Mapping the Human Element

Stamen Design’s Photo-Sharing Explosions Flowers are similar to the data visualizations We Feel Fine and The Whale Hunt: a harmonious balance of content, form, and humanity.  In other words, the original data has not been altered extensively into an entirely new form, such as in Black and White by Mark Napier, a “non-visualization” of the 0’s and 1’s in programming code.  Nor has it exclusively been collected and simply rearranged (in its original form) to make an assessment, such as Making Visible the Invisible by George Legrady et al., a numerical map of titles checked out at a public library. It finds a “happy medium” of both methodologies while simultaneously connecting it to the human element.

Specifically, We Feel Fine connects to the emotions in words written throughout the internet; The Whale Hunt connects to the emotions of experience from the photographs of a trip; however, the Photo-Sharing Explosion Flowers take a broader leap: they project the act of sharing—a fundamental human expression of love—from 3 posts on George Takei’s wall on Facebook.  Moreover, the form Stamen Design’s group chooses to display this buried element of humanity further highlights this connection: a growing flower.  Thus, it reveals the interconnectivity not only between humans but between all forms of life.

(It also makes me question: Since Facebook asked Stamen to create this for the new site Facebook stories, was their purpose to reveal the human element in Facebook?  Was Facebook’s purpose a PR ploy?  If the answer is “yes,” does this take away the authenticity and therefore “humanness” of the project because a “machine” or corporation asked Stamen to do it?)

It is also important to note that these three re-imagined databases could not project a certain aspect of humanity without starting from that element.  Napier and Legrady start with “cold, hard numbers” and end there.

Wreck-it Ralph

For this last blog post, I thought it might be relevant to talk about a movie I saw this weekend for my last blog post. Wreck-It Ralph is about a video game villain who doesn’t want to be the bad guy anymore. This is a movie about the negative effects of procedural rhetoric. Because Ralph has to knock down the building, its residents hate him. He doesn’t want to be hated, but the procedure forces him to continue knocking down the building every time. In the end, he doesn’t find a way to break the procedure; instead he makes peace with the fact that he has a role (albeit an unpleasant one) in his community.

Shift to another game in the movie: a rebel video game character from a defunct game succeeds in changing the procedure in game that doesn’t belong to him. In changing the procedure, he makes himself the leader of the game and relegates the true leader to the status of “glitch.” He defies the procedure, but doing so makes him wretched. He constantly struggles to prevent others from realizing what he’s done, and the deception marginalizes the true leader. He incites the other game characters to discriminate against her, and he prevents her from participating in the game.
Since she is unable to participate in the game, she is miserable. Ralph figures out the big secret, and helps to restore the girl to her rightful place, while eliminating the rogue character. All is right with the world again. And the amazing thing to me in all this is how protective the movie is of the procedural rhetoric. Any deviation from the procedure causes chaos, unhappiness, and possibly death. Why can’t the characters in the games/movie break the procedures? Because that’s how they were written. The procedures know better than the characters, and more importantly, the creator of the game is using the procedure to make an argument.
I view media very differently now. My kids were upset because Ralph isn’t allowed to be good. I was pleased that Ralph realized the important role he has to play in the game creator’s rhetoric.

This is How You Will Die

Jason Nelson, a familair name in this class, produced a pretty hilarious slot death game called This is How You Will Die. According to Nelson, the game takes a pared-down version of a regular online slot machine game’s code and replaces the images with 5 short descriptions that get mixed and matched to tell you how you end up dying. Not being a fan of Nelson’s work in general (I find it to be generally…well, annoying) I actually really enjoyed reading/playing this game.

