Exam Area III: Interaction Design for Social Media and Pervasive Computing

This post is a part of a series covering my qualifying exam research areas. Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to each area, or click here for a general description of the process.

Description

As devices and platforms multiply, so too does the amount of metadata produced by individuals in the course of daily life. This metadata, generated and collected via disparate sources such as social networking profiles, web usage analytics, and physical sensor systems embedded in mobile devices and the built environment, provides interaction designers with rich real-time information flows that model and visualize user behavior.

Understanding how to create responsive and context-aware interactivity based on these dynamic data flows is an imperative for designers working in the field of social media and pervasive computing interaction design. Equally important is an investigation of how participatory activities and games – from social games to ambient alternate reality games to locative artworks to collaborative production games and more – can leverage social media and pervasive computing to exist “inside the flow” of their users’ lives, rather than as cordoned-off activities that necessitate a pause or “stepping out” from behavioral norms in order to access. Key readings draw from game design, particularly discussions around so-called “casual” asynchronous play systems (Fullerton, Juul, Salen and Zimmerman); mobile and locative interaction design (Böhlen and Frei, Ermi, Montola, Schell, Vinge); information architecture, pervasive computing, and the internet of things (Benford, Berners-Lee, Bleecker, Kay, Krueger, Montola, Nieuwdorp, Shirky, Sterling); and human-computer interaction design (Csikszentmihalyi, Kuniavsky, Thackara, Ramsey, Simon).

Bibliography

Benford, Steve et al. “Bridging the physical and the digital in pervasive gaming,” Communications of the ACM, 48 (3), 54-57, 2005.

Berners-Lee, Tim. “Linked Data – Design Issues.” http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/LinkedData.html

Bleecker, Julian, and Nicolas Nova. “A synchronicity: Design Fictions for Asynchronous Urban Computing.” Situated Technologies. http://www.situatedtechnologies.net/?q=node/102

Bogost, Ian. “Asynchronous Multiplay: Futures for Casual Multiplayer Experience.” http://www.bogost.com/writing/asynchronous_multiplay_futures.shtml

______. “Cow Clicker.” http://www.bogost.com/blog/cow_clicker_1.shtml

Böhlen, Marc, and Hans Frei. “MicroPublicPlaces.” Situated Technologies. http://www.situatedtechnologies.net/?q=node/104

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 1st ed. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.

Dourish, Paul. “Embodied Interaction: Exploring the Foundations of a New Approach to HCI.” Xerox PARC, 1999. http://www.dourish.com/embodied/embodied99.pdf

______. Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press, 2001.

Ermi, Laura and Mayra, Frans. “Player-Centered Game Design: Experiences in Using Scenario Study to Inform Mobile Game Design.” Game Design Research Symposium, IT-University, 2004. http://www.gamestudies.org/0501/ermi_mayra/

Fullerton, Tracy. Game Design Workshop, Second Edition: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. 2nd ed. Morgan Kaufman, 2008.

IGDA Casual Games SIG. 2008-2009 Casual Games White Paper. International Game Developers Association, 2009. http://archives.igda.org/casual/IGDA_Casual_Games_White_Paper_2008.pdf

Juul, Jesper. A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. The MIT Press, 2009.

Kay, Alan and Goldberg, Adele. “Personal Dynamic Media,” The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003.

Korhonen, Hannu, Hannamari Saarenpää, and Janne Paavilainen. “Pervasive Mobile Games — A New Mindset for Players and Developers.” In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Fun and Games, 21-32. Eindhoven, The Netherlands: Springer-Verlag, 2008.

Krueger, Myron W. “Responsive Environments,” in Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Montfort, Nick (ed.) The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003.

Kuniavsky, Mike. Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research. 1st ed. Morgan Kaufmann, 2003.

Montola, Markus, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. Morgan Kaufmann, 2009.

Nieuwdorp, Eva. “The Pervasive Interface: Tracing the Magic Circle,” Proceedings of DiGRA Conference: Changing Views–Worlds in Play, 2005.

Ramsey, Jim. “Designing For Flow.” A List Apart, December 4, 2007. http://www.alistapart.com/articles/designingforflow/

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Illustrated edition. The MIT Press, 2003.

