10. Wherein the Writer Grapples With the Intangible

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Admittedly, I don’t know much of anything about music. Like technically speaking, I’m pretty ignorant. I love music, lots of different kinds of music-you know, like a human . But I can’t read it, I’ve never studied it for very long or very deeply, and my 2 year-old godson makes better music on his dad’s drum set than I do with the handful of guitar chords I know. What I do know is that music has been inextricably linked to powerful experiences in my memory. I know that it doesn’t take hearing more than a single note (for the sake of believability I’ll say two notes together, but it’s really one) for me to know when somebody in another room just changed the channel past Jurassic Park on TV (back when that used to happen, before they went and commoditized my whole childhood.) While many of these emotional ties are to real life experiences (“Lightning Crashes” by Live reminds me of camping in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens), a great number of them come from media (I once heard a jazz band drift into a cover of the X-Men cartoon theme song and I freaked out) and of those, a high percent are related to games. Thinking about it now, I should make a running playlist out of music from the Mega Man franchise because it always keeps my energy up. I’ve actually heard that music like it increases mental acuity and helps people focus but I’ve been unable to pin that down as having come from any legitimate research, as many sources I’ve read, like this one, go something like, “we all know that video game music is actually designed to keep you going and not distract you” but never corroborate that claim with anything more reliable than word of mouth and the presumed uniformity of our shared experience. While that sounds a little thin to me academically, I can’t deny identifying with the position. For any reader who has never played through say, Mega Man II, let me tell you- it’s really hard. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten it. More than that, I don’t think a coalition of my best and most trusted friends, gamers all, have ever beaten it- as children or adults. But we’ve played it, and played it for untold hours over a period of decades. The experience never changes and the levels are the same no matter what order you play them in, yet every time we take control of the unwieldily titular man-bot we are on the edge of our seats and laser-focused. How can this possibly be, that an experience that we’ve been sharing literally completely unaltered for about 25 years, still grips us as it did when we were small? The white-knuckled controller grip is the same, the full-body muscle tensing is the same, the creeping, deadly palm-sweating is the same. But why?  Why aren’t we bored? Sure it could be that we, seasoned veterans all, are hyper-conscious of the razor-thin margin of victory we can expect to achieve, and that one split second misstep, change in direction, hesitation, or miscalculated button pressure (collectively referred to as a “freak out” or not “having it”) is all it takes to turn a glorious triumph into a regrettable setback. But part of the reason we might care so much about the daunting victory conditions laid before us is the constantly surging, ever repeating 8-bit encouragement of the Mega Man score. Whether there is science behind this idea or my friends and I have an unnatural commitment to something we shouldn’t, the music from Mega Man always makes me feel like focusing up and moving fast, and this isn’t an isolated experience. The reality is that this is one of the lighter associations that exist between my memory and music in games.

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Mar 2

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I’m just going to post some notes here for tonight’s discussion.

This is from Miriam Posner’s syllabus website for her class “Selfies, Snapchat, & Cyberbullies”

“Our goal is to develop a vocabulary for talking about technological and cultural change that accommodates the diversity and contingency of human experience.”

What should students hope to take away from this class, and what are they working toward?

This is from the site for “The Selfie Course” from the Selfie Researchers Network

  • Selfie as discourse: Examples: What is the history (or histories) of the selfie? How do these histories map to contemporary media and scholarly discourses regarding self-representation, autobiography, photography, amateurism, branding, and/or celebrity?
  • Selfie as evidence: Examples: What are the epistemological ramifications of the selfie? How do selfies function as evidence that one attended an event, feels intimate with a partner, was battered in a parking lot, is willing to be ‘authentic’ with fans, or claims particular   standing in a social or political community? One uploaded, how do selfies become evidence of a different sort, subject to possibilities like ‘revenge porn’, data mining, or state surveillance?
  • Selfie as affect: Examples: What feelings do selfies elicit for those who produce, view, and/or circulate them? What are we to make of controversial genres like infant selfies, soldier selfies, selfies with homeless people, or selfies at funerals? How do these discourses about controversial selfies map to larger conversations about “audience numbness” and “empathy deficit” in media?
  •  Selfie as ethics: Examples: Who practices “empowering” selfie generation? Who does not? Who cannot? How do these questions map to larger issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion and geography? What responsibilities do those who circulate selfies of others have toward the original creator of the photo? What is the relationship between selfies and other forms of documentary photography, with regard to ethics?
  • Selfie as performance/presentation of self: While this aspect might be considered self-evident. We must pay attention to the tension between spontaneity and staging in the way that selfies serve as a performance and presentation of self in global and social media contexts. Also – when does the selfie as genre become a standard and format for staging authenticity in marketing and social activist campaigns across cultures? To what effect and what purpose?

