Friday, May 16, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Kansas

Photo via Dain Nielsen
This past winter, during a three-week long trip to my hometown in Lawrence, Kansas, I carved out some time to meet and have coffee with my advisor.  Only a few weeks previous I passed my qualifying exam to become ABD in History, and she wanted to go over a few of the finer points related to actually writing a dissertation, the task that loomed large with my oral trial by fire now quickly fading.  We spoke on chapter writing, on motivation, on the need to stay focused- and after these topics were exhausted our talk moved on to the more mundane aspects of life; daily chores, grading, and, most importantly, the grind of dealing with a Board of Regents in Kansas that has proved, time and time again, to possess antipathy, if not outright animosity, towards teachers and staff at the various institutions of higher learning under their purview.

I should add this last jab at the Board of Regents are both my words and my interpretation, not hers, and the reason for such a clarification is thus; it is now possible for any employee at an institution governed by the Kansas Board of Regents to be fired if their use of social media is deemed "contrary to the best interests of the university."

Let that sink in for a second- "contrary to the best interests of the university."

It would not be a gross mischaracterization to call this the most draconian social media policy ever adopted by a governing institution of higher education.  Its bureaucratic vagueness is a prime example of the adjectival descriptor 'byzantine', and the simplicity of the statement belies the vast range of interpretations allowed.  What exactly constitutes the best interests of the university?  Who decides what this best interest entails?  Perhaps most importantly, is it possible to reconcile hallowed notions of 'academic freedom' with such an interest?  The Board of Regents would have you believe the two can coexist, but anyone with such a Sword of Damocles hanging over their head would beg to differ.

Bob Dylan famously remarked in his song, 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)', that "if my thought dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in the guillotine."  With the adoption of this policy the Kansas Board of Regents moved one step closer towards actualizing Dylan's eloquently articulated fear.  Their reasoning, I suppose, is that if you can't actually see the thought-dreams of staff and teachers alike then the next best thing is to sharply punish those dreams when they take form in social media.  A public execution would send as subtle a message as this policy, but given that the Board of Regents does not yet possess the power of capital punishment such measures, to them no doubt, seem reasonable and entirely appropriate.

I wonder what else seems reasonable and entirely appropriate?  It seems reasonable and entirely appropriate to assume that anyone with academic talent, even in this harsh employment climate, will think twice about accepting a position at an institution of higher learning in Kansas.  It seems reasonable and entirely appropriate that such a policy flies in the face of pedagogical literature suggesting that professors embrace social media as a way to better connect with their students.  It seems reasonable and entirely appropriate to recognize that this policy is just another step towards nullifying tenure.

It also seems reasonable and entirely appropriate to recognize that this policy makes Kansas the laughingstock of the nation.  Again.  As if this state that was once the focal point of progressivism really needed another reminder that those days are long gone.

All is not lost, however.  Philip Nel, at his blog 'Nine Kinds of Pie', articulates measured responses those working at such institutions can take to fight this policy.  Several other incensed academics across the spectrum of institutions affected are banding together to express their dismay at such a policy.  It is comforting to know that people will stand up and assert what is right, no matter the consequences.

I wish I could be like Antony in Shakespeare's Life and Death of Julius Caesar, able to slyly claim that I come to bury Kansas, not to praise it.  Sadly, there is little to praise and the only thing being buried is any hope that the Board of Regents can meaningfully care for the staff and teachers at the institutions under their charge.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Mimetic Acts Across Cultural Mediums

Palm Tree Reflection via Scott Kinmartin
Because I refuse to let myself get too wrapped up in this subject, I want to briefly talk three things I came across today that have a central theme- mimesis.

Those three things were:

1. The White Album project
2. Daniel Joseph's reaction to Leigh Alexander's post on clones of Threes
3. 1966 New York Times Article on Old Believers

Rutherford Chang collects copies of The White Album; original pressings to be exact, though the condition can be of any quality.  He delights in the variance of the same, seeing within every aged copy a different story or set of circumstances behind its appearance.  His collection, now numbering 944 as of writing, is the embodiment of mimesis and some of the deep delights- but also insecurities-  mimetic objects given form present for modern society.  For Chang, the idea of the White Album collection is to document the collected experience of each individual pressing from 1968, and the variance between the copies, raw differences creating mimetic fuzz around the original form of the copy, complete for him the experience of that mimetic object in total.

