Friday, October 31, 2008

Making Visible

Unlike earlier advertisements against California's Proposition 8, which the Los Angeles Times observed featured a noticeable absence in presenting oxymoronic "invisible gays" who are only spoken of by the straight characters in the spots, this new ad with the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, which is also being used as a fundraising tool, includes actual images of families with gay partners.

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This is My Idea of an Obama Girl

Keep an eye on the girl in the front right. This video about how "You Can Vote However You Like" that appeals to mainstream sensibilities, much as the supposedly even-handedly sendable JibJab videos won an audience in the last election, has even been featured by Time magazine. Unlike the more partisan zero-sum political messages featured in this round-up of YouTube offerings by Henry Jenkins, this video celebrates an egalitarianism of choice. For more on YouTube politicking, check out Jenkins' offerings at MIT's new website for the Center for Future Civic Media. Of course, right now I am reading the anthology of essays in the Video Vortex Reader, which paints a somewhat darker picture of the politics of YouTube in the era of database consumption.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Truth Will Out

As Ian Bogost points out, the new online game Truth Invaders is using a familiar game mechanic that has also been featured in Tax Invaders and the McCain campaign's Pork Invaders. Instead of simply obliterating a given distorted message from the political right or left, the player's projectiles in this easy-to-win game effect of piecemeal transformation of an expedient lie from the campaign trail to a more rigorous truth. VP friend Chris Swain, who was one of the creators of the ReDistricting Game, is listed as a faculty advisor to the creators.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Splitting the Difference

These Mac vs. PC parody advertisements are designed to encourage voters to support marriage equality and vote against California's Proposition 8, which would bar gay marriage. Of course, given the popularity of this corporate meme, its possible to imagine a parody that takes the pro-8 side.

(Thanks to Ava Arndt for the link.)

Update: As Henry Jenkins points out, there is also an Obama Mac vs. PC parody.

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Point and Shoot

The interactive display of Palin as President should delight point-and-click web users for at least its fifteen minutes of fame. Thanks to Jennifer Brancato for the link.

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Native Son

What some bloggers are describing as A Video That Could Change the Election actually contains few new allegations, even though it has garnered almost four million views for its conspiracy theory style argument that Barack Obama is not an American citizen by birth and therefore cannot serve as president. At the Fight the Smears website, a copy of Obama's Honolulu birth certificate is on display. has also taken Obama's side in the dispute and even posts a photograph showing the number of the certificate, which the Obama site has blacked out.

Nonetheless, supporters of this "October Surprise" promote the Obama Crimes blog, which reports that injunctions are being filed to prevent the supposed Kenyan's and/or Indonesian's election. The group's bells-and-whistles Flash site, No Hussein, is devoted to ad hominem attacks, many of which go beyond the issue of Obama's supposed foreign nationality.

As a rhetorician, what I find interesting about the YouTube video is the filmmakers' attempts to establish credibility by claiming to be nonpartisan and implying that People magazine style journalism rather than a vast left-wing conspiracy causes this "story" to be untold. Obama opponent attorney Philip J. Berg also prefaces his remarks with claims of Democratic party affiliation and expertise in Constitutional law.

Ironically, of course, McCain was born in Panama, while his father was stationed there as a naval officer.

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Mix Up

This remix of debate footage emphasizes the redundancy of political discourse by also using the capacities of digital video editing software to display multiple screens of footage simultaneously. (Thanks to Mimi Ito for the link.)

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Early to Rise, Early to Bed

Longtime national newspaper The Christian Science Monitor is apparently discontinuing their print edition after a century of ink-and-paper production. Their current FAQ does not discuss this development, although it does discuss the importance of the different forms of the electronic version of the periodical:

The Christian Science Monitor is an international daily newspaper published Monday through Friday. Founded in 1908 by Mary Baker Eddy, it's now also a multimedia website, an e-mail edition, a personal digital assistant (PDA) edition, and a downloadable PDF of the print version.

Despite the fact that they are hosting events on "The Future of Journalism" as part of its centennial, the website is still soliciting traditional subscribers for thirty-two weeks of its physical newspaper, although the New York Times asserts that the daily paper will be discontinued.

As for the New York Times, it is stepping up its quest for user-generated content, most recently by encouraging readers to submit photographs of polling places to a collective online album.

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The Big Deal

As someone who writes about the rapidly changing issues around digital libraries, I may be feeling some regrets about discussing some of the Google-related lawsuits in the Virtualpolitik book without being able to discuss the resolution of the cases once the text is at the final proof stages. The Wall Street Journal has shrunk the latest legal agreement down to "Google Deal Opens Web to Millions of Books," but the fine print of the settlement may have ramifications for other kinds of distributed media replication that features copyrighted content as well. For example, The Law Blog thinks that the $125 million dollar pay-out to "settle claims from authors and publishers for its earlier digital-scanning, cover legal fees and establish a Book Rights Registry to oversee the agreement" could also indicate that overtures to Viacom from Google-owned YouTube may also eventually be in the works. Siva Vaidhyanathan his written up his "initial take" on the settlement as well.

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A Bird's Eye View in the Bush

This extraordinary videotaped evidence shot from behind a bush shows a Johnson County Kansas commissioner snatching the lawn signs of his opponent. Now charged with theft, the commissioner is apparently claiming that he was merely "moving" them or putting them in his van to foster a civilized discussion about their placement. There were also moments of comedy in the video, which was subsequently posted on YouTube as well. For example, the female campaign worker documenting the act frequently curses and then seems to realize that such utterances are impolitic.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

All Thumbs

In "Thumbspeak," Louis Menand comments on text messaging for the New Yorker in the context of reviewing Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 from Oxford University Press. The author of the book, linguist David Crystal, argues that the phenomena still accounts for a relatively small percentage of total utterages, although the role of global English and code-switching behaviors in the text messaging of multilingual members of many different national groups points to some significant developments in usage. He also points to a story close to home, in which a Metrolink engineer in Southern California was texting just before a disastrous commuter train crash to illustrate how continuous send-and-receive norms differ from the communication patters of desktop computer users. Although much of the book points to abbreviated forms of prose, many researchers also assert that standard written English is surprisingly important to young texters, a finding that my own anecdotal experiences with my own teen seems to confirm.

Of course, there can still be a certain poetics to text messaging, particularly in the current political climate in which "smart mobs" may have certain kinds of electoral agency, as NPR's story "St. Louis Voters Discuss Struggles, Election Hopes" makes clear in describing how African-Americans are disseminating more lyric messages to express their collective aspirations.

The trainees' instructor, Ed Welch, was listening to the conversation; he mentions a text message he got from a friend urging him to vote.

The message read: "Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked, so Obama could run. Obama is running so our children can fly."

Update: the Washington Post provides more analysis of the use of texting by the Obama campaign at "What Next for Obama's Text-Messaging Database?"

