Saturday, December 24, 2011

Torill in translation

I have to admit, I always think I sound much, much better in other languages. The talk at the Tokyo DiGRA 2007 conference a particular example of that. The professional translator had put a lot of effort into the translation, including interviewing me to find out what I wanted to say, and I am sure her version of my talk was a lot more precise than the actual talk! Not to mention when Luca explains what I am saying to his students, Italian is a perfect language for lectures and intellectual discussions.

Now I also look better, as Thiago Falcão has translated one of my articles to Portuguese! The article I wrote for the Journal of gaming and virtual worlds last year was originally twice as long, and sprawling all over the place, topic-wise. So when Thiago saw what I had culled, he wanted an article from it for Fronteiras, an online journal based in Brasil.

I rewrote, and created an article I (in the English version) was actually quite happy with, and so were the Fronteiras editors. Where the Intellect article discusses hedonism and games as an approach to game research and criticism, the Fronteiras article discusses utilitarian hedonism in the view of gamer ethics and morals. If you happen to read both English and Portuguese, you may be able to actually find a connection there - hopefully of the good kind.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nostalgia, technology and Christmas

It's almost Christmas, and time for nostalgia. Everywhere people try to find or create the most authentic Christmas spirit; scents, lights, colours and decorations as "real" and "original" as possible. Here in the little Danish apartment we have been experimenting with the Danish version of "real", and we think we will make it. Testing the traditional Christmas duck some weeks ago, our neighbours commented it smelled like Christmas. That, to me, was success, even if our guest at the time was not happy about the sauce. It was not like his grandmother makes it...

And so, nostalgia creeps into everything, and reading Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, the chapter on nostalgia, put it firmly on the map. After all, I am now old enough that my memories of the past and the nostalgia surrounding it no longer match.

In Turkle's book youths long for a past when they would write and receive letters, and hold long phone conversations. They romanticise the letters, the sense of personal connection that the hand-written note held. What they know very little about is the treshold for writing and sending a letter. The physical process combined with the cost made letters rare even back then.

I used to be a prolific writer, and had pen-friends around the planet - there were international pen-pal agencies, where youths would be sent a number of addresses to write to. If you did not get a response, you could get a new pen-friend: not getting responses was part of the expectation. Getting a response was rare, the rule was nothing would come out of it. Being an active writer I was an anamoly among my peers, several of my friends who signed up and received addresses and letters never followed through - just like the people we wrote to. Receiving a letter means you have to write a letter: put effort and energy into it. The other person doesn't smoothly integrate into your regular communication habits. Yes, receiving a hand-written letter is an event, and sending it is an act of personalised effort, but this effort wasn't such a common way of staying connected as the nostalgia of youth indicates.

The other aspect of nostalgia in Turkle's book is her own nostalgia for her past, the letters between mother and daughter, with a comparison to what she experiences as depersonalised Skype or IM communication. She describes how mothers dress up and put on make-up before skyping their daughters, staging the communication, and how she misses that deep connection she used to have with her mother, expressed in snail-mail.

Again, I suspect this is a case of wishing for something other than a communication method. I miss my mother, but I do not miss the effort of communicating with her when I moved away to study at the University of Bergen. She rarely wrote letters, and if I wrote her, she'd comment on it in the next phone-call, rather than respond in writing. The calls were few and far-between, and even if I do feel a certain nostalgia about the beautiful phone center in the middle of Bergen, I do not miss the disconnected and guilt-ridden conversations between me and my parents: my father always very to-the-point, giving a short list of events since the last call and asking a few questions, mainly focused on what I wanted with the call, my mother not much more forthcoming.

To me, the skype and chat sessions with my own daughter are both a lot warmer and a lot more naturally integrated in my everyday life. Since we both work at universities where we spend a lot of our time on computers, we are never more than a few keystrokes apart. We lurk in the background of each others' everyday life in a way my parents and older sisters never did. My younger sister, however, shares much of the same qualities of presence in our communication: No painful, duty-ridden phone-calls, but easy messages for private matters and mutual comments on what parts of the daily life we choose to share online.

As for the Skype sessions with my children, they are a delight. It normally happens when both they and we have time, or we want to show each other something. We carry the wireless lap-tops through the rooms, showing each others everything from where the cat sleeps to the new curtains or where our partners work. We just chat and hang out for hours, keeping the connection open while we do other things; we discuss cooking and share experiences, or worry about research issues or health. I would never exchange those easy, personal and close sessions for a letter, no matter how well written. I want to hear and see them laugh, hear the partners banter from the side, have my husband move in and take over when he is too eager, running off with the whole machine to see or show something else. I suspect that when the time comes, I will be nostalgic about these sessions, talking about how much closer we were, how much love we shared through the often delayed images with the horrible feedback from built-in speakers and microphones. It will never be better than the real thing, being with them, face to face, but it's lightyears better than a scheduled half-hour on the phone.

Of course, my experiences and my lack of nostalgia about analogue communication isn't important, it's the young people's sense of being disconnected through technology that is important. But in these days of Christmas, it is however quite amusing to see how extensively nostalgia distorts the past.

One of the most popular pre-Christmas shows on Norwegian television is Jul i Skomakergata - "Christmas on Cobbler Road." It was sent for the first time in 1979, which was the middle of my last year in high-school. Even then it was nostalgic: An old-fashioned cobbler, of which there were very few left, in a peaceful stret where it always snowed and where colourful characters would drop by to have a chat with the cobbler over a cup of coffee or gløgg. Non-alcoholic, of course, since this was Norwegian children's television. Jens Petrus, the main character, would banter with Tøflus, the doll made from a slipper, talking about the importance of sharing with those less fortunate, showing little film clips several of which were about human rights, and in general talk about the important topics for christmas: love and good will towards all men. It's no wonder it's popular, because it is warm, friendly, generous, and the host was one of Norway's best loved actors. It was, however, even in 1979 considered extremely romantic and nostalgic, depicting a time lost forever with values we could only try to aspire to.

Imagine my amazement when I heard a radio-debate about this show in 2011, where adults claimed, straightfaced, that it had been created in a time when things moved slower, when we were less materialistic, when love of our neighbours was more important than it is today. What has happened? Are all who remember the late seventies and eighties braindead? (Actually, considering the popularity of recreational drugs, disco and shoulderpads that's likely.) In Norway, this was the time when people finally had enough money to start buying brand-name clothing. Cobblers were out of fashion, because shoes were made to be used and thrown out, repairing and hand-making was for arts and crafts freaks and really old-fashioned poor people, and the banking crisis due to over-consumption was right around the corner. It was the peak of the waste culture, when "green" was only a colour, and Norway loved America due to the wealth and surplus of the American life-style. And still people manage to claim it was a less materialistic time? If somebody in -79 had tried to give away a goat in Africa for Christmas, they would have been considered cheap and outside of the all-important exchange of material goods, cut off from the chain of reciprocity for ever.

For the record, I still think Jul i Skomakergata is good children's television, and I think NRK should definitely air it once in a while, to delight new viewers and, particularly, their nostalgic parents. It's about the ideal of Christmas. Also, I think young people should write each other and their parents paper letters, take time to call or go visit friends, and hang out face to face.

What I don't want is for people to feel they have missed out because they are alive now, and not then. I think Sherry Turkle should write her daughter and send her physical letters, for her daughter to find and read in 30 years, but remember that even back then, given the technology, not all mothers and daughters would have stayed in touch through Skype or IM. And it's almost easier to get things repaired or recycled today than it was 30 years ago. Go green, and use your local cobbler!

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Remember the milk...

Like so many others in these electronic days of endless potential, I have scheduling issues. And like so many others, I have learned how to use wonderful digital tools such as google calendar or all the other electronic calendars available - synchronised over many different platforms. It seems like technology actually can make life easier, as it helps me keep track of the many complex committments of a modern life.

My husband has access to the google calendar. I then match my ITU calendar (which does not synch) to the google calendar when I make changes that influences my work-hours, since my colleagues and the administration use the ITU calendar to plan our mutual schedules. Occasionally, I even update my paper calendars (two, one diary, one overview), when I plan the term and I need some kind of visual idea of the term. Most of the time having google calendar in my pocket - i.e. on the phone - has simplified life immensely, even if it looks like I am double italian accounting - as they would say hereabouts.

