January 27, 2016
For my Film 2008 course at the University of Cincinnati this Spring 2016, each student must complete 3 quests and a Final Boss Challenge. Here are 26 distinct quests for them to choose from. (Can you tell I’m a German and RPG scholar?)
A is for Affordances
Quest: To describe and theorize affordances in games, and their various functions
[ARTISTS AND DESIGNERS]
Procedure: Read the short text by Norman on affordances under Quest-Related
Materials: Then pick a game you’d like to analyze, preferably one that has what you consider interesting affordances: Dance Dance Revolution, Jenga, and Doom would all be equally interesting on this point. Write 4-5 pages on your experience of the affordances of the game, beginning with your subjective experience thereof and moving out to general principles of game and material design. Cite at least 3 outside sources in your analysis, using proper MLA 7 formatting.
Points: Writing Style (10), Conception of Affordances (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10) = 40 points
B is for Bungie and Blizzard
Quest: To detail how studios preserve a certain style or type of narrative over time, even between game universes.
[PROSPECTIVE GAME HISTORIANS]
Procedure: Play at least three games by a single game studio, attending to the span of time between the studio’s origins and the present. Good examples would be Bungie
(Marathon → Halo → Destiny) or Blizzard (Warcraft → World of Warcraft → Diablo 3). In a 3-5 page paper that includes a comparison chart, describe to the reader the salient aspects of the studio’s style that distinguish it from other studios, and what continuities seem to persist across distinct titles. Cite studio-related secondary literature if pertinent, using proper MLA formatting.
Points: Writing Style (10), Comparison Chart (10), Grammar and Usage (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10) = 40 points
C is for Constraints
Quest: To describe and theorize how constraints work to narrow and control player options and movement – both in the positive and negative sense.
[ARTISTS AND DESIGNERS]
Procedure: Constraints limit user interaction with any given game to delineate their options and available maneuvers. Pick and play a game that you think has interesting constraints: Mysterium, Waco Resurrection, and Desert Bus all have interesting ones to consider. Write 4-5 pages on your experience of the affordances of the game, beginning with your subjective experience thereof and moving out to general principles of game and material design. Cite at least 3 outside sources in your analysis, using proper MLA 7 formatting.
Points: Writing Style (10), Conception of Constraints (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10) = 40 points
D is for Diplomacy
Quest: To describe how player unpredictability and the removal of randomness as an alibi affect a board game’s aesthetic.
Procedure: Borrow or buy a copy of Diplomacy (board game) and play it with 6 other people, including other players from the class doing this assignment. Be attentive to the rules, especially regarding secrecy and troop movement. After the game is over, debrief with your fellow players for about 15 minutes, talking about the various strategies that worked and – most importantly – how everyone felt during gameplay. Now write a 4-5 page paper describing your experience, focusing on your available decisions and moments of drama, and apply Greg Costikyan’s “player uncertainty” concept from his Uncertainty in Games book.
Points: Writing Style (10), Self-Reflection (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Incorporation of Costikyan’s Concepts (10) = 40 points
E is for Exploration
Quest: To take a closer look at a video-game character and its form and functions.
Procedure: Read the Isbister text in “Quest-Related Materials” on game characters. Now pick a character from a video game, preferably one that offers us much to discuss. Write a 4-5 page paper relating that video-game character to principles in Isbister’s text.
Points: Writing Style (10), Relationship to Isbister’s texts (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10) = 40 points
F is for Failure
Quest: To describe how a game uses failure to drive play.
Procedure: Re-read Jesper Juul’s Art of Failure and keep in mind his points about the rewards of negative affect. Pick a game that has a particularly interesting relationship to failure: Flappy Bird, Track & Field II, and Space Invaders would all be good examples. Write a 4-5 page paper relating Juul’s ideas to this particular game.
Points: Writing Style (10), Relationship to Juul’s text (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10) = 40 points
G is for Good Filmmaking
Quest: To evaluate how filmmaking effects are used in contemporary game design.
[FILM AND MEDIA STUDIES]
Procedure: This quest involves some very specific media products. Watch Blade Runner (1982) and Ghost in the Shell (1996), and then play Deus Ex (2000) or Oni (2001) and Remember Me (2013). Using the first two cyberpunk films as a baseline, write 4-5 pages on how the video games appropriate and/or deviate from specific cinematographic techniques and film practices from the 2 films. Note also how Remember Me builds on or deviates from the films vs. Deus Ex and Oni.
