate affinity spaces are organized first and foremost around a specific passion that is not necessarily shared by everyone (some only have an interest), but is the “attractor” in the space around which norms, values, and behaviors are set. The book Women and Gaming is about different forms passionate affinity spaces can take and some forms we applaud. The form we applaud most is not age-graded (young and old are together); allows newbies and experts to be together; and engages in supportive interactions because people in the space accept a theory of learning that says that expertise is not in a person but in the affinity space and that no matter how good you are there is always something more to learn and someone else from whom to get help and mentoring.

Tell us more about the Tech Savvy Girls Clubs. What were the goals behind this initiative? How did these experiences inform Women and Gaming?

The following is from Elizabeth Hayes:

TSG grew out of my interest in differences among how girls and boys engage with gaming more broadly. Not only do girls and boys tend to play different sorts of games, they also do different things with games. In particular, boys are much more likely to mod games, to create content for games, and otherwise to engage with games and other gamers in ways that support their development of technical skills and identities as content creators. The Sims is one of few games in which girls and women actually predominate as content creators and modders.

I wanted to give girls who otherwise would not participate in such practices greater access, social support and encouragement to participate. We started TSG, though, with a pretty limited understanding of the learning that takes place through fan communities, or affinity spaces. We initially saw fan sites as sources of information (i.e., tutorials, examples of content) rather than as spaces where the girls could develop identities, interact with other players, and be mentored (as well as mentor others).

A crucial turning point in our perspective was conducting interviews with adult women content creators, described in Chapter 5 of the book. These women kept pointing back to the Sims player community as crucial to their interest in content creation and modding, as well as to their mastery of technical skills. Talking to these women made me realize that I had started TSG with a deficit perspective towards women’s gaming practices. That is, I’d assumed that we needed to help girls engage in modding practices similar to what boys are doing, rather than starting with an appreciation for what women were already doing.

This change in perspective led us to further investigations of the fan practices already taking place around The Sims, and this research became a very important component of our work. One of my research assistants is just completing her dissertation on The Sims Writers’ Hangout, a site where players post and discuss Sims stories, a form of multimodal storytelling that requires composing images in the game and combining them with often lengthy narrative texts. Another student is investigating the learning of specialist language that takes place in Mod The Sims, another fan site devoted to game modding.

This is why discussion of the social spaces around The Sims is so central to Women and Gaming. We wanted to help others see that what women are doing with games is already exciting and important, and also to shift the lens a bit, in order to encourage people to look at male-dominated game spaces in new ways.

A key theme running through the book is the importance of becoming a designer rather than simply being a player of games. What accounts for the growing emphasis on design literacies in the 21st century?

I think that the importance of design, design thinking, and design literacies today follows from the shape of the world. We live amidst complex systems of all sorts, systems which are risky and dangerous and which interact with each other to create yet more risk. Furthermore, such systems are rarely now just “natural” or just “human made”.

I live in Sedona, Arizona. Sedona is a dessert. Like desserts from time immemorial, Sedona is cold at night even if it is hot in the day time. This is not so for Phoenix, which is also a dessert. It is hot at night when it is hot in the day time. This is so because of a heat-island effect. The massive amounts of concrete in Phoenix absorb the heat all day and radiate it out all night. So the temperature in Phoenix is a joint venture of “Mother Nature” and humans.

Solutions to problems involving complex systems demand multiple sorts of pooled expertise, including even the wisdom of crowds. Single minded, single focused experts are dangerous, since they undervalue what they do not know and their actions can and do create massive unintended consequences when they intervene in complex systems (as we found out in the 2008 worldwide recession and as Alan Greenspan pretty much admitted in front of Congress).

So people–citizens–need to learn to think of systems as designed or as things that act like they are designed. They need to know how themselves to produce designs as “models” to think with (and model-based thinking is the core of science).

The United States today is politically polarized and comes at all problems as if they are political or ideological, when in fact most of our problems are complex, the solutions to them are going to be compromises with tradeoffs, and we need to continuously question our expertise, values, and goals. We are so polarized today that a core goal of schooling, in my view, ought to be teaching kids to see arguments as designed and as inherently connected to evidence and perspectives and not just ideology, self-interest, and desire.

Of course, the focus on design has also come about because so many digital tools–and other tech tools–developed by and for professionals can be used today by “everyday people” to design, build, and create for themselves. There has always been the danger with any technology–most certainly including books–that people will get divided into two classes: “priests” who are experts and know the deep secrets inside the technology (or make them up) and the “laity” who consume the technology, but do not understand it enough to transform it. The potential of much digital learning today–as well as many passionate affinity spaces–is to allow more and more people to be priests. But this sort of potential has always in human history been opposed and resisted by elites, who ever seek to constrain and tame it.

James Paul Gee is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University. He is a member of the National Academy of Education. His book Sociolinguistics and Literacies (1990, Third Edition 2007) was one of the founding documents in the formation of the “New Literacy Studies”, an interdisciplinary field devoted to studying language, learning, and literacy in an integrated way in the full range of their cognitive, social, and cultural contexts. His book An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (1999, Second Edition 2005, Third Edition 2011) brings together his work on a methodology for studying communication in its cultural settings, an approach that has been widely influential over the last two decades. His most recent books both deal with video games, language, and learning. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003, Second Edition 2007) argues that good video games are designed to enhance learning through effective learning principles supported by research in the Learning Sciences. Situated Language and Learning (2004) places video games within an overall theory of learning and literacy and shows how they can help us in thinking about the reform of schools. His most recent books are Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays (2007); Woman as Gamers: The Sims and 21st Century Learning (2010) and Language and Learning in the Digital World (2011), both written with Elizabeth Hayes. Prof. Gee has published widely in journals in linguistics, psychology, the social sciences, and education.

How Learners Can Be On Top of Their Game: An Interview with James Paul Gee (Part One)

James Paul Gee from New Learning Institute on Vimeo.

On April 4, I will be respondent for the Pullias Lecture, being hosted by the Rossier School of Education here at the University of Southern California. The primary speaker is James Paul Gee, who is going to address “Games, Learning, and the Looming Crisis of Higher Education.” For those in the Los Angeles area, the talk is being held in the Davidson Conference Center at USC, 4-6 PM.

