Games with Groundswell

November 5, 2009

I’ve never played a video game in my life. Oh wait, that’s not true. I played pong for about two seconds until I realized it was the most boring thing in the entire world. And I played Ms. Pacman a few times because it seemed like the feminist thing to do:

I guess I wasn’t alone there. But really, video games? Not my cup of tea.

So what am I doing writing a paper on video games? I blame it all on Nicco and Dance Dance Revolution – not necessarily in that order. It seems like just yesterday that I was in Nicco’s office talking about my interest in digital storytelling and civic engagement. He mentioned video games which I, in my dotage, immediately dismissed. But then I remembered Dance Dance Revolution and how much fun I had even though I never got past the blue foot rating. Could DDR be the answer to our social capital crisis and open the door to a new golden age of civic engagement? Months later I find myself writing a paper on this topic.

And turns out I’m not alone. Loads of smart people at MIT are sitting around asking questions like: Might the political consciousness of the new generation be taking shape in and around popular culture? How are activists and political leaders utilizing metaphors from popular culture as resources to mobilize their supporters? Is it possible that aspects of our popular culture may generate utopian visions that fuel political change?

I get the social capital part … numerous scholars have pointed out the value of MMOGs as “new (albeit virtual) “third places” for informal sociability that are particularly well suited to the formation of bridging social capital.” This dynamic has obvious implications for civic engagement. But not all games are created equal and most restrict player to the fantasy world of these “third places.”

I got thinking about Charlene Li and Jodh Bernoff’s book Groundswell and the idea of a “spontaneous movement of people using online tool to connect, take charge of their own experience, and get what they need – information, support,ideas, products, and bargaining power – from each other.” Many video games don’t leverage the power of the groundswell … they allow a third party, a computer, to define the contours of their experience. If social bonding, fantasy and a transformative experience is what you need, many games and virtual world can deliver. But what if what you really need is your garbage removed or health care reform or a climate change plan that will skirt disaster? I’m not sure DDR or World of Warcraft is up to the task.

Nicco again to the rescue. He hooked me up with his game guru Bonnie Shaw who is the brains behind the world-wide photographic treasure hunt Snap-Shot-City. And Bonnie hooked me up with the work of Jane McGonigal. Jane is a game designer and researcher who is passionate about ARG’s – Alternate Reality Games.

Wikipedia defines ARGs as “an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions. The form is defined by intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real-time and evolves according to participants’ responses, and characters that are actively controlled by the game’s designers, as opposed to being controlled by artificial intelligence as in a computer or console video game. Players interact directly with characters in the game, solve plot-based challenges and puzzles, and often work together with a community to analyze the story and coordinate real-life and online activities. ARGs generally use multimedia, such as telephones, email and mail but rely on the Internet as the central binding medium.”

People like me, who don’t usually like games, tend to like ARGs because you don’t have to touch a “joystick” to play and they don’t remind you of those seventh grade Dungeons and Dragons boys. Sorry guys, D&D still creeps me out. Better yet, ARGs seem to offer the civic engagement missing link that other “games” do not: the real world! Now combine that with the groundswell and you may have something. ARGs are getting a ton of hype right now but there are loads of barriers to adoption as a truly powerful medium for civic engagement. But you’ll have to wait until my paper is published in some swanky journal to find out what they are. HA!

work in progress

October 30, 2009

Whoever dies with the most data wins!

Apparently so, according to Tim O’Reilly, author of “What is Web 2.0.” O’Reilly explains that a key source of power in our new Web 2.0 world is control of data. But is all data valuable? If so, how valuable? Who decides? What is more valuable, the core data or the “added-value” that gives data its “real” value? And who should get paid what amount at the end of the day? Our Web 2.0 world seems to be bumping into a few of theses sticky questions.

At first, I liked what I heard about this new promise land call Web 2.0: no scheduled software releases, just continuous improvements; no licensing or sales, just usage; and no more porting to different platforms. Sounds downright Utopian. How wonderful! Well, maybe not so wonderful.

