Daniel_Joseph's blog

Antanas Mockus and Playing Politics

Last week I was in attendance of the biennial Digital Games Research Association's conference in Hilversum Netherlands. For three days games developers, academics, researchers and artists came together to talk about games, play and culture. One of the many highlights of the conference was the philosopher and mathematician Antanas Mockus' keynote, where he video-called in to talk about play and politics. His discussion was about the playful aspects of his administration while serving as the mayor of Bogota, Colombia.

Patent Problems

In the last few weeks I have noticed a distinct uptick in the number of media outlets focusing on the problems associated with patent law in the United States and Canada. Specificaly these have focused on the new challenges associated with patents and software.

My first run-in with it was at the 2011 annual conference of the Canadian Communciations Association in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Jeremy Morris presented there on the ongoing acceptance of business method patents in the United States, and Amazon’s struggle to establish similar patents here in Canada. And oh, it just so happens that Search Engine did a great episode about this with Morris in June.

Then more recently This American Life dropped an hour long episode dedicated entirely with investigating the problems of patent law and software development. It’s a pretty solid enditemant of organizations like Intellectual Ventures and Loadsys which amass a stockpile of various patents, most of which patent the same idea thousands of times. These stockpiles are similar to the nuclear deterrent strategy of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Attack me with your patents and I will attack you with mine. No-one will survive except the lawyers. It’s an interesting strategy in today’s industrial environment, where more and more it immaterial labour which drives the major industries of the developed world. Nobody wants this result, but they play the game anyways.

Midterm Report: Gamification & the Dreams of Power

For me the biggest trend or fad of the last six months is that of gamification, essentially taking a lot of things we love about videogames, and using them for non-gaming exercises. Jane McGonigol's rhetoric has been key in a lot of this – she has termed game designers to be “happiness engineers” - to be those most suited to finding ways to motivate players, and then getting them to have a great time doing so, and hopefully in the process, creating excess social good. Of course marketers have gotten their hands the idea and have run with it – this is gamification, or as Ian Bogost has suggested people put it – exploitationware. It kinda makes everybody uncomfortable, but that's okay. That's the point.

I think that gamification has caught the affection of so many in the corporate world because it holds the same promise that advertising geared to the subconscious desires of humanity did. It attempts – through subtle goals and mechanics, to engineer consumers. By using these methods marketers can once again take the upper hand. I mean, where else is there to go? Sure ads and brands still scramble desperately to appeal to our inner subconscious – to our eternal longing for social acceptance and self-worth – but like over-inoculating entire populations against flu each year leading to stronger viruses immune to contemporary drugs, our overly-self aware, discursive and self-referential advertising culture has bred a generation of jaded, media savvy people, whose very first response to just about everything is often this:

THIS IS FAKE/STAGED/PHOTOSHOPED

Lisa Nakamura's Return to the Material

Last week both Luke and I were in Fredericton, New Brunswick for the 2011 Congress of the Social Sciences and the Humanities. In the maelstrom of the meeting of around seven thousand professors and graduate students we both presented papers for the Canadian Communications Association on our research. While there were a number of great panels presenting some amazing work, I was most inspired by Lisa Nakamura's keynote talk,“Race, Labor and Indigeneity: The Birth of New Media in the American West”, where she outlined the stark relationships contemporary information technology have with race, space and systemic economic inequality.

Her talk began with showing Banksy's critical opening credits to The Simpson's, that was aired last year:

For her Banksy's confrontational message about the outsourcing of productive labour to countries with weak labour laws and poor human rights records (in this cast, animation studios in North in South Korea) reflects recent scholarship in communication studies the “return to the material.” For her books like Nick Monfort and Ian Bogost's Racing The Beam, which traces the interplay between hardware, software, business organization and economic constraints on the Atari VCS, mark an approach that will open up new ways of thinking about our technology.

The Future of Authority: Lil B Understands Power Better than Most Governments or "Everything is now on the Internet"

Here's one of my new favourite rappers. His name is Lil B and here's his take on the Internet.

Interesting stuff no? Regardless if you find his nasal delivery and lack of flow to be decent rap, Lil B has been making waves on the net for lots more. It's because he is probably the first musical act that has somehow managed to build a fan base through traditional means as well as through a crafty application of Search Engine Optimization (maybe having learned from the SEO rap?).