This looks to me like a pretty good breakdown of the different ways to study selfies. All provocative questions. My question is, what value is this to academia, and in what discipline? Is this a direction for scholarship, or a topic to explore for the sake of ethics and being a human being?

Here are some other questions we might want to talk about.

  • Does the selfie cultural phenomenon, most popular in teens and young people, also encourage a culture of self-indulgence and prolonged adolescence? (Star Wars, Marvel, BuzzFeed, “frenemy”) If yes, could there be a correlative or causal relationship between this and the increasingly vitriolic and decreasingly intellectually rigorous nature of our dialogues regarding controversies, e.g. building a border wall?
  • Because selfies typically exist with very limited context, given the temporal nature of our very lives, is the selfie the next iteration of our attempt to document our experience and leave a mark on the word, or an inane squandering of our “one precious life?”
  • “Cam girl” as mentioned in article 3, is a term widely used to describe internet sex workers. We have no way of knowing what the circumstances are under which people do this, so we’ll just have to leave that alone. But assuming they’re not under duress, they’re exchanging content people want for monetary gain. Does this not fall at the extreme end of a sliding scale occupied by many people who might bristle at being compared to sex workers, who post things on the internet for audiences hoping to gain something of benefit to themselves, e.g. endorsements, notoriety, prizes, etc..
  • Selfies have been called a vital form of self expression. In a networked atmosphere, is it misleading to encourage individual posts that value centrality and primacy Was a way of participating in collaboration? When are these practices mutually exclusive and when do they work?
  • If we accept selfies as composition in the classroom, are they replacing other forms or adding to them? Let’s talk about those other forms.
  • Is a selfie not an intensely personal thing, more so than any form of expression we’ve used pedagogically before?
  • What is driving professors and institutions to explore this topic, and what field can most competently do so?
  • Is it fair to use selfies and other forms of digital media that students use for self expression as a classroom tool?

Consider the selfies below. Care to try to interpret them? Let’s talk about that. What’s happening in these photos? What are their contexts?

 

Feb 24

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With Chapters 5 and 6, I feel like I finally got vindication for all my yelling about this book, as well as a glimpse into why it might actually be worthwhile after all. Below, a quote from Chapter 5.

None of the is rocket science. Indeed, Wales told me that most people learned on the playground most of what they need to know to be good Wikipedians.

This is what I’ve been frustratedly growling into the pages of this book for weeks, that I believe that so much of what we’ve been reading about should have been skills learned through life experience, and being a person and interacting with other people both for fun and profit. I also think that something crystalized for me while I was reading these chapters that has been bothering me this whole time. This book, and especially chapter five, is full of tips for how to use the internet, how to game twitter, how to develop your brand and expand your network- presumably for personal benefit but conceivably for profit- but it never suggests why. Why is the author advocating for people to learn these skills? To what end? The obvious answer is that it’s 2016 (it wasn’t when the book was written, mind) and that everything is online so it is to everyone’s individual good that they be competent and literate in using the internet. But that isn’t necessarily a good reason for everyone to learn about the politics of forums, the etiquette of sharing research on twitter, and the value of linking different groups of people together. Yes, it’s a benefit to everyone to be aware of what Facebook does with our information, and to be able to vet a website, but what about the other stuff? It looks like learning to network for networking’s sake. Why are we telling people to do this stuff? I’m not talking about practically, or what good it will do them. It might well help almost anyone in some way. But ethically, what is the point of this? What philosophy is backing up this enterprise? I think that’s why I’ve felt like a lot of what we’ve been talking about has been so empty. Because I haven’t detected anything behind it, underneath it, that makes it worthwhile. I’ve read a lot of this stuff as a pretty straight correlation to “how to be popular,” “how to get people to like you,” “how to ingratiate yourself to people in advance of the zombie apocalypse.”

