The Mud-Wrestling Media Maven from MIT and Other Stories

This has been a big few weeks for me and the Comparative Media Studies Program -- with lots of media attention. The title of this post comes from the headline of an article, written by Jeffrey R. Young, for Chronicle of Higher Education. Here's how the story starts:

My Life: The Transmedia Version

If this profile of Henry Jenkins III were a YouTube video, it would begin with footage of the influential scholar mud-wrestling his wife at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If it were a podcast, the introduction would note that Jenkins has been called the Marshall McLuhan of the 21st century. And if this were an interactive graphic, it would trace the millions of dollars in research grants he has won from foundations, companies, and the government of Singapore.

Any of those media would be a fitting way to tell the story of a scholar who is at the forefront of exploring how digital technologies are reshaping popular culture. But just as Jenkins still reveres words on paper (and online), so too does much of his story lend itself to good old ink on paper.

In fact, the Chronicle's online edition uses a variety of digital media to tell my story -- including digging up some YouTube footage of my wife and I wrestling as part of a big party our dorm throws every year, not to mention a podcast interview and an interactive chart showing the range of research the Comparative Media Studies program is doing and where our funds come from.

Young spent an extraordinary amount of time preparing this story. We started doing interviews together back in January. He came to campus and spent several days following me around; he interviewed students, colleagues, and a range of others who have touched my life; he flew out to San Francisco to see me participate in a panel discussion at the YPulse conference with danah boyd. (You can listen to the podcast version of a similar conversation I did with danah at South by Southwest last year.)

Actually, it now looks like YPulse has just put up a podcast of the talk the article describes if anyone is interested.

In the end, I personally think the hard work paid off. I was very flattered -- if a bit unnerved at times -- to have a reporter dig this deeply into my life and work. I winced a few times at some of the descriptive details -- my wife is still giving me a hard time about a stain on my shirt which he spotted at a particular speaking gig and I am not sure I accept the idea that my body is "pear-shaped." I am sure that I wouldn't hold up to the withering critique of how academics dress offered by Project Runway's Tim Gun elsewhere in this issue. :-) But he really does capture both the serious and playful sides of my personality. I'm not sure what to make of the split personality of a cover which wants to proclaim me the new Marshall McLuhan and an inside headline which makes me sound more like the new John Nash (A Brilliant Mind).

To Serve Them All My Days...

Several readers have asked for more details on my experiences as a housemaster at a MIT dorm. The article has a fair amount to say about this aspect of my life:

For all his scholarship, Jenkins has always had a playful side. Just ask his brood at MIT's Senior House, known as a home for those who might be considered misfits elsewhere. "At Senior House, it isn't an insult to be called 'weird' -- it's a compliment!" says a welcome message on the dorm's Web site. "Residents are comfortable in their skins. We are straight, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, or poly. ... Tolerance is the one virtue we value even more than individuality."

This is where Henry Jenkins lives -- and he's the one who wrote that message. He and his wife, Cynthia, have served as housemasters here for more than 12 years, and they seem well suited to lead this unusual community.

"Henry is very good at keeping an eye on the pulse of Senior House and stopping things that are particularly dangerous before they get out of hand without crushing all creativity and spirit in the house," says Laura Boylan, a senior in his program. Jenkins has intervened to stop residents from hijacking a construction crane and from rewiring the dorm's electronic locks, she says (MIT students are known for their elaborate pranks), but he is "hands-off about things that are going to end up fine."

The dorm is best known for its springtime Steer Roast party. It starts with a flaming roll of toilet paper zipping down a wire from the roof, igniting fuel-soaked kindling in a pit below. Enormous slabs of meat cook over that flame all night, while rock bands play and students and alumni frolic. Some wear elaborate costumes, or dress only in body paint.

Jenkins is protective of Steer Roast, a 40-plus-year-old tradition. He has fended off administrators who want it toned down, and refused to let an Academic Life reporter or photographer attend, citing a "policy" of not allowing news coverage. But it's easy to piece together details of the gathering from student blogs, photos posted on Flickr and other photo-sharing Web sites, and videos on YouTube.

