How Does It Feel? Beyond Genre Towards Analysis of Experience

by Chris Lowthorpe in , ,


This paper was originally written and published for the Media Education Journal 52. It reinforces that extant media theory is not always sufficent to analyze non-linear, co-authored experiences with little or no narrative, such as Flower by ThatGameCompany, and serves as an introduction to the Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetic framework for analyzising and designing digital games. 

ABSTRACT

Digital games consist of unique elements that clearly distinguishing them from more established screen-based media such as film and television. These elements, commonly known as mechanics, create non-linear and co-authored experiences giving rise to dynamic patterns of play producing aesthetic experiences that elicit emotion from the player. Existing genre analysis paradigms imported from more established disciplines may be useful to analyse games that heavily employ film or literary conventions, or which are derived from particular works or extant genres such as Film Noir. However, understanding how digital games – experiences often comprising a core of asymmetrical gameplay that gives rise to emergent narratives augmented by a representational shell with little or no characters, dialogue, or recognisable genre conventions – create meaning poses a distinct challenge for these frameworks. This paper identifies how game studies has developed concepts and methodologies to enable constructive critical analysis of game experiences for scholars and designers alike. 

INTRODUCTION

The prohibitive costs and high risks of AAA game development, the rise of the mobile and casual sectors, and an increase in digital downloading of games via platforms such as Apple’s App Store or Valve’s STEAM [Brightman, 2012] means start-ups and small game studios are increasingly developing compact games for a changing marketplace. Many of these games, such as Rovio’s Angry Birds, have a achieved considerable success through giving primacy to gameplay over narrative or rounded characterisation. 

Digital games without characters or structured narrative are not new. At the dawn of the medium, primarily as a result of technological limitations, games such as Spacewar!, its failed commercial derivative Computer Space, and the seminal Pong, relied on simple mechanics to produce a vast and engaging dynamic pattern of gameplay. All three “exhibit a basic asymmetry between the relative simplicity of the game rules and the relative complexity of the actual playing of the game” (Juul, 2005, p.75) and as a result can be regarded as emergent in nature.

Emergent gameplay results in high replay value as the inherent asymmetry between rules and dynamics ensures no two games are the same; a necessity in the arcade where games produce a return on investment by encouraging players to continually spend money. In addition simple rules led to simple instructions. Perhaps the most famous sentence in digital game history is the instructions for Pong: ‘Avoid missing ball for high score’. This simplicity helped make a new, and possibly intimidating, medium accessible by virtue of being simple to understand and play. Add the elegant if rudimentary representational shell, and it is unsurprising Pong has achieved constant popularity throughout its forty year history.

It would be erroneous to describe emergent games as totally without narrative, but the fictions enjoyed are fundamentally different to those usually enjoyed in a film or television text. These fictions are also emergent, not pre-structured or pre-programmed, instead taking shape through the gameplay experience (Jenkins, 2004, p.14). Even as technology has developed to allow the design of increasingly photorealistic games with vast structured narratives, LA Noire or Heavy Rain for example, games that rely primarily on engaging gameplay – the balanced combination of mechanics and dynamics – have continued to thrive. It may even be argued that such games constitute a ‘purer’ gaming experience, uncluttered by costly attempts to replicate the Hollywood blockbuster experience driven by deep-seated ‘cinema envy’ amongst game designers [Jenkins, 2005]. 

THE STRUCTURE OF DIGITAL GAMES

When seeking to analyse any digital game it is first useful to uncover its underlying structure. The question of ‘what a game is?’ has yet to be answered, and the scope of this paper fortunately does not extend to addressing it. However, Mayra (2008) suggests there are certain structural features that make it easier to distinguish between the different forms of meaning-making at work within any game. These distinguishing features are the two layers that constitute the concept of a game: the core and the shell

shell2.jpg

Figure 1. Mayra’s dialectic of Core (gameplay) and Shell (representation) in the basic structure of games. 

The core equates to the ‘gameplay’ layer of the game, comprising the mechanics that result in the dynamic patterns of play underpinning the play experience. These are both abstract – consisting of a unique system of interactions and relationships that remain when the aesthetics, technology, and story are removed (Schell, 2008, p.130) – and transferable; meaning this abstract structure will continue to function and give rise to same dynamic patterns of play regardless of the representational shell it is attached to. For example, Monopoly would be basically the same game regardless of changes in the aesthetic design of the pieces, cards, or board, so long as the designed core of ‘Monopoly mechanics’ was in place. 

At this juncture it is important to point out that while game designers carefully craft a meaningful system of play, they cannot directly design a play experience itself. That only occurs when a player interacts with the designed system. And due to variables in the way the player interacts – cognitively, functionally, and explicitly – this experience will differ. Game designers design the structures and context in which play happens – indirectly shaping player experience – through creating a space of possibility for future action to occur (Salen and Zimmermann, 2004). The experience is unique for each player – particularly in emergent games less hindered by linear requirements of a pre-scripted narrative – and in addition to the designed mechanics, variables related to programming code, hardware, and controls also impact the final player experience in digital games.

Enveloping and dynamically interacting with the core is the shell, or representation. This contains all the semiotic richness modifying, containing, and adding significance to the core gameplay experience (Mayra, 2008). This element is also sometimes referred to as the presentation, and is understood as the expressive and representational element of digital games, dominated by moving images and cinematic techniques,  augmented by sound (Nitsche, 2008). It is the game as a system of signs and cues, both visual and audible, that open up and extend possibilities for narrative layers and cultural context. It is here that existing theory – aesthetic, literary, media, cultural etc. – can most usefully be deployed for the analysis of digital games. Many scholars have made use of extant theories to analyse the representational aspect of games, but before this embarking on this analysis the scholar must consider the core. 

MECHANICS, DYNAMICS, AESTHETICS

The Mechanics, Dynamic, and Aesthetic (MDA) framework is a formal approach to understanding games. Developed by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubeck between 2001-2004, it views digital games as artefacts created within an iterative design methodology, and therefore uses the same approach to analyse them. The authors specifically suggest that iterative analyses support understanding of the end result of game design to refine its implementation, and help analyse the implementation to refine the end result (Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubeck, 2004a, p.1). In particular the authors suggest that scholars must learn to recognise the interactions and interdependencies present in digital games that “create complex, dynamic (and often unpredictable) behaviour” (2004b, p.1) before they can reach informed conclusions about the nature of the experience generated. 

The MDA framework focuses on the game’s core, stressing that fundamental to the methodology is the notion that games are more like artefacts than media. The authors suggest “the content of a game is its behaviour – not the media that streams out of it towards the player” (2004c, p.2). The framework argues that games are designed systems that build behaviour through interaction, and in order to understand this behaviour it advocates concentrating on the mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics of the experience. 

MAD Image.jpg
MAD Image2.jpg

Figure 2. The Components of the MDA Framework. 

MDA treats the relationship between the designer and the player as a ‘two-way street’, with each experiencing the game from a different perspective. The designer crafts a set of mechanics expected – when the player interacts with them – to give rise to dynamic patterns within the game system, resulting in a particular aesthetic experience. These three layers of Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics are mutually dependent. When undertaking analysis of a game it is beneficial to consider both the designer and player perspectives, but to understand and interpret the player experience scholars and researchers start with aesthetics. This starting point also allows designers to focus on experience-driven rather than feature driven design (2004d, p.2). 

MAD 3.jpg

Figure 3. Designer/Player Experience

Aesthetics 

The MDA framework use aesthetics as a layer to capture the subjective experience of the player, and the emotional response or pleasure the game is designed to evoke (Aleven et al, 2010, p.70). It outlines a non-exhaustive taxonomy of eight different aesthetics in an attempt to further define the vague and highly debated concept of ‘fun’. 

MAD4.jpg
Figure 4. MDA Experiences

When deploying MDA it is usual to first identify what aesthetics the player experiences, or what the designer wants them to experience. By applying these aesthetics to the games Charades, Pong, GrandTheft Auto IV, and FIFA13 it can be suggested that they each create the following combinations of aesthetic experience: 

Charades: Fellowship, Expression, Challenge

Pong: Challenge, Sensation, Narrative, Submission,

Grand Theft Auto IV: Discovery, Narrative, Challenge, Fantasy, Sensation, Submission

FIFA13: Challenge, Fantasy, Expression, Sensation, Fellowship, Narrative, Submission

Dynamics

These are the behaviours that result when the player interacts with the designed mechanics during play.  Unlike aesthetics there is no taxonomy of game dynamics offered by the MDA framework. Therefore it is up to the scholar or designers to invent the terms and concepts needed to characterise the dynamics of a given game (Aleven et al, 2010b, p.71). Dynamics are the place where choice meets: the choice of mechanics implemented by the designer, and the choice of action by the player. These choices create a feedback loop that influences behaviours and further choices within the game system. For example, if the designer wants to achieve the challenge aesthetic they will consider dynamics that may elicit this aesthetic, such as opponent play, time or resource pressures. They will then attempt to craft and implement mechanics that could give rise to this dynamic e.g. a two-player game, a timer, or finite lives or health.  A game’s dynamics are the behaviours that result within the game world from actions sanctioned by the games mechanics. 