As O’Reilly explains, Google is the standard bearer for this thing called Web 2.0 for all the reasons outlined above (and then some).  At its core, Google is a specialized database with some very sophisticated software tools. But without the data, these tools are useless. Of course, without their magic algorithms, the data is unmanageable and also worthless (to them!). For the moment, Google seems to have the software tool side of the equation nailed down pretty well. The more interesting and unresolved question is: who will win the data battle? As O’Reilly goes on to explain, “the value of the software is proportional to the scale and dynamism of the data it helps to manage.” Given this reality, things will likely get very ugly in our new 2.0 Utopia.

Of course, things have already gotten ugly with the Google Books scandal. And the complaints about finger spam are the least of it (although this makes me wonder if Google’s operational competencies are slipping in the race to feed the data monster).

At the moment, this is how Google is spinning the settlement. “Three years ago, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and a handful of authors and publishers filed a class action lawsuit against Google Books. Today we’re delighted to announce that we’ve settled that lawsuit and will be working closely with these industry partners to bring even more of the world’s books online. Together we’ll accomplish far more than any of us could have individually, to the enduring benefit of authors, publishers, researchers and readers alike.”

I have nothing against better access to more books but the idea of grabbing data without notifying or properly compensating the creators of said data really bugs me. This is called bad manners where I come from. In reality, this is nothing more than a big fat data grab without any real regard for the people who rightfully own the data. So, what is Google willing to fork over now that the courts have basically handed them millions of books?

Check out what the settlement says about “cash payments” to authors: “For Principal Works, Entire Inserts, and Partial Inserts that Google digitized on or before May 5, 2009, Google will pay at least US$60 per Principal Work, US$15 per Entire Insert, and US$5 per Partial Insert.”

Excuse me? $60 per principal work? Is this a joke? I don’t care what may (or, more likely, may not) happen in the long tail with their 63% profit sharing scheme, that’s just insulting. Jeez, and I though I was getting ripped off when I sold the digital rights to my film for $5000 with an even better profit sharing arrangement. The real kicker is, according to the proposal, those accepting the settlement decision need to make a claim by June 5th or Google will consider their failure to do so as a waiver of future claims. And, on top of that, those who refuse the settlement need to file their own lawsuit before Jan 5th.  So when they say, “together we can accomplish far more than any of us could have individually” what they really mean is: take the $60 bucks because it’s a much better deal than zero dollars which is what you’ll get if you don’t play by our rules. And, by the way, to all you junior varsity authors out there: you can’t afford to buy your kids xmas presents and hire a lawyer, so forget about filing the Jan 5th law suit. Bah humbug!

I’m counting on the Chinese to kick some Google butt. According to the Wall Street Journal, many of the Chinese authors who just got wind of the fact that Google is ripping them off are none too pleased. In an interview with Chinese language media, writer Chen Cun said that he would never accept the payment settlement. “Go scan Harry Potter and then pay J.K. Rowling $60, see whether she’ll take it!”

Nicely said. Well, lots to look forward to in the wonderful world of Web 2.0 but some ugly stuff on the horizon too. I hope all of us creative types that have been living in the long tail for a while now will take this Chinese proverb to heart : “A book holds a house of gold.”

Almost a quarter century ago, I spent a year living in Varanasi, India. I was a student on the University of Wisconsin’s year abroad program with an interest in minor Hindu deities and contemporary folk art. I set out to learn all I could from the million plus residents of that holy city. But there seemed to be as many of these junior varsity gods as there were people who worshiped them.

After months of navigating the city’s narrow streets on bike (and surviving several spectacular crashes with rickshaws along the way), a few themes emerged: minor deities are a moody and fickle lot who like their sweets. And if you expect them to deliver on that new sari, don’t even think about showing up to their shrine without a ladoo or two. Picture 4Although the major deities seemed above this type of petty behavior, Hinduism doesn’t pull any punches when illustrating the consequences for no-no’s like material attachment. The goddess Kali, for example, can be seen on walls all around the city draped in bloody body parts that represent our filthy ego driven material desires.

In 1986, Varanasi had no modern communications infrastructure – I knew virtually no one with a TV or a phone. So, you could say that mythic paintings served to efficiently communicate these “ideals” to the city’s residents, many of whom were illiterate. According to the last India-wide census, the female literacy rate in this part of the country (Uttar Pradesh) is still only 43%.

