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Online Schedule– Social Media and the Workplace, Almost

December 13th, 2009 No comments

This past week, I returned to work at Applebee’s, after a near five-month layoff. I was met with many changes, most of which were welcome, such as staggered schedules, which cuts down on down time at work, and less side work. But most welcome of the changes were the online scheduling system. After giving the manager our work availability, they send us an email. Once we sign up for the service, which is called “StaffLinQ,” our schedule will appear on screen.

In the past, when the new schedule was posted, we needed to go in to work to see the schedule, or hassle someone who was already working .

stafflinqschedule

We can exchange shifts or pick up new shifts, and all of these changes are monitored by the service. Also, if we try to exchange a shift, it can be approved or disapproved by a manager. Just having the schedule online isn’t a big deal, but this is what the interface looks like. I’ll have shifts next week.

manageprofile

But now, shifts must be exchanged online. When someone wants to give up a shift, he/she will alert everyone through this service. When this happens, we now have the option of receiving a notice via email or text. Or, we can opt not to receive these notices, in which case we will not know there is a shift to be gained.This is good for the people who want to pick up shifts, and also good for the restaurant.

While this isn’t necessarily about literacy per se, it does illustrate the fact that technology is beginning to pervade industries that at first may appear to not need to bother with technology. But an apparatus like this makes it difficult for people to ignore technology. Doing so will affect these people’s ability to pick up extra shifts and make extra money.

I thought about whether this development requires users to develop any new literacy. I’m not sure. I haven’t had the ability to use the service yet, so it may show itself to be more robust than it appears. The most interesting aspect of this is, to me, that communication technologies are being leveraged in a way I never imagined in such a technology-adverse industry.

Review of Echofon, a Twitter Application for the iPhone

December 8th, 2009 No comments

Introduction– Why Think Critically About Twitter?

Our class, Writing For Electronic Communities, has been investigating questions regarding literacy in the hyper-mediated time in which we live. According to Jenkins et al. in “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture,” some of the core competencies for people who are literate in the new media include performance, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, and networking (p. 6). Twitter touches on most of these concepts. Therefore, it is worth investigating how Twitter typifies the development, or retardation of these competencies. Next, I will touch on how Twitter relates to these topics more or less in order.

I think it is safe to argue that Twitter certainly touches on performance. After all, we are constructing identities of ourselves which are certainly only reflections of our “true selves.” This is especially true because we are using Twitter as first, an academic tool, and second, as a social/leisure tool. We are following other academics, and  some of them are following us. It’s safe to assume that this company will certainly constrain the image of ourselves that we are projecting in Twitter.

Many of us multitask with Twitter, another competency that Jenkins et al. discuss. I often Tweet while reading, listening to music, surfing the web, or watching television. Sometimes I am having an issue with an assignment, and ask the class for help. This multitasking is going to become increasingly important with the development of interconnected media devices.

Along the same lines, we tapping into a distributed cognition of sorts when we consult the wisdom of the crowds or even the wisdom of our classmates and colleagues. We are tapping into an interconnected network of people who may be exceptionally well-informed about any number of topics. Twitter encouraging us to tap into this potentially limitless resource.

Because we don’t always know the people with whom we communicate on Twitter, and we may not always be familiar with the sources of information presented to us on the service, it is becoming increasingly important exercise sound judgment when faced with this information. The old rules of media savvy still apply; with the huge pipeline of information available to us, these rules take on even greater importance.

Because Twitter is a multimodal, image-based medium, it certainly encourages transmedia savvy. Tweets often contain links to written articles or videos. We need to be able to follow information across representation systems, as Jenkins et al. suggest in “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture.”

When I think of Twitter in this light, I believe that Echofon more or less serves preserves the medial qualities that make Twitter unique; with Echofon, however, these features are simply more accessible. Twitter is largely the same on Echofon, and supports the same sort of new media literacies that I discussed earlier. Next, I’ll discuss Echofon’s features and compare it to Twitter’s primary web interface, where appropriate.

Echofon’s Features Detailed

The new skills include:
Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation
and discovery
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world
processes
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient
details.
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand
mental capacities
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with
others toward a common goal
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information
sources
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information
across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting
multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

Echofon is a relatively feature-filled, highly functional Twtitter application that can be used for the iPhone. I suppose that makes Echofon an iPhone app too. You get the point.