Daniel Joseph's piece, reacting to Leigh Alexander's post about Threes and game 'cloning', hint at the insecurity mimesis produces for the cultural medium of games.  Using Marx's concept of the 'general intellect'', Joseph suggests that the ease of cloning casual games, like Threes, is becoming more apparent simply because this form of the larger game medium is no longer resistant to such causal cloning via the traditional safeguards of "sophisticated platforms, rigorous copyright laws, and a high capital investment."  He concludes, "As it happens games belong to everyone while so many still are scrambling for the scraps of this knowledge to survive."

Threes, as a mimetic object on multiple levels (not only as a source of inspiration for clones, but also  considering its digital distribution method via the Apple app store), reveals how the perceived notion of the copy, in this case the games 2048 and 1024, highlights what Plato articulated long ago as the flaw of the mimetic act.  Here I'm quoting Marcus Boon from his work, "In Praise of Copying":
"…Plato's mistrust of mimesis, and of the artist- the mirrored image, and event the craftsman's object, [was because he believed these forms] confuse the ignorant as to what is essential.  At the same time, it is the Platonic belief that the outward appearance of something indicates its essence which continues to generate much of our confusion about what a copy is.  When we say 'an original,' we usually mean something in which the idea and the outward appearance correspond to each other.  There is no distortion in the relation of appearance to essence, to "what a thing is."  Copies, then, for Plato and for us, most of the time are distortions of this relationship.  The mirror produces the sun, yet it is not the sun. produces a Louis Vuitton bag, yet the article is not a real Louis Vuitton bag." (20)
The mimetic potential available to casual games reveals not only the unsettling distortion between idea and outward appearance (found in the example of Threes and its 'clones'), but also that the essence of the casual game, by the very fact that it is *so* open to the mimetic act, allows it to escape arbitrary and imposed restrictions on its form and enter what Joseph calls the 'general intellect.'

With Chang we see the delight mimesis summons; yet with Joseph, and by extension Alexander, we also see the insecurities mimesis brings into cultural forms.  For the final example under consideration, we will see how the emergence of Old Belief into American culture combined both the delight and insecurity of mimesis as exemplified in the question of assimilation.

What strikes me about this two-paneled, front page photograph is that it manages to create a visualized tableau capable of being interpreted though the lens of mimesis.  On the left, we have an Old Believer family set against the backdrop of what appears to be a modest, middle-class house.  The caption juxtaposes the 'traditional beard' of the man with the fact that he currently works in an assumed modern soft-drink factory.  On the right, we have a photo of Old Believers, clad in flannel shirts and mesh-style baseball hats, assembling furniture for the Excelwood Products Company.  Again, their beards mark them as conspicuous even though their boss, unseen but heard in the caption underneath, praises their behavior.  

While the scene would indicate the success of the Old Believers in assimilating into their new American culture, the headline and subsequent sub-title hint at 'distortions' between the assumed original, a bona fide American citizen, and the copy, an Old Believer immigrant from Turkey.  In particular the phrase 'leaning to new ways' suggests that some residual dissonance still exists between the traditional composition of Old Believer lives and the values/mores of the modern as grounded in the space of domestic and factory settings.  There is delight in the copy act itself, as American culture via the house and factory appear to be converting the Old Believers, yet there is also insecurity about what these 'copies' will bring into American culture and whether or not the Old Believers will allow the mimetic act to so completely remake their lives.

Obviously these are loosely connected threads of thought, but it appears to me that viewing the interaction and transformation of a cultural space through the lens of mimesis provides deeper insight into the fundamental nature of said cultural space.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thirty Pieces of Silver

Quick post today, as I have only a few rambling thoughts regarding Malcolm Harris' recent opinion over at Al Jazeera on "Why Nate Silver Can't Explain It All".