Schell, Jesse. DICE 2010: Design Outside the Box, 2010. http://g4tv.com/videos/44277/dice-2010-design-outside-the-box-presentation/

Shirky, Clay. Letter. “Situated Software,” March 30, 2004. http://www.shirky.com/writings/situated_software.html

Simon, Nina. “Going Analog: Translating Virtual Learnings into Real Institutional Change.” In Archives & Museum Informatics: Museums and the Web 2009. Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, 2009.

Stein, Jennifer, Fisher, Scott, and Otto, Greg. “Connecting and Animating the Built Environment with the Internet of Things.” Internet of Things Workshop, 2010.

Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. The MIT Press, 2005.

Thackara, John, ed. Design After Modernism: Beyond the object. Gloucester: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

______. In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005.

Vinge, Vernor. Rainbows End. Tor Books, 2007.

What am I missing? This interdisciplinary bibliography is incomplete and provisional by necessity — but I’d still like to know what readers think should be on here for future reference. Please leave any suggestions in the comments on this post.

Qualifying Exam Areas

I’ve also written a brief post on the ongoing role that this website is playing in my research:

Finally, you can download the latest version of my exam area descriptions and bibliographies in .pdf form here.

Exam Area II: History and Theories of Participatory Culture and Art Practice

This post is a part of a series covering my qualifying exam research areas. Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to each area, or click here for a general description of the process.

Description

The increasingly “device agnostic” Web constitutes a vast and rapidly evolving multi-modal metaplatform for collaboration, performance, and community-building. The radical reconfiguration of spatial, institutional, and social boundaries that has accompanied and guided the emergence of network technology and social media has brought with it an irreversible decentralization of the production and dissemination of knowledge and culture (Benkler, Von Hippel). The effects of these shifts are only beginning to be felt, with policy makers, educators, cultural theorists, and corporations scrambling to adjust to/capitalize on a broad class of new participatory media practices. But while the breadth and scope of media participation have been vastly increased by the core affordances of new media objects and the dawning ubiquity of network technologies, the defining practices of participatory culture have been with us since long before the birth of YouTube and Web 2.0 (Jenkins). From the amateur operators of the early days of radio (Douglas), to the feminist “vidding” subcultures of the 1970s and 80s (Coppa), our engagement with media has always been just that: engagement, and not pure consumption. Until recently, personal and academic uses of popular culture artifacts — remixing, fan fiction, filesharing — have been largely invisible to the corporate apparatus underwriting their original production; but as amateur creators and remixers have flooded to the Web to share and discuss their works, hitherto “private” practices have become public, much to the chagrin of those with a vested interest in upholding the kinds of scarcity and centralized authority required for the maintenance of the status quo (Lessig).

The present moment is a crucial one in this regard. A failure by policy makers to imaginatively engage with the affordances of the Web could restrict or roll back the transformative potentials promised by the advocates of openness, transparency, and collective intelligence (Levy, O’Reilly). To steer clear of this kind of disaster, it falls to the makers of media — from on- and offline amateurs to corporate department heads — to identify the ways in which new arrangements of cultural authority and economic power, particularly in the realms of intellectual property and knowledge production, might emerge in the context of distributed and procedural authorship. Toward this end, it is essential to develop an understanding of the motivations, pleasures, requirements, effects, and potentials of participation across a variety of domains.

Three closely-related fields of study inform this understanding. Readings from Fan Studies provide insights into the role of participatory culture in the articulation of identity and resistance, with particular focus on the ways in which fans and producers negotiate, co-create, and contest meanings within the hybrid spaces of canon and taste (Coppa, Fiske, Jenkins). Seminal ethnographic and critical perspectives from cultural studies and social science (De Certeau, Foucault, Goffman) extend these insights beyond fandom and into broader conversations concerning performativity and the uncertain ontological status of the author/viewer divide. Within this context, investigations of the shifting logics of cultural production, circulation, and reputation help to establish frameworks for understanding how new technologies — from amateur printing presses to Web 2.0 — can disrupt existing legal and industrial structures as they give rise to new modes of engagement (Benkler, Berners-Lee, Bruns, Douglas, Green, McPherson, Lessig). Finally, a traversal of the history of avant-garde participatory art practice reveals a range of theories, aesthetic systems, and process-oriented artworks whose legacy constitutes a deep and wide working-through of the myriad theoretical and practical challenges facing contemporary media makers invested in notions of the participatory (Bishop, Boal, Bourriaud, Kaprow, Knabb, Kester, O’Donnell, Ranciere).

