Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 Retrospective

Photo by .:Camilo:.
As 2012 draws to a close, it's time for a Peasant Muse (and personal writing) retrospective.  Below you'll find my top posts of the year, with a brief explanation on what that post (or series of posts) meant to me.

Between Reality & Cyberspace - This post was a response to Mr. Teacup's assessment of PJ Rey's 'There is No Cyberspace'.  In it, I tried to elaborate the frictional points that existed between the web and reality in an augmented reality conception.  This was one of my first attempts to discuss concepts of asynchronicity and 'textual dualism', concepts that would feature prominently in my Future Internet article discussed below.

The Data Serf Series - One of the two trends to evolve in my thinking this year dealt with what I've termed 'data serfdom'.  In two posts, From Data Self to Data Serf and Creating A Modern Feudal Order, I discuss the larger implications of both the quest for verified data by owners of data platforms and the increasing vassalization these data platforms pursue in siloing their services for users.  This is a topic I plan on investigating further in the coming year.

Games and the Word - The first part of a longer, three-part series, Games and the Word begins with 'The Epistemic Reservoir' and a look at how board games went from dualist (in which the ludic reality depicted contained no direct linkages to real world situations) to de jure (as opposed to de facto) augmented constructions beginning in the 16th century with Christoph Weickmann's 'The Great King's Game'.  This is another piece that probes dualist versus augmented realities, but it also highlights the other trend in my thinking this year- how board games differ from their digital cousins.

Dark Definition - This is a post where I call for a more ethnographic approach in studying linking behavior in both online and offline settings.

Meanwhile, on the Boardwalk - This was a personal favorite of mine this year.  I felt that this third season of Boardwalk Empire was the best yet, and the episode I discuss here was definitely a highlight.  I've never done this sort of 'television critique' before, but it was very fun to write and I might try more of this next year.

Coding Mystique vs. Banality of Cardboard - Even though I just posted this, it has become one of my most popular essays on the site.  In light of the recent MoMa acquisition of video games for their exhibit space, I ask why board games were left out.  This is a continuation of my thinking regarding the differences between board games and video games, and, surprisingly, I'm finding the metaphysical aspect of board games to be their defining quality.

Yet beyond posts I've written here, 2012 was a great year in that I had two articles published in peer-reviewed journals.  A post that I originally debuted here, Going Beyond the Textual in History, made it's way to the Journal of Digital Humanities for their special 'Gaming' section in the second issue.  Also, my 'Theorizing the Web' presentation on textual dualist reality in Russian history was published in the special Future Internet journal issued dedicated to the conference.  Textual Dualism and Augmented Reality in the Russian Empire is probably the piece I'm most proud of, professionally, as it manages to blend my love of Russian history with current thinking on digital trends.  It also put my concepts of mobility and asynchronicity at the fore, and I'm excited to hear what people think as they read my article.

Last, but certainly not least, I also had an essay published on The New Inquiry website- No Accidents, Comrade.  Here I examine the Cold War board game Twilight Struggle and ask how this game contributes to the dominant 'chance' narratives embodied in popular understandings of that period.  I was extremely happy to work with such a talented group over at The New Inquiry (consider subscribing), and the resulting essay came out far better than I had ever hoped.  Next to my Future Internet article, this essay is dear to my heart.

Everyone have a great rest of 2012!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Coding Mystique vs. Banality of Cardboard

Photo via Bjorn Hermans
To paraphrase that self-deprecating comedian, Rodney Dangerfield: board games can't get no respect.

At least, that's what the recent MoMa announcement on acquiring video games for its collection would lead you believe.

On the 29th of November, the MoMa 'Inside/Out' blog announced that 14 video games, the likes of which included Pac-Man, Myst, Tetris, Portal, and EVE Online, were acquired as a seedbed for a "new category of artworks…that we hope will grow in the future."  As of March 2013, visitors to the Philip Johnson Galleries will be able to view, and in some cases actually play, the acquired games and, hopefully, marvel at their construction as exemplars of 'interaction design'.

Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, told the Wall Street Journal's 'Speakeasy' blog that, "…interaction design is a discipline that was born in the 1980s...and it has to do with our interaction and our experience of digital artifacts. So, it is the screens of ATM machines. It is the screens of computers. And it’s also video games."

Photo via ajmexico
And here we get to the heart of the matter. MoMa didn't acquire these video games as 'works of art', although the 'Inside/Out' blog and Ms. Antonelli clearly feel they could be huddled under this category.  They, instead, fall under the category of 'interaction design', standing alongside other MoMa stalwarts ranging from, "posters to chairs to cars to fonts."  It's not so much the form that is exciting to MoMa- it's the 'experience' these video games evoke, the way they pair technological constraints and programing code to create a ludic range of emotion through play.

Yet, while I applaud MoMa's decision to incorporate these important cultural artifacts into their museum space and exploration, I cannot help but ask: Where are the board games?  Looking over the criteria highlighted by both the 'Inside/Out' blog and Ms. Antonelli's comments, there would appear to be generous room for allowing video game's analog brethren a space in MoMa's hallowed halls.  Take this quote, again from Ms. Antonelli: 
"Video games are really full-formed examples of behavioral design, experiential design.  You need to have a sense of space and a knowledge of architecture, whether it's instinctive or really formed.  It's about aesthetics, of course.  It's about all of these different categories that come together in a design artifact."
Or, from another angle, look at the four 'central interaction design traits' highlighted at the 'Inside/Out' blog; Behavior, Aesthetics, Space, and Time.  Nothing about these four traits would appear to disqualify board games from being included.  In fact, one of my own essays over at The New Inquiry, 'No Accidents, Comrade', specifically addressed both Antonelli's comments and the four traits mentioned above with regards to the popular Cold War board game Twilight Struggle.  No, it's not that board games aren't capable of meeting the rigorous standards of MoMa exhibits- they clearly can- but, rather, the conspicuous absence of board games hints towards a larger issue at stake.

From my perspective, what we have here is a clear antagonism between the coding mystique and the banality of cardboard.

Photo via Amys Old School
What do I mean by 'the coding mystique'?  It's simple- coding is one specialized skill that few of us can claim to have mastered, yet our lives are dependent on the operation of code increasingly found in everyday objects.  It's invisible, moving behind the scenes of our favorite apps or devices that bring us news, or connections, or opportunities to expand our horizons, yet few of us actually understand how code works or how deeply it has already imbedded itself into our daily lives.  Code radiates power (when properly compiled) that is awesome in both senses of the word.  We are literally struck with wonderment in the presence of superb code (like iOS on the iPad), but also a sense of dread at the implications code projects (like the algorithms powering Facebook, or the use of cookies to track your online behavior for marketers).

Video games are another example of the 'coding mystique'.  In completed form, players never see the presence of code in video games, they only 'experience' the effects generated by that code.  I still remember the first time I played 'Grand Theft Auto 3'- it was an incredible open-world experience few games, up to that point, could achieve.  However, I never saw a single line of code while playing.  I never engaged in 'modding' or other activities that might have exposed the underbelly of the game's internal workings embedded in code.  The 'black box' encapsulating the code of GTA 3 never once surfaced during play and, thus, the 'coding mystique' held total control of my gaming experience without ever once revealing its tendril-like grip on my brain and my body.

Compare this to the banality of cardboard.

Manual games have no 'black boxing', the code underlying their operation located in plain sight with regards to the printed rules.  Anyone who can read can reasonably play a board game.  Beyond this, anyone who can read and write can *modify* a board game with relative ease.  Without obfuscation, there simply cannot be any 'mystique' associated with board games.  Hence, the banality of cardboard.

Despite this banality, board games still possess all the qualities listed above by Ms. Antonelli and the 'Inside/Out' blog.  Board games are, at their core, experiential designs.  They create a ludic space, just like video games, based on a designed architecture that plays with both space and time through the use of mechanics and aesthetics.  One difference board games possess is that the imagery created is wholly dependent on the player.  They create the narrative through play (especially in solitaire games), even if this narrative is guided through design.  Video games, in contrast, force narrative interpretation upon the player.  Sequencing of displayed imagery, while tied to player interaction via controller, is nonetheless fait accompli.  The code already contains every potentiality, every possible outcome that the player could force.  You can't 'cheat', unless the code says you can, meaning that there is no way to metaphysically break the boundaries of the video game universe.  And even if the game does allow cheats, these are still bound to the rules circumscribed by code's operation.