First off, it's a terrific read (let's be honest- I don't usually post about something unless I think it's terrific) so take some time to peruse his prose now.

Second, while I wholeheartedly agree with Harris there are parts of his argument that could definitely be expanded.  I realize opinion pieces can't tackle every subject or point of proof under the sun, but the underlying angst regarding Silver and his new venture, FiveThirtyEight, is really nothing new.  It's part of a much longer history in which rationality claims an objective presence in the face of subjective metaphysics.

Harris calls the work of Silver and his associates 'Actually Journalism', hinting at the larger issues involved; namely, the view that numbers are key to an objective view of reality.  He ties this to the late 20th century epistemological shift against privileged knowledge- but this is a much, much older trend than just the late 20th century.

Numbers being equated to truth, or at least a way to uncover a buried truth, is nothing new.  To use a recent example, look at Vietnam and how McNamara, together with his 'Whiz Kids', used 'objective' data to plot out bombing missions and take measured 'body counts' as proof of progress.  Go back further and look at Sergei Bulgakov's essay in 1905 on 'Basic Problems on the Theory of Progress' in which the Russian intellectual lambasts the, then, current fascination with positivism and a grand 'Theory of Progress'.  Go back even further and you see the debates between followers of Aristotle and Pythagorus on the role of numbers to act as objectifiable observations.

Leaning on the thoughts of Bulgakov, mentioned above, we see direct parallels between Harris' argument and the concerns of the long-dead member of the Russian intelligentsia:
"The theory of progress argues, consequently, for a final identity between casual necessity and rational purposiveness, in which sense it is, as we have already said, a theodicy.  Its goal is thus the discovery of a higher reason that is simultaneously transcendent to and immanent in history, the discovery of the plan of history, its goal, movement towards this goal, and the forms of this movement." (Emphasis is mine)
Calling the 'theory of progress' a theodicy certainly rings true with the work being carried out at FiveThiryEight.  Silver may never calculate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but that doesn't stop him, or his enlisted cadre of number crunching 'Whiz Kids', from acting like the monks who did with their own observations on sports or the minimum wage.

To me, there is no coincidence that Silver's rise is deeply tied to the more recent emergence of 'money ball' and the quantified self.  Baseball became the new proving ground for the classic debate between rationality and metaphysics; managers and scouts preferring to 'go with their gut' or the 'eye test' over cold, objective, and quantifiable numbers.  For many Baseball fans the stadium was a sort of cathedral, so it was all the more shocking to some when believers in the objective heresy of 'Sabermetrics' began posting their expanded theses on clubhouse doors- even more difficult to accept that they might be right or have insight far beyond the accepted, traditional methods.  

However the numbers tossed around weren't definite truths- they were only probable outcomes.  They provided insight, yes, but they were far from the objective pillars of truth that some claimed in their presence.  Yet the idea that a constellation of statistics could reveal a deeper insight into reality proved irresistible, especially for cash-strapped ball clubs, and this most recent affirmation on the power of 'objective' reasoning, in part, allows Silver and his colleagues a 'privileged' position in the realm of journalistic inquiry.

(Case in point: when FiveThirtyEight launched, it did so with a piece on the odds related to March Madness.  The indebtedness Silver owes to sports vis a vis his rise in popularity can be clearly seen.)

The implications of this kerfuffle in Baseball (which is still being played out today) resonate even more now that FiveThiryEight purports to use its 'objective' insight to cover a variety of fields.  Harris is right to call this phenomena 'Actually Journalism', but the only thing we can actually be certain of is that this trend is far from recent and draws upon a much longer tradition.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hills, Lines, and Wargames

The other day Cameron Kunzelman tweeted about a post by Simon Ferrari titled "Hills and Lines: Final Fantasy XIII" and written in March of 2010.  It really is an excellent post that examines some of the design subtleties in FF XIII that buck the trend (at least, up to that point) for how many JRPG's operate.