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dance Dance Voter Revolution

Dancing is so important in the visual rhetoric of much of the Internet ephemera circulating in this election, from McCain dancing machinima to flash-based dancing Hillary displays, that there are also a number of YouTube videos in which greenscreen technologies and software such as After Effects can combine the bodies of virtuoso dance performances with the faces from stump politicking. There are also Michael Jackson style performances and Dancing with the Stars parodies in this genre. Good dancing is so admired in our culture and yet so rarely attained that it may serve as a suitable for the participation gap in American politics in which so many voters are consigned to be spectators and judges.

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On the Tweet Where You Live

First it was Second Life that a government report warned could serve as a training ground for terrorists. Now it seems that the microblogging service Twitter is also a Web 2.0 enabler of terrorist acts. The report, published on the website of the Federation of American Scientists, includes "a Red Teaming Perspective on the Potential Terrorist Use of Twitter" along with a number of presentations about how mobile communication and ubiquitous computing technologies are supposedly an unrecognized threat that could be exploited by jihadists. This equation of technology with terrorism is something that I discuss in more detail in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book, and the details of this particular case, revealed at "Terrorist 'tweets'? US Army warns of Twitter dangers" underscores the silliness of some of the chains of associations in the document:

"Twitter has also become a social activism tool for socialists, human rights groups, communists, vegetarians, anarchists, religious communities, atheists, political enthusiasts, hacktivists and others to communicate with each other and to send messages to broader audiences," the report said.

The report presents the following scenarios, which could be used to justify future surveillance operations of civilian citizens' communications or -- at the very least -- lead to more limitation of access to social computing technologies by members of the military.

Scenario 1:

Terrorist operative "A" uses Twitter with (or without) using a cell phone camera/video functionto to send back messages, and to receive messages from the rest of his cell. Operative "A" also has a Google Maps Twitter MashUp of where he is under a code word for other member so his cell ( if they need more in-depth directions) posted on the WWW that can be viewed from their mobiles. Other members of his cell receive near real time updates (similar to the movement updates that were sent by activists at the RNC) on how, where, and the number of troops that are moving in order to conduct an ambush.

Scenario 2:

Terrorist operative "A " has a mobile phone or Tweet messaging and for taking images. Operative"A" also has a separate mobile phone that is actually an explosive device and/or a suicide vest for remote detonation. Terrorist operative "B" has the detonator and a mobile to view "A's" Tweets and images. This may allow "B" to select the precise moment of remote detonation based on near realtime movement and imagery that is being sent by "A."

Scenario 3:
CyberTerrorist operative"A" finds U.S. Army Smith's Twitter a count. Operative"A" joins Smith's Tweets and begins to elicit information from Smith. This informatioins then used for a targeting package (targeting in this sense could be for identity theft, hacking, and/or physical.) This scenario is not new and has already been discussed for other social networking sites, such as My Space and/or FaceBook.

And if this story isn't enough for you, the Virtualpolitik blog has also pointed out the nefarious threat to national security that is YouTube. Be afraid! Be very afraid!

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Thick Skinned

In the United States, stories about cyberbullies often focus on interactions between minors who are assumed to lack the emotional defenses and social skills to ward of hateful comments, but in Korea, as the Los Angeles Times explains in Suicide of South Korean actress fuels Internet debate, lawmakers also look at the consequences of griefing and flaming for adult Internet users. Apparently legislators are considering punishments for cyber-insults after the death of a celebrity in response to rumors about her role in another possible suicide.

Choi's suicide came at a time when government officials are pushing to introduce new clauses in communication laws to enforce harsher punishment for cyber-insults. The country is also preparing to extend an existing law that requires Web service providers to confirm social security numbers and the real names of users.

However, as the article also points out, the cyber-insult law could be easily used against those who criticize the government, in a country with a history of decades of political repression in the recent past.

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The catchphrase "Wassup?" at one time vied with other weighty questions such as "Got Milk?" and "Where's the Beef?" as a classic commercial slogan, which was put in service by Budweiser beer. The original commercial, which starred a quartet of "middle-class black males" who are cast as "Everymen" was extremely, if inexplicably, popular. Now the group appears in the Obama ad below. Business Week offers an interesting analysis of how it achieved its big-budget quality, why Bud isn't claiming infringement, and how independent producers sometimes maintain control over the intellectual property that promotes large corporate interests. The group's website is here.

Of course, there are many other restagings and remixings of the commercial on YouTube, including vernacular video practices involving home movie style interactions.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Table Talk

Today I attended a session with graduate students as part of UCSB's LCM Symposium: Careers in New Media and Digital Humanities, which was structured around some of the following questions and issues:

- challenges of working and seeking positions outside one's PhD granting department

-- what do humanities departments mean by "media"?

-- strategies for showcasing technical work in job applications (e.g. RA appts, wiki projects, blogs)

-- nomenclature and the shape of the field: new media, the digital humanities, electronic literacies, et al

-- the place of new media in rhet/comp departments (job opportunities, research questions)

-- what is the place of practical or applied research in the humanities?

-- the place of gaming in new media studies

As a rhetorician who is interested in praxis, I also put together a web page with three main types of sample public appeals that advertise expertise in the field of new media: sites created by graduate students and recent PhDs, sites I had created, and sites for different national and international professional associations, think tanks, philanthropic groups, and conferences in this rapidly changing interdisciplinary field. It was a lively discussion as we talked about how to balance virtuosity with collegiality and how to avoid gaffes such as providing too much personal information or creating websites that are difficult to display, navigate, print, or copy and paste. We also discussed some of the new genres being created by graduate students, such as the dissertation blog. Thanks to Rita Raley and Alan Liu for leading a productive discussion with me.

Update: One of the students present has already created his own site.

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Domestic Matters

In the news this week, there have been a number of stories about spousal violence that involve online identities and social constructions that are constituted in virtual reality environments.

In Tokyo, as the Associated Press reports in "Woman jailed after 'killing' virtual husband," a female computer user who had entered into a virtual marriage with another player in the 2-D scrolling MMORPG Maple Story deleted his account when spurned. This act of computer-mediated obliteration violated laws against hacking rather than VR homicide, although the headline might suggest otherwise.

Although the stories and activities of Maple Story are not staged in 3-D worlds with photorealistic avatars, members of this online community are clearly heavily invested in social rituals and family building, which can start with owning a pet. The wedding page of the main website is filled with photographs of ostentatious ceremonies. The site includes a detailed marriage guide that covers all the steps involved in virtual betrothal from acquiring the necessary jewelry in the "Engagement Ring Quest" to making the actual online proposal to one's intended. This also isn't the first time that the legal issues of Maple Story have been considered to merit attention: I heard Minnesota law professor Dan Burk give a talk about the possible legal ramifications of the site, given his own experiences playing with his family members.

On the other side of the world, the London Daily Mail describes a real-life homicide in "Husband hacked wife to death with meat cleaver after she changed Facebook status to single." The prosecutor in this murder case contended that the accused estranged partner "was angry about an entry on Facebook he said made him look like a fool as she had advertised her marital status as single."