Points: Writing Style (10), Precision of Description (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10)
H is for History of Game Studies
Quest: To understand certain fundamentals of the game design field through the narratology vs. ludology debate
[FUTURE GAME STUDIES SCHOLAR]
Procedure: You will have to read a lot for this assignment, namely Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext, Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, Gonzalo Frasca (http://web.cfa.arizona.edu/art435a/readings/frasca_ludology.pdf), and re-read Edward Wesp (http://gamestudies.org/1402/articles/wesp). Using evidence from these texts and any others you find, take a position in the debate and supply a way we might use the resulting methodology in games analysis. 4-5 pages will be sufficient, but you may want to write more. Please cite as many sources as you need (probably 5+), using MLA 7 standards.
Points: Writing Style (10), Summary of Positions (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10)
I is for Interview
Quest: To conduct an interview with a game designer, professional or amateur, who has a playable game in public circulation.
Procedure: Make contact with a game designer (ask me if you need some help there) and, if s/he is willing, interview them about their craft. The interview should be at least 5-7 questions long, and submitted in written form or decent-quality video or audio recording. Make sure the focus in the interview is on not only the design of the game, but its production and circulation in the real world.
Points: Thoughtful Questions (10), Interview Structure (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Overall Interest (10)
J is for Just Choose Already
Quest: To explore what interactive literature has to offer and write about it persuasively.
Procedure: Sit down and actually play through Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web (http://eblong.com/zarf/zweb/tangle/) and Crowther and Woods’ Colossal Cave Adventure (http://www.amc.com/shows/halt-and-catch-fire/exclusives/colossal-cave-adventure). If you’d like, play through a contemporary piece of Interactive Fiction such as 80 Days (2015) or something from Choice of Games LLC. Use FAQs or walkthroughs if you get stuck. Consulting sources such as Anastasia Salter’s What is Your Quest? or Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages, analyze your experience in playing these games in literary terms. What make these games “literature” to you, and how do their actual game elements intensify or complicate this relationship? Use MLA 7 for your citations.
Points: Writing Style (10), Evidence of Play (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Overall Argument (10)
K is for Kriegsspiel
Quest: To understand the basis for modern military board games through Reiswitz’s Kriegsspiel
Procedure: Read the overview article from Philipp von Hilgers (https://www-alt.gsi.de/documents/DOC-2009-Jun-114-1.pdf), Vego’s overview (https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/900b6d3c-bcc8-4ff0-8c17-9ad22c448799/German-War-Gaming.aspx) as well as relevant passages from Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World and Kriegsspiel News (http://www.kriegsspiel.org.uk/index.php/articles/origins-history-of-kriegsspiel/3-origins-of-the-kriegsspiel). Now play through a modern descendent of the Kriegsspiel: either an Avalon Hill game (of which I have a few), an HPS Simulation, etc. Now write 3-5 pages in English or 2 pages in German about your play experience with respect to what you have read. Be certain to include how specific game mechanics constrained your options or permitted you to engage in specific play behavior. Use MLA 7 citations.
Points: Writing Style (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Precision of Description (10), Relationship to History and Course Materials (10)
L is for Libraries
[LIBRARIANS AND READERS]
Quest: To go through recent game studies scholarship of interest.
Procedure: Find 5 game studies publications published within the past three years: articles, books or otherwise. Choose publications that work on one topic: role-playing games, platform studies, first-person shooters, etc. Write a 4-5 page paper with an argument detailing what is preoccupying these publications. What are the main issues at stake in these articles? Who are they in conversation with? What games seem to be cited frequently? Use MLA 7 citations, and have at least 5 of them!
Points: Writing Style (10), Insightful Reading (10), Grammar and Citations (10), Precision of Argument (10)
M is for Making Games
Quest: To create freeform games based on German literature to use in the classroom.
