Gaming the Change: Cyborgs and Representation

At the onset of network culture, the online dream of the 1990s was a world without gender, a cyber-sidestepping of patriarchy’s reign on the body, Foucault’s biopower re-imagined through integrated circuits. Though this vision was only tangentially related to gaming, one look at the multiple controversies involved in Gamergate is enough to declare the dream of the 1990s long dead. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway (1991) writes, “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination” (p. 161). Parsing the layers of these embedded systems is a start.

Inky

As Ian Bogost puts it,

Videogames are an expressive medium. They represent how real and imagined systems work. They invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. As part of the ongoing process of understanding this medium and pushing it further as players, developers, and critics, we must strive to understand how to construct and critique the representations of our world in videogame form (p. vii).

Videogames employ what Bogost calls procedural rhetoric, “The art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” (p. ix). Distinguishing videogames from other media, he adds, “In some sense, videogames both are and aren’t other media. They do what other media do—and some things they do not—but they do them differently.”

Gaming at the EdgeIn Gaming at the Edge (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Adrienne Shaw writes that “the discourse about representation (from industry and academic points of view) is what needs to be transformed, not just the representation of particular groups in game texts” (p. 15). Quoting Stuart Hall, Shaw sees representation of marginalized groups as a discursive device, “which represents difference as unity or identity” (p. 16). How identification in videogames differs from identification in other media an entire chapter in Shaw’s book, as is one on when and why representation matters to players. As one interviewee puts it regarding a player character, “He could be a bunny rabbit for all I care!” (the subject of Chapter 3). In addition to these many important questions and issues, she also spends a chapter investigating if anyone actually identifies with Tomb Raider‘s normative Lara Croft.

Gaming at the Edge is about out how marginalized gamers engage with game content, identify with players and characters, and see themselves within these systems. It’s about using new models where the old ones have failed.

Uncertainty in GamesWhere we need to reduce theoretical uncertainty in one aspect, Greg Costikyan argues in Uncertainty in Games (The MIT Press, 2015) that games need uncertainty to hold gamers’ interest. “In a sense,” Costikyan writes, “‘game’ is merely the term we apply to a particular kind of play: play that has gone beyong the simple, and has been complexified and refined by human culture” (p. 7).

Though there’s nothing in here about representation as discussed above, Costikyan’s book is not entirely apolitical because it is written for procedural rhetors (game designers). This fun, little book is a guide to using uncertainty to engage players. It’s a smart, serious look at current game design.

“Some things have gotten better,” Shaw writes in her conclusion to Gaming at the Edge, “but others will not get better unless researchers, activists, and designers change the way they think about why and how representation matters” (pp. 201-202). In order to revive the cyborg dream, we need not just to represent more marginalized groups but also to reexamine the details of our default settings, to interrogate the systems themselves. Haraway (1991) ends her Cyborg Manifesto, writing, “It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (p. 181).

References:

Bogost, Ian. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Costikyan, Greg. (2015). Uncertainty in Games. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Haraway, Donna J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Shaw, Adrienne. (2015). Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Of Data Sets and Digital Humanities

I began my journey into computer use with the local library’s Apple II and my own Commodore Vic-20. It wasn’t long before I learned BASIC and upgraded to a Commodore 64. As advanced as those machines were for the time, they had no operating systems or internal storage to speak of. I mowed lawns and washed cars to buy accessories for my bedroom setup. First up was a cassette drive to save the programs that would previously disappear when I turned off my computer.
Commodore Datasette
I joined my first user group in the sixth grade. Equipped with my Datasette (Commodore’s cassette-driven external storage device), I was able to trade software with the more experienced programmers in the group. I was one of the only non-adults at those meetings. I distinctly remember the regular appearance of a contrivance called “the Octopus.” This thing connected many Datasettes to the same source thereby allowing the mass copying of whatever was on the master cassette tape. Admittedly, I was mostly collecting old arcade games, but the possibilities were exciting.

Speaking of, the next item on my list of peripherals was a modem. I had no idea what I was going to connect to, but the allure of far-flung databases was the stuff of my prepubescent dreams. The prospect of knowledge coming into my humble machine over the phone line was just amazing. Without a tangible goal or the money for long-distance charges, my interest faded, and BMX and skateboarding took sway over my days. I never got a modem, and my computer-fueled fever wouldn’t return until I started writing for magazines in the early 1990s. Thankfully others bit early by the bug weren’t so distracted.

