Facebook only used to know whether or not you “liked” something, or, rather, whether or not you found something worthy of your attention enough to pass that information along to others. For years, many lobbied unsuccessfully for a dislike button. How often, after all, have you felt awkward “liking” a post about a sad or depressing topic? At long last Facebook relented. But instead of feeling all the feels, Facebook now wants you to feel just some of them.
How does “life” attempt to imitate video games? Or, how do other media forms and corporations turn to video games for inspiration?
In some video games, character statistics are measured in numbers or grades and improvements in abilities are correlated to increased stats. In some video games, players even allocate points to different skill metrics as their character advances. The more points in your Strength skill, the stronger your attacks, etc. In others, the metrics are invisible to the player or are allocated automatically. Video game characters may learn skills by leveling up or by using a particular weapon until one “learns” the skill completely. Video games have distinct, achievable skills for players to learn and the system rewards players with points (experience, grade, rank) and achievements when milestones are passed.
Gameification is a huge draw for companies. You can turn your boring professional conferences into fun experiences through gamifying the conference with an app. Take a picture. Answer a question. Scavenger hunts. Rewards. All of these draw inspiration from the video game achievement. People like to play games. People love to be rewarded.
The fitness website, Fitocracy, uses an achievement and game model for fitness goals and workouts. You gain experience points for every workout which helps increase your user level. You gain achievements for different types of workouts and repeated regimens. The Fitbit and other wearables also tap into a video game sense of accomplishment through the quantification of health metrics. Each step is like an experience point and each goal a new level.
But, don’t video games also try to imitate life? Simulation games are a popular genre. The Sims 3 sold 1.4 million copies in the first week alone and Second Life has attracted researchers from a variety of disciplines.
The language of role-playing games (RPGs) also suggest an attempt to locate the real in the fantastic. The very phrase “experience point” denotes a discrete, measurable achievement earned through the experience of a particular event or activity. In some games, one gains experience points for simply discovering a previously unknown location. Experience isn’t always gained from combat. Some games emphasize very “real world” achievements in lieu of more fantastical elements of combat and magic.
In the MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, several character classes are devoted to crafting and gathering. You can gain achievements and experience for things like fishing, gathering herbs, making clothes, armor, and weapons, and chopping down trees. Through the use of fantastical environments (fishing on a river in a magical forest while water elementals frolic around you), Final Fantasy XIV turns the mundane chore of chopping wood into discrete, achievable blocks of experience that result in easily visible rewards (access to better equipment, the ability to find rare fish, titles and achievements to show off, and, of course, a musical fanfare when you level up.
There was something very soothing and fun about fishing and logging in a video game. Despite the hours I spent gathering through a rather monotonous process, it never felt boring. Every level I gained on my Fisher was a reward the game gave me for a rather everyday experience. Finding that Princess Trout for my level 10 Fisher quest was my first big land and, as the Fisher Guildmaster told me, “no one ever forgets their first.” And, I didn’t even need to get my feet wet!
In fact, the gameplay of the Animal Crossing series is based upon the very mundane (yet frightening to this queer millennial) realities of American capitalism: the perils of home ownership, debt, consumption, and neighborly appearances. In Animal Crossing, you create and control a humanoid character who moves to a new town for a new life. The game opens with you reaching your new town and seconds after you get off the train than you meet Tom Nook – the tanuki who owns the town store. Conveniently, he is also the town financier and in no time at all, you are 20,000 bells (the game currency) in debt for the new house you just bought.
Animal Crossing has no clearly defined objectives or plot. There is no story or driving force. Players are simply encouraged to just live a life in Animal Crossing. You can go fishing, collect fossils and bugs for the museum, beautify the town with paths, gardens, and other features, and do favors for the anthropomorphic animal townsfolk. The game continues whether or not you are playing by using the game console’s clock to measure the passage of time. Days pass and seasons progress. The game encourages you to play at different times so you can find that nocturnal fish or attend that party your frog-neighbor is throwing. Or, you can choose to not to play. Your house can gather dust. The townsfolk wonder where you are. But, life in Animal Crossing goes on with or without you.