Procedure: You will first need to do some background research on what freeform games are. Look to Lizzie Stark’s Pocket Guide to American Freeform, the Golden Cobra Challenge (http://www.goldencobra.org/), or Gizmet Game Poems (http://gamepoems.gizmet.com/about/) for clues. Then read one of the books in the list below. Come up with a short freeform game (20 min. – 1 hour) that could be played in a classroom to convey specific material auf Deutsch related to the work in question. Be creative! Resultant works may be adapted or used verbatim in Fall 2016.
• EXCERPTS: Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit (Mechthild von Magdeburg)
• POEM: “Es ist alles eitel” (Gryphius)
• NOVELLA: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (Goethe)
• DRAMA: Maria Stuart (Schiller)
• POEMS: Various poems (Eichendorff)
• DRAMA: Einen Jux will er sich machen (Nestroy)
• POEM: “Des Biedermanns Abendgemütlichkeit” (Scheffel)
• NOVELLA: Krambambuli (Ebner-Eschenbach)
• EXCERPTS: In Stahlgewittern (Jünger), Im Westen nichts Neues (Remarque)
• DRAMA: Die Dreigroschenoper (Brecht)
• NOVELLA: Schachnovelle (Zweig)
• ERZÄHLUNG: Nachts schlafen die Ratten doch (Borchert)
• NOVELLA: Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (Plenzdorf)
• DRAMA: Der Tod und das Mädchen (Jelinek)
• ERZÄHLUNG: Mutterzunge (Özdamar)
Points: Clarity of Instructions (10), Understanding of the Original Text (10), Grammar (10), Overall Game Design (10)
N is for New Games for YOUR Major
Quest: To create (or at least start) a game related to your major
Procedure: If you’re looking to get into game design, then one of the best places to start is to create a game. Find a topic or complex related to one of your majors and come up with an idea for a game related to it. Run the idea by the instructor before you get too far into it. Then plot out the game rules and, if possible, make a playable prototype or proof of concept in Sploder, Twine, InDesign, Gamemaker or some other relevant game software.
Points: Presentation of Final Product (10), Overall Game Design (10), Clarity (10), Relationship to Source Material (10)
O is for Outer Space
Quest: To play an intensive starship game in German
Procedure: If there are at least 4 German students interested, a German-language game of Artemis can be arranged. Artemis is a multi-player tactical ship simulation game that’s a lot like crewing a starship. Once we get through the logistical hurdles, you will meet for a 2-hour session of the game, and play it only in German. Then you will write a 1-page reflection paper on the experience, and playing games in a foreign language.
Points: Successful Playthrough (20), Quality of Self-Reflection (10), Grammar (10)
P is for Platform
[GAME DEVELOPER AND SCHOLAR]
Quest: To assess the field of “platform studies” from a scholarly and play perspective
Procedure: Platform studies involves the examination of a specific piece of hardware and its impact on the games it produces. Read at least 2 of the books in the Platform Studies series at MIT (http://platformstudies.com/). If you can, track down a working version of the platform in question and play a few games on it. Write a 4-5 page reflection paper answering the question: how is platform studies useful in assessing games? How might we understand a particular game thanks to its platform? Use MLA 7 citations.
Points: Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10), Precision of Description (10), Writing Style (10)
Q is for Quarters
Quest: To visit an actual arcade environment and reflect on it anthropologically
Procedure: Gather together a group of 2+ students from this course and go to a local arcade: 16-Bit, The Place, Gameworks, etc. Spend at least $5 on games, paying close attention to each game you play: how the game is presented, what it promises you, how much it costs, what you actually get when you play it, and how long it takes for you to go before you have to feed the machine more quarters. Also observe your classmates as they play, if possible. Write a 4-5 page reflection paper on the experience, specifically attending to both the social context (i.e., being in an arcade) and the games themselves. Bring in concepts from the course useful for your description, such as affordances, constraints, representation, and others.
Points: Grammar and Citations (10), Relationship to Course Materials (10), Description Details (10), Writing Style (10)
R is for Role-Playing Theory
Quest: To look at contemporary role-playing game theory and take a position within it
Procedure: Read through Sarah Lynne Bowman’s The Functions of Role-Playing Games, Markus Montola’s “On the Edge of the Magic Circle” (https://tampub.uta.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/66937/978-951-44-8864-1.pdf?sequence=1), The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp (http://nordiclarp.org/w/images/8/80/2014_The_Foundation_Stone_of_Nordic_Larp.pdf), and the most recent issue of the International Journal of Role-Playing (http://ijrp.subcultures.nl/). Find a topic that interests you. Then write a 4-5 page paper with MLA 7 citations that responds directly to recent arguments in RPG studies. Draw on your own experiences with RPGs if you can.