Mechanics 

Although what actually constitutes mechanics is contested by game scholars and designers alike, the MDA framework considers them to be “the various actions, behaviours, and control mechanisms afforded to the player within a game context” (Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubeck, 2004e, p.4). Using this definition we can extrapolate that mechanics include the foundations of a game: the objects, attributes, states, rules, actions, goals, and control options available to the players. When analysing a game the scholar (or designer) can work backwards from a particular aesthetic, to the dynamics that created it, to the mechanics that support that dynamic. It is worth remembering that the designer can only directly control the mechanics of the game. However, the same process of deconstruction that allows the game scholar to uncover the design choices that may have led to a particular aesthetic outcome also allow the designer to articulate aesthetic goals, and make reasoned choices at a mechanical level to support that outcome (Aleven et al, 2010c).

CASE STUDY: FLOWER

flower 1.jpg

Some contemporary game designers are attempting to explore the unique possibilities of digital games, focusing on the design of experiences rather than features, applications, or narrative (Mayra, 2009, p.6). Perhaps at the forefront is Jenova Chen, Creative Director of That Game Company. Founded in 2006 while Chen and co-founder Kellee Santiago were students at the University of Southern California, the studio has produced a series of critically-acclaimed games that prioritise the player’s emotional experience over complex mechanics, or a clearly defined linear story with deep characterisation and dialogue. Their most recent game Journey was notable for an unnamed protagonist who could emit only a musical note of extendable duration, and containing no dialogue or displayed text except the game credits. 

Released in 2009 Flower is described as “our video game version of a poem” (That Game Company, 2012).  The gameworld of Flower consists of six levels, progressing from representations of a pastoral meadow through sublime landscapes increasingly populated with signs of human civilisation such as wind turbines, until the player reaches the final urbanised cityscape. The game is emergent in nature with asymmetrical gameplay; indeed the mechanics are almost as simple as Pong. It is accompanied by a dynamic score that corresponds to changes in the gameworld with appropriately adjusted instruments and tones in order to reinforce emotional responses in the player. Gameplay consists of the player controlling the wind as it blows a single petal, the petal can be steered by tilting the Playstation 3 controller to alter the pitch and roll, and by pressing one of the pressure sensitive buttons the player can increase the wind and make the petal move faster. Other flowers are visible; approaching them with the petal brings them to life, adding more petals to the original, creating a tail and changing the landscape in the process, usually by adding vibrancy or opening new areas. The game foregrounds the environment and its exploration, achieving a calming, rhythmic quality unhindered by tension. The experience enjoyed by most players has led the game to be described as ‘Zen Gaming’ (Russell, 2009). 

APPLYING MDA TO FLOWER

The Core 

As previously discussed the first-step in analysing an emergent gaming experience such as Flower is to separate the core of the game from its representational shell. It is necessary to temporarily discard the audio-visual presentation in order to truly get ‘under the hood’ and see what makes Flower the experience it is. The presentation can be revisited and analysed later in the process. 

It should be obvious that in order to analyse any game from a scholarly perspective utilising the MDA framework, it is imperative to play it first. Only after you have experienced the game is it possible to categorise it using the taxonomy of aesthetics. After playing through Flower three times, the author categorised his experience as follows (in order of primacy):  

Flower: Discovery, Sensation, Expression, Challenge, Narrative.

To understand how these aesthetics may have been achieved it is now necessary to look back at the possible dynamics and mechanics at work to create these aesthetic outcomes during play. 

Discovery

For discovery to exist as an aesthetic outcome, the game must provide both space and time for the dynamic of exploration. Flower achieves this through a relatively open-world level design and the mechanics of movement – the pitch and roll that control up/down and left/right – coupled with control of the wind that enables forward motion at variable speeds. The absence of mechanics such as a timer, opponent play, or a scoring system means the dynamics of time-pressure, conflict, and resource acquisition are almost completely absent. This allows the player to calmly explore the gamespace at their own pace and rhythm. And it is this pacing and rhythmic quality that perhaps makes the game feel most poetic. In addition, the ‘collecting’ and ‘pollinating’ mechanics explored in more detail below also augment and encourage spatial exploration.

Sensation

The mechanics of ‘collecting’ and ‘pollination’ encourages the player to seek out and collect more petals in order to experience the dynamic of changing the playscape by increasing the colour and vibrancy, starting a wind turbine, or allowing access to a new area as a reward when certain groups of flowers have been pollinated. This change in the presentation signifies progress through the level, providing a visual and audible reward – complimented by haptic rewards through the controller – to the player. It clearly displays how a designed mechanic gives rise to a dynamic feedback loop that in turn provides changing sensations in reaction to player input; this in turn keeps the player making inputs and thus continue to be engaged with  – and changing – the game. The success with which the designers of Flower achieve this sensation exhibits how well integrated and designed the games mechanics and dynamics are with its representational shell. 

Expression

The achievement of the expression aesthetic is closely integrated with the sensation aesthetic within Flower. Expression comes from dynamics that enable the player to leave their mark on the game, whether through building, constructing, customising or changing (Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubeck, 2004f, p.3). As the player explores and progresses through the game they leave behind a changed landscape; a grassy pasture becomes rich with blooming flowers, wind turbines are activated, and a city returned to nature. To augment this the menu screen also changes as each level is completed, becoming increasingly vibrant. 

Challenge

Challenge exists in Flower but is fairly low-level in comparison to many digital games. The game is not designed to be difficult. Mastering the simple movement mechanics and understanding the ‘collect’ and ‘pollinate’ mechanics provide the biggest challenge to the new player. The ‘crows-nest’ dynamic – taking your trail of petals to a high altitude in order to identify where needs pollination – is also left to the player to figure out, although it is hinted at by the camera. The game provides no detailed instructions, relying on the player to intuitively deduce what needs to be done. The level of challenge this represents may depend on the player’s own proficiencies, but whatever these are the game is designed to keep the player within Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow channel’, somewhere in the narrow margin of challenge that lies between boredom and frustration (Schell, 2009, p.119). 

Narrative

For the game to achieve the narrative aesthetic under the MDA framework it must be seen to achieve the dynamic of dramatic tension. Flower does have a gentle dramatic arc caused by the incremental increasing of difficulty when implementing the mechanics. This is augmented by changes in level design, making the later levels more difficult for the player to navigate and orientate themselves in. Again this is closely integrated, and reinforced, by changes to the representation. In fact much of the dramatic tension is achieved by the game’s representational shell. 

The Shell

Once the analysis of Flower’s shell is complete, the scholar can then embark on deconstructing the game’s representational shell. As mentioned earlier it is here that existing paradigms from more established theoretical disciplines can be deployed most efficiently. It is beyond the scope of this paper to perform a full textual analysis of the representational shell of the game, but useful areas for exploration might include using aesthetic theory to examining the interplay of images within the visual representation; exploring the polysemic nature of Flower as an incomplete fictional world by seeking to identify themes and make intertextual connections to similar works in different media; exploring the spatial qualities of the game through the figure of the flaneur to identify the psychological aspects of the designed environment; or investigating the idea of using an environment as the primary character or protagonist in a work of fiction. 

CONCLUSION

Digital games are designed experiences comprising two-layers, the core and the shell. While it is possible to utilise established media studies paradigms to analyse games as media, these are not sufficient to gain an understanding of the experiential nature of digital games. The MDA framework has been an influential and useful output of games studies as a distinct discipline. Its strengths lie in an ability to analyse and interpret the player experience and uncover design choices that occurred to produce it. By separating out the core from the shell, deconstructing the core using MDA and the shell with theory from the extant media and cultural studies toolkit, before integrating the findings; it is possible to perform an analysis of a digital game that does not suffer from being overly reliant on thinking better suited to other media while highlighting the very reasons digital games are unique from these media.