Specifically, Ferrari outlines what he calls the 'hills and lines' of FF XIII's design choices.  'Hills' represent the way in which FF XIII slowly ramps up the intensity of battles in order to acclimate players to the complex subsystem of 'paradigms' used in combat.  Here's Ferrari's own words:
"A level will begin, say, with an encounter of two soldiers, then it will add a third soldier. Then the player will face, say, two slimes or a larger enemy such as a behemoth. After these smaller hills have been ascended, the final battle before a checkpoint will combine those enemy types: three soldiers and two slimes, or three slimes and a behemoth, etc. By slowly adding challenges and then combining different types of challenges, the game tests the tipping point where the player has to finally change her dominant strategy and develop a new cycle of paradigm shifts."
Combined with this progressive introduction to the combat system is the fact that FF XIII contains few 'punishments' for those who just barely survive battles or lose them entirely.  Win and everyone in your party is rewarded with full health.  Lose and the game merely restarts you at the moment just before your combat encounter.  This simple design decision means that players are less likely to become obsessed with 'save points' or fear the loss of progress and earned XP just because a battle turned sour.  It creates a smoother experience, as players are not overly punished for failing to succeed.

Ferrari drives home this point by way of an intriguing graphic.  The line to the left is FF XIII, while the line to the right is 2009's Demon Souls.

"Black lines represent progress without death. Red lines indicate time spent on a failed attempt at any segment of the game. Final Fantasy XIII proves that “hard” is not “the new good.” Gentle games have just as much to offer us as brutal games do. Difficulty, like everything else about a game, serves a distinct expressive purpose. Painstakingly clawing one’s way up a mountain isn’t “better” than joyously bounding over a hill. They’re just different."
Ferrari goes on to examine how this very structured path in FF XIII gives way to a more open concept once the player transitions from the 'introductory' world of Cocoon to the more 'free-form' world of Pulse.  Again, I'm only summarizing Ferrari's argument here and I definitely encourage you to read his post in full.

What struck me about Ferrari's argument is how he establishes the link between these hills and lines and how the structure of the two are integral to how a player experiences and learns a particular game's design system.  This got me thinking- what would the hills and lines of a typical board wargame look like?  What lessons can those of us who study board games take away from Ferrari's topographical metaphor?

Here is my own version of Ferrari's line graphic, but this time from a wargamer's perspective:

Wargames represent some of the most complex game systems produced for the textual medium.  (I'm thinking here of examples such as Advanced Squad Leader or The Campaign for North Africa)  Players have to mentally assimilate dozens of rules and even more exceptions to those rules in order to operate the design as the creator intended.  Upon setting up the board and pushing counters around for the first time, many players probably perceive they are making mistakes but that their 'course corrections' mean they will arrive at the end of the game having aligned, generally, their experience with the intent of the design.

My own anecdotal experience with wargames, not to mention those experiences recounted in forum posts at BoardGameGeek or ConsimWorld, suggests that many wargame sessions are more like the graph on the right rather than the one on the left.  You start off correctly then somehow mess up several rules which, surprisingly, still allow you to continue playing.  Along this twisted path you might actually get a few rules right, yet regardless of what you get right/get wrong you still arrive at an ending that may or may not align with the designers original intent.  In both cases you achieve a full experience, but without an omniscient guide to gently correct your play you will, more often than not, mess things up and create an arc that ultimately deviates from the 'correct' experience.

Instead of a smooth arc, or even a spoke-like arc depicted in Ferrari's graphic above, wargames tend to promote an amorphous blob.  There are implications for allowing the player this sort of freedom to create their own arc, and a brief look at what this means for a player's larger game experience illustrates this point.

The guided experience is both an advantage and disadvantage for video game design.  It is an advantage insofar that the player will always track along the experience arc intended by the design.  They may not like it, as is the case for many games, but they ultimately can do little to alter that arc without instituting their own 'house rules' that have zero enforceability within the coded structure of the game.  This consequence leads to the main disadvantage of video game design.  Many players target designers when airing their frustrations with a video game because when placed in a determinist system enforced by code it is easy to see designer error- rather than player error- when following through the experience arc.

