A recent study from The Nielsen Company shows that US internet users are spending a greater proportion of their time online using social networking sites, in online games, and watching videos. Concurrent with this increase, a significant decrease has been seen in the proportion of time users are spending on email, instant messaging services, and “portals”, walled gardens often maintained by service providers (eg Yahoo, MSN). For the first time, US internet users are spending more time overall playing video games than they are using email.
To complicate questions around how users spend their time online, the function of online social networks and gamespaces has begun crossing over into the traditional territory of other categories of internet use as measured by Nielsen’s NetView studies. For example, instant messaging, email-like messaging, and accessing news and weather updates are activities that are increasingly taking place in social networking sites (as studied by Naomi Baron in Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, 2008).
Furthermore, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) increasingly exhibit characteristics of social networks, with the added complication that the personas that inhabit these spaces often straddle the identities of their “in-game” avatar and their IRL (In Real Life) or “meatspace” personage. A recent article by Kjartan Emilsson, Managing Director of CCP Asia, a game developer, highlights the interrelationship between the social networks that appear in gamespaces, the information architecture that underlies the game, and the physical computer networks on which they run. Emilsson’s description of these layers of networks (social, informational, and machinic) that make up the world of EVE Online, a MMORPG with 340,000 user accounts, centers around the benefits of employing a “single-shard database architecture” (ie everyone and everything in one big database) versus a “sharded architecture” (several seemingly continuous, but actually separate gamespaces). Emilsson argues that in spite of the significant technical difficulties posed by having such massive numbers of players coexisting in a single-shard architecture, the emergent social aspects of the game facilitated by maintaining a continuous gamespace create a richer game environment and by the very complexity of the system they create, encourage innovation by the game’s designers.
Although highly technical in its exposition, this article can be understood in conjunction with the work of theorists like Manuel Castells, Sherry Turkle, and Howard Rheingold when they discuss concepts of individual and community identities on the internet. Writing in the mid 1990s in reference to MUDs, the primitive predecessors of MMORPGs, Turkle notes “We come to see ourselves differently as we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine” (in Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the Internet, 1995, p9). Technical choices made in structuring of networks that underlie the social spaces of MMORPGs play a significant role in setting the discursive frame for the construction of social identities in these worlds that exist both within and parallel to materiality.
If internet usage continues its drift away from modes like email and portals and towards social spaces such as social networking sites and massively multiplayer online games, how will the social practices of communication and identification online change? What will this mean for the technical infrastructure of the networks that support them?
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.
I try not to be an alarmist, but you’d be paranoid too if you knew they were watching you.
Last week, my partner, baby daughter, and I got on a plane at Los Angeles International Airport bound for Sydney, Australia. I’ve spent most of the past decade in the US, and we plan on residing in Australia for the next couple of years. Between her stuff, my stuff, and the baby’s stuff we had a large amount of baggage that we were happy to pay the excess fees on because it was faster and cheaper to carry it with us than to pay for shipping. The biggest and heaviest thing on our two trolleys was a G5 tower in a Pelican case. After a fair amount of back and forth with the airline staff over whether or not they’d carry a case so heavy, I was very relieved to see it come around the baggage claim carousel in Sydney with all our other stuff.
Fast forward a week to this morning. I’d finally gotten together all the peripherals needed to get the computer up and running (monitor, keyboard, mouse, power adaptor). A friend had warned me to pull the hard drives out before the flight, and to carry them with me, because there was a small chance that they could jiggle around in transit and get damaged. In my rush to deal with everything on my way out of the US, I’d neglected to do that, so my heart sank when I powered up and saw the dreaded system folder question mark on startup.
(NB: not exactly like above, but it’s the best .gif i could find)
Trying not to panic, I tried starting up from the system install disk, but that looked like it wanted to install the operating system and I was afraid it would format the drives. Then tried starting up with the Applecare Tech Tool Deluxe disk, but that didn’t really do anything. Starting to assume the worst by this stage: jiggling damage might have occurred, or maybe some sort of demagnetization wiped the drives.
The tower has two drives in it: the factory installed startup drive and a 500GB internal drive that I put in to keep media on. Clutching at straws, I thought I’d try opening the tower up, pull out the media drive and seewhat happened. When I did this I noticed that the lever that holds the media drive in its bay was open. That was a pretty good tip off that some sort of search had been done on the computer that involved pulling the drives out. My suspicion was confirmed when I found that the reason the computer couldn’t find the system folder was that the startup drive had apparently not been plugged back in after the drives were pulled out!
The computer was on the same flight as us, and there was only about an hour between when I dropped the bags off at security and when we took off, so my assumption is that US border agents yanked the drives, copied them for a later search, and then very sloppily replaced them. Now, I don’t really have anything to be concerned about them finding on there, but it’s very disconcerting to think that they now have a copy of every email I’ve sent in the past few years, my address books, calendars, web histories, etc.
Last year the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a previous ruling on searches of laptops and other electronic devices at the US borders. That case involved a guy accused of bringing child pornography, but its effect is that searches are permissible on anyone’s devices with no requirement of suspicion of wrongdoing. I’d really like to know what they did with my data. I can only imagine some federal agent is poring over my emails and trying out search terms in the hope of nabbing a superterrorist mastermind.
I’ve always resisted the temptation to do a FOIA request, but I guess it might be time to try and get a grip on what their files on me look like now that they have all of mine.