Wired has covered him in this regard, and many others have spoken at length about Lil B. He embodies a lot of the qualities of his generation – an ambivalent but strong relationship with the Internet. He's been outspoken in his left-leaning tendancies, and maybe most interestingly, he knows how to troll.

Lil B trolls in a nuanced way, not overtly. His new album is titled I'm Gay. According to all reports, he is not gay, but in this case deliberately creating a controversy in the notoriously homophobic rap subculture. Just by doing so he increases his searchability and his notoriety. Like any good businessman, he knows that just about any press is good press, as long as it links back to his Myspace (of which he has a more than 150), maximizing his google page-rank.

Political Games

National Post GeoPollster ARGDuring this week's Metaviews teleseminar I was informed about the existence of The National Post's GeoPollster, a foursquare style political Alternate Reality Game whose main goal is to increase voter turnout and interest in Canadian politics. I was immediately interested.

This is because for the most part the political parties, civil society groups and mainstream journalists in Canada seem uninterested, or unable, to use new media effectively. Sure each party uses Twitter and Facebook, but they do so badly. Earlier today Luke described how Micheal Ignatieff's Twitter kept pumping out status updates during this week's debate – effectively undermining the personal nature of social media. Iggy's Twitter was effectively a simulacrum of the real Iggy.

So if the political parties can barely understand how to use Twitter effectively, what hope is there for them to use videogames well? Not much.

This is to their detriment however, because videogames are ideally suited to political tasks. This is because they can engage in procedural rhetoric – something I have discussed at length before. Procedural rhetoric uses what computers do best – run procedures – to engage in arguments about how the world works. It helps that politics is all about ideology, which videogames happen to be excellent at expressing.

Ian Bogost in his book Persuasive Games says that “Political videogames use procedural rhetorics to expose how political structures operate, or how they fail to operate, or how they could or should operate.”

Immaterial Play

Everybody has read an account of some of the best places to work. The things that often defines these dream jobs are the benefits: flexible work hours, open concept offices, break rooms with massage parlours, tennis courts, big-screen TVs with videogames and five-star chef cafeterias. These amenities appear to make work fun, and by all accounts, probably do.

The rise of such work spaces can be attributed to the information revolution. empireThe overwhelming output of these dream jobs is immaterial, not physical. Labour theorists Micheal Hardt and Antonio Negri call this type of work immaterial labour – work that primarily produces “knowledge information, communication, a relationship or an emotional response.” They stress that it is this style of production that defines our world today – that at the centre of the project of capitalism lies immaterial labour, driving forward its insatiable growth. But immaterial labour is notoriously hard to capture and control, and the struggle of business to manage and find profit from something so anti-hierarchical has defined business practice for the last 30 years. The knowledge that highly skilled workers develop is highly individual – which means that one's ability to be successful is not tied to the organization you work for. Hence the frequency of aforementioned massages and flexible work hours. Corporations engage in a never ending struggle to contain and direct the workforce, knowing that if their workers wanted to, they could leave and begin a plucky upstart, possibly leading to their downfall.

Blizzard's quest to destroy digital hell

World of Warcraft makes five million dollars each day. That means each year it will draw in almost 1.82 billion dollars for Activision-Blizzard, and they did it by doing everything that proponents of an organic, open and creative Internet would hate. They streamlined through manageralism the virtual world and made it a place where the actions of others rarely have any tangible effect on your actions unless you give them explicit permission.

Timothy Burke on Terra Nova wrote at the beginning of the year that Tron Legacy, far from being a movie worth hating on, actually provided a brilliant analogy to think about history of virtual worlds. This treatment actually revitalized the film for me – where I thought there was only incomprehensible nonsense of “movie magic” there is now an earnest, yet clever story. For Burke, Blizzard is CLU, the majordomo of Kevin Flynn, obsessed with destroying uncertainty through technocratic perfectionism. In his quest for this perfection, he destroys the unpredictable and organic lifeforms that begin to populate the world. Flynn's realization is that to create a perfect and closed system is folly – for it is in our imperfections that we find beauty and meaning in life.

In essence, the world's sublime is revealed through our own inability to perfect it.