Points: Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10), Relationship to Source Material (10), Writing Style (10)
S is for Sexuality and Gender
Quest: To examine broader implications of gender and sexuality to be found in games
Procedure: Drawing on Adrienne Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge, find at least 2 other articles – academic or otherwise – that deal critically with the issue of gender and/or sexuality and gaming. Be specific as possible, and try to play the games that are mentioned. Now write a 4-5 page paper responding to the issues raised, being attentive to critical theories of representation and game mechanics. Use MLA 7 citations.
Points: Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10), Relationship to the Secondary Literature (10), Writing Style (10)
T is for Travia GmbH & Co.
Quest: To look at the German video games industry from a critical perspective
Procedure: Read this document positively appraising the German games industry (http://www.gtai.de/GTAI/Content/EN/Invest/_SharedDocs/Downloads/GTAI/Fact-sheets/Business-services-ict/fact-sheet-gaming-industry-en.pdf) and consult the Wikipedia page on the German video games industry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_gaming_in_Germany). Track down and play one of the games on the list. Now write a 4-5 page paper in English (or a 2-page paper in German) explaining the game as a product of German industry forces. What company made it? What are their sales like? What could be considered “German” about this particular game? Pay attention to transnational and European-level markets, and come see your instructor if you need more details. Any citations shoudl be in MLA 7.
Points: Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10), Precision of Description (10), Writing Style (10)
U is for Uncertainty
Quest: To apply Costikyan’s theories of uncertainty in games to a specific game object
Procedure: Now that you’ve read Uncertainty in Games, it’s helpful to apply it to a game object. Pick a game that you think has a particularly interesting balance of uncertainty factors. Imagine telling some game designer how the game uses uncertainty to work. Write a 4-5 page paper articulating precisely what aspects of the game’s design contribute to this uncertainty, particularly looking at affordances, incentives, and constraints. Use Costikyan’s terminology and cite (MLA 7) as you write.
Points: Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10), Relationship to Source Text (10), Writing Style (10)
V is for Valor
[FUTURE POLITICIAN OR PROFESSOR]
Quest: To enlighten the rest of the class with respect to some specific game topic
Procedure: Are you a public speaker extraordinaire? Would you like to work on those skills? First, sign up for a 10-minute spot to present on a topic of your choice related to games and the course material. Then come up with an engaging 10-minute presentation on your particular topic to give in front of the gathered students. Please make it engaging!
Points: Clarity (10), Structure (10), Delivery (10), Persuasiveness (10)
W is for What is a Role-Playing Game?
[GERMAN STUDENTS AND OTHERS]
Quest: To play through a game that serves as a theoretical intervention, and assess it
Procedure: Find 2-3 fellow players and play Epidiah Ravachol’s What Is a Role-playing Game? in English (https://dig1000holes.wordpress.com/what-is-a-roleplaying-game/) OR in German (http://pihalbe.org/sites/default/files/Was-ist-ein-Rollenspiel–Raumraeuber.pdf) if you are a German student. Then discuss the play experience afterward. Take notes on both the play and the discussion. Then write a 4-5 page paper describing the experience, what happened in the game, and how the game made an impact on what you thought a role-playing game was. Speculate about what you would do if you had to make a similar intervention.
Points: Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10), Precision of Description (10), Writing Style (10)
X is for Xenophobia
Quest: To look at racial and/or race-related dynamics in a game with a critical lens
Procedure: Minorities are vastly underrepresented in video games. This structural racism is largely attributed to lean market demographics, when in fact people of color play games just as much as white people. To do this assignment, read the Mou & Peng article (https://www.msu.edu/~pengwei/Mou%20Peng.pdf), A.A. George’s Tor.com article (http://www.tor.com/2014/08/13/gamings-race-problem-gen-con-and-beyond/) and related materials to be found in the library or online databases. Pick and play a game which offers us clear insights into this particular dynamic. In a 4-5 page argumentative paper with at least 3 sources (MLA 7 citations), tell your reader about the constructions of whiteness and racialized figures in the game.