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Video Vortex Reader

The Video Vortex reader is available for distribution and download here. In addition to an essay I wrote about how government agencies use YouTube, it contains provocative pieces of net critique about online digital video by Geert Lovink, Lev Manovich, and Alexandra Juhasz.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Knock Knock Knocks

This seemingly racist PowerPoint presentation, a variant of which also appears here, is making the rounds of Republican mass e-mails in the informal economy of political gift exchange that also involves photoshopped images and other digital files that are not archived on websites that can be traced to established orders of ownership and authorship. With the structure of a childish knock-knock joke, it depicts former Harvard Law Review editor and University of Chicago law school professor Barack Obama as a cartoonish dialect-speaking bugaboo proclaiming "Eyes yo new Prezident."

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Czar Power

Last week, the White House released a Fact Sheet about the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property (PRO IP) Act, which passed the House by a margin of 410-11 margin, with only the most stalwart digital rights proponents (such as Dennis Kucinich and Zoe Lofgren) voting against it.

One of the more controversial aspects of the bill, as one of my students pointed out, is the creation of a "copyright czar." Pundits are now speculating that this copyright czar will be as effective (or ineffective) at combating illegal behavior as the previously ordained drug czar has been.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Am I Blue?

Now that Salon has compiled the punditocracy's Seven Biggest Blunders of the 2008 election, it seems that dismissing a PowerPoint presentation created by an Obama strategist as hubris was a fundamental error. The Red States Blue PowerPoint by David Plouffe is also available on the YouTube site of the candidate as an understated rallying call to volunteers. It is interesting to see how Plouffe deploys PowerPoint software to represent the "enthusiasm gap" in a 3-D bar chart.

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For years, it has been possible to send digital slideshows that were personalized with image macros that featured the person's name. These presentations were often exchanged among younger computer users -- particularly gamers -- and usually emphasized a range of visual insults that suggested that the recipient had been "pwned" by someone with superior strategic skills. Now this customization of digital text can be used in online video that is generated on the fly.

This technique has now been incorporated into a supposed video site for the fictional CNNBC network, which depicts an alternative reality future in which Barack Obama has lost by only one vote. As you can see from the screen shots below, a viral video that can be sent to a group of friends depicts public outrage among Democrats and praise among Republicans that is directed at an audience of one in a distinct form of niche marketing. Note also that this video borrows from other Internet genres, including web generators, which I have written about, including the popular Church Sign Generator.

Update: The New York Times has gotten around to reporting the story on one of its blogs here.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mob Rule

In a time in which the Obama campaign is looking with alarm to the potential violence and incendiary rhetoric among those in the crowds at McCain or Palin rallies, it is important that the right is also disseminating online videos in which the opposing side is depicted as intolerant and disrespectful of civic values around equal opportunity, free speech, and freedom of assembly.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Gone Gitmo Update

This evening I attended Face It - Torture in the 21st Century at the Highways performance space. The main event of the evening was a play by Harold Pinter, "One for the Road," about a seemingly bourgeois couple and their young son who are captured by the authorities, accused of being subversives, and tortured horribly. I also went to this event to see an update about the Gone Gitmo installation in Second Life, which was discussed by Nonny de la Peña and Peggy Weil. The pair discussed how they had expanded the virtual detention facility beyond Camp X-ray to include a realistic depiction of the multi-million dollar Camp Fox and an area of contemplation that uses elements of Islamic sacred architecture, but is equipped with poems stored in virtual books mounted in the walls and an RSS feed with news about Guantanamo in the floor. Although control of your avatar is seized by the creators of this space for critique, and your virtual person is hooded, shackled, and caged, the designers did not feel that simulating actual torture would be appropriate or would encourage the kinds of response and activism they intend to promulgate.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and Videolyzer

Videolyzer, created by Virtualpoltitik friend Nick Diakopoulos advertises itself as a tool designed to help journalists and bloggers collect, organize, and present information about the quality (i.e. validity, reliability, etc.) of online videos. Currently in beta, Diakopoulos would nonetheless like to see the tool used during this election season, when online video that shows gaffes, confrontations with the electorate, and signature moments from the podium is being disseminated according to the power laws that govern YouTube. Diakopoulos explains the rationale of the site as follows:

It makes it possible to evaluate and make sense of things like comments, claims, and sources as they relate to the video. Users can comment and annotate pieces of the video (called "anchors") to provide a more fine-grained description of the information in the video. The interface also incorporates a tightly integrated transcript of what's spoken in the video to make it easier to navigate the dense information there. Finally, Videolyzer allows for collaboration among many people. Users can build off of each other's annotations and rate each other in a form of distributed vetting and peer-evaluation.

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Googled and YouTubed

Of course, the other big story of the weekend was the appearance of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, which Sunday morning pundits described as likely to be frequently "Googled and YouTubed." As I've noted here and here, the show has used public interest in politics as a way to drum up viewership, often through online video rather than through traditional broadcast or cable channels. The comments about the Palin segment being "Googled and YouTubed" the next day point to two realities of this new hybrid media form: 1) viewers still aren't trained to go to network websites or websites for shows directly, and 2) viewers who don't stay up for late night television are now counting on search engines to find footage rather than digitally recording shows in a new form of "time shifting." The latter fact is particularly interesting, given the legal history of the time shifting argument in copyright law in the Sony Betamax case.

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Powell Power

The endorsement of Barack Obama by Colin Powell on NBC's Meet the Press has propagated the circulation of a particular black-and-white photograph in the blogosphere. The picture comes from a photo essay in the New Yorker, which depicts a grief-stricken mother in Arlington Cemetery draped on the tombstone of a U.S. soldier that is marked with the crescent and star that indicates his Muslim faith.

The other big digital rhetoric story that I noticed while watching Meet the Press has to do with the show's use of technologies that promote a particular type of information aesthetics to represent the electoral map. NBC apparently uses Microsoft Surface, a new table-like computer interface that has been both promoted and parodied in tech circles. Unlike CNN's John King, who interacts directly with the wall display, the map guy for NBC bends over the display like a seer peering into the oracular space.

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Ten Million People Have Watched This Video

Direct appeals to veterans and their families still have persuasive power for many in the distributed YouTube audience, as this ad for John McCain demonstrates.

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Acting Calculating

On the front page of the Obama campaign's website, there is a tax calculator that purports to show how the individual voter would benefit in money saved by the Obama tax proposal, while engaging the visitor to the site with a particular type of highly constrained interactive display, which -- like other web generators -- may prove to have great popular appeal, based on its captivating "automagical" character.

Of course, there are other tax calculators from other interest groups that don't promulgate a pro-Obama message, but it seems that this is still more evidence -- based on the 1.5 million people who have used it to crunch the numbers -- that the Obama campaign understands how to use its website with an understanding of digital rhetoric that the opposition party seems to lack entirely.

