Monday, October 31, 2011

Exploring the Small Demons of Books

When discussing the differences between high mobility/low mobility knowledge constructs, I often invoke the book as an exemplar of the latter given its general property of being unable to undergo modification through transmission.  You and I may have different copies of the same book, but the words, characters, jokes and cultural references (to only name a few) remain the same even if we loan the book to a friend or find a stranger on the subway reading a copy of foreign origin.  This singular property, its immutable character, makes the book a superb transmitter of stable knowledge.
And while I am far from an authoritative source of knowledge on the history of books, a la Adrian Johns, the low mobility potential of the book (as I have defined it) continually proves to be a fascinating intellectual investigation.  That's probably why I found the following tweet from James Bridle, author of the blog and general commentator on the intersection of technology and literature (in addition to 'book futurism' as he states on his blog), to be very interesting with regards to my evolving thoughts on the mobility potential knowledge in books possess.

Tweeting from the 'Books in Browsers' 2011 conference, Bridle added the following thought tweet a day after the above came into came into existence:

Both of these thoughts explain, in their own way, what I have come to see as the interaction of high and low mobility found in knowledge constructs.  In a real sense, the beginning portion of Bridle's first tweet is entirely correct; books do not need a network.  But when brought under the lens of mobility potential, books do need a human network in order to not only transmit their stable knowledge but also facilitate the creation of high mobility knowledge constructs- reader's thoughts, interpretations and influences- that produce a full range of what we might call 'culture', expressed in a variety of forms.  In this interpretation, the second half of Bridle's initial tweet fully affirms the role low mobility books play in the creation of a diversified field of culture, made up of both high and low mobility knowledge potentials- other books, essays, rumors, stories, tweets, blogs, art, music, etc…

Bridle's second tweet affirms this interpretation.  In a good example of circular reasoning, books are products of culture which, when transmitted- networked- produce additional iterations of culture which have the potential to produce other books, and so on.  Whereas in the past, when interaction between knowledge constructs of high and low mobility often produced disruptive asynchronous effects (think the interaction between written documents and oral rumors disputing their contents), thanks to the facilitation of digital networks new forms of knowledge interaction, which I label 'transition points', are engendering greater interaction with knowledge constructs of both high/low mobility with decreasing degrees of disruptive asynchronicity.  In a previous post, I demonstrated how Wikipedia was one such 'transition point' involving both high and low knowledge constructs in the process of certifying encyclopedic knowledge.  I have recently discovered a website that I feel is another 'transition point', this time for analyzing books; Small Demons.

Here is a video explaining, in part, what Small Demons is trying to do:

I recently received a beta invite to use the service (you can register for an invite from the Small Demons main page) and while it is still very rudimentary in many respects, there is a lot of potential for the service as it continues development.  

The reason I qualify Small Demons as a 'transition point' is the way it essentially helps users pick apart the details, perhaps uncovering the influences an author selected when creating their low mobility literary work, and then transfer those users reactions to these details in a high mobility manner.  Engaging in a limited 'reverse-engineering' of 'cultural' sources (it cannot reveal the mystique of writing, only the sum total of references in the work), Small Demons gives glimpses, shadows perhaps (thus the Demons reference?), of the high mobility knowledge constructs- i.e. thoughts, influences, culture- that entered the minds of writers as they produced works dissected by the website.  People can comment via the 'like' function on various ephemeral bits uncovered- a map location, or weapon, or music album- and create their own interpretation of the work, in a very low mobility way (the likes don't change via transmission), that nonetheless acknowledges the extreme high mobility thought process that spurred the 'like' expression people find attachment to in a book.  The asynchronous effect between the interaction of low mobility books and references and high mobility thought-reactions is reduced to the extreme in Small Demons, if only because people can state what attracted them to the work, revealing what part of the creative mystique drew them into the words, in a way that is stable and yet capable of creating high mobility spin-offs.  This is accomplished through debates on the selected book or influences facilitated by the act of reading (see Bridle's first tweet above), further discussions brought about via the 'share' button linking to Twitter or Facebook, or in the soon to be implemented 'curation' option whereby particularly knowledgable people who add details to the site can moderate discussions or review incoming contributions.