I was delighted to be asked to participate in this exchange, both because I was recently given an honorary appointment in the Rossier School and because I have such affection and respect for Gee. We’ve known each other for the better part of a decade now. We’ve appeared together many times, often in informal conversational settings, I like to call “The Jim and Henry Show,” where we talk about our shared interests in participatory culture, games and learning, and the new media literacies. Gee has been one of the key thinkers about the kinds of new pedogogical models represented by computer and video games, seeing them as illustrating alternative forms of learning to those represented by our current schooling practices. Gee has been one of the core contributors to the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiative, helping to inspire a whole new generation of educational researchers, who are doing serious work not only on games but also modding, machinema, fan fiction, virtual worlds, and a range of other new media platforms and practices.

This semester, I have ended up teaching Gee’s recent book, Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning, in my New Media Literacies class. I was delighted when I first saw the book to see Gee expand upon his thinking about “affinity spaces” to think more deeply about what he and his co-author Elizabeth Hayes call “gaming beyond gaming.” The term refers to the broad range of productive and social practices which have grown up around games, practices which strongly parallel what I’ve found in my own research on fan cultures. The book’s focus on The Sims signals the importance of this game both as a breakthrough title which expanded female interest in the medium and as a model for all subsequent games which have encouraged players to build and share content with each other. Gee and Hayes are interested in the ways this game has become the jumping off place for lifelong learning processes for a range of women, young and old. It is a delightful mixture of compelling storytelling and thoughtful analysis, one which can easily be assigned to undergraduate students but which is profound enough to capture the imagination of advanced students and researchers.

As I was anticipating our mutual participation in the Pullias Lecture event, it occurred to me that I had never interviewed Gee for my blog, despite all of our other interactions through the years. What follows includes his reflections on the current state of games-based learning research, the state of American education, and the value of participatory culture. Gee was generous with his thoughts and so I am going to be running this meaty exchange over three installments this week.

We’ve both been involved in thinking about games and learning for the better part of a decade. What do you see as the most significant breakthroughs which have occurred over this time?

The breakthroughs have been slower in coming than I had hoped. Like many new ideas, the idea of games for learning (better, “games as learning”) has been often co-opted by entrenched paradigms and interests, rather than truly transforming them. We see now a great many skill-and-drill games, games that do in a more entertaining fashion what we already do in school. We see games being recruited in workplaces–and lots of other instances of “gamification”–simply to make the current structures of exploitation and traditional relationships of power more palatable. We will see the data mining capacities of games and digital media in general recruited for supervision, rather than development. The purpose of games as learning (and other game-like forms of learning) should be to make every learner a proactive, collaborative, reflective, critical, creative and innovative problem solver; a producer with technology and not just a consumer; and a fully engaged participant and not just a spectator in civic life and the public sphere.

In general there are two “great divides” in the games and learning arena. The two divides are based on the learning theories underlying proposals about games for learning. The first divide is this: On the one hand, there are games based on a “break everything into bits and practice each bit in its proper sequence” theory of learning, a theory long popular in instructional technology. Let’s call this the “drill and practice theory”. On the other hand, there are games based on a “practice the bits inside larger and motivating goal-based activities of which they are integral parts” theory. Let’s call this the “problem-and-goals-centered theory”. I espouse one version of this theory, but, unfortunately, there are two versions of it. And this is the second divide: On the one hand, there is a “mindless progressive theory” that says just turn learners loose to immerse themselves in rich activities under the steam of their own goals. This version of progressivism (and progressivism in Dewey’s hands was not “mindless”) has been around a great many years and is popular among “mindless” educational liberals. On the other hand, the other version of the “problem-and-goals-centered theory” claims that deep learning is achieved when learners are focused on well designed, well ordered, and well mentored problem solving with shared goals, that is, goals shared with mentors and a learning community.

Like so many other areas of our lives today, the conservative version (drill and practice) and the liberal version (mindless progressivism) are both wrong. The real solution does not lie in the middle, but outside the space carved up by political debates.

What do you think remain the biggest misunderstandings or disagreements in this space?

Much of what I discussed above is really not about misunderstandings, but about disagreements and different beliefs and value systems, or, in some cases, different political, economic, or cultural vested interests. The biggest misunderstanding in the case of my own work has been people saying that my work espouses games for learning. It does not and never has. It espouses “situated embodied learning”, that is learning by participation in well designed and well mentored experiences with clear goals; lots of formative feedback; performance before competence; language and texts “just in time” and “on demand”; and lots of talk and interaction around strategies, critique, planning, and production within a “passionate affinity space” (a type of interest-driven group) built to sustain and extend the game or other curriculum. Games are one good way to do this. There are many others.

The biggest misunderstanding in general is that technologies (like games, television, movies, and books) are good or bad. They are neither. They are good, bad, or indifferent based on how they are used in the contexts in which they are used. By themselves they are inert, though they do have certain affordances. Games for learning work pretty much the same way as books for learning. Kids learn with books or games (or television or computers or movies or pencils) when they are engaged in well designed and good interactions with adults and more advanced peers, interactions that lead to problem solving, meta-critical reflection, and connections to the world and other texts and tools. They learn much less in other circumstances. But we must humbly admit that humans have never yet found a technology more powerful than print. The number of people who have killed others or aided them in the name of a book (the Bible, the Koran, the Turner Diaries, Silent Spring) is vastly larger than those who have killed or helped in the name of a game, movie, or television show. Of course, this may change, but it does little good, in the interim, to pretend books are benign, but games are inherently perilous.

From the start, you were less interested in designing games for teaching than in using principles of game design that are grounded in educational research to reimagine the pedagogical process? To what degree do you think recent projects such as Quest to Learn have embodied those insights?

I see game design and learning design (what a good professional teacher does) as inherently similar activities. The principles of “good games” and of “good learning” are the same, by and large. This is so, of course, because games are just well designed problem-solving spaces with feedback and clear outcomes and that is the most essential thing for real, deep, and consequential learning. These principles include (among others): making clear what identity the learning requires; making clear why anyone would want to do such learning; making clear how the learning will function to lead to problem solving and mastery; making the standards of achievement high and clear, but reachable with persistence; early successes; a low cost of failure that encourages exploration, risk taking, and trying out new styles; lots of practice of basic skills inside larger goal-based and motivating activities; creating and then challenging routine mastery at different levels to move learners upwards; using information and texts “just in time” and “on demand”; performance before competence (doing as a way of learning and being); getting learners to think like designers and to be able themselves to design; encouraging collaboration and affiliation with what is being learned as part of an identity and passion one shares with others; good mentoring by other people, as well as smart tools and technologies.