Moral Matters

Often when videogames are the subject of media attention it's due to one of two things 1) a moral panic has broken out about the “extreme” violence/sexuality of the game's content; 2) the game has/is poised to make bucketloads of cash. The former, at least, seems to come up much more often. Moral panic is something our society does well, and videogames continue to provide a good scapegoat for our moral ills.

For exmaple, last week saw the launch of the bro-tacular, dick-joke laden FPS Bulletstorm, and naturally Fox News found a good way to take up some time during the 24 hour news cycle. Their concerns are the same as ever, that the violence and dialogue in Bulletstorm is creating violence. Having played through Bulletstorm I can attest to its Freudian obsession with dick jokes and male hypermasculinity, but overall it's not out of the ordinary for a blockbuster mainstream shooter, and doesn't make jokes any more tasteless than what was uttered out of Duke Nukem's mouth in 1996. The actual gameplay is still about blowing up people, which doesn't deviate from the dominant logic of shooters at all. It's pretty well-tread stuff.

A new gaming industry, same as the old gaming industry

Today on Gawker's videogames omnibus blog Kotaku, Brian Crecente wrote an editorial lamenting the path that PC gaming has gone down as of late. He focuses specifically on the career of Brian Reynolds – one of the big names behind the popular Civilization series, and his recent involvement with developing games for Zynga. Crecente sees this as a betrayal of sorts for the PC gaming industry – one that was built on the back of hardcore games and gamers. PC games have, due to the cultural sensitivities of those programming them, the nature of the platform and the built-in audience have historically been intricate, complex and strategic. Yet the industry is changing, as the President of Blizzard stresses, one should look to the success of World of Warcraft and facebook if one wants to show that PC gaming is not dead. Both exemplify the “casualification” of videogames.

The enthusiast press has spilled a lot of ink of the supposed conflict between hardcore and casual games, often lamenting that it seems like the people who built the industry – men ages 18-40 – are being systematically ignored. No doubt, the PC gaming market has fundamentally changed, with hardcore games still in existence, but in seriously smaller numbers than the heyday of the industry in the mid to late 90s. Often I get the sense from the gaming community that they are being ignored for reasons of taste or as is often suggested by the publishers and developers, the changing nature of piracy on the PC.

Cognitive Surplus, the Master Switch & Minecraft

So I've been reading a lot. Specifically Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky and The Master Switch by Tim Wu. Both I believe exemplify the tension that is ever present in our communications media – the push and pull between our creative output and the exercise of power by centralized organizations who have a vested interest in controlling flows of information. I've been trying to keep these books in mind in reference to my last post on gamification and the growth of videogames whose success has been predicated on successfully leveraging creativity and aggregation.

It is important to note that overall I am not Shirky's biggest fan – and at times I know I don't share his optimism about the power of technology, but Cognitive Surplus has done a good job in shifting me more into his camp in terms of the possibilities of contemporary networked communications. Cognitive Surplus, for the uninitiated, makes the case that due to the advent of the Internet and the various technologies enabled on it, we have finally entered into the age of “post-Gutenberg” economics. This means that now due to barriers to creating information being so low, the implicit value we once placed on the act of creating mass-media has shown itself to be an accident of history, not universal truth. Once the means of production were in the hands of those who could afford them, and the creation of content was always in tension with economic realities of overproduction and underconsumption. As we know now, our society has had a hard time coming to terms with the now obvious conclusion that we no longer have a scarcity of voices, information and media.

Gamification Sucks

“One plays only if and when one wishes to. In this sense, play is free activity. It is also uncertain activity. Doubt must remain until the end, and hinges upon the denouncement. In a card game, when outcome is no longer in doubt, play stops and the players lay down their hands. In a lottery or in roulette, money is placed on a number which may or may not win. In a sports contest, the powers of contestants must be equated, so that each may have a chance until the end. Every game of skill, by definition, involves the risk for the player of missing his stroke, and the threat of defeat, without which the game would no longer be pleasing. In fact, the game is no longer pleasing to one who, because he is too well trained or skillful, wins effortlessly and infallibly.”

