Ethnographies of Gamers

I read Sherry Turkle’s essay, “Video Games and Computer Holding Power” differently from how I read other essays in the New Media Reader. This is partly because it is an ethnographic study and I can’t remember any other selections in our readings that employed ethnographic data. My own current research is in a social constructivist paradigm, and I am just starting to feel confident about what that means, and I think that made me engage in Turkle’s piece on a different level than other pieces.

I think she treated her research subjects fairly. I think she treated them more fairly than I could have, and I respect her for that. I found myself judging some of her subjects and I found myself projecting my own value system. I don’t usually do this.
Even though Myers-Briggs tests have fallen out of fashion in many circles, I still find the system to be useful in some areas. Whenever I took the test, I was kind of on the fence with E/I, N/S, and F/T. After about the age of 15, I always scored very strongly in P rather than J. I typically observe things without trying to determine if they are good or bad. I just notice that they are, but I have developed strong exceptions. In “Video Games: Computer Holding Power” David the lawyer went to a video arcade for 2 hours on his way home from work every day while his wife was pregnant to get himself in a zone where he could communicate with her. That made me feel somewhat “judgey.” That didn’t sound like a very equitable relationship. I appreciate the need for escape and a safe place to release stress. I empathize with all of research subjects, but I couldn’t help but think “What about trying x?”

I don’t think there is anything wrong with gaming per se. I recognize the value of gaming for analyzing and solving societal and scientific problems. I question the amount of time that some people devote to games. I occasionally exhibit addictive behaviors to certain games. I can relate to the feelings the research subjects described (the experience of social isolation and stress that can make a gaming environment attractive, and the feelings that the gaming environment can provide. But I cannot claim that the games actually relieved me of stress or made me a more focused person. When I move out of a game, I don’t feel more ready to focus on work of family. I feel less mentally available for those things. I feel acute signs of stress and anxiety. In extreme cases I develop a tic.

Another thing affected my view of the gamers. In late 2002 and early 2003, I was living in New York City. My laptop was clunky and having problems. I didn’t have a printer. I didn’t have money to do anything about either of those problems, and they were real problems because i was chronically under-employed at the time. I went to a pay-by-the-hour computer lab to work on my vita (for full time work as well as for printing and to apply for jobs and research graduate programs. It was about 2 blocks from my apartment, and it was filled with kids playing combat-oriented massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). These kids were highly engaged in their games. And they were incredibly competitive with one another too. There was a great of jocularity, swearing, and yelling. I was editing my vita to the dulcet sounds of unwashed prepubescent boys screaming “I’m going to kill you [nigger/faggot]!!!” It was a non-smoking facility, but the signs were ignored. It was a deeply unpleasant environment for me, and it has colored my view of gaming. It made me not want to engage in MMOGs.

I enjoy and perceive value in games that involved puzzles, logic, and strategy. Many gamers have heightened spatial intelligence — they can mentally navigate abstract spaces, imagine and manipulate 3D objects. I appreciate games when I can easily move out of them and when I can understand how I can apply what I learned from the game to other aspects of life.

Speaking of Brenda Laurel, her essay “The Six Elements and the Causal Relations Among Them,” Aristotle’s Poetics, and Human-Computer Interaction, I think of Niels Windfeld Lund.

Niels is a professor of Documentation Science at the University of Tromsø on the northern coast of Norway. There is something other-worldly about Tromsø.tromso

It is home to the world’s northern-most university, brewery, and botanic garden. It is one of best places in the world to observe northern lights. Between May and August, the sun never sets. It never rises during a 2-month long Polar Night. That’s Tromsø. Niels Lund started a program there for the study of Documentation Science. He founded a professional society called The Document Academy. Document Academy meetings are equally likely to feature papers on the indexical properties of ruminants, hand-made kayaks, Apartheid, telemedicine, or opera, respectively. He wears bib overalls–almost exclusively, and he blogs about them. niels
He is an opera impresario–and that is the part that is relevant for my reading of Brenda Laurel.

The World Opera doesn’t just produce operas, which are enormous, resource intensive undertakings (sets, costumes, orchestras, lighting, actors) in the most mundane circumstances. The World Opera produces simulcast operas from geographically dispersed components. world opera Porgy is in Stockholm, and Bess is in San Francisco, the orchestra is in neither, and the conductor is somewhere else too. The networking challenges for the music to be coordinated and coherent are significant. Latency is a significant factor that the artists and technologists must learn to overcome.

It’s no cognitive leap to apply Aristotle’s ideas on drama to opera. Laurel’s essay explores the utility of applying Aristotle’s model to human computer interaction. The World Opera deals with challenges from both performance of high art, as well as the art of high performance computing.

For most opera performances, the performers (both on-stage and off-stage) are in the same room as the audience. For a World Opera performance, the performers are in different places from each other, and the audience is in a separate space as well, while information technology mediates the communication.

Information as Process

I was just reading Will There be Condominiums in Data Space? by Bill Viola, first published in 1982.

The gist of the essay seems to be that there a multiple ways in which information may be structured and cross-indexed for future retrieval and use.

Viola provides a number of models and examples for information structures. I will refer to the ideas possibly conveyed by each model as a “meme,” using the term in the Richard Dawkins sense, where a discrete piece of information is the unit.