It was only in Chapter 6 that I felt like the author came through with what I thought was a much-needed dose of humanity. The need for people to mind their Facebook privacy settings. The acknowledgment that his positions are (apparently widely) viewed as rosy and optimistic, that paywalls are dividing the free and open web, and the nefarious forces at work on the internet- from trolls to corporate entities to shady government initiatives- are formidable and many. These are things I needed to hear, because these are things I believe are integral to the fabric of the kind of digital networked life that Rheingold is advocating for. I do feel that the book stopped short of really digging into the issues of the internet’s corporate gatekeepers, like the the cable companies that have been working for a while to privilege internet access by speeding up or slowing down various connections. But I did see the author take a stand, and let the reader know that although all of these negatives are realities, that doesn’t seal our fate. That to keep a thing free people have to organize, to cooperate, to believe that it can stay free, and then we have a chance, and with that we have a point, a reason why anything in this books matters- because the internet is kind of a goddamn miracle, and if any of us have the slightest hope of preserving what’s good about it, we have to know how to use it. It’s a good message. I wish he’d lead with it.

Matt

9. Wherein the writer’s world is rent in two

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I recently played through a game called Far Cry 4 on the PS3 with my brother. He and I would take turns completing missions and generally visiting carnage on the fictional kind of India-like nation of Kyrat. From early on, we’d run through enemy camps firing exploding arrows from the back of an elephant, lobbing grenades at armed convoys, and releasing caged tigers to exact vengeance on their captors. Our avatar became synonymous with Old Testament-style destruction. Flames and chaos followed his every mountain climb, ATV ride, and wing suit glide. He instantaneously learned how to operate a flame thrower, aim a throwing knife, and fly a hang glider. We would add our own elements of challenge to the game (which would we worried was becoming too easy) by eliminating conventional machine guns and shotguns from our inventory and instead relying on a simple bow, a cowboy six shooter, a sniper rifle and explosives.  Our reign of terror was largely unmitigated. It was a lot of fun. At a few points our rampage would overlap with the game’s scripted story, and we would experience these cut scenes in which one of the other characters (two leaders of a violent revolution to free their homeland from an insane despot) would tell us about the cause, and send us out to accomplish something.Their army was usually standing around, or getting into skirmishes in the woods. When something important was happening, they called us up and said we needed to do it. Our avatar, who until the game’s first scene was an unassuming civilian, had become the blunt instrument of the revolution. As there was no other option, and because fighting bad guys for the cause was just as good as fighting bad guys for the hell of it, we went along and completed the missions, saving the day for the rebels or striking down some dangerous enemy or taking a vital strategic point. As the game went on, our interactions with our comrades became more divisive, and soon each of the two characters were advocating against the agenda of the other. They told us we must choose between them. We didn’t always love the choices, but to go with the flow we decided to select the course of action we felt was closest to what we thought we would do. Then they told us we had to choose between blowing up an ancient temple and destroying a culture, or defending the temple and giving a teenage girl over to a life of forced religious service as the symbol of a goddess (whatever that means, and it sounds kind of sexual and creepy). We looked at each other and said, “Excuse me, rebels, but fuck you. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. I’ve just blown up half this country. What if I don’t like either of those options? Why would I ever take orders from the likes of you, a bossy peasant?” I paraphrased a bit, but the point remains. These narrative directions beg the question- why would anyone with this talent for sheer destruction, who is so nigh-unkillable, ever go along with some half baked plan if he doesn’t want to? Why doesn’t the unhinged killing machine that is my avatar EVER seem to be calling the shots? This doesn’t make sense, especially in the context of how I’ve been playing this game. It’s disorienting, and it pushes against the player’s immersion in the otherwise beautiful and arresting reality of the game world. It wrecks the illusion, and calls the validity of the whole experience into question. It make you feel like, maybe this game is junk, because it hasn’t accounted for this vast chasm of what it’s asking me to do and what seems reasonable for me to expect in this moment.