Sample page of rules from GMT's 'Roads to Moscow'

Wargames in particular, and boardgames in general, appear to be the inverse of a video game; the player must manually assemble the rule-set, on the fly, when following through the experience arc.  Mistakes are made, some game breaking and some just simple errors of omission, yet the game will never directly tell you the experience you perceive is wrong.  You can fumble and trip but in the end you will eventually have a winner and a complete game experience.  Players are also far more likely to blame themselves, rather than the designer, when they discover their play is riddled with errors.  Foisting assembly of the experience arc, or blob as it were, to the player means that evaluation of play often centers on the player themself and not the designer.  This might mean that a player never really achieves the correct arc as determined by the designer, but is also means the player is more likely to evaluate their own play-experience rather than the systems underlying that play-experience.

In a larger sense this means that video games are exemplars of a positivist ideal.  Systems reinforce your play until you demonstrate correct behavior and are able to 'feel out' the larger experience arc as intended.  Wargames are more like exemplars of a sort of 'faux-positivism' in which the players themselves reinforce their play and must discover if they are demonstrating correct behavior or not.  Video games embrace teleology; wargames, while definitely possessing a sort of 'hidden' teleology, nonetheless leave ultimate assembly of such teleology to the player.  Video game systems embrace a Panglossian attitude towards play.  Wargame systems decidedly reinforce the original designer's Panglossian view, but it's no guarantee that the player will discover this 'best of all possible worlds' through their interpretation of the systems presented.

Now obviously a lot of this changes once a player masters a particular wargame's intricate rule-set.  Mastery allows a player to perceive the intended experience arc, refining the once blob-like interpretation into something more defined.  Having attained this perception the player can then, rightfully, critique the design instead of their interpretation of the design.  Here the video game experience and the wargame experience merge, but it is important to remember that the wargamer can reference the variety of 'blob experiences' encountered before to the actual, uncovered design arc.  Those who play video games have no such recourse, and can only make crude comparisons of systems between separate design arcs (analogous to, say, comparing the different cover mechanics amongst FPS games).

These are only some brief thoughts on the implications of design across two game mediums, but it is my belief that more serious consideration on what constitutes the tabletop vs. digital game experience needs to be discussed.  The idea of 'hills and lines' are just one method of breaching the gap.  We should be cognizant of other methods so that our larger understanding of games across all mediums achieves even deeper meaning.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Post-Modern Secrets

It's been a while since I've posted anything here at Peasant Muse, so why not break the silence by discussing the new kid on the social media block- Secret.

I discovered Secret via Dan Frommer's 'SplatF' and decided that if it was worth his time to mention it, it was worth my time to at least check it out. What's funny is that I tried to download the app myself by searching for 'Secret' on the App Store. That gave me returns like this:

Turns out you have to search for 'Secret - Speak Freely' in order to find the app, making efforts to download this new attempt at freeing yourself from the constraints of traditional social media an ironic proposition from the start- you have to know the secret of how to download Secret.

The premise of Secret is this: you reach into your soul and uncover a hidden truth or pithy pearl of wisdom and reveal it, anonymously, to your other friends who also use Secret. If enough of these other Secret friends (more like Secret Contacts, since that list is what the app asks to consult on your first use) 'love' your shared secret (expressed by tapping a heart icon), then that secret will begin to permeate the screens of your friend's friends (contact's contacts) who also use the app. There is also some sort of 'magic sauce' involved (algorithms stewed in 21 secret herbs and spices) for determining the exposure of any given secret revealed.

I want to share a few thoughts about Secret, and what I think it means in the larger trend that is social media evolution.

- Anonymity, that 'warm blanket' as Max would say, is nothing new for social media, but finding a way to make anonymity stable enough- or, more properly, finding a stable way to channel the latent forces behind anonymity- is something Secret is trying to do. Social media is fast moving out of what I will call its 'Classicist' era, best characterized by static pages broken up into discrete identity fields (my timeline, my photos, my messages). Twitter was an early force that signaled the waining influence of Classicist thinking, despite the borrowings from Classical elements of form and design, and its new conception of asynchronous following and correlating firehose-like delivery of content suggested a new way for social media to grow.