These principles can be realized in many ways, not one. Chibi-Robo, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Quest to Learn all realize them, though Quest to Learn faces the vast stupidity of our current accountability regime and Chibi-Robo and Yu-Gi-Oh do not.

James Paul Gee is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University. He is a member of the National Academy of Education. His book Sociolinguistics and Literacies (1990, Third Edition 2007) was one of the founding documents in the formation of the “New Literacy Studies”, an interdisciplinary field devoted to studying language, learning, and literacy in an integrated way in the full range of their cognitive, social, and cultural contexts. His book An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (1999, Second Edition 2005, Third Edition 2011) brings together his work on a methodology for studying communication in its cultural settings, an approach that has been widely influential over the last two decades. His most recent books both deal with video games, language, and learning. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003, Second Edition 2007) argues that good video games are designed to enhance learning through effective learning principles supported by research in the Learning Sciences. Situated Language and Learning (2004) places video games within an overall theory of learning and literacy and shows how they can help us in thinking about the reform of schools. His most recent books are Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays (2007); Woman as Gamers: The Sims and 21st Century Learning (2010) and Language and Learning in the Digital World (2011), both written with Elizabeth Hayes. Prof. Gee has published widely in journals in linguistics, psychology, the social sciences, and education.

A Remediated, Premediated, and Transmediated Conversation with Richard Grusin (Part Three)

I am putting up the final installment of my conversation with Richard Grusin a day early as I am headed out of town for much needed R&R time with my wife. I will not be posting next week, but expect to return shortly thereafter.

History and Genealogy

RG: Speaking of history, though, I wonder if you would let me pose another question about the relationship between remediation and transmedia. One of our claims in Remediation (which has gratifyingly been borne out by a good deal of scholarship in the past decade and more), was that although the explosion of new digital media at the end of the 20th century made the double logic of remediation visible, remediation (and its double logic) had a very long history in Western culture, going back at least to the invention of linear perspective. By identifying the working of remediation in contemporary digital media, we have been able to look back on the history of mediation in Western culture to see it in a different light. Do you see a similar historical genealogy for transmedia?

HJ: Yes, depending on how broadly or narrowly we define transmedia. I have made the argument that the church in the middle ages was profoundly transmedia if you lacked the capacity to read. For the priests, the Bible stories were rooted in a text and everything else would have been understood as an illustration of that text. But if you couldn’t read that text, you were absorbing bits of the stories from many different sources in the culture around you and the stories could be brought together via stainglass windows, tapestries, or paintings, where characters from multiple stories or symbols for many parables might exist side by side. Michelangelo is in that sense a profoundly intertextual artist.

I would also point to the great world builders of the 20th century — especially L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Walt Disney as also contributing much to the current configurations of transmedia. Baum in terms of mapping Oz through books, stage plays, films, and public lectures, each adding new layers to the original. Tolkien developed a mythology much larger than he could communicate in Lord of the Rings as a specific narrative. And Disney in moving from the screen to location-based entertainment and in constructing a “world” or “family” of characters drawn from multiple stories.

RG:

Your mention here of “world builders,” and earlier “fictional worlds” or “universes,” is helpful, I think, in clarifying another difference between our approaches. You’re interested in how transmedia create fictional worlds. My approach focuses more on logics and practices of mediation in specific historical formations–although your sense that transmedia represents the current media formation of the infotainment industry is itself, I would argue, a historically specific claim.

HJ:

Derek Johnson and Avi Santos have been arguing for greater historical specificity in terms of how today’s transmedia models emerge from the larger evolution of franchise entertainment across the 20th century. I also would argue that elements can be tied back to series books and film serials, not to mention to the practices of comic books, all of which link individual units to larger story systems, even if they remain largely within the same medium. A lot depends on whether we are tracing transmedia practices in terms of narrative, visual, or economic structures. I think that recognizing transmedia in contemporary media may similarly open up further historical investigations. I hope it inspires half as much generative scholarship as Remediation has done.

I am very interested in Kim Deitch’s graphic novel, Alias the Cat, which depicts a story being created in the 1910s via newspaper serials, comic strips, film serials, and live stunts, all practices possible in the early 20th century, and all practices used in various combinations, although perhaps not in the hypercoordinated way depcited in the comic. For me, this story helps sort through the difference between a set of potential practices, each transmedia in its implications, and an overall logic which may be the current configurations of practices.

Transmedia in that sense is not totally new, yet it is unlikely that it would take its current shapes in the absence of networked communication. And that’s why I started this by reflecting on the different ways that transmedia impulses work in the era of the cd-rom, of the web, and of the iPad.

Turning the lens back in your direction, is the history of remediation one in which the same dual logic repeats itself again and again or is it one of historical transition and transformation in which shifts in the media landscape enable or foreclose certain possibilities, certain models of creative practice?


RG:

As I mentioned earlier, remediation can be traced in visual media at least to the origins of linear perspective, particularly the invention of the idea that the canvas or picture plane should be treated as a transparent window through which to view the world. I will leave it to art historians who know much more than I do to determine if it can be traced back even further or into other artistic media.

But I do remember that, while we were writing the book, we used to have fun imagining with our students other arenas in which the twin logics of remediation, transparent immediacy and hypermediacy, had manifested themselves historically. Romantic poets like Wordsworth, for example, appealed to the immediacy of the vernacular and the heart or intuition, while someone like Blake demonstrated a form of hypermediacy especially through his illustrated poems. The scientific debate between scholasticism and empiricism in science might also be glossed in terms of the immediacy of the experiment and the hypermediacy of scholastic traditions. And it is hard not to see the contrast between the Catholic Church and Protestantism as one between hypermediacy and immediacy. These, however, were mainly speculative musings. As someone committed to historical specificity, I remain cautious in trying to think about transhistorical laws of mediation.

