Rear Left

The Cat and the Coup

Posted in Dog Food, Gaming the System by rearleft on October 26, 2010

The very idea of a “documentary game” may be hard for many to come to terms with. By their respective definitions, documentaries claim to portray the truth or reality of a situation, and a game is a cultural form that is defined by the variability of its outcome.

The winner of this year’s Indiecade Award in the Documentary category, The Cat and the Coup, leads the player backwards through time in an exposition of the life of Mohammed Mossadegh. Mossadegh, a largely unknown historical figure in the West, was the Iranian Prime Minister who was deposed by a CIA coup following his nationalisation of that nations oil industry, which had previously been run by the monopoly Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became British Petroleum, most recently rebranded as BP.

Still looking for a platform for release, promotional videos for the game give a sense of its aesthetics and mechanics. Persian miniatures provide an ingenious reference point for a two dimensional representation of a meaning-rich, hypermediated mise-en-scene that incorporates both images and text, augmented in the game by interactivity. The Cat and the Coup‘s narrative moves backwards through time, with user experience personalised through the character of Mossadegh, but placed at a distance by focalising user interaction through the character of a house-cat. The curious player, embodied as cat-avatar, leads the deposed Prime Minister from his death-bed back through memories of events to the point of his election. In this procedural metaphor for the process of engaging with the subjective experience of engaging with concrete historical events, designers Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad create a give an audience that is often presented with dehistoricised version of the US and UK’s relationship with Iran a way into a narrative in a manner that is simultaneously playful and rooted in political history.

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Swipe/Wipe – Tilt/Cut

Across its 100+ year history, cinema has developed a lexicon of edits – meaning laden codes built around the visual representation of temporal progression from one image to the next. As screen-based media migrates onto handheld devices that add the element of touch to the existing audio-visual interface connecting text and reader, a new language of image transition that incorporates physical gesture is emerging. Unlike the conventions of visual edits, gestural interface has not yet developed as a shared set of conventions, and experimental texts proliferate on the iPhone and similar devices. Swipe, tilt, shake, and tap are becoming related to cut, wipe, mix, and fade, but the conventions that shape their meanings for audiences are still up for grabs.

Ruben and Lullaby (2009) is an interactive fiction for iPhone. Drawing on Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) analysis of new media’s incorporation of pre-existing forms, Ruben and Lullaby can be seen as remediating the shot sequencing of a conventional cinematic dialogue scene between two characters. Ruben and Lullaby adds a gestural twist to a readily recognisable scenario by empowering the viewer to determine when edits occur. By tilting the screen to one side or the other, the program cuts to another shot and an audio cue on the soundtrack is triggered. Building on the conventions of audio-visual editing in cinema, these cuts produce an affect in the viewer which may suggest a range of readings, primarily related to the tempo of the cuts. For example, rapid tilting from side to side produces an equally rapid series of cuts, resulting in a sense of narrative conflict for the user-viewer. Adding levels of complexity to the interaction, the user can produce affects in the characters on screen by either stroking the screen to soothe or shaking it to agitate them. The scenario is algorithmically played through, combining the user’s input and the two character’s affective relationships to each other to produce an outcome that fits within a conventional narrative structure.

The physicality (one might even go so far as to say the violence) of this interaction with the screen can be read as an attempt to break with the traditional fixity of the viewer’s body in relation to the screen (as noted by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media, 2001), although it is important to note that although the viewer is able to affect the narrative discourse with their body, in order to view the screen a degree of fixity is still required between the eye and the image.

A century after the montage experiments of Lev Kuleshov, algorithmic media is developing a new language of embodied interaction with the text. Gestural human-computer interface adds significant new spatial dimensions to narrative works, as montage forced a reconceptualisation of the relationship of spatiality and temporality of images. For critical media theorists the next step is to dig into how this embodiment of the user-reader opens political possibilities in art, just as montage offered great opportunities for the exploration of a productive liberatory discourse.