Bibliography

Anderson, Steve. “Aporias of the Digital Avant Garde,” Digital Humanities Quarterly, Summer, 2007. http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/1/2/000011/000011.html

Baym, Nancy K. and Burnett, Robert. “Amateur Experts: International Fan Labor in Swedish Independent Music,” International Journal of Cultural Studies, 12(5): 1-17.

Benkler, Yochai. The wealth of networks : how social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press, 2007.

Berners-Lee, Tim. “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality.” Scientific American. December, 2010.

Bishop, Claire. Participation. The MIT Press, 2006.

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. Pluto Press, 2008.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Les Presse du Reel, 1998.

boyd, danah. “Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2006.

Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. Peter Lang Publishing, 2008.

Coppa, Francesca. “Women, ‘Star Trek’ and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding,” Transformative Works and Cultures 1, 2008.

Darnton, Robert. “Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensibility,” The Great Cat Massacre And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. Basic Books, 2009.

Dena, Christy. “Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games,” Convergence, February 2008. 41-58.

Diamond, Sara. “Participation, Flow, and the Redistribution of Authorship: The Challenges of Collaborative Exchange and New Media Curatorial Practice,” Museums and the Web. Banff Institute, 2005.

Douglas, Susan J. “Popular Culture and Populist Technology: The Amateur Operators, 1906-1912,” Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Fiske, John. “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in Lewis, Lisa A. (ed.) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. Routledge, 1992.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” in Lodge, D. (ed) Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Longman, 1988.

Galloway, Alexander and Thacker, Eugene. The Exploit. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, 1959.
Green, Joshua and Burgess, Jean. YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Polity, 2009.

Higgins, Dick. “Dick Higgins on Intermedia,” Something Else Newsletter #1. Something Else Press, 1965. http://www.ubu.com/papers/higgins_intermedia.html

Jenkins, Henry, Puroshotma, Ravi, Clinton, Katherine, Weigel, Margaret & Robison, Alice J. (2005). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, available at http://www.newmedialiteracies.org/files/working/NMLWhitePaper.pdf. Retrieved on 1/22/2009.

______. “Nine Propositions Towards a Theory of YouTube,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 2006.

______. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU Press, 2006.

Kaprow, Allan. “’Happenings’ in the New York Scene,” in Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Montfort, Nick (ed.) The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003.

Kester, Grant. Conversation Pieces. University of California Press, 2004.

Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Penguin Press HC, The, 2008.

McGonigal, Jane. “Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming,” Ecologies of Play. Ed. Katie Salen. MIT Press, 2008. 199-228. http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.199

McPherson, Tara, ed. Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected. MIT Press, 2007.

O’Donnell, Darren. Social Acupuncture. Coach House, 2006.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Verso, 2009.

What am I missing? This interdisciplinary bibliography is incomplete and provisional by necessity — but I’d still like to know what readers think should be on here for future reference. Please leave any suggestions in the comments on this post.

Qualifying Exam Areas

I’ve also written a brief post on the ongoing role that this website is playing in my research:

Finally, you can download the latest version of my exam area descriptions and bibliographies in .pdf form here.

Exam Area I: New media spaces, or: Alternate Realities, Database Aesthetics, and the Poetics of Space

[This post is a part of a series covering my qualifying exam research areas. Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to each area, or click here for a general description of the process.]

Description

Phenomenologically speaking, our engagement with new media objects is predominantly spatial. Linearity naturally emerges out of this engagement as we sequence one experience after another, but we begin and transition by “navigating,” “searching,” “scanning,” “browsing,” “downloading,” “visiting,” and any number of other verbs that imply movements across, through, to, from, and around. Further, the increasingly tenuous boundaries between new media objects — where does Google end, and where does the information it indexes begin? — imply a kind of limitless and endlessly reconfigurable hyperspace, one that extends well beyond the confines of the screen and into the hybrid digital/physical spaces that constitute our lived environment. As this mode of engagement becomes dominant, what kinds of changes are we seeing in epistemology, representation, identity, and narrativity? What is newly possible, and what is foreclosed — and for whom? And finally, what are the poetic affordances of this spatiality?