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Feb 17

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I regret that my last blog was so negative. I was going to talk about it. I’m not. This week’s Mozilla stuff was cool. I may have been defeating the purpose of the exercise, but I skimmed over all the stuff that involved instructions for educators and got right to messing with whatever the exercise was supposed to be. I don’t feel like I have any use for the other stuff at the moment, so I left it behind to interact with and assess the materials that Mozilla set up or linked to. Or I tried to. Actually, I was kind of frustrated that it wasn’t easier to skip the “for teachers” instructions, which was meta material in my view, and interact with whatever the product was, in some cases. But I guess that speaks to the target audience for this program. They’re trying to teach teachers how to teach the Internet, so the focus will be on teaching and not simply, “look at this,” which is what I was looking for. One thing that stood out was a game that “taught” kids to code by having them use HTML to help their cat avatar jump around the screen. That was a neat idea, although as I played through the demo I didn’t notice a lot of very specific instruction or like any context or anything for the children to be using one or two HTML tags. Maybe because it’s the demo. Maybe the full version is more complete.

I was also drawn to some of the activities addressing cyber security and personal privacy online. A lot of the stuff I saw regarded how to talk to students about these things, and the meanings of terms, and the importance of keeping things private sometimes and how being online doesn’t change that. I think that’s all really valuable stuff and I see why it exists and I think it’s important. Whether it should be a teacher’s job to teach these lessons I think is a separate issue, but I don’t believe it is in the heart of any real educator to leave a student or anyone adrift if they can help it, just because it’s not their job to help them. So good on you teachers, for trying to do what you can in a world that is doing it’s best to not help you out. That said, I skipped all the teacherly stuff to try and find the real information and experience. At one point I realized that while all of the activities we were using we optimized for use in Firefox, at least one required its use specifically. This was an activity that required using an extension. An extension that I would have gladly downloaded and used, but I was then and am now as I almost only am on Safari, and I’m not going to switch for one extension. The extension in question shows the user what websites are using cookies to track them and where they (the cookies) come from. And that’s probably really good to know, especially if you’re trying to keep track of that type of thing, which you probably should be. Whenever we talk (like we as humans in the 21st century) about information security and personal identifiers, revealing true information about ourselves, I think of this fantasy novel I read when I was like 14. It had to do with people and dragons, and this one lady for whatever reason could speak dragon, I think, and as such she was able to learn their names. Not like FireWing or whatever people were calling them, but their true names. And that gave her an incredible amount of power over them. I think when we get too loose about our information (and it’s hard not to be when [as I just found out when I changed my Cookies setting after reading about them] so many websites REQUIRE you to enable cookies) we leave the door open to all kinds of trouble that could give one sneaky, shitty person a tremendous amount of power over us. The more that is known about you, the easier you are to pin down. The easier you are to predict, anticipate, outsmart, and deceive. This is as true in the world as it is on the internet, and we would all do well to remain mindful of it.

 