Debates in the Digital HumanitiesThe history of computing and connectivity since is far too lengthy and eventful to go into here, as are its impacts on academia, but so-called “big data” and the digital humanities have emerged recently as major arenas of scholarship and debate. Integrating new technologies into research is nothing unique, so getting past the buzzwords that often simply repackage old methodologies in new, digital boxes is the first step to figuring out what’s really new and novel. Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), is a solid place to begin. This 500-page compendium interrogates the fledgling field from all angles: what it is, what it isn’t, how it’s done, and where it’s going. And it’s not just about how the research is done but also how it’s reported and shared. Each section in this book includes print versions of relevant blog posts. Everyone from Matthew Kirschenbaum, Alex Reid, and the always critical Ian Bogost to Lev Manovich, Mark Sample, and the inimitable Alan Liu–among many others–get in on establishing and critiquing the field. If you’re wondering what all the tweets are about, this book is definitely the place to start.

Switching CodesIf you’d prefer to dive directly into the deep end, Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts (University of Chicago Press, 2011) is an excellent companion to Debates in the Digital Humanities. Editors Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover and their contributors drill down into the wild, wired, and weird. Each section here has a call-and-response format. Ian Foster, Albert Borgmann, and Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe (whose piece on the migration of the aura is especially interesting) are all here, Alan Liu makes an appearance via one of the responses, and there’s even an interlude card game designed by Eric Zimmerman (“Figment: The Switching Codes Game”)! Fun and games aside, Switching Codes leans toward the philosophical, making it essential for seeing the bigger picture through our increasingly bigger data sets.

My path eventually led me back to both computers and to scholarship, both of which thankfully advanced astronomically in my absence. I still have the Commodore Vic-20, the 64, and that old Datasette, but I now connect to databases with purpose and ease, and my own digital humanities work is informed by excellent books like these two.

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I must acknowledged that my personal hacker history here was spurred on by my current bedtime reading, Bruce Sterling‘s The Hacker Crackdown (Bantam, 1992), which is an excellent history of the darkside of digital humanity.

What Means These Screens? Two More Books

Every once in a while our reliance on technology initiates a corrective or at least a thorough reassessment. In a sort of Moore’s Law of agentic worry, the intervals seem to be shortening as fast as the technology is advancing, and the latest wave is upon us.

Sometimes these assessments are stiflingly negative and sometimes they are uselessly celebratory. Jaron Lanier’s recent book flirts with the former, while other current thinkers lean toward the latter. For instance, where Clay Shirky sees the book as an inconvenience borne by an era characterized by a lack of access, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton & Co, 2010) laments the attempt to shred their pages into bits and scatter them all over the internet, decontextualizing great paragraphs, sentences, phrases, words. Apparently Shirky would rather read War and Pieces than War and Peace.

For all of its astute observations and well-argued points, The Shallows sometimes exhibits a strange disparity between what Carr hesitates to claim and what he writes as common knowledge. For example, he states outright that language is not a technology (p. 51) – a claim with which I not only disagree but feel is rather bold – yet hedges when saying that the book is the medium most resistant to the influence of the internet (p. 99) – a claim that seems pretty obvious to me. Books, as a medium and as an organizing principle, just do not lend themselves to the changes the digital revolution hath wrought on other media. Their form nor their fragmentation makes near as much sense.

When we do research, we rarely read an entire book. We scour indices and tables of contents for the relevant bits. As Howard Bloom gleefully explains in his contribution to this year’s summer reading list:

…if you prefer playing video games to plowing through a thousand pages of Joyce’s Odesseus and falling out of your beach chair with periodic bouts of sleep, I highly recommend the Google Book Search e-approach, deep dives into the minds of philosophers you would normally never think of sampling between games of badminton.

As much as I’d love to be able to run a digitally enabled quick-search on all the books on my bookshelf, that doesn’t mean I don’t want the option of pulling one down in its entirety once in a while. The same could be said for the fragmentation of the album as the organizing principle for music. It doesn’t take a 19th century librarian to see that preferring the excerpts and snippets of research is not the same thing as never wanting a book to read. This is the thick thicket, as Matt Schulte would call it, of digitizing books.

