Monthly Archives: December 2018

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Final Thoughts on Ivanhoe & Gaming Readings

**(Apologies for the lengthy post, but I’m hoping to make up for 1-2 blog posts here)**

After the completion of our Ivanhoe projects, I’m most struck by the questioning of how can players engage in conversations of experiences towards a particular game when an individual player’s cultural experience determines how they can identify with the notion of escapism as we embodied different places and characters in our Ivanhoe platforms. Aside from the idea of escapism as a mental mode of disengaging with one’s reality, escapism can also be understood as fantasy, meaning an escape to radical and dystopian virtual realities that can be wishfully and longingly applied to our societal sense of what is or could be real. Essentially this would be the inverse to games such as Southpark and GTA that capitalize on the presumed experience of a singular type of player and draw on addressing issues in popular American culture at the expense of stereotyping marginalized groups. Specifically, I turn to a rare AAA title developed by Hangar 13—Mafia 3 (https://mafiagame.com/), that invites players to play through the experience of a Black Vietnam war veteran set in 1968, New Bordeux (fictional New Orleans). Everything about the themes and setting of this game engrosses the player in the racial setting and landscape of the time period, drawing heavily from the likes of James Baldwin and Jim Brown to inform the political voices of the time. From uncomfortable moments such as being racially profiled by police while open roaming in the game, to moments of social justice when main protagonist Lincoln Clay straps a corrupt (white supremacist) politician’s body to a statue of Andrew Jackson to send a message to the Italian mob, while extreme in dramatism and violence, offer an immersive experience that can draw people from many different experiences to engage in what Mary Flanagan describes as “subversion”. Subversion as a creative act can be thought as an example of a game that can stimulate conversations that question the reality of our political structures in a meaningful way, I would argue is a form of escapism. Despite this, certain aspects are draining from the perspective of people who live through the many real-world instances of racial inequality. While being reminded of the racism in American culture may be counter to the idea of escapism, how can we find more balance in using games to challenge our sense of societal reality while honoring the accuracy of history?

Considering that the majority of the dialogue I’m concerned has been been studying centers around diversity and representation of characters in video games, I found Ian Bogost’s article for the Atlantic to be a rather fresh and stimulating viewpoint. I actually get the sense that Bogost’s work seems to somewhat resent the pervasiveness of identity politics in the modern-day video game debate. He seems to think that the reason why identity politics has become such a potent force in the conversation is that it is rooted in a selfish obsession for personal identification and representation. Now, while he evidently has a decent awareness and concern for the ubiquity of social issues and inequality, I think he is still coming from a place of privilege in perhaps not understanding how valuable representation can be for typically underrepresented groups. And perhaps he takes for granted that he’s had to wrestle less with his own personal identification. Thus, it seems unfair that he perceives gamers desire for self-identification as a strictly a selfish indulgence. That said, his argument is still a valid one worth reflecting upon. The notion that we must have characters in games in order to achieve diversity and sophistication is one that should be challenged, and I really enjoyed working with my team to think out of the box in turning places into characters in our Quicksand game. The representations of systems and circumstances over individuals can be an incredibly formidable tool in both understanding complex issues of social justice as well as attempting to separate ourselves from our need for personal identification. There is something hauntingly powerful at the thought of abdicating our individual desires in the interest of systems bigger than ourselves. Again, while I think Bogost does occupy a relatively privileged space, his point that it is a luxury to worry about self-representation when there are grander and powerfully destructive forces at work—climate change, wealth inequality, automation, etc. –is a fair critique. Maybe he’s right, that while we are focused on self-expression, and playing a game of identities, billionaires are off playing the game of systems. Given the current state of things in today’s world, we have reason to worry. As Bogost points out, the threat of automation, privatization, surveillance, etc., are all very real. It might be uncomfortable to hear, but there is definitely truth in that to strive for a more promising future, we may need to address the systems themselves rather than the faces of its operators. Otherwise, we will continue to be the Sims “meandering aimlessly in the streets of power broker’s cities.”