REFERENCES

Aleven, V., et al. (2010). Toward a Framework for the Analysis and Design of Educational Games. [Internet]. Available from: http://matteasterday.com/Matt_Easterday/Reseach_files/Aleven,%20Myers,%20Easterday,%20Ogan%20(2010).pdf  [Accessed 20th October 2012]

Brightman, J. (2012). [In Press]. Digital Game Sales in US Grew 17% during Second Quarter – NPD. Games Industry International. [Internet]. Available from: http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2012-08-08-digital-game-sales-in-us-grew-17-percent-during-second-quarter-npd [Accessed 20th October 2012]

Hoggins, T. (2009). [In Press]. Flower Video Game Review. The Daily Telegraph. [Internet]. Available from:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/video-games/4611024/Flower-video-game-review.html [Accessed 21st October 2012].

Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M. and R. Zubeck (2004). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. [Internet]. Available from: https://sakai.rutgers.edu/access/content/group/af43d59b-528f-42d0-b8e5-70af85c439dc/reading/hunicke_2004.pdf [Accessed 11th October 2012] 

Jenkins, H. (2004). Games as Narrative Architecture. In: Salen, K. and E. Zimmerman, eds. (2006). The Game Design Anthology: A Rules of Play Reader. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 670 – 686. 

Jenkins, H. (2005). Games: The New, Lively Art. [Internet]. Available from: http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/GamesNewLively.html [Accessed 20th October 2012]  

Juul, J. (2005). Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

Mayra, F. (2008). An Introduction to Game Studies: Games and Culture. London: Sage Publications.

Nitsche, M. (2008). Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

Schell, J. (2008). The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann. 

Salen, K. and E. Zimmerman. eds. (2006). The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Salen, K. and E. Zimmerman. (2004). The Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

LUDOGRAPHY

Atari Inc. (1972). Pong. Sunnyvale, CA: Atari Inc. (Arcade).

Bushnell, N. and T. Dabney. (1971). Computer Space. Mountain View, CA: Nutting Associates. (Arcade).

EA Canada. (2012). FIFA 13. Redwood City, CA: Electronic Arts. (PS3, PS Vita, XBox 360, Windows, Mac OSX, iOS, Android, Cloud-based, et al). 

Quantic Dream. (2010). Heavy Rain. Tokyo: Sony Computer Entertainment. (PS3).

Rockstar North. (2008). Grand Theft Auto IV. New York, NY: Rockstar Games. (PS3, XBox 360, Windows).

Rovio. (2009). Angry Birds. Espoo: Rovio Entertainment. (iOS, Android, PS3, Xbox 360 et al).

Russell, S. et al. (1961). Spacewar!. Cambridge, MA: Unpublished. (PDP-1 Mainframe).

Team Bondi. (2011). LA Noire. New York, NY: Rockstar Games. (PS3, XBox 360, Windows, Cloud-based). 

That Game Company. (2009). Flower. Santa Monica, CA: Sony Computer Entertainment America. (PS3).


Who Let the Dinosaurs Out? Digital Games and the Computer Science Obsession.

by Chris Lowthorpe in , ,


It was the article in Develop that did it. My discomfort with the media mono-narrative about the importance of Computer Science in education, and in particlular the UK game industry, became serve irritation in three seconds flat. 

I'm aware of the importance of Computer Science. But to make great digital games requires the succesful integration of art, design, and science – a Renaissance model if you like. Unfortunately Jamie MacDonald, Senior VP at Codemasters, stated that anyone wanting a job in the games industry needs to get a Computer Science degree, and that undergarduate games degrees were a scandalous waste of money. Mr. MacDonald, who did a BA in Philosophy, went on to say: 

"It has been a scandal really the amount of money that’s been wasted on undergraduate courses on kids that will never get a job in the industry.

In the console world – maybe I’m old fashioned – I like people to have really good first degrees from good universities in computer science, then they can do a gaming course.

Let’s not forget that we are competing in a global industry so we have to compete with the best in the world. We can’t do that with people who are not up to it."

As I always say, why bother with reasoned and supported statements when you can make sweeping generalizations? Never mind the great courses at universities such as Abertay, Norwich University College of the Arts, and a few others – according to MacDonald all games courses are terrible. So, in the true spirit of MacDonald's missive, here's my response:

It's a scandal the way the UK games industry is run by men (yes, men) so lacking in vision. Current senior executives are relics of a model that relied on serendipty and nepotism. Now they've had their careers and made their money they want to tell everyone 'how it is'. Unfortunately they don't know how it is, as they're still living in 1996. 

It's unbelieveable these men are still employed, after failing to predict so many sector changes over the past few years. The coming of social gaming – in particular Facebook games – left these dinosaurs playing catch-up and lay-off. But, like the bankers, they are still rewarded for failure. 

This is a crucial time for the future of the UK games sector, facing increased competition from both the developed and developing world. It just can't afford to tackle these challenges with the wrong people in charge. 

 


Review: Postmodernism at The V&A

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


Postmodernism at the V&A (Flyer)

I have a love/hate relationship with Postmodernism. So I was slightly dubious as I headed for the V&A last week to view Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990. 

Postmodernism’s genre bending and splicing, its mixing of fiction with non-fiction, its blurring of the lines between high and low culture, has resulted in some wonderful art, design, music, film, and literature. The world would be a poorer place without Jeff Koons or Cindy Sherman, Neville Brody and Peter Saville, Bladerunner, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel, Mclaren’s Madame Butterfly, or The Crying of Lot 49. Of that I have no doubt. But before I get too gushy, let's look at the downside.   

Postmodernism’s blank stare and inherent knowingness can get irritating, fast. Its unwillingness to either criticize or celebrate, or take a political or moral standpoint, can leave the work feeling deeply empty. And the less said about the often impenetrable accompanying theory the better. Personally I often suspect the obfuscation and awful writing was deliberate, an attempt to hide a weakness of ideas. But despite my reservations I found myself enjoying this exhibition more that I expected, for two main reasons.  

The first is Postmodernism’s ability to still confuse and outrage ‘Middle England’. I was preceded through the V&A by a gaggle of ladies about to lunch, dressed in obligatory twin-sets and pearls. In a well curated and contextualized exhibition they remained utterly bewildered. Perms were scratched and gold buttons twiddled as they passed from Venturi and Scott-Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas, to Jarman’s The Last of England, Anderson's O Superman, and on to Westwood’s Punkature. Exclamations of ‘I don’t understand it’ or ‘I don’t get it’ issued from glossed lips. The nearest to a discussion consisted of one lady asking the other if she’d ever been to Las Vegas. ‘No...’, the other replied, ‘...and I wouldn’t want to’.  

Now there's a surprise.  

The bending, splicing, and mixing that form the best of Postmodernism is the exact thing that confused them. To truly appreciate postmodern culture you need extensive cultural capital – and not just of high culture. You need to know about popular culture too. If you’re not interested in Las Vegas, street fashion, popular music, commercial graphic design, or Sci-Fi movies, postmodernism will leave you feeling excluded. Sure, there are myriad references to classical art and high culture, but without understanding the context these are employed in, you’re lost. And that’s a good thing. It puts the boot on the other foot. If only for a minute. 

The other reason I enjoyed the exhibition is more personal. I was born in 1971, at the beginning of the period defined as Postmodern by the curators. I became an adult as this period ended in 1990. The exhibition I walked through – arranged chronologically – was really a journey through my life. I had studied the earlier stuff at University, but once the exhibition got to the 1980s a curious sense of nostalgia hit me. My life was on the walls of a museum. On this wall record sleeves that reside in my collection, on that a T-shirt I once wore, and in this cabinet a copy of The Face salted away in my cupboard somewhere. I expected this to a degree – I’d even bet with myself on which Peter Saville sleeves would make the final cut – but it still gave me an unsettling yet rather comforting feeling.  

The Face May 1984 – Design, Neville Brody (Author's Collection)

And that’s the brilliance of this exhibition. It's curated in away that elicits that most postmodern of emotions: nostalgia. The end of the exhibition has the heading “Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?” This lyric from New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ introduces the final exhibit, the promotional video for the same song. The curators discuss nostalgia here, but the genius is that they've been carefully cultivating the emotion throughout the exhibition. It’s a very clever and rather knowing piece of design. 

And ultimately, truly postmodern.  

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 is on now until January 15 2012 at the V&A Cromwell Road, London. 

vam.ac.uk/postmodernism


Facebook Timeline Is Coming!

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


Facebook Timeline Beta

You all know about Facebook Timeline, right? Well if not, you will by Thursday. 

Get ready for the paranoid messages flying around social media channels, asking you to paste them into your status and tell the world how Facebook's new Timeline feature is the worst thing since silced bread. 

Timeline basically documents your life on Facebook and, if you feed it enough data, even before it. It creates a timeline narrative of your life, recording every status update and drunken photograph you've posted to the world's most popular social network. Cool huh? 

Well yes and no. I've been using it for a couple of weeks now and really like it. But I'm one of the people it's aimed at – a social media professional who uses Facebook as a tool to engage customers for businesses and brands. You might not be quite so keen. 