This was written in 1932 by the Dutch historian and Orientalist Johan Huizinga, in his work Homo Ludens. In it he lays out his project as one that endeavours to make sense of the concept of play, and the massive historical role that it has played in the rise of human civilization. Huizinga makes the case that play makes up the most creative and exciting parts of culture – an oddly pre-human activity that we engage with in fluid, structured and complex ways. This work has gone on to influence a large number of videogame scholars, due to his typology of what makes a game. Certainly since he published Homo Ludens many have elaborated on the work, but his book is nonetheless an entertaining theoretical look at what makes play so damn exciting.

Digital Labour: The Case of WoW Glider

When I think about playing videogames like World of Warcraft or EVE Online I often run-up against one significant barrier: that I don't have enough time to put into it. If you want to maintain a constant presence in these spaces you have to make a significant sacrifice to other activities, due to the social nature of the game. This means you have to plan around other player's schedules on when to get together and complete missions and the like, nevermind that you also need to engage in a certain amout of grinding - the process by which you level-up and aquire in-game currency. Grinding is the fundamental process in which most of your time is consumed in these games. The worst parts about grinding is the mind numbing monotony – it is the videogame equivalent of the factory conveyor belt. You repeat the same action for hours on end with little social interaction or complexity. It is boring, and certainly not fun.

Enter WoW Glider – a program that essentially puts your avatar on auto-pilot. With it you don't have to actually play the game to level-up. In so doing it alters the relationship with labour that you have in the the virtual world. It breaks the cycle of capitalist production of the self – the work-ethic by which neo-liberalism deems you worthy as a citizen. Many players of World of Warcraft hate people who use Glider, because they haven't truly worked for their keep. They haven't earned their status as a player like everybody else has, because a computer laboured for them.

Procedural Rhetoric and America's Army

Currently my work has taken me to a study of America's Army, the US Department of Defence's military recruitment game which was originally released in 2002. My interest in the game was that it was a great example of a videogame that was created by the state for the purpose of “things public”. That means instead of only addressing citizens as consumers (buy this game and have fun!), the game addressed consumers as citizens i.e. “have fun and learn about a way to serve your country”. For me this is a relatively rare occasion where the state has used a videogame to provide information and an ideology that serves its interests. I believe that while this might be one of the first and most effective uses of the form and I don't think it will be the last.

In my work I often use the writings of Ian Bogost as a way to think about why games are so effective as a means of communication. He argues that what makes videogames unique is that they run on computers – and as such they run through procedure. Computers use parameters and then proceed to operate inside of them, meaning that videogames also must stick to these general rules of the form. What makes videogames unique to 'real world' games is that they are hard-coded with arbitrary limits and assumptions that we as players have to learn to play inside of if we want to successfully navigate them. Bogost says that it is these assumptions that become a form of argumentation that he calls procedural rhetoric.

Not all videogames argue very well, and like any argument, they can fall completely flat. Those games that do make an effective argument, Bogost calls persuasive games. These are videogames that make arguments about the way the world works, and in so doing cause us to consider their point of view.

Bringing Videogames into the Public Sphere

Hey there digital friends! My name is Daniel Joseph and you might have read about me already. My colleague and friend Luke wrote a post about some of my ideas a little while ago and I've been asked to help out with blogging here on Metaviews. Metaviews is an organization with its eyes set on the digital issues that we are dealing with right now. To me the problems and questions concerning democracy, digital citizenship and the continued role of civil society are immensely important, and I believe that videogames need the attention that we more readily give to other forms of media and technology.

Some (even in the world of academia) are often surprised to find out that there is a growing field known as Game Studies, where people like myself labour away at trying to understand more about the form. While only existing for around 10 years the amount of scholarship produced has been quite extensive. Yet a lot of this work has been focused on defining and understanding the form of the videogame. Think of English and Film departments in Universities – they focus on defining what is/isn't a poem/prose etc.

I instead am more interested in discovering how videogames interact and impact us as a public – that means investigating the links between the production of videogames in corporate campuses, state-sponsored development grant programs, and their consumption through our home consoles, computers and cell phones. That means understanding why videogames are not just consumer objects driving the economies of the developed (programmers, artists, commercial outlets, massive marketing budgets) and developing world (the mining of minerals for computer components and the assembly of hardware), but also as places where identity, value and power come together.