Because the website is stability based- there is little to no modification of the works presented- Small Demons embraces the low mobility defined by the books it covers, yet the capacity for high mobility discussion and the examination of the sources used in literary works allows the site to become a 'transition point'.  Increasingly, digital portals and structures are being developed that fuse high & low mobility knowledge constructs in way that augment the presence of both without producing the often disruptive asynchronous effects observed in previous analog or textual conceptions.  Small Demons is more than just a book lovers 'nerd-out' site- it is emblematic of a new type of knowledge production 'augmented reality', reshaping the way we both produce and consume cultural content.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Insights from Valve on High/Low Mobility Potentials

Today, while drinking my coffee, I came across this tweet from Tracy L.M. Kennedy (@netwoman) pointing to a discussion by Valve co-founder Gabe Newell at the recent WITA TechNW conference (Washington Technology Industry Association) that occurred in Seattle.  During the panel discussion, Newell discussed some interesting economic experiments Valve (who runs the very popular on-line game distribution service, Steam) engaged in regarding the use of sales, varied pricing models and 'free-to-play' games in order to understand these effects on their gross sales and profit margins.

While the economic experiments were very insightful, what really caught my attention was how Newell discussed the impact of piracy on Valve's thinking regarding pricing/service.
Newell: One thing that we have learned is that piracy is not a pricing issue. It’s a service issue. The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting antipiracy technology to work. It’s by giving those people a service that’s better than what they’re receiving from the pirates. For example, Russia. You say, oh, we’re going to enter Russia, people say, you’re doomed, they’ll pirate everything in Russia. Russia now outside of Germany is our largest continental European market. 
Ed Fries: That’s incredible. That’s in dollars? 
Newell: That’s in dollars, yes. Whenever I talk about how much money we make it’s always dollar-denominated. All of our products are sold in local currency. But the point was, the people who are telling you that Russians pirate everything are the people who wait six months to localize their product into Russia. … So that, as far as we’re concerned, is asked and answered. It doesn’t take much in terms of providing a better service to make pirates a non-issue.
At the end of the summary, Ed Fries provides the following summation of the point made above:
Fries: That’s some incredible data. … You talk about doing experiments. This is probably the biggest change that’s affected the gaming business over the last few years. It’s not just that we have digital distribution to our customers. It’s that we have this incredible two-way connection that we’ve never had before with our customers. 
We’ve gone from a situation where we dream up a game, we spend three years making it, we put it in a box, we put it out in stores, we hope it sells, to a situation that’s incredibly more fluid and dynamic, where we’re constantly modifying the game with the participation of the customers themselves.” (Emphasis mine)
The discussion is fascinating not simply for the insight it provides into the experimentation occurring in Valve, but also in how the statements above appear (at least to me) to be another validation on the interaction between high and low mobility potentials found in informational constructs- in this case, the constructs being games distributed through digital means.  Pirated copies of digital games would appear to be exemplars of high mobility.  They often emerge in markets where the audience cannot afford, or choose not to purchase, a game that is perceived as highly desirable yet out of sync with the needs of the target audience, either through pricing or format.  The act of piracy often modifies the original piece in order to increase its rate of transmission.  In this view, I am borrowing from the process examined by Adrian Johns in his book Piracy- specifically the chapter dealing with Dublin printers 'pirating' works originally published in London.  Publishers in London often produced large folio versions of books that were neither affordable nor easily transported/stored, two key disadvantages that kept the works from reaching a larger mass-audience.  Dublin publishers, instead, took the same works and printed them in much smaller versions spread over a few volumes.  The Dublin works cost less, could be transported easily and began to eat into the profits of London booksellers.

Yet, looking deeper into the process driving sales of both books and digital games, mentioned above, it becomes obvious that pirated copies, while increasing transmission, do little to foster increased or sustained modification- a key component to my understanding of how high mobility potentials work.  With books, as Johns noted, increased sales were definitely helped by reduction in cost and size, but the real key to growth was producing new volumes altogether.  Compilations filled with 'new' or additional material put together by publishers, sometimes of dubious quality, gave people reason to buy new copies of already owned works.  The original modification, making books smaller and cheaper, increased sales but only continued modifications- provided via new editions, additional material- sustained sales.  A similar phenomena can now be seen in the production and sale of digital games.  Thanks to the emergence of technologies enhancing the speed of communication and distribution (Steam being the noted example), piracy of digital games is of little concern (at least for Valve) as the 'fluid and dynamic...participation of the customers themselves' drives increased modifications of the games sold.  In effect, pirated copies of games become low mobility constructs through their inability to be modified, while official versions become high mobility constructs through their constant modification driven through customer participation and interaction.  Give users control over the modifications or an increased voice in the means of modifications and you largely solve the problem of piracy presented by competing low mobility constructs.