One of the first things that really tickled me was just loading the game and seeing three boxes, one with your “demise credits,” one to spin the wheel, and the last to “explain death.” Only a html based slot machine game would claim to be able to explain death, though from the content given you’re provided more of an explaination of death being a “final move” rather than what death means. However, even thinking of death as a final move is ironic for this game because as long as you have enough demise credits to continue playing, death is not a final move but a continuous one, made over and over with different results. Perhaps I did not play enough to produce a “winning” result, i.e. a spin that increases your demise credits afterwards instead of simply depleting them, but in order to keep playing after 3 spins I had to keep refreshing the game page. I figured after dying a million spins worth of deaths I would at least vaguley figure out how one would score points (perhaps it was my own bias that I sensed an insinutation in the line “you need at least 10 credits to continue forecasting your death” that gaining credits was even possible), but to no avail. 28 credits, 19 credits, 10 credits, 1 credit; over and over.

Other than the outline of the game, the disjointed, yet syntactically fitting, phrases were good fun. Especially interesting is the fifth and final part of the sequence where you seemingly get a look in the world after your death. While some of these post-death prophecies have only to do with people outside of yourself (the dead one), some (like, “You are glad you are dead” seem to contradict Nelson’s very precise phrasing in the “explain death” section that “your last [motion/move/doorway/etc.] is your death.”

How effective is it?

“The artist himself becomes enclosed within restricted borders, indicating that the radical dichotomy between the game and the real is ultimately not sustainable” (Raley 63)

When Luis Hernandez was detained by Homeland Security in 2005, and later barred from entering the United States for five years, he “in a sense became embedded in his own game” (Raley 63). Obviously there was something politically threatening about the game in order for it to warrant such a reaction from the government. Maybe it was the posture it took towards the importation of illegal narcotics into the States, in a way sanctioning it by making it the “goal” of the game and a sympathetic representation of the traffickers? Or was it essentially the maps revealing the underground tunnels which facilitated the move of drugs into the country, making it a practical threat to national security? Interestingly, Hernandez himself sees it as “art” and as a piece of art it was commissioned to help educate Americans and give them a greater “cross-understanding” of the issues surrounding the U.S. and Mexican border (63). He separates it from the material realities it represents, and then surprisingly finds himself subject to those same realities.

It brings up the question how separated can it really be if it its goal is to be effective? At some point groups like Critical Art Ensemble in order to have any impact at all, need to cross the line into potentially subversive and risk-necessitated actions. If something is just educational, or pedagogical in purpose, can it have the influence that would eventually predicate action on the part of the audience? How convincing is a game or a disturbance or a symbolic action if it appears, creates a scene, attracts attention and then disappears again with the waters of social and cultural normality closing over it? Can it be more persuasive than the judges on “The Voice”? In a fattened society like America with so much to gain (always) and nothing to lose (always), what kind of messages or PR could move them towards actions? Maybe not video games…

I think there is not desperation enough to warrant it. We certainly don’t have the desperation which would risk life and limb, suffer and keep trying, to cross a border so that they could share our Lazy-boys with us.

Sometimes the best tool for dismantling is the master’s…

Raley’s “what’s the point?” is misplaced conclusion to her discussion of  swarming and other denial-of-service attacks (and a little lazy.)  This is not the material question. Unfortunately, I think (perhaps in an effort to feign neutrality at the end and in her discussion of the meaning of “hactivism”), she fails to more clearly connect the dots between how material-but-ultimately-symbolic structures of border control: fences, web cams, signs, etc. that require equally material-but-ultimately-symbolic exclusionary modes of resistance (36).

Just like the aim of increasing strict immigration legislation and border security is the exclusion of certain bodies from participation in the United States (further reinforced when those some of same bodies do make it stateside, but do so illegally, and are still excluded because of their status as non-citizens–Agamben’s homo sacer[38]), the tactics of political resistance must also exclude. The Cult of the Sacred Cow may take issue with the application of the term “hacktivism” to these efforts, but their aim as activists is different from EDT or the EZLN (41). Hactivism that seeks to maintain an open Internet can’t rely on cutting off the free-flow of information. The physical expulsion (itself a “denial of service”) of migrant people from the U.S. requires a like response. This isn’t about opening, it’s about exposing the mistreatment and marginalization of migrant and indigenous people for whom the “free-flow of capital” does not exist. They are exploited non-entities within the system governing U.S./Mexican trade relations. This kind of activism cannot deny capital. It cannot reverse that power structure so instead it temporarily limits the free-flow of information. These are as much symbolic/media events in response to the “systemic logic” (43) of denial as they are literal disturbances against individual entities that perpetuate that denial. Maybe it isn’t Sacred Cow’s idealized protest, but it’s still in-keeping with the larger disruptive logic of protest.

