Call for participation: Visualize This!
How can we ‘see’ a written text? Do you have a new way of visualizing writing on the screen? If so, then McKenzie Wark and the Institute for the Future of the Book have a challenge for you. We want you to visualize McKenzie’s new book, Gamer Theory. Version 1 of Gamer Theory was presented by the Institute for the Future of the Book as a ‘networked book’, open to comments from readers. McKenzie used these comments to write version 2, which will be published in April by Harvard University Press. With the new version we want to extend this exploration of the book in the digital age, and we want you to be part of it.
All you have to do is register, download the v2 text, make a visualization of it (preferably of the whole text though you can also focus on a single part), and upload it to our server with a short explanation of how you did it.
All visualizations will be presented in a gallery on the new Gamer Theory site. Some contributions may be specially featured. All entries will receive a free copy of the printed book (until we run out).
By “visualization” we mean some graphical representation of the text that uses computation to discover new meanings and patterns and enables forms of reading that print can’t support. Some examples that have inspired us:
Understand that this is just a loose guideline. Feel encouraged to break the rules, hack the definition, show us something we hadn’t yet imagined.
All visualizations, like the web version of the text, will be Creative Commons licensed (Attribution-NonCommercial). You have the option of making your code available under this license as well or keeping it to yourself. We encourage you to share the source code of your visualization so that others can learn from your work and build on it. In this spirt, we’ve asked experienced hackers to provide code samples and resources to get you started (these will be made available on the upload page).
Gamer 2.0 will launch around April 18th in synch with the Harvard edition. Deadline for entries is Wednesday, April 11th.
Read GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1.
Download/upload page (registration required): http://web.futureofthebook.org/gamertheory2.0/viz/
Writers, particularly new ones, are often encouraged and bouyed up by physical writer’s groups, in which people co-critique works in progress. Some writing workshops/groups also include lectures from established authors and related well-known people in publishing. In SF/Fantasy, the Clarion SF&F Writers’ Workshop is well known and has graduated a number of folk who have gone on to great success.
So, can this model work online? I’m dubious. One of the things that makes a good writers’ group, and that makes Clarion the success it has been, is a rigorous screening process. You get into these things not just by having good intentions or a lot to say but by having valuable experience and insights to contribute. It’s unclear to me how one filters the mass audience of the Web into something resembling useful wisdom.
This is not a trivial question. Already, it’s all Ken can do to keep a handle on the various feedback loops spinning through the site. Separating the wheat from the chaff requires a great amount of time and attention on top of that. If we had unlimited time and resources, it would be interesting to play with some sort of collaborative filtering system for comments. What if readers had a way of advancing through a series of levels (appropriate to the game theme), gaining credibility as a respondent with each new level attained (like karma in Slashdot). These “advanced” readers would then have more authority to moderate other discussions, sharing some of the burden with the author.
On the other hand, perhaps a workshop is the wrong model. Maybe this is more like the writing of a massive wikipedia entry on games and game theory. One person writes most of it, but the audience participates in the edit and refinement process? It seems like that model might produce something more useful.
This is not headed for anything encyclopedic. Ken is still an individual voice and this book ultimately an expression of his unique critical view (the idea of writing any work of criticism collaboratively, the way one writes a Wikipedia aticle, is a little odd). But Ken is getting useful work out of his readers (who, among other things, are good at spotting typos). There’s definitely some of that wiki work ethic at play.
Another thing he’s after is good testimonials about what it feels like to play these games. We already got a fabulous little description of the experience of Katamari Damacy. Hopefully the first of many. So this is also another way of doing interviews for the book, in the setting most familiar to gamers talking about gaming: an online discussion forum.
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. 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.
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.
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.
We’ve moved past the design stage with the GAM3R 7H30RY blog and forum. We’re releasing the book in two formats: all at once (date to be soon decided), in the page card format, and through RSS syndication. We’re collecting user input and feedback in two ways: from comments submitted through the page-card interface, and in user posts in the forum.
The idea is to nest Ken’s work in the social network that surrounds it, made visible in the number of comments and topics posted. This accomplishes something fairly radical, shifting the focus from an author’s work towards the contributions of a work’s readers. The integration between the blog and forums, and the position of the comments in relation to the author’s work emphasizes this shift. We’re hoping that the use of color as an integrating device will further collapse the usual distance between the author and his reading (and writing) public.
To review all the stages that this project has been through before it arrived at this, check out Part I, Part II, and Part III. The design changes show the evolution of our thought and the recognition of the different problems we were facing: screen real estate, reading environment, maintaining the author’s voice but introducing the public, and making it fun. The basic interaction design emerged from those constraints. The page card concept arose from both the form of Ken’s book—a regimented number of paragraphs with limited length—and the constraints of screen real estate (1024×768). The overlapping arose from the physical handling of the ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards, and helps to present all the information on a single screen. The count of pages (five per section, five sections per chapter) is a further expression of the structure that Ken wrote into the book. Comments were lifted from their usual inglorious spot under the writer’s post to be right beside the work. It lends them some additional weight.