One of the main attractions of the two-day festival is mud-wrestling. A homemade ring is set up in the dorm's courtyard, under the shadow of a giant black banner that reads: "Sport Death: Only Life Can Kill You." Announcers provide amplified color commentary, as pair after pair of wrestlers face off. Every year one of the first matches is Henry Jenkins vs. Cynthia Jenkins.

Jenkins once published a scholarly paper arguing that professional wrestling was a form of melodrama aimed at men, allowing "a powerful release of repressed male emotion." He demonstrated a fan's knowledge of the subculture's colorful characters, analyzing the moves and costumes of the Mountie, the Million Dollar Man, and the late "Ravishing" Rick Rude, among others.

Jenkins doesn't wear a cape or costume when he appears at Steer Roast, but last year he scripted his match with the help of one of his students, Sam Ford.

"The game plan we came up with," Ford says in an interview, was to have Jenkins fake a knee injury early in the match. "Then, when Cynthia turned her back, Henry got up on his knees and held his finger up and said 'Shh,'" signaling to the crowd that he was unharmed, while a concerned Cynthia turned to look for help. "One of the other grad students comes out of the crowd and jumps up and pushes Cynthia's shoulder," and she trips over Henry, who pins her to the mat.

"It was the first win of his mud-wrestling career," Ford says proudly....

Not long ago, I visited the Jenkinses at home -- their spacious apartment is at one end of Senior House.

The living room is decorated in grad-student chic, with beat-up couches and pop-culture artifacts. Jenkins points out a replica of a crescent-shaped Klingon blade weapon, a bat'leth, that was featured in Star Trek: The Next Generation. And there are vast shelves of books, videos, 'zines, CD's, and comic books. "This space definitely gives you the sense of the full range of media that we regularly consume here," he says.

The room is also the emotional heart of Comparative Media Studies. Nearly every Thursday, students in the program are invited over after a colloquium by a visiting speaker in the early evening. Over catered dinners, they often continue conversations well into the night.

Jenkins says he believes in integrating his personal and professional lives: "I think it allows you on some level to give more to both, instead of less to both." And he likes to stay in motion, according to a post on his blog headlined: "How to Become a Compulsive Workaholic With No Life ... Or the Secrets Behind My Success."

Cynthia Jenkins occasionally works part time grading papers at MIT. These days she is learning glass blowing. But she is in many ways a partner in her husband's work. She edits most of his writing, and they have co-written articles about fan cultures. It's hard to say which one of them is the bigger fan. When the latest Harry Potter book came out this summer, the Jenkinses hit the campus bookstore at midnight to pick up their preordered copies. They stayed up all night reading, by flashlight, on a hammock in the dorm courtyard.

We've been pushing the university for sometime to get us some new furniture. You can bet that I sent the dean's office a note saying that even the Chronicle of Higher Education was reporting on the ratty condition of my couches. :-)

In case you are wondering, our decision to become housemasters was partially inspired by seeing a PBS series years ago, To Serve Them All My Days, about the life of a British boarding school don. We were both taken by the ways the series depicted the integration of his life as a teacher inside the classroom and in the dorm. I have to say that living in Senior House has been everything I have hoped for and more. We've been living here for a dozen plus years and I can imagine myself continuing for much much longer. Living with students has not only made me a better teacher but also a better scholar, since the dorm is a lab where I can observe youth interacting with media of all kinds just by walking down the hallway.

I faced an interesting ethical challenge while doing the photo shoot for this article. I was asked if they could take my picture holding the Klingon battle sword which I keep leaning against my fireplace. (This picture appears only in the print edition.) I wondered whether I could pose for such an image and avoid the stereotypes and cliches about fans which I have critiqued in my work. I wasn't worried about making myself look foolish but I didn't want to do any damage to the fan community. In the end, I decided that the best way to handle this situation was to be as dignified as possible and act as if there was nothing unusual about being photographed holding a replica of a television show prop. My big fear, now, though, is that hardcore Klingon fans will tell me that I am holding the weapon all wrong. While I was once a card carrying Klingon in a role play game, I have never really been a student of Klingon culture. :-)

The article focuses heavily on the work I have been doing with media companies, both as an individual and through the Convergence Culture Consortium. If you'd like to know more about the later, you might want to read some recent posts which review key things and topics over the past year. You can start reading with this entry.