Nonetheless, in the historical period within which remediation does operate, I would argue that the double logic of remediation does not repeat itself in the same form but operates, as you say, in terms of “historical transition and transformation in which shifts in the media landscape enable or foreclose certain possibilities, certain models of creative practice.” In my new book I situate the double logic of remediation both, as you plausibly suggest earlier, in relation to the invention of new stand-alone multimedia storage devices like the cd-rom, as well as in relation to the 1990s desire for immediacy represented most fully in technical fantasies of virtual reality which grew largely out of the cyberculture and cyberpunk imaginary of the 1980s. In the last two decades of the 20th century, immediacy was defined in terms of the erasure of mediation in an immediate, immersive encounter with the real, while hypermediacy was defined in terms of the kind of multiplication of mediation made possible by cd-roms, the world wide web, and other related media formats.

In the first decades of the 21st century, the emergence of social media has, I argue, shifted the ways in which immediacy and hypermediacy manifest themselves–and thus alter the double logic of remediation. In fact where in the 1990s the immediacy of the real was defined in opposition to the multiplicity of mediation, in the 21st century hypermediation is the mark of the real, as epitomized most dramatically in the Fox series 24, which depicted real-time not in terms of the erasure of mediation but in terms of its multiplication. In our current moment of mobile, socially networked media, immediacy is manifested as mobility, connectivity, and flow, the easy, almost seamless, interaction among our countless personal and collective media sites–FB, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, and countless others. Hypermediacy manifests itself not so much in the formal fragmentation and multiplicity of the visual space of the screen as in the multiplication of mediation among and across our networks, including the ways in which all of our socially mediated interactions are tracked, recorded, and archived by a state and corporate security regime for purposes of data mining, tracking, trendspotting, and preemption of criminal behavior.

Politics

RG: Perhaps because of the changing nature of our times, my approach to premediation, which I argue is the predominant form in which remediation manifests itself in the 21st century, is much more political than our approach to remediation was. While remediation was and remains a concept that can be useful for political means, premediation makes those uses much more explicit. This, then, raises for me another question about your approach to transmedia. Do you see a politics to transmedia, either as practiced in the corporate entertainment industry of as you deploy it in your work? Or is this not an explicit focus of your transmedia work?

HJ: In terms of corporate media, there is certainly a concern that the capacity to expand a story across multiple media platforms and thus blanket the society has a potential to be used for propagandistic purposes in ways which concerns me deeply. That said, as currently developed, the transmedia model comes attached with a very active and skeptical model of spectatorship — one where collectives of fans work through complex challenges together in ways which encourage criticism and reflection.

Indeed, what we are seeing is the spill over of these forms of fan participation and emerging forms of activism, which are the focus of some new work which I am pursuing in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation. For example, we are studying the case of the Harry Potter Alliance which has built a large scale network of young activists on the metaphors and narratives provided by J.K. Rowling’s media franchise. Here, they are building on an existing transmedia system and on the infrastructure provided by media fandom to motivate political participation around a range of human rights and social justice concerns.

I am also interested in work which Sasha Contanza-Chock has been doing on what he calls “transmedia mobilization” in the Los Angeles immigrant rights movement. There’s a tendency to think of transmedia practices as involving high end production values, but here, he is looking at how activists in Los Angeles are deploying a range of low end media to protest current U.S. policies around immigration and to get their message out to their supporters by any means necessary. Transmedia mobilization, in this case, might involve YouTube video, podcasts, mix tapes, graffiti, posters, and street theater, but it still follows principles we can recognize from other research on transmedia practices.

Finally, coming full circle back to corporate media, I am very concerned with the contradictions about participation embedded in current concepts of web 2.0 and user-generated content, issues in public policy which range from concerns about constraints on Fair Use in the domain of intellectual property to issues of “free labor” in the relations between participants in the creative process and the use of surveillance practices to monitor and monetize forms of audience engagement (of the sort you reference above). These issues are central to my new work on Spreadable Media.

A Friendly Ammendment?

RG:

Thanks, Henry. This has been really helpful for me. I hope others will find the discussion useful as well. I’d like to close by returning to where we began this discussion and offer what I hope you will see as a friendly amendment to your concept of transmedia.

In my Premediation book, I argue that the concept of new media, which was useful for both of us in making sense of the exciting and transformative changes that were occurring in the 1980s and 1990s, no longer does much work in the 21st century. In an era where old media like books, newspapers, radio, and television are created, circulated, and consumed through digital media, the distinction between old and new media becomes increasingly problematic. I argue, instead, that we should focus instead on “mediality,” which I take to include all the forms of media with which we interact on a regular basis. I relate the concept of mediality to Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality, arguing that media today operate as aspects of governmentality in mobilizing and managing populations, which Foucault describes as networks of people and things. Thus rather than focus on the relations among “new” and “old” forms of media, I argue that we need to pay attention to the things that media do, the way they act and help govern the variety of human and nonhuman publics that proliferate at the present moment. From this perspective the political deployment and implications of transmedia that you have described could be understood as elements of governmentality in the 21st century, as a mode of what I would like to think of as “transmediality.”

If we go down this path, then I would suggest (and here is the friendly amendment) that just as mediality allows us to undo or dispose of the distinction between old and new media, transmediality could allow us to undo the distinction with which our discussion began between stand-alone and networked media. In the most trivial sense, we could see that the interaction with a stand-alone DVD, with its extras and director’s cuts and commentaries, could be seen as a form of transmediality similar to our interaction with transmedia artifacts on the internet. Of course, I recognize that this might remove (or at least minimize) the element of active hunting and searching that you see as part of the transmedia experience. But more significantly, I think that the distinction between stand-alone and networked media is increasingly coming to become unhelpful in the same way that I described in relation to old vs. new media. Whether we think of the transmediality of CDs loaded in iTunes, or the networked capabilities being built into BluRay players as just two examples, the distinction between stand-alone media and networked media seems increasingly unclear. And when you add to this the fact that the creation, production, and distribution of all digital artifacts are inseparable from all sorts of networked media technologies, I think that it will not be long before the distinction between stand-alone and networked media becomes moot. In making this friendly amendment, I mean not to weaken or minimize the concept of transmediality, but rather the opposite–to suggest that, like remediation did in the 1990s, transmediality in the 21st century names the condition to which all of our media will eventually aspire.

Thanks again, Henry, for suggesting this conversation. Let’s do it again some time.