While the Obama campaign even has a downloads page so one can assume Barack Obama's identity as your personal icon for purposes of online chat, the McCain campaign seems to be engaging in a misguided social media initiative, Generation '08, that is based on accepting a digital divide in which older voters would be entirely separate from a tech-savvy contingent of "digital youth." This is a myth that Siva Vaidhyanathan, among others, recently tried to demolish in an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but it still seems to hold true among Republicans promoting the hokey McCain Space, where members can post pro-McCain bedroom blogs based on the primary narcissism of self-promotion or funny (and often off-topic) videos like this one.

At least the McCain campaign has gotten rid of highlighting its unintentionally humorous introduction to the McCain Space site by the candidate himself and instead emphasizes appeals from McCain's less dorky young daughter, but I apologize to regular visitors for the robo-call style automated video player that assaults any readers of the bloggers who embed their McCain Space clips.

Although obviously heavily moderated to screen out Obama supporters, McCain Space does contain some critical feedback among party faithful, including this text message about the risky expenditure of $150,000 for clothes for Sarah Palin.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Beyond Digital Humanities

This year, the year-long Mellon Seminar at UCLA is asking "What Is(n't) Digital Humanities?" It is a question that many others are also apparently asking, including panelists in "American Studies at the Digital Crossroads" at the annual meeting of the ASA.

Randy Bass of the Crossroads website at Georgetown showed the work of his colleague and collaborator Tim Powell, while describing how the project was founded in 1995 with FIPSE money, originally as a Gopher site before the superiority of the World Wide Web as a way to reach large audiences became apparent. Their ambitions were to collect and post a whole range of materials that represented an entire field and establish a web presence suitable for "inquiry-based" and "constructivist" pedagogies. He noted how these projects can defy Library of Congress categorizations, while exploring cultural epistemology, as in the case of Powell's web work that uses the Ojibwe seven sacred directions.

People from the Keywords for American Studies showed a number of collaborative online writing tools, techniques, projects, and products that included their Wiki for the Keywords Collaboratory. For this group the digital humanities is about opening up education and reexamining the ownership of course content and pedagogical materials, so that there is a "power shift in information, learning, and knowledge work." They acknowledge borrowing from the ideas of Cathy Davidson of HASTAC, so that the emphasis becomes collaboration by difference and participatory learning.oundtable to map and push forward digital forms of research, teaching, and engagement for thinking "critically and creatively about what counts as teaching and research."

They described three general approaches in the current keywords oeuvre: 1) synthetic essays that track and narrate a particular keyword’s usage, 2) multi-layered essays that parse keyword usage across the web, and 3) archives of course texts paired with student analysis, which bring out the "public character of the classroom" and encourage students to "revise and extend one another’s work."

As a compositionist, the fact they instructors can track that process of production and encourage students to explain the reasons for choices, so that they are forced into awareness of process of production of knowledge seemed particularly promising as a mode of writing instruction that allows for possibilities that students’ text will be read beyond a narrow readership of instructors. There are, of course, pitfalls, particularly since -- as the panelists noted -- there is not much "cross-wiki communication yet." Given the fact that many students improperly appropriate student work on the web and repurpose it for their own assignments in ways that violate academic honesty policies, I think there may also be other unintended consequences.

Tara McPherson
followed up by reminding the audience that there has been a long tradition of humanities computing igital humanities that involves the NEH, the Mellon foundation and early adopters in the newer disciplines of media studies, American studies, and digital studies who have grappled with the epistemelogical, ethical, and phenomenological effects of computational media and an engagement with "visual and aural culture" and "embodiment, emotions, and affect." For McPherson this shift represents "new modes of collection" that transforms the humanities scholar into a content-provider and transforms existing narrative structures, aesthetic norms, and even politics, as in the case of "Public Secrets" by Sharon Daniel, which McPherson showed. When interviewed by N. Katherine Hayles, Daniel described this work as both a "database aesthetics" that was also an "aesthetics of humanity" expressed by multiple voices.

She argued that sites like Vectors could provide "powerful simulations" that "can be richly annotated" and even "played like a videogame" in texts that can me "multiple, associative, and even digressive." McPherson championed "database thinking" and its new genres of argument that might represent a reconfiguration of understanding of technology's role. As she said, she hopes to no longer use the phrase "digital humanities," since one wouldn’t want to say that one works in the "print humanities."

During the respondent's talk, images from Silcon Valley History looped on the screen. In the comment period that followed others pointed to the International Journal of Learning and Media as a site for similar "transitional objects."

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You Heard It Here First

I hate to name drop, but Good Morning America actually contacted me about possibly appearing on this High-Tech Cheating segment, after the Chicago Sun-Times picked up a story in which I am quoted about the YouTube cheating videos that I had been studying in researching a new book about the relationship of higher education to digital media. I've been in the middle of conference season and couldn't see fitting in a jaunt to New York, but my attitudes probably wouldn't have fit the moral panic tone of the piece in any case. I have to admit, however, that there is some good advice in the ABC clip about parents and children watching YouTube together to foster discussion. An accompanying article, "Technology Makes Cheating 'Far More Tempting'," is less interesting and is mostly composed of facile man-on-the-campus interviews.

But, hey, you heard it here first on Virtualpolitik about YouTube cheating videos, and you can look forward to more about online video in the new book that I am working on, Early Adopters: The Instructional Technology Movement and the Myth of the Digital Generation, so stay tuned.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Gadgets on the Go

At the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, I was on the panel for "Going Mobile: Global Flows of Media and the American American Experience with Portable Technology," which was sponsored by the Science and Technology Caucus. One of my co-panelists was Rayvon Fouché, who discussed the One Laptop Per Child Initiative and argued that it was not "at heart a technology program," based partly on his personal experience as a user who watched the Champaign-Urbana user group disband after one meeting and as a faculty sponsor who hosted a forum with Langdon Winnner and those who one might assume to be technology boosters criticizing the XO laptop from MIT. As Fouché noted, he found himself "struggling with the idea that a form of learning is culturally agnostic" and yet was interested in how technologies migrate based on his study of turntablism. He discussed his own close reading of OLPC myths from the group's wiki and the ways that the machine was rejected by his own six-year-old son. He asserted that the developing world was not one "monomythic unit' and that the rhetoric of the "digital divide" should be examined and critiqued, based on its one-way dynamic. He cited the work of Alondra Nelson and Ron Eglash to interrogate why this is imagined solely as a one-way exchange between cultures and why it assumes that race is a liability. In the OLPC case, of course, there was considerable "push back" from the developing world, which included resistance from Nigeria, which chose to pursue acquisition of the Classmate desktop, which came equipped with three-dollar XP, thanks to Microsoft.

Our panel also included Ted Striphas's talk on "Kindle and the Labor of Reading," which has been published online here. Striphas continues to solicit public comment on the work, which is being incorporated into his forthcoming book about the "late age of print."

My talk was about alternate reality games, particularly the urban games of Jane McGonigal and Ian Bogost, and it asserted two seemingly contradictory propositions from the outset: 1) the more we are mobile, the more we are situated, and 2) the more communication is personal, the more it is public. As I explained, the first claim owes much to the work of Paul Dourish on embodied computing and the complex relationship of space and place, while the latter claim reflects the research of Mimi Ito on the "personal," "portable," and "pedestrian." Slides are here.