Echofon provides near-full Twitter functionality. I’ve been using it since July, when I bought my iPhone. The various profile settings, however, are not accessible through Echofon. This includes a homepage, bio line, and location.

echofonfriends

Echofon was built to work on a screen like the iPhone’s. The Bottom of the screen shows some of the application’s main functions. Tweets are displayed in reverse-chronological order, just like Twitter’s original interface. The Friend icon allows users to view their friends list. Friends are listed alphabetically, with their profile pictures shown on the left of the screen. There is a bar on the right of the page that allows users to quickly scroll down. For instance, if the user wish to scroll quickly down to his/her friends whose names begin with “T,” he/she simply clicks on the T on the right of the screen. This is very similar to iTunes on the iPhone. When the application is opened after being closed for any length of time, the number of Tweets that have been made from the user’s friendlist will be displayed. Users can refresh the page by hitting the refresh icon on the top. At the top of the page on Echofon, ads are displayed. I think it’s a small price to pay for such a solid application.

The “@mention” button will display every time a Tweet has been directed toward a particular user. When the application has been closed for any length of time, and is re-opened, a number is displayed above the @mention icon displaying how many @replies have been sent to the user.

The “Message” icon displays the private messages that have been sent to or from the user. Individual conversations are kept together as “conversations,” in much the same the iPhone’s text messaging interface works. I would put up a screen shot displaying this, but those are private.

The “Favorites” icon displays any Tweets that the user has marked as his/her favorite. I apparently have three favorites though I don’t remember “favoriting” them.

The “Search” function is extremely useful. It works just like “search.twitter.com,” but is conveniently located on Echofon’s main interface.

echofonsearch

Echofon’s Search function. Here, I searched for our class, #wecf09. The zig-zagging arrow indicates trends. This is how Trending Topics can be followed on Echofon.

echofonprofile

When the user clicks on a friend’s profile, this interface is displayed. Users can easily reply to the Tweet, reTweet, or Direct Message. This is especially useful for re-Tweeting. (I used N’Gai’s profile because he’s the man– he linked to two of my blogs when he used to write for Newsweek. He’s worth following on Twitter if you’re interested in videogames, writing, movies, music, or basketball.)

echfonfriendsearch

This is the friend search function, very similar to iTunes’ equally excellent and intuitive interface.

echofonpic

If the user wishes to Tweet a picture, that can be done easily. Simply click on the camera icon. Then the options to “Shoot Video/Photo,” “Choose Existing Media,” or “Cancel” appear. It is very simple and highly intuitive.

echfonmap

Users can Tweet their geographic location as Echofon is compatible with Google Maps. Users can “Update Profile Location” or “Insert a Google Maps Link.”

echofonsettings

Users can adjust various settings for Echofon through the iPhone’s settings screen. Auto scroll can be turned off, or can be adjusted to display either the last Tweet the user posted or post all unread Tweets. This feature is useful as it allows users to see exactly where the last Tweet is that he/she saw.

Also, users can adjust how often Echofon refreshes. There are options to turn the function off entirely, or to refresh every minute, two minutes, three minutes, or every five minutes. Font size can be adjusted from small, medium or large. The default search screen can be switched to search, history, trends, or location.  Users can also set Tweets to be read at a later time.

Conclusion

This review is more of a justification of a critical evaluation of Twitter and a review of a particular application that facilitates the use of Twitter. I am not sure if there is anything about Echofon that adds or detracts to the theoretical discussion of Twitter, save the former’s relative convenience. I think it is worth noting that Echofon is designed so elegantly that it doesn’t obfuscate the great things Twitter already does, with adding some highly useful features to the service, making the creating of multimodal micro-texts possible.

Procedural Literacy– “Reading” Games

December 7th, 2009 No comments

Since I was introduced to the concept in the Summer of 2007, I have been smitten with the idea that games can make arguments.  After all, this was a seeming justification for a medium which I always believed was superior to film for entertainment purposes, but lacked the depth that writing enjoyed for more intellectual pursuits. Since then, I have learned to not think of which medium is better or worse, and instead have learned to think of what medium’s affordances can be leveraged best for a particular purpose. Our class has focused on how new media, broadly conceived, sheds new light on literacy or otherwise makes obsolete previous notions of literacy. Previous notions of literacy, based on an understanding of alphabetic text alone, do not account for visual mediums, such as videogames, which can certainly convey information.

