Category Archives: gamer_theory

book trailers, but no network

We often conceive of the network as a way to share culture without going through the traditional corporate media entities. The topology of the network is created out of the endpoints; that is where the value lies. This story in the NY Times prompted me to wonder: how long will it take media companies to see the value of the network?
The article describes a new marketing tool that publishers are putting into their marketing arsenal: the trailer. As in a movie trailer, or sometimes an informercial, or a DVD commentary track.

“The video formats vary as widely as the books being pitched. For well-known authors, the videos can be as wordy as they are visual. Bantam Dell, a unit of Random House, recently ran a series in which Dean Koontz told funny stories about the writing and editing process. And Scholastic has a video in the works for “Mommy?,” a pop-up book illustrated by Maurice Sendak that is set to reach stores in October. The video will feature Mr. Sendak against a background of the book’s pop-ups, discussing how he came up with his ideas for the book.”

Who can fault them for taking advantage of the Internet’s distribution capability? It’s cheap, and it reaches a vast audience, many of whom would never pick up the Book Review. In this day and age, it is one of the most cost effective methods of marketing to a wide audience. By changing the format of the ad from a straight marketing message to a more interesting video experience, the media companies hope to excite more attention for their new releases. “You won’t get young people to buy books by boring them to death with conventional ads,” said Jerome Kramer, editor in chief of The Book Standard.”
But I can’t help but notice that they are only working within the broadcast paradigm, where advertising, not interactivity, is still king. All of these forms (trailer, music video, infomercial) were designed for use with television; their appearance in the context of the Internet further reinforces the big media view of the ‘net as a one-way broadcast medium. A book is a naturally more interactive experience than watching a movie. Unconventional ads may bring more people to a product, but this approach ignores one of the primary values of reading. What if they took advantage of the network’s unique virtues? I don’t have the answers for this, but only an inkling that publishing companies would identify successes sooner and mitigate flops earlier, that the feedback from the public would benefit the bottom line, and that readers will be more engaged with the publishing industry. But the first step is recognizing that the network is more than a less expensive form of television.

GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 is live!

g7 screenshot.jpg
The Institute has published its first networked book, GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 by McKenzie Wark! This is a fascinating look at video games as allegories of the world we live in, and (we think) a compelling approach to publishing in the network environment. As with Mitch Stephens’ ongoing experiment at Without Gods, we’re interested here in a process-oriented approach to writing, opening the book up to discussion and debate while it’s still being written.
Inside the book, you’ll find comment streams adjacent to each individual paragraph, inviting readers to respond to the text on a fine-grained level. Doing the comments this way (next to, not below, the parent posts) came out of a desire to break out of the usual top-down hierarchy of blog-based discussion — something we’ve talked about periodically here. There’s also a free-fire forum where people can start their own threads about the games dealt with in the book or about the experience of game play in general. It’s also a place to tackle meta-questions about networked books and to evaluate the successes and failings of our experiment. The gateway to the forum is a graphical topic pool in which conversations float along axes of time and quantity, giving a sense of the shape of the discussion.
Both sections of GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 — the book and the forum — are designed to challenge current design conventions and to generate thoughtful exchange on the meaning of games. McKenzie will actively participate in these discussions and draw upon them in subsequent drafts of his book. The current version is published under a Creative Commons license.
And like the book, the site is a work in progress. We fully intend to make modifications and add new features as we go. Here’s to putting theory into practice!
(You can read archived posts documenting the various design stages of GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1 here.)