Our respondent was Siva Vaidhyanathan, who just published a great piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Barack Obama called "What's So Bad About Being 'Professorial'?"

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I've Got You Under My Skin

At the annual meeting of the American Studies Association I was somewhat surprised to see a panel with Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, who is best known as a theorist of digital media, although she has worked on themes of race, gender, class, and sexuality that are also familiar to those working in the American Studies field. She was on the panel on "Race, Sex, and Science at the Crossroads: Synthetic Personhood in Visual Popular Culture" with two other interesting speakers who discussed the recent television remake of Battlestar Gallactica: Eva Cherniavsky who read it as a critique of neoliberalism and Tom Foster who considered how the show functioned as a defense of functionalism that takes the side of Alan Turing against John Searle in the questions raised by Turing's "Imitation Game" and Searle's "Chinese Room" response.

Chun's talk focused on the film Robot Stories by Greg Pak and how it encourages us to "embrace our inner robot." To introduce the subject matter, she discussed the influence of Beth Coleman's work on current discussions -- including in Camera Obscura -- of how race functions as a technology that is "a technique that one uses even as one is used by it," much like Heideggerian "enframing." She argued that that scholars must "move beyond ontologies," however, to look at what race does, which includes both a history of discrimination expressed by segregation and eugenics and a future of "possibility" if race and technology are embraced together, thus displacing old culture/biology binaries.

Like Lisa Nakamura, Chun pointed out how how the World Wide Web was "bought and sold" with images of "happy people of color" and emphasized that early advertising for Internet services emphasized being "free from racism" much like these subjects were depicted as being free from their own bodies. In the post September 11th logic of progress/regress, Chun noted that images that showed "people riding camels have access to the Internet" could be recast as "oh shit, people riding camels have access to the Internet." She also observed that Neuromancer, which is often credited as the origin of the notion of "cyberspace," in fact only represented "the desire for cyberspace" and was substantively different from the real Internet, although it similarly displayed cyberspace as a kind of frontier. This "high-tech Orientalism," she argued, also presented a "reduction of others to data."

Chun also acknowledged the importance of the work of Karen Shimakawa, who was also presenting at ASA, to her own critical method approaching Robot Stories and its narratives in which the African-American was presented as "too human" and the Asian-American as "not human enough." She explained this as a response to a lack of mastery in which to be Asian was formulated as to be affiliated with technology in a structure of "critical mimesis of mimesis itself."

Finally, Chun recommended this parodic Internet video by Pak and writer David Henry Hwang.

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Worst Foot Forward

The Washington Post reports that the image above was shot by a Reuters reporter and was not created by Photoshop, although it has many of the compositional qualities that would be associated with the rhetoric of a digitally doctored photo made for humorous effect.

It's also worth noting that the Post just endorsed Obama, although a tally of the total newspaper endorsements and the readerships associated with those papers shows three interesting things: 1) there are many editorial boards who have yet to announce a pick in major media markets, 2) Obama is leading by a margin of over two-to-one in both the number of papers and the readerships associated with them, and 3) the numbers of newspaper readers for whom their masthead has taken a side is still relatively small by other media standards. In fact, there are many YouTube videos that have reached much larger audiences than this sum of subscribers reached by print journalism.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard

This mock-PSA from the Partnership for a McCain-Free White House plays with a lot of conventions about social marketing and non-profit campaigns and borrows directly from the language and visual style of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in encouraging intergenerational dialogue and tough love confrontation. They've also put together a clever text version of instructions for "Having the Talk."

Young people are also receiving Internet appeals to participate in The Great Schlep this month, in which Jewish Democrats are encouraged to go to Florida to persuade their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama. Comedian Sarah Silverman appears in a spot in which simple digital effects are used to underline talking points.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Statutes of Liborty

Although Internet users are known for assuming that the state will wither away, given digital culture's predilection for libertarian or communitarian ideologies, the financial crisis of the last few weeks has made clear that nation-states continue to be important, even in the era of ludocapitalism and virtual economics.

At the same time netizens are trying to educate themselves about particular financial acronyms that have suddenly become more relevant to their personal lives, voting decisions, and home mortgages. One of these is the LIBOR or London Interbank Offered Rate, the interest rate that banks charge for borrowing among themselves, which was once considered a stable rate, since it went only to the most preferred lenders in the days before mass bank failures.

Although the LIBOR has gone down again somewhat, a period of skyrocketing numbers created more anxiety for those who now found themselves Googling the term. As this Bloomberg article points out, the search engine giant is noticing new interest in the term among its customers:

Hits on the Internet search engine Google show interest is increasing. In 2007, the U.S. wasn't in the top 10 countries where people searched for the term. Over the past 7 days, the U.S. has surged to No. 2, behind the Czech Republic, where Libor is a common first name. Worldwide, the number of hits rose tenfold from Sept. 7 to Sept. 30. Google Inc., based in Mountain View, California, won't disclose the total.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Gentleman's E-mails

In "Sarah Palin's husband, Todd, was a fixture at governor's office," the Los Angeles Times points out the anxiety involved in preserving the "first gentleman's e-mails," who is technically not a state employee bound by rules of public record-keeping and yet was an influential member of her policy team who attended cabinet sessions closed to the public. It is interesting to note that this gubernatorial spouse also disseminated an Internet posting in which Rush Limbaugh described his wife as a "babe."

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Monday, October 13, 2008

If You Have a Right to a Phone Call, Do You Have a Right to an E-mail

The big digital rights story from yesterday was the decision to bar defendants from Internet access at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Prisoners often have more stated rights to communication channels than to media access, so it is interesting to see how the Internet is being characterized in this case. In this instance, it appears that the defense made the argument that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed needed to use the Internet as a kind of library, to prepare to defend himself in his upcoming death penalty trial. Judge Ralph Kohlmann, a Marine colonel, argued that the prisoner knew he would face prison restrictions when he chose to act as his own lawyer.

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As the Los Angeles Times reports in yesterday's "'Saturday Night Live' yanks, then reposts, controversial bailout sketch," the show removed a piece that seemed to blame the crisis on Congress that had already aired from the clips posted on the web under pressure from Democratic sympathizers. As video is archived by television networks on sites that feature advertising, pressures can also be exerted by web sponsors to avoid displaying objectionable content.

Speaking of takedowns of online videos, one of my students in my digital rhetoric class, points to an article called "McCain Fights for Right to Remix on YouTube," which describes how the candidate would like to preserve McCain commercials on YouTube that are being taken down because of supposed copyright violations, on the grounds that they contain clips from network news broadcasts. The title of the argument may be something of a misnomer, because McCain voted for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that makes this conduct potentially illegal, and -- as Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Fred von Lohmann argues in the update to the article -- the McCain campaign's solution to the problem would only empower candidates to use this material while actual voters would be barred from making similar commentaries. Nonetheless, it looks like Gigi Sohn, the president of the digital rights group Public Knowledge is taking the McCain campaign's side.

