Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part Four)

Early on, you quote Lucy Bradshaw from Maxis as saying that her company has “a real respect for the player community” and the term, “respect,” runs across the book. What do you think these companies mean by “respect” and how does it relate to the value they place on fan labor?  

The term respect came up in a good few interviews with various developers and it especially seemed to be a part of the Maxis ethos – their attitude to the gamers participating in these co-creative relationships. This respect had different dimensions and was expressed in different ways by different developers.

For some developers respect meant their appreciation for the creativity and innovation evident in the player created material. Following from this it meant supporting the players to express and realise this creativity through the quality of the tools that they provided and the support implemented around those tools. Many commented on how what the players achieved often surprised them.

Respect also meant how they communicated with the player community and valued their input and feedback about various aspects of a game’s ongoing design and development. Respect, in the terms Bradshaw raises in her interview with me, also meant recognising the value that the players’ co-creative practices contributed, including economic value.

 

Now as the various accounts of these co-creative relationships detail in the book, what this respect meant and the limits of it were often contested and debated among the developers. Some designers and lead producers raised dilemmas around the extent to which it is possible to include gamers fully in the design process, commenting on problems of ‘design by committee’ in which the committee now includes the unruly and very diverse views and opinions of online gamer communities. In sorting out the limits of respect and what this meant the developers and managers also struggle with the ambit and boundaries of these co-creative production relationships.

I think you see these struggles emerge in the discussions about the economic value of these various forms of participation (for example in the interview you refer to with Lucy Bradshaw, but also in the interview with Will Wright in the book’s conclusion). They don’t dismiss the value of, for example, the content created by players. But they do contextualise this with all of the professional labour, materials, technologies and infrastructure that the developers and publishers provide to enable and support this player creativity. Bradshaw uses the image of a ‘handshake kind of relationship’ that enables player creativity but also benefits from that creativity. I don’t think the developers (or the players) fully come to terms with the nature of this relationship and the exchanges of value that are occurring. But that is to be expected, as they are still very emergent and evolving.

 

You found yourself embeded inside the games company for part of your research process. How did this experience color your understanding of the corporate motives and assumptions shaping co-creative labor?

 

I was employed by Auran from 2000 to 2005 as an online community manager. I think this experience colored my account by influencing my decision to foreground the professional labour and craft-skills that contribute to co-creativity. I also wanted to emphasise the diversity of developer understandings of co-creativity and indeed the conflicts and differences among developers that shape these relationships. I’ve tried to describe the diversity of these motives and assumptions shaping co-creative labour rather than reducing all of that to something like a logic of capital or even a singular developer identity or position on all of this.

Here I hope this account might also contribute to illuminating developer studio culture for fields such as games studies – a topic that I think is underexplored. Other researchers including Casey O’Donnell (who has a forthcoming book, Developer’s Dilemma, with The MIT Press) are also doing important work on this . But in pursuing this have I unhinged my account from important structural or systemic conditions such as overarching corporate interests and agendas that characterise capital.

By emphasising the diverse understandings and motivations of developers and gamers do I risk overlooking the extent to which these very understandings are shaped by such structural conditions, which is different from determined by them. Even if these understandings are canny and knowing am I perhaps avoiding dealing with the conditions of capital that contribute to all of this?

Perhaps – these are good questions. They came up for me in a rather different context recently while reading Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. In this book Boyd tackles many of the myths and moral panics surrounding teens and social media by making room for their voices and experiences, including the diversity of that experience. In the process she establishes that it is indeed complicated.

My book kind of reaches a similar conclusion about co-creative production – it’s indeed complicated.

One of Boyd’s key points is that the social behaviours she explores among teens are adaptive. In my book I’m very interested in these emerging, adaptive practices in the context of the networks of co-creativity. In the introduction to her book Boyd also acknowledges the “capitalist logic that underpins American society and the development of social media…” but then comments that … “although I believe that these assumptions should be critiqued, this is outside the scope of this project”. Is that just a cop out? If this is so then how can you consider the implications of teens’ use of social media without tackling such an assumed logic?

An interesting point to consider here is that perhaps the adaptive behaviours and practices that she describes so well just cannot be understood in terms of “the capitalist logic”. Not in the sense that they escape or oppose such a logic, but more that the dynamics and processes involved don’t quite make sense in terms of such a singular logic. At least this was my sense as I undertook the research for my book and also in my experience working in the games industry. Such frameworks (political economy critique) and assumed logics just didn’t provide the explanatory traction that I wanted to understand these kinds of adaptive and emergent behaviours and dynamics.

 

How does the concept of co-creation challenge older logics that have governed cultural studies work, such as resistance and co-optation? How might we characterize the ways these fans/consumers/produsers relate to the corporations which are acting on their collaborative designs?

 

The logics that you mention – ideas of resistance and co-optation - are often framed by a quite specific political economy derived understanding of a logic of capital – a structural or systemic understanding of capitalism and a critique of that system. This is the context in which the question of labour is also often raised, as labour provides the ground for critique of that system.

 

The way I approach co-creation is to start with the participants’ understandings, practices and behaviours. I don’t start with assumptions about broader capitalist logics and then ask well are these practices coopted by or opposed to those logics.

For many of the co-creative practices I describe these ideas of resistance and cooptation just do not provide explanatory traction and they aren’t the frameworks or terms in which the participants themselves generally understand the practices.

 

I’m interested in the microfoundations (following an emic approach), the social interactions and behaviours, which constitute co-creativity. I’m not rushing to explain co-creation in terms of macroeconomic outcomes or in terms of general logics of capitalism. Instead, as developed in the book’s final chapter, I’m drawing from fields such as economic sociology and cultural sociology, through the work of David Stark (Sense of Dissonance) especially.

 

My approach is that the kinds of capitalist dynamics playing out around co-creative production (so concerns around commodification, emergence of markets, labour, innovation, and so on) emerge from and through these interactions. By working at this micro level I seek to understand the dynamics of capitalism (changing conditions of cultural production around co-creativity) from the actors’ perspectives. But by drawing from work in economic sociology such as Stark’s I also seek to avoid the problems associated with rational actor theory.

My argument is that this micro perspective is crucial – describing and analysing these emerging phenomenon from the perspective of the actors themselves and the decision or choice problems they grapple with. This is very much the model and approach I develop, especially in the book’s final chapter in collaboration with Jason Potts.

 

When you ask how we might characterise the ways these co-creative gamers / consumers relate to the developer companies and publishers I emphasise that it is diverse and I foreground in the book their understandings of this. Some view it as a rewarding opportunity to have their views and opinions influence design and development. Others at times are suspicious and skeptical about the commercial motivations driving the developers. Others view it as an opportunity to learn more about game development and gain skills in this area. For some it is about the quite intrinsic rewards that come from contributing to an online game fan community.

In my research I’ve seen individual gamers move through a spectrum of attitudes and behaviours towards the developers – from warmly embracing and appreciative of the work the developers put in participating in and supporting these relationships through to outright hostility. But in describing and understanding this diversity I’m trying to get a handle on the micro foundations of co-creativity.

 

The next problem to tackle though and which I don’t pursue in the book, is how do these capitalist dynamics, the macrophenomena if you like, operate when approached from the perspective of the actors’ understandings, interactions and behaviours. This is the meso problem of linking or articulating the micro to the macro. I start setting up an approach to this by drawing from evolutionary economics and ideas emerging from network theory. A lot more work needs to be done here with thinking that through and figuring it out. This concerns the emergence of novelty: how new organisational forms, behaviours and identities emerge. But in all of this I also try to maintain the ethnographic commitment to the lived experiences and understandings of the participants’ themselves.

There is a tension there in those aims and I think that tension is there in the book and I hope it works as a productive tension. For example, there is material in the ethnographic description and interviews that rubs up against the model of co-creativity I develop in the later chapters. They certainly don’t align seamlessly.

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

 

 

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview With John Banks (Part Three)

You are arguing that respect must be paid in thinking about co-creation to the multiple motives shaping the various participants. How would you characterize those motives?  

The argument about how multiple and diverse motivations and incentives shape co-creative practices is central to the book and I develop this out fully in the final chapter with my colleague Jason Potts (an evolutionary economist). Our argument here is that these participants aren’t acting from just economic or cultural (extrinsic or intrinsic) motivations but often from both simultaneously. Too often, as we criticise in the chapter, co-creativity is approached as an opposition between commercial and non-commerical domains. You see this for example in Yochai Benkler’s work, which privileges and valorises a gift economy grounded in intrinsic motivations and incentives.

 

Our contention is that co-creativity might be more helpfully approached as co-evolving relationships. Co-evolving market and non-market contexts that draw in the complex interrelationships between multiple contexts, incentives and motivations. Throughout my account of co-creativity the non-market and non-pecuniary motivations (a gift economy if you like) are very clearly evident. People undertake these projects for a range of intrinsic motivations, including values associated with altruistically contributing to the gamer community. But to then valorize these emerging networks as necessarily or in some sense inherently non-market is a mistake.

 

I try to account for the motivation and incentive diversity that I encounter in my research. Yes this includes the business bottom line of games developers and publishers achieving profits. But the developer side here also isn’t just constrained to these incentives – I hope the account that I provide sufficiently foregrounds the motivations around craft-skills and professional identity in which developers have a sense of intrinsic reward from contributing to these co-creative networks.

Among the players themselves some headed in an entrepreneurial direction, what started out as nonmonetary hobbyist practice developed into pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities. Others provided accounts of how their participation in co-creative communities helped them gain skills that became job opportunities, for example as online community managers.

Co-creative production cultures then rather than being approached as distinct and incommensurable economic and cultural domains, with their related incentives and motivations, is more a site of dynamic and emergent relations between markets and non-markets. But in saying this I’m not suggesting that these activities should simply be reduced to their market or economic value.

 

The perspective developed in the book’s final chapter is that both market and non-market relations may be occurring simultaneously with analysis then focused on how they mutually affect and continuously transform each other. In my ethnographic research participants often did not display evidence of neatly or sharply compartmentalising different aspects of these contexts and then resolving them into actions that reflected say straightforward trade-offs between commercial and non-commercial interests. Rather, they sometimes behaved as if these multiple contexts and distinct tensions were characteristic of the situations and decisions they encountered.

 

When does co-creative labor become exploitation? Is there a sharp line that can be drawn between the two or are things necessarily blurry at a time when new paradigms are emerging?

 

My approach has been to try and identify when the participants themselves are grappling with this – what do they understand as exploitation and the contexts in which it occurs. How do they deal with the blurriness that you mention?

For example, in the chapter, ‘Co-creative Labour?’ I provide an extended account of a gamer content creator reflecting on the value of an item of content he had created and the use made of this content by the company, Auran. In an email exchange with me the content creator, Marlboro, observes that ‘… frankly my feelings towards Auran were always mixed…. On one hand I admired the guts to approach a niche market, the concept of customer communication, support, innovative ideas etc. On the other hand I thought to see through a thin veil the attempt to exploit the community’. Marlboro’s analysis here is quite sophisticated and canny. This approach to working through these relationships and value exchanges with the games developer was not uncommon; many of the gamer content creators had very similar discussions with me.

 

What occurred here is that his understanding about how Auran would distribute and use his content was not entirely clear and indeed the norms this community had developed on this, especially norms of transparency, had been infringed by Auran. But keep in mind this same content creator was often very supportive of Auran’s approach to player created content. As he put it, his approach to this was ‘mixed’. He doesn’t identify these practices as necessarily or inherently exploitative, but he was prepared to call Auran on practices that he felt were unfair and exploitative. So this was very much about emerging norms around the nature of the value exchange occurring between the players and the company. This involves adapting and adopting norms for dealing with the dilemmas arising from these complex exchanges characterized by multiple and mixed motivations and incentives.

As companies such as Auran seek to engage their consumers as co-creative participants consumers’ expectations of how companies will participate and the terms and conditions of that participation also transforms. When the player co-creators consider that these norms or implicit contracts are infringed they then start to question the practices in terms of fairness and exploitation.

 

An area that is unfair is the formal legal instruments that purport to govern these relationships and here I’m referring to EULAs. These agreements (if you can call them that), seldom if ever fairly acknowledge or reflect the nature of these relationships and the value players are creating. The agreements are generally totally one-sided.

Co-creative consumer rights if you like and the duties or obligations of corporations around this are just not reflected in current consumer protection. But on this, at least in the case of Auran games, I found the ways in which they managed their relationships with the player co-creators was just not at all reflected in these legal agreements. Essentially the developers’ practices, at least in this case, were generally far more reasonable and equitable than formally expressed in these agreements. But that’s no excuse – and these agreements really need to be more reflective of the reality of these co-creative production relationships.

 

A significant issue for the players was transparency. They wanted to know what the developers were intending to do with the co-created content and they also wanted detail on decisions made by the developer that impacted on these co-creative relationships. There were norms and expectations forming around this communication. This was along the lines of ‘we know you are using our content in various ways and gaining value from that, but we want you to inform us of this and give us an opportunity to express our views’.

Sometimes Auran mismanaged this communication. At times the communication was very sophisticated and respectful at others it was very clumsy. Part of this I think was to do with the company and its staff figuring out how to manage these relationships effectively and fairly. There were also challenges around adequately resourcing and staffing this area of game development. This required Auran managers coming to terms with the fact that it was integral to their development activities, not just an ancillary activity of marketing and communications that could be left to the publisher. But when players thought that these norms and expectations around transparency and communication were infringed they would then start considering the practices to be unfair or exploitative.

 

In the book and indeed in this interview I emphasise the importance of the players’ understandings of these relationships and their capacity to form canny judgments about all of that. But this does depend on a certain level of knowledge and transparency so that they can make informed decisions. There is a definite power differential here in terms of the developers’ control over that and their willingness (or not) to share that information with players.

 

From the perspective of the developers – the producers, programmers, community managers, and designers – they often struggled with meeting the players’ expectations around all of this. They sometimes felt that they were inadequately resourced, especially in terms of scheduled time, to fulfill and follow through on the commitments that had been made to the players. This was particularly a concern among those developers who were committed to supporting these co-creative relationships. And it is important to note here that this commitment was very uneven across the development team at Auran and indeed the extent to which the developers should contribute to these co-creative relationships as part of their jobs was debated among the developers – there was not a singular developer position on all of this. Nevertheless, there was a sense here that meeting player expectations often added just more work to their already full schedules and that this was sometimes unreasonable and unfair.

 

These co-creative production practices are still emergent and unclear. So the norms around the nature of the value exchanges (these markets if you like), what’s fair and when exploitation occurs, are still somewhat if not necessarily blurry. My interest here is in how the participants themselves negotiate and coordinate to resolve these dilemmas.

 

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part Two)

You’ve been studying co-creation in the games industry over an extended period of time. Can you describe some of the changes you’ve observed over this period? What was the status of co-creation when you started your research and how would you characterize its status now?  

When I started studying co-creation in the games industry back in 1997 I was actually uncertain as to what was going on here, what was I looking at. As were the participants themselves. I recall approaching it, from my disciplinary perspective coming from cultural studies and media studies, as possibly a case of active audience and/or fan community practices. My reference here included your book, Henry, Textual Poachers. That book was in my backpack when I undertook my initial fieldwork and first interviews in 1997 with games developers and gamers.

What struck me at the time was a sense of the developers, including those in senior management, trying to figure out the nature of these emerging relationships with the players and why they would invest in them. Greg Lane, Auran’s CEO, on a few occasions when I discussed this with him, mentioned he wasn’t sure if they would gain any direct financial or commercial benefit from their activities with the fans, but the fans and some of the developers seemed to enjoy it and it was therefore worth exploring. He viewed it as an investment in the player community that he hoped might also eventually gain a commercial return. But he was also committing time to supporting that and the time of developers because he gained a sense of intrinsic value and satisfaction.

 

From that point back in 1997, at least in the context of the central ethnographic study in the book, this co-creative activity grew – from involving the players in design and development feedback, through to online and offline marketing initiatives, through to the quite extensive reliance on user generated content. As I suggest in the book, this was no longer an ancillary or marginal activity -  it was becoming core. This content and the gamers’ co-creative practices were contributing directly to the commercial viability of this product – a train simulator in the case of the book’s central ethnographic case study.

This shift was captured for me in a key moment when I worked at Auran as a community manager in 2001. I shifted my desk from sitting with the marketing and web team to in with the development and design team. This was because a big part of my role had become liaising between influential content creator members of the gamer community and the core Auran development team. Before that, although requiring some contact with the developers (the programmers, designers and artists), my position was viewed as more of a marketing and communications role I guess. This definitely shifted.

Part of my decision to move the desk was also about getting a closer ethnographic insight about what was going on. But it was also about being able to do my job better as an online community manager. Figuring out the implications of this shift across the next few years as I saw it play out at this workplace and as it was negotiated between the developers and the gamers was a big focus of my research and of the book.

 

The most recent shift I’ve seen is around how big data and data analytics contributes to games development and indeed if this can be approached as co-creative at all. I first encountered this in 2007 while undertaking research on Auran’s development of Fury (a failed MMOG). At the time there were disagreements among the core team of developers, the Fury gamer community (especially those involved in the play testing) and the online community managers about reasons for the games problems and the quite critical reception it was receiving from the gamers participating in the testing.

At a particular meeting one of the developers dropped on the table a print out of data taken from that past weekends play testing. He used it to support his view that many of the players making arguments on the forums were “uninformed” and that the data proved (captured from their interactions with the game) something very different from the players’ views as expressed on the forums.

Now the community managers contested his interpretation of that data, but at the end of the day, as my fieldwork journal noted, ‘we just got trumped’. At the time this provided a quite telling case of game developer studio culture and the various forms of expertise and craft involved in that. As I discuss in the relevant chapter 5, ‘Co-creative expertise’ co-creation is very much about how these diverse and conflicting forms of knowledge and expertise (both amateur and professional) interact and converge.

 

What I didn’t quite see back then was the shift here in the way the gamer was being figured or represented in these exchanges - as data traces really. For me questions were also raised about the power of that form of knowledge and around how it was being mined.

Is this co-creative? I guess that depends on how that data is used and how transparent all that is to the player.

In the book’s conclusion I include material from an interview I did with Will Wright (designer of games such as The Sims and Spore) in which Wright touches on how designers can increasingly capture metrics about players’ behaviours and then potentially feed that back into the game to change the game experience. He mentioned how ‘… we’re just kind of scratching the surface of that now’. In more recent research I’ve undertaken over past few years with Halfbrick (Brisbane, Australia based developers of Fruit Ninja) this issue of data analytics has very much come to the fore. But there isn’t a single developer perspective on these issues around data analytics. Programmers, lead designers, producers and so on often have very different opinions and approaches on, for example, how big data might inform game design.

 

 

In the academic realm, the major push-back against co-creative production has come from critics writing about “free labor.” What does that critique get right and what does it get wrong about the kinds of practices your book discusses?

 

The labor question is incredibly important in the context of co-creation. A central focus of my book is how developers grapple with the challenges and opportunities of co-creative production at the coalface of their everyday workplace – the game development studio. Co-creativity is not just about the bottom up, peer-to-peer participation of gamers and fans. Co-creativity requires the craft skills and knowledge and commitment of professionals and experts.

So in the book I seek to describe the lived experiences and understandings of these professionals and citizen consumers as they together explore together the opportunities and challenges of co-creative production. An important point here that I mentioned earlier is paying close attention to their understandings of all this. This is the ethnographic impulse I guess that orients much of my research.

These understandings are diverse. For example, professional videogames development teams are often far from united in their support for co-creative production or for the value that these engagements offer. Throughout my now well over a decade research on this one of the clear points coming through again and again is that producers, designers, programmers, artists, CEOs, marketing and community managers all have very different understandings of these co-creative relationships.

 

The ‘free labor’ argument going back to Tiziana Terranova’s work and others such as Andrew Ross is that through these kinds of co-creation activities we see significant value generated that creative industries rely on. Following from this the argument is made that this extraction of surplus value is unfair and exploitative. Furthermore, co-creative production practices may also contribute to the precarity of creative professionals working lives. The concern here is that this ‘free labor’ may replace the jobs of media professionals. This political economy critique questions accounts that emphasise the empowering and potentially democratizing, participatory potential of these activities.

 

What does this critique get right? For me what it gets right is foregrounding questions of work and labour. In the book my approach to this is to focus on the participants’ (both users and game developer professionals) understandings of these topics. In ‘Chapter 4: Co-creative labour?’ with Sal Humphreys, we approach all of this as a question. Indeed, there are a lot of questions posed in the chapter. Should we approach these co-creative activities as a form of labour? What are the impacts of these practices on the employment conditions and professional identities of videogames developers? If we accept that labour is a helpful category then should we approach this as a case of exploitation in which surplus value is extracted by capital in such a way as to reduce costs and potentially displace paid workers?

We suggest that co-creative media production may sit uncomfortably with such political economy critiques. I guess I’m open to criticism here that in doing this I become an apologist for, or at least complicit with, the interests of business and capital. In this book I’ve tried to avoid what I find to be quite unhelpful and polarising polemic around these issues.

I don’t think my book is especially valorising or celebratory of co-creativity, at least I hope not in any panglossian sense. I most certainly have concerns about market excesses and exploitative labour practices that can characterise the videogames industry. Nevertheless, the argument I develop is that co-creative production should not necessarily be approached as cheap content or unpaid and therefore exploited labour.

One of the keys for me here is that the participants themselves (the gamers and the developers) do not often approach it or understand it in these ways. Sometimes they do – at moments in the ethnographic research participants do raise the concern that the practices are becoming exploitative or unfair.

The way I’ve approached it then is to try and understand co-creativity as a dynamic and often contested mechanism for coordination and change in which the participants are adaptively experimenting with these opportunities for mutual benefit and endeavouring to figure out what that mutual benefit looks like and how best to realize that. Yes exploitation can occur and yes work practices and employment conditions are at stake. But I’m just not convinced that the language and framework of exploitation and extraction of surplus value necessarily explains what is occurring here.