Coming to terms with the many valences of “space” in this context requires a multi-threaded interdisciplinary investigation. The first thread of this investigation looks at space through the lens of twentieth century critical theory and cultural studies (Bachelard, Benjamin, Foucault, Lefebvre, De Certeau). These texts inform an understanding of how space is used as a means of (re-)inscribing and resisting economic and cultural hegemonies; how this use co-constructs, renews, and reshapes meaning; and how these meanings reflect and feed back on the social and economic orders that circumscribe our experience of place. Lurking in the background here are several related spheres of discourse, including intersubjective systems theory; notions of mutualism, multiplicity, and nomadism; and theories of emergence and utopia. The second thread draws on several relatively recent texts examining theories around the phenomenology and epistemology of the spatial modalities inherent in our engagement with new media objects (Aarseth, Hayles, Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin, Manovich, McPherson, Vesna). The central metaphors of navigation and database found in these works provide crucial context for the final thread of this research focus, which examines a variety of media artifacts and theories that operate within spatialized engagement modalities, beginning with postwar and late twentieth century critical interventions and theories of play (Nieuwenhuys, Debord, Huizinga), following through the ascendance and praxis of transmedia storytelling and distributed narratives (Bleecker, Jenkins, Walker), and concluding with spatial new media story/play systems such as alternate reality games (Dena, Hon, McGonigal, Szulborski), pervasive games (Montoya, de Souza e Silva and Sutko), site-specific art movements (Kwon), and social media games.

Bibliography

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press, 1994.

Batchen, Geoffrey. “Spectres of Cyberspace,” in Mirzoeff, Nicholas (ed.) The Visual Culture Reader. Routledge, 2002.

Benjamin, Walter. “Paris — Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” Selected Writings, vol 3, 1935-1938. Harvard University Press, 2006.

Bleecker, Julian, Jake Dunagan, Sascha Pohflepp, Stuart Candy, Jennifer Leonard, and Bruce Sterling. “Design Fiction: Props, Prototypes, Predicaments Communicating New Ideas.” Mp3. SXSW 2010. http://my.sxsw.com/events/event/465

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think” in Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Montfort, Nick (ed.) The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 2002.

Dena, Christy. Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments. Doctoral Dissertation, 2009.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. Thousand Plateaus. Athlone Press, 2000.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics, Spring 1986. 22-27.

Harrigan, Pat and Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. MIT Press, 2009.

Harvey, David. “The Right to the City.” New Left Review 53, October, 2008. http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2740

Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. University of Notre Dame, 2008.

Hon, Dan. “Everything you know about ARGs is WRONG.” http://www.sixtostart.com/onetoread/2008/everything-you-know-about-args-is-wrong/

Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens. Routledge, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 2007. http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html

Knabb, Ken. Situationist International Anthology. Bureau of Public Secrets, 2007.

Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. MIT Press, 2004.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Wiley-Blackwell, 1992.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2001.

McGonigal, Jane. “This Is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play,” Proceedings: Digital Arts and Culture 2003, edited by A. Miles. RMIT University, 2003. http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/dac/papers/McGonigal.pdf

McPherson, Tara. “Reload,” in Mirzoeff, Nicholas (ed.) The Visual Culture Reader. Routledge, 2002.

Souza e Silva, Adriana de and Sutko, Daniel M. Digital Cityscapes: Merging Digital and Urban Playspaces. Peter Lang Publishing, 2009.

Szulborski, Dave. This Is Not A Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming. New Fiction, 2005.

Vesna, Victoria, ed. Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Walker, Jill. “Distributed Narrative: Telling Stories Across Networks,” AoIR 5.0, September 21, 2004. http://jilltxt.net/txt/Walker-AoIR-3500words.pdf

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Montfort, Nick. The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003.

What am I missing? This interdisciplinary bibliography is incomplete and provisional by necessity — but I’d still like to know what readers think should be on here for future reference. Please leave any suggestions in the comments on this post.

Qualifying Exam Areas

I’ve also written a brief post on the ongoing role that this website is playing in my research:

Finally, you can download the latest version of my exam area descriptions and bibliographies in .pdf form here.

Building a database of research artifacts

This post is a part of a series covering my qualifying exam research areas. Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to each area, or click here for a general description of the process.