(I won't identify the individual student in my digital rhetoric class, but visitors can check out the profiles that they created, an idea that I borrowed from Alan Liu. The students also collaboratively designed the course website, which originally looked like this.)

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Sunday, October 12, 2008


The Virtualpolitik book is officially in the MIT Press catalogue! You can also pre-order on Amazon!

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Meaningful Play, Day Three: Not So Light Reading

Great literature shaped the content of several of the talks about game design on the final day of the Meaningful Play conference, perhaps in some of the same ways that analogies to great art informed the opening of the conference.

Former high school teacher Nick Fortugno began his talk by situating it in his pedagogical practices as a professor of game designs at Parsons. He discussed a recent argument that he had had with his class about whether or not games needed to be "fun" or if rules, goals, players, constraints, and challenge were sufficient to produce a good game. He described a twenty-minute argument in which a third of his class said that games don't have to be fun, which surprised him, given that fun is the traditional "barometer for designers." Fortugno characterized his students as dismissively equating fun and entertainment and expressing negative feelings against entertainments vapidity and frivolousness. Instead of "fun," they wanted to use words like "compelling" and "engaging" to describe the characteristics of a good game.

Of course, as Fortugno observed, games are not the first medium to try to convince people to take particular stands on policy issues. He argued, however, that game designers should learn a lesson from the conventionality of persuasive media of the past. He pointed to two examples from popular culture to prove his point: 1) Uncle Tom's Cabin, a sentimentalist novel that exploited the popularity of its genre to persuade readers, which "did not innovate at the level of writing" because it had similar plots to other tear-jerkers of the time, such as Susan Rowson's Charlotte Temple and Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World and 2) Telenovelas, particularly those produced in consultation with Miguel Sabido, which served as a form of political theater by publicizing issues about parenting, birth control, abortion, AIDS, literacy, and women's rights while still delivering the satisfaction of familiar story lines.

Like others at the conference, Fortugno praised Shadow of the Colossus and argued that the game was engaged with the "space of tragedy," since it was about "character and hubris," although he argued that its success also could be credited to the fact that game play was "coupled with a traditional boss mechanic," so this "game about killing bosses" used familiar tropes of navigation, explanation, and puzzle solving.

Against somewhat more opposition from the audience, he used Peacemaker as his second exemplary game, where the goal is to play through the Israeli conflict and to make peace while maximizing the approval meters of various sides. He argued that this kind of "plate balancing" game in which the player keeps "eating the message over and over" could be effective despite the simplicity of the game mechanic, much as his own casual game Diner Dash had found commercial success.

Finally, he addressed the issue of "propaganda games," like other speakers at the conference. He asserted the value of such games when done well, such as the McDonald's game, which he described as an "alert state genre" composed of four minigames. He also said that this kind of "management sim game" had been effective in the ReDistricting Game.

In closing he made a strong argument for the "fun" position, given the fact that political art often follows popular media and that entertainment is needed to attract players. For Fortugno, serious games can and should be fun as well, but he cautioned against not thinking critically about how games push play behaviors, because in some games there can be a slow loss of content from the perspective of player awareness, and "casual gamers don't care about content at all." He joked about how game content is often tied to an inapropriate game mechanics and speculated about the success of "gay marriage, the first-person shooter." He also cautioned about the risks of propaganda creation, since it is possible to create both an Uncle Tom's Cabin and a Triumph of the Will. As to what "fun" precisely is, Fortugno hesitated to give a definition, since he pointed out that the feelings one is actually having while playing chess, poker, Halo, and tag were very different, so he had "no idea what the word fun means."

After Fortugno's talk, there was discussion with him in the hallway about the game he had also considered discussing, the controversial Operation Pedopriest. In his talk, he had emphasized the persuasive power of tragedy and melodrama, but there were also defenses of comedic satire made by participants. When thinking about engaging games in the genre of comedy, the group shared experiences playing Miss Management and Amateur Surgeon.

Later in the ballroom was game columnist James Portnow who showed slides of a series of what he described as propaganda games from the eco-friendly Harpooned to the anti-Semitic Zog's Nightmare. He argued that too many serious games were governed by models not much more sophisticated than Pavlov's dog and that a medium about choice was far too often treated as a medium of indoctrination. Given the importance of decision-making in game play, Portnow complained that too often problems were masked as choices and that game designers weren't willing to show more realistic scenarios in which the same action could have different consequences. Worst of all, he claimed, is the way that large, commercial entertainment conglomerates were making games that "indoctrinate by accident" as in the case of BMX XXX or Blood on the Sand.

The final keynote from Tracy Fullerton, "The Great White Whale of Meaningful Play," opened with an allusion to the work of Jesse Schell and another work of great literature, Moby Dick, and the idea that "you must choose a mighty theme." As Fullerton asked, "What would Moby Dick be without themes?"

Although she foregrounded her "formalist identification," like Ian Bogost she praised Jonathan Blow's Braid, which she described as "about love, loss, regret, and the inescapable constraints of time," and lauded the work of Jason Rohrer. But Fullerton chose Gravitation as her example, which Rohrer characterizes as "a video game about mania, melancholia, and the creative process" in which the player inevitably stops playing with a child to travel away to capture stars, but -- while getting farther from home in the pursuit -- grows to understand that it is really a game about balance rather than capturing stars. In these two cases, she insisted that "the theme is also reflected in the core mechanic." (She also looked to sports for explanatory theories, including Dave Hickey's "The Heresy of Zone Defense.")

As Fullerton noted, game theorist Alex Galloway had emphasized the importance of "expressive acts" in games, such as "select," "get," "unlock," "open," etc., and that Warren Robinett had called for game designers to realize that "every verb in the dictionary" could be used, if the full potential of games were to be realized.

She also detailed aspects of her collaboration with acclaimed video artist Bill Viola on The Night Journey, which included how they had done paper prototyping and play testing and had actually built a board game for this videogame about spiritual enlightenment based on a long tradition of meditative writing first. Fullerton gave some important details about the game, for those who may not have had much time to play it when it was on display at SIGGRAPH last year: the player levels up without realizing it, the "dreams" in the game are procedurally created, and there is a "win condition," although it attempts to model real loss as the player tries "not to die, just like an arcade game." She described the video processing necessary to fit the "grainy, surveillance-cam style video" of some of Viola's early oeuvre, which she referred to as the "Furmanski effect," which involved degrading 3-D images with faked interlacing and a kind of video raster effect.

In closing, she showed some of her own new project Walden, which is based on Thoreau's work of the same name, and explained how it was intended to foster "short refreshing game play" rather than reward lengthy periods of obsessive engagement with the screen. Apparently she incorporated actual data from Concord, Massachusetts to represent the natural cycles of Walden, including the blooming of wild plants. Rather than just stay "true" to Thoreau's Walden, however, Fullerton emphasized that the game was about the player's own experiment with living at virtual Walden. To make this point, Fullerton quoted Melville again by saying, "It is not down in any map; true places never are." As she noted in closing, her own experiences of nature didn't draw clear distinctions between the real and the virtual. To illustrate this point she described ascending a mountain in a hike and reflecting that it was "just like World of Warcraft." She explained that in this story it was not a matter of one being better than the other, since each informed the other, and the experiences resonated mutually.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Meaningful Play, Day Two: Doubting Thomases

Day Two of the Meaningful Play conference began with Leigh Ann Cappello of the Hasbro company who brought packages of play-doh from which the attendees were encouraged to create colorful creations as she spoke. (For example, game designer and critic of persuasive games Ian Bogost created a tiny Sarah Palin.)

