Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Things I never thought I'd miss

On the list of things I never thought I was going to miss, Fronter is way up there. Volda University College started using it when it was new, experimental, horribly buggy and impossible to manouver in. Frustration abounded, with access, with the interface, with the demands on us for detailed administration and a much more computer-bound work structure. I hated it. Then I started to tolerate it. Then I discovered the occasional useful factor, such as not having to keep track of a stack of papers - I could just have the students submit to fronter, the system kept track and I could accept, comment and refuse, and the students got immediate feedback. There would be a history for me and the student to go back into (finally, after a couple of years fighting for the students to keep access to their earlier work), and it generally made for a much tidier way to cooperate and share, particularly when the students had to submit work to me.

I didn't even notice how easy that was, until I suddenly stood without this option.

I am now at ITU-Copenhagen, where some of the really interesting researchers on Internet technology and culture work. Of course we don't have an easy, simple, accessible net-based platform for students and teachers to cooperate on. That would have been too easy, wouldn't it? (Touch of academic traditional irony there: Organisation studies are disorganised, communication studies never communicate, art studies are in ugly, badly decorated buildings.)

This semester, I have 80 students to keep track of. I have to do it by hand. I never thought this would happen: I miss Fronter.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reading a book

By way of Stephanie, this lovely video:

While funny, for those of us who read Janice Radway's Reading the romance, the irony just keeps piling up.

Social side of gaming

An interesting workshop in Stuttgart in July, for those who are into the fact that people can actually be social and gamers at the same time!

There's a call for papers, and I have had the tip of a claw in there, fiddling with it, but the University of Hohenheim crew is running this without me.

Hopefully I'll be able to be there. Germany is an interesting country, gradually opening up to the more anglified traditions of game studies, and I haven't been to Stuttgart in more than 30 years.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Copenhagen part 5: winter and... bikes

Winter came quickly, early and harshly this year, the Danes agreed. It started to snow the day I left for Norway in the end of November, and when I returned winter was firmly established. It got bitingly, dramatically cold, offering grand views and low sunlight.
The biking conditions, however, deteriorated badly, and I got to regret forgetting the winter tires in Norway. But the metro - after a bad start the first week-end, quickly got back to running as scheduled.
This being Scandinavia, after all, despite the delay in organising winter clean-up crews (which the Danes claim is equally large each year, and I suspect is deliberate in order to save money). And so the important things were quickly back in place: the bike-lanes got cleared and salted, the sidewalks got closed off (I woke up one morning from the sound of snow and ice crashing to the pavement from the building I live in - yes, walking on the sidewalks can be hazardous to your health) and I realised why the Danes think insulated rubber boots can be fashionable. Not that I don't understand the love of rubber boots, but if it's so cold I need them insulated, it's normally dry, you know. Not so in the city, where things melt and freeze at random, and water tends to accumulate over the frozen drains positioned exactly where you want to cross the road.

So, I had a month away from biking, which I kind of appreciated. I got to learn the routines of the coffee cart outside Danmarks Radio, and I bought more than one cup of coffee out of pity with the poor, frozen people working there in the bitter, windy mornings. I took the metro and walked through a snowy city lit everywhere for Christmas, enjoying a somewhat slower pace. Also, this let me see Copenhagen in a somewhat more friendly light.

When I got hold of the winter tires after Christmas spent in incredibly beautiful Volda,
I realised that people in Copenhagen sincerely hate bikers. Due to the snow, there's less space for the bicycles than usual, and even with spikes I don't want to ride over large chunks of ice, so I, like everybody else, have less space in which to ride. In the 10 minutes it took me to get from where I had the tires changed and home, I saw more rude honking of horns, was overtaken by more scooters in the bike lanes and heard more yelling than at any other similar trips. Only one of those were directed at me - that from a man only perhaps 10 years older than me (what's with the men, by the way? They are so unpleasant! Just this fall I had gotten through a bikers gate in a fence and up on the sidewalk. I was off my bike and standing still, when this group of men came towards me. I was looking at them, thinking that hmmm, they didn't look half bad, and men my age were actually pretty attractive, when they started telling me I should get back out into the bike lane, and get off the bloody sidewalk. This was of course because me standing there caused them to have to split up in pairs rather than walking 4 men broad, so buhuhu, but you know, it only took them a few seconds to drop from looking like a nice bunch to looking like a pack of sour, bitter old men.) who probably hadn't seen me there on the middle of the sidewalk turning into the narrow opening to the lane I was going up. He came at high speed out of a parking garage, and considered it just to correct me for his lack of attention.

It's an odd tension running under the policy of a green city and the wonderful infrastructure for biking, but I suspect it is caused exactly by that infrastructure. After all, all the bike-lanes and bike parking lots take space which in other cities is devoted to cars. It's as if the people not riding bikes have a mathematic deficit which does not let them compute the question of how many more cars they would have to share the roads with, if each biker was in a car instead.