Posted in Dog Food, Media & Movements by rearleft on October 1, 2010


Malcolm Gladwell‘s recent piece for the New Yorker is getting a lot of play, ironically, on Twitter and Facebook. As much as I’d prefer not to be yet another (late) addition to what has already become a tired conversation over a short few days, the fact that I’m currently studying network theory and attempting to apply it to social movements means that this is one meme that this node can’t help but percolate.

While there is much that I agree with in the piece, and much that I don’t, what struck me most was his overly simplistic application of network analysis to a set of extremely diverse and complex situations. Granovetter‘s The Strength of Weak Ties (1973) introduced the theory that the transmission of innovation in networks occurs when bridges are made via weak ties between clusters of nodes (actors, people) that share strong ties. Among these strongly tied cliques, innovation is stifled by the very similarity of the group members, and it takes the input of information from other areas of a network, accessed through a weak tie bridge to facilitate the spread of innovation.

Gladwell’s hypothesis, as I read it, is that digital social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook are comprised only of weak ties, and that what he terms as “high risk activism”, such as direct action in the face of violent, oppressive regimes, is performed by groups of actors with strong ties. Therefore, social networking sites cannot facilitate system-challenging activism. Furthermore, he argues that networks are heterarchies, and that only hierarchies produce effective political organisations.

There is no way that I can write a fully thought out and articulated response to Gladwell’s argument here, but here are a few points that serve as a starting place for why I think that his piece contains a kernel of truth (Twitter alone is not revolutionary) surrounded by poorly applied network theory and a limited understanding of social movements.

  1. It is an oversimplification to say that “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties”. Social networking sites, especially Facebook, have grown to such a scale that in some communities the social graphs that they represent are approaching representation of the offline, “real world” social graph. Users of these sites are developing complex modes of differentiating between their relationships with one another in ways that reflect and maintain the nuanced gradation of types and degrees of relations that make up their social networks both on- and offline.
  2. “High risk activism” by small groups with strong ties does not lead to social change without prior and post support by networks supported by weak ties. To only look at the “action” phase of social movement organising is to ignore the majority of work and forces that go into bringing about that action, and the follow-through on then using that action as a catalyst for change. It is true that when involved in high-stakes, potentially violent confrontations with organised institutions of power, it is preferable to do so in clusters that have a high degree of trust facilitated by strong ties, but it is wrong to suggest that the social relations of such clusters permeate the entire organising networks from which the tactical and strategic formulation of coordinated action arises. And after the action, it is not the strong ties of the group involved in the action that promote percolation of change through a broader social network, potentially leading to a cascade effect that precipitates a phase transition in the system as a whole, it is the dissemination of new possibilities from node to node, cluster to cluster, with significant leaps across distances in the network made possible by bridging weak ties.
  3. Gladwell seems to ignore the role of communications technologies in the civil rights movement. His account of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins are told as if the growth of the protest (and counter-protest) over the days that followed the initial action, and the spread of similar protests throughout the South in the following weeks were all the result of face-to-face contacts. The role of various media – telephones, telegraph, newspapers, radio, and television is absent. Surely in a discussion of how contemporary media support or inhibit social activism the comparison with communications media of previous struggles is relevant.

As the language of network theory becomes popularised through the work of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Anderson, and Clay Shirky, we can expect to see discussions of all sorts of phenomena being discussed in the jargon of ties and flows, cliques and cascades. It will be important for people who have engaged deeply with these models and the social and technical subjects to which they are applied to keep their rampant misapplication in check.

Spaces of Refusal

Posted in DigiCult, Dog Food by rearleft on September 25, 2010

Preliminary findings from new research into young Australians’ usage of mobile and social media reveals that while networks of information and communication technologies are changing rapidly, so too are the social practices that surround them. One interesting aspect of Kate Crawford‘s three year study into the practices and attitudes of 18-30 year olds across Australia is the comparison between mobile phone (and media) usage in urban and rural populations.