“It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Much of the early part of my qualifying exam preparation process was consumed with trying to come up with flexible-yet-precise titles for my exam areas. Since all knowledge is interconnected, this is always going to be a big challenge; but in the context of interdisciplinary new media theory and practice, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s extra-super-hard to establish and maintain boundaries. Distinguishing between productive overlap (e.g. “History and Theories of Participatory Culture and Art Practice” is a powerful complement to “Interaction Design for Social Media and Pervasive Computing”) and outright redundancy (e.g. “The Poetics of Collaboration” would work as a subset of “History and Theories of Participatory Culture and Art Practice,” but would double-up on a lot of material if it were conceived of as a separate exam area) requires a whole lot of iteration and reshuffling. Some texts that began in one exam area are now comfortably in the middle of another. Because of the inherent either/or nature of the exam area structure (“text A is either in research area X, or it isn’t”), I found that some texts that were relevant to two or three of my research areas were being arbitrarily forced to exist in just one. What I really longed for was a non-hierarchical relational database that would provide an interface to my research alongside the more traditional “three exam areas” approach. Such a database would evolve as my own thoughts evolve. Like the impermanent, always-ahead-of-us dream space proposed by Bachelard, such an information architecture’s dynamism and impermanence would have the capacity to energize and liberate the imagination through serendipitous connection and unexpected emergence.

This website (http://remotedevice.net) is an effort to model what something like that might look like. Using WordPress, I’ve set up custom taxonomies for each of my three research areas into which I can place “research artifacts” — reading notes and summaries, quotes, links to resources and RSS feeds from relevant sources, blog posts, tweets, etc. These artifacts can then be tagged with keywords, categorized, and discovered through sitewide searches, allowing them to be accessed from vectors beyond the tight ontological constraints provided by the exam areas alone. The goal is that this will make visible and usable (to me and to anyone curious about my work) the connections between materials across the totality of my research.

As of right now, I’ve got a pretty substantial backlog of stuff to integrate into this system (doing so is the main work ahead of me as I review and collate and reflect upon the material I’ve generated over the past few months), but curious readers can peruse my exam area archives as they evolve by clicking on the “blog archives” links below.

Qualifying Exam Areas

You can also download the latest version of my exam area descriptions and bibliographies in .pdf form here.

Progress Report: Qualifying Examination

[TL;DR: it’s been a whole lot of reading. Skip down to Qualifying Exam Areas for a description of exactly what it is that I’m reading about.]

In just under three weeks, I write my qualifying examination. Preparing for this ritual hoop-jumping has occupied most of my time over the past few months. It’s been an arduous and eye-opening process of discovering exactly how much I don’t know (or, at least, didn’t know when I started), and of teasing out the boundaries and relationships that define my research specializations and situate my dissertation project.

At iMAP, we’re following the exams schema set out by the School of Cinematic Arts’ Critical Studies program (with the addition of a “portfolio review” of creative work, which will take place in January). According to this schema, doctoral students need to identify three distinct areas of inquiry or specialization. Reading lists and descriptive statements outlining these research areas are submitted to the student’s committee in advance (I submitted the first draft of mine back in March of 2010), and the scope of the questions on the exams is limited to the material covered in the reading lists.

The exams themselves consist of five days of non-stop writing in response to three questions the student chooses from a pool created by their committee members. The answers to these questions take the form of imaginary dissertation chapters — which, hopefully, can become early drafts of actual dissertation chapters.

The official rule with this process is that the student should submit a reading list, then stick to it. While this rule undoubtedly has many good and practical reasons for existing, it’s a constraint I’ve had a bit of trouble observing. As I’ve read through the texts on my original list, I’ve learned more about exactly what it is that I’m investigating. References to other writers, projects, movements, and theories demand to be followed up on, and some of these tangents have ultimately become foundational to my research.

The big questions underwriting my work — questions around the poetic, social, and cultural implications of pervasive computing and social media — have functioned as a kind of razor here, shaving off truly irrelevant material and preventing the process from turning into a random walk. But my reading list now — and the ways in which I frame it — has evolved rather massively since last March. I expect it to continue to do so right up until I start writing on lucky December 13th.

With all this in mind, I present the following descriptions of my research areas, along with bibliographies for each.

Qualifying Exam Areas

I’ve also written a brief post on the ongoing role that this website is playing in my research:

Finally, you can download the latest version of my exam area descriptions and bibliographies in .pdf form here.