 

The co-creative relationships cannot easily be reduced to corporate exploitation of the gamers and the professional developers. I try as much as possible to take my lead from the often quite nuanced understandings of the participants themselves. I struggle with the assumption that there are social forces (exploitative and manipulative) at work behind the actors’ backs as it were.

I question this ‘unknowingness’ by suggesting that the players and professional developers often do know what they are producing and the conditions under which this is occurring and they often do not understand this in terms of exploitation. They are usually quite canny and indeed competent participants in the shaping of these relationships. They make informed judgments about the nature and conditions of the value exchanges and transactions that are occurring.

I question an assumption that academic critics are in some sense blessed with an ability to see through manipulative or exploitative practices that the participants themselves are blind to. However, in making this point I’m not saying that exploitation and unfair practices don’t occur. The ethnographic description in the book includes extensive coverage of participants (including the gamers) identifying such occurrences and working through their understanding of this.

 

I’m just not convinced that political economy critique adequately grapples with the flows and exchanges of value characterizing co-creativity. These flows can be very different from say a displacement of professional labour by unpaid creative labour. Instead we need approaches and models that grapple with how economic outcomes and incentives sit alongside and co-evolve with social and cultural outcomes. But in all this yes the question of labour is crucial. We need to keep posing the difficult questions about sustainable and rewarding livelihoods in these industries, as does for example Gina Neff in her important book Venture Labour.

 

As an aside on this, I’m also interested in how the kinds of workplace and labour issues I’ve seen in games development also occur and are experienced in other areas of media production. For example, in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2013 Harper), Sean Howe vividly describes the experiences of comic book writers, artists and editors in the ‘Marvel bullpen’ as they weathered the turbulent boom and bust cycles of the comics market. In reading this book I was struck by the similarities to videogames development and it raised for me questions about sustainable and rewarding livelihoods in these volatile industries.

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

 

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part One)

The other day, I received a question -- via tweet -- from a reader: "New practices that are emerging in cyberspace: Is it more of the same? Is it capitalism in new bottles?" This is a fundamental question which anyone who has been paying attention over the past two decades of media in transition has found themselves rethinking again and again. For me, the way this question is so often framed suggests an either-or logic: either everything has changed or nothing has changed as a consequence of the process formerly known as "the Digital revolution." And the clear sense here is that "nothing has changed" as long as the structures of capitalism remain in place. My own belief is that changes can be local, gradual, and particular, and still matter in terms of the quality of life, the diversity of culture, or the democratization of governing institutions. Let's stipulate, as lawyers might put it, that economic systems, understood on a grand level, are surprisingly resilient. There are relatively few models that have emerged around the planet over the course of human history and they are slow to change. So, whatever we want to say about the current economic context in the United States, it's still capitalism.  Let's also stipulate that within those larger models, all kinds of local changes are occurring all the time in response to other shifts on the social, cultural, political, legal, and technological levels. We have changes, say, in terms of the mode of production or the systems of exchange or the conditions of labor that matter. Some are describing the current moment as one of Neoliberalism, but I am not convinced this framing fully captures everything that is going on.

And in order for these changes to occur, there are all kinds of localized experiments through which we collectively explore other alternatives and see how they work out in practice. Many of us hoped that the web would be a place for such experimentation, exploration, and speculation, where at the local level, other alternatives might emerge. Many of us wanted to see what would happen if we expanded dramatically who had access to the means of cultural production and circulation, if we explored what would happen if more people had a creative say in the cultural institutions and practices that impacted their everyday life, if we experimented with what a more diverse and participatory culture might look like. All kinds of amazing and all kinds of deeply disturbing things have emerged as a consequence of those ongoing experiments. How could it be otherwise? And the results of these experiments have been unevenly distributed across the culture, some moving rapidly, some slowly, towards wide-spread adaption.

If we look back over those twenty plus years, what has emerged has been a mixed bag -- not simply "more the same."  I don't think the rewards of all of these experiments can be reduced to the language of the "free labor" critique: new forms of exploitation with no real gain for the communities that are seeking to shift the conditions of their existence. Yet, I also don't think what has emerged has been as "revolutionary" as some of us might have hoped.

One of the people I know who has reflected most deeply about these issues is John Banks, who has spent more than a decade exploring the concept of co-creation and traced its impact  within the games industry. In Convergence Culture, I had pointed towards the games industry as a key example of a creative sector which has adopted a more collaborationist relationship with its consumers, often encouraging them to build freely on its products to see what might emerge from such grassroots experimentation, and in some cases, reaching out to core groups of consumers and bringing them more directly into the production process, seeking their advice on new products and their suggestions for design decisions. Banks was a graduate student at the creative industry program at Queensland University of Technology, a program led by Stuart Cunningham and John Hartley, and out of which have come such key thinkers about digital matters as Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Joshua Green, and Alan McKee, among many others.  Wanting to understand how this co-creative labor worked, Banks embedded himself as a community manager inside an Australian games company, Auran, placing himself at the point of contact between consumers and professional creators. Through this research, he has yielded some core insights into what changes -- and what doesn't change -- when companies embrace co-creation as part of their production process.

In the interview which follows, Banks looks back over that decade of research. He reflects on his recent book, Co-Creating Games, but also looks beyond it, to try to assess the complexities and contradictions which have surfaced through some of these experiments. There is a degree of nuance here which we rarely see in discussions of emerging labor and business practices, a refusal to accept "either-or" answers. I think his comments provide the clearest explanation I can offer as to why co-creation is more than "capitalism in new bottles" but also not quite as revolutionary as some people might have once believed. All those we enter here, be prepared to think (and rethink).

 

You titled the book's introduction, “Co-Creating Matters.” Let’s break it down. How are you defining co-creation and what are some of the ways that co-creating matters?

 

Co-creation concerns the practices through which users and consumers take an active role in generating value in the domain of cultural production and consumption. In the context of the videogames industry I propose in the book’s opening sentence that gamers do not just play videogames; they also make them. The boundaries between playing, producing and consuming blur as player consumers collaborate and cooperate with each other and with professional developers to design, produce, circulate and market compelling videogames. So this is about shifts in the conditions of cultural production. My starting point definition in the book is that co-creativity occurs when consumers contribute a non-trivial component of the design development, production, marketing and distribution of a new or existing product. Here I’m drawing on others work, including yours Henry on participatory, convergence cultures and colleagues such as Axel Bruns on ideas of produsage.

 

In this book though I’m less interested in a static definition of co-creation than I am in describing the processes and practices that constitute this phenomenon. My approach is ethnographic and I’m very much led in my research by that ethnographic commitment to describing the lived experiences of media industry professionals (in this case game developers) and gamers (consumers and users) as they explore and negotiate the opportunities and challenges of co-creativity. So the micro behaviours and practices are very much my focus. In the book’s introduction I refer to ethnographer Paul Rabinow’s comment in his study of a biotech company (Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology 1996:17) that ‘the anthropologically pertinent point is the fashioning of the particularity of practices’. This has been a guiding aim throughout the research that informs Co-creating Videogames – to describe the particularity of co-creative practices.

 

You ask what are some of the ways that co-creating matters. I guess that is one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out over the decade or more in which I’ve undertaken this research. The starting point is that it does matter – it is significant culturally and economically. Value is being generated through these practices – both cultural and economic. But what struck me very early in the research was the quite diverse ways in which these practices come to matter and the dynamic and conflicting relations among these ways of mattering.

 

I’ve tried to avoid assuming how co-creating matters and to explore how it comes to matter for and among the participants (both professionals and amateurs / users) and to describe how this mattering is negotiated. I guess this is the inquiry that orients this research, by not starting out knowing what I’m looking for or looking at. Part of all this is also seeing or trying to see the materiality, the technologies and materials, that contribute to shaping co-creative practices. This struck me very early in the research; in my first visits with the videogames developer, Auran games, and involvement with the gamer fan community forming around their games, this question of technology and tools came to the fore. The developers talked to me about game engines, code, servers, tools and so on. Their daily work practices involved all of this.

In one of my early contacts with a member of the Auran fan community (this was back in 1997), the company had just released their hit real-time strategy game Dark Reign) a member of that community, VR_Bones, contacted me. VR_Bones got on a train with his PC box and visited me at my home. It was a good 30 minutes or so train journey for him and he then walked to my home (another 10 minutes or so from the station) lugging his PC game rig. He wanted to show me some content, user created content, he and a few other members of the community had made for Dark Reign (these included user created maps and some AI routines that would modify the behaviour of in game units - so mods).

He spent a good while walking me through the challenges they were confronting in using the tools Auran provided to make this content. He also raised concerns about how Auran was not quite providing the level of support and information they needed to continue with this work. At the same time he praised Auran for the fact that they were engaging with the player community and listening. As he put it, ‘hey they are listening isn’t that great, each week they have a chat session online with us. And some of the guys, the devs, on the team, they provide us with helpful information and answer our emails and stuff when they have the time’.

 

Shortly after the visit from VR_Bones I went into the Auran studio to have a crack at my first interviews with the developers. I sat with a young programmer who was hunting down bug fixes in the final stages of a game project. He was very focused on that screen and the conversation was kind of stilted and uncomfortable. He was trying to describe stuff to me, the core of his job really, which I just didn’t get. When I raised the developers’ relationship with the online gamer fan community and the work they had been doing with them he got a little more animated, but kind of dismissed me gesturing at his screen and commenting, ‘I should be getting back to it’.

Understanding what that “it” was for him and his fellow developers and how all this played out in relationship to the activities I was seeing with the gamer fans, I wanted to understand that. This meant figuring out how to get better access to the studio, how to spend more time with the developers and so on. Back then I didn’t have a term for it, the kinds of interactions I was seeing and participating in between the developers and the players, I certainly wasn’t calling it co-creation back in 1997. I was trying to frame it then in terms of ideas of active audience and fan cultures. I first used the terms co-creation to start grappling with all of this in a book chapter I wrote back in 2001, published in 2002 (‘Games as Co-creators: Enlisting the Virtual Audience – A Report from the Net Face’).

 

I think there’s a lot about mattering in this brief vignette from the early ethnographic research that I’ve been trying to unpack ever since.

 

There’s the technology question that I pursue as a theme in the book, including a dedicated chapter, ‘Co-creative Technologies’ that explores this in the context of a dialogue with actor-network theory and others who take up this question of technologies and materiality such as Ian Bogost. There’s the question of the nature and characteristics of the value being generated through these co-creative practices. For VR_bones and his fellow gamers it mattered to them, they had a lot invested in this activity and in the materials they were collectively making and sharing. For him it was also about learning by participating in these networks – learning about games development and AI.

There is also an exchange of value here between the developers and the community of players – what are the terms and conditions of that exchange, the expectations, understandings and indeed misunderstandings about these transactions. This concerns a dynamic and at times volatile and uncertain relationship between economic and commercial motivations/incentives and other non-commercial motivations and incentives.

 

At its heart this book is about the participants’ diverse understandings, motivations and incentives that collectively contribute to making co-creativity. These participants include technologies – so humans and non-humans. What also matters in this, in the negotiation of these co-creative relationships, is the different forms of knowledge and expertise.

I address this in chapter 5 ‘Co-creative expertise’. Co-creativity relies on if not requires networks of amateurs and professionals, experts and non-experts. This blurring of the professional-amateur divide, however, is never easy or straightforward. It is often contentious and conflictual. I think that comes through in the ethnographic accounts of co-creativity as it plays out in the game developer workplaces. But nor are these complex and at times quite fraught relationships necessarily an impediment to co-creativity. They are the very conditions through which co-creativity plays out.

This also brings out another issue that matters here. The everyday work practices of professional media workers are at stake in these co-creative networks. Co-creativity can unsettle the expertise, employment and identities of media professionals. The question of labour and work conditions matters in all of this as well. It is a thread that I think runs through the entire book and has a chapter dedicated to it – ‘Co-creative Labour?’. Finally another aspect of matters concerns the debates and discussions among academics as we attempt to grapple with, analyse, understand and explain emerging phenomenon such as co-creative production.

 

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

Rethinking the "Value" of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Three)

In many ways, children’s television (and media more generally) has been the testing ground for franchising strategies. What is it about this genre/market which lends itself to this mode of production? How have children’s franchises represented the merger of logics from multiple industries?

I argue in the book that, in some ways, the franchising model is an extrapolation of the episodicity of television, where one episode is meant to lead viewers into the next.  In franchising, this just functions across multiple markets and media.  In children’s television specifically, this structure has combined with marketers’ desires to use one media to drive kids’ interest in consumer experiences in another.  That is, of course, how US commercial television approaches all its audiences more broadly.  But television for children has been regulated differently; our concerns about children as a special, protected audience has led to increased activism in an attempt to protect children from this kind of coordinated commercialism.

I don’t really make this claim so explicitly in the book, but it strikes me now that these regulatory attempts at protection may have helped feed the very franchising strategies that anti-commercialism activists would (and did) decry.  When you had Action for Children’s Television pushing for tighter restrictions on how toy companies could advertise their products on television, and succeeding in getting “program length commercials” like Hot Wheels pulled from the air, companies like Hasbro adapted.  While they couldn’t produce television based directly on their toys, they saw no regulation against advertising comics, so they created a partnership with Marvel Comics to create a GI JOE title that could tie-in with a television program.  They now had not just a TV show, but also a comic, both which would help create visibility for the TV.

Of course this only created a model for Transformers and other TV-comic-toy partnerships to follow, and it was really the deregulatory atmosphere (and not attempts at greater protection of kids) that weakened the rules and set off the wave of franchising to follow (where the comics intermediary wasn’t so necessary).  And at the same time as we try to protect kids from commercialism, it’s also common to assume kids don’t have well developed sense of taste—so alongside the impulse to protect them, we could shrug and ignore moves toward commercialization as indicative of the poor taste of kids.  But in either case, we tend to look at kids as special or essentially different, and I think that franchising strategies developed in these sectors in specific relationship to that cultural belief.

Other important factors here, thinking more long term, have to do more with nostalgia. Transformers may have been highly franchised back in its original 1980s incarnation too, but its persistence as a franchise today is tied very heavily to Hasbro’s “transgenerational marketing” strategies whereby adults are encouraged to share their childhood culture with their own children.  (Marvel has just started a similar “Share Your Universe” campaign meant to transfer parent tastes to a new generation of comic readers).  In the long term, focusing on childhood culture now creates the possibility for new iterations in a generation’s time when your original audience procreates.  The reproduction of franchising is in that sense tied to the reproduction of people.

I should also mention, in terms of creativity, that because we tend to delegitimize the tastes of kids, those working in children’s media sectors aren’t often accorded the greatest status and capital within the industry.  Regardless of what you think about it’s commercial motivations, the franchising of kids’ media led to a lot of experimentation with how you could tell an ongoing, collaborative story, and the familiarization of children with more serialized production strategies in the 1980s must have certainly helped create a literacy for the (far more critically endorsed) serial storytelling we see in some parts of “adult” TV today.  There were a lot of people working in children’s TV who still considered themselves creative and innovative despite wider industrial and popular perceptions, and from an insistence of that may have come a lot of new ideas about how to reach kids—both in a marketing and narrative sense.

I’m trying to zero in on this question of childhood in my current research, so I find this connection to be worth exploring with more care than I have here.  But I think there’s definitely an important relationship for us to see there.

Some have seen the franchising system as one more device which American cultural industries use to exert their dominance over the global media imagination, yet you stress the ways that they operate within a transnational context. How might we understand what others have discussed as the transnational exchange of television formats as part of a logic of franchising? What role does localization play within the franchising process?

I’m not sure I want to suggest that franchises are not in fact such a device, but it is more complicated than that critique usually allows.  Television formats, as I mentioned earlier, allow television to travel in localized ways, where instead of the US sending completed episodes of Friends to every nation on earth, the idea for shows like Big Brother are traded amongst different television markets to be remade and localized to suit specific cultures.

One of the most interesting things about the format market is that the dominance of the US is far less clear, with companies like Endemol from the Netherlands having become big players in the market for localizable concepts.  Of course, that doesn’t mean the old import/export market is dead—NBC’s The Office was formatted from the BBC version, as were series in many other nations, yet in international television sales, the American version is still able to find a global market, playing alongside the other localized versions that do not travel as freely (including the British original).  Formatting allows us to have Law & Order in many different incarnations travel through the global market, but also to develop localized offerings like Law & Order: UK.

But while American power persists amid formatting and in other kinds of franchising more broadly, I think that the processes by which formatted local uses are incorporated into the system challenges our ability to talk about franchising in terms of purely national origins.  In the television format, the innovations introduced locally can often become a part of the overall formula to be fed back into all the other contexts in which it is used.

In that sense, the formats sold by Endemol are not specifically of “Dutch” origin, but over time become the product of a transnational exchange of culture.  This is what I see in the global exchange of properties like Transformers that operate at a level beyond the single television format.  Given the complex history of exchange and shared innovation of a concept between toy companies and television producers in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, it feels over-simplistic to say that Transformers is either a Japanese or an American property.  I think we understand that franchise much more effectively if we see it as the product of these more complex relations and exchanges between transnational industries. And that might help us better understand globalization more generally.

I was struck by your use of the term, “enfranchisement,” in your closing chapters to describe consumer relations to media properties and your insistence on a more “ambivalent” account of what it means to be a fan of some of these series.  You write, “In the end, we have to ask not just how end users might occupy the spaces of cultural production once controlled by media industry, but also how those media industries might occupy the spaces of play and creative labor in which users participate.” What do you see as a way forward for cultural theory in response to these contradictions and ambivalences? Is it possible for us to acknowledge the grounds gained and lost through these negotiations without coming across as wishy-washy and indecisive?

I suppose that the way forward I hoped to find in that passage was one where were could recognize the agency of consumers and their participation in cultural production while at the same time recognizing how that pleasurable, playful participation can function as a part of industrial economies. I’m taking cues there from a number of inspirations, from your own work to that of Marc Andrejevic.  What I hoped to accomplish on a theoretical level with this idea of enfranchisement, however, was not just to recognize the role of consumers’ playful, pleasurable participation in industry, but to start thinking by implication about the work of professionals too as a form of collaborative participation both playful and uneasy (where the ideas about design and world-sharing can often turn us).

In the shift to thinking about “participatory culture” that your own work helped inspire, the focus of participation often remains on the audience.  By considering the identities and subjective uses of media by audiences in relation to industrial production, I think that my hope was that we could equally conceptualize the work of professionals and amateurs as “participatory,” as a way of using the media with pleasures and forms of engagement tied to their identities and communities as participators as well as the institutions that give them license to engage in these practices (extending of course the important work that John Caldwell, Vicki Mayer, and so many others have already done to connect production, labor, and identity).  One way forward for cultural theory, therefore, might be to continue to deconstruct hierarchies of production and consumption (as much as I feel continued, focused attention on production is a significant priority) and to focus on how creativity and participation more broadly turn on relations of power that manifest through identity, meaning, labor and other vectors of cultural struggle.

I don’t think that risks wishy-washiness or indecision, so much as it is asking for a paradigm shift, where we stop thinking about industry work cultures and amateur participation as all that different, and instead look at both production and consumption together as sites where identities and meanings form in relation to the participation structured by relations and institutions of power.  Instead of juxtaposing industry and audience or production and consumption, we might think about them more in terms of their commonalities.

How do you see Amazon's new Kindle Worlds program in relation to the contradictions about audience “enfranchisement” that you describe in your closing chapter? It is not, strictly speaking, “free labor,” since fan authors are paid royalties based on their contributions, yet it also represents potentially an extension of corporate control over audience fantasies since writers need to work within prescribed rules and boundaries and be granted authorization before they can contribute their stories to this program. Does this make fans part of the “world-sharing” process you describe here?

 Exactly—it’s not free labor, but it is enfranchised labor, where the participation and labor of these users comes under the terms of the contract of the Terms of Service of End-User License Agreement to which one must consent to participate.  Fans would absolutely become implicated in the world-sharing process with which I am concerned.  Much like any licensee, these fans would, as sanctioned contributors to the franchise, become subject to the same kind of stringent approvals and conditions described by MJ Clarke in his book Transmedia Television.  That might seem counterintuitive given that we probably imagine Amazon playing a pretty heavy intermediary role between fans and rightsholders—but Clarke reminds us how rare it is for professional licensed creators to communicate directly with license holders either.

The collaboration behind this kind of licensed enfranchisement is not based in significant communication, so much as taking up a prescribed role within a shared economy of creation.  Given the restrictions that the Content Worlds contributors will face, I would expect participants to adopt many of the same world-sharing strategies that any professional licensed creator would.  Expect plenty of continuity-mining.  Again, I think this helps us to try to think around some of our binaries between production and consumption, or professional and and amateur, in that we can think about similar subject positions, identifications, and negotiations of creativity, participation, and convergence operating across both sets of terms.

 

You end the book with this provocative sentence, "it is at the point where collaboration stops, however, that new alternatives might emerge." Do you have any sense of what those "new alternatives" might look like? Is cultural production possible without collaboration - in the multiple senses you are using the word here?

 

My intention in talking about collaboration in that chapter was to consider it both in the creative sense of shared effort, and in the political sense of complicity with an occupying regime.  In that final sentence imagining an end to collaboration, I may have been leaning slightly more toward that latter sense of the term, given that collective participation may be not just political advantageous, but also, as your question and much of the book itself suggests, inherent to cultural production more generally (even something as seemly authority-driven and corporately-controlled as media franchising).

You’re right that it is difficult to imagined cultural production without the social dimensions of exchanges and sharing we’re been discussing.  But what I think I was getting at speaks to the way in which I understand collaboration in relation to franchising more generally; I’m not insisting that these things are collaborative in the sense that franchise participants all get together and have open conversations about how to make a shared work—in fact, I think this is very much the opposite of what happens given the cultural and economic obstacles to that kind of cooperation.