It still doesn't meet my scheduling needs. A lot of my time restraints are ongoing, and flexible to a certain point. When I am working on an article, I need perhaps 40 hours of hard work, but I don't have to do those 40 hours from 8.00 - 16.00 on any particular dates, as long as it's done by its deadline. I often juggle several different deadlines, some long, some short, and prepare a series of lectures while writing one or two articles while being in several committees, a board or two, and have several firmly scheduled meetings. We all know what that's like, right?

What this means is that I need to remember the deadlines a long time in advance, just noting the date isn't enough. I also need to prioritize, and I need to sort according to type of task. While some calendars do parts of this - google, for instance - it doesn't tell me how much time I have already scheduled for a certain period, and it doesn't give me an overview of types of tasks. Also, the tasks end up like long, long bars at the top of the calendar, and given the many tasks I have running simultaneously, they end up hiding the calendar itself! I have been playing around with some other views on the google calendar, but while the calendar with its connection to the maps and the incredible locator function that comes with it is great (how many times have I been saved in Copenhagen by that combination?), the truth is - it's a great calendar but a bad to-do list.

That's where "remember the milk" comes in. It is a to-do site/software/app with the combination of many platforms increasingly important today. It integrates with Siri - the new apple wonder-app which is taking over the lives of apple users, and also with gmail through aggregating a to-do list next to the emails.

What "remember the milk" does not do is create a nice visual representation of my time restraints and affordances. It's still a list, even if I can sort these lists in a lot of different manners. Now I have spent the last 20 minutes trying to google a lovely diary/calendar design I saw not too long ago: Two circles - day and night - represented each 24 hours - the visual simplicity and speedy perception of a traditional clock face on paper.  It made me long for a very different solution, and interestingly, the technology is here - almost.

I have recently bought a livescribe pen and notebook, and play around with this almost magical technology. It combines my hand-written notes with my digital storage, adds sound and allows for the fluidity of recall based on my notes for meta-data. Now, combine my desire for a more comprehensive and fluid scheduling system with the combination of hand-written notes and cryptic data, and yes, I want a livescribe notebook calendar/diary with a circular representation of time, that can be synchronised across platforms as easily as I can make a note in the book.

The wonderful thing about new technology is that this fantastic fiction not really that far away. All that's needed is for a brilliant designer to hook up with an innovative programmer, and then somebody who can market it. I guess I'll dream on though.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

An endless loop of repetition

Another research meta study was published today, about games and violence. This time it was the Swedish media council that published the study of all articles written on video games and violence 2000 - 2011. They conclusion was, as usual: No, there is no proof of a causal connection between games and violence.

A lot of the research is quite flawed, as it uses dubious methodologies and measures violence by standards that are unconnected to the context. Also, most of them ignore other possible connections. Those who do look at anything except games as causes of violence, find that among the strongest causal connections to violence are family background and psychic health.

There is a slight connection between games and violence in the sense that people with a previous interest in violence tend to pick violent games. The causality is however the opposite of the traditional view: an interest in violence leads to violent games, not the other way around.

It is quite amazing that 10 years of research deliberately aimed at proving that games create violence so far has not been able to create any good, solid evidence. Perhaps it's time to start trusting the research and settle for the fact that games do not create insane killers. Once we have that settled, let's get down to creating good, interesting, engaging games that can enhance creativity in other ways. Imagine if some of those research budgets had been devoted to studying games as an arena for promoting fair play and moral choices? Now, wouldn't that be a novel idea for all those organisations that worry about our children...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Gratinert aubergine

This is a post directed to Norwegian friends and family, a favourite recipe that people ask for frequently. Here we go:


1 aubergine i skiver.
noe olivenolje (et par skjeer)
2 hvitløksfedd, hakket
ett lite glass hvitvin
en boks hermetiske tomater, hakket
en stor bunt basilikum
2 ts tomatpuré. Hvis du finner puré av soltørkede tomater er dette best. Kjøp et glass til meg også.
150 g ost - mosarella eller en annen norsk, mild ost som smelter fint.
salt og frisk kvernet pepper.

Damp auberginene til de er myke. Varm litt olje i en steikepanne og fres hvitløken ved middels varme. Skru opp varmen, tilsett vinen og kok litt inn. Skru ned varmen igjen og tilsett gomater, basilikum og tomatpuré, kok under lokk til sausen er tykk. Smak til med salt og pepper og hell sausen i en ildfast form (eler vent litt og legg det i lag). Legg aubergineskivene på toppen, pensle dem med litt olje, topp med osten. Bak i ca 30 minutt til osten er gyllen.

And if you wonder what recipe that is, I suspect it's the Italian Melanzane parmigiana.

Public, private, personal, off the record, common

In February there was a flare-up in several debates in Norway, as a professor posted to facebook that she was reading the world's worst exam paper ever. No names, not subject, no quotes, just her opinion, a pretty frustrated response.

Somebody on her "friend" list screenshotted this, and mailed it to a journalist. The journalist then wrote an article about how teachers harass students through facebook. To make the article more provocative, the journalist asked some student politicians, who immediately responded angrily, and the headmaster of the University, who said something about no policy for social media use, and how this was unheard of. The article was also published in

After a flare up of the debate around this, both online and in media such as the Norwegian Broadcasting, Jill Walker wrote a "kronikk", an opinion article to (the paper in question). She pretty much covers the case in her response, but the entire event makes something very obvious. We need to think in more modes than public and private.

Humans, particularly those of us working as journalists, like dualism. We want it to be warm or cold, dangerous or safe, on or off. A world of ones and zeroes is almost a perfect expression for this human desire for certainty and control that comes with the black/white idea of the world. If you're not with me, you're against me.

Despite this desire for duality, we are pretty good at handling shades of grey in social interaction. We are aware that there are some best friends, then there are some friendly people we know, then there are some people we know who are pretty much not that important to us, but we'll talk to them about casual stuff at the bus or over coffee if we are at the same table, and then there's people we know but dislike to varying degree, and then there are people we just don't know. With all of these people we interact in subtle, complex manners. We deal easily with this because they are all individuals to us, and we interact with them in settings we easily can position in a complex grid.

Then along comes the internet, and we can interact with all of them at the same time, if we want. At first, people didn't get this. Flame wars grew hurtful, stalkers got too much personal information, and lovers discovered their true love was a fantasy. This has of course, not passed, but people know how to deal, they understand what is going on, and some times even manage to protect themselves from the problems with different social spaces crashing into each other.

And so, we have the problem with the professor on facebook.

If the journalist had met the professor, asked how the exams papers were, and the professor said "I am reading the worst one ever right now," the journalist would never have printed it. Face it: "professor reads worst paper ever" isn't news.

If the professor had said it, face to face, to everybody from the headmaster of the University to the student who actually wrote it, or even if she was on television and got asked "what are you doing these days?" and she responded "I am reading the worst exam paper ever, right now." it wouldn't be news.

The news rests in the ambivalence of private/public.

In order to get that information, a friend of the professor had to take a screenshot and give it to the journalist. It's like a camera shot of a fashionable wedding where the press is not wanted, it's like peeking past the curtains to see what happens in an other person's party, it's a way to reveal to the public what happens in the private club. The fact that it is possible to exclude some people from seeing that post makes it interesting. It's the constructed duality of public private that makes news. The only news value is the tittilation of the forbidden.

The following discussion is then, really, all about the fact that written communication now has almost spoken qualities. In this discussion participants ignore the many other modes information can be in, because it appears to be printed.. Informal, off the record, personal, casual, all of these shifts between communication modes are totally ignored. And this happens because the written nature of the post turns it into a fact. It is so easy to make some screenshots. However, so is making sound files, and to take a screenshot of a facebook update is like taking a recording device into the lunch-room of the University, catching snippets of conversation, mailing the juicy ones to a journalist.

So, the question now is, in which direction will communication develop? Will it become more obvious that written communication can embody modes other than public or private, or will this binary understanding of communication become so common that we have to look out for recorders, and only be candid and honest when we share a shower with the person we're talking to?

Personally, I hope a wider understanding of different modes of communication. I don't want to have to check all cellphones at the door before I have coffee with friends.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Life in Copenhagen part 7: health and understanding

It's been a while since I wrote, and it's because I have been sick. Being sick in a new place and particularly a new country is scary.