Carr’s point though, is not just the dissolution of our books, but the dissolution of our minds. He claims that the manifold fragments and features of the web are preventing us from concentrating for a book-length spell, much less wanting one. As clear as his argument reads and as solid as his research seems (Carr assembled a firm foundation of writing history and media ecology on which to build), it’s difficult not to take the very point of it as so much pining for a previous era. He’s careful to blunt that point by praising the web’s usefulness and to self-analyze his own tech-habits just enough to soften the prickly parts of his argument. It’s a seductive read in spite of itself.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of The Shallows, but the last chapter, “A Thing Like Me,” is one of the more frustrating twenty-odd pages I’ve read in some time. Not because it was bad, but because it was so dead-on in-tune with my recent thoughts on media and minds. It was a lengthy and weighty I-wish-I’d-written-that experience. Damn you, Nicholas Carr!

Speaking of things I wish I’d written, Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Pantheon, 2010) is a prefect model of how to write about something totally geeky, maintain the things that make it geeky, and still make it accessible to anyone. When I was a gamer, a self-identification I wouldn’t feel comfortable using even in jest today, there wasn’t such a category. Playing video games was a subset of the larger “nerd” label. Given my hiatus from said world, I should’ve been outmoded by Bissell’s admittedly narrow focus on recent console games, a focus he admits runs the “danger of seeming, in only a few years, as relevant as a biology textbook devoted to Lamarckism.” Thankfully, what this book’s subject matter lacks in breadth, Bissell’s intelligence, insight, writing, and wit make up for in spades.

Adult indulgence in video games begs questions of maturity and responsibility in the adult, but it also begs questions of the games as well. Bissell explores some of both, but mostly the latter. He thoroughly refutes Roger Ebert’s recent claim that video games can never be art (Ebert has since retracted his statements), snags insider insights via interviews with several top game designers, makes fun of Resident Evil‘s deplorable dialog, and descends into the depths of addiction and abuse — on the screen and IRL — with Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s a thumb-blistering journey through the screen and into the machine, and, in spite of its candor and seriousness, it’s damn funny.

What I can say for very few recent books, I can say for The Shallows and Extra Lives: They are as entertaining and funny as they are provocative and informative. Simply put, they are good reads. Carr and Bissell should be proud.

The Interface and the Algorithm: Four Recent Books

The much-discussed, much-explored interface between humans and machines is seemingly our final frontier. Comparing the interface to the Victorian novel and the 1950s television show (both of which shaped society’s understanding at the time), Steven Johnson wrote, “There are few creative acts in modern life more significant than this one, and few with such broad social consequences.” The graphical user interface has come to represent all of the many processes going on inside the computer — and the way we interact with each other through them.

The machine is not the environment for the person; the person is the environment for the machine. — Aviv Bergman

Buy This Book from Powell\'sWith Beyond the Desktop Metaphor: Designing Integrated Digital Work Environments (MIT Press), editors Victor Kaptelinin and Mary Czerwinski have compiled essays finding the limits of the current widespread user interface and imagining a post-desktop interface. Studies have found that our current virtual desktop doesn’t afford supporting services for the growing areas of computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW), the ever-expanding diversity of technologies, or the multiple roles or tasks we find ourselves filling. Beyond the Desktop Metaphor is a compendium that reaches just that — beyond the desktop.

Buy This Book from Powell'sLooking back to look ahead, Thomas Erickson and David W. McDonald compiled HCI Remixed: Reflections on Works That Have Influenced the HCI Community (MIT Press). Erickson and McDonald asked fifty-one designers to reflect on one work — something at least ten-years old — that influenced their approach to human-computer interface design. The result is fifty-one brief essays covering artifacts spanning everything from books like Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (The Free Press) and Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines, early innovations like Douglas Engelbart’s mouse and Ivan Sutherland’s SketchPad, and influential people like Edward Tufte and Jane Jacobs. In a field where the research and results are cutting-edge and exciting, but where the literature is often bogged down in minutia and, well, boring, HCI Remixed exhibits a novel approach and is actually fun to read.

It is all just an algorithm with enough unknowns to make a game of it. — McKenzie Wark

Buy This Book from Powell\'sNowhere has HCI been more “remixed” than in computer gaming. A simmering subculture for decades, supposedly the gaming industry has overtaken Hollywood in size, money, and attention. Making sense of this rapid growth and its influence on our culture has spawned confusion, reckless theorizing, and a whole new field of study. Fortunately for us, people like Alexander Galloway and McKenzie Wark have taken up the task of keeping things in perspective. Galloway’s Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (University of Minnesota Press) draws from over fifty video games — from PONG and Space Invaders to Half-Life and Halo — (as well as his keen critical eye and l33t gamer skills) to deliver a holistic and seasoned approach to gaming studies.