 I was also thinking about “ragdoll” physics and how video games might desensitize gamers to violence, and specifically death, so I looked more in detail at Phillips’s article on “Headshots, Twitch Responses and the Desensitization of Performed Violence”, who was referenced in one of Jeff’s readings as a DH scholar in game studies at Georgetown University! Ragdoll physics, as Phillips says, simulates the moment of death and allow for the deceased character to be animated and manipulated to provide “a theoretically endless supply of unique death animations” (4). This animation changes the way we kill in video games, so that it becomes less about simply killing the target and fulfilling some goal of the game, and more about the entertainment of killing another character or creature. The deceased character loses any agency over its body and is subject to the ragdoll physics of the game world, which often means the body can be manipulated by forces of the game or other players. This creates a shocking disparity between the game world and the real world. While it would be highly offensive and disrespectful to manipulate a real-life body, in the game world it is not only possible but encouraged, like practices such as “teabagging” that Phillips mentions.

When Phillips mentioned ragdoll physics, I immediately thought of the game Goat Simulator, which was a game that became very popular online because of its ragdoll physics, in that the goat you play as could be thrown around the map and manipulated countless ways. This was the appeal of the game, but that would certainly not hold true if transferred to reality. There seems to be a large disconnect between the game world and the actual world, and it begs the question of whether players can make sure their game actions don’t negatively impact their real-life decision making, and if game designers have a responsibility to keep a limit on what you can do inside a game universe (move-set). Ragdoll physics brings attention to just another way in which our experience inside a game does not, and should not, match up with our expectations and actions in the real world, and makes me wonder if gamers can keep the two realms reasonably separate, or if they are being desensitized to violence, race, gender, sexuality, and other representations of experience.

Classroom collaboration etiquette

We spent a great amount of time this semester discussing annotation: its history, its intended and unintended uses, our individual approaches to annotation, and discussed *new* forms of social annotation.  We were given the opportunity to play around with a social annotation tool and to use our in-class discussion and reading to inform our engagement with a text online, using that tool. We mastered the use of hypothes.is and created our own, and group, annotations on Melville’s Benito Cereno, which was fun and also a great learning experience.  However, one lingering thought I have about this sequence of the course is that there were very few ground rules set.  I appreciate the freedom for us to play and engage as we saw fit, but I am left with the feeling, for many reasons this semester, of a need for some baseline rules of etiquette and fair play.  I would like to point to some resources that have assisted me with establishing my own personal policy on my approach to belonging in a classroom community and of a netiquette policy for the online work completed during the course.    

I was interested to see if hypothes.is provided a guiding policy on how online discourse, using its social annotation tool, should be conducted, but I did not find anything satisfying.  They do have space on their site dedicated to educational usage, but no mention of etiquette from what I could see: https://web.hypothes.is/education/  I turned to searching for a discussion on Twitter that mentioned best practices for online annotation, but instead of a guide focused on hypothes.is, I found a guide to “Twetiquette.”  It appears that Twitter can be used as a model for how pedagogical tools should and can be used as long as “teachers…establish firm guidelines regarding proper online decorum and expectations for student interaction” (“Tweeting in the Classroom”)   

Let me stop for a moment to contextualize why I’m a little hung up on this idea of establishing some ground rules for etiquette and online discourse.  There were some tense moments during class this semester which I had not encountered fully in my other courses so far, nor had I anticipated that there would be “tense” or “tough” moments when we first met back at the end of August.  I’ve been grappling with the interpersonal dynamics within a classroom setting, and trying to work out what has been going on, especially in a time of much public discourse about what is civil discourse. I recognize that we all come from different places with different perspectives, abilities, and motivations.  This is what makes classroom discourse so exciting and interesting, but I personally really don’t enjoy conflict or tension and expect the classroom to be a civil place where everyone has an equal voice and those voices are respected, but I realize that’s the ideal, and it’s not what happens at all times. I’m very shy as a student and rarely share my thoughts unless called on to do so, and thus understand that naturally, some will have different approaches to class participation.  I honestly still haven’t entirely unpacked the observations I’ve made this semester, but I know that I have spent a lot of time thinking about classroom dynamics, both as a student as an education professional who has to stand up in front of a classroom regularly.

I spend many hours of my professional life working out how to approach classroom content and dynamics and how to improve the content and dynamics with technology, but I rarely speak with students directly about classroom dynamics or ask for their feedback regarding the content they’d like to learn, nor do I rarely spend more than one class session with students (librarians are often only invited in to a course for the “one-shot” library instruction session where we’re tasked with providing and overview of a variety of library resources and services in the hour and fifteen minute class time).  So, this semester got me thinking about how I’ve very infrequently been in a classroom situation where *rules* are established, and perhaps rules isn’t the right word, but I think it’s worth establishing a group policy on behavioral conduct both in class and online (since we used many collaborative tools online to engage with one another, not just face to face, and let’s face it, much of the work we do is online, so it might be important to establish an online behavioral standard for oneself). That’s where I’m at and why I’m writing this blog post, and to be clear, as an instructor, I have never done this much intentional groundwork for establishing a code of classroom conduct myself before, but I plan to implement this in my teaching practice going forward.  