The first signs arrived almost a year ago, when I was all alone in Denmark. Over the months I had some rather unsettling experiences. I noticed a lump where there shouldn't be one (spoiler: no, not cancer and nothing life-threatening), but I carefully ignored it for months. I really didn't want to know. But then I got an infection, fever and pain, and I had to go see a doctor. I ended up on antibiotics, stranded in my one-room apartment for almost two weeks. Part of the time I had fever fantasies, and some of the few experiences I had with contact to the world around me were truly surreal. Such as when the Norwegian culture-minister called, and I wasn't sure if it was a joke, a fever-fantasy, or reality. I asked her to call back after the antibiotics had time to work. She did.

Anyway: what I really want to write about here, is the part of Denmark that Norwegians think exist, but which tends to be absent, or just not seen, when we start living here.

You see, compared to Norwegian, Danish (the language) sounds gentle and warm. Danes appear to be touchy-feely and friendly, seen from the distance Norwegians tend to keep people at. Then we move to Denmark and figure out that no, it's not that simple. As a Norwegian living here, not just shopping in the large stores on Strøget or drinking in Nyhavn, we get ridiculed, cut off, excluded and ignored; due to the language difference. I felt like Denmark really didn't want me, yet another annoying non-dane here to make their lives more complicated. No matter that I am exactly the kind of person the Danish State wants: highly educated specialist in a field Denmark has prioritized for years - Denmark felt as cold as the record winter around me, except from a few friends and colleagues.

So, here I was, alone, feverish and lost, in this realm of Scandinavian distance and cold manners. That's when I suddenly started seeing the Danes as I had believed they would be. It started with the doctor: When she realised that it wasn't just a regular infection, she raced to the phone to find a specialist to see me right away! And she did, all the while doing her best to comfort me without saying anything either way. The specialist was busy, but warm, friendly and just as easygoing and nice as I used to think Danes would be. At the lab for the tests, while insanely busy, people were gentle, polite and smiling. And when I came to see my wonderful hairdresser after this rather shattering day, he looked me over once, and started spoiling me above and beyond what I could have asked for.

Best of all, through all of this, I was suddenly understood! For some reason, me being sick trumphed all language problems. And it continued. When I went to get food in one of the really fashionable take-aways in this area, the normally snotty staff took one look at me and became nice and understanding. When I was well again, this treatment disappeared. Then I went to the hospital for surgery, and suddenly it was right back again! Professional, busy and quick, yes, but also friendly, warm, polite and smiling.

It was a really weird experience. I don't know if it's possible to generalise from this, but I drew some personal conclusions.

1: Danes are as nice as we think, when we (the strangers) become an individual to them.
2: Pain and illness is a strong way of revealing our common humanity, both through empathy and through strength; it also allows others to make your life a little better, and people everywhere like to do a good thing for others.
3: The rest of the time, Danes are as busy and impatient as everybody else. Coming to Copenhagen was like moving to Oslo as a very green student from the west-coast, only worse. Soft wovels and polite phrases do not make people nicer, even if they sound like butter, cream and smiles.

All in all, it was a good experience. I know now that Danes can, when they need to, make that vital effort to connect, and so my own efforts at communication aren't necessary wasted either. Also, the Danish health system may be in crisis due to the state of the world economy, but I hardly think I would have been treated better if I had stayed in between the fjords in Norway. It's the general state of health-care systems to not have enough money, and I was in the somewhat strained, but still firm grasp of a Scandinavian welfare state. It feels familiar. It feels a little like... home?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why Joe Colombo would have loved tablet computers

I am lounging on a sofa-bed-futon in a small city apartment, with a laptop and a tablet computer right here. The tablet computer is resting on the side shelf of a Joe Colombo boby-trolley, the top of the trolley holds a kindle, a cup of tea and the equipment I need to do all of my banking and shopping: A plastic card and a coder. I have to admit I am quite happy that this isn't one of Colombo's future homes, despite their total, and incredible, design.
I am too much in love with the traditional crafts and the skill of a good carpenter. However, I share a fascination with the designers of the sixties, with Joe Colombo and Matti Suuronen, and yes, my ideal summer home would be a Futuro! Totally unsustainable, fully in line with the energy optimism of the sixties and seventies, it takes the "total home" one step further and into a science fiction movie.
What is it about Joe Colombo and Matto Suuronen, the plastic designs of the sixties and seventies, that is so enticing? For me, it can be summarised as integration, miniaturisation and mobility. The break with the classic materials and designs is less interesting.

While I love the Joe Colombo trolley I own due to the many different meanings it carries - mainly a memory of a surprising visit to an exhibition in Leipzig - I love the fifties Hans Wegner dining table, the eighties Gubi Olsen postmodern couch and, the iconic bookshelves that bring the module flexibility of Colombo back to the traditional carpentry romance of the postmodern eighties, Peter Lassens Montana bookshelves. Montana even adds something a lover of the user-as-participant as me can't resist: the chance to design your own bookshelf, building it like legos.

Anyway, back to Colombo.

Joe Colombo integrated the technology deeply into his designs, as seen in the Cabriolet bed. In this bed you can be closed in and privat with your technology. Technology becomes intimate, no longer something for the public space or workshop only, but a bed partner. Today he wouldn't have bothered with the radio and television though, he'd have gone straight for the computer with its endless options for media integration. The Cabriolet of today would have been wired, the temperature and fan computer controlled, the bed set with sensors to let you monitor your sleep. There would have been handsfree or hands on options for computer and telephone, controlled by magical touch-screens, voice or motion. And when he got out of the bed he'd have removed the phone or tablet from its cradle, and brought the whole set-up of connections with him, able to easily plug it into any other similar bed. Total personalisation but at the same time totally mobile: mass-production, total living space design and the miniatured storage of information. The Cabriolet bed was a step towards the connection machine/human, a sleeping space fit for cyborgs.

The futuristic dreams of the sixties were already dying in the seventies. The Futuro ski-cabin eminently demonstrates why: It needs to be connected somehow to electricity, water and waste, it is very costly to move and the material was not yet sufficiently tested to know if it would last. Which, in many cases, it didn't. The UFO did not have what it would take to give it wings. But despite the post-modern backlash in the eighties, when all styles mixed and it was all about reaching back to show the roots of design rather than deliberately breaking with them, the futuristic dreams had been accepted. We were expecting technology to invade the most intimate of spaces and to come with us everywhere. The urban nomads, as conceptualised by Deleuze and Guittari and described by for instance Cresswell in his article in the anthology Space and Social Theory do not move the living space with them, but instead bring along the technology which allows for easy movement from one dock to the next, connecting their network rather than parking their travellers' camper.

I just move my lovely red trolley from one room to the next, and not between cities or countries. But I do carry a phone or a computer, because I live, at times, like an urban nomad, travelling from one connection to the next. I am however even more liberated from the trappings surrounding me than the total designers of the futures past believed we would be. I don't need to break with the past through recreating the entire environment, because I am carrying the most radical break with time and space with me, in my pocket.

And I am certain Joe Colombo would have loved it, and created a design to rival anything Apple are able to come up with. Hopefully something bright, exuberant and one step further into a cyberromantic life.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Dystopias and post-apocalysms

"Why don't you like The Road and Melankolia," my husband asked, quite reasonably. He has nevered shared my preference for fantasy and science fiction, just as I have never shared his love of social realism. We try to find common ground, and both items fit with things I otherwise love. How is the planet from Melankolia different from the Death Star? Why is the ruin of the United States in The Road different from and Dies the Fire and The Time of the Dark?

First of all, Star Wars, Dies the Fire and The Time of the Dark are all post-apocalyptic, not apocalyptic. Some little piece of humanity has survived, and while life is hard and oddly realistic, such as the roaming packs of cannibals around the dying cities of S. M. Stirling's after-the-disaster US, there is hope. The Death Star will annihilate all resistance, but there is hope. The dark is breeding humanity like cattle, and when they are forced to the surface the free-ranging meat which is humanity becomes prey once again. Still, there is resistance, and hope.

There is no hope in Melankolia. For a while there's false hope, as the planet pulls back, but in the end it goes from bad to worse. There is no hope in the The Road either. Nothing. It's the end. As literature and as art, it conveys the emotion and the sense of loss and despair with precision and gentle cruelty. There is no "post" to their apocalypse. Dystopia.

I need hope though. All I need to understand the fragility of the civilisation we enjoy is to read the paper. I have to believe that after the planet has become flooded from climate change and the melting of the poles, and 3/4ths of the population is dead, something, preferably something interesting, beautiful and optimistically human will create a culture among the scattered islands, rising from the drowned or broken cities. Not the final collapse of humanity..

