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.