Mythic paintings are just one of many ways Hindus communicate a unifying code of conduct. At night, my Indian father “pita ji” would read passages aloud from the Ramayana for our evening’s entertainment. By day, ritual plays, singing, and chanting celebrated the trials and tribulations of this or that god or goddess. The Ramayana is Hinduism’s official reference guide for good behavior – it portrays the ideal servant, brother, wife and king. But without the narrow funnel of mass media, its narrative has been allowed to stretch and grow in many unusual directions over thousands of years of telling and retelling. Add to that a plethora of cranky minor deities whose behavior is not always “ideal” and you’ve got a recipe for a vibrant religious plurality.

Something about Amanda Michel’s pro-am journalism model made me think of this mash-up of high and low deities and how their stories enrich each other in the long tail of the Hindu narrative – an ancient storytelling project that could only be shut down by the narrow confines of the broadcast model. Could it be just a coincidence that the Hindu nationalist party came to power when television replaced storytelling in the early 1990s?

Dave Winer expresses a similar sentiment when commenting on the tyranny of broadcasting: “it was mistake to believe that creativity was something you could delegate, no matter how much better they were than you, because it’s an important human activity, like breathing, eating, walking, laughing and loving.”

And in “Say Everything,” Dan Gilmore explains his own enthusiasm for blogging as a collaborative forum for his reporting: “peer-to-peer journalism, I realized, had the huge advantage over old-style journalism. It could marshall the knowledge and resources of thousands, rather than the certitude of the few.”

For sure, the certitude of the few is a major drag. And the collaborative, big hug power of peer-to-peer journalism sounds great. Gilmore’s comment and the Guardian’s experiment with crowdsourcing made me think about how a story gets better when it is told and retold by many different voices and allowed to grow and expand in unusual ways.

But with journalism, there are more than a few challenges. How to balance entertainment with accuracy in the new world of blogging where, as Nick Denton boasts: “I think it’s implicit in the way that a Web site is produced that our standards of accuracy are lower. Besides, immediacy is more important than accuracy, and humor is more important than accuracy.”  How to sustain an interest in less sexy but important stories? How to ensure transparency and disclosure without criminalizing association like the FTC seems to have done? What are the ethics of engaging “amateur” content providers who are willing to toil in the long tail for free? What is the role of neutrality and how do we assess the value of reporting by journalist who are paid directly by a small number of consumers?

Now that the core problem of publishing has been solved, what’s next? Clay Shirky says chaos. I like his idea that we need to shift our attention from “save newspapers” to “save society.” But when the ship is sinking, most people are more focused on saving themselves. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe taking responsibility for saving what matters to each of us is what Dave Winer meant when he talked about creativity and the problem of delegation.

Here is something creative and hopeful. The small boat, locally based fishermen of New England have been trying to get the National Marine Fishery Service to save them for the last two decades. Thousands of hours have been wasted by hundreds of local fishermen and their families trying to work within a management system that all agree is broken. A system that has both failed to save fish and reward environmentally conscious fishermen. But still, as with many journalist and newspapers, fishermen clung to the old business model and failed regulatory system while “demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril … that new methods will improve previous practice rather than upending it” (Shirky). It seemed that the small-boat fishermen would be the first victims of a business model and regulatory system that inadvertently rewards larger “corporate” boats.

And then the local boats tried an experiment: a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) based on the same model used by family farms (CSA). Take the middle man out of the equation by connecting sustainable fishing with consumers that want to buy sustainably caught fish. All they needed were a “thousand True Fans” to make it work – sound familiar? This experiment is in its very early days but, so far, it seems to be a huge success. One of the organizers of the CSF (who was also a main character in my film on the New England fishery) told me, “For decades, we banged our head against the wall. We had almost no hope left and then boom, we try this new thing and suddenly everything is different.”