Now the pirates could respond by bringing original modifications into their pirated versions- neither Newell nor Fries say anything of this potential phenomena- yet we might assume this is not the case as users have a dedicated communications channel with the original content creators allowing them to funnel their desires for modifications directly to the source.  It would be interesting to see how pirates operate in other franchises where this communications channel is either denied or cut-off (a game reaching it's 'end of life' so to speak), that is, would pirates become enablers of high mobility potential in products whose lifespan renders them, essentially, ossified low mobility products?  There is also the question of how the act of piracy impacts the transition of an informational construct from high to low mobility and vice versa.  As this brief examination proves, there is clearly a great deal more to explore in the interaction between high and low mobility potentials found in informational constructs.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Course Design Process: History Through Games

As part of the ongoing process that is assembling my 'Graduate Portfolio', I've decided to design a course that addresses one of my growing interests- the intersection of historical inquiry and gaming.  About a year ago, I wrote a draft essay analyzing the Cold War themed board game Twilight Struggle as a 'complex cultural artifact' using, primarily, the methodology behind material culture analysis in order to dissect the deeper narrative generative process one encounters through play.  The essay was a labor of love, not provoked by assignment, and I found the process of looking deeper into the issues related to the play-design mechanics inherent in the game to be a satisfying intellectual exercise.  What I realized through the writing of my draft was that Twilight Struggle could be read, in part, as a historical artifact- albeit one with caveats and peculiarities that needed to be addressed if one desired to utilize analysis of such an artifact to the fullest.

Now many might think it silly that I would come to such an obvious conclusion.  However, in my defense, I was not aware of the diversity of thinking, especially among academic circles, that surrounded analysis of games against a larger historical-cultural backdrop.  I hadn't read a single issue of Simulation and Gaming, nor did I know about excellent blogs like PaxSims or Play the Past (although, to be fair, Play the Past did not yet exist when I wrote my essay).  Needless to say, through my writing on a subject thought to be quite novel, I reinvented the wheel several times over in a rough manner that ill suited the smoothness in inquiry pursued by others in the field.  Being a developing Humanities scholar I am not adverse to such endeavors, but it was, in equal measure, both refreshing and discouraging to see the trail already blazed.

Yet I took comfort in the fact that most scholarship or academic writing focused on video games, leaving the table-top variety largely unexamined.  This makes sense, given the fact that video games are much more rich and diverse objects of study.  However, this should not be taken as a sign that board games possess any less diversity as an object worthy of serious analysis or study- quite the opposite.  As Ana Salter recognized in her four part ProfHacker series on 'Using Games in the Classroom' (selection from part III):
Board and card games can be a great first project, particularly for students.  Digital games are flashy, but board and card games offer the advantages for structured play with a lower barrier to entry.  They can also be good practice for learning the mechanics and structure of games without getting bogged down in programming and logic.  We've all played some version of classroom jeopardy before, and it remains an example of taking game-like mechanics and applying then to any content- but when content guides the way, board games can transcend these roots.
The last line of Salter's quote above is the key to why I want to analyze history through games.  So now I have a topic and suitable motivation- but how, exactly, do I design a course that accomplishes this task?

To answer this question I've drawn on two sources, the first from Mark Sample's two-part discussion about Course Design on ProfHacker (Part I and Part II) and the second from Chad Black's Teaching Philosophy post on his blog Parezco Y Digo.  Sample states that, in course design, we should embrace a 'backwards-design' perspective (a process he borrows from the Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe book 'Understanding by Design') that utilizes a three-step process: Identify desired results, determine acceptable evidence and plan learning experiences.  In this way, course design promotes uncoverage, as opposed to simply coverage, in order to plumb both the depth & breadth of the material we as instructors want our students to explore.  Chad Black's 'Teaching Philosophy' takes the ideas promoted by Sample and provides the linkage to my subject matter- History.  Here is a quote from Black's post on linking desired skill development (reading comprehension, primary/secondary source evaluation, identify/build casual explanations for events/structures/movements and communicate explanations in written form) to his course design goals:
I structured my courses to provide practical experience in each of these areas, mixing primary and secondary source material on the various topics under consideration and emphasizing in lecture and discussion the connection between explanatory narratives of the past with evidence.  I increasingly sought to include a wide variety of media as part of the source-based building blocks of my courses (texts, film, photographs, artifacts, etc.)  My hope for each of my courses has been that students will leave with a keen sense of the problematic relationship between the present and the past and of the problematic nature of the relationship between information and knowledge.
Black goes on to state that he looks to bring the process of collateral learning to his students, fostering the development of skills and attitudes through exposure to not just various cultures but also technical skills that will produce information literacy.  Students in Black's class are prompted to create their own content on their own sites in an attempt to 'demystify the web a bit for a generation that has grown up with the internet as a given in their lives and cultivate a capacity for DIY that is collateral to the specific content of (Blacks) courses…"

