Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Something Wiki This Way Comes

In a summer of sequels, I guess I shouldn't be so surprised to see the controversy over Tactical Iraqi coming up again. Of course, the premise is a little tired, but so is Ocean's Thirteen, Shrek the Third, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End, and Live Free or Die Hard. Nonetheless, I feel like I've been cast in some bad Rocky movie, in which I have been called up out of retirement long after giving variations of the same talk on three continents (call them Tactical Iraqi 1, Tactical Iraqi 2, and Tactical Iraqi 3) about computerized 3D simulations of Iraq and its citizens in a much publicized military-funded Arabic language-learning videogame for training soldiers.

Normally I'd ignore a misleading Wikipedia article. After all, by and large, Wikipedia uses collective intelligence wisely, despite the occasional imposter among its editorial personnel. Although I've written long encyclopedia entries for print volumes and consequently know the importance of objectivity, coverage, and balance, mostly I look the other way when blatant advertisements or political propaganda appear in Wikipedia. Perhaps I'll say something, if an entry is clearly coming from a totally biased source, such as the friends and family of a soldier accused of murder and human rights violations, but mostly I take a live-and-let-live attitude toward the giant online encyclopedia. Like most academics, I even consult it from time to time, particularly if I need to check the dates of an historical figure or the meaning of some piece of computer jargon.

Thus, when I saw the entry on the Tactical Language and Training System for the first time, I just chuckled. It was so obviously written by someone too close to the software development or testing team that its lack of scholarly integrity was simply comic. For example, in the first version of the entry, an editor subtly named "TLTUser" posted the following piece of copy:

User responses to the Tactical Language and Culture Training System courses have been uniformly positive. Users like the fact that it helps them acquire practical communication skills that they can input to use. Users of Tactical Iraqi who had previously been deployed to Iraq frequently report that they learned more in one day of work with the system than they had learned during their entire tour of duty in Iraq.

This last line I recognized from the TLTS brochure! I knew for sure, because it also had appeared almost verbatim in an April 2006 ABC News broadcast, when announcer Bill Blakemore read directly from the same TLTS testimonial.

As ludicrous as it sounded to me, I left the entry unedited. After all, I have a soft spot for this kind of awkward prose made up of naive generalizations. I run a large college writing program for a living, and sentences that other people would dismiss as amateurish I recognize as a normal part of the process of writing development.

So I was not the person who made one of the original passages look like this:

User responses to the Tactical Language and Culture Training System courses have been uniformly positive.[citation needed] Users like the fact that it helps them acquire practical communication skills that they can input to use.[citation needed] Users of Tactical Iraqi who had previously been deployed to Iraq frequently report that they learned more in one day of work with the system than they had learned during their entire tour of duty in Iraq.[citation needed]

This editor, "Frecklefoot," observed that "I highly suspect this whole article is a copyvio," meaning a "copyright violation" in which text is lifted from another proprietary source and inserted into Wikipedia without proper quotation marks or citation. It's a form of plagiarism, which is one of the scourges that Wikipedia attempts to police.

In comparison, I felt like I was really pulling my punches when I stepped in and added this seemingly inoffensive paragraph to provide more context:

There has been some controversy about the game in the serious games development community, as to whether working on a military-funded videogame related to the Iraq occupation, even one with ostensibly admirable objectives, is morally defensible. For example, Gonzalo Frasca has argued that it is a propaganda game.

I thought I was accurately reporting the facts while still being fair to the creator of Tactical Iraqi, a person I had interviewed in some depth in his lab two years ago. By saying that those working on the project could be seen as having "admirable objectives," I was granting that if more soldiers spoke Arabic perhaps the U.S. could reduce some civilian casualties. Whether or not this particular game was the best way to teach Arabic was not something I addressed, nor did I mention the fact that Tactical Iraqi's own developers had pointed out problems with players in this article and noted that there had been occasions when soldiers didn't want to play in the game space or cheated to win.

In addition, I cited one of the central figures in the debate about Tactical Iraqi, videogame researcher Gonzalo Frasca, and linked to his relatively long Wikipedia biography along with Frasca's heated exchanges with game developers who had worked on Tactical Iraqi and other military-funded projects. My only misstatement consisted of omitting the quotation marks around "propaganda game," since it was a direct quotation of Gonzalo's exact phrase for how he categorized Tactical Iraqi.

The irony is that I actually didn't agree with Gonzalo on this point, but I'm enough of an academic to want to represent a given counterargument accurately. My studied scholarly neutrality has even created some confusion. Recently, when I was contacted by journalist Carl Cannon about my opinion of Tactical Iraqi, he found my criticism so blunted that he couldn't figure out if I thought these games "were valuable exercises -- or a waste of time."

