The paper was first written as an in-class assignment for a class in my Master’s called Digital Research & Publishing, led by Dr Morgan Richards. I presented some similar ideas at the Making Links conference in Perth, November of 2011. I’ve excerpted parts of it in these pages before.
This was one of the first pieces of writing I did after coming back to study. I don’t think it’s earth-shattering stuff by any means, but for me it helps frame some of the basic questions on the role of new media in social movements that I plan on exploring in much greater depth in the coming years.
It was also very cool to originally write this for a course on academic publishing in digital culture and then actually taken what I’d written there through a real peer review process and see it published on an open access journal.
Almost a year has passed since I last wrote in these pages. While this blog has lain fallow it’s remained the home page in my browser. Teknician Cat below glares at me plaintively every day. Today I sit hitting refresh intermittently on my inbox, waiting for the results to come in on the Master’s dissertation I submitted last month. Seems like as good a time as any to begin knocking Teknician Cat down a few posts…
2011, and particularly its latter half, has been a year of transition, completion, renewal, beginning. While I finished off my coursework and a 12,000 word dissertation at Universty of Sydney, I got my first taste of teaching in a university over at University of New South Wales. In a leap of faith based on a couple of conference presentations I gave at Making Links at the end of last year, Kath Albury gave me a shot at teaching Master’s coursework units offered by the Journalism and Media Research Centre at UNSW. In the second semester I was given the opportunity to be the course convenor of a unit on Online and Mobile Media. In addition to having a bit more responsibility for providing seminar outlines for another lecturer and handling some un-fun administrative things like student appeals, this meant that I was able to redesign the curriculum, which was great fun and a great learning experience.
So the plan to break into this academic game is on track, but I find myself in the precarious position of the proto-academic trying to piece together a year-round income. During 2012 I’ll be putting together PhD applications for schools here in Oz as well as in the US, with the goal of embarking on the next chapter of my study in 2013. Concurrently, I’ll be teaching at UNSW again in both Semesters, and I’d love to reconnect with some of the community media/arts/activist education that I come from and that still holds my heart.
These pages need some love and attention. Time to sow some seeds for the new season.
The school year’s done and I’ve made it half way through my Master’s degree in Digital Communication and Culture. I came back to school with the plan to take the work that I’d been doing at the intersection of media, education, and activism, and rethink what that work means and how it works when this stuff we call media mutates into new shapes and streams. Below is an extract of an essay I wrote in the second semester on space in video games (as in geography, not outer space), and the construction of arab/muslim/oriental identities in video games. Full text downloadable here: MappingFauxrabia.odt
Fauxrabia [...] is a way of articulating the contradictory nature of this imagined (and in some sense experienced through gameplay) country that is both unreal and contributes to the production of reality. To describe the cultures represented in these games as being arab, or muslim is to conflate the vastly diverse cultures of people from as far afield as Morocco and Kashmir, Kazakhstan and Somalia into a singular signifier of Otherness when held in oppositional relationship to the Western player-character.
Fauxrabia is a simulacrum (Baudrillard, 1994). It is a lie that expresses a truth about the West’s conception of itself in opposition to the Other. It is a computer-generated, player-navigated, screen-represented space. It is a contemporary cultural manifestation of Saïd’s model of Orientalism:
“…it not only creates, but also maintains; it is rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power…”
-Edward Saïd, Orientalism (1978, p 12). Italicisation from the original.
The spatiality of video games is suggested in the very fact that we refer to them by the visual medium of the interface through which we interact with them. In all but a few novelty games where audio monitors or haptic devices are foregrounded, the video or computer monitor takes primacy as the device used for human-computer interaction with the underlying code that embodies the game’s rule system and its representation through a graphical user interface. Furthermore, the vast majority of games involve the simulation of a spatial environment, often organised as one or a series of maps, segmented into levels. These two geographies taken together, the space of the interface-screen and the space of the game map, constitute what I will refer to as the gamespace. McKenzie Wark (2007, pp006-008) has argued that the logic of gaming has become such an integral aspect of contemporary culture that it has “colonised reality”, moving out of the sites of processor and screen that support the virtual world and extending the gamespace into material space.