With this in mind, Dominguez’s admission that there is no endgame (46) shouldn’t be read  (without a better context in which to frame it) as an inability on the part of activists to look beyond “the next five minutes” or or a failure on the part of media tacticians to coalesce around a singular identity. There is no singular identity. This is what protest looks like when it is in resistance to similar unending assault  It’s an acknowledgement that on this particular front the notion of an “end” does not exist because undeclared wars do not have declared ceasefires. Moreover, it’s not a matter of just doEAT-ing it and her cutesy imperative directs (46). Dominguez’s understanding that to notions of utopia cannot be anymore clearly fixed seems to be a nuanced understanding of the nature of resistance: as the systems and logic of oppression shift, so too must the resistance to that oppression and what it means to escape it.

The Negation of Negation

The kind of defamiliarization and reappropriation that Raley discusses in “Border Hacks” is not unfamiliar to all of us. In the recent presidential debates, Romney’s comments about “binders full of women” caught fire and was all over Twitter and Facebook in “meme” form and otherwise. The joke took on a life of its own to the point that the context was lost. Those who did not even watch the debate knew of this comment and were amused and weren’t even sure what was so funny.

Raley writes that rather than interfering with infrastructure, “Web activism aims to transform the social conditions in which that infrastructure is situated” (42). I would consider some events like Facebook going all pink for breast cancer awareness to be a form of web activism. Additionally, Google does this almost daily with changing their widely recognized logo to alert users to and important event going on in the world such as the anniversary of a significant discovery or invention or the birthday of a person who a noteworthy person.

This “border hack,” as Raley calls it, is one of many acts that seek to defamiliarize the signs of everyday life, pursuing a series of provocative events or spectacles rather than a program of systematic change. An event like the Occupy Movement could be a form of border hacking. Protesters were occupying, invading or hacking a space in which they did not belong. Which begs the question of where does border hacking end and go ol’ fashioned protesting begin? Isn’t a border always being “hacked” when a protest is taking place? I would say Raley would agree when she sums up this non-revolution as the “negation of negation” (46). I think she would feel that the Occupy Movement would certainly apply, especially considering the media was confused and almost annoyed that there was no coherent message coming from the movement, but Raley would consider them a success because, as she says, “A temporary provocation, however momentary, can change the signifying field in which it occurs” or to put it more simply, any disturbance is good because it causes the observer to pause and think about why that disturbance occurred. Much like the changing of the border signs.

Antiwar or Proterrorism?- Rita Raley

Rita Raley’s description of persuasive war games in Tactical Media raises inquiries regarding the extent to which a game can be considered persuasive and political or a threat to national security. She exemplifies antiwar games as a form or persuasive videogames that “advocate for social change” through procedural rhetoric (“they way that a videogame embodies ideology in its computational structure”) that indicates the limits and downfalls of war (Raley 85-86). For instance, the persuasive game September 12 demonstrates that aerial bombing creates more terrorists and enemies as innocent civilians are often killed in the process of eliminating terrorists; friends and family of the innocent victims then become terrorists to fight against those who wrongfully killed their loved ones (Raley 86-87). Due to the fact that the game cannot be won or lost, September 12 evokes a clear antiwar message by indicating that there is no positive end to war, yet more problems are created by engaging in warfare.