war machinima

Ray, Bob and I spent last week out in Los Angeles at our institutional digs (the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC), where we held a pair of meetings with professors from around the US and Canada to discuss various coups we are attempting to stage within the ossified realm of scholarly and textbook publishing. Following these, we were able to stick around for a fun conference/media festival organized by Annenberg’s Networked Publics project.
The conference was a mix of the usual academic panels and a series of curated mini-exhibits of “do-it-yourself” media, surveying new genres of digital folk art currently proliferating across the net such as political remix movies, anime music videos, “digital handmade” art projects (which featured the near and dear Alex Itin — happy birthday, Alex!), and of course, machinima: films made inside of video game engines.
wartapes.jpg As we enjoyed this little feast of new media, I was vaguely aware that the Tribeca film festival was going on back in New York. As I casually web-surfed through one of the panels — in the state of continuous partial attention that is now the standard state of being all these networky conferences — I came across an article about one of the more talked about films appearing there this year: “The War Tapes.” Like Gunner Palace and Occupation Dreamland, “The War Tapes” is a documentary about American soldiers in Iraq, but with one crucial difference: all the footage was shot by actual soldiers.
Back in 2004, director Deborah Scranton gave video cameras to ten members of the New Hampshire National Guard who were about to depart for a yearlong tour in Iraq. They went on to shoot a combined 800 hours of film, the pared-down result of which is “The War Tapes.” Reading about it, I couldn’t help but think that here was a case of real-life machinima. Give the warriors cameras and glimpse the war machine from the inside — carve out a new game within the game.
Granted, it’s a far from perfect analogy. Machinima involves a total repurposing of the characters and environment, foregoing the intended objectives of the game. In “The War Tapes,” the soldiers are still on their mission, still within the chain of command. And of course, war isn’t a video game. But isn’t it advertised as one?

Time Square, New York City (the military-entertainment complex)
There’s something undeniably subversive about giving cameras to GIs in what is such a thoroughly mediated war, a sort of playing against the game — if not of the game of occupation as a whole, then at least the game of spin. “I’m not supposed to talk to the media,” says one soldier to Steve Pink, one of the film’s main subjects, as he attempts to conduct an interview. To which Pink replies: “I’m not the media, dammit!”
In the clips I found on the film’s promotional site (the general release is later this summer), the overriding impression is of the soldiers’ isolation and fear: the constant terror of roadside bombs, frantic rounds fired into the green night-vision darkness, swaddled in helmets and humvees and hi-tech weaponry. It’s a frightening game they play. Deeply impersonal and anonymous, and in no way resembling the pumped-up, guitar-screeching game that the military portrays as war in its recruiting ads. This is the horrible truth at the bottom of the “Army of One” slogan: you are a lone digit in a massive calculation. Just pray you don’t become a zero.
Yet naturally, they find their own games to play within the game. One clip shows the tiny, gruesome spectacle of two soldiers, in a moment of leisure, pitting a scorpion against a spider inside a plastic tub, reenacting their own plight in the language of the desert.
At the Net Publics conference, we did see see one example of genuine machinima that made its own spooky commentary on the war: a hack of Battlefield 2 by Swedish game forum Snoken that brilliantly apes the now-famous Sony Bravia commercial, in which 250,000 colored plastic balls were filmed cascading through the streets of a San Francisco.
Here’s Battlefield:

And here’s the original Sony ad:

McKenzie Wark doesn’t address machinima in GAM3R 7H30RY (which launches in about a week), but he does discuss video games in the context of the “military entertainment complex”: the remaking of postmodern capitalist society in the image of the digital game, in which every individual is a 1 or a 0 locked in senseless competition for advancement through the levels, each vying to “win” the game:

The old class antagonisms have not gone away, but are hidden beneath levels of rank, where each agonizes over their worth against others in the price of their house, the size of their vehicle and where, perversely, working longer and longer hours is a sign of winning the game. Work becomes play. Work demands not just one’s mind and body but also one’s soul. You have to be a team player. Your work has to be creative, inventive, playful – ludic, but not ludicrous.

Video games (which can actually be won) are allegories of this imperfect world that we are taught to play like a game, as though it really were governed by a perfect (and perfectly fair) algorithm — even the wars that rage across its hemispheres:

Once games required an actual place to play them, whether on the chess board or the tennis court. Even wars had battle fields. Now global positioning satellites grid the whole earth and put all of space and time in play. Warfare, they say, now looks like video games. Well don’t kid yourself. War is a video game – for the military entertainment complex. To them it doesn’t matter what happens ‘on the ground’. The ground – the old-fashioned battlefield itself – is just a necessary externality to the game. Slavoj Zizek: “It is thus not the fantasy of a purely aseptic war run as a video game behind computer screens that protects us from the reality of the face to face killing of another person; on the contrary it is this fantasy of face to face encounter with an enemy killed bloodily that we construct in order to escape the Real of the depersonalized war turned into an anonymous technological operation.” The soldier whose inadequate armor failed him, shot dead in an alley by a sniper, has his death, like his life, managed by a computer in a blip of logistics.