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Trying to learn from grief

22nd of July 2011 the world was changed for all Norwegians. Thanks to a wonderful leadership (both the political and the monarchy) and an all round amazingly contrary population, Norway became sadder, but also warmer and more aware of the need for each other.

In order to see why this made such an impact, you need to understand one of the first questions Norwegians ask each other, when they meet as strangers. "Where do you come from." Foreigners believe Norwegians ask this only of them, in order to exclude them, to make them "other" and emphasize their alienness. That's wrong: We ask it of everybody. The follow-up question is always something to try to establish a connection. "Oh, really, do you know so and so?" If you don't, it goes on: Which school did you go to? Are you in any way connected to...? Have you been to...? And sooner or later, a Norwegian will find a connection. If you're from Marocco, they have friends who vacation there all the time, and say it's a wonderful place. If you're from Singapore, they landed there once, going to Australia. If you're from Guatemala, they read a book where the hero - or the villain - was from the same place. Did you read that book?

This very common and very important practice means that Norwegians view everybody in the country as connected, somehow. And so, when more than 70 people from all over Norway die, suddenly and dramatically, everybody are somehow touched. In a country where everybody are connected if you're just willing to dig for long enough, everybody grieve together.

Being in Denmark and disconnected from the secret we-are-all-connected network while this happened was mind-numbing. My daughter came home to Copenhagen from Europe and spent two days online and in front of the Norwegian television searching, reading, grieving. It turned out that we were somehow connected to at least three of the victims, luckily mostly professionally and a few steps apart. Still, it was close enough that we all felt it, and while we felt it, we couldn't be there. I wept more those days than I have for years.

Then the journalists started calling, asking about the importance of digital games in this context. Everybody were blind, everybody looking for explanations. I was buffered by the fact that I am in Denmark, and now I was happy about it. I did however respond to one journalist. After that interview, I had the oddest phone-call in my career. A young man, genuinely worried about his friends, called to ask about games, violence and media effects. I have to say, from what he described, he had real reason for worry. Cutting out computer games would not have helped them, though. These were young men who obviously romanticised violence to a degree I didn't believe sane people could. Perhaps they can't. I hope they get help or grow out of it, or channel the interest into something constructive.

All of this made me wonder, forced me to look at what I do, what I think. I have chased down articles on media effects and asked questions about violence. I don't get any other answers than I used to. The research is the same as before, and I can't read it any differently. I have however come to realise one thing. While extreme playing of violent video games alone is not enough, if seen in combination with dysfunctional behaviour in other areas, they can be a symptom of a problem.

This doesn't really change anything though, as it just leads back to what I have adviced parents and gamers to do for ever. Get involved. Teach your children to live a balanced life. Make sure you live a balanced life. Don't disappear from those around you, whether it's to play games, to work exessively, or to drown yourself in politics or religion. Stay social, and stay connected. Be active, mentally and physically, in more than one way.

And after that research-based advice, one piece of advice from the weeks after 22nd of July: Be gentle to each other. We are, at some level, all connected.

Monday, August 08, 2011

En fornuftig gamer

Morten Jørgensen skriver om hysteri og spilling. Les og lær.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Blaming gaming

This is the link to an interview, in Norwegian, where I say why we shouldn't blame games for what the wannabe did 22nd of July. The journalist understood what I as saying, and managed to communicate that well, all down to the fact that I consider speculation about whether or not games influenced the n00b to be - speculation.

For those of you who came here in order to find proof that my mind has been numbed by too much gaming, if you read Norwegian, why don't you go have a look at this very good description of how a skilled computer gamer thinks. As you will see, "kill, kill" is not on the gamer's mind. It's more along the lines of "optimise routine, check numbers, remember cooldowns, check threatmeter, move with the team, maintain healer safety, balance the output."

At the same time, I don't manage to care that much. In a way, if it makes people feel good, they can blame games all they like for me. They can blame the weather, the radioactive rain after the accident in Tjernobyl, a really bad streak of losses for his local football team, Fox news brainwashing (that's my favourite theory) or the colour pink. Perhaps he was poisoned by his own make-up. It doesn't change what happened. Also, it won't help us avoid these things happening again. It is an anomaly, something totally unexpected and unpredicted, something so far from the minds of regular people that we can't explain it or avoid it.

The only thing we can do, is not to act the way he wants us to. He added those computer game links to his new facebook profile for a reason, just like the deleted the old profile in order to hide what he claims to have been 7000 facebook friends. He wants us to chase down all kinds of paths, causing fear, anger and confusion looking for a reason. The cause is simple: He had a political agenda, and was sufficiently single-minded and ego-centric to go through with it, in an absolutely ruthless fashion. What made him into this monster? We will probably never know. Genetics, upbringing, socialisation - a bit of all, is my uneducated guess.

However, if you feel comforted by keeping your children away from computer games, please, do so. Personally, I take greater comfort in having kept my children away from handguns, single-minded political rhetoric and religious fanatics of any colour, while brainwashing them with analytical thought until they question everything and look for the peaceful middle way in conflicts.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Don't diagnose when you don't know!

While we game researchers are frustrated with how games are used to explain everything, psychologists have to face "experts" telling the media this and that about the wannabe, diagnosing him wildly. The Norwegian psychologist Kristine Tofte is as sick of this as I am of the "too much gaming" angle, and writes an extremely good post about it.

Her post is in Norwegian, but as a super-quick resume, she asks colleagues to quit diagnosing him from what is written in the media, and to remember that so far as she knows, nobody have acted exactly like this, ever, in history. It is an anomaly, and we can't say it's typical for anybody (gamers, sociopaths or trained soldiers), because it is a unique event.

I find this extremely important. We do not know and can not yet start to understand the why of this event.

Thank you, Kristine Tofte.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Games and massacres - again

I thought I had dodged this, when nobody had called me all through Monday, after the massacre on Utøya. I did not want to stand there and sound like I defended a mass murderer, by claiming that no, computer games are perfectly innocent, particularly not after glancing through his manifest. Luckily I don't have to go through the manifest step by step with you myself, Nick Ross at ABC went through it for us all.

Oh, by the way, I am not linking to it. Find it yourself. I am not linking to anything any more, that's written by that wannabe. Actually, from now on I will refer to him as the wannabe or the n00b, because he is a wannabe that doesn't get what it means to be a hero, and a total n00b when it comes to stringent, rational, critical, political thought. I don't even want to hate him. He wants hate. The only thing I want to feel for him is contempt, and I want to drown him in ridicule. Like this.

Anyway, the wannabe was a gamer, and he did great in PvE. He writes about how he uses games to strengthen himself when he is in doubt. This has lead to the inevitable conclusion: Computer games made him a monster. Dagens Næringsliv, otherwise a pretty sober newspaper, neglects the caveat, but at least they are honest enough to tuck it in at the end:
Hun presiserer at dataspill ikke nødvendigvis skaper mordere, men legger til at mennesker med personlighetsforstyrrelser kan være svært mottagelige for slike inntrykk.
Their expert points out that games don't create murderers, but that people with personality defects can be vulnerable to that kind of impressions.

The world is full of impressions a man like the wannabe can be vulnerable to. He quotes them happily, and spends a lot of time for instance on religion. He thinks of himself as a Christian, and struggles with the sin it is to use prostitutes before he plans to go on a killing spree. He decides however that, like a holy crusader, he is about to do so much good that minor sins will be forgiven him. Now you'll claim there are crusaders in games, but there are crusaders in history, in poetry, in literature, as Knight Templars and Freemasons, and in a whole lot of graves all over Europe and the Middle East. If you want to be a crusader, you don't need to make the effort of leading a raid guild to get your ideas confirmed.

And then there are the political debates. Even now, after the shooting, people manage to write things like "we don't agree with how he did it, but he is right, the multiculturalists are dangerous and are ruining our culture, and should be stopped." Even as he was killing people in Oslo, the website "for promotion of Nordic culture" (where the wannabe supposedly was a member, and where there are people he emailed his manifest to) had members claiming that somebody needed to clear out the multiculturalists once and for all. The n00b didn't need to play games to feel like his ideas were justified.

OK, back to games, violence and wannabes.