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, presents a coherent approach to “reading” and interpreting games, based on his notion of procedural rhetoric. Ian Bogost argues, first, that games can be and are expressive human artifacts. He states that previous notions of rhetorical traditions, such as visual rhetoric, can only shed so much light on games’ rhetorical value; the notion of procedural rhetoric must be employed to explain rhetoric in games more fully. Procedural rhetoric, to the author, describes the computer’s (and in turn, the game’s) ability to simulate a rule system, which can be imbued with an ideology. When taken this way, the “games as container” metaphor can take on a new shape. Games are not simply a site for education, but a medium with real cultural currency, an abstraction of a real-life system that can be filled with any message the designer intends.
One book that discusses the rhetorical capacity for games is Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. The book presents a coherent approach to “reading” and interpreting games, based on his notion of procedural rhetoric. The author argues, first, that games can be and are expressive human artifacts. He states that previous notions of rhetorical traditions, such as visual rhetoric, can only shed so much light on games’ rhetorical value; the notion of procedural rhetoric must be employed to explain rhetoric in games more fully. Procedural rhetoric, to the author, describes the computer’s (and in turn, the game’s) ability to simulate a rule system, which can be imbued with an ideology. When taken this way, the “games as container” metaphor can take on a new shape. Games are not simply a site for education, but a medium with real cultural currency, an abstraction of a real-life system that can be filled with any message the designer intends.
This sounds really abstract, so I played one of the games produced by Bogost’s company, Persuasive Games. His games have appeared on the New York Times website and various government agencies. The game I played, Windfall, discusses some of the challenges energy companies face.

This screenshot shows the game’s interface, which is present all the time. The icons on the left represent the various actions the player can perform. The information on the right shows the player’s funds, popularity, and the amount of energy being generated.
Because games are different from prior media forms, a new means of interpreting and critiquing them must be devised. Ian Bogost performed such a work in Persuasive Games. He argues that, “videogames open a new domain for persuasion, thanks to their core mode of representational mode, procedurality” (p. ix). This new rhetorical approach, procedural rhetoric, is defined as, “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” (p.ix). Bogost explains that “procedural rhetoric is a technique for making arguments with computational systems and for unpacking computational arguments that others have created” (p. 3). It is this trait of computers, procedurality, that “fundamentally separates computers from other media” (p.4). Thus, if we take this assertion seriously, we cannot ignore this element of videogames that make them unlike other media. It is a “form of symbolic expression that uses process instead of language” (p. 9). This lengthy summary is in place to flesh out this novel idea that may at first sound foreign to those with humanities backgrounds. It may be helpful here to discuss a particular game that represents these ideas, Windfall, a  “A strategy game about building wind farms to create clean energy profitably,” according to Bogost’s company’s website, Persuasive Games.

In this game, the player is charged with building windmills for particular geographic location. The view is top-down, like other strategy games such as Civilization. The player uses the mouse to pick and action, on the right of the sceen, to “Research”, build a windmill, build a power line, or “recycle.” The game’s recycle feature allows a player to buy back a windmill or power line that he or she bought for half of the original price. On the right of the screen are icons, which indicate the various actions the player can perform. There is an optional tutorial in which the game teaches the mechanics of the game. Normally, there is clock that runs for “three years” in the game’s time. During this time, the goal of the game is to reach a certain energy output. But, there are a few rules to keep in mind. First, that a windmill must be connected to a powerline, which must be connected to the transformer. Also, there are some places where windmills cannot be placed, such as on hills, sidewalks, touching bodies of water, or on other buildings. And there are suggested rules, such as, “Be careful. Nobody likes large windmills in their neighborhoods.” The player can, in fact build large windmills in neighbords, even next to houses. But, when that happens, people will protest, which will affect your company’s popularity. If your popularity decreases because the people are unhappy with your actions, namely, where you are putting windmills and power lines, they will protest, which will actually cost you money in the game. Popularity is tracked with an icon the right side of the screen. Under the icon, the player’s popularity (or lack thereof) will be translated into a loss in dollars if the when the player’s popularity dips below 100%.

Players can choose to make small, medium, or large windmills. The larger the windmill, the more it costs, but it will generate more energy. People, however, resent the larger windmills more, forcing your company to incur political costs, calculated in real dollars.

This shot shows how the “research” function works. Players can pay a small fee to conduct research on a certain piece of the grid. The “windier” the location, the more efficient a windmill placed in the location will be.