Matt

Feb 10

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I’m having a hard time writing, I think because I don’t know that I have that much to say, and I don’t want to be negative. I feel like a lot of the material in these chapters has been a mix of “I knew that already” and “so what.” The irony of reading a print book about how to be current with digital media is starting to grate on me. Beyond that, I think it’s just like I said last week: What we’re reading and talking about are just suggestions for how to be an adult, slightly adapted to the world of digital media and communication. It has me feeling like, if you can’t figure out how to behave with other people, online or in real life, then go sit in the corner and let the grownups handle things. I get that some people have varying degrees of familiarity and comfort with digital tools, and that it’s a book meant to help people “thrive online.” I guess I was just expecting something different. I read some other students’ blogs that had nice things to say. I don’t know, I just don’t feel that. I feel like all of this writing about how great Twitter is for getting people together, and I know it can be and has been, largely ignores any possible negative of the whole internet. I know in earlier chapters Rheingold talks about the dangers of being taken advantage of by a corporation online. I just feel like maybe its a little unbalanced. It’s very inspiring that the inventor of the internet didn’t want to own it, and that we evolved from apes through our ability to help each other and form relationships, and that there are online communities out there that support each other and do good in the world, though all but the third are perhaps irrelevant. But at the same time, Kim Kardashian has 40 MILLION followers on twitter. That’s over 40,200,000 individual accounts that are exposed to whatever she or her PR people decide to share at any given time. Even if a full million of them or more are bots and other junk or spam accounts, that’s still 39 million accounts. Which is 38,999,925 more than I have. 33 million more than Neil deGrasse Tyson. 31 million more than the pope. The reason that I’m yelling about that is, that I guess I’m frustrated. But also important is that the internet is not a rosy place. The internet is just the world transposed into digital space, and in the world people with money and fame influence others to their ends, whatever they are. Some are beneficial to the world, others are nefarious, others still and probably most are dumb. I don’t want to just complain. I guess I feel like coverage here is a little one-sided. I know it is mentioned at some point that there are trolls on the internet, and that some of the stuff on twitter is inane and mind-numbing. But that sidelong acknowledgement I don’t really feel is a sufficient representation, especially in the context of a guide for supposed neophytes to the internet and social media. I’m going to stop, because I don’t feel I’m doing a good job, and it’s possible that my attitude is contaminating this whole project and I don’t want to write a 2000 word screed sounding like a jerk.

 

-Matt

8. Wherein the Writer Gets Fictionalized

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As per Andre’s recommendation I dug into Walter Ong a bit recently, specifically “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction,” and I found a lot of the ideas he expresses there really apply to games. Most immediately- what other form of expression fictionalizes its audience, or forces them into a role, more than video games? None. Not opera, not poetry, not graffiti. Maybe performance art, but that varies and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t usually follow you home. A game (to some degree, usually) forces its audience into a role that the player then stays with for hours, days, sometimes months or longer. The player returns again and again to a table set for someone other than themselves— sometimes someone similar to themselves to some degree but always other— and the only way they can eat is to assume another (sometimes obscured) identity. And that’s supposed to be part of the fun. A big part in fact. Some games do this in different ways and a lot of styles of games do this to different degrees. It’s often but not always games designed to be more digestible to children and families that do the most to cast the player (please read: audience, reader) in a prescribed role. When the intro cinematic opens up on almost any Mario game lately, the player is greeted with a brief tale of what darkness has most recently rolled across the idyllic Mushroom Kingdom, and what nefarious deed the villain (usually but not ALWAYS Bowser) has committed that drives the heroes to struggle against him (I think it’s always a him) across dozens of levels and finally banish him from the land or whatever. Another recent Nintendo game called Hyrule Warriors collects a bunch of characters from the Legend of Zelda franchise and sticks them into a story along the same lines as the outline I just… outlined. This game adds the really pleasant voice of a lady narrator who updates the player on what’s happening in the story between playable missions, and I think that’s key as we (read: I) talk about fictionalizing the audience. This lady, whose voice I have to say is really well suited to telling stories, not only tells the player what events have come to pass since the last battle, but also how the characters feel. One of them must put her mission on hold, even though it is desperately important, because she has come upon a village beset by monsters. Another, we are told, is worried about her charge, the princess who has gone missing, and is crossing time and space to find her. And then, when the narration ends and the next mission begins, the player picks up control of those very characters. In this way, the game, or its way of communicating its story to the player, has cast the player in the role of the self sacrificing hero who cannot ignore a plea for help, or the devoted companion who will stop at nothing to rescue her friend. These stances are not negotiable. There is no option to not free the village or rescue the princess. These are gameplay mechanics that are a slightly different topic but also serve to irrevocably cast the player into a role through which she will digest whatever narrative or experience the game has to offer. Hyrule Warriors, from which these examples are taken, was released for the WiiU, successor to the Wii, both of which have long been held to be the family-friendly option in the gaming console market. It is worth repeating that these types of games are generally considered to be more child-friendly, which could be a function of their direct audience-role-casting narrative. These games offer sweeping tableaus and detailed maps and intricate mythologies and backstories that are made available to the player from the outset. These elements serve to further flesh out the game world and serve the function of immersing the player more deeply in that world, thereby deepening her commitment to the role she’s asked to play. Continue reading