How does one truly escape? Ultimately, Wark’s gamer theory is posed in the spirit that animates the best machinima:

The gamer as theorist has to choose between two strategies for playing against gamespace. One is to play for the real. (Take the red pill). But the real is nothing but a heap of broken images. The other is to play for the game (Take the blue pill). Play within the game, but against gamespace. Be ludic, but also lucid.

the networked book: an increasingly contagious idea

pulselogo3.gif Farrar, Straus and Giroux have ventured into waters pretty much uncharted by a big commercial publisher, putting the entire text of one of their latest titles online in a form designed to be read inside a browser. “Pulse,” a sweeping, multi-disciplinary survey by Robert Frenay of “the new biology” — “the coming age of systems and machines inspired by living things” — is now available to readers serially via blog, RSS or email: two installments per day and once per day on weekends.
Naturally, our ears pricked up when we heard they were calling the thing a “networked book” — a concept we’ve been developing for the past year and a half, starting with Kim White’s original post here on “networked book/book as network.” Apparently, the site’s producer, Antony Van Couvering, had never come across if:book and our mad theories before another blogger drew the connection following Pulse’s launch last week. So this would seem to be a case of happy synergy. Let a hundred networked books bloom.
The site is nicely done, employing most of the standard blogger’s toolkit to wire the book into the online discourse: comments, outbound links (embedded by an official “linkologist”), tie-ins to social bookmarking sites, a linkroll to relevant blog carnivals etc. There are also a number of useful tools for exploring the book on-site: a tag cloud, a five-star rating system for individual entries, a full-text concordance, and various ways to filter posts by topic and popularity.
My one major criticism of the Pulse site is that the site is perhaps a little over-accessorized, the design informed less by the book’s inherent structure and themes than by a general enthusiasm for Web 2.0 tools. Pulse clearly was not written for serialization and does not always break down well into self-contained units, so is a blog the ideal reading environment or just the reading environment most readily at hand? Does the abundance of tools perhaps overcrowd the text and intimidate the reader? There has been very little reader commenting or rating activity so far.
But this could all be interpreted as a clever gambit: perhaps FSG is embracing the web with a good faith experiment in sharing and openness, and at the same time relying on the web’s present limitations as a reading interface (and the dribbling pace of syndication — they’ll be rolling this out until November 6) to ultimately drive readers back to the familiar print commodity. We’ll see if it works. In any event, this is an encouraging sign that publishers are beginning to broaden their horizons — light years ahead of what Harper Collins half-heartedly attempted a few months back with one of its more beleaguered titles.
I also applaud FSG for undertaking an experiment like this at a time when the most aggressive movements into online publishing have issued not from publishers but from the likes of Google and Amazon. No doubt, Googlezon’s encroachment into electronic publishing had something to do with FSG’s decision to go ahead with Pulse. Van Couvering urges publishers to take matters into their own hands and start making networked books:

Why get listed in a secondary index when you can be indexed in the primary search results page? Google has been pressuring publishers to make their books available through the Google Books program, arguing (basically) that they’ll get more play if people can search them. Fine, except Google may be getting the play. If you’re producing the content, better do it yourself (before someone else does it).

I hope tht Pulse is not just the lone canary in the coal mine but the first of many such exploratory projects.
Here’s something even more interesting. In a note to readers, Frenay talks about what he’d eventually like to do: make an “open source” version of the book online (incidentally, Yochai Benkler has just done something sort of along these lines with his new book, “The Wealth of Networks” — more on that soon):

At some point I’d like to experiment with putting the full text of Pulse online in a form that anyone can link into and modify, possibly with parallel texts or even by changing or adding to the wording of mine. I like the idea of collaborative texts. I also feel there’s value in the structure and insight that a single, deeply committed author can bring to a subject. So what I want to do is offer my text as an anchor for something that then grows to become its own unique creature. I like to imagine Pulse not just as the book I’ve worked so hard to write, but as a dynamic text that can continue expanding and updating in all directions, to encompass every aspect of this subject (which is also growing so rapidly).