The player can perform “research” on a particular block, as the game is laid out in a grid-like structure. For a price, this research will reveal information about the earth, such as how much wind the area garners. Making this small investment is worthwile to player, which ranges between $100 and $200 dollars. By putting the windmills in the most advantageous places, the player will acrue the most revenue. The player essentially has to balance multiple interests. He or she wants to first, make money by building windmills. But there are times when the player must decide whether he or she will opt to build near neighborhoods if the land is particularly desireable or it he or she is better off keeping the people happy. When the people are unhappy to the extent where it is no longer politically expedient to keep a windmill and its adjecent power line in the same location, the player can recycle the item. This will provide the player with half the value of the item, and will raise his or her popularity in the game. The game makes a claim about the complexities of the energy business. Businesses have a job to do, and sometimes this upsets people. Those who run businesses must decide where his or her priorities are. However, when businesses realize that they are upseting people, they can compromise, to make the make the people happy, and improve the bottom line, even if this entails taking a momentary hit to the bottom line. Instead of being an overtly political game, this game, through the abstraction of a simulation, evokes the spirit of the real-world system, while keeping it simple enough that one can learn how to play the game very quickly.

Not Thinking About Movies– It’s Not You, It’s Me

November 23rd, 2009 1 comment

Chuck Tryon’s “Reinventing Cinema” was a pretty cool read– an academic text about popular culture with an approachable style. I always liked this style, similar to some of the things I’ve read from Henry Jenkins. In part of his book, Tryon discusses recent developments that have served to shift the demographics of movie-watching. While movie-going habits have stayed rather steady overall, it seems that children with parents and teens make up the majority of movie-watchers. I am not not in that category, and am more a part of that geeky group that isn’t interested in the whole social aspect of having my movie viewing experienced compromised by a noisy crowd. I’d much rather rent a movie on Netflix, and watch it on my 40-inch Sony, with the surround sound turned up. At night, I’ll plug in headphones. The meddlesome cord is well-worth the inconvenience.

The movie theater, to me, is reminiscent of a time when most people had small televisions and VHS cassettes. Now that my technology recreates the experience of seeing a film well enough at home, I have no need to go to the theater. If I get a Blu-Ray player, I’ll have even less reason to go to the movies.

I really dislike the whole movie-going experience. I don’t get the $6 soda or the $7 popcorn. I understand the economics of the theater, but I don’t understand its appeal. The market should dictate the price of such items. I resent theater’s insistence on marking up their prices.

But really, I think it’s the ability to watch movies from the comfort of my home, and the ability to rewind if I missed something important, that makes home movie-viewing so much more compelling.

Then again, my Netflix account goes largely unused– I’ve had DVDs for close to a year, and haven’t sent them in yet. So I’m really rambling about nothing. But, you get the point. If I did watch movies, I’d watch them at home.

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Thinking About Viral Culture and Time-Shifting

November 15th, 2009 No comments

I’m not sure where I stand on this viral culture thing. On the one hand, I appreciate its myriad distractions; on the other, I curse these distractions as they help keep me from getting work done.

Lost in the shuffle of our discussion of Bill Wasik’s “And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture,” was Wasik’s mention of the all-too-useful “time-shifting” (p. 185). Time-shifting is a term to describe the delaying of one’s gratification for a cultural nugget to be consumed at a later date. By employing this mind-set, we can combat the ephemeral nature of popular culture today. I wonder why the notion of delayed gratification is not so well discussed in popular culture anymore, as if Fundamental Christianity somehow held the patent on such behavior.

This technique, I believe, can be of particular use to myself for all manner of entertainment, for example. Why buy that new videogame today, for $60, when it can be had in two or three months for $30 or $40? The same could be said for new books, movies, or music. While Wasik was primarily arguing for time-shifting’s use as a way to get away from the hype that surrounds the release of a new cultural diversion, I think this type of action is useful for other reasons.

By employing time-shifting, we can combat the flakiness that is plaguing popular culture. I think this is what Wasik was getting at when he discussed Indie music in such detail. Cultural works should not need to be so emblematic of a particular era of time, or they risk becoming irrelevant very quickly. As writers, we can probably appreciate this aspect of Wasik’s discussion.