Yes, there is research which states that murderers like the wannabe play games, but also research that shows that there is no causal link. Let me link to an article I have linked to before, The School Shooting/Violent Video Game Link: Causal Relationship or Moral Panic?. Ferguson writes: "Although much speculation persists regarding the role of violent video games and school shootings, this speculation is seldom based on factual evidence." Ferguson goes on to cite and quote studies specifically of school shooters, where the scenes tend to look like first-person shooter games. I am attaching a long quote here, because I know many will not go on to read the article itself:
The FBI report (1999) had included ‘unusual fascination’ with violent media amongst its potential predictors. As most young males consume considerable amounts of violent media (e.g. Griffiths & Hunt, 1995; Olson et al., 2007), ‘unusual’ consumption necessitates reaching a very high bar. The report also suggests that incessantly reading/viewing a particular book or visual media with violent, or school violence content, may be a predictor. The FBI report appeared to focus on individuals who approved of hateful or destructive messages in the media, rather than merely enjoying the media for entertainment purposes. For instance, an individual who praised Mein Kampf and its message of racism and hatred would arguably be considered more ‘at risk’ than would someone who enjoyed playing the violent video game Medal of Honor because it was fun. Indeed, related to violent video games, the FBI report specifically stated, “The student spends inordinate amounts of time [although inordinate is never defined and is left subjective] playing video games with violent themes and seems more interested in the violent images than the game itself ” [italics added]. Thus, an overall interest in causing harm is potentially predictive of violence, not exposure to violent media in and of itself, a conclusion supported by the recent Savage, (2008) meta-analysis.
This is what the research shows. If you have learned that violence is the solution to problems, then you may show an interest in violence, including games.

Now who are these experts Dagens Næringsliv have contacted? Deborah Schurman-Kauflin is a profiler. Her list of publications is impressive, with a heavy bias on imported violence and female killers. The other expert is Pat Brown, who offers cost-effective profiling if you have a problem with serial killers.

Two American profilers who have not done research explicitly on games and gamers, where the one with the more impressive list of articles tries to point out that there isn't necessarily a causal relationship between games and mass murderers; and Dagens Næringsliv goes out and reduces the entire political agenda behind the wannabe's horrible act to something to do with games.

I didn't want to talk about this, because I felt it would be insulting and misleading to push the debate into yet another "dangerous media" discussion. This goes far beyond computer games.

The truth is that I have no idea what exactly set the wannabe off. Anything could have caused it. Perhaps he dated a girl who went to Utøya and fell in love with somebody else. Perhaps his teen-age friends who were muslims turned him off multiculturalism by being too conservative islamists and displaying the unlucky, but existing, opinion that white women are all asking for it if they get raped. Perhaps his father wasn't there in those formative years when he could have learned that real men protect others, rather than harm them. And so I was hoping not to have to stand there and say "No, games don't lead to violence."

But here it is. Political terrorism is committed in the name of ideas and conviction. Ideas are the most dangerous thing on this planet. Ideas created the wannabe, not games.

And a last, deeply felt statement: If I thought abolishing games would lead to world peace, I'd never play again. If I thought forbidding rock was the way to go, I'd never dance again. If I thought the reason why people hurt each other was because we have television, I'd break it, right now. But it isn't that simple. We had war, violence, crime and fanatic killers - some of them real crusaders - long before we had modern media.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wow and violence and terror

I have been here before, seeing killers connected to computer games. Anders Behring Breivik played World of Warcraft. I do however think his more than 1000 pages long manifest, describing a process that started 9 years ago with the goal to become a European hero, is a lot more important than gaming.

It appears that he fits the FBI profiles of violent shooters, where they are interested in the violence, not the game.

Don't make the mistake of reducing this to "mad maniacal gamer" and claim the world will be a better place if the games are removed. Don't blame anything or anyone but the man who decided he had the right to take lives.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Off to Hohenheim and Southern Germany for the first time since 1978. I suspect there have been a few changes, and the Torill that goes to talk at this conference on the social aspects of games is not the Torill who worked in a green-house in Stuttgart for a summer. At least, I hope the current Torill is a bit smarter, even if she doesn't look as good any more.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Four frames

It's been a long time coming, but now it looks like Routledge will publish Online Gaming in Context soonish. I am in there with an article which kind of happened along the way of a lot of nice, friendly and interesting conversations with Kristine Jørgensen, Rene Glas, and Luca Rossi, the co-authors.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hoax: Sex, power or good will?

After I was used as an "expert" in Politiken yesterday (I am used to being presented by title and connection, not just this vague "expert"), where the headline proudly claims that "many men are lesbians online" (yes, I cringed) I haven't been able to stop thinking about this.

First, by way of Nancy Baym, a really good write-up of the story by Kira Cochrane in the Guardian. Cochrane sees the hoaxes as a power play, where straight men take the positions of what they see as their challengers, the gay women. Gay women are both extremely tantalising and extremely challenging to straight males, as they are both competition and an ultimate conquest. From the article:
Both cases, says the feminist writer Beatrix Campbell, can be seen as a portrait of male dominance – men needing to infiltrate discussions where they wouldn't otherwise have an obvious, and certainly not an authoritative, place

Being a relatively straight woman with a butch haircut, I have experienced the power play of straight men wanting to prove the supriority of a straight life-style first hand. However, I don't think the hoaxes are only about male superiority. If so, how do we explain the cancer-hoaxes?

In two well known cancer hoaxes the persons behind them were women. I have already mentioned the well-known case of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, but another interesting case is that of Jonathan Jay White, or Melissa Ann Rice. While this and most of the other cancer hoaxes included fraud by accepting donations, it's interesting because it was revealed through a personal connection, just like Kaycee Nicole. The outcome was considerably more tragic, as the woman behind the story was found dead shortly after it was revealed.

The creator of Kaycee Nicole wanted to raise the general public's consciousness of cancer. Tom MacMaster wanted to raise the general public's consciousness of the lesbian struggle. Instead both added to the (necessary?) online paranoia. What I suspect caught wasn't their good will, but the power rush of having a lot of attention, the joy of being that other who was loved and admired, and to be an even better other than the real thing. It's a power rush not so much connected to gender as to the potential for attention. Many of the bloggers who burn out blogging describe it as a lifestyle. From one burnt-out blogger, who posted her last post in 2008:
Agathe vurderer ofte å slutte med bloggingen, men det er vanskelig å gi slipp. Tenk hvis hun savner det. Hun kan tenke «ok, nå er jeg ferdig», men fortsetter alltid.
(Agathe considers quitting the blogging, but it's hard to let go. What if she misses it? She can think "ok, now I am done", but she always continues.)

Agathe's description of her experience as a popular blogger (link in Norwegian) heavily editing her life carries a reminder of the reason why so many other couldn't stop their blogging. In her case the life she blogs isn't a hoax, as she lives it. But perhaps is it not quite what she thought after all, perhaps her heavy editing of herself caused her to lose contact with her reality? When her husband leaves, everything collapses, and she becomes a very different person - a person who is not blogging. Perhaps was she never the style-ikon she lived her life as? Perhaps was she - a hoax?

Still, it all leads back to checking sources - to the extent it's possible. However, people tend to be truthful. In Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy Baym points out that most people err on the side of truthfullness, and represent themselves honestly rather than lie (p. 121). Agathe was truthful, as far as she was able to, and sometimes being truthful can be too much. When opening up to the world wide web, there needs to be some kind of filter.

Perhaps not the filter of a total change of gender, nationality, sexual preference and political agenda though.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Internet Hoaxes

I didn't know about this until a journalist from called me today, to ask how I felt about it. It's the blog of a man with a deep interest in the middle east, who has been writing online as a homosexual woman from Damascus. He has now let people know that he is the one who pretended to be Amina, the Sunni lesbian, and he apologises to his readers.

This is an interesting story, and I can see why journalists are taken with it. It has a tittilating touch of slightly deviant sex, it underlines the importance of confirmed sources (that middle-east blogger you admired might be an american male), and it reflects the myths about how people behave online as they are expressed in this rather well-worn cartoon:

However, it's not the first internet hoax that's gone viral. One of the first online gender hoaxes to be reported was the alleged gender swap of Sanford Lewin, reported by Allucquere Rosanne Stone.
Cut to New York, 1982. The multiple user social environments written for the large, corporate-owned, for-pay systems betray none of their origins in low culture. They do not contain objects, nor can objects be constructed within them. They are thoroughly sanitized, consisting merely of bare spaces within which interactions can take place. They are the Motel 6 of virtual systems. Such an environment is the CB chat line on CompuServe. It was on the CB chat line on CompuServe that a New York psychiatrist named Sanford Lewin opened an account.

Sanford Lewin, according to the story, experimented with a female name, only to discover that the information he got access to as a female was very different from what he learned as a male. The parallels between Sanford Lewin and Tom MacMaster are interesting.