Points: Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10), Relationship to Theory (10), Writing Style (10)
Y is for Your Ideas Are Not Your Own
Quest: To understand how ideology works through game mechanics
Procedure: Game mechanics are persuasive and rhetorical instruments that one can use to further specific political and economic arguments. Almost every game implies how humans ought to behave and how systems ought to work: Monopoly justifies the bootstrapping entrepreneurial mentality as well as (paradoxically) demonstrates how having wealth and property just gives one more wealth and property, Pong implies that a game of pure physical skill is possible, Undertale rejects normative gender and sexuality perspectives while also reassuring us that kindness will save the world. In this assignment, you will play a game of your choice and discern the general ideological implications of its aesthetic and mechanics. After playing the game for a significant period of time, write a 4-5 page paper answering the following questions: What are the players incentivized to do in the game? How could these incentives be read in terms of political and economic profit motive? What mentalities are considered “optimal” in the story universe of the game. Citing (using MLA 7) Ian Bogost or cultural theorists from the Frankfurt or Birmingham School couldn’t hurt.
Points: Grammar and Citations (10), Persuasiveness of Argument (10), Relationship to Theory (10), Writing Style (10)
Z is for Zelda
Quest: To do an in-depth analysis of a specific level of a specific game
Procedure: Pick a level of a video game, and play through it at least 3 times. It could be a controversial level like “No Russian” in Modern Warfare 2, or the opening dungeon of The Legend of Zelda. Pay close attention to the following aspects, among others: how the level begins/continues/ends, what emotional high points and low points it offers to you as a player, what characters you meet and how you are expected to deal with them, the potential outcomes of the players’ actions within the level, the layout of the landscape, its soundscape and artistic inspirations. Now write 4-5 pages advancing a specific argument about the level. Be as precise in your description as possible, and relate its various points to concepts you learned in the course.
Points: Persuasiveness of Argument (10), Precision of Description (10), Writing Style (10), Relationship to Course Concepts (10)
FINAL BOSS FIGHT
During the final two weeks of the semester, students get to try out their game analysis skills against a worthy opponent. They will select a game and play it, taking notes. Then they will locate no less than 3 reviews of or academic articles on the game. Citing these reviews and/or articles, they will then write their own review that somehow affirms, refutes and/or responds to the 3 reviews, while also arguing their own position on the game. Assignment length is somewhere between 2000-4000 words (the length of a decent game review) and should be written with popular game criticism standards (i.e., those of Fernández-Vara) in mind.
May 27, 2015
[This post constitutes me thinking out loud in a forum not as ephemeral as social media. If you want to start a fight, the comments here or elsewhere would not be the place to do it. E-mail me instead.]
In 2008, this scholar Timothy Murray published a book on the “digital baroque,” in which he’s arguing for a Deleuzian connection to early modern aesthetic forms in contemporary art films by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Peter Greenaway, among others. Murray argues that cinema has both helped structure modern perceptions and has simultaneously “folded in on itself” along with other, earlier art forms such as painting. This has led to a shift in cinematic and new media creations toward manic, quasi-mystical meditations that conflate technology and spirituality in a glorious aesthetic mess.
In 2015, there was this Australian/American/Namibian/South African co-production called Mad Max: Fury Road that – in my mind – actually exemplifies what I’m calling the “digital baroque” Maybe one could call it the “21st Century baroque?”
Anyway, this Mad Max film is an absolutely important entry in our contemporary film-theoretical discourse, crossing between media history, nerdy world-building, and socio-political activism without sacrificing its own integrity as a simple production that remains legible to any audience. It stands next to sci-fi works such as Dredd (2012) and Snowpiercer (2013) in this respect…. though we can debate as to how.
It bridges between the paranoid and socially critical sci-fi of the 1970s such as the Parallax View (1974) and Silent Running (1972), the greatest of American and Italian westerns, and the possibilities afforded by digital painting and editing tools. It models rigorous, consequential writing and storyboarding, even though many of the names and visual concepts might very well have come from a 14 year-old boy or girl’s private sketchbook.