Under these guidelines, I've begun to establish the following parameters for my 'History through Gaming' course:

What results do I wish to achieve?  I want students to be able to critically evaluate a board game, or any game derivative, looking at not only its outward theme and graphics/material pieces but also the mechanics and designer motivations/inspirations that went into the overall play-mechanic design.  They should be able to situate the game amongst the larger historical narrative, demonstrating knowledge of what the game excels at modeling and what it fails to accurately portray.  In a real sense, I want students to be able to use games as one of many 'documents' in evaluating what Black identified as the 'problematic relationship between the present and the past' in addition to the 'relationship between information and knowledge'.  

What do I consider acceptable evidence?  To begin, students will need to analyze the game itself and then branch out to the designer behind the game, as well as examine the source materials used in its construction.  Students should also cross-check their initial analysis of game materials and design construction using other critically evaluated primary or secondary sources of the period or theme depicted in the game.

What are the learning experiences I wish to utilize?  Beyond reading and evaluating source material (the bread and butter of historical practice), I want students to actually engage with the games we study through the act of play.  Many modern day board games strive to create a narrative through play and I want students to become observers of this process, yet go a step further, analyzing the structure and limitations of this narrative generative experience.  Because many games rely upon the experiences, both past and present, a player brings to the table, I want to use a coordinated approach of tweets to create a real-time experience backchannel, allowing others to view and comment, in addition to having students produce longer explanatory essays, once reserved for the instructors eyes alone, on blogs of their own creation that will be shared with the entire class.  I also want students to produce 'modifications' of the games we study, based on research they have conducted throughout the course, linking the play-design mechanics they propose on reasoned approaches to historical phenomena.

With these guidelines, the next step in designing the course is to determine a theme upon which to base the semester.  Because I am acutely aware that Russian historians are increasingly asked to teach courses outside the constraints of that particular geographic boundary, I decided that it might be best to pick a topic and era both suited to the wealth of available games and interests of mid-level undergraduates, the target audience of this course- American History.  Immediately, Twilight Struggle comes to mind- but this is a rather complex game that might serve better as the keystone, given its survey of Cold War history.  There is also the recently released Hero of Weehawken, which covers the Aaron Burr conspiracy of the early 19th century.  And, of course, there is a plethora of World War II games that cover every conceivable aspect of the American involvement in that conflict.  One constraint of the course is that I don't want to pick too many games to analyze, as learning how to play these games and then asking students to have at least one go at a complete session- in addition to reading relevant documents/analyses of the period in question- would prove too much to cover in one semester/trimester/quarter.  I also want to avoid focusing too much on 'war-games', which is why I'm considering games that tackle social issues like 'The Battle for Seattle'. 

Then there is the larger question of how to address the concept of approaching a board game (and games in general) as applicable historical artifacts worthy of study.  Here the task is much simpler, due mainly to the recent surge of academic interest by those in diverse fields of study.  A few exemplars immediately surface: Brenda Braithwaite's incredible GDC presentation on her approach to designing Train, a documentary 'People are Knowledge' created by editors of Wikipedia seeking to have oral citations included in the encyclopedia based (in part) on the evolving rules of traditional games, and a recently released collection of essays (edited by Gred Costikyan and Drew Davidson) found in Tabletop: Analog Game Design, just to name a few.  Then, of course, there are the excellent blog posts on both PaxSims and Play the Past, not to mention the deeper levels of analysis found in the works of past luminary Johan Huizinga and contemporary luminaries Alexander Galloway & Ian Bogost.  What I once thought was a desert turned out to be an ocean of thought based solely around games of all forms.  

Herein lies the promise and peril of studying games- how do I decide which texts best suit the guidelines I elaborated above?  Should I select the games I wish to study first or should I pick texts that suit my quest of elaborating the game as a historical artifact?  This is the next hurdle I face in my course design- not to mention the selection of appropriate texts suited to historical analyses of the games I select.  However, thanks to my articulation of the three questions above, I have a much better idea of what I want to pursue in fulfilling my goals for the course.  I would love to hear from others in the comments section, or on twitter (@jsantley) on either game ideas, course approaches, or texts to use.