Buy This Book from Powell\'sWark’s Gamer Theory (Harvard University Press), which was originally published in-progress online as “G4M3R 7H30RY,” is written in the aphoristic style of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (not unlike Wark’s previous book, A Hacker Manifesto). While its being published online has gotten more attention than the book itself, this should not be the case. Like Wark’s previous work, this is an important text for anyone interested in progressive thought on media and technology — and our relationships with it. Gamer Theory is less about the avatars, images, and interface, and more about the philosophy that drives them. It’s the algorithm as allegory, the formula as form, the rules as rubrics, and what all of it might mean to the culture they’re shaping.

Depending on what end of the human-computer spectrum you’re interested in — from haptics and CSCW to gaming and philosophy — these four books tap the pulse of the melding of humans and machines.

Digital Media Demo Day at Georgia Tech

I ventured to Atlanta again this year for Georgia Tech’s Digital Media department‘s Winter Demo Day, and it definitely re-greased the mental wheels. When you’re stuck while thinking about technology and media, an event like this is sure to shake things loose.

The Digital Media program at Georgia Tech spans the spectrum that runs from Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) to film production. Students and faculty come from all points on the spectrum as well, thereby making the input and the output of the department is as diverse as its people. Their semiannual Demo Days allow them to strut their wares, from fully immersive digital environments and emergent games to interactive TV and experimental film, from completed works to projects-in progress. A loose theme this year could’ve been merging the virtual with the corporeal: There were lots of projects bridging bodies and avatars and several others exhibited new approaches to haptics. It’s very difficult to keep a summary about such an event brief, but here are a few highlights.

Kenny Chow’s Generative Visual Renku project uses Fox Harrell’s GRIOT System to create a digital environment for collaborative, linked-poetry using pictographs. Renku is similar to Haiku except that it is a form of linked poetry. Chow’s project allows groups of people connected via a network (e.g., the internet, an intranet, or a social space such as Facebook) to collaborate on pieces of artwork using icons. In the process, GRIOT and Chow’s Renku system create a visual grammar by which the artworks can be built and interpreted.

Over the past couple of years, Susan Robinson has been quietly remediating her Oscar-nominated film Building Bombs (which is now available on DVD) into an interactive piece, the engine behind which manages the relationships among the various personalities and issues in the film. By dragging pictures and icons around on the screen, the user can see how they react to each other and watch video clips from the film. It’s much more impressive and interesting than I can make it sound here.

Space Vectors by Ari Velazquez, Jimmy Truesdell, and Kurt Stilwell is a tabletop video game for up to four players. Each player has a base to protect and three types of space vessels — controlled by tangible objects placed on the tabletop — with which to protect it and attack the others. As it stands now, players set up initial conditions, press “start,” and watch the game unfold. Eventually, Ari says, the game will be very active over the course of play. The interesting thing about Space Vectors‘ current state is how complex the game play is given its relative simplicity. Set up a few pieces, let the game go, and watch to see if your strategy works.

Notably missing this year — or maybe I just notably missed them — were Brian Shrank and company and their Mashboard Games (one of my favorites from last year, which explores haptics by mining affordances from the standard QWERTY keyboard). Also M.I.A. were Ian Bogost and Eugene Thacker. Next time, guys…

The EGG's Mermaids: Click to enlargeOther highlights included Second Life/Augmented Reality (which involved combining physical actors with digital avatars), Mermaids (an MMOG that explores the emergent behavior of large groups), Flourishing Future (an interactive children’s tangible-object tabletop video game involving making a city more environmentally friendly), and Machinima Futurista (which uses the Second Life/Augmented Reality project to recreate the 1916 Italian Futurist film Vita Futurista), among many others.

If any of you get a chance to attend GA Tech’s Demo Day and see what they’re up to there, I strongly recommend doing so: good food, good people, and lots of great ideas. Many thanks to the presenters, and Susan Robinson, Jay Bolter, and Janet Murray for making us feel welcome and for making it another brain-sparking good time.