Again, the collaboration that I see happening here is one where people who do the work of cultural production, professionals and amateurs alike, enter into a shared economy of creation by taking up one of many specific positions within an industrial set of relations.  The “end” of collaboration I’m talking about then is one in which those roles are perhaps not accepted so easily, and the terms of participating as a “user” or “sharer” of something like a franchise get renegotiated (both economically and in the sense of how we identify with and in relation to that cultural work).

I’m not sure that’s a very specific answer, but I’m imagining possibilities where we start to challenge the system that tells us who does and does not have the right to participate in culture in what prescribed ways.  If nothing else, this could be a refusal to abide the roles that EULAs and licensing contracts give us in making sense of our productive contributions to popular culture. The end of collaboration, in this sense, would be a form of cultural production where the users of culture are active in determining what their roles might be, where enfranchisement leads not just to agency participation in a set creative relations, but the reimagination of what those relations are.

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children's media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO's licensed film and comic minifigures.

Participatory Poland (Part Three): Historical Reenactment in Poland: Where Grassroots and Institutions Collide

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture. Historical Reenactment in Poland: Where Grassroots and Institutions Collide

Michał Mochocki

Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz

 

 

Medieval Knights or Native Americans: Who Was First

 

The first appearance of modern “reenactors” in Poland was probably the parade of 10th-century Slavic warriors, organised in 1967 to celebrate 1000 years since the founding of the Polish state. Set up by the communist government, without a fan community to back it up, it turned out to be a one-time, inconsequential event (Nowiński 2012: 76) and cannot be counted as genuine reenactment.

As Jacek Nowiński (2012: 76) says, there is no doubt among Polish reenactors about who deserves the credit as the pioneer. It was in July 1977 that the first reenactment event – a chivalric tournament – took place at Golub-Dobrzyń castle organized by the local division of PTTK (Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society). It was headed by Zygmunt Kwiatkowski, who subsequently reigned as castellanus and organised annual tournaments until his death in 2005 (now the tradition continued by his son Piotr). Also in the late 1970s, Zbigniew Sawicki in Zawiercie started his research on Old Polish martial arts, which led to the founding of a small martial arts section in 1981 and a full-fledged club Signum Polonicum in 1986. The club  now holds 7 local units around Poland, 1 in the Czech Republic, and 1 in France.

Alongside medieval knights, the indianist movement in Poland was constituted in 1977 as well. With informal activities in several places dating from 1968, its first national convention took place in August 1977 (Placek 2004), a month after the Golub-Dobrzyń chivalric event. Actually, the convention had been scheduled for 24-26 June 1976, the 100th anniversary of Little Bighorn. The plan had been thwarted by the communist authorities, but an unofficial small-scale gathering had nevertheless taken place (Placek 2004). If we count the indianists among historical reenactors, and the unofficial 1976 event as their founding year, it could be said they had been here first: one year before “the white man” Kwiatkowski set up his medieval tournament. However, they are not associated with the reenactment movement (and do not seem to be willing to), as they are focused on spirituality, ecology and new age (Seremet 2000), and not so much on material recreation of costumes and weapons.

Well documented and analysed, the development of Polish indianism is a fascinating story with truly legendary figures (see Sat-Okh). For readers of Polish, I recommend links available at http://www.indianie.eco.pl/. But with the limited word count, I will drop the thread here as nothing more but an interesting context.

 

The Boom and Flood of 1990s

 

In 1989, the Moscow-aligned socialist government was replaced by a more democratically elected one, and the People’s Republic of Poland lost its “People’s” component. The higher degree of freedom of speech allowed for independent discussion and reinterpretation of history, while freedom of association and assembly opened way for institutionalisation and professionalisation of NGOs. Organisations could now be created by the grassroots, independently of  state-run and state-funded bodies. The Polish borders were opened not only to the flood of Western goods, services and lifestyles, but also to contacts with reenactment communities from other countries. With loosened economic regulations, capitalism and free trade sparked thousands of private enterprises, including commercial historical events and the rebirth of traditional hand-made crafts catering to reenactors’s needs. The development of the public Internet since 1994 (Internet w Polsce) facilitated knowledge-sharing, community building, and large-scale international cooperation. All this has brought about fundamental changes.

In 1992, Brotherhood of Sword and Crossbow held the first tournament commemorating the 1410 Battle of Grunwald - not yet in Grunwald but in Stężyca (Nowiński 2012: 77). In the same year, Jarosław Struczyński inspired the town council of Gniew to reactivate the reconstruction of its medieval Teutonic castle (Historia twierdzy) and started what later became known as one of the most successful centers of medieval and 17th-century reenactment (see Vivat Vasa). The famous international Wolin-Jomsborg-Vineta festival of Slavs and Vikings was started in 1993. 1995 was the founding year of Museum Palace at Wilanów as an autonomous institution, and of Liga Baronów, “the first Polish tournament society,” as its members declare. The Palace and the Liga joined forces several years later to become a leading museum-with-reenactment. Influenced by the huge popularity of the Battle of Grunwald, the largest Teutonic castle in Malbork joined in, recreating its 1410 siege in 2000 and on.

Since 1990,new RH groups have sprung up all over Poland: Vikings, Slavs, knights, mercenaries, 17th-century armies, Napoleonic soldiers, units from both World Wars troops and from the most recent military conflicts (even Specnaz from the Russian-Chechen war of 1999-2009). Alongside military units, there are groups recreating civilians, much fewer in numbers. Along the way, these groups had to cooperate with local authorities, government bodies, private businesses, schools, museums, universities, army units, culture centres, community houses, mass media, other NGOs etc. Collaboration would go smoothly in some cases, or lead to struggles, conflict and rivalry in others. This is what I intend to focus on in this short paper: the dynamics of conflict-and-cooperation between grassroots and institutions.

 

Grassroots and Institutions Collide: Local/Regional Level

 

Szlendak (2012: 62) distinguishes between “fairs”, i.e. commercial festivals for  large audiences, and “time machines”, non-commercial events for insiders. Reenactors draw a sharp distinction between these two types. (32) This seems to be the largest bone of contention: local institutions, town / county officials and business sponsors prefer huge popular events dominated by lowbrow mass entertainment (beer, sausages, disco music etc.) where the role of reenactors is reduced to “monkeys at the zoo”.

The list of typical problems with institutions includes:

  • Sanepid (sanitary and epidemiological service) inspecting the condition of storing, making and serving food in historical camps. Law makes no distinction here: even if you cook food on the open fire, you should meet the same requirements as a top quality restaurant in a city (Szlendak 2012: 35).
  • Tax Offices looking for cash registers and financial documents for all small-scale trade (35).
  • The police and VIP security acting hostile against armed reenactors.
  • Unwillingness of institutions to collaborate with informal groups that are not officially registered as an NGO (36).
  • Local officials (mayors) trying to monopolize the “services” of local reenactors and turning against them when they dare to cooperate with an adjacent county (Nowiński 2012: 93).
  • Local officials seeing reenactors as dangerous rivals in the field of culture and entertainment as they can organize events of higher quality and at a lower cost than the town hall and its cultural institutions (Karwacki 124).
  • Analogically, museums tend to be jealous or condescending towards reenactors, who can set up interactive “temporary museums” seen by the audience as better than the traditional museum experience (Szlendak 2012: 61)
  • Local politicians using reenactment events for self-promotion, election campaign or propaganda, which evokes disgust and embarrassment on the part of  reenactors. (Szlendak 37)

On the positive side, there are many examples and spheres of grassroots/institution  cooperation:

  • Reenactors frequently appear in schools with “living history” lessons, usually without any financial gratification (Szlendak 2012: 48; Nowiński 2012: 100).
  • Jomsborg-Wolin settlement in collaboration with the local Employment Office offers temporary jobs and vocational training for the unemployed (Nowiński 2012: 87).
  • The idea of Jomsborg-Wolin reenactments had come from the business sector, with the Danish companies Danfoss and Grundfos “selling” the concept to the local authorities (Nowiński 2012: 87).
  • The medieval Grunwald March, with its route across several counties, has inspired the creation of an inter-county funding scheme uniting 8 jurisdictions (Andrzejewski, qtd. in Karwacki 2012: 133).
  • The immensely popular reenactment of the Grunwald Battle of 1410 has led to the establishment of the Battle of Grunwald Museum in ‟the middle of nowhere”: a very poor rural area with no significant institutions or businesses whatsoever.
  • A unit of winged hussars affiliated with the Gniew castle has long been officially commanded by marszałek (province marshal) of Pomorskie voivodeship, enjoying the support of the local government in the country and abroad (to be discussed under Inter/National below).

 

Generally speaking, small towns and villages (e.g. Wolin, Malbork, Grunwald, Kołobrzeg) tend to be much more interested and involved in cooperation with reenactors, making historical events a significant aspect of their promotional image (Szlendak 63). Cities with rich and diverse culture&arts background do not see reenactors as a valuable asset. Still, cooperation between reenactors, city halls and institutions happens, e.g. with the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

 

The 2000+ Upscaling

 

As of 2011, having analysed a number of reports and databases from scholars and practitioners (including the huge registry created by Robert Bagrit), Nowiński (2012: 78) estimates the number of RH groups at about 500, with the total number of reenactors at 100.000. He admits to wide error margins, but there is no doubt that active reenactors should be counted in tens of thousands, and spectators of RH events  in millions each year. In consequence, “thanks to mass commercial events and their media coverage, the audiences no longer perceive reenactors as weirdos, but as people doing a specific job” (Szlendak 2012: 32, translation mine).

In 2000+, the ever-growing numbers, experience, level of organisation, and massive public appeal have raised the RH movement from local to regional to national and international level. Large-scale events are now attended by MPs and government officials, with the most high-profile celebrations are visited by  Prime Minister or President of Poland. Reenactors are invited to TV shows with nationwide broadcasts. TV and film celebrities are hired by reenactment events to play the roles of central historical figures (e.g. Daniel Olbrychski as King John III Sobieski in the Battle of Vienna /1683/ celebration held in Kraków in 2008). Lobbying organised by reenactors has brought about changes in gun control legislation, and is very likely to to influence the ceremony of receiving foreign guests by President (see below). On the other hand, the most successful and prestigious events are being taken over by political or corporate powers, completely sidelining the reenactors, some of whom no longer want to participate.

 

Grassroots and Institutions Collide: Inter/National Level

2010 was a milestone: huge reenactments celebrating the 600th anniversary of Battle of Grunwald in which Polish and Lithuanian forces had crushed the German-Teutonic knights and their allies, and 400th anniversary of Battle of Kłuszyn (Klushino) that had been an amazing victory of Polish winged hussars over a huge army of Russians supported by Western mercenaries. This time, both reenactments had a strong support from the state, including the government and president, the National Bank of Poland, and public TV stations. What had started in Stężyca in 1992 as grassroots activity with about 20 knights and a small local audience has grown to the 400.000 of visitors to the fields of Grunwald in 2010 (Nowiński 2012: 78).

A similar evolution can be seen around the largest fortress built by Teutonic knights, the Malbork (Marienburg) castle. It had shunned reenactors throughout the 1990s, but since 2000, the 1410 siege of Malbork became an annual event. In 2010, its popularity was heavily boosted in conjuction with the 600th anniversary of Battle of Grunwald. In 2011, it was part of Wielki Teatr Historii (Grand Historical Theatre), the most expensive grant project ever funded by National Center for Culture, coordinated by famous host of historical TV shows Bogusław Wołoszański, and broadcast nationwide.

Nevertheless, both these events suffered from institutional hegemony, with control over management and battlefield taken over by state-run administration, TV channels and corporate sponsors. Many medieval groups no longer attend the Malbork or Grunwald events, feeling that it is not “theirs” anymore, as reenactors have no real influence on what the event looks like. They still remember the speech of Jerzy Buzek, who talked about the 600 years of Grunwald and 30 years of “Solidarity” (political movement he had been part of) in a single breath (Szlendak 2012: 68). Even Szymon Drej, the head of the Malbork castle which is the main organiser of the siege, says he is not happy with the way things have turned, but does not see a way out (as cited in Nowiński 2012: 88-89).

On the other hand, we have examples of reenactors’ lobbying that have influenced decisions of the parliament and President. A bill passed on 5 January 2011 modified the Act on Weapons and Ammunition, specifically addressing the phenomenon of historical reenactment and permitting the use of gun replicas and blank shots. Also grant programs released by government bodies (e.g. the National Center for Culture) now list reenactment events among those that qualify for public funding. A grassroots campaign “Hussars before the Palace!”, initiated by winged hussar reenactors in 2012 to officially introduce armor-clad hussars to stand guard before the presidential palace at public ceremonies, scored a one-time achievement on the Flag Day, 2 May 2013 (Kresy.pl), and according to its leader, Marek Jakubiak, is likely to succeed in establishing it as a tradition.

The famous and uniquely Polish cavalry, winged hussars, has made a few international appearances with a political undertone:

  • Jarosław Struczyński and the Gniew hussars made a humorous public appeal to the Swedish king, asking him to return all goods plundered in Poland during the Swedish 1655-1660 “Deluge”, now remaining in Swedish museums.
  • These same hussars visited the EU parliament in Brussels on 22nd November2011.
  • Two hussar groups were at the center of Polish Days in Vilnius (Lithuania) in November 2012.

In the summer of 2013, the 330. anniversary of the glorious victory of King John III Sobieski over the Turks was to be celebrated by the ride of 20-30 hussars from Kraków (the former capital of Poland) to Vienna (Austria) followed by participation in the Vienna celebration. The plan failed: not enough funds had been raised, and Vienna authorities did not grant permission for a parade on horseback. Still, small-scale rides and coordinated hussar events took place across Poland (www.wieden330.pl).

 

The Closing Story

I would like to end this report with the story (told by Szlendak 2012: 9) of cpt. Tełowski of 63. Infantry Regiment, who was posthumously decorated with the Order of Virtuti Militari (the highest Polish award for heroism on the battlefield). His wife, having emigrated to Australia, on her deathbed decided that the Order should be returned to Poland, to the same 63. Regiment stationed in Toruń. However, such a unit no longer exists in the military. But there is a reenactment group related to it. With the involvement of the Polish Ministry of Defense and the Australian embassy, not to mention local officials and the Tełowski family, the order was transferred to the reenactors, and is now displayed by their commander on public occasions. This is how the heritage of the Polish army lives on in a reenactment group, with official recognition and endorsement from state institutions and descendants alike.

Such was the journey of Polish reenactors: from the first medieval tournament set up in 1977 by a local tourist organization to the winged hussars standing guard before the presidential palace in 2013. Szlendak (2012: 10) contends: “This movement is going to transform from hobby-driven volunteers into a full-fledged professional group”. I have no doubt that this has already happened.

Sources:

 

Karwacki, A. 2012. ‟Ewaluacja rekonstruowania.” In: T. Szlendak (ed.). Dziedzictwo w akcji. Rekonstrukcja historyczna jako sposób uczestnictwa w kulturze. (109-140). Narodowe Centrum Kultury: Warszawa.

 

Nowiński, J. 2012. ‟Rekonstrukcje jako instytucje.” In: T. Szlendak (ed.). Dziedzictwo w akcji. Rekonstrukcja historyczna jako sposób uczestnictwa w kulturze. (71-108). Narodowe Centrum Kultury: Warszawa.

 

Placek, M. 2003. Dominanty światopoglądowe w polskim ruchu indianistycznym. MA dissertation: Uniwersytet Śląski.

 

Seremet S., 2000. Spotkania na indiańskich ścieżkach. Asymilacja duchowości Sun Beara w Stowarzyszeniu Żółwi. MA dissertation: Uniwersytet Warszawski.

 

Szlendak, T. 2012. ‟Uczestnicy, odbiorcy i miejsca, gdzie się spotykają.” In: T. Szlendak (ed.). Dziedzictwo w akcji. Rekonstrukcja historyczna jako sposób uczestnictwa w kulturze. (7-70). Narodowe Centrum Kultury: Warszawa.

 

Michal Mochocki: Non-digital game researcher and designer, holds Ph.D. in Literature and works at the Faculty of English Studies at the Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Founding member and managing board secretary of the Games Research Association of Poland, and Advisory Board member in the Homo Ludens scholarly journal. Co-authored Dzikie Pola RPG 2nd ed. (2005), authored tons of game content for this and other RPGs, and has been writing historical larps since 2001. Also engaged in historical re-enactment and game-based learning. At his university, he is in charge of a B.A. degree programme in Game Studies and Design, and actively promoting gamification in higher education. Currently researching the activation of heritage in reenactments and non-digital roleplaying games. WWW: michal-mochocki.pl   Blog:mmochocki.blogspot.com 

Participatory Poland (Part One): Participatory Poland -- An Introduction

This past May, I received an email from Agata Zarzycka, Assistant Professor of Literature at the Department of English Studies, Wrocław University:

"We are writing to you on behalf of a team of academics and doctoral students from the Department of English Studies, University of Wrocław, Poland, inspired by your words from the foreword to the Polish edition of The Convergence Culture, where you wrote about your specifically American focus and range of experience, but also about the impossibility of ignoring the mutual exchange between medialized cultural movements across the world. You also mentioned your potential interest in supporting a dialog between participants and commentators of American and Polish popular culture, which has encouraged us to ask for your opinion about the general concept and the possible collaboration potential of the combined didactic and research-oriented project aimed the cultivation of ''new media literacies'' among high school students – an enterprise that, to the best of our knowledge, no one has yet ventured to launch in the academic context. "

I was well aware that there was growing interest in my work there: the very first translation of my work, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, was into Polish and I shared this account of a visit my wife and I made to this country several years ago in this blog: Part One, Part Two, and more recently, I featured a report by Polish researchers on the intellectual property struggles in their country. There are dramatic cultural changes taking place in Poland, which has also been a key pillar in the Creative Commons movement.

As our correspondence continued, and as they shared with me the curriculum they were developing, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which they were seeking to translate some of my ideas about participatory culture and new media literacies for the Polish academic setting, but I challenged them to think even more deeply about what the concept of participatory culture might mean in contemporary, Post-Communist Poland, and about what kinds of lived experiences Polish students might be having with these practices.  After all, part of the goal is to have students bring their own expertise and passions into the educational setting. In response, they launched a remarkable project, which brought together key scholars and aca-fan from Poland, to write a series of overview essays describing different participatory practices in their country. I was blown away by this response, and even more so, by the depth and richness of what they produced. I am very honored to be in the position to share these reports with readers around the world via this blog.

I hope you will learn as much from the Participatory Poland series as I have, and I hope that it will inspire scholars in other countries to consider producing similar accounts of what participatory culture might mean in their national contexts. I would love to see proposals from elsewhere which might fill similar gaps in our understanding of traditional and contemporary cultural practices.

This first piece, broken down into two installments, provides the context through which to understand this series, an account of the dramatic cultural and political changes which have impacted Poland over the past few decades.

PARTICIPATORY POLAND: AN INTRODUCTION

 

Agata Zarzycka and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak

Department of English Studies

University of Wroclaw

Poland

 

 

THE SCOPE AND GOALS OF THE REPORT

This essay introduces the “Participatory Poland” report: a series of essays in which Polish aca-fen analyze several branches of Polish participatory culture and try to locate their specificity by considering the historical context in which it has so far developed. While we are aware that the factors involved in this phenomenon are numerous and complex enough to become a material for at least one book, which makes our Introduction selective and imperfect by definition, we have attempted to characterize the background for the discussions to follow in the subsequent blog entries and show their shared relevance as facets of the contemporary “participatory Poland”.

Undoubtedly, a groundbreaking feature of the Internet-boosted participatory culture is its globalized character, resulting in what Henry Jenkins calls “pop cosmopolitanism” (Fans 155-156) and providing common cultural and civic “languages” connecting people from all over the world. Because of that, however, we find it even more interesting to see how the “local color” of fan-based practices can be shaped by the heritage of national, historical and political factors that are seemingly detached from the fandom community, whose traditions, in their most influential form, have originated in the English-speaking, and specifically American, cultural sphere.

In Poland, the emergence of fandom as we know it was belated by several decades. Nevertheless, the cultural and social potential for participatory entertainment proved powerful enough to quickly bring about a whole spectrum of movements that continue to evolve. The preliminary edition of the report is composed of close-ups on just a few samples from various parts of that spectrum: speculative fiction as the core inspiration for the contemporary participatory culture; historical reconstruction as a movement closely connected to the local context; role-playing games as a form of entertainment which, once adopted by Polish practitioners, have proved flexible and responsive to various, more or less nationality-dependent activities; comics as possibly the most directly subversive and politically involved phenomenon; manga as an example of a genuinely foreign factor that has become a noticeably nationalized element of the participatory landscape in Poland; and finally bra-fitting, which, while inspired by prosumerism rather than fandom activity, constitutes one of uniquely successful Polish grassroots movements. While participatory culture is most often associated with digital media or fandom centered around cult pop cultural works, its crucial aspects as defined by Jenkins et al. in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (2009), underline also other aspects of participation – the collectivity of the experience, the appreciation of the input of others, the experience of belonging to a community supporting the activity, and the development of a grassroots organization based on more experienced participants introducing and guiding newbies etc. (Jenkins e. a. 7). Thus, although not all movements discussed in the report can be traced back to fan activity inspired by some originally offered official material, they share those features of participatory culture that make it a prominent phenomenon in the sphere of contemporary civic activism.