Richard Grusin is Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He received his Ph.D. in 1983 from the University of California-Berkeley. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and four books, including (with Jay David Bolter) Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT, 1999) and most recently Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (Palgrave, 2010).

A Remediated, Premediated, and Transmediated Conversation with Richard Grusin (Part Two)

Aesthetics

RG:

Serendipitously, I, too, had been thinking of a video that might help delineate the distinction between transmedia and remediation–the Hype Williams video for “Gold Digger,” the Kanye West song featuring Jamie Foxx.

For me, the video’s remediation of the look and style of pin-up magazine covers as live videos is a clear example of an instance of remediation that I would see as distinct from transmedia. On the other hand the now longstanding practice of refashioning songs as music videos might be able to be seen as an example of both remediation and transmedia. Would you agree with this?

HJ:

I would agree that the “Gold Digger” video is an interesting example of how one could have remediation which does not necessarily become transmedia. It is also, as you note, a music video and thus as an amplification of the recorded song a form of transmedia. I would call it transmedia performance in this case rather than transmedia storytelling. My own early writing emphasized the storytelling functions of transmedia, but storytelling is only one function which is now conducted across media platforms. Performance seems the more pertinent category for thinking about music, though a series like Glee might send out some extensions which are primarily about performance and others that are about narrative.

We could, however, imagine a version of this music video that with very little changes would be pulled towards transmedia narrative (or transmedia play). Right now, the magazine covers function to comment on the situations being described in the song lyrics, but they also seem to construct a kind of world where the song takes place. Let’s suppose we built more of a plot into that world — not simply the story the song offers of failed relationships, violated trusts, and sexual tension. Can we imagine extending those core plot elements into a melodramatic plot and imagine the magazine covers perhaps referring us to other media where we learned more about these people and their relationship? Can we imagine the magazine covers as functioning as clues which led to a kind of alternative reality game, which then led us down a rabbithole where we started seeking out more information elsewhere on the web? This would pull us much more fully into a transmedia logic.

RG:

Yes, I suppose we could and I suppose it would. Your inclination to actively remediate or transmediate existing media forms is much stronger than mine. I see myself more as a cultural critic or media theorist than as a creator of new forms. Still I would be interested in you defining even further how you see transmediation differing from or extending remediation.

HJ:

Well, I think I intended this as a thought experiment at most, but your point is well taken. My work on transmedia has taken me into much closer dialogue with the creative community than I had expected and as that happens, I become much more likely to imagine other possible configurations of media that have not yet emerged in much the same way that Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck sought a kind of predictive or anticipatory aesthetics, mapping what could be done with the affordances of digital media she saw starting to emerge. And do not overlook the fact that Remediation has surely inspired many designers and artists, even if you have not yourself chosen to explore the creative practices implicit in your argument.

RG:

True enough. I like the way you describe your and Janet Murray’s work as imagining or anticipating new media futures. It reminds me that, in the context of my most recent work, premediation was already quite active in the 1990s. And yes, it has been very gratifying to see how Remediation was taken up by designers, artists, and other creative people–not to mention by new media scholars like you, especially in relation to transmedia.

Immediacy and Hypermediacy

HJ:

One of the ways I often think about your work in relation to transmedia is the different modes by which transmedia elements are constructed. On the one hand, they often present themselves as documents or documentaries, seeking forms of immediacy. We look through them to see into the world being depicted and the world of, say, District 9 becomes more real to us insofar as such materials adopt forms we associate with nonfiction. The early ARGS often insisted on there being nothing that signaled to players that they were playing a game and thus sought to blur the fake documents being produced back into reality. They were fictions which denied their status as fictions.

On the other hand, more and more, transmedia extensions represent themselves as advertisements for imaginary products, such as True Blood. They show us what the mediascapes of these fictional societies might look like, and so we achieve a kind of access to the fictional world through an heightened awareness of processes of mediation.

We can see how the immediacy and hypermediacy come together by looking at something like MNU Spreads Lies , one of the websites created to help promote District 9. The website proports to be the home page for an Alien Rights organization. Much of the text is in an alien alphabet, though we can convert it to English. My favorite entry is one called “I’m Speechless” which is halfway down the page. Here, we have a mocked up government video on the aliens reproduction system, complete with imitation grain and scratches, clearly intended to achieve a certain degree of immediacy, though the focus on the buggyness of the footage uses properties of mediation to allow us to achieve that level of immediacy. The text around it shows a fake resistant reading of this fake documentary — the alien rights organization has captured this footage from the government and is offering a shocked and outraged reaction to what they are seeing. Here, we are invited to be aware of the processes of mediation and contestation that have emerged around the video — for me, this would seem to represent a kind of hypermediation. As you note in the book, at a certain point, as our everyday reality is shaped by our interactions through media, the lines between immediacy and hypermediacy blur. We achieve immediacy by way of hypermediacy.

Interactivity and Participation

RG:

The Tru Blood commercial is fantastic! It is an exemplary example of a kind of faithful or respectful remediation of a Budweiser commercial. But it is even more interesting, as you suggest, as an example of how the urge to transmediate deploys strategies of remediation in constructing new, participatory mediations of imaginary worlds.

But as the District 9 promotions make evident, transmedia isn’t always fan-based or participatory, right? It is increasingly a technique of corporate infotainment media, whether in fictionally remediating participatory media like blogs or in distributing elements of specific media narratives or worlds across multiple media formats. What makes the MNU Tells Lies site different (and especially interesting) is that it continues the documentality of the District 9 film into the blogosphere. This is, I think, an advance on the transmediation of the Matrix franchise, which I have discussed in terms of the concept of a “cinema of interactions.” The distribution of the narrative of The Matrix across the Enter the Matrix video game and some of The Animatrix contributions (particularly the archival pseudo-documentary about the back story of how the machines took over Earth), while interesting in terms of the continued decline of medium specificity, does not trouble the border between fictionality and reality in the same way that the MNU Tells Lies site does. But in both of these examples, I would agree that your robust concept of transmediality (or my more sketchily developed notion of a cinema of interactions) is more useful and informative than the concept of remediation. That being said, one could certainly (as you do above) approach either of these from the perspective of the double logic of remediation.