He cites an ethnomusicologist friend who studied Javanese gamelan music.
The performers could not play a piece from the middle because “the music was learned and conceived as a whole int the minds of the musicians.” They didn’t view it as work with a structure that could be dissected into parts like verse, chorus, coda, or phrase. This information model is one in which the meme is a whole indivisible piece of music. It has a beginning and end, and that is where it starts and finishes, respectively. It is impossible to enter from the middle.

Viola writes, “Poetry has always had a level that video or film cannot approach … : the existence of words on paper (how the poem looks, how the words are placed on the page, the gaps, the spacing, etc.). The whole poem is there before us, and, starting at the top of the page, we can see the end before we actually get there.”
This is a feature of all analog print and visual art rather than one of poetry. Multi-panel comics share the same traits. You are meant to read or see things in a particular order before you understand the content. With paintings, the process works the same way but it is also reversible–you usually see the whole before you see individual details. Writing is linear in that there is a planned route, whereas visual arts such as paintings, sculptures, comic illustrations, can be explored in a variety of ways. In this model, the meme has units (words) and sub-units (letters), and a prescribed order, but you can see all of it at once and start or stop from anywhere in the middle.

“Word processors allow one to write out, correct, and rearrange the whole letter before typing it.” Typing and printing isn’t the hard part for me. I may not need white out or paper in the way that I did on typewriters I still have to decide what the content is going to be, and I have to refine it repeatedly. The ideas don’t exist in an organized structure before I write and edit them.
In this model, a meme can be edited. New information can be injected into the middle. Other parts can be deleted.

Viola then formally describes other models: the branching structure, the matrix structure, and the schizo structure, and he says that “it is clear how this can enhance our current educational system, freeing students from boring and incompetent teachers so they can proceed at their own pace through information which now contains movement, dynamic action, and sound in addition to written words.”

The lesson I take from this is not that movement, sound, and dynamic action are what have been missing from education, although that can be the case too. Using multiple formats can improve education because people respond differently to different types of media. Self-directed learning is where Viola really seems to have pointed this essay. Structuring information in ways in which students can explore and follow different threads that inspire their curiosity can enable rapid learning about novel subjects.

I just read an opinion piece by David Brooks in the New York Times discussing online education.

His definitions of what a university is or should be are rather simplistic, though they were probably mostly written to generate thinking and discussion rather than to formally define the environment. Much of the focus of the piece was ostensibly about online learning, but focused on MOOCs.

I read the first few dozen reader comments in the NYT picks category. There were a variety of viewpoints that countered and criticized Mr. Brooks’ position. (One person, commenting as an endowed professor of statistics from Rice University, bemoaned the demise of the Socratic method in higher education, the rise of postmodern humanists, suggested that post-modernism is a secular communist plot, and that overhead from scientific research grants is overwhelmingly dedicated to the humanities.)

While the essay did not discuss the ways in which new media can or should facilitate learning, it did suggest that online learning is more appropriate for teaching technical knowledge and that traditional brick-and-mortar universities are better suited for teaching “practical knowledge,” defined as –

“the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

“These skills are practical knowledge. Anybody who works in a modern office knows that they are surprisingly rare.”

One solution proposed in the essay focused on using more technology to improve seminars for teaching those kinds of soft skills.
“The problem with the current seminars is that it’s really hard to know what anybody gets out of them. The conversations might be lively, but they flow by so fast you feel as if you’re missing important points and exchanges. ”

Media are Messages

I kind of struggled with this one. McLuhan made a number of logical and rhetorical leaps that I found distracting. There were a number of abstract thoughts like “nothing follows from following except change.” You could put that in an inspirational calendar, and I could stare at it for a month and come to an interpretation of it, but for now, I am just baffled.

Another example (on page 205 in the New Media Reader), “Before the electric speed and the total field, it was not obvious that the medium is the message. The message it seemed was the “content,” as people used to ask what a painting was about. Yet they never thought to ask what a melody was about, nor what a house or a dress was about. In such matters, people retained some sense of the whole pattern, of form and function as a unity.”

First of all, I doubt that this is actually true, because I think people have asked and do ask what melodies, houses, and dresses are about, particularly in the fields of musicology, architecture, and fashion design, respectively. In music, the concept of “word painting” has existed for well over a thousand years. Just as importantly, paintings were, for millennia, predominantly representative art and they usually conveyed a narrative Venus and Mars---love conquers war with an attribute that carried “aboutness.” With a few cultural exceptions, non-representative art has only been a standard in western art for less than a century. In non-western traditions, arabesque designarabesque may have carried meaning, but we can’t know if it did, or what it was.

Aside from that, the whole idea of meaning is totally subjective. To say that the medium is the message might suggest that meaning is static and singular.
What is the meaning of Schrodinger’s cat?
The medium carries multiple messages.
schrodinger's cat

Along with the medium carrying multiple possible messages, I would also include the notion that noise is part of the message as well.
The theoretical basis for this comes from the Shannon-Hartley theorem, but a practical example can be found in a simple game of Telephone.

But perhaps that’s what McLuhan meant, also on page 205, “Is that not what has happened in physics as in painting, poetry, and in communication? Specialized segments of attention have shifted to total field, and we can now say” that the medium is the message.


Tony’s post on last week’s seminar extended the computer/pizza metaphor prompt to the theremin, and while he was quite right to reference Good Vibrations, I think it is important to also include the theme from Star Trek, and the They Might Be Giants song Spacesuit. The theremin is an excellent example of technology responding to indirect manipulation as though it were direct manipulation.