I am aware that many posts have been made on Mad Max: Fury Road, especially with regard to its aesthetics and openly feminist social politics. It has been called “the future of pulp.” Our massive data aggregators Google and Twitter have been so bombarded with information about this film made by 70 year-old director George Miller that even they are struggling to keep up with The Conversation about this film. My speculation is that the film is re-opening specific debates that were shut down in the transition between the wild and weird Hollywood experimentations of the 1970s and the blockbuster-formula quests of the 1980s: How much punishment can be dealt to male figures? Is there world-building that transcends the marketing of products? Should women link together into a grand sisterhood with their male allies to fight the heteropatriarchy? Questions, questions.
Or one could frame it like this: Most audiences do not remember or discuss the 1st or 3rd Mad Max films, but rather Road Warrior (1981), which this popular fourth entry most resembles. The first film is filled with male-charged sexual violence in the same way as its predecessor A Boy and His Dog (1975), while the third film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) has been continuously accused of being “clunky” and ambiguous at best. This Australian film series has incited thoughts and discussion about societies of absolute scarcity, but has also received askance looks from the film community for its bizarre qualities. Simply put, Miller has (rightly) turned toward a more “baroque” pulp production aesthetic and unambiguous political program in order to bring the woolly elements of the 1st and 3rd films into the blockbuster formula of the 2nd.
Wikipedia tells us baroque things use “exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a film relentlessly edited and adjusted to fit a lay audience, with frame-rates tweaked on individual shots and careful attention paid to continuity and physics of otherwise utterly ridiculous car creations. Exaggeration and excess pour out of every pore of the skin of this film, but care has been taken that the basics – can I see this character’s eyes? what is happening in this shot? who is in control here? – are not overwhelmed. The gender politics, which have received a well-deserved heap of attention, at least give us a breath of fresh air with regard to the agency and capabilities of specific marginalized groups. (Although don’t get me started on the race politics of the film.)
Such technique is how a film so batshit crazy on so many levels can also seem cool, collected, disciplined. Moreover, Mad Max: Fury Road makes many of its peer genre films seem ponderous, phoned-in, mired in artistic and fiscal conservatism.
How are Dredd and Snowpiercer also related to Mad Max: Fury Road?
Well, for one thing – Hollywood seems less involved in their creation than usual. Dredd is a British / South Africa co-production, Snowpiercer a South Korean / Czech co-production. Such sci-fi films have permitted their directors and crew relative free rein over their resultant content, meaning creative experimentation beyond the Hero’s Journey-driven, Chosen One SFX vehicles that any film budgeted above $150 million usually become. Another aspect would be their direct, careful engagement with the basic tools of filmmaking. These are serious films that do not take themselves as deadly seriously as those of Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams, who pride themselves on adding random plot twists to otherwise pat genre narratives. They reference earlier productions without screaming from the hilltops like Tarantino that THEY KNOW EARLIER FILM HISTORY DAMMIT. The lay viewer can “get” the film – and be challenged by it – without previous fan buy-in or loads of film-history background. This is a good thing for a culture genuinely ignorant of such meta-level details and expecting their apps, hotel-room-ordering and video-game tutorials alike to be immediately user-friendly. All three films structure their action around a concrete dystopian scenario that a 5 year-old could get, and then pack them full of immediately persuasive cinematic details. Slo-Mo makes your life like an awesome, colorful music video. There’s an Ax Gang protecting this train. Nux has a V-8 engine tattooed on his chest. The redundancy becomes both necessary and an art form in of itself. Finally, each film offers a genuine digression from dominant paradigms of gender and social representation: Curtis and Edgar can have a queer relationship, Furiosa can be competent in charge, Dredd can sincerely respect his female colleague. Racial and ethnic diversity as found in several of the recent Fast and Furious films has become increasingly visible across these productions, although this area is need of improvement.
So yeah, “baroque” is the word I’ll continue to use and develop.
21st Century baroque?
As a German instructor and an alumnus of the Iowa City School District (’00), I feel obliged to post this open letter of protest against the closing of the German program in the Iowa City Schools.