The thing most people will struggle with is Timeline's elephantine memory. Where you could once post a stupid status update or photo of your friend getting off with your (married) boss and after a while it would disappear into Facebook Siberia, this will no longer happen. One quick scan along your timeline and it will be revealed to anyone who has permission to look. And this could be disasterous for the unaware. 

I've always believed, and advised people, never to put anything on social media you wouldn't want your boss to see. Or to say anything to somebody you wouldn't say to their face. With the introduction of Timeline the importance of this will be hugely multiplied. Something you say today could really now stop you getting a job in five years time. Now more than ever the ability to self-edit will be crucial to your online profile. 

I recommend three easy things to make sure you don't get caught out: visit the Timeline page, master your privacy settings, and most importantly: learn to leave that status un-updated when you roll out the pub at 3am! 


Tinsel Town Blues - The Birth of Video Game Envy

by Chris Lowthorpe in , ,


The Godfather, Paramount Pictures, 1972

Digital games are better than films. How do we know this? Because game-loving TV critic Charlie Brooker says so. What a relief. Now pompous twerps who stop their children playing digital games, or limit gaming time, can cut the poor mites some slack and stop them being shunned by their more ludic mates. Games are officially good. The Guardian has said so.

Brooker correctly highlights how big budget drama for adult audiences has deserted the cinema for television. He could have been even more specific and said American television. Let’s face it, if The Godfather was released today it would be as a miniseries on HBO. Anyone who has watched Boardwalk Empire can see the New New Hollywood happening on the small screen. Take into account other shows like Big Love, Mad Men, The Wire, Treme, or Generation Kill, and Tinsel Town’s efforts start to look very mediocre indeed. I think few people with a brain would disagree with Brooker on this first point. But his second point, that we might look for quality drama on our game consoles, might be harder for some to swallow. Is it really true that digital games are now better than films?

Portal 2, Valve Corporation, 2011

The real answer – as Charlie knows – is yes and no. Games like LA Noire and Portal 2 – his examples – are easily more entertaining, thought-provoking, and fun than the vast majority of dross Hollywood puts out for the mainstream audience. Ask any of us who’ve played the Grand Theft Auto series since it’s inception and we’ll bore you with how the franchise has grown from a slice of throwaway top-down fun to one of the sharpest send-ups of contemporary Western culture on screen. Red Dead Redemption – another Rockstar title with GTA and LA Noire – is also engaging drama and sharp cultural critique, especially for Western geeks like me. All these – and many more – prove that games are often better at being dramas than many films.

Grand Theft Auto 4, Rockstar, 2008

But before we get too excited we should remember that for every LA Noire there is a Call of Duty: Black Ops. One of the most commercially successful games in history, Black Ops is also possibly one of the worst. A rushed, poorly constructed, and greedy sequel that in Campaign mode – where a single-player plays the story – is one of the worst pieces of so-called drama I’ve ever encountered. The premise and narrative structure are appalling – so bad that I neither understood why I was killing things – call me a lily-livered liberal but I like to know why I’m commiting mass murder – nor cared.

Brooker attempts to gloss over these games by suggesting they’re a phase, like the puberty of the ‘teenage boys’ who play them. He’s right about that to a point, but he’s wrong in saying only teenagers play them. All kinds of people have told me about their love for the CoD franchise – taxi drivers, bartenders, university lecturers, doctors, butchers (apt that) – and yes, before you ask, they were all men. These games may be mediocre at storytelling but they have mass appeal.

Before the whining about singling out First Person Shooters (FPS) starts, I’m not. Not at all. I like a decent FPS as much as the next wannabe Navy SEAL. But admit it, the narratives and dialogue are usually risible. You know it really, don’t you? They aren’t great storytelling devices that make us ponder the nature of war in the way The Naked and the DeadCatch-22, or The Deerhunter might. They create drama a different way, by eliciting quick reactions and demanding hundreds of player choices are made per minute. Done well this usually allows players to overlook the poor premise and dodgy dialogue, and the games are great fun for a couple of hours. But serious storytelling they ain’t.

There are plenty of other non-FPS digital games that are also poor storytellers, too many to mention here. And to be honest even the best game narratives aren’t perfect. The Rockstar titles often suffer from the kind of clunky and hackneyed dialogue that makes you squirm and run to the nearest bookshelf for salvation. They can be childish and derivative too – often taking their mission scenarios directly from the designers favorite books, comics, or films. Even Portal 2 is – as you might have guessed – a sequel. But that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining, or dramatic.

One thing Charlie Brooker does touch on in his description of Portal 2 is its experiential nature. And here’s the key to understanding digital games. It’s how these immensely complex and clever pieces of popular culture create drama, by creating an experience, not necessarily a story. The drama isn’t always laid out for you in the same way as a film or book, it needs your input. And therefore it needs to leave some gaps for you to fill. You have to do something to experience something – be that tension, frustration, excitement or whatever. These all go towards creating drama, but not always the kind of drama you might be expecting, or the kind you can directly compare to a film or book.

When we talk about digital games and film it’s natural to try and draw comparisons. Can games tell stories as well or better than films? Can films be as experiential as games? Over the past ten years or so this constant comparing has lead to accusations that game designers suffer from so-called ‘Hollywood envy’ – a Freudian-lite concept that describes an impotent desire to make big sprawling epics that tell complex, immersive stories like The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America. The best game designers – with a few select titles – have proven this impotency is over – even if the dialogue could still benefit from some extra Viagra. As Brooker describes, the reverse has happened in our mainstream cinemas. These are now dominated by poor 3D extravaganzas that have little story and rely on eliciting a visual ‘wow factor’ to create a usually unsatisfactory experience. (These sexual metaphors just keep coming – Ed.).

Remembering that not all games tell great stories – or should even try to – it seems to me that old Charlie might well be right:

The envy is now flowing in the opposite direction.


Acid House and Balearic Beat for Beginners

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


On The Quietus yesterday German house/techno producer Boys Noize outlined his favourite examples of Acid House. He mentions some great tracks – Bam Bam ‘Where’s Your Child’, Mantronix ‘Bassline’, Phuture ‘Acid Trax’ – but his criteria is too limiting to be representative of the scene itself.
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New Suede Blues - Say No to Britpop!

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


Last Sunday I came across Krissi Murison's article celebrating Suede's reunion and the wonders of the 1990s Britpop scene. It's annoyed me ever since.

Ms. Murison is understandably excited Brett Anderson – subject of both her teenage crush and GCSE Art portfolio – is gigging again this summer. This means she gets to interview him. Unfortunately this excitement is leading her into the dangerous land of received wisdom.

Received wisdom occurs when statement, opinion, historical narrative, or theoretical standpoint become orthodoxy. There's a lot of it going around – particularly regarding popular culture – mostly propagated by well-meaning BBC programmes or broadsheet articles seeking to explore our recent cultural heritage. Directly related to Ms. Murison's article is the British Indie episode of 2007 documentary series Seven Ages of Rock recently repeated on BBC4.

The programme identifies Suede as precursors and shapers of the Britpop phenomenon. It argues that in the early '90s – after the implosion of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and 'indie dance' – those pesky Americans came and took over 'our charts' with their grungy guitars. The cheeky bastards then made the British music scene cower in fear of plaid shirts and anything from Seattle for a few years. Until Suede released Metal Mickey in late summer '92, followed by Animal Nitrate a few months later. A movement grew out of these seminal recordings that saved us from legions of smacked-up, suicidal lumberjacks warping our minds, and kick-started the heart of British music into the bargain.

What utter bollocks.

Sure, Animal Nitrate is a decent enough record. Not groundbreaking, but a decent little tune. And yes, Suede were one of the first British indie bands to emerge post-grunge, but that doesn't mean the British music industry was dormant during this time.

You see this particular received wisdom forgets one thing. It's called dance music. That's actually what most young Brits were listening to in the early '90s. It was mainly students and indie poseurs who liked grunge. There were thousands more losing it every weekend in clubs, warehouses, and fields across the country to house and garage, hardcore, early jungle and proto-drum & bass. Some of these musical forms were admittedly US imports, but most were home grown.

In particular the breakbeat-based genres were purely a UK phenomenon at the time. For some reason the received wisdom ignores this narrative – one that gave us tracks like Underworld's Cowgirl or Alex Reece's Pulp Fiction, and ultimately led to James Blake, Panda Bear, Gang Gang Dance and LCD Soundsystem – in favour of Britpop. A few decent songs and a whole heap of mediocre bands.