In cities, where 3G coverage is near-ubiquitous, the study captured a population that is, in a sense, always online. This ability to connect with others in one’s social network through a number of channels (face-to-face, telephone, text message, social networking sites…) can, in the situation of a failure in the technological networks, result in a “connectivity panic” in which the individual experiences anxiety as a result of being unable to use their device to connect to other people or sources of information. As a way of addressing this hyperconnectedness, nuanced social norms are emerging around how to deal with the ability to reach and be reached at all times. These may include taking intentional time offline, or away from social networking sites, but also in more subtle practices such as the differentiation of styles and modes of communication for various cliques and social clusters that one is part of. For instance, one might develop a norm for using telephone conversations as the primary mode of communicating with family members, but prefer the use of email for work contacts because of its ability to be answered in an asynchronous fashion, and thereby to seem less socially demanding on the person contacted.

In rural and regional locales, where data and telephony network coverage is far more patchy, attitudes and practices around the use of such technologies takes on a different character. In the situation where technological networks cannot be regularly or reliable accessed, social norms emerge that account for the fact that communication is not always possible. Respondents to the study reported practices such as writing and storing text messages while offline and transmitting large amounts in bursts when a signal became available. Conversely, in a low-coverage area it becomes more socially acceptable to not respond to a message at the time it was received by virtue of the fact that it is possible to have been out of range.

These methods for defining when and how one sends and receives information to one’s contacts can be seen as tactics by which individuals and groups are negotiating community norms in the context of rapidly changing technological and social network formations. In the case of placing limitations on one’s availability to the communication network, Crawford notes that these tactics can be seen as the creation of what Genevieve Bell has called “spaces of refusal”. However the creation of such spaces and times without connectivity to networked communications media should not be seen as a total rejection of the new communication technologies, but rather as an important aspect of negotiating new ways of being connected to online and offline communities.



Videos are now available online of presentations and panel discussions from the Art History of Games Conference, held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in February of this year. By locating video games in the discourse of art history, the conference’s gathering of a distinguished line-up of media theorists and game designers take on the stubborn critique of video games as being merely toys, crude entertainment, distractions, cultural forms that are something other than art. A key tension that runs throughout the presentations is the need to on one hand balance the desire to promote games and game studies as having attained a degree of maturity as a legitimate fields within the elite academic and art worlds, and on the other to recognise and account what makes a game a game and how this sets games apart from other cultural forms that are elevated to the status of art.

Two main tactics for arguing this point can be seen in the presentations:

  1. The location of video game aesthetics in a history of other artistic forms (painting, cinema, theatre, etc).
  2. The development and identification of “art-games”, cultural artifacts that function both as games and as works of art.

What is perhaps most valuable about this conversation is not the rehabilitation of video games as a “legitimate” “high” “art”, but the tricky challenges that describing the conditions under which a video game would qualify as a work of art pose to art criticism itself.

Using the analogy of cinema, much of what seems to qualify any particular game as a work of art is the signature style of an auteur. In games commissioned for the conference, Jason Rohrer, Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, and design team Tale of Tales each demonstrate their particular authorial voice in game-form. Jason Rohrer’s 2003 game Passage is often held up as an exemplar of an art game that is both beautiful and efficient in its ludic meditation on life and death. We see the themes of death and memory appearing again in Tale of Tales’ Vanitas, while Pozzi and Zimmerman’s 16 Tons seems to contribute to current conversations around play and labor, and Rohrer’s Sleep is Death is a sort of meta-game, a story-building environment.

The emergence of the art-game auteur can be compared to directors of the European New Wave and later to iconoclast film directors in the US and elsewhere. Art games play with the conventions and audience expectations of the form in much the same way as art-house cinema played with the conventional narrative and production modes of films produced under the studio system. Taking this analogy a step further, one might consider the possibility of future gaming movements equivalent to Third Cinema, the explicitly anti-colonial mode of filmmaking that emerged in the Americas in the 1960s. To revolutionise art is one thing, the art of revolution is quite another. It would be foolish to attempt to transpose the history of cinema or any other cultural form onto video games directly, but in the search for ways in which cultural work can be incorporated into social justice struggles, the experience of prior movements which have sought to do such work may be instructive.

Fifty years into its history, auteurism instituted a particular approach to artistry for a cultural form that was often seen as being mere entertainment. Video games seem to be entering a similar era. Those concerned with the political impact of the video game form should already be looking forward to what’s coming next.

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