April 11, 2014
Dear Superintendent Stephen Murley and the Board of the Iowa City School District,
We the undersigned request that you cease plans to phase out the German program in the Iowa City School District starting in the 2014-2015 school year. We understand that the district has a temporary budget shortfall, but can assure you that the disastrous effects of phasing out German would be permanent.
German is a language widely recognized as a foundation for excellence. There are economic, cultural and historical reasons for this fact. Germany remains not only one of the most robust economies in the European Union, for example, but also one tied into a productive international network of innovations and ideas. Over 1 million Americans work for German companies. A March 11, 2014 editorial in The Economist argues that students who choose to learn German are better positioned to supply their skills in a market over-saturated with Spanish and French-language speakers. German-speaking cultures have significantly contributed to modern thought and, with only 3-5% of contemporary German works being published in English translation per year, volumes of new research and fiction are being overlooked by an English-language-only market. Given the fact that not only 15% of Americans are of German ancestry but also that German is the fourth most frequently spoken language (other than English) in American homes, the relevance of German to our local and national heritage is indisputable.
Phasing out German is akin to directly denying economic and academic opportunities to your students from the Iowa City area. Numerous German-speaking alumni have gone on to successful careers in academia, law, medicine and finance. The primary author of this letter has just become an assistant professor in German Studies at a research I university. Alumni have been able to immediately major in the language in institutions of higher education, and create active intercultural connections while studying abroad on grants or other programs. These opportunities simply would not have been available, had the Iowa City School District not provided the baseline support for German language education from 7th through 12th grade. Students learning German in middle school, high school and college have an incredible advantage in securing a job in our global society over students who possess no foreign language skills. It is a well-known fact that the study of German at grades 7-12 exposes students to numerous higher-order thinking and study skills they urgently need to prepare them for a successful college experience and an enhanced quality of life. All evidence points toward this program remaining a good investment.
Lean times usually cause us to re-assess priorities. Yet German language education remains a fairly inexpensive and reliable way of keeping the Iowa City School District “child-centered” and “future-focused,” as advertised on the website. Indeed, money should be invested in opportunities for children and their future, and keeping German is a solid investment. Canceling the language signals a move within the district toward other priorities, namely the support of the administration over the needs of the students. It also signals a most regrettable neglect of foreign language skills needed by our students to stay competitive with the worlds’ economies. In many, if not most, countries outside the USA, most children start learning foreign languages at age 10. The US simply cannot afford to deprive our children of the same advantages most students receive in most European countries as well as in China and many other countries.
Thank you in advance for considering our letter, and we hope you make the right decision to maintain support for German language education in the district.
Dr. Evan Torner
Dr. Johanna Schuster Craig
Dr. Glenn Ehrstine
Dr. Vance Byrd
Dr. Dan Reynolds
Dr. Berna Gueneli
Dr. Sigmund Barber
Dr. Jennifer Michaels
Dr. April Eisman
Dr. Mary Larew
Dr. Lauren Stefaniak
Dr. Felicia Kruse Alexander
Ben & Carolyn Van Zante
Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba
Sonia and Ronald Ettinger
Jeneane O’Toole Stepan
Dr. Jonathan Skolnik
Dr. Larson Powell
Dr. Henning Wrage
Jenny Gringer Richards
Dr. Caroline Kita
Jenny Hilsenrad Graff
Lisa Anne Scism
Dr. Erin Alice Cowling
Dr. Carrie Shanafelt
Sarah Karniski Rasch
Stanley P. Nuehring
Sara Neymeyer Eisenberg
Horst R. Jordan
Mary Jo Hockmuth
November 25, 2013
Facebook is what you might call a vulgar expression of that network, a vast human information-gathering service that interpenetrates business, art, personal, and public spheres with equal impunity. In this respect, Facebook is not unique: Google, Microsoft, Apple — these are all companies that have built business models around the harvesting and control of global information flows. The recent NSA scandal has only sharpened global interest in these for-profit surveillance industries, but only the naïve could have earlier thought that all the personal information supplied to these industries was simply being tucked aside somewhere, unexamined and encrypted. On the contrary, the dot-com crash of the late 90s more-or-less drove market models specifically toward the following end state: users are brought in with “free” products, and then the users themselves become the product. James Schirmer has recently described such “services” as “institutionware.” Here I excerpt his argument:
Institutionware is software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. … The aims of institutionware: decrease user agency, increase user dependency, preserve market dominance, contain “features” … Institutionware decreases user agency and increases user dependency by demanding and reinforcing user compliance. … Institutionware preserves market dominance through a blanket of equivalence in systems and users. Even limited use propagates further use. … Instititutionware is about preserving the institution as it is and has been, enhancing/supporting rather than challenging/threatening.