***

Also, I came across an article by Simon Dumenco that was laid out in bullet-point fashion that discussed Wasik’s book. I liked the article because it shed some light on the book, and it was a quick read, with seemingly little time wasted in the normal intricacies of professional feature-writing. One of the comments for the article complemented the author on how this bullet-point style was appropriate for the subject matter. It also made me wonder how much my attention span has been compromised from spending so much time on the web.

One of the things that caught my attention in this article is that the Flash Mobs were a metaphor for the vapid nature of viral culture. This makes me think that Wasik was not at first convinced of his argument until the end of the book.

Anyway, here’s a video of Larry Lessig pwning Andrew Keen on the merits of amateur Internet culture. It’s germane to the topic because Keen despises consumer-produced media, which Lessig champions it.

Visually Impaired Man Sues Sony For Not Honoring ADA

November 11th, 2009 No comments

Hello All,

I just saw this short post from kotaku.com (a videogame news site, run by Gawker Media) that cites another story from Gamespot.com that says that a visually impaired man is suing Sony for not making its virtual worlds more easily navigable for those with disabilities.

Sonys Home, a frequently used virtual world for Playstation 3 owners.

Sony's Home, a frequently used virtual world for Playstation 3 owners.

Here’s some info on a cool virtual world that shared by Clemson University and University of South Carolina- Greenville.

Essentially, the suit argues that Sony’s virtual worlds are not accessible for the visually impaired, and thus are in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. We know websites are must now follow guidelines that make them more easily navigable to those with disabilities. This suit is arguing that virtual worlds should follow this standard as well.

The MIT-Gambit Game Lab, an experimental game design studio in Singapore, is experimenting with making its games more accessible to those with disabilities.

But getting back to the first issue, I’m not sure how I feel. While I understand that any “public accommodations” need to be made available for people with disabilities, I wonder whether virtual worlds should be held to the same standard. In a way, it is similar to arguing that music should be made more accessible to those with hearing difficulties, or visual art should be more accessible to those with visual impairments. I am not trying to sound insensitive here. I just believe that we need to ask these kinds of questions with media of all types.

With the advent of new technologies, it is clear that many laws will need to be revised, or even re-written, to accommodate these new technologies.

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On Participation and its Consequences

November 6th, 2009 No comments

Henry Jenkins et al., in their e-book, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, discussed some of the more significant features of participatory cultures and how they pertain to education. By definition, participatory cultures are groups of people who share a common interest, and work collaboratively, informally, to share information about this interest, and improve their skills within the field. Jenkins et al point to middle school students who write fan fiction, elementary age students who design their own maps in Sim City, and how these examples point to a shift in the way young people consume, and now, produce media.

It is amazing to see that popular culture is providing young people with such valuable texts to work with. Whereas I always felt guilty when I was a kid spending hours reading Sports Illustrated or Electronic Gaming Monthly, and ignoring the work I should have been doing in my English class, I was really building my literacy skills that was just as good as the kids who did their homework. If I began writing my own feature articles, maybe I could have been better. In any event, the scholarship on participatory culture the the super-literacy of alienated youth always strikes a chord with me.

One of the features about the book I found most telling is how the authors look at such diverse and varied skills as writing, game playing, video editing, and music editing  all falling under the umbrella of “new media literacy.” But really, this makes a great deal of sense when we consider the remediation of older media on the web and the carbon copy nature of digital reproduction. We can make limitless copies of any media on the web. To creative and industrious youth, they are quickly becoming indispensable tools, just as much as words and numbers to the generations before.

However, Jenkins et al. make the seemingly obvious, but all-too-rare statement that new media literacies cannot simply replace the old, but most augment them. They explain: Before students can engage with the new participatory culture, they must be able to read and write. Just as the emergence of written language changed oral traditions and the emergence of printed texts changed our relationship to written language, the emergence of new digital modes of expression changes our relationship to printed texts” (p. 19). This is a sticking point with many. We cannot throw  away the wonderful utility and cultural richness of centuries of traditional written language. At the same time, however, we cannot stand pat and ignore the changes technology has wrought on communication, learning, knowledge, and meaning-making. I think the position that Jenkins et al. take, which builds on the definition of literacy by the New Media Consortium covers all the bases.

Jenkins et al will take this argument a step further, and argue that traditional literacy skills are even more important than they were previously. They explain: “If anything, these traditional skills assume even greater importance as students venture beyond collections that have been screened by librarians and into the more open space of the web” (p. 20). Fair enough. Information that students encounter in schools is largely sterilized, approved, and largely trustworthy. Such is not the case in the Wild, Wild, Web, and I believe that Jenkins et al are correct in saying that traditional literacy skills take on a much greater importance because it is that much more difficult to ascertain where a give piece of information came from.