 

POLITICAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT

 

The boom of most movements explored in this report could be observed either in the 1990s – the first post-communist decade in Poland – or in the young capitalism of the first decade of the 21st century. In the U.S., the time between the 1960s and the end of 1980s, though far from peaceful in terms of social and political issues, brought a natural growth and formation of core fandom phenomena which together with the digital media revolution were to bring participatory culture to the level of a new cultural paradigm that we experience now: J. R. R. Tolkien’s writings spiraled up to the status of cult texts, reinforcing on their way the development of role-playing games; movies and TV shows such as Star Wars and Star Trek triggered large-scale fan communities; and the comic-book underground flourished. In Poland, the growth of popular culture in the same period, though enjoying some highlights, especially in the 1970s, was marked and limited by political and cultural isolation from the rest of the world, oppression, poverty, political infiltration and resistance, propaganda, censorship and fear. Obviously, this is not to say that American fandom developed in a socio-political void. It was the post-McCarthyist reaction that implicitly led to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, fuelled by the hippie movement and accompanied, among others, by a boom of American interest in Tolkien. Fandom-related phenomena and cultural practices have on a regular basis been scrutinized for their supposed moral harmfulness and psychological threats, as exemplified in the 1950s by the famous Senate activities inspired by Fredrick Wertham with regard to comic books in the 50s, the Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons activity in the 80s, or the post-Columbine media panic leading to Henry Jenkins’ 1999 intervention in defense of Goth and gaming cultures in Congress in 1999. In 2010, a politically loaded TED performance of Lawrence Lessig, who considers the copyright issues in the Internet remix culture from the perspective of Right – Left conflicts, underlined the political dimension of contemporary fandom-related practices on the structural level (http://www.ted.com/talks/lessig_nyed.html).

Still, regardless of the unquestionably dynamic bonds of American participatory culture with broader social and political contexts, one of the factors that make the growth of similar movements in Poland significantly different is the position and functions of grassroots and otherwise informal collective activity in general. Two stereotypical images of community actions as shaped throughout the socialist period might be compared, however remotely, to the American distinction between grassroots and astroturfing. On the one hand, the so called “czyn społeczny” (subbotnik) practice in frames of which communist authorities forced people to carry out unpaid work for the “common good,” as well as the general pressure on the society to manifest fake enthusiasm for the imposed ideology, negatively affected the concept of collective activity and laced most such initiatives with a political undertone unwanted by the participants. On the other hand, it is exactly through the more or less spontaneous grassroots resistance movements as reflected by the very name of “Solidarity” that the most serious and effective campaign against the regime was waged until its successful conclusion in 1989. In the social reality so heavily conditioned by one or another aspect of the nationwide political conflict, it was difficult to set up any kind of shared activity that would not have to, at some point, position itself somewhere in its spectrum. That is why the discussion of the development of Polish participatory culture necessitates historical contextualization.

The 1945 intervention of the Soviet army in Poland resulted in the establishment of the communist government, which in turn meant that the country soon became a socialist state following the Soviet model. Poland, or rather the People’s Republic of Poland, as it was officially known from 1952 to 1989, remained under that influence until 1989 but open social opposition to the communist rule existed throughout the period, assuming a variety of forms and guises, including initiatives inspired by popular culture. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Poland had its share of Stalinist rule, such as strong censorship, ideological manipulation and persecution of the Roman Catholic Church. A short interval of “thaw” came after Stalin’s death in 1953 and resulted in bloodily quenched worker protests in 1956. In October that year Władysław Gomułka became first secretary of the PZPR (the Polish United Workers’ Party), proclaiming that Poland was to follow the Polish way to socialism, defined by the specificities of the country’s traditions. Nevertheless, the years 1956-1980 were marked by a progressing economic crisis and the growing dissent on the part of the Church, workers and the intelligentsia.

Of particular importance in that period was the Warsaw Pact of 1968 (a mutual defense treaty between communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War), students’ protests against the lack of intellectual and cultural freedom in March 1968, and widespread strikes in shipyards and factories on the Baltic coast in 1970. In 1970 Gomułka was replaced by Edward Gierek, whose idea to assuage social discontent was to introduce moderate liberalization and boost the economy by massive borrowing from the West. The latter resulted in another crisis, the increase in food prices and social unrest. Simultaneously, the Helsinki Accords in 1975, the growing influence of the Catholic Church under the leadership of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, and the papacy of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła (1978) as well as his visit to Poland in 1979, culminated in the formation of Solidarity, the free national trade union. Solidarity’s growing membership and its unrelenting opposition to the regime on the one hand and the pressure of the Soviet Union on the Polish government to deal with the turbulent situation on the other led to the declaration of Martial Law in December 1981 by general Wojciech Jaruzelski.

Everyday life became difficult. The borders were closed and travelling in the country was drastically limited. Moreover, curfew was introduced between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Also numerous Solidarity activists were imprisoned without court sentence, and Solidarity itself was officially dissolved. Nevertheless, the communist regime was weakening. In 1989 the Polish Round Table was formed as a forum for discussions between the government, Solidarity and other opposition groups. The first democratic elections took place in summer 1989, sweeping communism away, and the Catholic intellectual Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minister. The post-communist era in the history of Poland began.

Unfortunately, despite the triumphant victory of democracy and capitalism over communism, for many Poles the transition from the predemocratic Poland to a liberal economic system, democracy, as well as the integration into the European Union, has proved difficult and disillusioning. As Leszek Koczanowicz puts it,

[c]ommunism in Poland as well as in other European countries led to the total absorption of the public sphere by the state apparatus. Communist ideology adapted almost the whole field of traditional thinking, reformulating it in collective terms. In the fight against “bourgeois” ideology, stress was put on the deficiencies of the concept of individualism as a useful tool for understanding and organizing social reality. Instead, communist ideology proposed a collective solution which was embodied in the idea of the Communist Party. (43)

Therefore it is no wonder that the mentality of Homo sovieticus – a type of a human being who is enslaved by the system but who is also glad to have his or her basic needs satisfied by it (Tischner 125) – cannot be smoothly replaced by a radically new national identity stemming not only from the sense of responsibility for oneself but also from a conscious exercise of one’s civic and personal freedom in a plural society. Simultaneously, as Elżbieta Matynia points out, Polish social and cultural life remains to be shaped by the romantic salvational paradigm of Poland as torn by foreign powers (153-154). For Matynia, its most significant elements are “the general preoccupation with history” and “the recounting of a heroic past”; the idea of a persecuted nation, typically linked with the Catholic religion; and “in the absence of a satisfying reality, a life within symbols and allegories, a community of the spirit, nurtured by family memories of the resistance experience and shared by each generation” (154).

Bartłomiej Radziejewski identifies a unifying and potentially more empowering root of Polish traditional rebelliousness in the “Sarmatian spirit” echoing the nobles’ democracy of the 15th and 16th century, which affirmed individual independence and the distrust of government (n.p.). Throughout the 1990s, however, a radically different, but equally influential element of Polish post-totalitarian mentality has developed in the form of “communist nostalgia” (Koczanowicz 8), which stems from people’s sense of uncertainty in the new political situation. As Koczanowicz comments, Poles “who got used to living in circumstances defined by communist bureaucracy came to feel lost in the new situation of market economy” (8). Moreover, as he continues, for many the previous system was ideal just because it was predictable and secure, as well as enabling people to assume a clear moral stance (8): “Freedom became for most of them [people] too much of a burden” (52).

One of the most recent phenomena shaping contemporary Polish identity is post-post-communism, which could be defined as a sense of anxiety about “losing identity in the face of globalization, immigration, and the power of international institutions” (Koczanowicz 149). Hence, as Koczanowicz argues, Poles desire the restoration of traditional values on the ideological level and the strengthening of the role of state perceived “as a system of organizations” (149).

As can be concluded, Poland in the first decades of the 21st century is to a large extent driven by the longing for the past. As Koczanowicz explains, “[t]he social time of the Polish society (the ontology of expectations) is predominantly colonized by the attitude toward the traditional national and religious values. People imagine that traditional values should serve as a point of reference in the changing social reality for the long time” (150-151). The significance of such philosophy and past-oriented sentiments may be expected to decrease in the relatively younger generations of today’s 30- or 20-year-olds, not to mention teenagers. Still, the unease connected with the lack of a coherent and optimistic alternative, combined with the general challenges of existence in the late capitalist reality, are reasons why the imprint of the socialist period remains relevant.

In terms of Polish participatory culture development, the experience of socialism not only induced the fundamental fandom initiatives with a subversive undertone, but also inspired some politics-focused initiatives. A spectacular example of the political employment of participatory techniques is Orange Alternative movement.

 (MORE TO COME)

 

Dr. Agata Zarzycka is Assistant Professor of Literature at the Department of English Studies, Wrocław University. She has authored a monograph on role-playing games, Socialized Fiction: Role-Playing Games as a Multidimensional Space of Interaction between Literary Theory and Practice (2009). Her other publications deal with role-playing games, fantasy literature and participatory culture. Her current research project is devoted to Gothic influences on popular culture. She is also interested in remix, game studies, fandom and subcultures, as well as broadly understood speculative fiction.

Dr. Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak is Assistant Professor of Literature and Director of the Center for Young People’s Literature and Culture at the Department of English Studies, Wroclaw University, Poland. She has published a monograph on Salman Rushdie, Rushdie in Wonderland: “Fairytaleness” in Salman Rushdie’s Fiction (Peter Lang 2004). She has also published articles on Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter, fairy tales, YA fantasy, and Polish children’s literature, for example in Folklore and Marvels & Tales. She co-edited Towards or Back to Human Values? Spiritual and Moral Dimensions of Contemporary Fantasy (Cambridge Scholars Press 2006), Considering Fantasy: Ethical, Didactic and Therapeutic Aspects of Fantasy in Literature and Film (ATUT 2007), and Relevant across Cultures: Visions of Connectedness and Earth Citizenship in Modern Fantasy for Young Readers (ATUT 2009). Her research interests include children’s literature and culture, reader response, utopianism, ecocriticism, and intermediality. As Director of the Center for Young People’s Literature and Culture, she organizes and coordinates numerous creative workshops and courses for children and young adults. Since 2012 she has been on the editorial board of Filoteknos: Children’s Literature-Cultural Mediation-Anthropology of Childhood, the first Polish academic journal in the field. In 2003 and 2004 she was awarded the Scholarships of the Foundation for Polish Science for young scholars. Her expertise was recognised internationally in 2004 through the Study Fellowship at the International Youth Library in Munich and in 2013, through Kosciuszko Foundation Fellowship and Fulbright Senior Advanced Research Award to work at the Institute of Effective Education and the Department of Childhood Studies, at Rutgers University.

"Hope is an Active Verb": Brenda Laurel Revisits Computers as Theater (Part Three)

In Utopian Entrepreneur, you offered a powerful call for designers and industry people to bring more of their own social values and political commitments into their work, making an argument for the ways that the design of media and culture can help change the world. Amazingly, you wrote this book after some of the set-backs you suffered with Purple Moon. Throughout this revision of Computer as Theater, we get a strong sense of your own commitments and values, especially as regard gender politics and environmentalism. Are you still optimistic about the potentials of Utopian Entrepreneurship? Can you point to some recent examples of people you admire who are working to achieve these kinds of meaningful change through entrepreneurial means?

These days I’m questioning both words. ‘Utopian’ has a statist tone historically, although the common meaning, I think, is to do things that are good for people and societies in sustainable ways. ‘Entrepreneurship’ leaves out the great work done in universities and non-profits, but it does provide an explicit measure of success.

That said, I must confess that Elon Musk is at the top of my list. People sometimes scoff at his excellent work with Tesla and SpaceX because they think Pay Pal was an egregious way to make money. Such folks need to remember that the big idea of Pay Pal was not to boost consumerism but to help people make monetary transactions of many types via the internet. I count that as good, if not utopian, work. SpaceX is filling a niche that is being vacated by NASA as it loses funding, and the working methods at SpaceX are speedier and yield a better product essentially because they are entrepreneurial.

Jane McGonigal is another great example. Her game “World Without Oil” won her the South by Southwest award for activism in 2008. Her goal is to create games that improve the quality of human life. She describes her latest work, “SuperBetter”, as “a game that has helped more than 250,000 players so far tackle real-life health challenges like depression, anxiety, chronic pain and traumatic brain injury.” Her work has also made her a best-selling author and a presenter in high demand.

In the world of serious games we have great examples of successful games like “Democracy” and “Democracy 2” from Positech. Another well-received example is “Peacemaker” from ImpactGames, originally developed by a team at Carnegie-Mellon. This particular game is one of many examples of work incubated within institutions of higher education. Although ImpactGames was later formed to publish the game commercially, it’s really important to remember its roots in the university. Your own work in the Games-to-Teach project at MIT provided a huge stimulus for the serious games movement, and much of the work is still done in universities. ‘Entrepreneurship’ may or may not be involved. Universities and non-profits can be great host organisms for pro-social work.

The ‘entrepreneurship’ qualification is only important if you measure the value of the game by its success in the commercial marketplace. Entrepreneurial approaches help us to demonstrate value by noting that a particular sort of ‘utopian’ product or service has found a sustainable niche in the ecology of commerce, but success in entrepreneurship is not an accurate measure of the Good.

Across the book, you shared some of your experiences as a Dead Head and as a participant in the Renaissance Fair culture. What models do these kinds of participatory culture offer us for thinking about the designed of shared social spaces and experiences within digital media?

I’m also a Trekker, as you recall.

I take away two important things from Deadhead culture. The first is a climate of trust. At Dead concerts, I never needed to worry about leaving a backpack on the lawn while I went to look at merchandise or buy a beer. I could be sitting next to a raving libertarian or a homeless hippie; it didn’t matter. Deadheads took care of each other as an ad hoc community. It would be lovely to establish a similar ethos in a social network or a multiplayer game.

Boundaries are definitional of communities. People who behaved outside of albeit unstated norms of Dead culture were eased out of the community (or the space) by Deadheads.

The other thing that really worked was the Dead’s attitude toward intellectual property. People taped the shows and special accommodations were made them. And anybody could hack the artwork to distribute their own home-grown merch. The Dead culture understands and accommodates appropriation as a need of fans. They made (and their successor make) their revenue from concerts, not intellectual property.

In the book, I used the Renaissance Faire as an example of how the clever selection and arrangement of materials (to quote Aristotle) could predispose individuals with differing traversals through the space to have dramatically satisfying experiences. This moves the notion of the dramatic from a line to a field. Interaction designers can also think about what sorts of predispositions are set up by the arrangement and potential ordering of experiences and encounters.

The embodied joy of walking around the Faire and speaking Faire-dialect English is not marred by the fear of attack or the need to fight. This demonstrates to me that it’s possible to create excellent multiplayer games without the need for explicit conflict as part of the play pattern.

I was surprisingly moved by your final line, “Hope is an active verb.” So, what are you hoping for in terms of digital culture in the next decade?

I hope we learn to use these capabilities that we continue to extrude to love our planet, ourselves, and one another better and more actively. Like the telescope and microscope, computer technologies hold the promise of allowing each of us to see deeply into nature, wild or urban. I believe that to see in this way can lead to both love and action. And I believe that we can develop digital tools that empower us to take action.

I hope that we can model good governance and civility in the digital world that will ripple through reality to change our institutions and behaviors.

I hope that we find highly engaging alternatives to violence and combat as the central element in the play pattern of most games. I remember when I came to Atari back in 1979, I played “Star Raiders” fanatically. But my first reaction was, “where is the negotiate button?” I hope we develop actionable negotiate buttons. I hope that the cultural ecology of connection and compassion can be strengthened. If we can do that in the digital domain, we can do it in our world.

Brenda Laurel has worked in interactive media since 1976 as a designer, researcher, writer and teacher in the domains of human-computer interaction and games. She currently serves as an adjunct professor in Computer Science Department at U. C. Santa Cruz. She served as professor and founding chair of the Graduate Program in Design at California College of Arts from 2006 to 2012 and the Graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (2001-2006) and was a Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems Labs (2005-2006). Based on her research in gender and technology at Interval Research (1992-1996), she co-founded Purple Moon in 1996 to create interactive media for girls. The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design (1990), Computers as Theatre (1991), Utopian Entrepreneur (2001), Design Research: Methods and Perspectives (2004), and Computers as Theatre: Second Edition (2013).

"Hope Is an Active Verb": Brenda Laurel Revisits Computers as Theatre (Part Two)

Writing about a decade after Purple Moon's demise, I argued that many of the core design principles your team developed were being deployed successfully to broaden the audience for The Sims to include many more female gamers. Now, another five years or so later, I wondered what you saw as the lasting legacy of the girls game movement?

Without question the movement showed that intentional change is possible. Most of the companies were solvent (until their investors saw easier pickin’s in the web world), and some still exist today (e.g., Her Interactive). The interest of female-identified players in backstory creation as constructive play was demonstrated clearly and has carried through as a design heurisitic for broadening audiences.

We still have big gender problems in the gaming world, as you know. Sexual harassment is pandemic in many to most online multiplayer games. Games, like theatre, turn the mirror to our natures, to paraphrase Shakespeare; in an ever more divisive culture, sexual harassment in game worlds should not surprise us. Female-identified players who would like to perform strong, aggressive characters often have only overly sexualized bad-ass female avatars or cross-dressing to choose from.

On the other hand, I hear so often from girls—now women—who played our games. Many have gone into media design. It seems that most of my female design students played the games at some point in their lives. So something changed, if not in terms of the content, then at least in terms of the authorship.

Re-reading your book brought home to me just how much the past decade -- post-Web 2.0 -- has resulted in a shift of emphasis between a focus on interactive design and the relations between humans and computers and a focus on participatory design and the social interactions between users. To what degree are the dramatic principles you discuss in the book relevant to considerations of the design of social media?

As I said in the book, social media tend to be more narrative than dramatic, and that’s fine. By ‘narrative’ I mean the telling of extensified, episodic tales with little causal connectivity or overarching dramatic shape except through the relative constancy of characters (participants) and their networks. That said, social networks do have distinguishing qualities. On Linkedin, there may be little dramas about finding work, for example; on Facebook, there is competition for attention through photography and other means, and on Twitter folks compete is the construction of the brisk critique or the juicy link. Each of these systems has a sort of prevailing ethos with its own flavors of social regulation that is often more emergent than pre-designed into the structure of affordances. In fact, one often sees emergent behavior on Facebook that is picked up and codified into the system after the fact.

You note that one of the biggest challenges is to get designers to develop for people other than themselves. You discuss at some length here how you were able to achieve this mental shift with your professional team at Purple Moon. I wondered, though, if you could share some of your experiences as an educator helping students to make this adjustment in their own work.

When I teach design research (and I have, for the last 12 years), my primary goal is to expose students to methods for understanding people who are different from themselves and to design for those folks by meeting them where they are. The main point is: they are always, always surprised at how much can be learned through human-centered design research. It becomes a cornerstone of the design methodology that these students learn to practice. You will see it in every one of their thesis projects, and I often hear from them after they have launched careers and must argue for the relevance of design research within a firm or with a client. These people change things in the world of working designers. In places where design research is not taught, I find students and faculty sometimes searching for the audience after the project is in beta because their project does not address the audience they thought they were aiming at. This is a habit of mind that can be changed through experience as well as critique and exposure to design research methods, even when the colt is out of the barn.

You had important things to say about transmedia design in Utopian Entrepreneur, coming out of your experiences with Purple Moon, and I often share some of those insights with my students. Among them, you were ahead of the crowd in thinking about how fans might be able to meaningfully participate in the development of a transmedia world and especially about the notion of foundational myths or charters that shape the relationship between participants. In part, I assumed that these ideas came out of your own experience as a fan as well as a designer. How important do you see audience engagement and participation -- the social dimensions of consumption -- to your ideas about transmedia design?

I see audience participation as an extremely powerful affordance. In part, this goes back to the insight that backstory creation is a form of constructive play: players of Purple Moon could write articles in the Whistling Pines newspaper and suggest other dramatic arcs on our website, and we paid attention. Drama typically establishes empathy in conditions where the audience is passive. As you taught me, we create passionate relationships with characters and properties through our ability to appropriate them in order to construct meanings that are personally relevant. Cosplay has this one really right; so does slash. The vibrant domain of interactive narrative (Emily Short’s work, for example) does a great job of affording and encouraging player participation.

It is time that we hear from more diverse voices in interactive narrative and game design. As you know, Queer communities are making great strides in Indie Games as well as in interactive narrative. In such games, players have a way to enter into an ethos and construction that differ greatly from those afforded by the traditional gender stereotypes that dominate mainstream gaming. Samantha Allen’s work is exemplary in this regard.

Brenda Laurel has worked in interactive media since 1976 as a designer, researcher, writer and teacher in the domains of human-computer interaction and games. She currently serves as an adjunct professor in Computer Science Department at U. C. Santa Cruz. She served as professor and founding chair of the Graduate Program in Design at California College of Arts from 2006 to 2012 and the Graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (2001-2006) and was a Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems Labs (2005-2006). Based on her research in gender and technology at Interval Research (1992-1996), she co-founded Purple Moon in 1996 to create interactive media for girls. The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design (1990), Computers as Theatre (1991), Utopian Entrepreneur (2001), Design Research: Methods and Perspectives (2004), and Computers as Theatre: Second Edition (2013).

"Hope Is An Active Verb": Brenda Laurel Revisits Computers as Theatre (Part One)

Brenda Laurel's Computers as Theatre was one of the few truly transformative books to emerge in the heady early days of the "digital revolution," demanding that we think of the computer as posing a series of creative problems that might best be address through the lens of the dramatic arts rather than purely technical problems that remain in the domain of the computer scientists. In a new edition released this month, she revisits that classic text in light of her rich and diverse experiences as a designer, educator, and entrepreneur. The resulting work looks backwards, at how far we have come towards transforming the computer into a new expressive medium and looks forwards to the technical and cultural problems we still need to resolve if we are going to produce a diverse and sustainable digital culture in the years ahead. I have been lucky enough to have had Laurel as a friend throughout my professional career and especially to be able to watch her journey with Interval Computing and Purple Moon games, where she broke new ground in seeking to broaden who played computer games, what kinds of experiences games offered, and what this new expressive media could accomplish. Justine Cassells and I documented some of her core insights in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games and we were with her shortly after Matel acquired and pulled the plug on the whole Secret Paths franchise. But, the story is perhaps best told through Brenda's own book, Utopian Entrepreneur, which I still turn towards when I seek inspiration about the value of doing interventions into the creative industries as a vehicle for promoting one's own personal and professional agendas. Laurel's insights predicted much that has happened in the games industry since, including the success of The Sims, which in many ways followed her template, the growth of transmedia entertainment which she helped to model, and the expansion of the female market around casual games.