Meanwhile... Games and More Games

On other fronts, I was one of several games researchers asked by Gamasutra to share our thoughts about whether there is life after World of Warcraft. More specifically, they wanted us to speculate on when and why players abandon one virtual world and move to another. To be honest, I am one of the few games scholars I know who is not hooked on WOW. So I ended up relying much more on my experience of fan culture than on my games research. Here's part of what I had to say:

I know less about what happens when multiplayer games start to implode than I know about the migrations of television fans, which is a phenomenon that I've had a chance to observe over more than 20 years. In both cases, the holding power has to do with at least two variables: the degree to which individual members value what the franchise is giving them (including both content and corporate/community relations) and the degree to which the members feel attached to the social network which grows up around the franchise.

Typically, a bad decision or decisions by the company compromises, at some point, in the cycle the interests of the community, creating growing dis-satisfaction within the community. Certain key thought leaders in the community move elsewhere, often issuing some final message to the group, which feeds the discontent. Initially, the group may move outward in several different directions, testing new franchises to see if they offer either new pleasures or more of what attracted them to the earlier franchise.

In a networked culture, the word gets out where they went and what they thought and then there's a larger migration which can, under the right conditions, turn into a stampede. I suspect when this happens to WoW that people will be searching in several directions: some following the genre, looking for other worlds with similar elements; others will follow the game play mechanics, looking for games which either offer features they like about WOW or which fix the things that bugged them about the game; and others will follow the community, wanting to move to where-ever their friends relocate.

This whole process unfolds over several months or longer as the pieces sort themselves out. The key point here is that it is never social to the degree that other elements of the experience don't matter at all but the choice between equally satisfying experiences will frequently rest on the decisions made by the social network as a whole.

The article also features responses from some better informed sources -- Edward Castranova, Aaron Delwiche, Jeff McNeil, and Florence Chee. Check it out.

While we are on the subject of games, there was a nice piece on CNN's website focused on one of the games we produced through the GAMBIT lab this summer. The game in question, AudiOdyssey, was designed to facilitate play between sighted and visually impaired players. Here's some of what CNN had to say about the game:

Forget shoot-em-up addicts -- video games are reaching out to the rest of us.

The greatest symbol of this is the Wii console from Nintendo. Its innovative wireless control -- the Wiimote -- has even non-gamers excited as they swing it through the air to control, say, a tennis racket on the screen.


Wii's Wiimote may play a pivotal role in bringing the visually impaired into the electronic gaming fold.

But not quite everyone has been reached. One group is still largely ignored by video game makers: the blind.

With that in mind, a team of researchers at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab in Massachusetts set out this summer to make a music-based video game that's designed for mainstream players and also accessible to the blind.

Appropriately, perhaps, they incorporated the Wiimote into the game-play, though it's optional.

The resulting DJ game, designed for the PC, is called AudiOdyssey. In it, players try to lay down different tracks in a song by swinging and waving the Wiimote in time with the beats. Or they can just use keyboard controls.

The game reminded this writer of my lack of any rhythm whatsoever. I used the keyboard version, where you're instructed to follow the beat by hitting an arrow key. Miss a beat and you get an ugly sound. Things sounded pretty ugly. But I did start to get a little better after 15 minutes and was awarded occasionally by crowd cheers. It's a fun game. And I got a kick out of it.

So did 41-year-old Alicia Verlager. For her, though, the fun is a bit more significant. She's visually impaired.

"Play is one of the ways in which people build relationships," she notes. "It's fun to take on the challenge of a game and take turns encouraging and laughing at each other's sillier mistakes. That's the experience I am really craving in a game -- the social aspects."

AudiOdyssey is presently single-player only, and there's no scoring system. But a multiplayer online version will be released in a few months. Intriguingly, players in this version won't necessarily know whether their opponent is blind -- and it won't make a difference in the game.

If you would like to know more about this project, check out the GAMBIT home page where they are starting to post some of the games developed by a team of some 50 Singaporean and MIT students working together this summer. I am going to be sharing the back story behind these titles as the semester runs along but you can download and play some of the titles whenever you want.