ARG readings and reflections: an annotated bibliography

Update 28 January 2013: Readers interested in more up-to-date readings and reflections may wish to view my PhD research materials and/or read my dissertation here.

It’s hard to find someone who actually likes the term, “alternate reality game.” Observers worry that it’s too broad, or that it’s not broad enough; that it overemphasizes play, or that it underemphasizes players; that it leaves out storytelling, or that it puts too much focus on narrative. There’s no consensus on precisely what the term refers to and even less consensus on what it should. Still, at the end of the day, “ARG” is the most familiar of all the terms on offer, and I suspect that designers and academics will keep on using it until it slowly fades into redundancy. The boundaries between gameplay and storytelling, single-platform and multi-platform, real and virtual, author and audience, are all disappearing as we speak. It’s all fiction. Someday we’ll just leave it at that.

This resource contains links to blog posts, conference papers, journal articles, and other texts related to alternate reality gaming.

Defining ARG

  • WTF is an ARG? (Andrea Phillips, 2009) “Why can’t we reach a consensus on what an ARG is, and what an ARG isn’t? Why do we return home, like swallows to Capistrano, to that question: What IS an ARG? This is my attempt to wrestle with this knotty topic, and offer up a few opinions.”
  • Undefining ARG (Sean Stacey, 2006) “I have a way to define alternate reality gaming in such a fashion as to prove to you that I cannot in fact define it at all. While the previous statement may seem nonsensical, I encourage you to bear with me. The following is written with the assumption that the reader has some passing familiarity with the history, mechanics, and gameplay of ARGs.”
  • Alternate Reality Games (Sean Stewart, 2006) “Building an ARG is like running a role-playing game in your kitchen for 2 million of your closest friends. Like a role-playing game, we get players to actually enter the world of our story and interact with it, both online and in the real world.”

Design approaches and philosophies

  • ARG 2.0 (Jeff Watson, 2010) “In general, [the core design problems of "first wave" ARGs] center on three overlapping and relatively unchallenged aspects of traditional ARG design, namely: 1) that, despite the decidedly playful and improvisatory character of the relationship between puppet masters and players, ARGs are ultimately not game systems but rather vehicles for delivering story; 2) that ARGs treat their core audiences as monadic “collective detectives” rather than groups of living, breathing individuals; and, 3) that ARGs are linear, event-driven experiences.”
  • Everything you know about ARGs is wrong (Dan Hon, 2008) “There are, it seems to me, a number of differing interpretations as to what an ARG is, exactly, and that makes them quite easy to attack. If you don’t know what something is, it’s quite easy for it not to have lived up to your expectations.”
  • ARGFest 2007 Keynote (Elan Lee, Sean Stewart, 2007) “Delivering a keynote address to this audience is really difficult. What can we talk about? We can’t talk about anything we’ve done in the past because you were all there experiencing it. We can’t talk about anything we’re working on right now because that would ruin the fun and the mystery of the experience. We can’t talk about anything we have planned for the future because frankly, you are the competition. All that’s left is self-deprecation and the elephant in the room…trust.” (summary here)

See also: Part 2
Continue reading

The amateur operators: notes on early adopters

There are real risks in reading the present moment into historical accounts, but I couldn’t help doing just that as I read “The Amateur Operators” by Susan Douglas.

For those who haven’t read the piece, the gist of it is that the period of 1906-1912 saw an explosion in amateur wireless telegraphy, with boys and young men across an increasingly urbanized America “[reclaiming] a sense of mastery, indeed masculinity itself, through the control of technology.” (191) Wireless kits and how-to guides (some published by the “founder of science fiction” himself, Hugo Gernsback) sold like hotcakes, and in just a few years there were several hundred thousand amateur wireless operators spread out across the country.

This hobbyist culture, at once intensely social — as it inherently involved communication — and potentially isolating — as it required technical skills that could only be acquired outside of the flow of ordinary life — bears a striking resemblence to the tinkering subcultures that have attended the rise of home computing, network culture, and social media. Like the initial “boy wonder” practitioners of homebrew wireless telegraphy, early adopters of computational and network technology have been characterized in the popular discourse as heroes of the arcane, the possessors of secret knowledge, and even potential messiahs. But, as was the case with amateur radio operators, the culture has a tendency to swing in the opposite direction as the technologies and practices in question become more widely embraced and therefore subject to greater scrutiny (and acts of mischief). In many cases this scrutiny has led to calls — rightly or wrongly — for regulation founded on anxieties about safety, morality, and legality (compare, for example, the heirarchically-minded US Navy’s half-pragmatic, half self-righteous outrage at the “leveling effect” of amateurs sharing the airwaves with professionals to academia’s worries over the loss of control over canon or the RIAA’s efforts to distinguish “professional” content from amateur production via vehicles such as tonight’s awkward and remarkably irrelevant Grammy awards ceremony).