HJ:

Both the True Blood and the District 9 materials were generated by the producers (or those working for the brand) rather than the fans. They certainly are responsive to genres and themes which may have originated within fan culture. (We are just beginning to theorize how fan productions might or might not be understood as part of the transmedia system around a given media property). Transmedia is part of a larger shift in the logic of the media industries to place a greater emphasis on engagement, which in turn values fans as the ideal audience for their productions. Part of what first drew me to look at transmedia storytelling was the ways that it seemed to represent a commercial response to key aspects of fan culture: such as the desire to extend the world, to construct backstory, to focus on secondary characters, or even to construct alternative versions of the original characters. But ultimately, these materials claim the status of canon and not fanon, and that has consequences for how they are read.

If they are participatory, it is on the level of reception and circulation rather than on the level of production, though we are seeing some kinds of transmedia production which apply crowd-sourcing or user-generated content models to build out the fictional world further. So, yes, these are part of a new commercial logic. My argument, though, is that they are not simply commercial products; they are also creating new opportunities which gifted storytellers and artists are exploring in ways that deepen our possible engagement with these fictional universes. You could read both the District 9 and True Blood examples as promotional: they are designed to spread word about their affiliated media properties. But they are both expansive (adding to what we learn in their respective works) and expositional (helping to inform our experience once we see their affiliated works) in ways which go beyond what we would expect from a movie trailer. We go into District 9 with different expectations (even a different moral orientation or emotional identification) and have a different experience if we’ve visited the MNU Spreads Lies site than if we have not. Given this, I don’t think we can simply dismiss them as promotional materials.

RG:

Thanks for clarifying. I agree that promotional materials should not be dismissed out of hand. Kracauer wrote that we can learn much about any historical moment by making sense of what he called its “surface phenomena.” But where Kracauer explains how these ornamental surface phenomena are of a piece with the structure of monopoly capitalism in the 1920s, you treat transmedia surface phenomena as creative opportunities for artists and designers which deepen the 21st-century consumer experience. Kracauer is making a claim about history, while you are making a claim about how transmedia enhances the creation of fictional universes.

Richard Grusin is Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He received his Ph.D. in 1983 from the University of California-Berkeley. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and four books, including (with Jay David Bolter) Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT, 1999) and most recently Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (Palgrave, 2010).

A Remediated, Premediated, and Transmediated Conversation with Richard Grusin (Part One)

This week, I am sharing an extended conversation with Richard Grusin, co-author of Remediation and author of Premediation:Affect and Mediality After 9/11

about the relationship between our work.

If this sparks your interest in learning more about Transmedia Entertainment, check out Transmedia Hollywood II conference coming up at UCLA on April 8. Tickets are still available.

Getting Started

HJ: Richard, you wrote to me a few weeks ago responding to the interview I did with Frank Rose about his new book, The Art of Immersion. That interview tried to clarify the relationship between Rose’s concept of “deep media” and my concept of “transmedia entertainment.” You raised the interesting question of how these two concepts might relate to the work that you and Jay David Bolter did in Remediation, another book which sought to develop a vocabulary for thinking about the relations between media, and your more recent book, Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11. Since both books are widely taught, it seemed to me useful for us to try to tease out together the points of contact and divergence between these two models.

At the time you wrote Remediation, many of us were very excited about the kind of multimedia expression which was possible within cd-roms, a short lived technology, which never-the-less became the focus of a good deal of scholarly interest. So, we might start by thinking about the relationship between the multimedia (envisioned within the cd-rom) and the transmedia (now being realized via digital networks). For me, the difference can be summed up as inside the box – outside the box. That is, multimedia sought to organize a series of different kinds of media experiences inside a curated and bounded text. There might be movies and audio files and illustrations and texts, but they were all inside the cd-rom itself.

By contrast, the elements of a transmedia experience are dispersed — they are spread across multiple media channels — with the expectation that the consumers will tap into digital and social networks to track down the elements. Part of the pleasure is what I would call “hunting and gathering” and what Rose calls “foraging.” Alternate Reality Games make tracking down, exchanging, deciphering, and mapping the dispersed media elements the central play mechanic. And insofar as we are doing this activity within fan communities or as “collective detectives” to use an old term from the ARG world, these mechanisms support social interactions with other readers. Part of what allows this to become a viable form of publicity for media franchises is our tendency to want to brag about our discoveries and share them with others with whom we have common goals and interests.

The rise of the iPad seems to suggest a return to a multimedia model — witness the promotional video for Sports Illustrated on the iPad which sparked so much excitement in the publishing world at the time the platform was introduced. Here, we again see all of the media elements brought together into a single ordered, curated experience. This design will make these kinds of experiences more accessible to casual readers who want to simply click through an experience, but they may take away from the social mechanics that have grown up around “foraging” or “hunting and gathering.”

It occurs to me that the Sports Illustrated video might be a good starting point for us to compare notes. What do you see going on here when you read it through your core concepts?

RG:

Thanks, Henry, for suggesting this. I think it’s a great idea, and after reading your initial paragraphs I think there is plenty of room both for clarification and divergence. I will confess that at first I was a bit puzzled by your identification of remediation with the multimedia cd-rom–especially insofar our account of the double logic of remediation at the end of the 20th century takes up so many other media artifacts including muds and moos, the world wide web, and hypermediated space. But in light of your concept of transmedia storytelling I can see why the contrast with an apparently self-contained multimedia artifact like the cd-rom would be important for you.

For me, however, remediation argues precisely against the idea that any medium (multimedia or not) could be self-contained. In defining a medium as that which remediates we set out from the position that all media were hybrid or mixed, that all media refashion other media. The contradictory but coherent logics of transparent immediacy and hypermediacy which operated at the end of the twentieth century still persist (although in different forms) today.

In other words, because remediation invariably involves the relationship between at least two media, all media from our perspective could in some non-trivial sense be seen as transmedia. Transmedia storytelling as I understand it would seem from the perspective of Grusin and Bolter to be one of the forms in which remediation manifests itself in the 21st century, particularly in what have come to be called the “infotainment” industries. In my own post-remediation work I have developed a similar idea, most relevantly in the concept of distributed media that I trace out under the rubric of a “cinema of interactions.”