So imagine my surprise when Ian Bogost pointed out to me that my innocuous paragraph had been completely re-written by a Wikipedia editor named "Phoenix76" into the following set of falsehoods:

There has been little controversy about the use of the software in the serious games development community. Most everyone thinks working on a videogame supporting the admirable goals of achieving peace in Iraq is a just and moral cause. After viewing the emphasis the language teaching program places upon the culture of the community where the lessons will be applied, even skeptics are hard pressed to find fault with the system.

Okay, at this point I'm annoyed. I had written two peer-reviewed scholarly papers about the controversy surrounding the game, which were now part of the ACM library. None of the eight people who read those papers thought there was no controversy to write about, at least based on the evidence I had cited. My thesis was that this controversy was interesting because I thought it had more to do with disagreements about the social effects of recent technologies -- and videogames specifically -- than it did with the conflict over the Iraq war.

Besides, Gonzalo Frasca wasn't the only one raising red flags about TLTS programs among people who study new media. Months earlier recent Ph.D. Mark Marino had expressed doubts about the game on the blog Writer Response Theory, which covers interactive narratives and uses for artificial intelligence technology in stories. Since Tactical Iraqi was developed at a university, the University of Southern California, and its team members participated in academic conferences, it's not surprising that there would be discomfort with the military and commercial aspects of the game. There's also inevitably friction between game developers who want to create a fun experience of ludic participation and the Defense Department's agenda for command and control. I suppose these critics could be considered the rare and thus unmentioned exceptions to "most everyone." But why delete the link to Gonzalo's Wikipedia entry? And why not provide any links to support the opposing position?

More important, why insert an assertion that the game was being used in service of a "just and moral cause"? Unlike TLTUser who was using Wikipedia to promote advertising for a commercial product, Phoenix76 may have been somewhat more removed from the USC project and its corporate spin-off Alelo. Nevertheless, his contribution appears to be a flagrant violation of Wikipedia's NPOV or "No Point of View" policy.

Furthermore, this seems like a case of protesting too much, given the fact that I've interviewed FOUR principal investigators leading teams that have worked on military videogrames who said that they were opposed to the invasion of Iraq. In fact, I have yet to interview anyone working on these games who disagrees with most Americans in characterizing the war as an international policy mistake.

There have even been some public comments from the game's developers that prove that this Wikipedia entry is inaccurate. For example, in response to Gonzalo Frasca, Hannes Vilhjálmsson wrote, "I have enjoyed this conversation thread here and admit that I sympathize with both points of view. Being a peace activist myself, I had to overcome a great deal of stigma before accepting technical lead on the project." Note that Vilhjálmsson acknowledges "a great deal of stigma" associated with the project.

Now, I'm not going to out people with inconvenient political opinions for purposes of continued DARPA funding that were shared in confidence nor quote from their private e-mails or my notes from interviews to make this point, but the people who work on these games are conflicted about taking defense money when they are personally opposed to many aspects of the war. To say otherwise is simply a baldfaced lie.

Of course, there have been so many untruths associated with the Iraq war, I suppose this is a relatively trivial one to choose, but it gets at so many of the themes that I've been writing about for the past three years that I can't stay silent and let the record be uncorrected.

Vilhjálmsson himself has made a significant correction about the interpretation of his statements, so please check out the comments section for more on this story.

Of course, I'd still say the whole episode points to an inappropriate use of Wikipedia and a cautionary information literacy tale.

Another Update: The New York Times wrote a noteworthy story about Wikipedia, "All the News That's Fit to Print Out," which argues that Wikipedia now serves a journalistic purpose as well, since it comments on breaking news stories more rapidly than the traditional editorial process often allows.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here we go again ;) I think my comment in response to Gonzalo Frasca still sums up my stance on this project. But let me clarify a possible misinterpretation of my words that you quote here: "I had to overcome a great deal of stigma before accepting technical lead on the project." Here I am only referring to my own personal feeling for the militaristic subject matter and not to any public stigma or feelings that others might have had towards the project. In fact, seeing how my own peers generally praised the project, helped me overcome my own scepticism. Therefore, if you interpreted this as an acknowledgement of some general stigma, I'm sorry my words mislead you.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

Thanks for commenting.

This is completely legitimate correction to make, so I'll point readers to it in an "update."

Nonetheless, there are certainly doubters both about the war within the project and the project among game developers, but if you were not among them I wouldn't want to misrepresent your statements.

11:20 PM  

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