Board games, despite their banality, can actually survive cheating (either on purpose, or by mistake) undertaken by the player.  The entire narrative assemblage process escapes pre-deterministic outcomes because the player creates the meaning- a process limited only by imagination and not the boundaries of code.  Cardboard appears banal because we give the cardboard meaning through play.  Video games have mystique because the code gives meaning to us through play.

There are other issues too, like the nature of the museum space.  Here again is Ms. Antonelli:
"We’re not going to have the arcade cabinets. We are going to acquire the hardware, because it’s important to have it, but at least at first, we’re not going to show it. We’re going to have screens that are as close as possible in size to the original screens, and of course, we’re going to have the controllers. The controllers are very important, but my dream, and I don’t know yet if I’ll be able to do it, is to have controllers that are all made with the same plastic in the same color. Of course, they have whatever joysticks or buttons they need to have. It’s important to have those. But I would like to kind of make everything that has to do with the hardware as abstract as possible, so that people can concentrate on the interaction. I want to create that distance, so that people can really understand what we mean by these games being masterpieces of interaction design."
While MoMa is keen on the act of preservation, the goal being to fully document not just the code and materials of video games but also the process involved in making the code, Antonelli's quote above details the type of exhibit MoMa wants to create.  Hardware is absent.  Controllers, if able, would be all alike, indistinguishable from one another so as not to interfere with concentration on 'interaction'.  In short, the player would be presented only with the 'experience' as enabled by the code.

Photo via cype_applejuice
Board games could never submit to such a configuration in an exhibit.  MoMa can easily package and present video games to fit a particular point of view.  Board games, however, are not so easily molded.  If the goal is to have the viewer focus on the 'interaction' and achieve 'experience', then the only way to do this with a board game is to actually play it.  One has to shuffle the cards, or distribute the tokens and chits, to get a sense of the 'experience'.  Video games can be put on 'demo' mode, and even a 'static' like presentation will still contain vibrant, moving imagery.  Not so with board games.   As a display, they would appear inert and without life.  As an exhibit designed to foster interaction and experience, board games would require hands-on interaction with other humans, other players, for the 'experience' and 'interaction' to take hold.  The 'distance' that Ms. Antonelli wants to foster with the video game exhibit would become compromised in a board game setting, as interaction with the game and other opponents provides player agency in determining meaning that, by necessity, obviates the 'space' needed for a traditional museum exhibit.

While discussing this topic on Twitter, Felan Parker (@Felantron) made another good point worth mentioning; while (some) video games pursue "art status or alignment with established art forms," board games have largely eschewed this goal.  There are some notable exceptions, Brenda Romero's 'Train' being a particularly good example.  And it should also be noted that MoMa isn't classifying their video games as 'art', but rather as objects of superb design.  Still, the fact that video games aspire to art status is wholly indicative of the 'coding mystique' they possess.  Cardboard, a product of more humble intent, cloaks itself in a banality that betrays its larger purpose and meaning.

Board games might get no respect, but they certainly should.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Russian History at Future Internet

Russian Ruble from 1899 - via Fotopedia
It's been a while since I've updated the 'ole blog, but today I received some news that I thought was worth sharing.  A paper I wrote, based on my Theorizing the Web 2012 conference presentation, has finally been published over at the journal Future Internet.

Titled 'Textual Dualism and Augmented Reality in the Russian Empire', my essay suggests that if we are to better understand how 'digital dualism' works (discussed here by Nathan Jurgenson) in our present day then we need to look to the past and chart how 'textual dualism' clashed with, then, 'augmented' oral claims to reality.

So if you're down to read a little 19th/20th century Russian history, check out the link above and download my paper.  It's open access, and if you have any comments please feel free to let me know either here, at Peasant Muse, or on my Twitter feed, handle = @jsantley.