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Good Info About How Games Can Be Educational Tools

November 5th, 2009 No comments

I suppose a lengthy discussion of new media literacy, such as the one in which we’re engaged in our class would be incomplete without a fuller discussion of the use of videogames as educational tools. Henry Jenkins, who was the primary author of Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture, is a central figure in the field. James Paul Gee, whose video I’ve posted below, also has some excellent ideas on how games are good learning tools, as does Ian Bogost, whose article “Videogames and the Future of Education,” serves as a rousing call to action, urging concerned citizens to think more critically about K-12 education in the United States.

Here’s a link to a very good video with James Paul Gee: http://vimeo.com/4513412. I was unable to embed it.

One of the reasons that commercial games, which are not designed with any pedagogical goal in mind, are so effective at teaching its player how to play them is because of the profit motivation at work for the game developers. Gee explains, in his article, “Good Video Games and Good Learning,” that, ” If no one could learn these games, no one would buy them—and players will not accept easy, dumbed down, or short games. At a deeper level, however, challenge and learning are a large part of what makes good video games motivating and entertaining.” Ahh. I think Dr. Gee is on to something here. Because games are “long, hard, and complex” as Gee asserts, why would young people give a damn about learning to play them? Because game designers have become experts at keeping people engaged in their products. One of the reasons they can do this is by doing a fantastic job of teaching players how to play the game. Unfortunately, the public education system is not competing with anyone else, so they don’t have the incentive to be effective the way videogame designers do.

At the start of the video that I posted earlier, Gee is quick to point out that he isn’t discussing educational games per se- games designed with the purpose of teaching players something academic in nature. Rather, Gee is interested in analyzing the way games teach players the rules of the game, such as in tutorials. For Gee, “educational games” are another thing entirely. Simulations, such as Madden NFL Football, which most of you have already had the misfortune of hearing about from me, fits this mold nicely. As do role-playing games (RPGS, or in the case of massively multiplayer rpg, MMPRPGs), which need to teach the player scores of different functions to successfully navigate the terrain, engage in the battle system, and work through the story. At the heart of both types of games is the question of problem solving: how do I use the affordances of the game mechanics to find a solution to this problem. In the case of Madden, the player must determine whether a run or pass play is most appropriate in a given situation. For a RPG, a player must use the right piece of equipment, the right weapon, or the right spell to defeat an enemy. While some games are more complex than others, Gee points to the problem-solving nature all well designed games as a place we can look to where applied knowledge trumps rote memorization.

Thinking about Plagiarism

October 24th, 2009 3 comments

I have been thinking about plagiarism recently, and even more so in light of reading Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Copyrights and  Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity. Vaidhyanathan’s book is a smartly-written, seemingly well-researched work that does exactly what its title says it does. While much of our class’ discussion centered on the author’s somewhat controversial discussion of copyright law and music, I was more smitten by his discussion of Mark Twain, and Vaidyanathan’s influence on American copyright law. According to Vaidhyanathan, Twain had a view of authorship that was somewhat contradictory. On one hand, Twain was a borrower, even once admitting to a friend in 1888, that “[t]hen, we were all thieves” (p.63). However, Twain fought tirelessly for credit over his finished works, despite admitting plainly (at least privately) that he frequently borrowed and adapted stories, characters, and even speech patterns for this own work.

And that brings us to today, where many of us who have put any thought whatsoever into our educations have been careful not to “plagiarize” — to steal away — the ideas of others. This is a necessary goal, to be sure, and one that will be met with severe punishment if we fail to meet it. But I do have a problem with a policy that believes in the increasingly laughable idea of the “romantic” writer, the author who sits, alone, uninfluenced, and writes, ex nihilo (out of nothing) like some kind of omniscient deity. This isn’t accurate or possible, and worse, it is disingenuous. When we write, it is impossible to remember every book, article, saying, person, movie, or song that has influenced some aspect of our writing styles, diction, or delivery. Try as we may, we can only remember so much of what I write.

While I hope to never knowingly plagiarize, and I endeavor to cite all my sources, this cannot, by definition, ensure that I have never plagiarized. This is a frightful thought, as I plan on pursuing a doctorate starting next year, and plan on teaching at the university level.

