Saturday, November 17, 2012

Let Me Edutain You

When I was a graduate student at UC Riverside, I took a class with James Tobias where, among other things, we played video games. We also read and wrote about games and gaming. The reading part has always been sort of a game to me, anyways. The writing part: definitely a game.

Here's how we played then, and today:

I had to play a video game this morning again, as I finished reading Sherry Turkle's opinions about video games and computer holding power, where she approaches computing from the discipline of psychoanalysis and revokes the myth of game's "mindless" addiction, talks about how we lose ourselves in simulated worlds of altered perception, and confront our mirrored selves in a sort of perfect contest of mastering and action control. I always thought I liked platform games, and I was surprised when I discovered I really don’t. Or, at least, I don’t like them anymore. I didn't like them back in gradschool, and I certainly do not like them now. I have to admit the last time I played consistently must have been over fifteen years ago, when I was given a Gameboy. I think I liked them then. I can’t remember if I asked for it or if it was an unrequested gift, but I remember playing Mario Bros and Kirby’s Dream Land (for a few months, at least). I can also picture my Gameboy laying next to the TV as I would play a game of Tetris while waiting for a show or for the food to be ready, our TV area was close to our dinning room.

I never played with anybody, I never took it anywhere with me, I used it mainly to kill time, which exemplifies perfectly Ito and Bittanti’s definition of ‘killing time’ as a gaming practice, something they write about in their book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, from MIT Press. I have now an iPhone with apps I could use to play games in the same way I used to play, but I don’t do it anymore. I have tried playing Angry Birds, but I get bored. I would rather check Twitter if I have a spare few minutes. I sometimes, still, just simply rather people watch.  It might have to do with my age, as Ito and Bittanti seem to suggest that more active gamers play video games until they interfere with their other worldly responsibilities, but in this case, they seem to be talking about other type of gaming: recursive gaming. When analyzing the convergence of technology in everyday life, Ito and Bittanti try to consider how gaming practice is embedded in a broader set of media ecologies —talking about the cohabitation of the rhetoric and the social practices and aesthetics of the game —and the genres of participation— different games for different social contexts. They distinguish three main types of gaming and they seem to distribute girls and boys in those groups as separate gamers. According to them, girls seem to be more socially driven when playing a game, they use games as a background element, a tool they can use to interact with others or to, simply, kill time. In opposition to this, and generally speaking, boys seem to have a more recreational drive, they develop intense relationships with the game in ways that are reminiscent of Christopher Kelty’s ideas of geeks as recursive public (they even call this type of gaming ‘geeking out’): the relationships made through the game work outside the support —online, offline, and outside the game— and are based on a technical (abilities and rule knowledge) and a moral (gamer morals) order. --"boys"/"girls," hm... 

Even though the practices vary, gaming seems to be a general aspect of everyday life that is expanding to more institutionalized areas, such as education. Sara Corbett, in "Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom," focuses on the educational power of video games seeing them as powerful tools for intellectual exploration, expanding the private realm of gaming to a more ‘productive’ public field. Games are discussed on two levels: at the game’s content level as a useful way of learning problem resolution skills, understanding how systems work; and also at the general skills level, as transfer, focusing on neurological benefits that can be transferred to other areas. This is an interesting point of discussion, as games that claim to be educational seem to have traditionally done it through their content, and this transfer ability apparently means something else. In New Media: a Critical Introduction (Martin Lister et al.), they talk about ‘edutainment’ in these terms of content as well, although they suggest that when technology is used for social interaction, humans do not simply interact with other humans, but with endless materials that contribute to the pattering of the social (Law 1992). This is a similar idea to McLuhan’s understanding of the environment which has been radically altered by the way people use their five senses, something maybe exemplified through the idea of transfer skills. It also shares the spirit of 1984 Turkle when she claimed that video games were an essential part of youth culture which turned the machines into a medium of self-expression: performance rules become transparent with practice, they serve as a mirror of who you are.
Growing up with a technology is a special kind of experience. Although mastering new things is important through life, there is a time in growing up when identity becomes almost synonymous with it. Today's young people meet the games at that time. The games are not a reminder of a feeling of control over challenge. They are a primary source for developing it. (Sherry Turkle. The Second Self...)
If the content does not really matter as an educational tool, if we can really boil game greatness down to its transferrable skills --cognitive or psychological, you name it--, Corbett would agree with Ito and Battanti’s claim for the productive possibilities of a healthy social ecology of participation —including parents, siblings and peers, and she would say, classmates—, pushing for the aspects of collaborative processing in education to help the practice of other technical skills that can be transferred to other domains, leaving gender aside. Design would then be subjugated to the practice of these skills, which I apparently do not possess as it took me a while to figure out the aim of the game I tried this morning on Miniclip (fyi: Deep Freeze), and when I finally did, I scored poorly, was bored, and felt it was a waste of time. Most games are said to be intuitive, but intuition seems to be also a learnt skill in a world such as today’s, shaped by technology. And if this is the case, those are the skills we should be teaching, and Education could benefit from taking the form of a game (even though Sherry Turkle would not agree with this statement anymore).