This would come much closer to the networked book as we at the institute have imagined it: a book that evolves over time. It also chimes with Frenay’s theme of modeling technology after nature, repurposing the book as its own intellectual ecosystem. By contrast, the current serialized web version of Pulse is still very much a pre-network kind of book, its structure and substance frozen and non-negotiable; more an experiment in viral marketing than a genuine rethinking of the book model. Whether the open source phase of Pulse ever happens, we have yet to see.
But taking the book for a spin in cyberspace — attracting readers, generating buzz, injecting it into the conversation — is not at all a bad idea, especially in these transitional times when we are continually shifting back and forth between on and offline reading. This is not unlike what we are attempting to do with McKenzie Wark’s “Gamer Theory,” the latest draft of which we are publishing online next month. The web edition of Gamer Theory is designed to gather feedback and to record the conversations of readers, all of which could potentially influence and alter subsequent drafts. Like Pulse, Gamer Theory will eventually be a shelf-based book, but with our experiment we hope to make this networked draft a major stage in its growth, and to suggest what might lie ahead when the networked element is no longer just a version or a stage, but the book itself.

GAM3R 7H30RY: part 2

Read Part 1
We had a highly productive face to face meeting with Ken this afternoon to review the prior designs and to try and develop, collaboratively, a solution based on the questions that arose from those designs. We were aiming for a solution that provides a compelling interface for Ken’s book and also encourages open-ended discussion of the themes and specific games treated in the book.
What we came up with was a prototype of a blog/book page that presents the entire text of GAM3R 7H30RY, and a discussion board based around the games covered in the book, each corresponding with a specific chapter. These are:

  • Allegory (on The Sims)
  • America (on Civilization III)
  • Analog (on Katamari Damarcy)
  • Atopia (on Vice City)
  • Battle (on Rez)
  • Boredom (on State of Emergency)
  • Complex (on Deus Ex)
  • Conclusions (on SimEarth)

Unlike the thousand of gaming forums that already exist throughout the web, this discussion space will invite personal and social points of view, rather than just walkthroughs and leveling up cheats.
We also discussed the fact that discussion boards tend towards opacity as they grow, and ways to alleviate that situation. Growth is good; it reflects a rich back and forth between board participants. Opacity is bad; it makes it harder for new voices to join the discussion. To make it easier for people to join the discussion, Ken envisioned an innovative gateway into the boards based on a shifting graph of topics ranked by post date (x-axis) and number of responses (y-axis). This solution was inspired in part by “The Pool” — “a collaborative online environment for creating art, code, and texts” developed by Jon Ippolito at the University of Maine — in which ideas and project proposals float in different regions of a two-dimensional graph depending on quantity and tenor of feedback from the collective.
Returning to the book view, to push the boundaries of the blog form, we introduced a presentation format that uniquely fits around McKenzie’s book form—twenty-five regularly sized paragraphs in nine different chapters. Yes, each chapter has exactly 25 paragraphs, making mathematically consistent presentation possible (as an information designer I am elated at this systematic neatness). We decided on showing a cascade of five paragraphs, with one paragraph visible at a time, letting you navigate through chapters and then sets of five paragraphs within a chapter.
As a delightful aside, we started prototyping with a sheet of paper and index cards, but by some sideways luck we pulled out a deck of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards, which suited our needs perfectly. The resulting paper prototype (photo w/ wireframe cues photoshop’d in):
This project has already provided us with a rich discussion regarding authorship and feedback. As we develop the prototypes we will undoubtedly have more questions, but also, hopefully, more solutions that help us redefine the edges and forms of digital discourse.
Ben Vershbow contributed to this post.