I suppose, then, that the lesson to be learned from Vaidhyanathan and his report of Mark Twain is that the relationship between authors, texts, and audiences is far from simple. Twain took stories he heard before, and put a special twist on them that made his finished works original, at least in part. When we read books or articles for papers in school, we are doing the same thing. Hopefully, we are a little more honest than he was when we do our writing. That should be the main difference.

I have looked for an interesting video that explains intertextuality, but was unhappy with what I found. What’s worse, influential articles by James Porter and Danielle DeVoss dont’ seem to be available right now. I doubt those authors would be happy about that, considering their importance in articulating the theory of intertextuality.

Rebecca Moore Howard argues  in “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty” that “plagiarisim” is not as simple as it first appears (p. 788). Whereas most teachers believe that plagiarism is a result of either ignorance of citation conventions or a lack of ethics, Howard points to the act of “patchwriting,” the practice of taking a quote, and changing its wording slightly, as being a practice that doesn’t fit in this binary distincition. This practice, commonly considered to fall under the plagiarism umbrella, is really a valuable step in learning to write (p. 788) .

I’m not really sure what the point of this post was. Though it didn’t have much to do with Copyrights and Copywrongs, I think plagiarism is an important topic, and Vaidhyanathan’s book provides us with a look at this complex issue in a way we may not have had before.

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Cybertext – A New Way to Look At Texts in the Digital Age

October 19th, 2009 No comments

I am very interested in deconstructing texts of various kinds, though I have no formal training in doing this sort of work. This is somewhat problematic for me since my MA thesis will entail deconstructing a text, the Beatles Rock Band videogame. To prepare myself for this exciting but challenging task, I am looking to scholarship that places both static and digital texts together a clearly defined spectrum of human expression. By this, I mean that I am interested in looking at digital artifacts in a way similar to how scholars have been evaluating static ones.  I am taking this approach so that I can imbue my work with a “scholarly heft” that may not at first be possible for the analysis of a text that is not “readerly” in the traditional sense. I don’t think my thesis will make a connection between playing the game and reading; however, I will be making a connection between writing and making the game. To this end, Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perpectives on Ergodic Literature has been helpful.

Aarseth’s text opens with the familiar premise that digital technologies have provided writers, scholars, artists, and programmers with increasingly powerful and flexible content creation tools. This book was written in 1997, so it was a little edgier back then. Aarseth explains that his approach does not divide static and digital texts, as most scholarship to that point- and since- has done, but rather, to divide these texts between whether they are linear, or nonlinear. The term Aarseth uses is “ergodic,” which is derived from two Greek words that mean “work” and “path.” While it is natural here to think merely of newer, digital texts, such as websites, electronic literature, videogames, and the like as the only sorts of artifacts that are nonlinear, and require the reader to choose a “path” through which to “work” through the text, the author is quick to point out that a text’s digitality is not the feature that makes a text ergodic or not. Aarseth explains: “The concept of cybertext focuses on the mechanical organization of the text, by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange” (p.1). We are used to seeing “texts,” at least in the Print Age, as being largely uniform: printed on paper, and bound in a book, journal, or magazine. This explanation has a tinge of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” vibe to be sure, but Aarseth’s explanation is clearer than McLuhan’s 50-year-old aphorism. Aarseth continues, saying, “During the cubertextual process, the user will have effectual semiotic sequence, and this selective movement is a work of physical construction that the various concepts of ‘reading’ do not account for” (p.1). In other words, ergodic texts take the idea that readers need to be active to a whole new level.

Aarseth qualifies his statements by explaining that, “hypertexts, adventure games, and so forth are not texts the way the average literary work is a text” (p. 2-3).  Cybertexts are different from traditional literary texts because they require choices on the reader’s part. When she/he views a website, and clicks on something, she/he sees some some content of the site, but not all of it. The user must negotiate the interface to find what he or she is looking for. Users engage in a similar process for other types of digital media. I think looking at this difference, not from a reader’s perspective, but from a writer/designer’s perspective, makes cybertexts inherently different.

While there’s a lot more to Aarseth’s discussion, I can’t get into it all here. Perhaps I’ll revisit it later on, when I get a chance to finish his book.

Check out Nick Montfort’s The Purpling, which was published in the Iowa Review Web last year. It’s a very cool electronic poem, and good example of ergodic literature. I tried to put up a screen shot of it, but it’s not cooperating with my screenshot application.

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