The problem (or saving grace) for dance music is that it's faceless and anti-star, despite stories of God being a DJ from idiots like Faithless. And the music industry likes stars. It really does. It likes lead singers doing a 'Where's Wally' in front of Michael Jackson (who wouldn't Jarvis?), or pure arrogance and sibling rivalry (the Gallaghers), mouthy middle-class Mockneys taking cheap drugs (Blur), or an androgynous frontman making coy, vague statements about his sexuality (step forward Mr. Anderson). And stardom is what Britpop was about.

Britpop was both invented moment and movement. Invented partly by Select magazine (remember that?) and its infamous 'Yanks Go Home' cover featuring Suede, Pulp, St. Etienne, and others I can't (or won't) remember. Partly by middle-class indie kids and wannabe soon-to-be NME writers who hung around Camden pubs like The Good Mixer and Dublin Castle. And mostly by an industry desperate to make money again.

I remember the then minor bands – Suede/Blur/Lush/Elastica etc. – in The Good Mixer, but after a couple of articles about the 'Camden scene' and subsequent bestowing of the Britpop sobriquet, they scarpered. Quickly it became full of kids searching for a movement and someone to look up to. Kids much like the then teenage Ms. Murison I would imagine. The key here is the movement came after the publicity. Anderson is right in saying, "...Britpop, whether you like it or not, and generally I don't like it, was a coherent movement and I don't think there's been a coherent defined movement for quite a while now". But this coherence was imposed from the top. Britpop wasn't a meaningful grassroots movement – if it meant anything why is everyone involved so keen to disown the name? – it was really the last waltz for the traditional music industry.

The industry had been unsettled by punk in the seventies, then acid house in the eighties. These movements started through a grassroots coming together of people – whether art school students or football lads in the Balearics – and had DIY ethics for making and releasing music. They tended to cause public outrage after being picked up on by the red-top media before being assimilated into mainstream culture. (These are classic youth cultures, in the style of Teds and Mods before them, and have probably disappeared forever). It took a while for the industry to cope with them, but eventually they did. Buying up small labels and signing bands using large advances gave them an in. It was simply a game of catch-up. 

Britpop was different. The media and industry created and named it together, riding the brief intense wave for all it was worth. It set the industry up for a while in a haze of cigarettes and alcohol and crap cocaine that blinded them to the coming digital era. The young fans latched on, understandably. Britpop was – like it's much vaunted contemporary 'Girl Power' – a simple but effective marketing ploy. And thousands fell for it.

Looking at the summer festival line-ups, it seems we're falling all over again.


Our Man in Amsterdam - Cycling to Happiness

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


 

Why don't I do this more often? This question pops into my head whenever I make the quick hop across the North Sea to Amsterdam. And me with a half-Dutch girlfriend too.

(Dear reader: I'm keep agonizing over the word girlfriend. If I'm nearing forty and my 'girlfriend' is a few years older, can we still be boyfriend and girlfriend? I think not. But what do we term ourselves? None of these are really grabbing me.)

Anyway, back to Amsterdam. We arrived and made our way leisurely from the airport via the city centre to Amsterdam-Zuid by public transport. At this point British readers might take exception at the use of leisurely in conjunction with public transport, and I hear you. But it's true, the transit system is a breeze: cheap, clean, and convenient. And the reason? It is state owned and run primarily as a service.

Nederlandse Spoorwagen (Dutch Railways to you and me) was 'corporatized' - a kind of pre-cursor to privatization where commercial management systems are introduced to state organizations - in the '90s. Whilst this initially worked things took a turn for the worse when internal markets started to be introduced. By the beginning of the '00s things had reached disaster point. So, a new CEO was appointed who proceeded to undo most of the neo-liberal, pro-competition reforms, and the Dutch government realized that introducing competition on passenger services was more trouble than it's worth. They acknowledged this and have subsequently abandoned it. Of course the poor sods who use the mess that passes for a rail network in Britain could have told them not to bother in the first place, but at least things are now back to normal - cheap, punctual and efficient.

The Amsterdam transit system (GVB), responsible for trams, buses, metro, etc., is also a public-owned affair. This municipal body was last year awarded €1 million bonus for improvements to service and punctuality. Can you imagine this happening in the UK? A country where the myriad private companies vie with each other to wring the last penny out of the consumer whilst providing the worst possible user-experience.

Then there's the bikes. Like frothy beer, plastic cheese, and tulips, bikes are a cultural cliche the British rather sniggeringly assign to the Dutch. But the bike is popular in the Netherlands for good reason. Firstly, apart from bridge ramparts, Amsterdam is flat as a pancake – no need for hundreds of gears or serious peddle pumping here. Then there's the cycle network itself - proper cycle paths everywhere, dedicated traffic lights, and cycle crossings. Finally, there's the culture. Everyone bikes here, mostly using Dutch bone-shakers, wearing everyday clothes.

I like cycling but am never inclined to do it at home. Our cycle network is an urban myth, and I can't stand the puritanical culture that's grown up around the simple bike. British cyclists seem compelled to spend ridiculous amounts of money on both cycle and kit. Middle-aged men who bike a 4 mile round trip to work are kitted out like urban Lance Armstrongs – yards of shiny lycra highlighting every unsightly lump and bump, reflectors, aerodynamic helmets, cycle clips, goggles, GPS connected social media devices to record their hero's journey etc. etc.

But it's just signification. They don't need this stuff, but they do need you to know they are cyclists, ploughing that difficult and lonely furrow to save the world from the horrors of the internal combustion engine. It's all about being pleased with yourself, a strangely British kind of snobbery I can't stand.

It's not that the Dutch can't be guilty of snobbery – check out the grachtengordel set's Calvinistic design ethos – or that they run a faultless operation, try getting served on the terrace at Vertigo on a sunny day. But they do seem to be happier. And so much less up-tight.

This wild assumption is actually borne out by data from the Happy Planet Index. This shows the Netherlands as the happiest nation in Europe after Scandinavia. A contributing factor must be that many aspects of everyday life are simply easier. And part of this is due to great public transport and an egalitarian and ubiquitous cycling culture making it is easier to get to work without the stress of traffic jams and long waits. This stress reduction twice a day makes a big difference to the urban experience, overall experience of life, and ultimately to levels of happiness.

Happiness doesn't get talked about much at home. It's all cuts, expense scandals, and penny-pinching. No mention of the happiness of citizens. This needs to change. In other countries forward-thinkers like Jane McGonical talk about happiness and nobody laughs. In fact people listen and take note. From game-designers to corporate executives, happiness is getting back on the agenda. And that's as it should be.

Surely, we all derserve a little happiness?

 


Why I’m No Longer A Gamer: Art, Fear, and Loathing with Roger and Alan.

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


I’m no longer a gamer. There I said it. This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped playing games, only that I don’t want to be lumped into a meaningless category with people I don’t know and might not even like. For most of my life I’ve put up with this nomenclature, because I love playing games and make my living by teaching them. But now I want rid of it. And after reading this, you should too.
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A Social Election? General Election 2010 and the Network Pt. 3

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


Election day has come, and the weather reflects the economic outlook. Clouds are massing on the horizon and there's a definite chill in the air, but for now the sun wins out. Tomorrow we find out the winner, and everything, or nothing, changes. I'm off to vote shortly - you should too - but first let's finish what we started. Under the digital microscope today are the remaining candidates for Norwich South.

Charles Clarke

At a Glance

Website: Yes
Facebook: No
Twitter: No
Personal Blog: Kind of...
You Tube/Vimeo: No
Digg or other sharing integration: No

Not a good showing by the present incumbent. Mr. Clarke has a website but it's pretty dire. In fact when I first tried to visit it was down - and remained so for a couple of days. Less than ideal during an election where it's highly probable you might lose your job. It comes on like a local classified site attempting to sell you something you probably don't want. The 'blog' is integrated into the website, and is not really a blog at all. You can comment but that's about it. No sharing via social media or content aggregators, nothing. There are no social media assets - no Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc., so there's nothing embedded on the site.

Clarke scores well on content. The quality of writings is quite high - adult discussions of political issues - delivered in a serious and non-patronizing way. But whilst this is good it does make the site seem rather stuffy and exclusive - if he's re-elected Charles seriously should address this, and make it more engaging. And that doesn't mean talk to everyone like small children but just be a wee bit more, well, friendly.

Overall I'm not impressed. Charles Clarke seems like a decent guy - when I wrote to him about the Digital Ecomomy Bill I received an extremely swift and courteous reply, although it stated his "broad support" for the act - but he and his team are seriously out of touch with the digital landscape. I'm not suprised he thought the DEB was a good idea, from this evidence I doubt he understood it.