Inspired by Douglas, I looked up the 1907 New York Times article that she references in her text, and found in it many parallels to early descriptions of Internet enthusiasts (among many other possible analogies — for example, such fascinated exaltations of the “boy-inventor” now can be found in press coverage of Augmented Reality designers, physical computing tinkerers, Y Combinator whiz kids or certain social networking platform CEOs). Have a look for yourself — the article is here. Then have a look at this gem from the Canadian Broadcasting Company, circa 1993:

Young Peter Mansbridge’s awkward yet strangely fascinating decision to not use the word “the” in front of “Internet” notwithstanding, a final parallel with wireless telegraphy occurs to me as I write these notes. According to Douglas’ account, the wireless boom peaked quickly and came to an end as the airwaves became so crowded as to be unusable. The US Navy, among others, fought and won a battle with the amateurs, despite the latter’s claims that “the ether was neither the rightful province of the military nor a resource a private firm could appropriate and monopolize,” and that “their enthusiasm and technical spadework entitled them to a sizable portion of the territory.” (214) In the end, none of these objections mattered: the airwaves were either militarized or sold off to corporate interests, and amateur radio was relegated to shortwave only (a limitation that caused an estimated 88% drop in the number of hobbyists in the United States). In light of this, could we consider the emergence of “boy inventor” and techno-messiah characters in popular culture as harbingers of public resource conflicts to come?

Transmedia and Education: Three Essential Readings

Henry Jenkins’ New Media Literacies class at USC has been a treasure-trove of readings and insights. Three recent articles covered in class — read alongside Jenkins’ own book, Convergence Culture, and his excellent MacArthur-funded New Media Literacies white paper — struck me as particularly essential for anyone who’s looking to build an understanding of what multimodal communication is and how transmedia relates to education, literacy and literature. Most of these readings can be found in various corners of the Web, but I’ve also posted them here (along with a brief gloss and anecdote) for those who are interested. They are:

Ito’s succinct article makes the case most directly: “technologies of the imagination populate even the most mundane corners of our lives,” (34) and, contrary to the fears of those who worry that new media threatens to compartmentalize and disembody, the media mix is in practice productive of a culture that is “extroverted and hypersocial, sociality augmented by a dense set of technologies, signifiers, and systems of exchange.” (32) Buckingham and Sefton-Green hammer the point home: skeptics ought to consider examples like the “striking contrast between the high levels of [multimodal reading, sociality and production] activity that characterize the Pokemon phenomenon and the passivity that increasingly suffuses our children’s schooling” (30); and who could disagree that banning such phenomena from the school yard would do anything other than increase their “forbidden appeal” and “prevent schools from building on the enthusiasms children possess”? (31)

Of course, we have a long way to go before these kinds of messages can establish a critical mass in institutional and creative practice. Last week, I attended an experimental literature conference and found that while many of the assembled authors and scholars were keen on experimenting with new media, few if any of them were open to a wholesale redefinition of what literature is/can be. (( …and here I’m thinking not in either/or terms but in both/and: the novel will always be around and will always be the best at doing those things that novels do best. But there are other kinds of literature lurking in the shadows, and that’s what I’m interested in here. )) The works presented would inevitably employ language — spoken or written — as their core expressive resource (unsurprising for a conference largely run and constituted by poets and English professors), which they would then back up with video, flash animations, sound effects, etc. The effect of this was to reduce any image, sound, interactive or procedural elements present in the works to subordinate “supporting” status, lending credence to the commonly-expressed concern that the use of new media “in” literature amounts to little more than gimmickry. As Kress argues, we need to not only shift our definition of text to include “any instance of communication in any mode or in any combination of modes, whether recorded or not,” (48), but also our concept of the role design plays in both reading and writing. “Design does not ask, ‘what was done before, how, for whom, with what?” Kress writes. Rather, Design asks, “What is needed now, in this one situation, with this configuration of purposes, aims, audience, and with these resources, and given my interests in this situation?” (49)