Anyway, this morning I was back on the bike, and due to winter the bike-lanes are a bit less busy, which causes less aggression among the bikers. There's always a silver lining, and so on.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Save the world with games

Jane McGonigal claims that online games will save the world:

Much as I love games, and even in the face of my own optimism about how games can lead to positive cultural changes, I have a hard time believing that we can "fix" real life by creating and playing games.

McGonigal is a designer, and so she believes strongly, I suspect, in the power of design. In this talk it comes out as if she believes the world can be re-designed, mainly by using game design features. I think that is scary. Game worlds are tyrannical states, if we ever apply the ruthless simplifications used to create game worlds on society, USSR or Nazi-Germany will be puppy play in comparison. Think 1982, which describes a throughly designed world.

Let me state it clearly, in case my love of games, gamers and gaming makes people think I am ready to swap worlds: No, I don't think living in a game world all the time would be a good thing. I think it would be horribly oppressive, with too few options, too many detailed rules and too strong surveillance and control to be satisfying as anything other than a way to once in a while focus on something simple and relatively easy compared to reality.

Later on she says something which is positively wrong. About four minutes into the talk she claims that when we face failure in real life, we get depressed and become cynical. Then she claims we never have those feelings when playing games. But we do, we do, all the time! And then we do what's so great about gaming: We stop playing! When the game starts to feel like a chore because we just can't beat it, we leave it. She even claims there's no unemployment in World of Warcraft. Tell that to the bored guildies whining about how bored they are and why won't anybody come and play!

The problem with real life isn't that it's not designed like a game. It's that we can't turn it off and go somewhere else when we are unhappy. Games are greate because they are GAMES, they are the place we go to when we need a break from the rest. This means the real world can't be broken. The real world can be horrible, polluted, destroyed, war-ridden, but it is the measuring stick for everything. We only have one planet, and this is not a beta-test. What can be broken are our carefully designed systems. They are what brought the world into the state it's in, for good or bad. Designers, McGonigal, designers who thought they could see how it all connects and then make it better by introducing yet another patch to the system.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't learn from games. Games are after all built on pretty solid knowledge and research into how people act and interact, how we learn, what motivates us and how we pay attention. This is then skillfully adapted to digital environments. But the games are just a new way of putting already existing knowledge to good use.

Take for instant the scholar who has been almost universally adapted by game scholars in the European and American cultures: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His very interesting thoughts and research, which is being oh-so-frequently used to explain why people like games and why games are good, was not really made to explain games. It was made to explain real life, particularly the lives of people who were happy and satisfied with their work and their lives. So: The teories on why games are good were not born within games, but came from what McGonigal calls "real life." What is born in games is nothing which does not exist outside of games. Ingame, we have just removed a lot of the stuff we don't want to relate to from the world outside the arena. Games are real, just limited.

Then McGonigal goes on the show us that the amount of time spent playing World of Warcraft equals the amount of time it took for homo sapiens to evolve, and she uses this as a proof that playing makes us evolve as a species, into something more able to collaborate. Eeeehhhh, well, if you're going to measure evolution that way: How many individuals spent their time evolving during those 5 million years? Let's assume we're talking about perhaps a regular population of one million species (I have no idea how many human ancestors were alive on earth at the same time in this period, perhaps much more, pwerhaps much less). If so, we're talking about 5 million million years of evolution. We really need to play a bit more to get there. And it doesn't really help to say "this is true, I really believe it" after that statement about evolution either. Belief isn't proof, even when preaching to somebody who really wants to believe. I just can't. I keep getting these nasty flashes of cynicism that not even my ardent gaming has cured.

Jane McGonigal's TED talk is funny and interesting, and she's charismatic, good looking and smart. I am however severely disappointed with her lack of a historical perspective both on the research she is trying to apply to her talk and on leisure activities. The thing is: Society has been using games for teaching cooperation, team-work, strategic thinking, ethics, mastery and physical and intellectual development, plus a lot of other virtues depending on the game and the values of the society the games are being played in, since the very beginning. This is the argument for football as well as chess.

And around 11 minutes in came one of my big laughs, and it was shared by the audience. She quotes Edward Castronova in Excodus to the virtual world, and then manages to say: "And he's an economist, and he's rational." Cue audience cracking up. I'll not go ALL the way into that comment, but think about how today's economy is doing, and then consider how rational economists are.

Anyway: Go enjoy McGonigal's talk, but don't leave your skepticism at home. It's by being skeptic, cynical, rational and a bit disrespectful of the motives of people with convictions so strong that they tend towards preaching that we can find the interesting ideas in all the chaos being pitched to us every day.