Brenda Laurel has been and remains an important voice -- in many ways, the conscience of the digital industries -- and so it is with enormous pride that I share with you this exchange conducted online over the summer. Here, she reflects back on where we have been in digital theory and expression and speculates on some directions forward.

Reading back through this, I was struck by curious parallels between your work in Computers as Theatre and what Sherry Turkle was writing about in The Second Self around that same period. Both of you were trying to understand something of the mental models people brought with them to computers, even as you were asking questions that operated on different levels. What relationship do you see between these two key early works of digital theory?

Neither of us could have foreseen the firestorm of FPSs, social networks, and tiny interactions on tiny screens. In a way, I think that Sherry spoke a note of caution which I am trying to make actionable by suggesting that it’s not that these things exist, but to what use they are put (and how designers think about them) that can make them good for us or not (or somewhere in between). The relationship between the books may have been that we were each looking at the coming wave of technology as something fundamentally about humans, our social and developmental and cultural contexts.

Humans extrude technology. It is part of us. We are responsible for it. Each generation of the last 10 has had a new technology to deal with, to set norms about, to learn about appropriate usage. Parents and schools can help with media literacy—this would fit well into a Civics class, if we still had those.

As the topology of social networks complexifies, so do the opportunities and risks. I remember sitting with our girls in the age of television advertising and asking them, what are they trying to sell you? How are they trying to do it? Now they ask others the same questions as casual media critiques.

As I sat down to re-read this book, I was struck by the fact that I had no problem accepting the premise that what Aristotle had to say about drama might be valuable in thinking about what we do with computers (a theme upon which I gather you had some push back at the time the book was first published) but I had more difficulty wondering whether something written so early in the history of digital media would have anything to say to contemporary designers. It did, but the fact that this question surfaced for me leads me to ponder, what does this say about the nature of media change over the two decades since you first published this book?

It’s gratifying to me that many folks have worked on ideas in that first book and have made some progress, even recently. The largest excursions in the new edition are probably those about using science more robustly to model interaction. I’ve also emphasized the combined causal factors in multiplayer games and social media. Pointing back to your first question, I think that governance and civility are still essentially unsolved problems in this new world. I included Pavel Curtis and Lambda MOO in the new edition because there was such a valiant effort to figure out governance. I suspect that the lack of civility in multiplayer spaces today (especially in terms of sexual harassment) has something to do with the general lack of civility in our national character at this moment in time. But it also has to do with the designer’s role in framing and normalizing civil relations among multiple participants. There are great opportunities in this regard that might well channel back to our national discourse.

As I fan, I appreciated your rant about J. J. Abrams, Lost, and of course, Star Trek. What do you see as the limits of his “magic box” model for thinking about how to generate interests around stories? What alternatives do you think a more drama-centered approach offers?

As far as JJ says, his Magic Box has never been opened. That’s a problem for starters. If he wants to keep a virgin souvenir, great. But thoughtful plotting does not come out of thin air (or a closed box). Pleasing dramatic structures do not arise ad hoc. To the extent that character is a material cause of plot, the damage JJ has done to Spock and Uhura is unforgivable. It’s like throwing out some of the enduring stock characters in a Commedia piece. Spock stood for pure (if tortured) intellect; overtly sexualizing him was not a good thing for the Star Trek mythos. Transforming Uhura from a kick-butt, competent female officer into a romance queen (whose phasers don’t work as well as a man’s) fundamentally changed the ethos of the character as well as the mythos. That’s like saying that Oedipus held his temper at the crossroads and lived happily ever after with Mom.

A more drama-centric approach offers the pleasures of a well-structured plot, including catharsis. For enduring characters and ‘properties’ (e.g., The Odyssey), some core of dramatic tension already exists in the potential of the myth, and it can be spun out into many stories without exhausting its potential to deepen our relationships with the characters, their actions, and their universe.

Brenda Laurel has worked in interactive media since 1976 as a designer, researcher, writer and teacher in the domains of human-computer interaction and games. She currently serves as an adjunct professor in Computer Science Department at U. C. Santa Cruz. She served as professor and founding chair of the Graduate Program in Design at California College of Arts from 2006 to 2012 and the Graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (2001-2006) and was a Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems Labs (2005-2006). Based on her research in gender and technology at Interval Research (1992-1996), she co-founded Purple Moon in 1996 to create interactive media for girls. The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design (1990), Computers as Theatre (1991), Utopian Entrepreneur (2001), Design Research: Methods and Perspectives (2004), and Computers as Theatre: Second Edition (2013).

Grand Theft: Annenberg

This is another in a series of blog posts created by students in my Public Intellectuals seminar at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

 

Grand Theft: Annenberg by Dan O'Reilly-Rowe

Before moving to Los Angeles to begin my PhD work at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, I had probably spent less than a combined two weeks in Los Angeles in my life. But of course I know this place.

Growing up in Townsville, a small city in Australia, Los Angeles was a big part of my media-world. As a kid I'd beg my mum to buy me Thrasher  magazine, and idolise these men who balanced athleticism, artistry, and anti-authoritarian swagger. Christian Hosoi was my favourite skater. I know this place. LA is Blade Runner, NWA, swimming pools and movie stars.

As I drove out of the desert and into this city, my sensible grownup station wagon full of my most important stuff, my travelling companions a road-weary 4 year old and a black cat, I was struck by another cultural reference. I have not only seen this city's representation on screen and in print, I have navigated it in a videogame. I may not have spent much time driving the streets of Los Angeles, but the streets of Los Santos, a fictional setting in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are my old stomping grounds. Coincidentally, Grand Theft Auto V, set in an expanded rendering of Los Santos, is being released within months of embarking on my PhD studies on critical approaches to videogames and their potential role in social justice struggles.

I explore my new home. I see the city through the frame of my windscreen. My eyes glance down to the frame of my phone's display for an informatically augmented bird's eye view. I am reminded of Michel de Certeau's distinction between the concepts of place (Fr: lieu) and space (Fr: espace), map and tour. The map indicates the arrangement of locations in relation to each other, and corresponds to de Certeau's place. The tour, such as I experience as I gaze out my windscreen and pass through the city's terrain, constructs a practiced space. In my wanderings through Los Angeles, I find that I am often taking my place-oriented knowledge of the city, as represented through various maps on my phone, and putting them into practice as I move through the terrain. Los Santos not only simulates the physical geography of Los Angeles, it represents a cartoonish psychosocial space built around crude stereotypes of race, gender, and class.

In the meatspace of Los Angeles it is fairly easy to separate out the spaces I pass through and the places I see on my phone's maps. The representations of Los Santos' geography I see on the screen are less distinct. GTA's visual interface presents both a tour (the third-person over-the-shoulder perspective) and the map (the HUD mini-map) simultaneously. Both are representations of algorithms that are invisible to the player, but constitute the computer's only sense of the world of Los Santos. The cognitive effect of moving back and forth across these various representations and experiences of the city is dizzying. Exiting the tunnel that empties the I-10 freeway onto Santa Monica Beach, winding through the Hollywood Hills, passing a garage on a hill in Downtown LA, 90s West Coast hip-hop coming through the radio, I am often hit with a visceral sense of déjà vu. A critical inner voice nags at me: if my perception of the physical locations in the city is affected by my experience of a distorted and grossly simplified representation in the game, how does this work in terms of social relations?

My first few weeks in Los Angeles were structured by a series of quests to secure the basic elements of life in a new city. As with the early missions in a GTA game, these covered some essential tasks that would set in place a location and trajectory for the rest of my LA story. I needed somewhere more stable for my family to live than the series of short sublets that we'd arranged as a temporary landing pad. I also needed to find a pre- school for my daughter, preferably somewhere with an easy transition into elementary school. My basic strategy to do both of these things involved moving through the city while obsessively engaging with information about the city overlaid on interactive maps. A typical day would go like this: begin with searching through Yelp <www.yelp.com> for interesting playgrounds that my daughter and I could set up as a base for the day; once there, do a local area search for apartments on Trulia, Zillow, and other real estate apps; cross-reference rental listings against GreatSchools.org <www.greatschools.com>, a site that rates schools with an enigmatic algorithm based on a series of datapoints including test scores, ethno-racial diversity, and parent feedback. Often this process would drive me to frustration – data-driven activities and interfaces rubbing up against humanistic social justice values.

Ultimately we did find a place to live, a supercute bungalow in Highland Park, a neighborhood synonymous with many Angeleno's narratives of gang violence and recent gentrification. On moving day I pulled a box truck and trailer down the narrow dead end street and before long had a crew of neighbors I'd never met voluntarily lugging heavy furniture and boxes into the house. “You'll like it here. It's a great block. We all watch out for each other.” Lifestyle status levelled up from itinerant subletter to lease holder and good neighbor. w00t.

Now I sit in my car while the kiddo naps in the back seat, using my phone to learn more about my new home. Maps abound. I glance out the window and see one of the many billboards for GTA V that have been placed around LA to push the game's launch. The LA Times Crime Map indicates that Grand Theft Auto really is a fairly commonly reported crime around here. The LAPD Gang Injunction Map shows that the entire neighborhood is under an order that grants special powers to police when dealing with suspected gang members. As grassroots community organizations opposed to gang injunctions such as Youth Justice Coalition  and Homies Unidos  argue, the connections between racial profiling and the gentrification of neighbourhoods that have historically been populated by low income people of colour (often migrants), are not difficult to see in this situation. I find it hard to imagine the police detaining my pale skinned self to inspect my tattoos, the logos on my baseball cap, or the fit of my clothes as a basis  for attention that might lead to arrest. The gang injunction map breaks the city into color coded blocks, but at the micro level, the color coding of my skin pigmentation exempts me from its reach.

Sure, the GTA map is huge. But as in Borges' story fragment, the proximity of the map's scale to the size of the territory does not lead to a greater realism. The map ceases to serve as a representation of the world, and instead shapes the way we organize our understanding of the world. The sense of freedom to move through the city at will is at the core of GTA's sandbox gameplay, but it is an illusory freedom, tightly contained within the rule system that generates the world of Los Santos. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, similar strategies of power are at play as the people's physical and psychosocial spaces are shaped and constrained by algorithmic processes.

Dan O'Reilly-Rowe's research focuses on the intersections of new media, critical pedagogy, and social movements. His professional background includes work as a youth media educator, documentary filmmaker, and video artist. He has served as a lecturer at the University of New South Wales (Australia) and the Ringling College of Arts and Design (Florida), teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Subjects taught covered a range of media and communications topics, including online and mobile media, videogame studies, comics and graphic narratives, journalism, and public relations. Dan holds a Master's of Digital Communications and Culture from the University of Sydney (Australia), and Bachelor of Arts in the Humanities from Griffith University (Brisbane, Australia).

Chivalry is Dead: SUBA51's Killer Is Dead, Gigolos, and The Status of (Virtual) Women

This is another in a series of blog posts written by students from my Public Intellectuals seminar in USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Chivalry is Dead: SUBA51's Killer Is Dead, Gigolos, and The Status of (Virtual) Women

by James B. Milner

 

I usually don’t purchase video games without doing my homework. This could take a number of forms. I tend to stick to companies which have produced the games I have loved the most in the past. I closely read reviews from sites like IGN and GameSpot, even though I often take the reviews with a grain of salt. In the buildup to the release of a new title, I will watch any number of video clips to get a sense of whether I will enjoy playing the game, and whether or not it would be worth $60 to get it when it comes out. All of this, and also I keep in touch with the associates at my favorite game store, who let me know what people with tastes similar to mine are reserving.

Ignoring most of my usual tricks, I bought Killer is Dead brand new knowing very little about it. I was informed that it was an indirect sequel to Killer 7 (which I had not played, but had heard good things about) and was by the same Japanese developer (SUBA51) who was behind the No More Heroes franchise. I had played No More Heroes and enjoyed it: I thought it a bit simplistic, and a touch repetitive, but stylish and fun and even a little challenging at times, and overall weird and unique, these last being right up my alley game-wise. And it was a limited edition, which again appealed to me as a collector (I haven’t recreated the shrine since I moved to California, but in Michigan I had all of my boxed sets, art books, stuffies, and other assorted paraphernalia on display on a series of bookcases). So I plunked down my $60 and took it home with me.

And then I read the GameSpot and IGN reviews. Mind you, this post is not a review, nor is it even about the game’s reviews, strictly speaking. It concerns, in large part, a debate about sexism in the game that takes place in the comments on the reviews. It is, however, important for the sake of the discussion to spend a little time on the reviews themselves. And the reviews were—mixed. And consistent. The major knock on the bulk of the action in the game, the fighting, boiled down to this: all you have to do to succeed is alternate between A) simply mashing on the buttons and then B) pressing the dodge button when an enemy attacks. And then I watched gameplay footage, to see if, reviews notwithstanding, I might still enjoy the game, and this criticism seemed to be borne out. Take a look and you’ll see what I mean:

And the only other piece to the puzzle for this game, the only other thing to do in it that doesn’t involve this circuit, are the unfortunate Gigolo Missions.

I say unfortunate—I of course haven’t played the game, which is why this isn’t at all a review, and although from here on out I will be referring to the GameSpot and IGN reviews of the game, it’s really not about those reviews either. But what I found there was enough to make me question whether I could in good conscience play the game and get any enjoyment out of it. Both Marty Sliva of IGN and Mark Walton at Gamespot reported an uneasy relationship (to say the least) with the Gigolo Missions. But what are the Gigolo Missions?

Basically, the goal is to have sex with a virtual woman. How is this accomplished? First, you sit down at a bar next to a woman and order a drink. Then, you ogle her, looking at the appropriate places on her body (you’ll know what you should be looking at, because the area under your gaze will light up if, say, you should be staring at her chest, legs, or crotch). Stare at her enough (without saying anything, mind you), and she’ll ask you for a gift. Gifts are found or bought elsewhere in the game, and, if you bought the limited edition of the game or downloaded some extra content, you got special Gigolo Glasses which will give you a hint as to what she wants (and, of course, give you X-ray vision). Give her the right gift, and you’ll get to sleep with her. And then you’ll be rewarded with a special item. Mission accomplished.

Lest you think I’m making this up, here’s a clip:

The Gigolo Missions are optional, but not strictly so: sometimes the reward item can only be obtained through a Gigolo Mission, and playing the game without these items makes the game more difficult or less interesting in terms of the action. So that you can skip them and still complete the game, but you may make it much harder on yourself if you do. And I had to ask myself whether I could suffer through this aspect of the game to keep it interesting in the action sequences, or if I could skip them as I would have liked to have been able to do without suffering through even more repetitive fights. My answer was a resounding “no” on both counts, so I returned the game unopened and unplayed. The discomfort expressed by the reviewers over the Gigolo Missions, combined with my own disdain for game content which turns virtual women into hollow sexual shells, made it impossible for me to consider keeping it.

Where this really gets interesting is not in the two (male) reviewers’ accounts of their discomfiture as playing the Gigolo Missions, who describe these missions with phrases like “digital creeper” and “filth” and expressed how these missions “felt weird” to play. What is really interesting for me is the discussion that springs up in the comments, and how some participants in this discussion took an antifeminist stance based on a few lines of criticism of the Gigolo Missions in the reviews.

The reviews pointed out misgivings about the misogyny and objectification of women in the Gigolo missions, but in larger part they pointed out technical flaws that contributed to the low scores of the game. This didn’t stop a subset of commenters from focusing on the former criticisms. Some of these comments were what is (unfortunately) pretty standard anti-feminist fare in gamer circles:

GasFeelGood: “People are tired of seeing Internet Feminists forcing opinions as facts and pushing the politicizing of what is imaginary entertainment. This has turned into a cult and this crap operates like organized religion now.

“We want to play games and discuss games, not pseudo-intellectual philosophizing political and social crap that has no significance whatsoever.

“There is no place for subjective political opinion in professional reviews.” To which KillaShinobi replied “They are like Nazis except not intelligent enough to get everyone in on their cause but surely misguided.” (GameSpot)

Atalalama: “It's gotten to the point anymore that ANY time a "professional game reviewer" (ie: Panders to what's Socially Fashionable of The Hour, Blathers Gender-Fascism, and/or Comes with a Creamy Undercoating of Purityranical Tropes) slams a game for "degrading women" in some imaginary way, I go out and buy it.” (GameSpot)

IceVagabond: “Here we go again with the neo-feminist nonsense... can we go back to having reviews that critique the actual game more than promote a spiteful (and moreover completely irrelevant) ideology?” (GameSpot)

In these comments, one gets an equation of feminism with Nazism and fascism, as if feminism were concerned with a dogmatic imposition of a coherent and simplified ideology, rather than the breaking down of an entrenched dominant ideology of male privilege. Feminism is multiple, with a variety of aims and a variety of means to achieve these aims, and while there is general agreement that the degradation of women is something to be fought against (rather than a selling point for entertainment media) and that women should be treated equitably, just what this means and how this plays out is so multifaceted that one should hesitate to call it an ideology. But if even if it is granted that it is an ideology, it is not a “completely irrelevant” one that has “no significance whatsoever”: if pointing out that the act of scoping out a virtual woman’s body for sexual favors makes one a “digital creeper” leads to charges of Nazism then clearly the movement has a lot of work to do. And if a culture of virtual objectification doesn’t seem relevant enough, one can get a sense of the broad context of gamer misogyny and anti-feminism by looking at sites like Not in the Kitchen Anymore, Fat, Ugly or Slutty, Kotaku, or The Mary Sue to find an alarming number of disturbing stories of harassment and threats, including threats of rape and other sexual violence, made by male gamers against female gamers, both generally speaking (almost, apparently, as sport) and particularly when speaking up about these very threats or sexism in gaming generally.

Then there are those who downplay the significance of this type of depiction of women:

Christoffer112: “blablabla femenism bla bla bla, who cares.. it''s a game.” (GameSpot)

rnswlf: “ I'm sorry that you are seemingly too intimidated by the female form to appreciate a little light hearted fun.” (GameSpot)

1983gamer: “Also am I the only one who is tired of all the politics and Hippocratic bull crap that is going on in the gaming community? Really reviewer are complaining about bi-gist sexism in games? Really have we forgotten that video games are a art form? Gamers and reviewer alike. First dragon crown now this?? Its really sicking. The Hippocrates that condemn these games are the worse. No one complains when james bond has sex with a random woman..or halie berry having sex. So if you are one of these people male or female, stop using double standards and review or play the game based on how good the game is. Oh and maybe grow up and not watch sexiest movies or play sexist video games.” [33 votes up, 3 votes down] (IGN)

Kratier: “next time you see an attractive male portrayed in a video game you should call it sleazy as well. unless you know, you're a hypocrite “ (GameSpot)

AugustAPC: “I mean it's not like I'm going to pretend these are real women or anything. Seriously, why should anyone give a f*ck if women are portrayed as hypersexual whores in a game that doesn't take itself seriously? It's in all kinds of media. Shut your brain off and enjoy it or don't play it. There are plenty of male tropes that are just as negative in video games. Why can a man-slut blindly f*ck any chick he wants in gaming, but girls can't do the same? Double standards.” [18 votes up, 0 down] To which Ultimatenut replied: “Because in this particular game, the sex missions are just plain weird. You stare a girl in the eyes and when she's not looking, you stare at her tits and legs. Then you use your X-ray glasses to look under her clothes. And, apparently, as a result of doing this, she goes home with you.” [3 votes up, 0 down] (IGN)

The charge of “double standards” when there is outcry over the objectification of women in games but not the same outcry when men are objectified is a classic argument (both Kratier and AugustAPC go to this well), but of course ignores the power differential between men and women. Men never lose their fundamentally dominant position in society even when they are objectified, while women are consistently subordinate, objectification being a constant aggravation of this. During the making of Animal House, Karen Allen expressed misgivings about showing her bare behind on screen, so John Landis added a similarly gratuitous shot of Donald Sutherland’s rear end, as if this balanced it out. Allen was apparently put at ease, but maybe she shouldn’t have been: as a young, particularly female actor, her half-nude shot risked her being pigeonholed into “beautiful ingénue who does nude scenes”, while Sutherland’s shot risked nothing. His shot was safe both because he was a well-established actor at the time but also because, as a man, he had little fear of not being taken seriously when he needed to be. In other words, for Sutherland, it was “a little light hearted fun”, but for Allen it was a risky career move. The double standard is not in the criticism of objectification, but in society as a whole. For AugustAPC, the fact that the women are virtual “hypersexual whores” removes them from the sphere of reality, where such things would matter, to the sphere of representation, where they (supposedly) don’t, and that the fact that Karen Allen is a real woman negates my analogy since we are discussing the virtual. But the double standard remains even in a virtual space. A “man-slut” is hardly ever referred to pejoratively, but is more often called a “stud” or, tellingly, “the man,” while negatives like “whore” or “slut” are the weapons of choice for referring to women who “get around.” This means that virtual “hypersexual whores” are a problem in a way that “man-sluts” are not because this trope perpetuates in a virtual space the very real inequality that separates the positive connotations of a sexually active man from the negative connotations of a sexually active woman. Representations draw their content from reality, and as such they have the power to perpetuate this type of inequality or to seek to transform it. Killer is Dead sticks closely to the former. The idea that sexism is innocuous when found in something that is “just a game” ignores the fact that such representations reinforce the reality of sexism pervasive in the broader culture, and in doing so help make it seem natural and inevitable.