Although my children have closets of toys (if not rooms), I tend to be suspicious of childhood-oriented channels of consumerism and what has been called the "Parenting, Inc." approach that begins shopping from the cradle. Like Bogost, I also think that the conflation of "toy" and "game" that Cappello's enterprise represents also merits interrogation in the context of a game studies event. Furthermore, I'm irritated when "gender" becomes the first category for toy design. After all, play is often about subversion of established roles. In other words, play may be more about cross-dressing than playing dressing-up. Toy companies often harden social roles rather than soften them. Finally, when I asked Cappello's response to her corporation's lawsuit that charged the makers of the Facebook game Scrabulous with infringement, she said that she was unable to comment on camera.

One of the day's big events was the "Playing with Public Policy" panel, featuring Alex Quinn of Games for Change, Nick Fortugno of Rebel Monkey and the Come Out and Play festival, Ian Bogost of Persuasive Games, Tracy Fullerton of the Game Innovation Lab, and
Scott Traylor of 360kid.

Fortugno argued about the value of games in relation to public policy, whether he was designing a guerilla game or a teaching game such as Ayiti: the Cost of Life, which was tested first in New York schools with funding from Microsoft and served as a vehicle to teach about Haitian poverty and the reasons that Western-style education is not sustainable in an economy in which every family member needs to work as soon in life as possible.

Bogost followed up by asserting that games could do more than just inform because computing power allows them to synthesize the "raw materials of civic life," so that players can interrogate "the tools available to us" and answer "How do we establish the rules by which we live?" For example, as a "facile system to turn into a game," Bogost looked at how claims from candidates for public office and platform statements could be refashioned as a series of procedures to let voters achieve more understanding of those statements if policies are enacted in a "safe way in a simulated world" that player-constituents could then occupy and evaluate. In Take Back Illinois, Bogost looked at a subgroup of Illinois candidates in the 2004 election to focus on "little games" based on four types of policy position: economic development, medical malpractice, education, and participation. (He explains this in more detail in this First Monday article.) In Points of Entry, Bogost attempted to take a four-hundred page bill as the text to be adapted to a set of game rules and reduce it to a simple calculus that was ultimately intended to encourage players to write their congressmen. Of course, as he admitted, the policy one plays is not necessarily the policy one votes for.

Tracy Fullerton touched on the fact that she herself was currently working on a game about questions of Constitutional history for 11th and 12th graders, which would allow them to argue various sides of Constitutional crises. She described herself as interested in "issues of government and playable systems" and asserted that "representative democracy is the most important game we’ll ever play." As Fullerton pointed out, games weren't necessarily just about reason and logic. For her, the other side of policy is the “heart side,” and she noted that Hush and Darfur is Dying were designed to get users to empathize with a side of question that they might not otherwise see. Unlike "playing out system and thinking about which side is best for me" in games of political consequences for voters looking for candidates who will represent the voter's personal self-interests, such games of pathos were intended to motivate concern for the lot of others.

Traylor discussed the development of Budget Hero game for American Public Media. When considering their audience of NPR listeners, Traylor's team first wanted to know if it was "fair to create a game that no one could win." Given their funder's willingness to promote a game that illustrates the pains of political decision-makers, the team moved forward. As to what could be learned from the exercise, according to Traylor, all completed game states are saved, along with information about political beliefs, annual incomes, etc. Thus, for example, one could see how "Republicans in Arizona earning over 100,000 dollars a year" would approach the budget as an interest group. (Note also that the French goverment created a game about budget-balancing as well.)

At this point in the discussion, Bogost observed that "politicking and public policy are two very different things and have not much to do with each other." He noted that the feedback loop involving policy games is not always intended for policy makers. In the case of Budget Hero, as Traylor noted, the emphasis was on polling their listenership to get a sense of possible stories to be covered rather than to effect actual change. As a counterexample, Bogost pointed out that a crisis game such as World without Oil, which he argued might have been more terrifyingly prescient as "World without Money," was a real-world role-playing game in which you imagine that you are simultaneously in a different world even as you are living in a real world and thus the experience is seen through "two lenses." He described how players of the WWO game turned to walking to work, carpooling, or creating community gardens to avoid trucked-in produce as the simulation unfolded.

However, Fortugno reminded the audience of his affinities as a self-admitted formalist by asking if World Without Oil really was a game. How would the player be limited? Besides, Fortugno cited a number of real-world game-like activities in situations where people get points for hotels and points for flying.

There was considerable discussion about propaganda games, particularly since the panelists agreed that simulations do not accurately represent reality and are therefore inherently biased. As an example, they concurred that with the complexities of the current budget crisis, it would be difficult to make a game about voting for the bailout, since they had no real idea of what results would be generated by the initiative, because the physics of the economic universe are extremely complex. As they said, the challenge of building emergence without bias is highlighted by the fiscal situation. In this context, Tax Invaders was a frequently mentioned example of a propaganda game.

Bogost and several others discussed the relationship of games to journalism and claimed that a lack of bias is not an inherent property of responsible reporting, although reporters were expected to acknowledge a role for citizens and to be wary of interested parties providing funding. Journalism, he claimed, was about something other than objectivity; rather it was about being positioned within a system. Bogost also complained that too often such organizations are commissioning, endorsing, and generating "pulpy soft news."

Fullerton also pointed out how difficult it can to be to systematize political phenomena and how the very activity may challenge "what we mean by a system," particularly when assigning numbers to the values associated with a local politician or activist. Furthermore, in the era of "big data," it can be difficult to say how much information can be dealt with for a team of designers much less for an individual player.

Bogost discussed how games model possible worlds in the particular case of a game that he tried to make with Michael Mateas about the hot-button issue of abortion. As Bogost pointed out, in these kinds of highly polarized cases there are philosophically "consistent opinions at either end" of the political spectrum. He claimed that it was less about the issue than about the "issue space" or the "metasystem that is generating the issue not the system itself," which could be characterized as a kind of inaccessible "black box."

When organizer Carry Heeter said that it was important to know where games come from and suggested that there could be an "I approve this message" tagline to political games to clearly indicate the source of sponsorship in the interest of having a "policy about policy games," objections were made to this plan.

As Fullerton pointed out, such sponsorships would be difficult if games really model multiple outcomes, since a sponsor couldn't endorse everything that a game says and every outcome generated. At this Traylor pointed out that it was often more important to find out how a client defined a game and whether they would ally themselves with constructivists or behaviorists than to identify their stated political loyalties.