To return to the idea of the network: there is an overdetermined quality to how we are seen today as being “plugged in.” What if the voluntary nature of our being interpenetrated by digital networks is fundamentally flawed? That is, Facebook would rather see us never log out, than see us engage in other forms of networking (face-to-face conversation, letter writing, reading each other’s books, etc.) What if, given our consent to be plugged into just a little, we have consented to a whole-scale strip-mining of our digital identities for profit? But this is not Facebook’s fault; it is, rather, a company “merely” trying to survive in an exceedingly regressive, reactionary business climate that privileges only establishment ideas and passes the consequences of “social change” onto the consumer, as per Ian Bogost’s idea of hyperemployment.
So many of us depend on Facebook, not only for information but also employment and familial contacts. So much of Facebook relies on such co-dependency, and our present-day obsession with the service (before it is replaced by something even more megalomaniacal) should give us pause about the kinds of drugs peddled here in the 21st Century. Why rely on chemicals, when the digital can give each and every one of us our fix for free?
Free for a price, of course.
September 18, 2012
How ephemeral is that which we type with our thumbs?
And if it’s so ephemeral, why do we commit so many moments of our limited lives to entering such text?
Importance itself, so it seems, has been awarded too much importance.
Ever wonder how, for example, Coca-Cola possesses so much clout in the world? Remember that their chief product is a sugary beverage that contributes little to human well-being and much to tooth decay and diabetes.
Coca-Cola gained its power by cornering the market on triviality.
Or in other words: in a system that privileges exchange-value, the winners are those who maximize this aspect of their product regardless of its use-value. Expenditures that might’ve been made to increase a trivial product’s use-value to the broadest possible demographic (I.e. making Coke products healthier) instead endeavor to increase the exchange-value in the minds of the target demographic. Triviality itself – the communication of Coke as a leisure product – becomes an asset in maintaining this exchange-value. And so the trivial takes on the thickness of hardened clay, a coldness worthy of finance capital’s indifferent gaze.
The heavy attention traffic flowing through the weightless center confers upon it the illusion of weight. Partaking in this illusion activates us, stimulates our social and sensorial instincts. We drink our Coca-Cola, tap out our messages with our thumbs, post on Facebook, precisely because the stakes on such activities have been set so low for us. The paradoxical effect of our involvement actually investing these trivial products with meaning does not become visible at the moment of contact, but only afterwards as metrics.
One spends 2 hours a day “on” Facebook.
One drinks 2-3 Cokes per week.
One taps out a single message on an iPhone over the course of 45 minutes.
Numbers heavy as lead, for an activity light as air.
Sent from my iPhone
September 13, 2012
[I have written a series of blog posts on paper entitled “Gedankenspiel” that I am entering verbatim into WordPress. The thought is that I write differently by hand than via computer.]
The pen is not only mightier than the sword, it’s mightier than the COMPUTER.
When I confront my students with the task of research, I usually present to them their mightiest tool:
Why this, in an age of smartphones, micro-cameras and ubiquitous information?
First of all, information is neither neutral nor ubiquitous.
It is invested, complicit, contextual, and throttled.
Invested, in that powerful interests support only certain information flows
Complicit, because the flows themselves impact the information available (McLuhan, Kittler)
Contextual, in that it cannot convey but a partial view of the given story
Throttled, because access even to the permitted information is part of someone’s profit model
You use your pen to invest in your own, simple information flow
The pen allows us to be selective about reality, because we by nature have to be.
No circuitboards or touch screens or operating systems stand between us and the comparatively simple algorithms of writing.
Pens afford a mastery over language, which is itself not only a means to power over others, but also over one’s own thoughts.
Should our notebooks be set alight, our memories, narratives and control over them blown away as ashes into the wind, then we shall use our pens to once again inscribe power – via the written word and image – into the personal realities we perceive.