Two comments in particular are worthy of note, one from each site, since I think they get at the heart of the problem. The first commenter, pseudospike, seems to be attempting to dismiss the charge that the Gigolo missions would be off-putting or offensive to female gamers by posting the following video of professional gamer Jessica Negri playing the missions:

His comment is: “What's this then, double reverse backwards misogyny!?” (GameSpot) He seems to be trying to play up Negri’s apparent enjoyment of the mission she plays in the video and suggesting that women (as a varied set of individuals) shouldn’t be offended by them because this one woman (Negri) was not, and in fact seemed to have fun while playing. Of course, one can’t decide finally on the basis of the video whether Negri really enjoyed playing the Gigolo Missions or if she was forcing it because she was getting paid to do so. Offering Negri as a representative for women enjoying playing the Gigolo Missions is therefore problematic at best. The idea that one woman’s view negates a flood on the other side is short-sighted and fallacious, and ultimately damaging to the discussion, since it dismisses out of hand the very real concerns of those women (and men) opposed to this type of depiction of women and sexuality. And it is similarly fallacious to point to a woman who is being paid to enjoy what she is doing. Thus, without the irony, this video, or at least its use in the comment thread, may indeed be “double reverse backwards misogyny.”

And then there is DrakeNathan: “It is way too fashionable for game reviewers in the California area to be offended by sexual depictions of women. Honestly, it's so nauseating listening to these guys try to get a piece by showing how sensitive they are. I know, I shouldn't assume motives, and I do apologize for doing it, but it's certainly trendy in game reviewer circles for dudes to be offended by things most girls aren't offended by. […] There's a reason I don't watch certain shows or play certain games, and that's because they aren't made for me. I shouldn't review them.” [19 votes up, 5 down] (IGN, my emphasis)

The point that DrakeNathan misses is that he is basically telling female gamers not to play games at all, because, as numerous gamers and theorists have pointed out, games, especially those for consoles, are almost exclusively made for men. Female gamers must choose from among the games that exist, and since the video game industry has been extremely reluctant to produce gender-neutral or female-oriented games, this means dealing with misogyny, hypersexualization, and objectification to do something they love to do. When a game goes beyond the pale, and introduces gratuitous fantasy sequences such as the Gigolo Missions where women literally ask to be compartmentalized into their most sexually charged body parts, where they want to be gazed at without being spoken to, and where an expensive gift is all that is required for sex, of the one-night stand variety no less, one has to wonder if video game companies are making any progress at all.

 

The ultimate irony is that while a lot of the comments on the reviews defended SUDA51’s artistic vision in the released version of Killer is Dead, he himself did not:

 

Kiaininja: “Suda never intended to make KID into a Weaboo eroticism. KID originally was supposed to have a clean deep story of Mondo being a family man surviving to protect them but Suda's boss ordered him to sexualize and add gigolo to the game and as a result fucked up the story and the game's original vision.” (GameSpot)

Here is the interview the user cites:

So why did I feel the need to reject Killer is Dead? Couldn’t I just get past the parts I found offensive and play it for the lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek game that it is? Isn’t it “just a game”? Or can it be read as a sign of a tendency of the video game industry to pander to a subset of the audience that likes its virtual women shallow and easy? Can one see it as an indication that the representation of women in video games remains highly problematic? And, in that light, can’t one understand that the defensiveness of those comments I have singled out here against any call for change to this trend of problematic representations is itself a big part of the problem?  In the end, even the game’s developer thought that the Gigolo Missions were unnecessary and detracted from the game, but commercial interests won out over artistic vision. As it turned out, maybe SUDA51’s company was right—the controversy over the missions probably sold more copies of the game out of sheer curiosity (or, as in some of the comments, spite) than it lost sales due to disgust or outrage. Sex sells, and so, apparently, does sexism. But to allow sexism to remain an inevitable part of the industry is not acceptable, for at least two reasons. First, for some of the reasons I outlined above, representations in media have real consequences, and reactionary representations that reinforce an unacceptable status quo have a naturalizing effect which stifles progress. And second, because I suspect that those who desire sexism in their games are far outnumbered by those who tolerate it or suffer it, so that in the end it is unnecessary to sell games. The broader issue remains—sexual and gender equality is a far off ideal, and in many ways it seems farther than usual when looking at the games industry and gamer culture. But Killer is Dead is just one game, and the comments I selected are representative of one side of the argument over sexism in games, a vocal and fairly coherent side but still not the only game in town. It would seem to me that the way forward would be for all sides of the argument, everyone with a stake in the discussion, to voice their concerns in open forums where they can be heard. The real problem with this rather rosy solution is that, as one gets a taste of in a few of the comments I have quoted, there is a real sense in which civil discussion is not everyone’s goal—and this not only on the side of the argument I’m trying to counter here (dismissive terms like “troglodyte,” “ogre,” “moron,” and “idiot” crop up in responses on the other side). But civility is an attainable ideal, at least on a personal level, and I have tried to treat the commenters I’ve quoted here with respect even as I disagreed with them. Hopefully I have succeeded, at least in a small way, in pushing forward a civil discussion.

James Milner is a Ph.D. student at USC Annenberg whose research lies at the intersection of video games, philosophy, and education. He is also interested in issues of gender and race within video games themselves and in the broader gamer culture. He is an avid gamer, but never seems to be able to find the time anymore to play anything except FarmVille 2.

Guerrilla Marketing: An Interview with Michael Serazio (Part Two)

You make an interesting argument here that today’s guerrilla advertising represents the reverse of the culture jamming practices of the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. if culture jamming or adbusting involved the highjacking of Madison Avenue practices for an alternative politics, then today’s branding often involves the highjacking of an oppositional stance/style for branding purposes. Explain.  

There have been various examples that have popped up here and there that hint at this hijacking: Adbusters magazine’s apparent popularity with ad professionals; PBR’s marketing manager looking to No Logo for branding ideas; heck, AdAge even named Kalle Lasn one of the “ten most influential players in marketing” in 2011.  Similarly, you see this subversive, counterculture ethos in the work of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the premier ad shop of the last decade.  But I think the intersection goes deeper than these surface ironies and parallels.  There’s something about the aesthetics and philosophy of culture jamming that contemporary advertising finds enticing (especially when trying to speak to youth audiences): It resonates a disaffection with consumer culture; a streetwise sensibility; and so on.  For culture jammers, such stunts and fonts like flash mobs and graffiti art are political tools; for advertisers, they’re just great ways to break through the clutter and grab attention.  More abstractly, culture jammers see branding as an elaborate enterprise in false consciousness that needs to be unmasked toward a more authentic lived experience; guerrilla marketers, on the other, simply see culture jamming techniques as a way of reviving consumers from the “false conscious” of brand competitors.  Think different, in that sense, works equally well as an Apple slogan and a culture-jamming epigram.

 

You cite one advertising executive as saying, “friends are better at target marketing than any database,” a comment that conveys the ways that branding gets interwoven with our interpersonal relationships within current social media practices. What do you see as some of the long-term consequences of this focus on consumer-to-consumer marketing?

 

In a sense, the whole book – and not merely the friend-marketing schemes – is an exploration of how commercial culture can recapture trust amidst rampant consumer cynicism.  That’s what drives guerrilla marketing into the spaces we’re seeing it: pop culture, street culture, social media, and word-of-mouth.  These contexts offer “authenticity,” which advertisers are ever desperate to achieve given their fundamental governmental task is actually the polar opposite: contrivance.  (Sarah Banet-Weiser’s new book offers a sophisticated analysis of this fraught term across wide-ranging contexts in this regard.)  As far as long-term consequences go, I think it’s important to keep in mind the complicity of consumers in this whole process: In other words, being a buzz agent is still just a voluntary thing.  It’s not like these participants are being duped or exploited into participating.  It’s worth accounting for that and asking why shilling friends is acceptable in the first place.  Is it because of some kind of “social capitalism” wherein we already think of ourselves in branding terms and use hip new goods to show we’re in the marketplace vanguard?  The book is, of course, only a study of marketers not consumers, so it’s pure conjecture, but I think understanding that complicity is key to any long-term forecast of these patterns’ effects on our relationships and culture.

 

Both of our new books pose critiques of the concept of “the viral” as they apply to advertising and branding, but we come at the question from opposite directions. What do you see as the core problems with the “viral” model?

 

From my perspective, there’s an implicit (and not necessarily automatically warranted) populism that accompanies the viral model and label.  Viral success seems to “rise up” from the people; it has a kind of grassroots, democratic, or underground ethos about it.  In some cases, this is deserving, as we see when some random, cheap YouTube video blows up and manages to land on as many screens and in front of as many eyeballs as a Hollywood blockbuster which has all the promotional and distribution machinery behind it.  And because viral is supposedly underdog and populist, it’s “authentic,” so advertisers and brands naturally gravitate toward it, which, for me, makes it an intriguing object of study.  Abstractly speaking, that, too, is at the heart of the book’s inquiry and critique: The masquerades and machinations of powerful cultural producers (like advertisers) working through surrogate channels (like viral) that exude that authentic affect in different guises (here, populist).  Again, this is not to invalidate the genuine pluckiness of a “real” viral hit; it’s simply to keep watch on efforts to digitally “astroturf” that success when they show up.

 

While this blog has often treated what I call “transmedia storytelling” or what Jonathan Gray discusses as “paratexts” sympathetically as an extension of the narrative experience, you also rightly argue that it is an extension of the branding process. To what degree do you see, say, alternate reality games as an extension of the new model of consumption you are discussing in this book? Does their commercial motives negate the entertainment value such activities provide?

 

Oh, certainly not – and I should clarify here that I’m by no means taking the position that commercial motives necessarily negate the pleasure or creativity of participatory audiences.  Alternate reality games (or alternate reality marketing, as I call it) are, in a sense, the fullest extension of many of these practices, themes, and media platforms scattered throughout the book.  They feature outdoor mischief (e.g., flash mob-type activities) and culture jamming-worthy hoaxes, seek to inspire buzz and social media productivity from (brand) communities, and, above all, seem to be premised upon “discovery” rather than “interruption” in the unfolding narrative.  And the sympathetic treatments of their related elements (transmedia storytelling, paratexts) are assuredly defensible.  But they are, also, advertising – and, for my purposes here, they’re advertising that tries not to seem like advertising.  And, again, I believe in that self-effacement, much is revealed about today’s cultural conditions.

 

You end the book with the observation that “more media literacy about these guerrilla efforts can’t hurt.” Can you say more about what forms of media literacy would be desirable? What models of media change should govern such efforts? What would consumers/citizens need to know in order to change their fates given the claims about structure and agency you make throughout the book?

 

I suppose I end the book on a lament as much as a diatribe.  I’m not an abject brand-hater and I hope the book doesn’t come off that way.  That said, I certainly do empathize with the myriad critiques of advertising mounted over the years (i.e., its divisive designs on arousing envy, its ability to blind us to the reality of sweatshop labor, its unrealistic representation of women’s bodies, etc.).  The media literacy I aim for is awareness that these commercial forms are (often invisibly) invading spaces that we have not traditionally been accustomed to seeing advertising.  In general, brands don’t address us on conscious, rational terms and, thus, if we’re wooed by them, our subsequent consumer behavior is not necessarily informed as such.  In that sense, I guess, it’s as much a Puritan critique of commercialism as it is, say, Marxist.  Media literacy like this would encourage consumers to think carefully and deeply about that which advertisers seek to self-efface and to (try to) be conscious and rational in the face of guerrilla endeavors that attempt to obfuscate and bypass those tendencies.  The cool sell is an enticing seduction.  But we can – and do – have the agency to be thoughtful about it.

Thanks very much for the opportunity to discuss the book!

Michael Serazio is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication whose research, writing, and teaching interests include popular culture, advertising, politics, and new media.  His first book, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing (NYU Press, 2013), investigates the integration of brands into pop culture content, social patterns, and digital platforms amidst a major transformation of the advertising and media industries.  He has work appearing or forthcoming in Critical Studies in Media CommunicationCommunication Culture & CritiqueTelevision & New Media, and The Journal of Popular Culture, among other scholarly journals.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and also holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of San Francisco and a M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University.  A former staff writer for the Houston Press, his reporting was recognized as a finalist for the Livingston Awards and has written essays on media and culture for The AtlanticThe Wall Street JournalThe Nation, and Bloomberg View.  His webpage can be found at: http://sites.google.com/site/linkedatserazio

A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville's Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I've been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville's novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don't have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project's national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how "learning through remixing" can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative "What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?"

 

Henry Jenkins is Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville's City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

When Did You First Play the Binding of Isaac?

What does it mean to play a game? At first glance, the question is simple, straightforward, and rather mundane. But, in this piece of experimental game criticism, USC iMAP student Adam Liszkiewicz pushes us to think deeper about the range of different encounters and experiences we have with games in contemporary culture. Liszkiewicz was a student in my "Medium Specificity" seminar last fall, and he wrote this essay as part of working through his responses to Ludwig Wittgenstein's writings about defining games in Philosophical Investigations. I found this response provocative and wanted to share it with my regular readers. It's taken me a few months to pry it from Adam's fingers, but here it is. I'd love to know what you think.

For me, the essay marks the logical next step in what has been called "the new games criticism," a mode of analysis which owes much to the "new journalism" movement of the 1960s, especially in its reliance on first person perspectives and evocative rather than descriptive prose. From the start, game critics have struggled with their object of study. Some wrote about games as texts, yet it was clear that each player had somewhat different experiences with the game depending on the choices they made. We got into hot water when we tried to describe games in terms of narrative or game play mechanics. We've tried to talk about the affordances of platforms. For the New Games critics, the key concept is experience. Each player has a different experience with the game, and so we might best start by offering as detailed and as informed an account of what happens when we play a game. This route led for example towards Drew Davidson's outstanding series of Well Played anthologies, which has smart players describe their process of working through key games. But, the key idea in this essay is that the same player might have multiple experiences of the same game and that the process of discovery and experimentation is ongoing, even when we think the game is played out.

 

When Did You First Play The Binding of Isaac? by Adam Liszkiewicz

* A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. [Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philisophical Investigations,  115]

*

I first played the game The Binding of Isaac sometime during the winter months of 2011. This is to say that I watched one of its trailers, a short cinematic animation which explained the videogame’s backstory. Which is to say I watched the introductory cinematic cut-scene of The Binding of Isaac and mistook it as an advertisement. I have no memory of this viewing; it is merely implied by other memories, and other images. Perhaps these images are inaccurate?

* No, that is not what it means. And I should not accept any picture as exact, in this sense. [PI 70]

* I first played the game The Binding of Isaac in late January or early February 2012. My two best friends were visiting from Buffalo, NY, and both had become enamored with the game. I remember glancing at their computer screens from time to time, while they sat playing on my couch, each on their own laptop. The game looked interesting, by which I mean I largely ignored it and focused on schoolwork. (My spring semester had already started.) Then my friends showed me the opening cut-scene again. I remember feeling stunned: someone had remixed Chapter 22 of Genesis as a videogame about child abuse, evangelical Christianity, and schizophrenia. The game looked fantastic. I knew I had seen the opening cut scene before, but had no memory of its content. But how could this be true? How could I have seen the trailer but been entirely unaffected by it?

* In the sense in which there are processes (including mental processes) which are characteristic of understanding, understanding is not a mental process. (A pain's growing more and less; the hearing of a tune or a sentence: these are mental processes.) [PI 154]

* I first played the game Binding of Isaac on Friday, May 18th, 2012 at 9:55 PM PST. My wife and I went with some friends to a theater in North Hollywood, and caught the premiere showing of Indie Game: The Movie. The film follows Edmund McMillen, the designer and artist behind The Binding of Isaac, as he and his friend prepare to release their game Super Meat Boy to the XBox platform. I cannot remember if the film mentions or depicts The Binding of Isaac at all. But as I watched the film, I thought, “Oh yeah, The Binding of Isaac!” I believe I bought the game soon thereafter. Thanks to my email, I am certain of the date and time of the film.

* What is common to them all? Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games'", but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! [PI 66]

*  I first played the game The Binding of Isaac on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 sometime between 1 and 5 PM PST. I was attending a session of “CNTV 600: Medium Specificity,” a graduate-level course taught by Prof. Henry Jenkins in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. The theme for that class session was “Medium Specificity in Game Studies,” and as a student who studies and designs videogames I was asked to introduce a few notable contemporary games to the class. I began by screening the opening cinematic from The Binding of Isaac. When the clip was finished, someone asked me a question about what the game was like. I remember thinking: “How the hell should I know?”

* But have you a model for this? No. It is just that this expression suggests itself to us. As the result of the crossing of different pictures. [PI 191]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac on two separate occasions between early October and mid-November 2012. During that period of time, I was preparing three new videogames for a gallery show at USC; I worked long hours most days. I hadn’t played a new videogame in months, and I needed to try something new so I could write a short paper for CNTV 600: Medium Specificity. Twice, I tried to take a break from design work, and I launched The Binding of Isaac. I don’t recall what happened the first time, but the second time I fell asleep on my keyboard during its opening cinematic.

* The fundamental fact here is that we lay down rules, a technique, for a game, and that then when we follow the rules, things do not turn out as we had assumed. That we are therefore as it were entangled in our own rules. This entanglement in our rules is what we want to understand (i.e. get a clear view of). [PI 125]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac in late November 2012. My gallery show had just ended, and it was time to take a short break from work. I remember sitting down at my desk--it must have been Sunday, November 18th--and playing Team Fortress 2 for about ten or twenty minutes. I have played over 800 hours of Team Fortress 2 over the course of the past four years; it is a kind of habitual action, a comfortable pattern of thinking, like shooting baskets alone at a park. This is why my wife told me to stop, when she came into the room. She said it was time for something new. So I launched The Binding of Isaac.

* What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. [PI 309]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac on Sunday, November 18th, 2012. I was hooked almost immediately.

* What I do is not, of course, to identify my sensation by criteria: but to repeat an expression. But this is not the end of the language-game: it is the beginning. [PI 290]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac on Monday, November 19th, 2012. I’d played the game for hours the day before, but somehow it felt like I was playing a new game again. In part, this is because of the freshness and volume of the game’s content, much of which cannot be accessed until it is unlocked through successful gameplay. Different content appears in different playthroughs, so you never know what you’ll encounter in a given level. Moreover, the game’s levels are procedurally-generated; they are created algorithmically, via a set of instructions, rather than being pre-designed and static. This means that each playthrough of The Binding of Isaac happens in a substantially new space, with unpredictable configurations of content. This also means that there is no one version of the game world. Instead, the game reveals itself as a kind of mindset one brings to bear on arbitrary content in an unstable architectural configuration.

* As is frequently the case with work in architecture, work on philosophy is actually closer to working on oneself. On one’s own understanding. On the way one sees things. (And on what one demands of them.) [BT, 300e]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac throughout late November 2012. The game remained surprisingly fresh, despite hours and hours of gameplay. Each time I played, I saw new configurations of space and content. Too, I saw that space and content offer new configurations of the game’s central character. The Binding of Isaac is a “roguelike,” a colloquial term for a videogame featuring randomization in levels and content, as well as permanent character death. This means that roguelikes usually afford opportunities for character progression through a random distribution of power-ups and magical items. These items traditionally increase (or decrease) the underlying statistics that govern your avatar’s attributes, and thus its relationship to the surrounding level environments. The Binding of Isaac takes this an unconventional step further: the items Isaac picks up also change his physical appearance. Isaac is routinely changed by objects in strange and often profound ways. His body grows, shrinks, and changes color and shape; his costumes change him from Cain to Judas and back to Isaac again; sometimes he cross-dresses and becomes Magdalene or Eve; other times he is deformed by reactions to pills; he sprouts wings, becomes a cyclops, or grows a tumor on his head. In these and other ways, The Binding of Isaac becomes an ever-changing game defined in part through an unstable character, and it follows that the meaning of the game becomes equally unstable.

* Let us say that the meaning of a piece is its role in the game. [PI 563]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac in late November 2012. I can’t remember the exact date, but it occurred when--for no apparent reason--I felt like watching the opening cinematic again. To this point, I had always interpreted this introductory cut-scene quite literally: Isaac’s mother was an evangelical Christian who one day started to hear God’s voice; this voice instructed her to discipline Isaac for his sinful behaviors; eventually, the voice commanded her to kill Isaac, as a demonstration of her faith, and in true Abrahamic fashion she picked up a kitchen knife; Isaac fled to his room, and then to the basement through a trap door hidden beneath his bedroom’s carpet. This had long been my reading of the opening cut-scene. But the longer I played the game, the more troublesome my interpretation felt. When I watched the cut-scene, I noticed something new: Isaac’s thumb in the bottom-left corner of the frame. And then I saw the shadow of Isaac’s head, looming over his thumb. Suddenly, a cartoon fly buzzed through the frame. I was dumbfounded: how had I never noticed these things before?

* It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it. [PI 201]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac in late November 2012. I still can’t remember the date, but it was the day I realized that the game’s introductory cinematic was drawn by Isaac himself. The opening cut-scene was the same story it had always been, but the author and narrator had changed. And as I watched the introduction all the way through--perhaps for the first time ever--I saw Isaac hang his drawing on the fourth wall, as an invisible barrier separating him from me. It was then that I realized The Binding of Isaac is not a remix of Chapter 22 of Genesis; neither is it about child abuse, evangelical Christians, nor schizophrenia. In fact, it is not “about” anything. It is an habitual action, a commonplace pattern of thinking. The Binding of Isaac is drawing.