Transcending the contentious narratology-ludology debates of video game studies, Jesper Juul (2005) suggests that games should be considered “half-real” in that they are comprised of both rules, the underlying system of game mechanics, and fiction, the narrative and representative aspects of the game. Thus, descriptions of characters, spaces, and events in a game are real insofar as they describe the mechanics of the game-system, and unreal, in their description of a fictional story or abstract setting. Questions of spatiality bring up an interesting challenge to this binary.
“[...] space in games is a special case. The level design of a game world can present a fictional world and determine what players can and cannot do at the same time. In this way, space in games can work as a combination of rules and fiction.”
Jesper Juul, Half-Real (2005, p 163). Italicisation from the original.
To put it another way, game level maps determine the affordances of a gamespace available to the player, as well as the representation of simulated space that is mapped onto a video monitor.
Maps are inherently political (Wood, 1992, Kolko 2000). They include and exclude aspects of geography, simplifying and distorting the material world to frame their users’ interaction with space through the embedding of their creators’ worldview. The computer interface can be seen as a map that allows human interaction with the underlying system of a software’s code (Selfe & Selfe 1994), which in turn also carries ideological assumptions (Nakamura 2005, Kolko 2000). In their study of the politics of computer interfaces in educational settings, Selfe & Selfe note:
“Within the virtual space represented by these interfaces, and elsewhere within computer systems, the values of our culture – ideological, political, economic, educational – are mapped both implicitly and explicitly, constituting a complex set of material relations among culture, technology, and technology users.”
- Cynthia Selfe & Richard Selfe, Politics of the Interface (1994, p 485)
In Fauxrabian geographies, the ideologies that we see encoded in these maps remediate stereotypes of the oriental Other from older cultural forms such as cinema and literature (Shaheen 2001), as well as from contemporary political and journalistic portrayals of Western conflict with Islam.
Consider the above remediation of militarist aesthetics in regards to the nature of the United States’ current military engagement in Pakistan. Predator drones are controlled by pilots at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, using an interface that features a screen and joystick. As satellite imaging has extended the US military’s map across the entire globe, the distance between the seer and the seen has both been extended to tens of thousands of kilometres and collapsed to the space between eyeball and screen. Viewing the terrain from above, the drone pilot is able to see and therefore to control, with the power of death from above, the territory on the ground on the other side of the world pictured on their screen. This space, framed by the ideologies of military and moral superiority, contains an alien Other whose domination defines the character of its observer in opposition. The alienation of the remote cyborg warrior in the US from their targets on the ground in Pakistan parallels that of the Modern Warfare player from their Fauxrabian enemies.
“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 into 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.”
– Mckenzie Wark, Gamer Theory (2007, p10). Italicisation from the original.
Until he left, dad was around a lot. My old man is a disabled veteran of the Korea and Vietnam wars, and thanks to a pension from the US military, he has generally been able to get by for most of my life without having a job as such. As a kid I remember his house as a sort of social club where he and his buddies would hang out, smoking and drinking, playing games. First in North Queensland, and later in Texas, the revolving cast that made up his motley crew over the years fall into a certain range of misfit characters: bikers, ex-pat hippies, broken-down soldiers, sci-fi philosophers, undisciplined Jedi, petty outlaws. These men on the edges of society sought each other out for support and companionship. Games provided a ritualised order for these men to structure their time together around.
They would play the games with a casual intensity, sometimes spending many hours a day for weeks or months on end with a certain game before spontaneously moving on to another. Backgammon was the default that they would return to time and time again. Other favourites were chinese checkers, darts (usually 10-20 cricket rules), Jenga, Othello (aka Reversi), and some lesser known titles like Abalone and Slide-5. I don’t remember them ever playing cards. To my knowledge they never played for money. It was never about gambling, just the exchange of play.