In contrast, games such as Battlefield 2 can be juxtaposed against antiwar games such as September 12 in the sense that Battlefield 2 “allows players to switch sides” and portrays the United States as the enemy (Raley 74). Several other controversial games allow players to learn about the various functions of operating aircrafts and eventually let players hijack airplanes (Raley 73).  These games, in contradiction to antiwar games, do not spread an antiwar message but one that is pro war from the point of view of the enemy. Raley indicates that games in which the player acts as the terrorist intend to portray “sympathy and identification” so that the player can identify and sympathize with the opposing party (Raley 78). While the intent of such games may be to evoke sympathy, Raley points out that “Representation, or in this case simulation, paves the way for real experience” (Raley 78). In other words, at what point does the simulation of terrorism become reality?

While persuasive videogames aim to evoke a powerful political message through the use of visual and procedural rhetoric, games in which the player acts as the enemy use procedural rhetoric in the sense that users are actually embodying the terrorists in order to sympathize with the character. However, this form of procedural rhetoric calls into question the extent to which players are sympathizing with the characters or actually thinking as the enemy. If players embody the enemy in thought and action, it poses a threat to our national security. These games seem not to spread a political message but the sympathy of terrorists appears to endorse, condone, and even promote terrorism. It is one thing to promote an antiwar message, yet when a videogame attempts to sympathize with the enemy, at what point is it considered a threat to America?

Tactical Media and Social Consciousness: A Help or Hinderance?

Having finished reading the second chapter of Raley’s book, I felt there was a pretty distinct tilt on the debate over illegal immigration. The argument surrounding the pros and cons of “migrants” goes well beyond the scope of what can be considered in a 400-word blog post. But what can be considered, and I think what must be examined, is just in what ways tactical media works to dissolve social binaries—and whether or not they should be.

Echoing popular anticolonial works like The Wretched of the Earth, Raley replicates Fanon’s warnings against errant nationalism. Argued as a re-enforcement of colonial dichotomies, Fanon believed that nationalism bounded citizens in the eternal binary of colonizer versus colonized, internal versus external. For any collective to identify itself as fully decolonized, it must thus reject the internalization of nationalism. For Raley, this argument is appropriated to a more contemporary setting: specifically the “border war” between the United States and Mexico.

Raley scaffolds her argument with Huntington’s assertion that to define the United States and Mexico as oppositional is flawed; the division of “Anglo” versus “Latino” is both “putatively archaic and primal” as it fails to recognize the globalizing trend of migration (37). And so long as these social binaries continue to be exerted, “migrants” will be eliminated from social consciousness. With the additional help of Judith Butler, Raley concludes that, as “de-realized” individuals, any acts of violence against these dehumanized migrants are invisible to the American public—as the famous adage says—out of sight, out of mind (39).

But to argue that tactical media cares about awakening social consciousness is a difficult pill to swallow. DDoS attacks on servers fly in the face of “hacktivism” and its genuine protest on internet censorship. By “violating the principle of free flow,” groups like SWARM prove to be shockingly contradictory to Raley’s argument (41). By shutting down sites, they do not improve American social consciousness so much as obscure it. Many of these activist movements, such as Tuesday Afternoon’s demand to terminate American borders, shows the efforts of tactical media are more symbolic than actual (47). Perhaps it is as Dominguez says:  as “permanent cultural resistance” that constantly changes with the times, tactical media doesn’t yet know entirely what it wants—except only to keep questioning (46).

Freedom of Movement in “Tuesday Afternoon”

As I was reading Rita Raley’s chapter on “Border Hacks: Electronic Civil Disobedience and the Politics of Immigration,” I become interested in the concept of movements of money and goods versus the movements of undesirable populations. She mentions Tuesday Afternoon as a hypermedia project that speaks to this subject. Therefore, I investigated Tuesday Afternoon and decide to interact with this media object to get a sense of how international borders have become increasingly easy to cross for capital, but increasingly difficult to cross for migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and all people searching for the freedom of movement. However, while playing this hypermedia, I was pulled into the stories and memories of the border crossers, the feelings of rejection and hopelessness in their desperate situations.