Since I couldn’t find what I was looking for on hypothes.is’s site in regards to online behavior conduct, and the use of Twitter is a somewhat established model, I took a look at what kind of resources the CUNY Graduate Center’s Teaching and Learning Center offered on establishing classroom etiquette, more broadly (not just online etiquette).  I was happy to find the following which I’d like to share with everyone. “Discussion Strategies: Creating Policies for Classroom Discussion” was posted on the Visible Pedagogy @CUNY blog March 9, 2017.  I got to this through the Teach @CUNY Handbook version 2.0, Chapter 3: In the Classroom.  Many of the strategies suggested on this part of the Handbook have been used throughout this past semester, but I was most taken with the last section: Creating a Classroom Community.  The classroom is definitely a community I very much appreciate being a member of, but I think educators need to regularly think about establishing ground rules for discussion behavior (in class and online).  I’ll list the “examples of widely used ground rules” here (taken from http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/activities/groundrules.html):

  • Listen actively — respect others when they are talking.
  • Speak from your own experience instead of generalizing (“I” instead of “they,” “we,” and “you”).
  • Do not be afraid to respectfully challenge one another by asking questions, but refrain from personal attacks — focus on ideas.  
  • Participate to the fullest of your ability — community growth depends on the inclusion of every individual voice.
  • Instead of invalidating somebody else’s story with your own spin on her or his experience, share your own story and experience.
  • The goal is not to agree — it is to gain a deeper understanding.
  • Be conscious of body language and nonverbal responses — they can be as disrespectful as words.

The author of the Visible Pedagogy blogpost that references this list, Amanda Almond — Assistant Professor at the New York City College of Technology, uses this early on in the semester to develop a collaborative understanding (amongst teachers and students in the classroom) of the ground rules for discussion.  She encourages her students to respond to this list and to come up with their own rules so that there is a communal understanding of what is expected.

In summary, I have enjoyed the many approaches to collaboration we’ve been exposed to this semester, even if there have been moments of tension and misunderstanding, and continue to learn about myself, and others, through collaboration.  I am most appreciative of being given the space and time to riff on my thoughts regarding interpersonal classroom dynamics in person and online in this blogpost which is informing my own classroom practice and understanding of my role as a teaching librarian.   

final “presentation” guidelines

As I mentioned in class, Thursday we’ll be sharing our experiences/projects, briefly and informally, as we eat, drink, and think about the semester as a whole. For those who feel more comfortable with some parameters, here are some ideas of how to approach this brief assignment (3-5 minutes is ample):

  • for essays, give a sketch of the argument
  • for objects you’ve built, share a few slides that show what the thing looks like
  • talk about interesting materials you dug up in your research
  • tell us where you’d like to to take this project in the future, or otherwise how the project might lead to future work (e.g., Kelley has discussed doing Twine games with HS students; Katharina is interested in expanding her project to include all available narratives of Jews displaced from Vienna during the Nazi period)
  • talk about failures and frustrations: we don’t do this nearly enough in higher ed, though JITP is a leader
  • explore ideas for new projects that working on this project inspired in you

Have fun, and I look forward to hearing about your work next week.

quick follow-up on Patrick’s presentation

A hearty thanks to Patrick for his excellent tour of text analysis and NLTK in particular. I just wanted to follow up with a couple of notes and links that might be useful to those interested in further study:

  • The NLTK Book is one-stop shopping for getting up to speed on the platform and (as Patrick demonstrated several times) quick searches for syntax, etc. even for experienced users.
  • The Stanford Literary Lab is an excellent place to sample the kinds of things you can do with text analysis in ways that combine traditional humanistic questions with data-driven answers grounded in the kinds of analysis that computing makes possible, or in some cases, just must easier, than traditional print-based research methods.
  • In case anyone was puzzled about Patrick’s references to the cloud over Franco Moretti, the figure most associated with “distant reading” (and a founder of the aforementioned Stanford Lit Lab). He has been accused of truly horrible acts: for those who want to read about it, one of his accuser’s narratives is here.