The easy analogy here is that of the early cinema, wherein fiction films were shot using the conventions of the proscenium drawn from the theatre. It was only after a thorough interrogation of the affordances of the camera and the film splicer that the cinema began to reveal itself as a space for artistic endeavor. That is, once filmmakers let go of the notion that the cinema should attempt to create the same experiences as earlier forms of narrative art, they found themselves liberated to discover the unique way of “speaking” that film affords. What complicates this analogy is that we now confront a dynamic multiplicity of media modes. Like Gardner’s multiply-intelligent children, not all authors are going to be able to work well across all media. But in an age of expanding definitions of words like “text,” “author,” and “reading,” creators of literature, as educators and thought leaders, need to ask themselves the questions Kress’s personified Design asks: “What is needed now…with these resources, and given my interests?” Intelligently using new media is not about adding bells and whistles or referencing the Web — rather, it’s about selecting the right mode (or modes) to express what it is you have to say.

Don’t Worry Vivian, the World is Really Real

I agree with Vivian Sobchack that “within the dominant cultural and techno-logic of the electronic there are those out there who prefer the simulated body and a virtual world…” and that these people are, well, basically nuts. The nanotech immortality fantasies of Ray Kurzweil et al notwithstanding, I think this perspective is increasingly a minority one, and I can’t accept that there are many serious people out there who would argue for a completely disembodied, brain-in-a-vat/brain-in-the-machine cyberfuture. Indeed, I believe such thoughts basically emerge from an early wave of naive techno-utopianism and catastrophe theory, and have been propagated largely via non-technical and somewhat dim-witted (vaguely new age, often times stoner burnout) quarters. It all smacks of mediocre 50s sci-fi and its derivatives in Scientology and other tech/alien cult manifestations, and yet Sobchack talks about it as if this motive is at the dark heart of our culture.

All this is to say that the whole argument in “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic ‘Presence’” is a bit of a straw-man kind of thing. Yes, definitely — “an insubstantial electronic presence can ignore [all the] ills the flesh is heir to outside the image and the datascape,” and that would suck, but are we really moving deeper into the screen and disembodiment, full stop, end of story? Sobchack says yes, and I can understand how she got there.

At the time of her writing, the notion that we (or at least those of us who will be able to afford it) are all going to live our futures through our brainstems in an all-encompassing, “jacked-in” Virtual Reality was at its zenith, particularly in popular culture. The fear was that people would become so wrapped up in their disembodied virtual existences (foisted upon them by their robot overlords) that they would fail to notice that the were, phenomenologically speaking, sitting in a tub of goo far away from the site of their action. But while the Matrix films provided the culture with an outlet for various anxieties about technology, identity and control, they were, at bottom, kind of vacant, semi-obvious entertainments that recycled ideas and story figures that have been around since the 50s. Their cause was putatively a noble one, but the films themselves were little more than the pop finales to the initial gasps of fear and anxiety that accompanied the birth of “the electronic.”

I would argue that our future can’t be plotted on a phenomenological continuum that has “embodied” at one end and “disembodied” at the other. Blade Runner and the Matrix trilogy tell us more about the fears and conceits of the early 1980s and late 1990s than they do about the future we are actually confronting in the here and now. And yes, I know — sure, there’s something to be harvested there about the “techno-logic” of late capitalism and of course, yes, it’s all valuable, all of it. But Sobchack spends a lot of intellectual capital worrying about the phenomenological effects of a theoretical reality that increasingly bears little resemblence to what’s actually happening on the ground. No one outside of the most moronic and outmoded subcultures of misguided paranoid technoenthusiasm uses the words “meat” or “wetware” to refer to their bodies. Indeed, highly embodied cultural manifestations like DIY, networked public play and mobility are arguably emerging as the dominant paradigms. While screens continue to proliferate, they are arguably becoming less central to our “lifeworld” (while computation nonetheless continues its ascent behind the scenes). The once easily-drawn line between the Virtual and the Real is now revealed to be a grand fallacy, a product of the very fears and ignorances that produced Sobchack’s essay in the first place.

Put away Neuromancer and pick up Pattern Recognition or Spook Country. Blade Runner and La Jetee are great — so is Denno Coil.