As to describing the Sports Illustrated promotional video through the key concepts of remediation, I suppose I would begin by highlighting the double logic of remediation informing the iPad promo. The use of interactive video in the magazine’s new interactive format simultaneously provides a perceptual immediacy and operates as an element of the journal’s hypermediacy. But I also see this video as an example of what I have more recently called “premediation,” especially as it markets both iPad and Sports Illustrated by premediating digital media formats that do not yet exist but which we can anticipate in the near future. I would be interested in your sense of how transmedia might relate to this reading of the video.

HJ:

I certainly did not mean to restrict your book’s argument to a focus on multimedia – it has enormous historical scope and media diversity. I only associate the time of the book’s publication with a particular enthusiasm about cd-roms which was sweeping digital studies, and thus I came to understand some of your principles initially in relation to that particular form of remediation.

RG:

Right. I remember in fact when Jay and I presented remediation at a conference you organized at MIT that you were working on a cd-rom film “textbook” with embedded video clips. And when we started our MS in Information Design and Technology at Georgia Tech in the early 1990s, our goal was to train multimedia cd-rom designers. By the time we wrote Remediation, however, our enthusiasm had begun to broaden to networked and distributed forms of mediation, though not yet to your useful concept of transmedia.

From Remediation to Premediation

HJ:

I would agree with you that both multimedia and transmedia represent strategies of remediation, which are particularly vivid in their foregrounding of the relations between media. The Sports Illustrated example, for the most part, stays within the box — though the segment about playing a game on the ipad while watching the game on television points to ways that even this basic app straddles between platforms rather than operating entirely within them. What interested me here was the way that the video as an act of “premediation,” (I like that concept), invites us to re-imagine the medium of the print magazine through expanding its affordances, blurring the line between still and moving images, say, adding sound effects and gestural interfaces that change what it means to read and so forth. Insofar as we read the magazine in relation to the television and live versions of sports, it may well constitute a form of transmedia — that is, we as consumers bring the pieces together to make sense of a phenomenon which unfolds across platforms. Yet, there’s also a sense that the iPad is promising to organize all of those varied media experiences for us in ways that decreases our need to search out new content. This becomes a matter of preprogrammed interactivity rather than open ended participation.

RG:

Yes, I see that this question of participation, what you refer to above as “foraging” or “hunting and gathering,” is one that is crucial to you, particularly in regard to your extensive body of work on and continued interest in fan culture. In some sense, of course, this, too, is a product of the media formation of the 1990s, which has in the socially networked 21st century become such a part of our media everyday that it could be seen as no longer unusual. Yet your worry about preprogrammed interactivity supplanting open-ended participation is one that is shared by many. Because I have always had some reservations about the degree to which participatory media could be open-ended or liberatory, I am less troubled by the preprogrammed nature of many of our current forms of interactivity. I have been more concerned, both in Remediation and in my subsequent work, to underscore the preprogrammed or premediated nature of all of our media interactions. So the Sports Illustrated or iPad is less troubling for me.

Richard Grusin is Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He received his Ph.D. in 1983 from the University of California-Berkeley. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and four books, including (with Jay David Bolter) Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT, 1999) and most recently Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (Palgrave, 2010).

Akoha– A Direct Action Game?

For those of you interested in the work I’ve been discussing over the past week or so on civics and participatory culture, let me strongly recommend checking out the blog which is being run by the graduate students associated with our CivicPaths research group. Recent discussions there have included considerations of zombies as potential political metaphors, reflections on the nature of “engaged scholarship,” thoughts on what we can learn from the Tea Party movement, and information about playful forms of civic education around economic literacy.

Each of these pieces reflects the work of a particular PhD candidate, mostly from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, though some come from the School of Cinematic Arts or elsewhere at USC. The students post about once a week and are doing a good job of reflecting the kinds of conversations we are having with guest speakers, interview subjects, and amongst ourselves as we try to make sense of the intersection of youth, new media, and political participation.

Today, I am re-posting one of the recent blog entries — some thoughts about how serious gaming might foster greater civic participation by Benjamin Stokes. Stokes has been deeply committed to the concept of games for change for over a decade, first as part of the leadership of the organization with the same name, then as a foundation officer at MacArthur working with Connie Yowell on the Digital Media and Learning Initiative, and now as a PhD candidate at USC. I have been lucky to have chances to work with him in each of these contexts. He’s deeply earnest and serious-minded about how the world of play might influence our civic and social lives. He models what I admire most about my new USC cohort — the ability to merge theoretical rigor with practices designed to have an impact in the world beyond the academy.

Akoha – a Direct Action Game?

by Benjamin Stokes

How can we make everyday civic participation more compelling? There is a new kind of game on the horizon, one that experiments with real-world action. I call these “direct action games,” because they restructure acts like volunteering, activist training, and charitable giving. One prototype is Akoha, which started as a card game, then reinvented itself online, and last year launched a mobile app — largely off the radar of traditional civics organizations.

At first glance, Akoha looks like a media hub for some do-it-yourself Boy Scouts. Their website reveals thousands of participants, many reporting success with real-world “missions,” from going vegetarian for a day, to debating the “I Have a Dream” speech. The actual missions often take place offline, but are only rewarded if documented with photos and stories posted online or via iPhone.

I think Akoha deserves real attention as a working example — despite some prominent flaws. We desperately need concrete projects if we want to actually rethink civic life. The use of games to help “fix reality” has been a hot topic these past few weeks, thanks to the great traction of Jane McGonigal’s new book. Yet the missions of Akoha are more straightforward than most of Jane’s “alternate reality games,” which tend to have futuristic narratives, puppet masters behind the scenes, and a preference for crowd-sourcing. Thus I propose we look to Akoha and its more raw building blocks to think about direct action games.

Participants in Akoha are mostly adults, but the ages vary widely. The experience is deeply social, as friends create missions for each other, and share their stories. More formal recognition for participation comes as players earn badge-like awards — such as “multi-talented” for those who complete one mission in every possible category.