Sometime in the Fall of 2010, James Tobias pointed out something interesting about intuition. I copy and paste here: "My sense is that the way that intuition works in games, indeed, as you point out, has to do with a particular kind of intuition that has to do with 1. logics of technical operations; 2. logics of media usage; 3. logics of everyday life in which gaming is situated.  The cumulative "intuition" at work, then, is designed in these terms, whether or not they are all the object of the design.  But this "design of intuitiveness" is actually not at all the same thing that we mean by "intuition" generally or historically."

This is what I have to say: 

Alex Saum

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Limits of My Language Mean the Limits of my Probes

Apart from being a surgical instrument used for exploring a wound, a probe is a method of perceiving. According to Eric McLuhan and William Kuhns, a probe can be verbal, and hence, discontinuous and nonlinear. The probe resists any single point of view, and "because it works by gaps and interference," it's a better form for examining our time than expository, linear, boring, plain, fixed, restricting, prose. They insist that in the "electric age we in the West [very MM-like to say that, don't you think?], are moving into a world where not the connections but the interval becomes the crucial event in organization."A probe is but an interval, a node, a resistant spark in the dark, and I could not agree more with them. I read this on David Carson and Sasha Drux's compilation/remix/designing of MMcLuhan's probes, published by Gingko Press in 2003, that I bought a little while ago at the SF MoMa shop. It's a very pretty book; 574 thick pages, some of them of shinny paper, some mate, some with barely any words on it, some filled by essays like the one by Eric and William I just quoted, "Poetics on the Warpath."

Hence, this is what I have to say after re-reading Marshall's  “The Galaxy Reconfigured or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualistic Society” and his über famous “The Medium is the Message” for a thousand times:
“[L]iterature will be at war with itself and with the social mechanisms of conscious goals and motivations. For the matter of literary vision will be collective and mythic, while the forms of literary expression and communication will be individualist, segmental and mechanical. The vision will be tribal and collective, the expression private and marketable.” (McLuhan “Galaxy”)
“Art reversed its role from guide for perception into convenient amenity or package. But the producer or artist was compelled, as never before, to study the effect of this art.” (McLuhan “Galaxy”)
La verdadera causa de este cambio reversible hacia los efectos de la literatura, más allá de sus orígenes, tiene que ver con el proceso inherente mismo de la técnica Gutenberg de segmentación homogénea que se remonta a la producción sobre el consumo mismo. Planear la producción supone comprender un proceso de "atrás p'alante," comenzando desde el final, lo que implica un estudio de la experiencia del consumidor.
In a word, it became necessary to examine the effect of art and literature before producing anything at all. This is the literal entrance to the world of myth.” (McLuhan “Galaxy”)
“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium –that is, of any extension of ourselves— result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any technology.” (McLuhan “Medium”)
"The medium is the message." (you)
Los límites del hombre son los límites de su percepción, William Blake dixit. Los límites de esta percepción están determinados por las tecnologías disponibles del hombre, hete aquí, las extensiones de Marshall.
"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." (Wittgenstein)

Structures of Thinking, Structures of Writing

Back in the 1960s Douglas Engelbart challenged the way people thought about things. In a 1962 report titled “Augmenting Human Intellect,” he proposed a switch from linear thinking –i.e., “a sequence of steps of reason, beginning with known facts, assumptions, etc., and progressing towards a conclusion”– to a system based on the rearrangement of concept-statements. He used punched index cards and thread. It sounds very rustic, I know, but he basically was talking about creating a database of knowledge that we could search thanks to algorithms, and then re-organize –sew the cards back in different groupings; networks of interrelated concepts. He tried to convince his audience that reasoning –the way we think– could change, but first, he (although Douglas was a bit strange –and maybe a tad sexist– and when writing these reports didn’t use the “I” form, but invented a weird alter-ego called Joe, who did most of the cool talking) says: “I want you to notice how hard it is for a person to realize how really unquestioning he is about the way he does things.” In other words, what our friend Joe is suggesting is this: once you reveal the invisible –automatic– linear structures that have been forcing your mind to think linearly, you are free to challenge them, and move on.

We like Joe. Joe is cool.

Today we have the Web –full of gigantic “searchable” databases. We also have computers where pretty much everything is also stored in a similar fashion. I can search my Mac’s “finder” and get any documents I need. I type in a word I know is tied to a concept I am interested and voila, I get tons of related information. I get good results because when I type down stuff –any information about a book or an article or any random idea–, I give it a tag. I give my own genius ideas the same-ish tags I give to any copied quotes or short paragraphs about a book’s relevant themes. This way, I place my thinking within others’. When I want to write something new, I rummage through these bits of information and re-arrange them to create a patchwork document I work with. A sort of essay cut-up. Each part acts like a node in a network. Then, however, I cave in to conventionalism and cover the emptiness between fragments with narrative and, through tyrannic meaningful grammar that really stresses the inevitable “I” in narrative writing, I allocate each concept in its place so my readers can access the one linear path I finally choose for them to access. I write an essay.
I’m not quite as cool as Joe. But I think we could be friends, I like to think we think alike.