Overall Score: 2/10

Simon Wright

At a Glance

Website: Yes
Facebook: Yes
Twitter: No
Personal Blog: Kind of...
You Tube/Vimeo: No
Digg or other sharing integration: Yes

What is it with political websites? Are they designed by Stevie Wonder? Simon Wright has a good website as far as content and social media integration goes, but it looks horrible. The colours don't work and there is far too much information fighting for primacy in a small space. The modernist adage 'Less is more' never seemed so true.

On the positive side Wright has Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all linked or embedded in his home page. Unfortunately only the Facebook page is his own - the others are centralized assets. There are aggregated blog posts from Lib. Dem. Central available for subscription but Simon doesn't appear to have his own blog - although I can't say for sure as the site is hurting my eyes. Oh, wait a minute, here's something.

It's a blog of sorts, and not written by Simon - or if it is he has a worrying habit of referring to himself in the third person and therefore doesn't deserve your vote. The entries are rather cursory and fairly sparse. But, it has all the lovely sharing buttons to spread content, so that's good.

Taking an overview of Wright's online presence I'd guess the Lib. Dems. like to centrally control their online assets. This is unfortunate, because for good or ill, politics is now about personalities more than ever. I'm more likely to feel well disposed towards someone who's personality is evident in their social media, than just another iteration of the 'corporate' site. But this might not be Simon's fault. And to be fair, he does seem fairly on the ball. A pretty good effort.

Overall Score: 6/10

Anthony Little

 

At a Glance

Website: Yes
Facebook: Yes
Twitter: Yes
Personal Blog: Yes
You Tube/Vimeo: Yes
Digg or other sharing integration: No

Mr. Little is, by the rather unclear criteria of this investigation, a fairly clear winner. His website looks like somebody actually thought about it, and although the design is formulaic, it communicates his message with clarity. He has integrated social media assets such as a personal blog, Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook. Anthony even has an embedded map that plots his visits around the city and what he's been doing on them. Very nice.

On further investigation it seems likely Little runs his own Twitter feed and writes his own blog too, both regularly. The content is personal but professional, and again not too patronizing. There are however two weaknesses with the blog: one is the lack of syndication buttons or RSS subscription, and the other is the name. 'Little's Logs' is not a good idea. I applaud the attempted alliteration but this is far too near the toilet. What a about 'Anthony's Aphorisms'? Anyone?

If I was voting purely on the evidence of these last three posts, I would be voting for Anthony Little. He seems pretty up on the 'digital revolution', and more than capable of getting his message out using its tools. He is fit for the digital future, and is to be congratulated for this.

Overall Score: 9/10

Outro

Thing is, I won't be voting purely on this criteria. Whilst I'm impressed with Anthony Little I will not vote for him. And that is ultimately because I grew up in the 1980s, during Thatcher. I have not trusted the conservatives since, and despite Cameron's talk of a 'Big Society', I am a long way from convinced now. Charles Clarke's poor showing seems endemic of a Labour party in disarray, and makes me even more convinced the country needs a change. But what is the choice? The Lib. Dems. can't win outright, and I wouldn't want them to, far too much hand-ringing about Iraq. The Greens are nowhere nationally, and represent everything I tend to dislike - loads of self-congratulatory puritans trying to tell others what to do, or more likely, what not to do.

Despite the scaremongering, I'd like to see a hung parliament with a coalition government. Followed swiftly by voting reform and another election within two years. Coalitions were once quite usual in the UK, and have seen us through some dark days. It was a coalition headed by Churchill that kept the country going through the Second World War; and whilst the Welfare State was implemented by Attlee's Labour Party, it was the coalition that laid the groundworks during wartime. But, unfortunately a coalition option doesn't appear on the ballot paper.

Ultimately I know where my cross is going, wherever will have the best chance of keeping Cameron out of No. 10. And I would strongly advise you to do the same. In the words of Ed Murrow, "Good night, and good luck".


A Social Election? General Election 2010 and the Network Pt. 2

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


It's tight. There's a cigarette paper between them. One day the Tories are a shoe-in, the next Labour are rebounding, and the day after that everyone loves the Lib Dems again. Whatever your political hue, it's impossible to deny this is one of our more exciting General Elections. More so than 1997 - a foregone conclusion - because this showdown is elevated not by hope but by an underlying sense of dread. Dread of an unsure economic future, and a nagging doubt that Cameron isn't really a 'New Old Tory' but just another rabid right-wing imposter. Dread that a Labour victory will just return the country to stasis and yet more bureaucratic nonsense. Or that voting Lib Dem means you're still likely to get either of the former.

In tricky situations like this many of us look towards the little things. We find minutiae to fixate on, helping us avoid making decisions based around 'big issues'. And I suppose that's what I'm doing here, focusing on details of how candidates for my local seat (Norwich South) are making use of social networking and other online digital tools. I'm just sweating the small stuff.

Only I'm not. The internet, social media, and digital technologies to run a campaign, and extend the democratic franchise and re-engage the populace with more direct government, have existed for some time. It's not new or difficult, it's just now. You don't need to be a visionary to use Twitter or host your own blog, just on-the-ball and committed. And that's not much to ask from someone who wants to represent us in the Palace of Westminster, is it? The way the UK approaches new technologies or supports entrepreneurs, SMEs, and institutions in the field, will have an enormous bearing on its future. The people after our vote tomorrow want to lead us into that future, so it might be a good indicator of their ability if they know something about it. Are they fit for the future?

What is termed Web 2.0 has been around for 6 years at the least, some would argue for a decade. The key to this second iteration of the web is participation. The explosion of social media, blogs, aggregator sites, user-generated content, folksonomies, transmedia storytelling, RSS etc. has turned the web from a fairly dumb information repository into a living, breathing conversation. Like many conversations it's often full of bullshit - but that should make it even better suited for politics. So, let's find out.

First for assessment is Green Party candidate, Adrian Ramsay.

At a Glance

Website: Yes
Facebook: Yes
Twitter: Yes
Personal Blog: No
You Tube/Vimeo: Yes
Digg or other sharing integration: Yes

Adrian fares pretty well online - despite some photos putting me in mind of a young Oswald Mosely. His youth and digital native status give him a head-start, and he makes pretty good use of it. The official website is fairly uninspiring but functional and clear. He has both his Twitter and Facebook groups embedded on the home page, and sharing icons such as Digg for ease of syndication. Unlike some other Greens, Adrian doesn't appear to have his own blog - a missed opportunity. However his Twitter microblog looks to be regularly updated - probably in person - although a lack of replies on the timeline points towards utilizing Twitter as broadcasting tool rather than conversation. There are plenty of YouTube videos of Adrian on his own channel, and many embedded into the website. Unfortunately some of the videos had narration and sound effects akin to 'Protect and Survive' and left me feeling slightly unusual.

One thing that so nearly clinches it for our young hopeful is dangling the carrot of User Generated Content. Through a link to the main Green Party site you are invited to 'make' your own Personal Policy Video. Only you don't. What you get is a smoke and mirrors trick that adds a pre-recorded name of your choosing to a pre-existing video - you can then share this with a friend you're trying to convince to vote Green. Frankly, if someone sent me such a disingenuous pile of crap I'd tell them to stick their political recommendations. But, being charitable, I thought it wasn't really Ramsay's fault as it was a centrally organized thing. Then I remembered he's the Greens' Deputy Leader, responsible for a fair degree of central organization. Sort it out Adrian.

Overall though, Ramsay fares pretty well. He has well thought-out, integrated online and social media policies with regularly updated content. The tone of the content is usually clear, if at times somewhat patronizing. My biggest gripe is the faux UGC videos, but having his own YouTube channel and easy syndication go a way to rectifying that. A good effort that shows he is engaged with technology, although there is little evidence to what he actually thinks about it beyond a promotion tool.

Overall Score: 7/10

Tomorrow: Charles Clarke (Lab.), Anthony Little (Con.), and Simon Wright (Lib. Dem.) come under scrutiny.


A Social Election? General Election 2010 and the Network Pt. 1

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


Is it me or were the televised Leaders' Debates just a bit crap? The first one initially felt somewhat like a WWF spectacular. Alastair Stewart appeared to be pumped full of amphetamines, over-emphasizing the event's combative aspects and virtually every spoken word whilst constantly babbling about making history and the revolutionary nature of the things. In a romantic, and no doubt delusional, hindsight, I like to imagine he was a bit Thompson-esque. But even if this were true, his Gonzo efforts would have been in vain. The 'debate' was a damp squib. As with each iteration too many rules and regulations stilted insightful discourse, and The Leaders appeared distinctly average. David Cameron was a rabbit in the headlights, Gordon Brown more subterranean and Jabba the Hutt-like than ever, and Nick Clegg seemed OK.

