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.

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.

Cow Clicker

As I mentioned in my presentation last week, the facebook game, “Cow Clicker,” was developed by Ian Bogost as commentary on facebook games.  You are allowed to click on your cow every six hours, and each time you click, you earn more clicks.  You can also encourage your friends to play, and then you can click their cows, too.  You can read more about Bogost’s thoughts on the game here.  He talks about four dangerous factors associated with social games: enframing, the idea that people are just there to accomplish tasks for one another; compulsion, the irresistible urge to go back and click the cow again; optionalism, which I take to mean the idea that nothing bad would happen if you didn’t click the cow; and destroyed time.  Destroyed time is a big one for me.  Why do people allow themselves to be sucked in?  Not just to these social games, like Farmville and Mafia Wars, but to Pinterest, or even facebook itself?  What are we getting from these experiences?  Some of these are easier to justify than others, but the Cow Clicker game is so purposefully ridiculous that it draws attention to the fact that although some of the other time sucks in which we engage may be wizzier, they are equally stupid.  I think it’s valuable to be mindful of how we’re spending our time and ask ourselves whether it’s spent well.  The digital nature of these things makes them portable.  We never just stare out the window at the doctor’s office, we play these games, update our facebook statuses, and check Pinterest for recipes.  It’s not inherently bad, but it’s also not inherently valuable.  I love the way Cow Clicker brings this issue out in such an amusing way.  Bravo to Ian Bogost, and I hope that the revolution he speaks to in his article comes about soon.

Tailspin (2008)

English artist Christine Wilks has put together a combination of sounds, text, and visual images (sometimes animated, sometimes static), to tell a story about a girl Karen and her relationship with her father. The father wanted to be a fighter pilot in England during World War 2 when the “Spitfire” was being used predominantly as an interceptor for home defense from enemy bombers. Unfortunately, because of deafness in one ear he never became a pilot his, “Dashed hopes crushed.” Karen’s father was an air fitter instead and witnessed firsthand the heroic work of the fighter pilots, as well as the horrific death of at least one pilot on the ground trapped in his cockpit after an explosion: “Thank God for his dud ear.”

Karen compares her father’s frustration with his deafness, and “dashed hopes” to the preemptive tactics of the Spitfire pilots. He “spits fire” at her children when they are playing too loudly and aggravating his Tinnitus. He shouts a lot in his exasperation, with muffled shouting noises recorded to play with the texts. He never listens to Karen, even when she tries to convince him to get hearing aids: “Her argument shot down in flames.”

By oscillating through the series of different situations and anecdotes, Wilks puts together an effective impression of the ongoing tension between Karen and her father. The texts shift from memories of Karen’s father as an air fitter; Karen’s childhood memories of flying kites, looking at birds with her father, or watching war movies; arguments with her father about dealing with his deafness; uncomfortable home scenes with Karen’s children and her father; and subsequent fears of Karen’s for the negative impact of her father’s outbursts and anger on her own children.

The use of disconcerting noises, such as sirens, a man screaming, bombers diving, chaotic video-game sounds, etc., contribute to the feelings of tension when viewing the screens. These alternate with a few “blue sky” backgrounds which are very calm and tranquil, contrasting starkly to the agitating sounds. Video-game-like characters move hectically and mechanically across some screens, supposedly representing Karen’s children. In addition multiple Spitfires fly or dive or crash. Diagrams of ears and hearing aids also make an appearance in many places. All of these visuals and sounds function together to build the story and create the overall atmosphere of the work.

The final words of the piece are: “Hang onto deafness for dear life.” Karen has come to the conclusion that her father is using his deafness to self-protect and “deaden the fear” of facing the painful realities of his life’s disappointments, his shame (“A fighter pilot is shame free, that’s a hero”); and at least one horrific experience of watching a pilot die. This denial is instrumental as his coping mechanism. But Karen’s father is not the only one in denial as Karen convinces herself that her father’s angry shouts will not damage her children. What surfaces in the progression of the work is the tragic sense that Karen is denying her own damage as a consequence of her father’s behavior. Like father, like daughter: “Turn a deaf ear, maybe it will go away.”