We’ve also reimagined the entry point for the forums with the topic pool. It provides a dynamic view of the forums, raising the traditional list into the realm of something energetic, more accurately reflecting the feeling of live conversation. It also helps clarify the direction of the topic discussion with a first post/last post view (visible in the mouseover state below). This simple preview will let users know whether or not a discussion has kept tightly to the subject or spun out of control into trivialities.
We’ve been careful with the niceties: the forum indicator bars turned on their sides to resemble video game power ups; the top of the comments sitting at the same height as the top of their associated page card; the icons representing comments and replies (thanks to famfamfam).
Each of the designed pages changed several times. The page cards have been the most drastically and frequently changed, but the home page went through a significant series of edits in a matter of a few days. As with many things related to design, I took several missteps before alighting on something which seems, in retrospect, perfectly obvious. Although the ‘table of contents’ is traditionally an integrated part of a bound volume, I tried (and failed) to create a different alignment and layout with it. I’m not sure why—it seemed like a good idea at the time. I also wanted to include a hint of the pages to come—unfortunately it just made it difficult for your eye move smoothly across the page. Finally I settled on a simpler concept, one that harmonized with the other layouts, and it all snapped into place.
With that we began the production stage, and we’re making it all real. Next update will be a pre-launch announcement.
I’m pleased to report that the institute is gearing up for another book-blog experiment to run alongside Mitchell Stephens’ ongoing endeavor at Without Gods — this one a collaboration with McKenzie Wark, professor of cultural and media studies at the New School and author most recently of A Hacker Manifesto. Ken’s next book, Gamer Theory, is an examination of single-player video games that comes out of the analytic tradition of the Frankfurt School (among other influences). Unlike Mitch’s project (a history of atheism), Ken’s book is already written — or a draft of it anyway — so in putting together a public portal, we are faced with a very different set of challenges.
As with Hacker Manifesto, Ken has written Gamer Theory in numbered paragraphs, a modular structure that makes the text highly adaptable to different formats and distribution schemes — be it RSS syndication, ebook, or print copy. We thought the obvious thing to do, then, would be to release the book serially, chunk by chunk, and to gather commentary and feedback from readers as it progressed. The trouble is that if you do only this — that is, syndicate the book and gather feedback — you forfeit the possibility of a more free-flowing discussion, which could end up being just as valuable (or more) as the direct critique of the book. After all, the point of this experiment is to expose the book to the collective knowledge, experience and multiple viewpoints of the network. If new ideas are to be brought to light, then there ought to be ways for readers to contribute, not just in direct response to material the author has put forth, but in their own terms (this returns us to the tricky proprietary nature of blogs that Dan discussed on Monday).
So for the past couple of weeks, we’ve been hashing out a fairly ambitious design for a web site — a blog, but a little more complicated — that attempts to solve (or at least begin to solve) some of the problems outlined above. Our first aim was to infuse the single-author book/blog with the democratic, free-fire discussion of list servers — a feat, of course, that is far easier said than done. Another concern, simply from an interface standpoint, was to find ways of organizing the real estate of the screen that are more intuitive for reading.
Another thing we’ve lamented about blogs, and web sites in general, is their overwhelming verticality. Vertical scrolling fields — an artifact of supercomputer terminals and the long spools of code they spit out — are taken for granted as the standard way to read online. But nowhere was this ordained as the ideal interface — in fact it is designed more for machines than for humans, yet humans are the users on the front end. Text does admittedly flow down, but we read left to right, and its easier to move your eye across a text that is fixed than one that is constantly moving. A site we’ve often admired is The International Herald Tribune, which arranges its articles in elegant, fixed plates that flip horizontally from one to the next. With these things in mind, we set it as a challenge for ourselves to try for some kind of horizontally oriented design for Ken’s blog.
There’s been a fairly rigorous back and forth on email over the past two weeks in which we’ve wrestled with these questions, and in the interest of working in the open, we’ve posted the exchange below (most of it anyway) with the thought that it might actually shed some light on what happens — from design and conceptual standpoints — when you try to mash up two inherently different forms, the blog and the book. Jesse has been the main creative force behind the design, and he’s put together a lovely annotated page explaining the various mockups we’ve developed over the past week. If you read the emails (which are can be found directly below this paragraph) you will see that we are still very much in the midst of figuring this out. Feedback would be much appreciated. (See also GAM3R 7H30RY: part 2).