Whatever it was, it was not Clash of the Titans.

The second debate was a niche affair, as it was hosted by Sky. I watched the highlights online. The performances by The Leaders seemed better, but it lacked the twisted and hyper 'Speedy' Stewart. The post-debate consensus agreed everyone was much of a muchness. Cameron had managed to man-up, Brown looked more like he inhabited the planet's surface, and Clegg seemed OK.

Last night's effort was more of the same. Initial polls suggest it was Cameron what won it, but it seemed even flatter than its predecessors - a substantial achievement with the election less than a week away. Dave certainly appeared more confident and business like, with even the Guardian now suggesting he's a shoe-in for No. 10. Gordo was competent, and cleverly managed to avoid insulting a member of the audience. And Nick? Well Nick was same as he ever was: OK. Average. Sort of pointless. Afterwards I felt any momentum for a seismic shift in the political landscape had ebbed away. As Dave and Gordo swapped barbs, Nick looked on, attempting to draw analogies to squabbling children but saying little. As he did so, he drifted further and further back into minority party irrelevance.

And irrelevance is one of my gripes with these events. Friends, loved ones, and followers on Twitter might already be familiar with aspects of my dissatisfaction, but in case those categories exclude you, dear reader, I'll go over them.

Firstly, the infamous 76 rules negated the possibility of spontaneity in the debates. Consequently the chances of true insight were removed. Nobody got a nasty surprise, got particularly ruffled or angry, or even seemed that passionate. Secondly, the idea of a televised debate in the run up for an election is about as revolutionary as the monarchy. The first live election debate was held a full fifty years ago, during the 1960 presidential race between JFK and Nixon. (Tricky Dicky faired badly against the younger and smarter Kennedy as he looked pallid and refused to shave - neither of which look great in Black and White). And finally, broadcasting a TV debate featuring The Leaders will inevitably shift the focus from policy to personality. And particularly to the 'image' of each man rather than the substance of their beliefs. It's interesting to note that during the Kennedy/Nixon debates there was a disparity between television and radio audiences. Those watching thought Kennedy had won, whilst those listening thought it was Nixon. As we know, the image triumphed.

For the reasons outlined a broadcast debate seems less than ideal in the early 21st century. It's not pointless but it's somewhat anachronistic, and definitely too controlled. Television should be only one way of engaging politicians in discourse. In our networked society plenty of other channels exist for meeting or questioning prospective leaders and their underlings, or for getting information about policies out to voters. And it is these that should be increasingly employed.

Barack Obama was identified by media scholars as conducting the first fully transmedia campaign, employing a variety of networked and social media to get his message out, communicating directly with the electorate. And this is the aspect of the election I want to explore in the final run-up to Voting Day. I'm going to look at the online presence of those contesting my ward of Norwich South. I want to see how (or if) they use social media, whether they use it for conversation or broadcast, and any signs of innovation or transmedia assets they might employ.

Who knows what I might find, or whether those findings might ultimately influence my vote. I suppose there's only one way to find out...

If you live in Norwich South and have had online contact with any of the candidates, please let me know your impressions in the comments. Cheers.


What's the Story? - Games Tax Relief and the 'Culture Test'

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


Right, cards on the table. I'm happy Mr. Darling finally listened to TiGA and the UK games sector and introduced the Games Tax Relief. The UK cannot compete with the bright lights of Austin or Toronto without some help from the government. And this is it, or at least part of it. There are many other reasons people emigrate but we can't address those without a) a revolution, or b) towing the country a thousand or so miles to the south.

There is, of course, a caveat to my happiness. On reading Dr. Richard Wilson's statement via the TiGA website he outlines that games will have to pass a cultural test to secure Games Tax Relief:

“In order to qualify for Games Tax Relief, a company would have to fall within the scope of UK Corporation Tax. Additionally, video games would need to pass a cultural test, scoring against criteria of European heritage and game locations, languages, innovation, narrative, and location of development and key development staff. Video games that passed the cultural test would then be entitled to benefit from Games Tax Relief...An independent organisation with knowledge and experience of video games production would need to administer the cultural tests, checking submission criteria are met and policing the Relief."

Fair enough but a couple of things worry me. The 'independent organisation' sounds dangerously like a quango. And we could really do with another one of those. Also, what's this about 'knowledge and experience of production'? Does this mean only industry people get to sit on it? In many cases those pushing the boundaries of game form in cultural, artistic, social, and educational directions are the games academics/educators and independent studios, not the mainstream industry. If we must have a quango, it should be diverse and reflect this.

The other bit that bugs me is about narrative. So, a game will have to score on narrative criteria to get tax relief. What if it doesn't have a narrative, is it excluded? Does this mean if a British studio had a game concept similar to award-winner Flower it wouldn't be eligible because it had no story?

I don't want to hark back to the old days of the narratology vs. ludology skirmish - all that unpleasantness between Frasca and Murray et al is water under the bridge - but it must be noted that games don't have to tell stories. They can, but they don't need too.

Juul points out that games have different kinds of narrative: embedded andemergent. Embedded narrative is the pre-made or scripted stuff - from the box art to the spine story, with its inevitable choices and flashy cinematics to advance or retard it. Conversely, emergent narrative is all the stuff you do within the game world - or space of possibility - that is unscripted. If you wrote it out it would be dead boring - look left, look down, move right, chose weapon, fire weapon, run left, hide, look up, look left - you get the idea. Accepting this line of thought we can argue all games have narrative but not in the traditional sense. And here's the rub.

As I mentioned a few days ago, new media creates new language and syntax. And games are attempting to create theirs. We have to stop mapping ideas from older media on top of new. The obsession with narrative in its linear and 'traditional' sense is evidence of the cultural tyranny of the printed text. This has exerted itself over filmmakers for years - although many have tried to resist it - and is now doing the same to games, especially as high definition graphics enable games to become increasingly cinematic. Like comics games are both linear and spatial narrative. Unlike comics, without a participant they are nothing.

As game players we are at least co-authors of our own narratives, even within pre-designed narrative structures. Games with no 'traditional' narrative structure may still create a collection of experiences that can be relayed in narrative form down the local, or told piecemeal through posts or trophy earning notifications via social media. In other words a game without narrative has the ability to create a mosaic of narrative experiences across media, and beyond the boundaries of virtual space. I just hope whoever is sitting on the independent body understands this. We don't want ingrained cultural prejudices, or lack of understanding, undoing TiGA's good work and stopping Britain producing innovative and award-winning games.

That's not a good story.

References:

Juul, J. (2001) Games Telling Stories - A Brief Note On Games And Narratives.[Internet] Available from <http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/>  [Accessed 24 March 2010].

Juul, J. (2006) Half-Real - Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

TiGA (2010) How will Games Tax Relief work in practice? [Internet] Available from: <http://www.tiga.org/News/How-Will-Games-Tax-Relief-Work-In-Practice.aspx> [Accessed 24 March 2010].

Zimmerman, E. (2004) Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games in First Person - New Media as StoryPerformance, and Game. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Murder in High Definition - The Heavy Rain Diaries Pt.1

by Chris Lowthorpe in


It was around eleven o'clock in the morning, sometime in mid March. Outside the sun was shining through bare winter branches for the first time in months. But although the weather was looking up I couldn't quite shift the dark clouds hovering over my head. Never mind, I was awake, shaved, and sober, and didn't care who knew it. So, when the bell rang I walked purposefully through the high-ceilinged hallway to the door, threw the bolts, and opened it up.

I stood and stared at a pair of grey eyes. They lived in a squat face attached to a stubby neck. Below lurked a brown uniform and black shoes. The eyes looked me up and down, darted back to a vehicle parked curbside, then settled back on mine. An arm extended slowly towards me, brown package in hand.

'Here you go...' he said.

'What's this?'

His eyes narrowed. He looked puzzled. I could tell he was thinking. And it hurt.

'You ordered it,' he said. 'You know what it is. Just take it. I can't hang around here, I got other stuff to do.'

I grunted, reaching for the package.

'Not so fast. I need something from you first.'

I shut the door when it was done. As I turned around I caught my reflection in the finger-smudged mirror. I looked alright, a bit weathered and used, but not so bad for a guy approaching forty. I scrubbed up good when I bothered to do the scrubbing.

I walked through the glass doors separating the hallway from the kitchen and found a vacant lot amidst debris on the table. I put the package down, then went to the refrigerator. As always it was bare. I pulled a milk container from the door and sniffed it. Satisfied, I poured a shot into a clean looking glass and headed back to the table.

I examined the package. He was right, I knew what it was, but did he? I'd heard the stories, I knew you sure as hell couldn't trust anyone in this town. But it was fine, he didn't know. He was just the delivery boy.