Most of Akoha does not look or sound civic. Only one of the mission categories explicitly addresses “social causes.” The other nine concern self-actualization in various forms, from “health and well-being” to family time, engaging with popular culture, and the discovery of travel. Is this breadth an upside or downside? That depends on your civic goals, which might include:

1. Fostering citizen journalism, as participants report on civic themes in their communities

2. Informal civic learning, as participants reflect on their civic experiences in new ways through stories and pictures

3. Building social capital, as participants create new ties across traditional social groups

These civic goals may be structurally possible with Akoha, but they are rhetorically hidden. Even as Akoha’s missions bring people into the real world, they avoid the “we are purely civic” framing that occurs on many activist and volunteering websites. For the Akoha community, it’s OK to admit that you are mainly there to have fun, or are trying to improve yourself (and not simply sacrificing for others). Consider this screenshot from the social cause mission “I Am Not an Island”:

mission-not-an-island-red1.jpg

Participation begins with the usual click of a button, yet the specific language of “Play Now” differs sharply from the tool focus of civic action websites (e.g., “Take Action Now;” or “Sign the Petition”). But what exactly does it mean to ‘play’ Akoha? Is it a game?

Certainly Akoha is recreational, and like all games, there are rules. In particular, participants must describe what they did to complete a mission, and thus must certify that they have met the terms set forth by the original mission author. Points and profiles track progress across the Akoha system. All players’ profiles feature their picture, personal statement, and a quantitative scoreboard — including their “player level,” number of missions completed, and awards. For a sense of what this looks like, here is one particularly high-achieving player, chosen from among the more than 10,000-plus who have registered:

profile-mgk-per-Dec21-2010-sm3.jpg

This public profile has evolved much as the community has coalesced. Just a few months prior, the player described himself in much more formal terms, emphasizing his offline profession — a “freelance Air conditioning and Refrigeration engineer by qualification and profession,” his belief in God, and how he found the site via Reader’s Digest. Now, in this recent screenshot, the player has removed his backstory, and describes instead how his Akoha playing strategy is driven by his personality. His refined self-presentation aligns with the pragmatics of the Akoha community, which focuses on choosing missions and writing stories — both depending more on personality than professional accomplishments outside the community.

Akoha is a designed system, and so I recently interviewed Alex Eberts, co-founder of Akoha and an influential force behind its design. He spoke of his desire to find “psychological drivers that are common to the real-world, and to game play.” His designs were informed by self-determination theory, which Eberts first came across in a session at the Game Developers Conference. (Academics, pay heed – these are not the usual dissemination channels for civic theory.)

Self-determination theory describes how human motivation is driven by basic human needs, including competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Altruism is not on the list of needs, just as it is not central to Akoha’s rhetoric. Pushing beyond traditional altruism in civic life is a theme that cuts across many of the projects we are tracking in Henry Jenkins’ Civic Paths research group — from the pop pleasure of Harry Potter, to the joy of diamonds as a precursor to political talk. Repositioning altruism is a battle, with fault lines between traditional civic organizations that have failed to engage youth, and new civic organizations that have failed to connect to politics. (See, for example, Bennett’s content analysis (pdf) of youth civic websites.)

Connecting games with the real-world necessitates a basic immediacy. This immediacy also distinguishes Akoha from most civic games, which focus on education for future civic life or future civic action. Here, the action and education are both in the present tense, which increases authenticity and the satisfaction of impact. The iPhone app for Akoha, released this past summer, underscores their immediacy — here is a set of screen shots they provide:

iphone-screenshots-sm.jpg

Using the mobile interface, Akoha missions can be documented on a bus in real-time, or browsed from a neighborhood park. Their mobile tech is fairly basic, consisting mainly of reskinning their existing website, with little use of GPS or other mobile sensor data. As a result, Akoha’s mobile interface is only minimally aware of the user’s location.

Place matters, especially in civics. (The neighborhood of our birth strongly predetermines a host of life opportunities, from income to education and governance.) This is an area for Akoha to grow. By improving their mobile support for place, its implications for civic activity would be more immediate and profound. In particular, Akoha might offer support for filtering missions for one’s own neighborhood, or connecting with players who are geographically nearby for joint missions, or simply allowing missions to release new clues when players arrive at specific locations.

Games are still discussed as individual indulgences. Yet increasingly, games are recognized as social forces. This is especially true for Akoha, where the social construction of value emerges over time, as a participant’s “friends” share stories about their missions and accomplishments. Different communities are likely to form over time. It is not yet clear whether Akoha is dominated by preexisting networks of offline friends, or by more interest-driven networks of people who gather around a shared passion. (This difference matters – see the ethnography of Ito et al.) Yet if Akoha can introduce strangers based on activity interests, the platform might transcend the left/right regression of civic talk that is so feared online by Sunstein.

Reimagining place is important civic work, just like the reimagining of societal values, tax policy, and even collective heroes. The value of games is to restructure this civic work around different rules – intrinsic motivations of the game, aligned with the desires of everyday people. Sometimes people want an excuse to be more civic. In my interview with Eberts, he confessed that one of the big surprises for his team was how much everyday people wanted Akoha to be even more civic. He hinted that future Akoha versions might well expand toward the civic.

Even as mobile has reshaped the everyday experiences of place and time, so too we may see game-like activities begin to restructure the experience of public participation. Yet Akoha remains an “edge phenomenon” to both the civic and gaming communities. In the first case, nonprofits are still trying to understand games for training, let alone for direct action; in the second, the independent gaming community is struggling to understand games for art, let alone games that improve the real world. Akoha is likely to be seen as a risky investment for funders in either community. Thus the evolving Akoha business model may be as crucial as its innovations in civic participation. For example, Eberts hints that corporate engagement may be an area of growth for such games.

Beyond Akoha, it might be useful to define a framework for direct action games. In a panel I organized last year at the Games for Change Festival, we explored the concept, and its historic manifestations; fellow panelists were game designer Tracy Fullerton and activist/scholar Stephen Duncombe (see embed below for video of the panel).

As we seek to define new templates for civic games, cases like Akoha help us prioritize research questions, including:

1. Can direct action games help us re-imagine civic activity under a different set of rules, solution frames, and feedback loops for engagement? (McGonigal’s aforementioned book nicely explores several of these philosophical questions.)

2. If only a portion of the activity is strictly civic, how do we compare to more traditional and pure civic engagement?

3. When is it appropriate to teach citizens how to “game the system” of democracy, to “win” in Akoha, or to rewrite the rules of local politics?

These issues will only become more important in coming months, as civic action goes digital and game culture grows. By examining cases like Akoha, we can develop frameworks for “direct action games” that better structure our civic designs.