Instagram became the exemplar of what I will call the 'Modern' era of social media that Twitter presaged, a definable shift from the previous period made possible due to mass adoption of smartphone technology. It demonstrated that a narrow focus- in this case, photography- could generate a level of engagement on par with more traditional, 'Classical' social media platforms.

Snapchat, in my opinion, heralded another shift in social media. To keep the metaphor going, I would call the ephemerality Snapchat offers a clear indicator signaling the emergence of a 'Post-Modern' era. We know what a big network (Facebook) looks like and we know what a niche network (Instagram) looks like; the pressing question, at least to me, now lies in exploring the aesthetics of our social media use. Ephemerality is one such aesthetic turn. Anonymity, or at least the sort of channeled anonymity offered by Secret, is another.

(I should mention that my use of the 'classical/modern/post-modern' metaphor is intentional. There is no doubt, in my mind, that the crisis of identity encountered at both the emergence of the modern in Western society, roughly 18th-20th centuries, and the emergence of the post-modern, roughly the late to early 20th-21st centuries, bears a striking resemblance to the crisis of identity associated with social media use in the past decade. These labels might not be appropriate given the short and dynamic timescale involved, but their loose meaning here more than suits my rhetorical need.)

- That being said, the anonymity of the sort pedaled by Secret seems to me to be nothing more than a veil. When you see a secret that originated from someone in your contacts list, you can't help but engage in a modern day version of 'Guess Who?'. Remember the search term I had to use to find 'Secret' in the App Store? 'Secret- Speak Freely'? The directed aesthetics of the app suggest you can 'speak freely' through use of anonymity, yet if the only people who see your 'secrets' are your contacts there are questions of just how warm a blanket Secret's anonymity provides.

Photo via Stian Eikland

Again, it is an issue of the aesthetic design. You could post something truly secret, something no one could possibly know, but unless it is something that can generate 'love' (clicks) that 'secret' is going nowhere. I suppose part of the 'magic sauce' mentioned above helps pluck announced secrets from obscurity and promotes them to the mainstream, but then that brings up essential questions related to the sort of 'secrets' the 'magic sauce' favors.  In fancy terms, knowledge of how the 'magic sauce' works would constitute an evaluation on the epistemic hierarchy Secret uses to categorize a 'secret'. It would be an insight into the aesthetic judgement 'Secret' renders on secrets.

But I digress- my main point here is that there is, to a point, an imbedded game involved with Secret's anonymity. You want to post revealing things, or maybe just something fun, but you want to do so in a manner that clues your immediate readers in on your true identity. It is an identity puzzle you place before others. The fun of solving the puzzle- or trying to solve it- can then be expressed by clicking the 'love' heart. 

You could avoid this game and post something truly cryptic, something no knows about you. Yet, again, the aesthetic design of 'Secret' will render its judgment. If it doesn't generate reaction among your contacts via clicking of hearts, the shared secret goes nowhere and it is almost as if it were never uttered at all. I could definitely see some cathartic use for Secret, but something tells me the designers of the app don't want this to become a *heavy* atmosphere. They want it to be light and fun and the aesthetic expression of anonymity Secret allows reinforces this ideal.

An actual secret from one of my contacts.

Keep in mind what I said above- the real challenge Secret faces is making the anonymous experience engaging and, above all, stable.

- Last observation: since I'm talking about aesthetics, I think it is interesting to contrast Secret's anonymity experience with that provided by Snapchat's ephemerality. Snapchat gives you an image, a moment, and then you have fading, unreliable memories of that image. Secret gives you an ongoing unreliable fragment, a clue, and asks you to reconstruct the image of the original sender. With Snapchat, images lead to words as you try to describe the moment. With Secret, words lead to images as you try to uncover the blanket of anonymity.