* But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for. [PI 499]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac in early December 2012. Already, I had logged more than forty hours of gameplay. I had watched and listened to interviews with Edmund McMillen; I had read reviews and interpretations of the game; I had talked extensively with the two friends who had introduced me to Isaac. I had even played (and beaten) McMillen’s other big game, Super Meat Boy. In short, I had been a diligent graduate student, preparing to write a short seminar paper. My view remained that the game was best understood as a habit of drawing, and when I situated that habit in relation to the game’s imagery and cut-scenes (of which there are currently 14), that habit could be interpreted as a troubled child’s means of escaping reality. It was an interesting reading of the game, and I’d even found a blog post expressing a similar view, which McMillen himself described as “by far the most mind blowingly accurate breakdown of the over-arching meaning behind the Binding of Isaac’s ending”. Everything seemed to fit together. Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet purchased and installed the game’s expansion, The Wrath of the Lamb, which adds 80% more content to the original game. McMillen has recently described the expansion as a continuation of Isaac’s adventure, including “dream ideas” that didn’t appear in the original game. I had turned into a serious fan of both Isaac and Isaac; how could I not complete the adventure?

* The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. [PI 109]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac throughout early to mid-December 2012. I installed The Wrath of the Lamb expansion pack, consumed as much new content as possible, and diligently worked toward some fuller understanding of the game. I found spare moments, in breaks between work projects; I slept a little less. I played for twenty more hours, bringing my total above sixty hours played. And after all that, I still wasn’t anywhere close to unlocking the true, final ending of the game. I was exhausted and running low on time, so one afternoon I decided to end the game right where it began. I gave up trying to win the game myself, and instead I simply watched the game’s final ending on YouTube. My intent was to finish playing The Binding of Isaac and start writing an interpretive essay about the game. Instead, the game’s final cinematic cut-scene revealed an entirely different game, and I had no idea how to play it.

* A philosophical problem has the form: "I don't know my way about". [PI 123]

*

I first played The Binding of Isaac on an afternoon in mid-December 2012. I had just watched the game’s final ending on YouTube, and in a flash it had changed my understanding of the entire game. I tried to regain perspective, and replayed the game in my mind. The Binding of Isaac begins in Isaac’s bedroom, where the young boy is drawing pictures and telling himself stories about his impending death at the hands of his crazed mother. Isaac is constructing an adventure through his drawing practice, and that practice takes Isaac and you down through his home’s basement, down through caves and into depths where he must fight and defeat his mother. When she is defeated, the player unlocks a cut-scene (drawn by Isaac) showing Isaac’s victory over his mother. But this victory is short-lived, and Isaac must then continue “down” into his mother’s womb, where he must defeat his mother’s heart. Once he has beaten both his mother and her heart ten times--while inhabiting a number of biblical characters, each receiving their own unique “ending” cinematic scenes--his mother’s heart is replaced by a giant fetus. Concurrently, Isaac must travel down again into Sheol to fight the Devil, and then down (or up?) to a cathedral where he fights himself, and after these battles even more “ending” cut-scenes are unlocked. These scenes depict Isaac standing over his open toy chest, the chest in which Isaac has found rewards in previous “endings”, but this time Isaac is rewarded with perspective: he sees that he has been playing all of the characters in a fantasy world, and in reality he has been in his bedroom the entire time. Reeling and conflicted, Isaac steps into his toy chest and closes it. This chest constitutes the final level of the game, and once you beat the final level of The Binding of Isaac for the seventh time (at minimum), you are rewarded with the game’s final “ending”. And this ending completely changed my perspective on the game, as well as on my own perspective.

* Thus I might supply the picture with the fancy that the smiler was smiling down on a child at play, or again on the suffering of an enemy. This is in no way altered by the fact that I can also take the at first sight gracious situation and interpret it differently by putting it into a wider context. [PI 539]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac on an afternoon in mid-December 2012, while watching the game’s final ending. In a game dominated by grotesque cartoon imagery, this cinematic is startling in its simplicity and plainness: it is a sequence of polaroids, found by Isaac in the chest in this room. This sequence of snapshots depicts a loose retelling of important moments in Isaac’s life. The player is shown Isaac standing between his mother and his now-absent father; this constitutes his father’s first appearance in the game, and the entire trio is smiling in an outdoor setting. The next image shows Isaac’s mother with what looks like a young girl, in the same outdoor scene, again introducing a new character (a sister?) or a new perspective on old characters (mother and cross-dressing Isaac?) who are, again, smiling. Next, a few particularly open-ended images: Isaac photographing himself, unhappy, with a shadowy figure behind him; Isaac’s parents, looking happy together outdoors; Isaac alone outdoors, looking sad; Isaac leaning back against his chest, head hung down, hands covering his face. And then, the sequence ends with two stark, powerful, and totally ambiguous images. Next to last, an action shot of Isaac’s mother brandishing a knife, with absolutely no context in the image. Finally, a view from behind Isaac and his mother, as they watch what can only be the father walking down a road, and off into the distance. The plainness of these images contrasts powerfully with the game’s dark and disturbing comic-book aesthetic, lending an unprecedented feel of resolution to the game. That said, the ambiguity of the final images completely upends that resolution: At whom was the Mother brandishing a knife? Was she the monster we’ve seen depicted throughout the game? Or could she be a misunderstood, exaggerated fabrication of her son’s troubled mind? We are left with one strong clue: in the center of the final frame, Isaac’s arm is extended toward his mother, and his hand rests on her back. This opens up the game to an entirely different perspective, of a mother and son in a single-parent household, where Isaac has been struggling to understand what has happened between his parents, and who he and his mother have become as a result. Moreover, it presents the possibility that The Binding of Isaac was a powerful re-imagining of the original Genesis text all along: the Mother as heroic, knife-wielding defender of her son, who expels Abraham from their home. Here at the end, I felt another beginning, another game waiting to be played.

* No; my description only made sense if it was to be understood symbolically.—I should have said: This is how it strikes me. [PI 219]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac while I was writing this essay. The act of writing about the game has, in retrospect, presented itself to me as a kind of unwriting, an unraveling of the bindings of a videogame text. And I see my unwritten text as a parallel to Issac’s drawings: both are practices of composition oriented toward a kind of therapy. For Isaac, drawing was a therapeutic practice of assuaging pain; for me, composing this essay was means to break free from the hold of the game’s opening cinematic. For both of us, our therapeutic practices helped us to expose fallacies in our thinking, and to better understand our worlds and our places in them. Of course, Isaac is a conceptual container, a drawing that draws. For whom was he doing therapy?

* But don't you feel grief now? ("But aren't you playing chess?") [PI, Part 2, i]

* I first played The Binding of Isaac at 9:18 AM on Thursday, December 20th, 2012. That was the moment I wrote this question: if videogames can promote a love of knowledge, are videogames philosophy?

* The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to.—The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question. [PI 133]

Adam (A. J. Patrick) Liszkiewicz is a media artist and activist who designs experimental and socially conscious games. He is a co-founder of the award-winning game design collective RUST LTD., and a Provost's Fellow in the interdivisional Media Arts and Practice PhD program at the University of Southern California. He is also the author of AFEELD, a collection of playful intermedia compositions that exist in the space between poetry and videogames. Beginning in Fall 2013, he will be the Game-Designer-In-Residence at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, and a Social Justice Research Fellow at USC's Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. You can reach him through twitter (@afeeld) or e-mail (liszkiew AT usc DOT edu).

Announcing Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television,and USC Annenberg School of Communication & USC School of Cinematic Arts

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

Presented by The Andrew J. Kuehn, Jr. Foundation

Friday, April 12, 2013 James Bridges Theater, UCLA

9:00 am – 6:00 pm

 

Transmedia, Hollywood is a one-day public symposium exploring the role of transmedia franchises in today's entertainment industries. Transmedia, Hollywood turns the spotlight on media creators, producers and executives and places them in critical dialogue with top researchers from across a wide spectrum of film, media and cultural studies to provide an interdisciplinary summit for the free interchange of insights about how transmedia works and what it means. Transmedia, Hollywood is co-hosted by Denise Mann and Henry Jenkins, from UCLA and USC, two of the most prominent film schools and media research centers in the nation.

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

Transmedia entertainment has been advanced within the Hollywood system primarily through a logic of promotion, audience building, and engagement, offering the ideal tools for capturing the imagination of networked audiences through the creation of immersive and expansive imaginary worlds. As transmedia has spread around the world, especially to countries with a much stronger tradition of public media, these same practices have been embraced as a means not of building fictional realms but of changing the world:

  • As advertisers seek to construct their own “brand communities” as a way of forging strong affiliations with their consumers, many are embracing cause-based marketing. In the process, these brand marketers are recognizing young viewers’ capacity for civic engagement and political participation, one of the hallmarks of the millennial generation. While sometimes these brand messages end up advancing cultural movements, in other instances, they simply coopt these shared generational concerns.
  • Educational approaches to entertainment, popular across the developing world, are now extending across multiple media platforms to allow fans to develop a deeper understanding of health and social policy issues as they dig deeper into the backstories of their favorite characters. Alternative reality games, which seek to encourage grassroots participation as a marketing tool, have shifted from solving puzzles to mobilizing players to confront real world problems.
  • Fan networks, organized to support and promote favorite media franchises, are taking on the challenge of training and mobilizing the next generation of young activists, using their capacity as thought leaders to reshape the attention economy by increasing public awareness of mutual concerns.
  • Nonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters.

Each of these productive, participatory, community-based activities have been facilitated over the past decade by a widening web of 2.0 social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. The millennial generation’s mastery of “play” has now expanded to include a growing number of apps, casual games, short-form digital entertainment experiences, and expansive alternate reality games. Millennials, who have been acclimating themselves with the tools of connectivity in times of play, now have at their disposal the means to harness a global community to solve such pressing issues as global warming, ethnic, racial or religious genocide, labor unrest, the inequities associated with class, and countless other modern-day assaults. Many of today’s thought leaders—baby boomers that witnessed an earlier social revolution during the late sixties—marvel over the subtle but pervasive shift that is underway in the web 2.0 era and beyond as social connectedness is becoming reframed as a means for large-scale community action.

Transmedia producers in Hollywood have much to learn from a closer examination of these other forms of entertainment and educational discourse, which we might describe as “transmedia for a change.” When is it appropriate for the big media companies to incorporate such themes and tactics into their pop culture franchises? And when should they tolerate, even embrace, the bottom up activities of their fans which have used their content as vehicles for promoting social justice and political change? What does it mean to produce entertainment for a generation which is demanding its right to meaningfully participate at every level — from shaping the stories that matter to them to impacting the governance of their society?

For more information, see http://www.liquid-bass.com/conference/

For conference Registration, see : http://transmediahollywood4.eventbrite.com/#

Also, that same weekend, 5D Institute, in association with University of Southern California, invites you to join us in The Science of Fiction, our first Worldbuilding festival. This groundbreaking event will take place on April 13, 2012 in honor of the unveiling of the new USC School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media complex. For more information, see http://5dinstitute.org/events/science-of-fiction

9:00—9:10 am: Welcome and Opening Remarks – Denise Mann & Henry Jenkins
9:10—11:00 am: Panel 1 Revolutionary Advertising: Cultivating Cultural MovementsIn the web 2.0 era, as more and more millennials acquire the tools of participatory culture and new media literacy, some of this cohort are redirecting their one-time leisure-based activities into acts of community-based, grassroots social activism. Recognizing the power of the crowd to create a tipping point in brand affiliation, big media marketers, Silicon Valley start-ups, and members of the Madison Avenue advertising community, are jumping on board these crowdsourcing activities to support their respective industries. In other words, many of the social goals of grassroots revolutionaries are being realigned to serve the commercial goals of brand marketers. In the best-case scenarios, the interests of the community and the interests of the market economy align in some mercurial fashion to serve both constituencies. However, in the worst case scenario, the community-based activism fueling social movements is being redirected to support potato chips, tennis shoes, or sugary-soda drinks. Brand marketers are intrigued with the power and sway of social media, inaugurating any number of trailblazing forms of interactive advertising and branded entertainment to replace stodgy, lifeless, 30 second ads. These cutting edge madmen are learning how to reinvent entertainment for the participatory generation by marrying brands to pre-existing social movements to create often impressive, well-funded brand movements like Nike Livestrong, or Pepsi Refresh. Are big media marketers subsuming the radical intent of certain community-based organizations who are challenging the status quo by redirecting them into unintentional alliance with big business or are they infusing these cash-strapped organizations with much needed funds and marketing outreach? Today’s panel of experts will debate these and other issues associated with the future of participatory play as a form of social activism.Todd CunninghamFormerly, Senior Vice-President of Strategic Insights and Research at MTV Networks.

Denise Mann (Moderator)      

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Associate Professor, Head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Rob Schuham

CEO, Action Marketing

Michael Serazio     

Author, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing

Alden E. Stoner     

VP, Social Action Film Campaigns, Participant Media

Rachel Tipograph

Director, Global Digital and Social Media at Gap Inc.

 

 

 

11:10 am—1:00 pm: Panel 2 Transmedia For a ChangeHollywood’s version of transmedia has been preoccupied with inspiring fan engagement, often linked to the promotional strategies for the release of big budget media. But, as transmedia has spread to parts of the world which have been dominated by public service media, there has been an increased amount of experimentation in ways that transmedia tactics can be deployed to encourage civic engagement and social awareness. These transmedia projects can be understood as part of a larger move to shift from understanding public media as serving publics towards a more active mission in gathering and mobilizing publics. These projects may also be understood as an extension of the entertainment education paradigm into the transmedia realm, where the goal shifts from informing to public towards getting people participating in efforts to make change in their own communities. In some cases, these producers are creating transmedia as part of larger documentary projects, but in others, transmedia is making links between fictional content and its real world implications. 

Panelists

Henry Jenkins (Moderator)     

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC Annenberg School for Communication

Katerina Cizek     

Filmmaker-in-Residence, National Film Board, Canada

Katie Elmore Mota     

Producer, CEO of PRAJNA Productions

Sam Haren

Creative Director, Sandpit

Mahyad Tousi     

Founder, BoomGen Studios

1:00—2:00 pm: LUNCH BREAK
2:00—3:50 pm: Panel 3 Through Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY CultureA recent survey released by the MacArthur Foundation found that a growing number of young people are embracing practices the researchers identified as “participatory politics”: “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” These forms of politics emerge from an increasingly DIY media culture, linked in important ways to the practices of Makers, Hackers, Remix Artists and Fan Activists. This panel will bring together some key “change agents,” people who are helping to shape the production and flow of political media, or who are seeking to better understand the nature of political participation in an era of networked publics. Increasingly, these new forms of activism are both transmedia (in that they construct messages through any and all available media) and spreadable (in that they encourage participation on the level of circulation even if they do not always invite the public to help create media content).

Panelists

Megan M. Boler     

Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education OISE/University of Toronto

Marya Bangee

Community Organizing Residency (COR) Fellow, OneLA, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)

Erick Huerta     

Immigrant’s rights activist

Jonathan MacIntosh

Pop Culture Hacker and Transformative Storyteller

Sangita Shreshtova (Moderator)

Research Director of Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism

Elisabeth Soep     

Research Director and Senior Producer at Youth Radio-Youth Media International

 

 

4:00—5:50 pm: Panel 4 The e-Entrepreneur as the New PhilanthropistNonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters. While the boomers treated the cultural movements of the late sixties as a cause, today’s e-citizens are treating their social activism as a brand. They are selling social responsibility as if it were a commodity or product, using the same strategies that traditional business men and women used to sell products.

Sarah Banet-Weiser

Professor, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and Department of American Studies and Ethnicity

 

Sean D. Carasso

Founder, Falling Whistles

 

Yael Cohen

Founder/CEO, Fuck Cancer

Milana Rabkin     

Digital Media Agent

Sharon Waxman (Moderator)

Editor-in-Chief, The Wrap

 

 

6:00—7:30 pm:RECEPTION

Spreading Independent and Transnational Content

As we count down to the wide spread release of our new book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, we are rolling out this week five more essays -- in this case, dealing with core issues from the book's chapters on independent media and transnational media flows. One final crop of essays from the project will go on-line next week. By now, some of you may well be receiving copies of the book advanced ordered through Amazon or New York University Press. We'd love to know what you think. I was lucky enough to be able to share some thoughts about this project this past week with faculty and students at Concordia University. This post is available in Czech language (provided by Alex and Nora Pozner from bizow reviews team).

 

The Long Tail of Digital Games

In the raging debate over the legitimacy and consequences of the “Long Tail” theory (Anderson 2006), few markets have received more attention than those dedicated to digitally distributed video games. Proponents of the Long Tail have argued that digital distribution will finally turn the historically hit-driven game industry on its head—that future revenues will be driven by consumer activity distributed across a huge catalog of video games developed, in large part, by independent game developers as opposed to titanic publishers; that it will prove consistently more profitable to focus on niche audiences in this new world of digital game distribution, rather than to focus on the development of broadly appealing hits; and (for those of us interested in the spreadability model) that a new generation of empowered consumers will actively seek and promote the highest-quality content, driving revenues to the most deserving game developers and leading to a healthier and more vibrant video game ecosystem overall.

There can be no doubt that encouraging signs of this development have begun to crop up everywhere. Many now-prominent independent game developers, such as The Behemoth and 2D Boy, have leveraged console-based digital distribution platforms such as Xbox LIVE, Wiiware, and the Playstation Network (PSN) to reach markets that were previously only accessible via the long arm of a traditional publisher. These developers have not only created award-winning games that have generated significant amounts of profit. They have, in many cases, retained the rights to their intellectual property (IP) and operated with near-total independence, an unthinkable situation for small console game developers only a few years ago. And, while digital distribution on the console typically generates the most buzz, independent developers have made equally great strides on mobile devices, the web, and the PC thanks to a wide variety of channels (stores such as iTunes, Android Market, and Steam; portals such as Kongregate.com; and more generalized distribution through social network sites such as Facebook, to name just a few). Savvy observers have noted that in mobile ecosystems in particular, independent developers have consistently had greater success than traditional publishers in cracking into the “top 10.”

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(Sp)reading Digital Comics

Comic books—especially single issues, or “floppies”—have always been spreadable. As kids in the 1980s, my friends and I would head into our local comic shop, each emerge with an armful of floppies, then spend the afternoon first reading through our own haul and then each other’s. Usually, at least one of my friends’ floppies would be from some larger multipart story arc, and, if it was any good, I’d either go digging through my friend’s collection or thumbing through the store’s back issues to find out what was going on. Sharing, recommendation, drillability, and vast narrative complexity were all part of our everyday lives long before we could even drive.

Webcomics have emerged as an alternative form of publishing that makes such practices even easier. Many webcomics use RSS feeds to deliver new installments via email or RSS reader applications, and many webcomics offer forums where fans can chat and bicker and share their favorite comics with one another, much as my friends and I did in person so many years ago. Now, I can recommend comics to friends around the world either by emailing them a link to a webcomic’s site (and thus the latest comic) or a “permalink” to the archived page or, more commonly now, by texting, IMing, or Facebook messaging them such a link. Many webcomics, such as Emily Horne and Joey Comeau’s A Softer World, include built-in widgets for fans to recommend them on online services such as Digg, Facebook, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Del.icio.us, Technorati, and Twitter. Scott Kurtz’s PVP includes widgets to share each strip on twenty different services.

Unlike traditional print comics, for which most writers and artists labor under “work for hire” contracts for large publishers such as Marvel and DC, webcomics are typically owned and operated by their creators and rely on revenues generated by advertising, fan subscriptions/memberships, or sales of ancillary merchandise. As a result, for creators, getting individuals to purchase a single instance of their work (such as a traditional print floppy) is less important than establishing an ongoing relationship, aggregating a large recurring audience over time. The simplicity of the URL system supports this—when recommending a comic to a friend, I could copy and paste an image of the comic itself into an email, stripping out the context, ads, and links to the related merchandise, but why bother when sharing a link is so easy?

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The Use Value of Authors

A key dilemma for both media consumers and producers in today’s media environment is discoverability: with so much media spreading, and even more desperately wanting to be spread, how do we choose what to consume? Consequently, consumers need highly effective filters to direct them to the media they are most likely to enjoy and away from that which they are unlikely to enjoy; producers, meanwhile, need to develop techniques to ensure that their content enjoys safe passage through such filters and finds the audiences most likely to enjoy their work. Herein lies the importance of, and the use for, authors.

As compared to creative figures—producers, writers, artists, designers, and a wealth of other terms in common parlance to describe those who make media—an “author” is someone to whom we attribute a heightened level of authority and autonomy over the item of media in question. Most consumers operate on the assumption that a vast amount of media isn’t worth personally consuming, either because it is corporate hackery written by committee just to make a fast buck, because it is amateurish and incompetent, or simply because it doesn’t appeal to any of their interests. An author, though, is a totem of sorts that signifies a certain level of skill and singularity of vision. To talk of authors for professionally produced content is to assert creativity and self-expression in what can too often be characterized as a faceless, paint-by-numbers industry, while to talk of authors for amateur-produced content is to attribute artistry in what can too often be characterized as a world full of everyone’s uploaded cat videos. Discussing authors can be a way to validate the product of said authors, and hence to allow ourselves to discuss art, meaning, and depth in some popular media without attributing artistry or depth to all popular media.

At the same time, precisely who the author is can be hotly contested and variable, as the content industries may pose one author, while fans may look to others, sometimes working to uncover who the “real” author is. For instance, while The Simpsons is often popularly spoken of as Matt Groening’s, many fans have nominated other individuals in the show’s production as the true source(s) of the show’s perceived brilliance, and hence as its author(s). The fact that people would bother to argue over who the author is should signify how much the title of author matters, and it offers an initial sign of the importance of authors. MORE

 

The Swedish Model

Sweden is a small country, yet it has one of the world’s biggest and best-selling music scenes. You might think ABBA, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but they’re just the best-known starting point of a very long tail, with thousands of bands spanning every genre and degree of success. Sweden is also home to The Pirate Bay, the world’s top torrenting site, which ABBA songwriter Björn Ulvaeus has decried as made by and for those who are lazy and stingy and don’t understand that, if creators can’t anticipate payment, they will never release music (“ABBA Star” 2009). Since the advent of recording in the early twentieth century, recorded music has been the central economic good of the music business. Hence, it is no wonder that the mainstream industry has been so vociferous in its efforts to demonize and sue uploaders and to support national policies that limit the ability of listeners to spread music.