There was a knife on the table, half obscured by a magazine, left over from breakfast. It still had peanut butter on it but who cared? I licked the blade, weighed the handle in my right hand, then carved open the tape around the cardboard. As the package disintegrated it revealed what I knew it would: a black case with white writing, a shiny disc tucked safely inside.

I started back through the glass doors, down the hallway to the sitting room. As I opened the door I saw shards of sunlight streaming into the room, illuminating the layer of dust that had accumulated over a long winter, since the last time sunlight had shone here. Since those dark days in September had started me drinking and stopped me caring. But that's another story, and none of your business.

In the corner stood a handsome plasma television. It was probably the only decent piece of furniture this place had. Everything else was junk - dusty and frayed sofas with the life squeezed out of them, threadbare rugs, a table covered with endless rings from endless cups of coffee and glasses of wine. Underneath the TV sat a black console, the only other thing that didn't look like it belonged in a thrift store. I powered it up, took out the disc and put it in the drive, and waited.

There was whirring and clicking. Fans kicked in. After a while crystal clear images started to appear across the screen, accompanied by the familiar sound of heavy rain. A calm settled over me. This was the day I'd been waiting for. This was the start of something new. I closed the drapes and blocked out the sun...

And so it began. Murder in high definition.

To be continued...

(Please Note: this article is a factional diary entry that takes a considerable amount of artistic license with actual events. I don't even like milk.)


Learn to Speak Twitter. Or how I learned to stop shouting and listen every once in a while.

by Chris Lowthorpe in


It's a dead give-away. Set up a Twitter account, and just above the sign-up button you'll find the words 'Join the Conversation'. It's a clue to the nature of the beast. Twitter is for communication. For sharing, for debate, for conversation. So why do so many use it as a megaphone? Why use networked media to broadcast?

I've become increasingly irritated by institutions and corporations that set up Twitter accounts, trumpet this 'innovation' through old media channels in an awkward attempt to show how 'with it' they are, then use it incorrectly and inefficiently. There are myriad examples across the globe but the one closest to home is my local authority, Norwich City Council.

Every few days some mandarin in City Hall is despatched along the lonely corridors to Social Media Operations, Room 101a. Here he/she finds the council's digital communications centre, a temple to new media. In pride of place beside the Fax machine a PC of indeterminate vintage is running Windows 95, hardwired into the heart of the information superhighway [sic]. Our part-time cyber-explorer taps out a self-congratulatory missive to all 789 followers along the lines of 'More ways to love Norwich', or 'Well done to our eco heroes', accompanied by a link to the Council's website. Then they embark on the long trek back to their real job. Done and dusted.

At least I hope that's what happens. Because if these tweets are produced by a dedicated and paid 'media professional', I want my council tax back. This broadcast media practice, shouting from the roof tops hoping a bored passerby pays attention, is not how to utilize social media. The point of Twitter is to engage in dialogue and share information, you can even expand the democratic franchise through it. But as yet I haven't seen one reply to a Norwich City Council follower, let alone a live vote on the colour of next year's Christmas lights. And after some rather cursory rooting about, I think I know why. Seven-hundred and eighty-nine people currently follow the council; how many do you think the council reciprocates to? You guessed it: Zero. Zip. Zilch.

Nice, eh? Anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of conversing in social situations understands that standing in the middle of a crowded space shouting "I'm bloody marvelous" whilst wearing industrial strength ear defenders is unlikely to win friends or influence people. Yet this is exactly what my local council are doing in a virtual space. McLuhan said the medium is the message; a new medium alters the way we live socially and how we interact within our societies. Consequently this is the most important thing about new media, not content. He also suggested that when new media appear those schooled in the proceeding media continue to apply old rules and practices. Sounding familiar?

Just think back to the early days of film, musicals and melodramas ruled the roost, adapted straight from the stage. Even many 1950s greats such as 'A Streetcar Named Desire' still feel like watching a play due to the theatrical conventions and aesthetics. Contemporaneously the same thing happens with digital games. Many game designers and critics obsess about storytelling and cinematic graphics; desperately applying the language of a previous medium to a new one. Games don't need to tell stories or look like films, they do need to provide space for participation and ultimately some enjoyment. In fact some of the most celebrated games have no story (Flower, Pong) and fairly poor graphics (Tetris, Defender, Space Invader). (And yes, I know they're old but graphics, like realism, is relative anyway). The fact that games can tell stories and look good is a boon but not a requirement.

What this tells us, to summarize Manovich, is that new media create new languages, each with its own rules and syntax. The advent of the printing press invented a new language of linear textual meaning creation, film did a similar thing as it developed its own visual language. Both of these mediums traditionally tend to be one-way communications, with film in particular becoming organized around a broadcast model. Networked social media has its own language too; in the case of Twitter this language relies on two-way discourse.

Here's the thing: if you're going to use Twitter, learn to speak it.


This Bird Is No More - The Death of Twitter.

by Chris Lowthorpe in


This bird is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker.

With apologies to the Pythons, the above appears the current consensus on Twitter. Figures released this week show the microblogging service's growth stalling for another month in the US. This continues a trend of diminishing numbers since the high-water mark of 29 million in July 2009.

As usual there are myriad theories to why this might be. Mashable suggests four reasons why the bird could be feeling somewhat unusual:

  1. Twitter’s growth isn’t stalling. Rather, these stats aren’t capturing Twitter users utilizing apps, a growing chunk of the Twitterverse.
  2. Twitter itself has a limited appeal. Only a small amount of people “have something to say” on a consistent basis.
  3. Twitter’s user retention rate is famously weak. The issue became public in April 2009, but has yet to be solved.
  4. For many, Twitter hasn’t hit critical mass. Part of why people are on Facebook is because everybody else is on it. We may still be far away from that inflection point for the common Internet user.

Points one, three, and four make perfect sense. Most regular tweeters I know use third-party applications such as Tweetie or Tweetdeck to post. If the figures include only in-browser users, they should be considered unreliable at best. Also many acquaintances starting with Twitter often do seem to stop shortly after, normally stating they "...can't see the point. It's not like Facebook". (Although why Facebook might have more of a 'point' than Twitter is beyond me - unless of course the point is to get third-rate has-beens a Christmas Number One) Finally the critical mass thing. It's a cliche but people really are like sheep. If friends, everybody at work, the boy/girl they fancy, are on Twitter, then bingo! There in a heartbeat. Otherwise not really bothered, at least until somebody tells them they should be. Depressing isn't it?

But it's point two I find most interesting. Mashable suggests "...only a small amount of people have something to say on a regular basis". Really? These guys are obviously none too familiar with the average British pub on a Friday night, or even a sports bar in their local boonies on NFL Sunday. Perhaps the real point here is that only a small amount of people have something worthwhile to say on a regular basis? And this is where the Twitterverse puts off the casual user.

Twitter self-regulates. There's a kind of unspoken code: don't drone on about inane crap. Say something, share something, learn something. No-one cares what cornflakes you had for breakfast, how drunk you are, or about the intimate details of your mid-life crisis. It's not Facebook, where this kind of prattle is actively encouraged by stupid applications telling you how much you owe for a misspent youth, or encouraging deep-seated delusions of becoming the next Vito Corleoene. I've seen many Tweeters castigate users for being boring, whiney, or just plain stupid. In fact the whole Stephen Fry debacle was really caused by one Tweeter rather innocuously stating that the National Treasure's Tweets were sometimes just an incy wincy bit (looks furtively around) boring.

Now I'm not saying there isn't any crap on Twitter. No siree. There's plenty of discussing celebrities, reality television, pop music, digital games, and loads of other stuff many consider pointless. But this, whether snobs like it or not, is the culture that surrounds us. And I love it. Furthermore, the Tweeted discussions constitute an entertaining discourse on that culture, often more insightful than views of overpaid, over-opinionated critics for some newspaper or TV channel (Charlie Brooker excepted). But even if popular culture isn't your bag, fear not, for every discussion of X Factor there's another about the nature of democracy, climate change, or the future of the web. Some of us even read/write both.

Twitter is a wonderful thing. It contributes to a core Western democratic ideal, a right taken for granted by most of us everyday: the freedom of speech. Even more than its value as a populist yet ultra-contemporary virtual Library of Congress this means Twitter should, even must, survive. At least until something better replaces it.

I think the demise rumours are seriously exaggerated. Interestingly, whilst figures have flatlined in the US, the amount of users in other nations is showing a healthy increase. Everyday millions of Tweeters around the globe spread new knowledge and most importantly have their say about everything from solar power to Simon Cowell. They will continue to do so.

You should too. Just remember, not a word about cornflakes.