From Stone's description of Lewin's actions:

Actually, Lewin was getting nervous too. Apparently he'd never expected the impersonation to succeed so dramatically. He thought he'd make a few contacts online, and maybe offer some helpful advice. What had happened instead was that he'd found himself deeply engaged in developing a whole new part of himself that he'd never known existed. His responses had long since ceased to be a masquerade; with the help of the narrow bandwidth online mode and a certain amount of textual prosthetics, online he had @italic Joan. She no longer simply carried out his wishes at the keyboard; she had her own emergent personality, her own ideas, her own directions. Not that he was losing his own identity, but he was developing a parallel one, one of considerable puissance. Jekyll and Joan. As her friendships deepened and simultaneously the imposture began to unravel, Lewin began to realize the enormity of his deception.

And the simplicity of the solution.

Joan had to die.

From Tom MacMaster's apology:

Amina kept growing. And I kept trying to ‘kill’ her. Her story was great; I can easily write in Amina’s voice because I know her like she was a real person. I know what she likes and what she dislikes, how she feels and what makes her angry or elates her.

It was a terrible time suck but it was fun. And, regularly, I tried to stop. Amina moved overseas, she dropped out of sight repeatedly and so on and so forth. I meant to stop her … but is was hard. I’d read news stories and I’d find myself fighting the urge to respond as Amina … and occasionally giving in.

Some of MacMaster's latest posts before the hoax was revealed points towards a final disappearance for Amina. She is about to "die" and she won't be the first online fictional character to go that way.In 2001 Kaycee Nicole died after fighting leukemia for two years. Or rather - the character was killed off by it's creator, the woman pretending to be Kaycee Nicole and her mother.
The whole operation was the work of a Kansas housewife, Debbie Swenson. Posing as both Kaycee and her mother, Swenson had started by constructing an online personality, but it spiralled into an increasingly complex deception as the diary became ever more popular. Once her cover was blown, she revealed the truth quickly with one final diary entry

The case even created a new diagnosis, Münchausen by internet. By pretending to be a beautiful, brave, struggling young woman, Swenson got attention and was listened to and admired. It's heady stuff.

The stories of hoaxes and gender-swapping online are legion, and some of them lead to court cases, such as the story of two women, where one of them pretended to be a fire-man. This story caused a divorce, but before it could lead to a new marriage, the fire fighter died of cancer - apparently a very popular death online.

However, sometimes you may have a good reason to become somebody else. Perhaps you need to hide your identity, because what you are talking about could have you punished, either socially or as a criminal. If so, you need to take the advice on how to fake your identity online to heart. It is pretty easy to cross-check online identities, and it's hard to fake it in the long run. Kaycee Nicole was revealed as a hoax when Swenson leaked too much and too strong information about her "real" identity. When you know where somebody goes to school, what sports they are in, how old they are, what languages they know, where they travel, the jobs of their parents, the names of their friends - then you start having a lot of information to go on, if you want to find their real selves.

Doing research online, I reveal who and what I am when I start using the people I encounter for research. In gaming communities, where identity swapping is pretty accepted and expected, revealing that much about yourself is often frowned at. In one guild I was told "that information will immediately reveal your name!" by a friend, when I gave out some key-words for one of my articles in guild chat. Other researchers choose not to reveal their identity in such situations, claiming the information they gain will be more authentic if they don't stand out as researchers. There are good arguments for both views.

This leads us back to the hoaxes. What is a hoax, in this case? It's obvious that when you start taking money, when you cause so much disturbance in another person's life that they grieve your death, when people start organising to assist you in a fake crisis, then you have gone too far. But it's hard to notice where that point is. If you have managed to build a personae - when you have gone from anonymity to pseudonymity - it is hard to let go of the voice you gained. An internet identity is so strong that the identification can cause you to feel raped, even if nobody ever touched you, as Julian Dibbell describes in one of the articles that influenced my own research online: A Rape in Cyberspace.

We are still asking ourselves who we are, online. As a research field it wasn't exhausted on the nineties. It's worth noting though that despite the potential for being another, keeping a good alternate personae running is a challenge. It's hard work, and you need to be extremely good not to trip up. It's far easier, and far more common to just be a somewhat edited version of yourself. Perhaps a bit younger, a bit thinner, a bit richer - it's so easy, and nobody are harmed...

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Electronic writing

Lately I have been thinking a lot about hand-writing, note-taking and commenting, and I have been considering a couple of different options for how to integrate hand-writing, which is a vital act of organising thoughts for me, and technology.

When Hilde Corneliussen was here in the beginning of May, she brought with her an iPad and a very enthusiastic attitude about a certain application. One of these was GoodReader, an app that lets you annotate PDF's. Hilde described and demonstrated how she could pull up the iPad, open student papers and comment on them by writing with a pen on her screen/on the pdf. I have to admit, that led to instant gadget envy.

The other object I have coveted for a long time, I have just not gotten around to actually buying it. I want an eletronic pen, for instance LiveScribe's smartpen. In combination with a notebook this is a seriously powerful object when it comes to organising information from meetings, lectures, annotations to books, work in libraries, note-taking and interviews. I also have an idea that it may be quite useful to create my own version of the Chrononotebook.

The Chrononotebook is what prompted the current round of technology-lust. I struggle with scheduling, and tend to resort to pen and paper in order to feel that I have a hands-on approach. Then I put the paper away, log on, and forget all about it. The circular nature of the Chrononotebook would satisfy my need to understand the rythm og my days - weeks - months, and it's also sufficiently beautiful that I would enjoy the process of scheduling. However, when I am done, it's still on paper. What if I could then transfer the image to a screen?

And this takes me a step further. I have used pictures of models I have drawn by hand in lectures, when I haven't found good examples elsewhere, or I have made up my own. With the smartpens I could just draw the model, then transfer it to the computer and to the presentation.

Now, the question is: are there pads, iPad or others, that will give me that kind of flexibility? The pen is not as expensive as a digital pad, but it is also a lot more specialised in its use. However, if I am to buy an expensive electronic device which might bring me further into slavery to Apple (my iPod went missing, and it feels kind of liberating not to worry about how I get control of my own music), I want to be able to use it all the time, for everything!

Or, do I take the chance and buy a totally different, new product? I have been watching Notion Ink's Adam for a while now, and after I found RepliGo Reader I am thinking really hard about getting a notepad that uses/supports android and not the many iProducts. However, Notion Ink is distributed from India (that's both a pro and a con), and doesn't have a solid user base or anybody who can maintain them if something goes wrong. Am I that much of an early user that I dare buy the cutting edge of tablet technology?

My first computer was an IBM Advanced Technology. We bought it in 1986, and we wrote a master's thesis and a book on it. The price was outrageous compared to the prices of comparable technology today. It did however trigger at least two young men's interest in technology, it brought me to computer games, and we learned how to delete the DOS - and rebuild it. I have to admit I did not, at the time, imagine I'd ever face the problem I am enjoying now.

The main point of fascination is however the combination of handwriting and drawing and of digital storage and accessibility. That is the part that currently feels like magic to me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Oystercatcher webcam

A friend reminded me of this webcam: Tjelden på taket, or the Oystercatcher webcam. It shows, for what I believe to be the fourth year in row, the nest of an Oystercatcher on the roof of the building for natural science at the University of Bergen. I can't remember when I saw this first, but according to their facebook page, the current birds have been there since 2008.

This is one of the really fun things on the Internet. Not big news or anything, but an opportunity to see how a bird acts while hatching. And the rebuilding that was to start this spring was delayed when Kjell and Kjellaug came back to their nest.

Happy bird-watching!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hard science and truth?

Oddly, we believe in science to the point that there's no need to argue for a phenomenon if it is presented within the frame of "hard science." The next time you feel like accepting hard science findings as undisputable facts, have a look at this Ph D comics movie, and face the fact that no, hard science doesn't really reveal much, and a lot of what it reveals we have no way to understand.

Hopefully, we can tack a "yet" onto that last sentence above, if the planet and/or the human race can outlast our lack of knowledge and understanding.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The written woman

This blogpost is about a lot of things, but mainly it's about the two books written by a former student, "som i himmelen, så og på jorden" and "men fri oss fra det vonde." Both titles are taken from the Norwegian version of The Lord's Prayer, which in Norwegian is named for the first two words: "Our Father - Fader vår." They are definitely not religious pamphlets though. I am not naming the author, since she has chosen to be anonymous.