Living “la vida loca” in the long tail … not exactly. With chaos comes equal doses of creativity and destruction:

As former Prime Minister Desai warned just before Hindu nationalists destroyed a Muslim mosque they claimed sat on the “birth place” of the Hindu god Rama (causing mass communal violence across northern India): “They are playing a dangerous game … they are making Hinduism a religion with one book (Ramayana), one place of worship (Ayodhya, birthplace of Rama) and one God (Rama). That is not Hinduism. Hinduism is about plurality.”

And just last year, a group of Hindu nationalist vandalized the History Department at Delhi University when the essay ” Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” by A. K. Ramanujan was placed on a recommended reading list. The offence: the author argues that there are many versions of the Ramayana. This view apparently did not fit the uniform cultural perspective of Hindu nationalists.

At first glance, there’s something almost comical about vandalizing a history department. But if you’re “demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril” (Shirky), what better place?!

Two closing thoughts to get us through the chaos:
Long live the long tail! And, eat local fish!

Satellite of Love

October 1, 2009

Where were you when you saw the World Trade Center towers fall? It’s a question that almost anyone in the United States can answer. On that bright September morning, I was late for work. Not a problem, I thought to myself, I’ll simply call ahead and let my boss know. Rushing around my apartment – coffee in one hand, phone in the other – something struck me as strange. A busy signal? I tried a few other numbers. But just kept getting busy signals. I felt cut off and confused. Something was very wrong.

Scott Rosenberg’s book “Say Everything” starts here, on 9/11, and goes on to explore the power and promise of blogs and blogging as a medium for two-way unfiltered communication. Unable to connect with love ones and overwhelmed by the horrific images of that day, many people turned to the Web. But 9/11 did not represent a breakthrough moment for blogging because of traffic. For many future bloggers, it was the only place where the raw impact of the moment felt real, where they could commune and connect.

Human communication – the need to share, tell stories, be understood or misunderstood – has been squeezed into tiny boxes that do not allow us to talk back. Rosenberg points out that 9/11 was a transformative moment for many future bloggers because it allowed people to communicate in the fullest sense of the word. But I would argue that it may have done more to hastened the end of traditional mass media by exposing its limits in a global, multi-layered and inter-connected world. The two are obviously linked but it’s a distinction that’s worth thinking about. The old boob tube had finally asked too much – please sit silently by while we show you, not one but two, architectural marvels crash to the ground slaughtering thousands of innocent victims. Mass media’s one-way fire hose of gory images only served to make that day all the more surreal.

Almost a decade has passed since those strange days so I thought I would check out what some of Mr. Rosenberg’s characters are up to now. Maybe Dave Weinberger just wanted to get some back cover copy love with this quote, “In weblogs, the web has become a mature medium.” But “mature”? Really? The Web’s maturity level strikes me as more tween than middle-aged. I did a little digging around and was surprised to read a recent blog post by Weinberger where he states, “We don’t know how to handle the new publicness of the Net … We can hear — and blog about — every nasty conversation held … We make the mistake of treating the Net as if it were a medium. But it’s more like a world than a medium.” OK, that sounds more like it.

In 2009, the Web still feels like a world where just about anything goes. And although this is one of the things that I love about it, the Justin Hall story of what happens when “the private voices goes public” seemed sort of obvious and silly at first glance. But when I looked him up on the Web I was intrigued by his current project. Video games! Nicco had just mentioned his own fascination with video games as a new and promising way to engage people with policy. Interactive games as a virtual problem solving tool – very cool. Hall argues in a recent post, “Why bother with games? Spend a long weekend with extended family and try earnestly expressing yourself the entire time. See if someone doesn’t suggest that trivia, property-trading, word hunting or card matching would be a better use of time.” This doesn’t mean that games are a quick fix for today’s chronic disengagement but it made me completely reevaluate the Hall story. What at first just sounded like the kooky antics of delayed adolescence (I should know, I’m still stuck there on most days) now strikes me as profound. Hall understood from the get-go the importance of play. He was putting everything out there, linking up, having a conversation with the world, being political and making it all fun.