Further down the tail, though, Sweden is home to many artists and labels trying to forge a new way through this thicket, one that rejects the notions that certain payment is a precondition for artistic expression or that file sharing detracts from the economics of their business. The attitudes and actions of The Swedish Model, a consortium of seven independent labels committed to a more optimistic dialogue on music’s future, and other Swedish labels and musicians put spreadability at the center of their hopes for the future of the music business. The tiny label Songs I Wish I Had Written, headed by Martin Thörnkvist, who also heads The Swedish Model, shared an office with a Pirate Bay cofounder, and Thörnkvist uploads his label’s catalog in the highest quality to Pirate Bay. Labrador, another Swedish independent label, gives away annual samplers through Pirate Bay and posts all its singles for free download on its website.

These entrepreneurs have taken to heart that if their music doesn’t spread, it may as well be dead. The logic goes like this: We are small and have minimal budgets. There are few mainstream venues that will promote our music, so few people will have the opportunity to hear it through mass media. The more people who hear it, the larger the audience will become. Even if most of that audience does not pay for CDs or mp3s, the slice that does will be bigger than the entire audience would otherwise have been. And the slice that doesn’t pay to buy music may well pay for other things. As Thörnkvist put it when addressing the music industry audience at MIDEMNet, “I’d rather have one million listeners and one hundred buyers than one hundred listeners and one hundred buyers” (2009).

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Transnational Audiences and East Asian Television

Consider a clip from the Japanese variety show Arashi no Shukudai-kun that recently made its way onto YouTube in early 2009: a small group of Japanese pop singers are challenged to eat a “surprisingly large” hamburger named after a city in the Ibaraki prefecture and are joking about how “Super American” the situation is. They suggest that the burger inspires them to don overalls and grow “amazing” chest hair, while Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blares in the background. The clip was then subtitled in English by two fans based in Australia and circulated based on its appeal to English-speaking audiences of the “J-pop” performers in the video as an embodied spectacle of Japanese popular culture. Various versions of the clip were distributed online through fan communities on LiveJournal, a Russian-owned social blogging platform with offices headquartered in San Francisco, and other forums, and fans shared the links through their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, and other social media channels. In the process, the Arashi no Shukudai-kun clip was recontextualized, reformatted, resubtitled, and diverted to new (and sometimes unexpected) audiences at every step along the way. Far from exceptional, there are countless clips like this one on YouTube: in the global spreadable media environment, its crisscrossing path back and forth across multiple national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries is becoming perfectly common.

Not only is the transnational movement of media becoming increasingly pervasive; it has also become significantly more—and more visibly—multinodal. Thus, we must go beyond the use of Bruce Springsteen in the background of a Japanese variety show as part of a parody and indigenization of Western cultural materials to consider its subsequent movement as it is taken up, translated, and circulated by grassroots intermediaries, passing through divergent and overlapping circuits, often outside the purview of established media industries and markets. In short, we must look beyond sites of production and consumption to consider the practices of transmission and the routes of circulation—the means and manner by which people spread media to one another—which are increasingly shaping the flow of transnational content.

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A Game Level Where You Can't Pass

  This fall, I had the opportunity to teach a PhD seminar on media theory and history focused around issues of medium specificity and intermediality as part of USC's iMAP Program. Here's how the Cinema School describes that innovative degree program:

Created in 2007, the interdivisional program in Media Arts & Practice (iMAP) situates technology and creative production alongside the historical and theoretical contexts of critical media studies. This practice-oriented Ph.D. program provides students with both practical experience and theoretical knowledge as they work to define new modes of research and production in the 21st century.

Media Arts & Practice was inspired by recent developments in media and technology that have altered the landscape of media production, analysis, distribution and display. Our goal is to support a new generation of scholar-practitioners who are able to combine historical and theoretical knowledge with creative and critical design skills. Students who complete a Ph.D. in Media Arts & Practice will be uniquely prepared to shape the future of media and scholarship, and to actively engage in the emerging cultural, technological and political dynamics of a global media ecology.

Media Arts & Practice integrates the strengths of each program within the School of Cinematic Arts (production, critical studies, writing, interactive media, and animation & digital arts) by offering students the opportunity to substantially design their own course of study. The core iMAP curriculum consists of three foundational courses in design, media and theory, plus a professionalization seminar devoted to exploring emerging movements in media technology, theory and practice. Students have unprecedented freedom to define and pursue their own specialization by drawing on the course offerings and world-renowned faculty across the School of Cinematic Arts and utilizing the resources of the school's state-of-the-art digital production facilities.

You can imagine how much fun it is to introduce a comparative media studies perspective to this diverse, creative, and intellectually engaged group of students, and helping them to think more deeply about how theoretical and historical perspectives might further inform their own expressive practice as media artists and designers.

What follows is one of several essays produced for the class which deal with cutting edge developments in the Independent Games world. In this case, Micha Cárdenas discusses two recent games which seek to explore transgender identities and experiences.

A Game Level Where You Can’t Pass Micha Cárdenas

When one plays a video game on a computer, does the game maker’s identity matter? Or does the player’s identity matter, in terms of game play? How does one understand the identity of a game theorist in relation to their writing? Recent independently produced games by transgender women game designers Merrit Kopas and Anna Anthropy open up a series of questions about the nature of computer gaming. How much does the metatext for a game shape our experience of it? How do players identify with characters whose gender they do not identify with, or understand at all? How can the rules of oppressive social structures like the binary gender system become part of game play? To consider these questions, I will rely on theories from game studies scholars as well as looking at comparative game examples.

Lim is a game created by Merritt Kopas that is playable on web browsers that support HTML5. I found this game because I am facebook friends with Kopas. She posted this on Facebook and on Tumblr ‘I made a game called Lim. A friend describes it as being about “the tension and violence and dread and suffocation of passing.” Play it online here.’ The kind of passing being referred to here is passing as a desired gender, as in the case of a transgender woman, and the ensuing degrees of violence from verbal to physical which ensue when one fails to pass as male or female.

My experience of the game was certainly shaped by the metatext in this case. As it is an extremely simple graphical game where the player’s avatar is a colored cube and other colored cubes attack you if your color is different, there are many possible readings of the game. On the game creator’s website, the link to play the game is preceded with this quote from Erving Goffman: “there seems to be no agent more effective than another person in bringing a world for oneself alive, or, by a glance, a gesture, or a remark, shriveling up the reality in which one is lodged.” As such, it is stated from the onset to be concerned with social identity and it’s difficulties, but is only situated as a game about transgender experience by virtue of its creator’s identity.

This opens up a host of questions, such as how much a game, or any work of art, should be evaluated based on the identity of its creator? Further, given the knowledge that the game depicts the violence of the everyday experience of transgender people, how do cisgender (non-transgender) players experience the game? Richard Schechner’s response to Markku Eskelinen is useful here, when he asks “What we don't know about the ‘real life’ of computer games are the social circumstances that surrounds, and to a large degree guides, their playing. That is, what ‘other’ stories are the players enacting?” While in many cases these subversive readings allow transgender players to see themselves in cisgender characters, in the case of Lim we can understand multiple readings of complex social interactions to arise from the very simplicity of the aesthetic and the ability of players to identify with incredibly simple objects if they have the ability to control them in a game context.

From a game studies approach, the question of a player’s identity in relation to a character has been considered largely in terms of race and binary gender configurations. While Henry Jenkins writes in the section “Play as Performance” that “we don’t speak of controlling a cursor on the screen when we describe the experience of playing a game; we act as if we had unmediated access to the fictional space,” such claims at immediacy seem to elide the possible alienation some gamers feel based on the disjunction between their identities and the available avatars. In From Barbie to Mortal Combat, Jenkins and Cassell write “historically, gender was an unexploited category in video game design, with male designers developing games based on their own tastes and cultural assumptions… Yet, as feminist critics note, as long as masculinity remains the invisible norm, the default set within a patriarchal culture, unselfconscious efforts are likely to simply perpetuate male dominance.” While it would be an easy step to transpose this claim to cisgender game designers perpetuating the dominance of the gender binary, as most games today still only depict primarily male and female characters, perhaps more interesting possibilities arise when one goes beyond simple claims for more representation of transgender people in games. What Lim demonstrates is a set of fundamental game mechanics that emerge from a life experience that exceeds gender binaries.

One striking characteristic of Lim is its sparse set of instructions. The only text on the actual page for the game is the following: “arrow keys move, z to blend in | note: contains flashing lights and shaking effects. Made with Construct 2 — the HTML5 game creator” Given these instructions, the player is left to determine the game mechanics on their own. In a review of Lim, Porpentine writes “Lim’s mechanics are the message…. you have to struggle and mash the keys and slide along the walls just to scrape into the next room and when it’s over you feel like you never want to do that again so you’re going to be really careful about passing in the future, it’s just not worth—ohhhhhh.”

One of the most effective moments in Lim is its moments of total breakdown. Players have complained that at times the game becomes unplayable, one’s avatar gets blocked from proceeding, from passing as it were, and at other times the aggressive game enemies may knock one’s avatar completely out of the bounds of the game world. To me, these are the most revealing moments, because in reality, at times transgender people are not able to pass into spaces they want to enter, or are trapped in spaces they want to escape, or are murdered because of their gender expression. These moments in the game play are particularly revealing.

Another game designed by a transgender woman is Dys4ia by Anna Anthropy and it similarly uses game mechanics to convey parts of its message. The game can be played online, like Lim, and is an autobiographical game about the six-month period in which she decided to start hormone therapy. Again, this transgender game maker has chosen to make the game mechanics a reflection of the difficulties of their experience as a transgender person. By doing so, they create a medium specific experience in which players of the game can experience some small degree of the feelings involved, instead of merely seeing or reading a representation of them.

In Dys4ia, there are 4 levels, “Gender Bullshit, Medical Bullshit, Hormone Bullshit, Is Gets Better?”. Each of these levels is composed of a number of mini games. Each mini game has its own rules, controls and directionality. In effect, a mirror of the experience of transgender people navigating the complex world of hormone therapy is created because the player has to figure out an entirely new set of rules in each of these mini games. As players read the text associated with each mini game, such as “shaving is humiliating” or “now to find a good clinic” or “my breasts are too sensitive to touch”, they are introduced to a new game mechanic and they have to figure out the new rules quickly. In my own experience, as a transgender woman, this is very similar to the experience of hormone therapy, where each new obstacle: psychiatric therapy, doctor visits, personal relationship issues, must be deciphered and figured out, like a game, yet each game has its own unique set of rules and mechanics.

Dys4ia provides a useful example for game studies. The simplicity of Dys4ia’s mini games mirrors the statement by Eskelinen that “the main thing is that any element can be turned into a game element, and a single element is enough to constitute a game if it allows manipulation, and this fact alone allows combinations not witnessed in narratives or drama.” Many of the mini games in Dys4ia are extremely simple, such as a figure dodging the harsh words of anti-trans “feminists” which fly across the screen horizontally by moving up and down, a mechanic similar to classic games like Pong or Galaga, but in this case associated with the drama of the personal struggles of a transgender woman. The online indie game format allows Anna Anthropy to create a very simple aesthetic expression of her experience, similar to Galaga in its degree of complexity, yet differentiating from Galaga in her choice of colors and iconography.

The questions raised by games made by transgender game designers can be informed by game design theories written by the artist Eddo Stern. Stern describes a process he uses in game design as phenomenological game design that takes into consideration the embodied experience of players. In a lecture given in the cinema school at USC, Stern asked how game design can be changed by a consideration of the player’s embodied experience, for example, asking how role playing games may be different if players actually had to be charismatic in order to have a high charisma score for their character, or how a player’s sense of direction may be incorporated into the abilities of an in game character, or how games may be designed for deaf or blind players. With these considerations in mind, he has designed a game called Dark Game, centered around the struggle of two players to either bring light to a world or bring a world into darkness. He describes the game as a sensory deprivation game, and one image of the game shows a player with a hood over their head obstructing their vision, and the player can only feel the contours of the world through the haptic feedback in the PS3 controller. Stern has worked with differently abled people such as blind or deaf people in the play testing of this game, and the interface of the game clearly reflects this, including for example the character creation system contains a menu which is both visually presented and has every word spoken aloud. Dark Game, as an example of phenomenological game design, provides a comparison to the games Lim and Dys4ia by introducing the differences in game play between transgender players and cisgender players.

When I, as a transgender woman who has had many experiences similar to those described by Anthropy, played Dys4ia, I was literally brought to tears by the emotional connection I felt in the game. In contrast, watching a queer identified cisgender friend of mine play the game, she was simultaneously interested in the content and confused by it, adding an additional layer on top of the challenge of learning the controls. In particular, the mini games that dealt with Anthropy’s personal relations with their girlfriend were the ones that were both most emotionally compelling to me and confusing to my friend who played the game in front of me. The analysis in this paper was in fact aided by my experience observing this friend of mine play the game and our subsequent conversation in which they were able to make useful observations about the game mechanics that had escaped me in my emotional response to the game. These differing experiences point to the importance of a consideration of complex gender and sexual identifications of players and designers of games as there is much possibility for enriched experiences in games aimed at specific publics rather than targeted for an assumed mass public. Further, this short example additionally lends support to the importance of consideration of other social characteristics of players and designers in game design, including race, ability, economic class, immigration status, body size and more. Each of these characteristics offers a rich set of theoretical history from which game designers and game studies scholars can draw to add meaning and affective impact to their work.

While both Lim and Dys4ia appear to be incredibly simple games with low resolution two dimensional graphics and simple game mechanics, their social context allows for a deep richness of play, design and theorization. Games produced by transgender game designers about transgender experiences open up a space for a consideration of the intersections of game studies, gender studies, phenomenology, narratology and disability studies. Further, these fields can be combined with writing from feminist cinema scholars who look at reception and subversive readings or critical race scholars who consider the intertwined construction of race and technology to give further support to these theories. The study I have undertaken here is only a sketch that gestures to the possibilites of studying these games and their implications.

Micha Cárdenas is an artist/theorist who works in social practice, wearable electronics and intersectional analysis. They are a PhD student in Media Arts and Practice (iMAP) at University of Southern California and a member of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0. Micha’s project Local Autonomy Networks was selected for the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial in San Jose and was the subject of their keynote performance at the 2012 Allied Media Conference. Micha’s book The Transreal: Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities, published by Atropos Press in 2012, discusses art that uses augmented, mixed and alternate reality, and the intersection of those strategies with the politics of gender, in a transnational context. Micha holds an MFA from University of California, San Diego, an MA in Communication from the European Graduate School and a BS in Computer Science from Florida International University. They blog at transreal.org and tweet at@michacardenas.

Transmedia Synergies: Remediating Films and Video Games

Earlier this fall, I received an email from a UCLA Cinema and Media Studies graduate student Mathias Stork, sharing with me a video he had produced for Janet Bergstrom's "DVD Essay for Film Analysis" and Steven Mamber's video games class.  Here's how Stork describes his essay:

I researched, planned, and produced it within a ten-week period. It has not been altered since I submitted it for class review. As a result, it is not an overly polished work. In the interest of time, I had to make several concessions in terms of style and argument (for instance, I would have preferred to use a video game font and elaborate upon the narrative dimensions of media convergence in the digital era). Nevertheless, the work, as it is, effectively reflects, I believe, an increasingly important topic in film and media studies. The goal of the video essay is to sketch out the culture of synergy situated at the intersection of cinema and video games, taking account of journalistic, industrial, and, predominantly, aesthetic correspondences between the two media. In my opinion, it represents a 'work-in-progress', designed to stimulate interest and future research.

The video essay was published in the Winter 2013 issue of MEDIASCAPE, available here

I immediately know I wanted to pass this video essay along to my blog readers -- for many reasons. First, because it represented an innovative form of scholarship. I am hoping we will see more examples of these kinds of analytic video essays in the future, and there are several others featured in this issue of Mediascape. Second, because the issues it discusses -- having to do with the interplay between video games and cinema, notions of remediation and transmedia storytelling -- are ones which we regularly discuss through this blog and which I know many of my readers are finding ways to teach. Stork's video essay reviews a broad range of theorists and approaches which we might take to think comparatively about old and new forms of entertainment and illustrates them with a compelling selection of clips from contemporary films and games. I know this is a video I will be using in my own teaching in the months ahead and if you are teaching new media or transmedia, you may also find it a welcomed resource.

Transmedia Synergies - Remediating Films and Video Games from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

Matthias Stork is a Masters student in the Cinema and Media Studies program at the University of California – Los Angeles, USA. He researches the intersections of film and digital media, especially the synergies between films and video games, as well as the aesthetics of digital marketing, fandom, and the forms of digital film studies. His work has appeared in Frames, Cinema Journal, Press Play, and Film Studies for Free. He served as META section editor for the Winter 2013 issue of Mediascape and is currently the co-Editor-in-Chief of the upcoming issue. He is also the co-editor of Superhero Synergies: Genre in the Age of Digital Convergence (Scarecrow Press, 2013).

The More We Know: Academic Games Research and Industry Collaboration (Part Two)

The last time I reported about iCue on this blog, it was part of an overview of the work of The Education Arcade. In what ways were the choices made on iCue informed by the Education Arcade's previous experiences developing prototypes for "serious games"? What are some of the factors which have made it hard to get university-based games research beyond the prototype stage and into the world where it might have greater impact?

There is a lot of pushback in the system where change is required.  If there is a change required in the way teaching and learning are perceived, then it is much harder to get adoption.  As such, the teachers never really came for the games, but rather the other parts that they could adopt or adapt and plug into existing structures. In turn, NBC didn’t take the games as seriously; they didn’t grow the more innovative or risky ideas, and, due to the financial crisis in 2008, they couldn’t really even update them.

Thinking about how we moved from previous work into this project, we were working in a much more constrained space then we were used to.  Rather than having the flexibility to build something rich and multi-faceted as we had with Revolution, we were working in the narrower starting space of media archives and integration with the AP curricula.  That restricted the game space, but provided perhaps more realistic constraints than we were used to working within.

What do you see as some of the major hurdles which academic researchers face in terms of working with industry partners?

There are certainly competing interests.  In academia, we can take a longer view, learning and refining over time.  These learnings are valued in and if themselves.  Of course, we also need a successful product, but we can take the time to get there carefully and be thorough. We can be risk prone in the short term.  In industry, pressure to return revenue quickly creates risk aversion.  Even though NBC News’ then-CFO, Adam Jones, protected iCue against those pressures more than the average project, it still had to make compromises that we had to stomach. For instance, there was early hope that the site would feature remix tools for young people to author their own content, but NBC Standards and Practices department shut down that talk almost immediately.

What factors make the education marketplace a particularly challenging one to navigate?

There are big issues around who pays for products, and who makes the decision to buy.  Are schools paying? Can a teacher make the decision, or must they appeal up the food chain to their principal or district? Are parents going to pay? Would any of these stakeholders accept a free-to-play model with sponsored advertising?  Then, depending on these factors, how do you design and market the product? There are also issues of metrics and measurement—how do you show that your product is working?  Does it leverage existing metrics (which may be poor), or new metrics (which aren’t yet implemented or validated)?

Further, are the schools and teachers even ready for the product, both pedagogically and technologically?  Do they have the preparation they need to use the tool effectively?

Finally, if you can settle all of those questions but have a new product approaching learning in a new way, how do you communicate that to your audience?  It can be difficult to transmit that kind of messaging through the standard, narrow channels to schools and teachers.

 

If you could go back and time and leave a message for yourself at the beginning of the process, describing what you now know, what would it say?

Instead of moving our research team to an evaluation position on the project, stay on the design side.  Convince NBC News that the need to sell something quickly shouldn’t obscure the original vision of what this product might do in the hands of students (where it never really got).

We would also push back on timelines and growth models.  We might have seen more success if we had started in a more targeted area and grown from there. That would have almost certainly been a more effective model instead of jumping all in right away, diluting much of the opportunity for participatory learning and deeper learning experiences.

What challenges did you face working with the educational establishment? Were teachers ready for what iCue sought to do? Were students?

Teachers might have been ready, but ultimately the site lacked the depth and frequency of updates it needed to really achieve its goals.

Students might also have been ready, but iCue was a space populated with teachers when they arrived, perhaps sending the signal that it wasn’t a space for them.

The jury is still out on whether students can and will come to an academic social space like iCue was envisioned to be.  That is an interesting question that we continue to explore in our work.

 

Eric Klopfer is Professor and Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at MIT.  Klopfer's research focuses on the development and use of computer games and simulations for building understanding of science and complex systems. He is the co-author of the book, Adventures in Modeling: Exploring Complex, Dynamic Systems with StarLogo, and author of Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games from MIT Press.  Klopfer is also the co-founder and President of the non-profit Learning Games Network.

Jason Haas is Graduate Research Assistant in the Media Lab and in The Education Arcade at MIT. His research focuses on the design and efficacy of learning games. Recent research and design has been for The Radix Endeavor, a Gates Foundation-funded MMORPG for science and math learning. Previous research has involved the role of narrative in learning in the casual physics games Woosh, Waker, and Poikilia and in large-scale collective intelligence gaming  in Vanished.

Alex Chisholm is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Learning Games Network, a non-profit organization bridging the gap between research and practice in game-based learning.  He has collaborated on product and program development with Microsoft, LeapFrog, NBC Universal, BrainPOP, Federal Reserve Bank-New York, and the Hewlett and Gates Foundations, among others.