Fortugno noted that role-playing exercises such as the National Security Decision Making Game in which emergency response is tested there can often be unanticipated outcomes. For example, in the case of a flu pandemic, large cities may try to get around the will of the federal government. At this point ARGs were introduced again as a possible way to avoid propaganda, since hive minds or collective intelligence reflect many points of view.

Bogost was skeptical, however, given the limits and problems of games that rely on so-called collective intelligence, particularly since there may be very small number of people participating, and the games may be designed as publicity stunts, since advertisers are the largest funders of this genre. Second, he noted, such ARGs still require a "certain suspension of our world and enter the other world." In other words, even if players of World Without Oil would nurture a community garden, there may be zombie-style attacks by self-interested and non-collective parties to get their proverbial tomatoes.

The designers also discussed the participation gap. As Fortuno admitted, there are generally “four groups” who are drawn to alternate reality games: “hipsters,” “gallery types,” “game designers,” and “hyper activities people” looking for diversions advertised on the Internet. Furthermore, Bogost lamented that Cruel 2B Kind is most frequently staged on college campuses, where there is little opportunity for the kind of civic discomfort that he and McGonigal had intended to be part of the game experience.

The day's closing keynote was delivered by Ute Ritterfeld of Germany's Free University, who agreed that "meaningful play" may be a better term than "serious games. Ritterfeld has been questioning some of the fundamental assumptions of the field, and her forthcoming book, Serious Games: Mechanisms and Effects, interrogates some of the preconceptions of the movement and its optimistic spirit of technological mastery. Although many consider such games to represent a new pathway in education, a means for effective behavior change, and a way to reach out to otherwise hard to teach learners, Ritterfeld also examines the central premise that such games are "fun."

In her talk, Ritterfeld argued for more studies that fit the parameters of objective, empirical research with large sample sizes, particularly research that goes beyond merely studying a given game’s effectiveness to conducting research that looks at developing serious games in the context of other options. To introduce a typology of game genres, she cited the work of Rabindra Ratan who classified a large sample of serious games, which found that most serious games were academic in nature, targeted at a K-12 audience, and devoted to practicing skills as a somewhat dubious primary learning principle. Thus, although the rhetoric surrounding such games emphasized new knowledge or problem-solving strategies, Ritterfeld argued that this kind of pedagogy is rarely carried out in such games.

Using a hierarchy of perceived game quality from a base level of technical capacity (I) and game design (II) to an intermediate set of criteria involving the aesthetics of both visual and acoustic presentation (III) to a higher benchmark for excellence involving social experience (IV) and narrativity and character development (V), Ritterfeld argued that many games were failing the most rudimentary requirements that gamers themselves had established through their own reviewing practices. Thus, there were many “games that are useless” products, such as the regrettably designed Amazing Food Detective from Kaiser Permanente, which insults the intelligence of the young, and “games that are effective but not fun,” such as the dreary Phonomena Interactive Game to train phonological awareness. She did have kind words to say, however, about Re-Mission, the game for young cancer patients, although she still wondered if the effects were sustainable and if the potential audience would deliberately engage in play, since players often are not motivated to engage with these games despite the "intrinsic benefit of health games."

She tried to examine the ideologies at work it the serious games movement and its detractors as well, from facilitation and distraction models to paradigms about reinforcement and motivation. All of these attitudes, she argued, kept entertainment and education in their binary positions rather than facilitated the benefits of an earlier childlike state in which learning and play are indistinguishable. This is a point that Mimi Ito also makes in this article, and which appeared in Ian Bogost's keynote as well.

For Ritterfeld, the fundamental questions have to do with aesthetics, challenge, feed-back, interactivity, narrative, meaning, and personal relevance. Successful games, she asserted, capitalize on feedback cycles of "emotions and coping and regulating."

She also argued that the context of the game, which is often tied to rigid social hierarchies and rules about behavior associated with classrooms or museums, matters. For example, in the case of the Metalloman game, Ritterfeld's team demonstrated that playing back game footage elicited the same results as actually interacting with the game, according to this paper. Of course, this was probably not a result that the game's creators were happy with.

In general, day two underscored the fact that this was not a conference in which the literacy argument about the value of games was the primary one, which from my perspective is a good thing. If you see games as a form of literacy, it becomes difficult to make certain important political, legal, aesthetic, and social distinctions and decisions. Sure, playing games represents a literacy; playing music represents a literacy as well. I'd agree with those statements as an educator, but as a citizen I'm not sure what it means for the public sphere.

That's why I prefer treating games as a form of expression, since our culture has a lot of ways to acknowledge the importance of freedom of expression in deliberations that can be relatively nuanced and include seemingly unsavory practices like flag burning, lap dancing, and marching down the street with the KKK. Those aren't really literacies, but they are forms of cultural expression that have been recognized by the courts as forms of public rhetoric allowable in a democratic society. This is also the argument that Salman Rusdie made in the post-9/11 hysteria when arguing that Americans should be ready to defend dancing and short skirts. From my perspective, speaking with my own professional biases in mind, I'd say that the literacy argument is both too broad and too narrow to give people useful ways to talk about games in their own political and social lives.

Given the regulatory attitude of many lawmakers about common digital practices, it is not surprising that the literacy argument has become coupled with a certain form of digital utopianism in public statements made in the name of funding independent game development. I had an interesting conversation with Suzanne Seggerman of Games for Change about this issue. When I argued that there were too many games conferences in which substantive criticism of the media at issue was lacking -- and therefore why this one was worthwhile -- she responded that advocates for gaming had to take uncritically positive positions sometimes reflexively in order to have any influence in a polarized pro-con political and educational environment.

My own panel was made up of three rhetoricians, who were members of the Conference of College Composition and Communication professional association as well, which was somewhat disconcerting to the audience, I would suspect, given that it was somehow advertised as a panel about MMORPGs. (Talk about false advertising, especially since the games we were discussing may be multiplayer, but they didn't rise to the level of "massive" in scale.) I gave a talk about the Arden "failure" of a prominent McArthur-funded digital learning project. (Slides are here, and a draft of the paper is here.) I was followed by two literacy-oriented talks by Matthew Kaplan of the University of Minnesota, who gave a talk about "Green Reading, Green Gaming: The Future of Ecocriticism, Storytelling, and Environmental Ethics in Virtual Worlds," and Alex Games on "Gamestar Mechanic: Reflections on the Design (Research) of a Game about Game Design." Games has been working closely with the influential game literacy theorist James Paul Gee, whose work is respected widely regardless of theoretical orientation, for good reason in my opinion, on Gamestar Mechanic, a role-playing game for K-12 students about being a game designer that I had seen previewed at the Serious Games Summit in 2006. Unlike other similar projects, Gee and his team have decided to focus on teaching design rather than teaching computer code. Although Games' talk made it sound like researchers were disappointed with the writing outcomes of their first sample group of students, they had developed specific instructions about writing conventions and genres for the group considerably since then and now offer templates and models for the "game labels" that should improve results.

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