Is it any wonder that as we get old we play less games? Maybe the less we play, the faster we die. If that’s the case, I’m in real trouble right now. For sure, play and human connection/communication seem linked in an important way that could use a lot more exploration. Hinduism seems to have figured this out a few thousand years ago. Take the classic Hindu epic Ramlila, for example. “Ramlila” literally means Ram’s play. And although it is just that, a theatrical play, it is also playful (interactive, dynamic and fun) in its presentation. In the streets of Ramnagar, India, the city of Ram’s birth, the story is played out over many days in a series of moving scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. Children play many of the key roles and the “audience” is invited to take part. At the end of each night’s performance, the line between audience and performer is mostly blurred.

In 2005, UNESCO added the Ramlila to an elite group of cultural traditions called the “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list. As the nice people at the UN explain:

“The Ramlila brings the whole population together, without distinction of caste, religion or age. All the villagers participate spontaneously, playing roles or taking part in a variety of related activities. However, the development of mass media, particularly television soap operas, is leading to a reduction in the audience of the Ramlila plays, which are therefore losing their principal role of bringing people and communities together.”

And herein lies the problem of all mass media – it is unable to fulfill the critical role of bringing people and communities together. I think the jury is still out on whether blogs and the Web can live up to that role but its democratic and interactive nature seems to offer some hope.

For more interesting thoughts along these lines (impact of new media on society and culture), check out Michael Wesch’s keynote presentation from the Personal Democracy Forum 2009. And for some additional thoughts (although somewhat less hopeful) on communities, audiences and scale, check out Clay Shirky’s interesting blog entry on said topic.

Ah yes, scale. What to do about the problem of scale and the inability of a single engaged community to grow past a certain size? Shirkey presents a good reality check:

“Though it is tempting to think that we can somehow do away with the effects of mass media with new technology, the difficulty of reaching millions or even tens of thousands of people one community at a time is as much about human wiring as it is about network wiring. No matter how community minded a media outlet is, needing to reach a large group of people creates asymmetry and disconnection among that group — turns them into an audience, in other words — and there is no easy technological fix for that problem.”

Duly noted.

Lastly, this cover of Satellite of Love seemed to fit in here somehow and also made me laugh. Enjoy!

What does the world want?

September 16, 2009

I’m going on the record here to say that “The Search” is officially blowing my mind. Thank you author John Battelle. Who knew geeks were capable of such beauty, elegance and creativity. Technology per se will always be a yawn in my book but this Web thing is pretty darn neat! A perfect (and perfectly flawed) expression of out brains, guts and groin. And then there’s the search and its all-knowing Database of Intentions: all our desires, hopes, dreams and intentions linked to a system that can guide us to everything we know and have not yet imagined. Holy crap, that’s some deep shit.

And so now Google knows what our culture wants (and hopes to sell it to us).

In fact, I’m quite sure that Google knew what my X wanted before I did. One day, many clicks ago, I found a stream of Google “history” links to various Austin, Texas sites on the computer that my boyfriend an I shared: “Austin apartments, night life, tennis partners, etc.” Tennis partners? A few weeks later, I was informed by said X of a “great job opportunity in Austin.” And a few weeks after that he was playing tennis with someone else. I was caught by surprise. Google was not.

The road to hell is paved with intentions. Hopefully, our friends at Google can maintain the good ones for a bit longer. But, since heaven and hell are right here on earth, I suppose it would only be human for them to slip a bit. Speaking of which, I found this article interesting and a little concerning: a review from the cool site Publishing 2.0 of Google’s new toy “Fast Flip” and an explanation of what Google (supposedly) understands about the future of news and publishing that publishers do not.

The thing I love about my new friend the Web is its organic evolution and nature. As such, it’s a perfect reflection of the culture that created it: eclectic, networked, messy, diffuse, democratic (sometimes). So, is Google’s new toy “Fast Flip” a reflection of analog or digital culture? Looks to me like a nod to the page turning culture of the bad old monolithic yester years. Why is turning a page so great? Because it reminds us of our safe mass media paper world? If Google stops reflecting the culture that created it – the digital culture – will it lose its power to guide our search? Inquiring Luddites like me would like to know.

Finally, I like what Battelle’s story says about the strength of systems that use the power of networks and collaboration. To that end, here is something for all us journalist types to ponder: Will algorithms make humans editors obsolete?

Sorry for the crappy linking job!

Hello world!

September 12, 2009

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