In her books I hear her voice. It flows, wicked and funny, through them both, as she gives us mystery and thrillers from an intelligent woman's perspective. They are early books and flawed, showing the lack of a large publishing firm around them. Still, they are special, not just because this is a person I like, but because they have taken the traditional gender hierarchy in action novels and written the world as it both of ten is, and as it should be. In these books, Norwegian - nah, Scandinavian writers have been given crime novels where women are powerful not because they are sexy, but because they are intelligent, brave and willing to take risks.

The stories are complicated and ambitious. In one, the women set out to save the black rhino, taking on a large group of illegal hunters, poachers, and they use both feminine viles and feminine power to get there. These are not man-hating books though. Making all the heroes female and all the villains male would be too easy. The main actors are female, though. Matriarchs, even, in some cases, wise to the point of cruelty in the decisions they have to make.

Both books are concerned with what is happening to the planet, right now, the loss of species due to human greed and stupidity, and the threath of the climate change. There are conspiracies, spies and murders, silent actors pulling the threads from behind the scene, and more than one point of comic relief. However, there are weaknesses too. Abrupt, sudden leaps in the story, bewildering decisions, jokes that are a little too "in" for me, at least, to get them. I don't see this as a big problem though. It's early works, with a very small publisher. The books are still worth a read.

How come I read them?

I received these books last summer, as I was leaving Volda. It was, perhaps, the best gift anybody could have sent me off with; as the author and former student let me know, quite clearly, how important I had been to her as a teacher. Such things always take me by surprise. I work, work some more, and then I work, I never stop to think if I please, if I change something. I give of what knowledge I have and can gather. And then, sometimes, it is enough.

This student though, she wasn't hard to remember. She was on the front row, she asked questions, made comments, took notes. She was the terror of some of the other teachers, but I liked her sharp, often wicked, wit. Perhaps I saw myself in her?

In her recent mail, she told me I taught her to see and analyse in ways she had never done before. Little did she know that she taught me to be an honest, straightforwards and humble teacher.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

"Straight male gamer" - a gamer minority

By way of an insomniac friend, this post and its subsequent response from Bioware has come to my attention. The response from David Gaider, lead writer of Dragon Age II was claimed to be perfect by several blogs, such as No more lost, a blog discussing gay rights and bemoaning the loss of lives to homophobic hatred. David Gaider stated eloquently and clearly that no, straight male gamers have no particular "rights" in computer games.

This has started a rush across the internet, blogposts and discussions, including petitions to get rid of David Gaider, and to support him. And while the infamous straight male gamer did throw women a bone (straight female gamers should be allowed some romance, too) the response to the post and Gaider's come-back has resonated even with the marginally acceptable potential partners of the straight male gamers. Actually, parts of his post was almost enough to make me wish I was more queer than I am.

I don't think many would argue with the fact that the overwhelming majority of RPG gamers are indeed straight and male. Sure, there are a substantial amount of women who play video games, but they're usually gamers who play games like The Sims, rather than games like Dragon Age. That's not to say there isn't a significant number of women who play Dragon Age and that BioWare should forego the option of playing as a women altogether, but there should have been much more focus in on making sure us male gamers were happy.

The original post was followed by Gaider's celebrated response. Now, in his response to Gaider, the straight male gamer claims:
The whole point of the argument relies on the central point that straight male gamers make up a overwhelming majority of players. As I said before, I estimate that the number is around 80% (this includes straight males gamers who plays a females). Now if my numbers are at all wrong (that in reality the split is 60-40-10 (male, female, gay), then consider this post to be null and void, I've wasted your time (No doubt some of you already feel that way).

Apart from the fact that our dear straight gamer adds percentages up to 110%, he's pretty much at the point where yes, he has wasted our time even by his own standards. The Entertainment Software Association's numbers for 2010 show that the gender distribution is 60-40 male/female. Now, since the gay male contingency has to be taken out of the male part, let's say 10% of the men are gay, this means something like 6% of the entire gaming population. This brings the straight male gamers down to 54%. Now, imagine that out of the 54%, perhaps 20% (which other research indicates is a very conservative number) are open to people having different options and choices for their sexuality, or enjoy playing with the "what if" of different sexualities. We know many male players enjoy playing with female avatars, having both straight and gay cyber relationships to male avatars. The straight, male, homophobic, "my-avatar-should-be-like-me" group is, in fact, a minority.

And in the words of the straight male gamer, designers shouldn't cater to minorities. Luckily for him, they mostly do.

The Penny Arcade says what needs to be said, really, about this.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Copenhagen part 6: buying, living, seeing.

The last few weeks have been filled with concerns about where we will live when my husband and I are both here and the house in Norway has been emptied and sold. I have already lived longer in the tiny, but posh apartment in the city than planned, and we have to find new place. Like good geeks, the internet was our main tool searching, and is an extremely useful site. By now we have been all over the place, looking at apartments in 8tallet (extremely tempting, but way out and no storage space what so ever), several different apartment co-ops as well as fully owned apartments in Amager, Østerbro, Fredriksberg, Nørrebro (the famous, or infamous, Jægersborggade) and the city, as well as houses, regular and in garden co-ops. I spent every week-end for 6 weeks riding my bike around to see houses and apartments, and I have the muscles to prove it! However, when we finally decided to bid, it was for an apartment in the street where I already live. Smaller than planned, not that cheap, but I get to stay in the City.

So we keep living in a street with five (perhaps six?) restaurants and cafés, at least two of them extremely good and the rest pretty decent. There's a baker around the corner, as well as a gourmet deli. The street has a cleaner, a designer furniture store and a very trendy hairdresser - and it's just two blocks long. To get to anything like what I find in this street would include airplane tickets if I started out in Volda - or at least a 2 hour drive, including the ferry trip.

Buying property in Copenhagen is however a very different process from doing the same in Norway. Here it's not just adviced to have a lawyer, they actually do stuff that's practical and useful, and it's expected that they particpate in the process. Since one is as good as another, we counted on advertising to help out, and contacted one that advertised on Boliga. But apart from a lawyer, I need a very good relationship to a bank, since they want to money to be guaranteed and secured well in advance. Coming from the Norwegian system where only a small preliminary sum changes hands in advance, and then the real transfer happens with the transfer of the property, it's unexpected that they want a guarantee for the whole sum 45 days in advance, and the final payment to be available 15 days in advance.

Also, we are foreigners. That's not really a big deal, since we're both Scandinavian, I work here and we're both planning to live here. If I had planned to stay mainly in Norway and commute during the week, as some colleagues do, I'd have a lot more of a problem. Danish rules for who can own property are pretty strict.

The process is slowly rolling along though. And then we'll be living in Copenhagen. This week-end was a typical example of what we can do and experience in the city. Friday, after visiting the lawyer, we walked across the street into Illum Bolighus, ready to spend half an hour dreaming about designer furniture. And look, they serve wine too! What's better than free wine, lovely furniture and a head full of plans for a new place to live?

So there we were, happily sipping and enjoying the exhibition, when a very nice and enthusiastic man paused and asked us "you like that table, don't you?" We told him exactly what we thought about it - lovely, but too low for us. That made him disappear to come back with a small side-table, and while we watched he demonstrated how the tables could have different heights by ordering new legs, and several other things about the material. All the while he was talking about the design in a very proprietary fashion. "I thought it looked better with a metal finish. I wanted some variety." No, he did not sound like your regular eager salesman, and I peered at his name tag. It was one of the designers! It turned out that Illum had a special exhibition for the launch of some of the new designs in the Naver collection, and our fascination with good carpentry and light, elegant designs had caught the attention of one of the designers, as he saw us caressing his table.

Now, you might think that I could never have met a designer like that back in Norway? Think again, he has designed both for Hjellegjerde and Ekornes, furniture factories from Sunnmøre, the part of Norway where you find Volda. Still, I have to admit that with the following late night of discussions of design and architecture with a friend who's an architecture student, then a trip to Arken with another friend, who happens to be an artist and designer (a topic to this week-end, I think), to be followed up with restaurant trips to take advantage of the Copenhaven Restaurant Week, we felt very far from the quiet weekends in Norway, with long walks in the mountains and friendly togetherness in front of the fireplace, when we didn't work. And I also have to admit - I love the change.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear explosions timeline

Beautifully and poetically rendered, all the nuclear explosions in the world between 1945 and 1998.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The social side of gaming

Last chance today!