House rules ruled. In the case of Tri-ominos, a simple augmentation resulted in a modded game that became the staple for a number of years. Tri-ominos is itself a mod of dominos, a game that is played in an over-simplified form in Australia, making it uninteresting game for children above the age of about 8. In other spaces, especially the sidewalks in front of Nuyorican bodegas, dominos is elevated to a way of life. For a while, multi-set triominos became that way for my dad’s crew. The standard Tri-ominos set contains 56 equilateral triangle tiles with a number from 0-5 in each of the three corners. All possible permutations of the triad appear in the set once and once only. Points are scored by adding the numbers represented on a laid tile. Bonuses are scored by completing a hexagon (six tiles laid in a radial pattern) or making a bridge (connecting branches of the pattern by touching a tip on one side and a side on another. The game is entertaining in itself, but after some play, certain fundamental limitations appear. The presence of only one instance of each tile leads to a predictable and stifling defensive mode of play, where players can easily read the board to see that certain tiles have already been played and cannot therefore appear again. A second limitation, that can feel frustrating to the point of seeming a design flaw is the incompatibility of many apparently playable tiles. This effect is a result of the numbering of the tiles corners always being inscribed in an ascending clockwise direction. For example, the 1-2-5 tile exists, but the 1-5-2 tile does not.
My old man’s crew’s reaction to their frustration with these aspects of the game was to change the game itself in a subtle way. They did this by adding first a second set of tiles, and then multiples into their game. I believe that they ultimately played a 5-set version. This meant that they were playing with 280 pieces, usually with around 4 players in any one game. The multiset game required a great deal more strategy around the management of risk associated with play, as it was considerably more difficult to predict the unseen hands of other players when up to 5 instances of each tile existed. Of course the games went for considerably longer periods of time, not only because more tiles were in play, but contemplation of the board and strategy took exponentially longer as the field of play grew. And grow it did. Soon it became apparent that the kitchen table would not bound the fractal arms of the expanding board, and one evening of play could not complete a single game. Barricades had to be erected to prevent pets from wandering into the field and disturbing play.
Cut to the present day. The old man’s circle has contracted to number only 3 or 4 misfits at best, and instead of playing games they’re more likely to be watching Fox News fed through the satellite dish to his cinder block house in the Texas hill country. Browsing through games in the iTunes Store I am thrilled to see that Tri-Ominos is now available as an app. I plonk down my $AUD1.19 and have in my pocket an officially licensed copy of this game that took on such mythic proportions in my youth. But the innovations that were made through a simple mod involving adding more instances of tiles are simply not replicable on my iPhone. If I was able to work through many layers of copy protection and code, perhaps I could rewrite the game to customise the number of sets in the game. Maybe with a few years of study I would have the skills to give the computer opponent better artificial intelligence so it didn’t make such obvious strategic errors, or simpler still, open the game up to multiplayer networking. But I won’t. I’m a media theorist and community media practioner, not a software engineer.
The benefits of the iPhone TriOmino set are not insignificant. It is in my pocket as I type this. I can play it wherever I wish. It cost me $1.19, whereas a single set of tiles costs $30. Modding a multi-set would cost the multiple. But I have played the iPhone app version about 10 times and I may never play it again. Its limitations are beyond repair, at least for me, at least within the constricts of its end user license agreement. The game, as with many aspects of information culture, has been appliancised. It is easier, more convenient, cheaper, ubiquitous. It can be yours to play, but it cannot be ours to play with.
Work on this curriculum was a significant part of my work at GAP, and I am very happy to see it made available for use by folks outside that organisation. Its content is US-focused, but is built on an analysis of the role of media in social power relations that could easily be adapted to a range of local/national/community contexts. Beyond its value as a tool for educators and activists who are looking to integrate media work and political education into their work with youth, this document can be seen as emblematic of an emerging current that connects the work of youth development, community media, and political organising. As an insider to the process of authoring this work I can attest that GAP is an organisation that truly walks its talk. This is not the work of an author putting forward a pedagogy abstracted from practice. It is born of years of collaboration and struggle among passionate educator/activists, developed in the crucible of many actual media production processes and grassroots political campaigns, tested and developed with scores of youths whose bullshit sensors are finely calibrated machines. Through the very process of creating this curriculum, the organisation, and the wider practice of youth media that it works within, has been affected. This work is pushing youth media beyond the inadequate paradigms of voice and representation and into the realm of demanding creating real change.
This incredible resource is available online for FREE, so go get it, use it, modify it, and send them some feedback on how it lives in your own work.