Phone Story: Why I Hate Politically-Motivated Gaming

I was (and still am) that gamer that spent most of his life constantly seeking examples of hip, contemplative games to show to his high school and college girlfriends, family members, and other general skeptics that video games are art, that they are documentary, that they are more than just mindless polygon killing sprees. It’s why titles like Deus Ex and System Shock, with their blend of politics, philosophy, and “fun” will forever sit at the top of my list of favorite games the same way someone would look at Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, or Battlestar Galactica.

But then there is Phone Story. And despite my admiration of thought-provoking video games, there seems to be this uncanny coincidence regarding “political” games: while effective in conveying their stance/argument, politically-motivated games, like Phone Story, are simultaneously unable to deliver a strong, thoughtful game play experience.

Designed as a series of mini-games with an accompanying narrative, Phone Story is an “educational game” that seeks to instruct willing consumers on the dangers of smart phone technology and its relationship to exploitation through global capitalism and neo-colonialism without, in any way, attempting to condescend or insult their audience as responsible or complicit. But that, in and of itself, is OK. If the developers of Phone Story want to bludgeon over my head the dangers of global free market economy through a series of “mini-games,” I am fine with that. I take more issue with the way in which the game itself is designed, alluding back to the “uncanny coincidence.”

Beginning my first playthrough, on the first mini-game, I was so focused on hearing what the voice had to say that I was not aware of what I was supposed to do. I immediately failed, and was promptly told to start over. I did, and focused on the objective. I completed it, but I did not entirely remember what the voice was trying to say. And over this series of mini-games, I constantly found myself frustrated, struggling to hear the political narrative while at the same time completing the objective. I found it was easier to listen the first time, and fail, than try and listen while completing the objective.

I think this frustration came into climax about four or five “games” in, where I was to click and drag objects off a conveyor belt and give them to one of the four appropriate, color-coded sprites. I was so focused on this menial task, I was no longer listening to the activity. I was no longer listening to the narrative; I was mindlessly attempting to fill up the yellow bar and reach my “goal.” And, in a sense, that entire process of completing the game, of being “educated,” is cheapened.

But perhaps that is also the point? Perhaps I’m just that uneducated consumer walking into glass doors to get my next iPhone. It is impossible to get that daily dose of “mindless” entertainment while still remaining conscious of the economic impact these smart phones have on the population(s) of both developing and developed nations. We like to think of video games as thought-provoking exercises, equal to their print-friendly narrative counterparts, but even elements of Phone Story can be trivialized by objective-based gaming through progress meters and upper-right corner high scores.

So while I think Bogost is on the mark establishing “documentary games collide with a problem of participation,” I think Phone Story is an example where some documentary games are not too linear … but not linear enough. (69)

What happened to my smiling background?

World 1-1These smiles in the background defined big parts of my childhood. The mood, the design, the color palettes; all have become secondhand to me in my platforming history. Not the menacing, cryptic excerpts found in Jason Nelson’s “game, game, game and game again.” Disturbing music mixes, hand-drawn doodles and scribbles, aggressively written text scattered in the background; everything about this game has theming that transcends what the game has you doing. Which is jumping and moving. Collecting collectible doo-dads. Secret pathway and taunting vortexes of doom. What am I playing?

Well it seems like I’m playing a game that is more about the message than the gameplay. The gameplay supplies a means of progressing through a narrative, a non-cohesive one at that. This could be compared to flipping a page, clicking on next page, or other means of interacting with various parts of new media as we’ve explored this semester.  The appeal of the game is the level on interaction involved. Because of past histories with games, surpassing the video game era and reaching into every history of game development, internet designers have a huge catalog to study and develop games with.

What I found most engaging about the games is the methodology on directing the player. Starting level with extended titles to theme the stages and presenting an ambiguous player to control allow anyone accessing the game a unified degree of entry. The game does not care if you are a gamer or not; it wants you to be able to play.

What is most engaging is the theming and tasks. One level that stuck out to me was the level with block. Having the creature go up the stairs collecting things was reminiscent of the end of most Mario Brothers levels, which the ends of the stairs would lead to a leap for the flag of completion. Instead, we have an intended fall to the bottom and scrolling to the left. This part felt the most degrading, as my gaming desire for success involved failing in the most literal sense.

The Day After

Before I played September 12th, I immediately envisioned a “day after” tragic portrait of New York City- guessing it would be a game in which I would have to navigate throughout the aftermath on the streets.  I thought it would be sort of like “We Feel Fine” but more of an emotional look into the people of the city.  This was not something that really appealed to me, so I wasn’t really looking forward to the game.