************* CFA ENDS THIS MONDAY 28 FEBRUARY *************

Dear all,

this is the final reminder that the Call for Abstracts of the international conference "THE SOCIAL SIDE OF GAMING" (21-23 July) will end *** next MONDAY, 28 FEBRUARY ***. So please send in your abstract as soon as possible - there won't be an extension of the Call. For further information about the conference topics and the terms of submission please have a look at:

We are also glad to announce the confirmed keynote speakers. They are

RICHARD A. BARTLE (University Essex, UK, co-author of the world's first virtual world, MUD)
MIA CONSALVO (MIT, Boston, USA, current President of the Association of Internet Researchers, author of "Cheating")
MARK GRIFFITHS (Nottingham Trent University, UK, leading expert in research on digital games addiction)

We are also planning a panel discussion with high class industry representatives and some other events that will be announced soon. For more information regarding the conference, please head over to our conference site at:

We updated the website to answer some of your questions regarding the call, the conference fee, the publication/proceedings volume, accomodation, flight connections, travel grants etc. (s. also our mini-FAQ below).

Please note that some people were experiencing difficulties registering via the registration form due to technical reasons. If you did register, but didn't receive a confirmation yet, please contact us directly via .

We hope to see you in July!

With kind regards

Thorsten Quandt
(for the organization committee)

****** CONFERENCE FAQ *****

We also received several questions regarding the event. Here's a mini-FAQ - more answers can be found online at .

* How much is the registration fee?

There is a very moderate registration fee of EUR 50,- for speakers and participants with a 100 % position. The registration fee for researchers with a 50 % position is EUR 30,-. We try to keep the prices low so that everybody who wants to participate can participate. Science shouldn't be about money.

* How much do I have to pay for a flight to Stuttgart? Is it difficult to get there?

The international Airport of Stuttgart is just 10 minutes away from the University (via taxi). There are connections to all major European cities and even transatlantic connections. Furthermore, you can fly in via Frankfurt or Munich. There are some discount airlines flying to Stuttgart, including airberlin, germanwings and TUI (but also Lufthansa, SAS, British Airways, Delta etc.) - so return tickets to major European cities start around EUR 30,-. If you book early, then this might be your cheapest international conference ever!

* I am a PhD student and don't have the money to travel to your place. However, I have a fascinating abstract and would love to visit the conference!

Please consider sending in your abstract nonetheless. We will offer a limited number of travel suppurt grants for international PhD students and researchers on a 50 % position (or less). Preference is given to PhD students/researchers from developing/transitional countries with top abstracts. Please note that this option is subject to availability. The overall availability of funds is limited, so the actual grant size and number is depending on the number of applications and their quality. If you are a member of the named group and think about applying for a grant, please contact us directly via gamescon2011@uni- We can provide you with more information on a per case basis.

* Will there be a proceedings volume?

We plan to publish the best conference papers and some invited papers in an edited volume. It won't be your standard proceedings volume, but a coherent book on the social aspects of gaming, aiming at the worldwide book market. We are currently in talks with major international publishers about the details of the publication.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Another path towards control

Did you think the battle over free information was over? There's another way to argue for control of the internet. Faltin Karlsen, who is currently looking at problematic use of games and the Internet, writes this concerned note:

A group working with the next revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in the category called Substance-Related Disorders, suggests that:
"Gambling disorder has been moved into this category and there are other addiction-like behavioral disorders such as “Internet addiction” that will be considered as potential additions to this category as research data accumulate. Further, the work group has proposed to tentatively re-title the category, Addiction and Related Disorders."

This move will conflate substance addiction and compulsive behavior into one category and increase the scope of the diagnosis. In short, in 2013, overuse of Internet can become a diagnosis. This is problematic in a health perspective (although also with positive sides), but regarding freedom of expression it has more severe implications. Governments in countries without democracies and where freedom of expression is under pressure will have a valid argument for monitoring and regulating the use of the Internet even further. In the West it is difficult to assess what consequences this will have but it might easily put freedom of expression under pressure, in lieu of worrying about the health of the population. I can’t even imagine the avalanches of media panics this will entail.

It appears that the new motto for control is "Let's close it, and say it's for their own good."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Design, nature and culture

The other day I picked up Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. I am not done with it yet, so this isn't a review. However, it triggered quite a few questions in, which highlight one of the main problems with design, a problem my mother pointed out 40-50 years ago. What she pointed out (in less words) was how the distribution of power in society influences design.

I love the main credo of Don Norman's book and approach to design. Rather than the top-down approach where "good design" is something recognized by the designer's peers and rarely truly appreciated by "regular people," Don Norman starts, like a true functionalist, with function, and claims that good design starts with good function. It has to work for the people who use it. I am almost ready to break out in hallelujahs here, I couldn't agree more. Then he goes through a whole stack of problems with design, listing several examples... and that's when I start seeing a different problem with how design is developed, based on the teachings of my mother.

Back when my father built the house we sold last year, fashion demanded small, scientifically designed kitchens, largely designed after time-motion studies. The idea was a work-space where the housewife would be able to reach everything with as few steps as possible. That's when my mother put her foot down, with the pretty precise analysis of the situation: "That's designed by men."

The traditional Norwegian kitchen was and is, excluding a period lasting from 1945-1970, a large, social room, today frequently merged with the living room thanks to efficient vents and fans. It's an important place for work, socialising and enjoyment, a focus which is even more important in an active, two-provider family where the socialising time is limited. It's where children are taught how to cook and clean, it's where the family cooperates to create an important value of the family life, and it's where work and socialisation can mingle, as it offers a chance to be together, work, chat or open up to each other. You can't do that in a tiny kitchen designed for one person to stand in one spot; you need room, several working spaces, and light.

Don Norman and I don't really disagree here, but still, this is where he uses his examples oddly, without consideration for status and power. One of his examples is an Italian designed washing machine that can do one hundred things, but the couple owning it barely makes it do one. My mother had some funky washing machines in her lifetime, and despite her low level of education and absolute terror of computers, she always made them work the way she wanted. Why?

The example in Don Norman's book is an extremely educated couple. I am sure they can operate any kind of technology they need to get their work done. But do they even care about the process of laundry? My mother would recognize materials by touch, she knew the nature of different colours (blue bleeds more easily than red), she would distinguish between weaves and was deeply offended by blends that changed the properties of all materials included. She'd treat each piece of clothing belonging to a large family individually, and the washing disasters with mixed colours were normally the fault of her not-that-focused daughters. In many ways, my mother was like the Austrian bus driver in another of Don Norman's examples, who, when asked if it wasn't difficult to keep track of everything in his complex panel answered "it's all where it should be."

Now we're getting where I want to. Yes, to a certain extent design is bad because it invites error. However: to a certain extent design is bad because it assumes people are all the same. We believe doing laundry is a simple task, because we all have to do it. It's knowledge we aren't trained or certified for, and so it has to be easy. Driving a bus, on the other hand, includes rigorous training and strict certification. It has to be complex. A complex washing machine causes frustration with the design, a complex bus causes respect for the handler.

Next couple that with gender theory, and we start to see one of the reasons why telephone systems are allowed to be designed as such horribly impractical tools. Most professional phone operators are women. They work a tool which we all use, and so we believe it's simple. They have jobs they are not certified for and which require very little special training. Also, where the bus driver might kill his passengers if he didn't find everything right at hand, nobody dies from a missed call (unlike it's to an emergency call center, and I suspect their systems don't look much like the ones Don Normal describes).

My mother loved to be able to adjust her washing machine to do exactly what she wanted. The bus driver probably has the same feeling about his bus. I love the huge clunky windows machine that I use for gaming, because it lets me do the same thing. I am a lot more frustrated by the apple machine I have through work, because it treats me like an idiot, "simplifying" things I want to do by hand. I use it as a compromise between weight, size and certain functions, and grind my teeth when it calls me stupid by making so many decisions for me. If I was a different kind of user, I'd probably worship it by now, just like I want my car to be simple to drive, and I would not buy a washing machines with functions I didn't recognize the use for.

So: Good design of everyday things is user-centered and based on tests, I am all with Norman there. I would however like to see him question the many places where he says "natural", possibly exchanging several of those with "cultural." After all, most desicions which feel natural to us aren't. They are cultural. Another example from the book: He has tied a string around his closet door in able to open it. At that age, I'd have been down in my father's workshop, looking for a door-knob. That was the culturally logical, available solution to me, and since I thought all fathers had a fully equipped workshop, it also would seem natural. The string was a very clever idea though!