Tuesday Afternoon Trebor Scholz and Carol Flax is a hypermedia project that puts the user into the shoes of a person who is willing to risk everything, including his/her life to reach the United States. Tuesday Afternoon uses image, text, animation, and sound in interactive frames that make each user’s experience with this piece unique. The user is not forced to make any choice, but can explore this work by selecting the path that appears most interesting. As the user begins to interact with the piece, it reveals individual border crossing experiences as snippets of memories. In addition to these memories, the screen begins to fill in the background image, one square at a time. These memories and the image in the background slowly unfold as the user clicks from one text string to the next. On the left hand side of the screen there is a looping video of a path leading into the desert. This video plays non-stop. In addition, there is a looping audio track that plays the sound of crackling wind and footsteps. Down the center of the screen is a sharp, jagged red line. This illustrates what could be an aerial view of a barrier or wall along a border.

After discovering the individual border crossing experiences, the background is revealed. It is a barren, dirt road, with grass on both sides. In the far distance are the mountains, but no sign of civilization. Above is a blue sky spotted with clouds and sunshine streaming through the breaks in the clouds. The user is placed on the same path that the border crossers used in their attempts to come to the United States. While you do not get a sense of the environmental conditions, you do feel the exhaustion mentally. With no sight of civilization, food, water, or shelter, you can understand how treacherous this journey might have been, and how hopeless, tiring, and disheartening it could have seemed at times. As you hear the footsteps and see this path in front of you, you begin to wonder, will this ever be over?  Will I ever make it there? How much longer must I walk?  The user begins to have a unique experience of his own as he gains an understanding from the memories and experiences of those who have already walked this path.

Why is it now personal?

It’s personal; but it’s not business—according to Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart’s take on abusive game design.  Then what is its “personal purpose”?  Like a broken record, they repeatedly state that abusive game design forces a dialogue between the player and the designer—but they neglect to move on to “why?”  In their reasoning, the functionality of conventional, conservative game design makes the product entirely player-centric—as the designer must be “an advocate for the player” and “…must be egoless” (both qtd. in Sec. 2).  However, when game theory abuses this standard, the product becomes designer-centric, thus promoting a dialogue between the player and the designer.  They reason that the game, in this case, “is not about mastering the system, but about knowing the designer” (Sec. 5.1).

Perhaps Wilson and Sicart’s intent is to simply define and describe; yet even if this is the case, it must still contain reasoning or purpose.  All methodology does.  Or is the methodology only to go against the current gaming methodology?  Furthermore, how is abusive game design situated within the methodologies of new media?

First, could abusive game design turn a profit as subgenre of gaming?  In “Countergaming” Alexander Galloway discusses how the mod Counter-Strike of the successful game Half-Life became so popular in itself that the company who designed the original licensed the modified code and sold it commercially (113).  If an abusive game design follows Wilson and Sicart’s evaluation of success (described in Section 6), is it not possible that it too could become a consumer product?

Second, is abusive game design a type of tactical media that challenges the status quo and initiates a counter dialogue?  Fat Man Down—which is dialogue-based—certainly crosses over into this category as it meant to reveal society’s negative discourse toward obese people (Ostergaard).  However, only the “socially abusive” or politically-based games—such as September 12th or PhoneStory that have a real-world application can raise these questions.  All other abusively-designed games keep the dialogue between the designer and the player.

Lastly, could abusive game design be a form of artistic expression, a way to push the creative boundaries in this form?  Wilson and Sicart allude to this when they state: “abusive game design is not a functional approach to design, but an aesthetic one…” (Sec. 5.1).  (Emphasis mine.)  In Kaizo Mario the enemies and obstacles are creatively placed in each level to provide the ultimate challenge for the player, which yields creative strategies from the hands of the player.