Instead, this game was much more shocking than I had imagined.  The setting is in what I can only assume is Afghanistan.  There is a sandy landscape with palm trees, simple square buildings, outdoor markets, and people that seem to be in two categories: bad guys, and civilians.  There are even dogs and children running around.  It is a simple game and background, and I couldn’t figure out how to do anything but shoot.  Also, navigating through-out the game, you can’t really go anywhere, the entire landscape is the same.

The goal seems to be to hit the “bad guys” without harming any civilians, which seems to be impossible.  I fired a few times, and as I got a “bad guy” down, I also killed civilians, and even a dog.  The game plays with your emotions, as you hear a woman crying when you accidentally hit a civilian or civilian area.

The games says in the beginning that there is no winning or losing- just choosing to shoot or not to shoot.  At first, I shot many times, trying to hit my target, but it seems no matter how hard I tried, I also took out people and things that I really didn’t want to- such as a outdoor market, dog, or child.

The people all kind of look alike, and it is hard at first to spot the terrorists among the civilians.  Everyone has the same type of walk and seems to be moving at the same pace.  I assume that the point of the game is that it is very hard to kill the terrorists without hurting innocent bystanders, and that shows the harsh reality of war.

My Poor Avatars

In the game “Darfur is Dying,” the player is faced with the realities of the current situation facing those living Darfur. Trying to get water was very difficult for me (maybe because I never play video games?). I’m not sure if it was purposely that difficult, but I made it to the well on my third avatar, only to get captured on the way back with my jug full of water. It is a sad game to play. It was incredibly difficult to attempt to get to the well only to continually get caught. I got most of the family caught. I was sad to realize how slow the mother was and she was caught very early on. I tried to go to the village but we were out of water to I had to keep go out to forage for water. It was quite frustrating and I bit scary. Avoiding the trucks of Janjaweed was not an easy task. It seemed like they just kept going. I felt bad for my avatars for getting stuck with me. I felt bad selecting little kids to run around trying to get water. It made me feel almost like a bad person because it seems like something an adult should do since there is such a high risk of getting caught. I managed to get almost the entire family caught. I’m unsure if the game is intentionally difficult in order to create a realistic experience of the sad real-world conditions in Darfur. I know that I felt frustrated that I didn’t do very well. For full disclosure, I couldn’t figure out what to do in the village. All I did was wander around.

I could see how this game was like what Ian Bogost discussed as far as the game recreating a realistic experience by commemorating “the memories of those lost by sharing the operational reality” of their experiences. Unlike the 9-11 experience that Bogart refers to in that quote, the Darfur situation is repeatable because the issue being addressed by the creation of this game is that these atrocities continue to occur and the game hopes to inspire the user to care and want to do something about it.

Twine: where E-lit meets mapping

Twine is a program used to create interactive stories through hypertext mapping. E-literature and mapping have met in the middle with this program, letting “you organize your story graphically with a map that you can re-arrange as you work.” Similar to the IF stories or choose your own adventure, twine grants agency to the reader, as well as the writer. As a reader, you choose how you will navigate the story, and how the story will be told. As a writer, twine allows you to manipulate time, space, and perspective through its mapping medium.

I recently downloaded the program and began experimenting with twine as a prospective medium for my digital object project. As I began fooling around, I was genuinely surprised by the ease at which I understood the program. Each passage can be created in a new window and linked together, creating a web-like story that can be a simple as  point A to point B, or as complex as a spiral. “Links automatically appear on the map as you add them to your passages, and passages with broken links are apparent at a glance.” Over all, the program is fairly user friendly, even to a new user.

However, that is not to say that there is not a fair amount of frustration to be had, especially once users get past the novelty of learning how to simply use the program, and begin to attempt creating a complex and thoughtful story. I’ve stumbled upon complications while mapping out my story: if it is too simple, it’s just not that interesting, but if it’s too complicated to follow, the reader will get lost and become uninterested (at least, in my opinion). So I am working on finding a balance between continuity and linear prose, and innovative twine mapping that involves the reader, not by simply asking the reader to click through links to continue the story, but by truly engaging the reader, and asking for their participation.