Animal Crossing is a video game that feels an awful lot like work. You spend a lot of time catering to the needs of the townspeople, especially in the latest iteration, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, where you are also immediately elected (crowned?) mayor upon arrival. Here, the burden of affective labor comes in, where the player spends time and energy devoted to the desires of the townspeople who may or may not be happy with the new fountain you installed in the park you spent hours landscaping. Affective labor is also a feature of other games, such as Diner Dash and Cooking Mama.
But, you might ask, what happens when you pay off your loan? What’s the point of the game, then? Have no fear, capitalism always has a response: a bigger house! When you pay off your loan, Tom Nook gets to work on upgrading your house – for a loan larger than the first, of course.
In Animal Crossing, there is always a loan to pay off, a house to further furnish and improve, clothes to buy, fossils to find, bugs to catch, neighbors to catch up with. The achievements in Animal Crossing are the achievements of capitalism. Buy a home. Then a bigger one. Upgrade often (As my grandmother says, “new is nice”). Consume. Remain in debt constantly. Yet, unlike Animal Crossing, it is difficult to choose not to play.
One could imagine what would happen if Tom Nook charged interest. He was rather trusting to give a loan to a complete stranger without even a credit check. Unable to find the bells to cover your payments you neglect to play out of fear. Tom sells your loan to your elephant-neighbor at a subprime rate. Your house is foreclosed on and your house and furnishings are sold. The market crashes and the town declines under the weight of an economic collapse. Anthropomorphic animals attempt to drown themselves. Is Tommy Nook too big to fail?
What do you think? Does life imitate video games? Do video games imitate life? Is this a distinction that is even worth drawing?
Was there ever a sweeter serenade than the song of dial-up internet? After hearing the ghostly sound of modems past floating around my office today, I thought about how that sound has disappeared into the technological past.
In a country where only 3% of Americans still use dial-up, the song is almost a dead language, one that used to communicate to us that we’ve arrive at our destination: The Internet. But, is the internet a place? Is it a somewhere we can arrive at? Does it come to us when we enter a URL or check our email?
Imagining what the internet looks like is a popular source of creative material for television, books, movies, and games. And, while no two works seems to have the exact same image, media from the early millennium seemed to agree on the idea that the internet is indeed a place.
The episode of the children’s television show The Fairly OddParents, Information Stupor Highway, centers on the main character, Timmy Turner, trying to recover an email that was accidentally sent to his elementary school crush, Trixie. Without Gmail’s undo send feature, Timmy opts to travel into the internet, with the help of his magical fairy godparents, to retrieve the email before it arrives in Trixie’s inbox. Ignoring the rather instantaneous nature of sending emails, Timmy’s fairy godparents transform him into streams of data and send him online. Traveling from desktop to desktop, Timmy searches until he finds Trixie’s computer and snags the email before she can read it. Here, Timmy leaves the real world and enters the Internet. He can’t exist in both places at once. In fact, if he can’t get back to his original computer, then he would be stuck on the internet permanently.
Meanwhile, the video game Mega Man Battle Network, shows a world where humans can see and interact with the internet, but they can’t actually go there. Instead, humans have an intelligent artificial intelligence called a NetNavi (Internet Navigator) who acts as the proxy for the human’s actions online. NetNavis surf the web, read emails, take phone calls, and “bust” viruses in battle. NetNavis can be “jacked-in” to other machines and wander inside where humans can’t go. From televisions to refrigerators to subway trains, there are very few places NetNavis can’t jack in to. In this world, humans witness and interact online through the actions of avatars with their own personalities. The internet world and the physical world are mixed, but distinct. Because humans cannot enter the Net and NetNavis cannot enter the physical world, the boundaries between them are quite clear.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a cyberpunk Japanese anime about an elite police unit that investigates cyber-terrorism in 2025 Japan. A robust show that raise many questions, Ghost in the Shell portrays a world where many individuals have cybernetic body parts that allow them to interface with the Internet directly. Through connecting their brains to these networks, people can communicate, send information and data, and go “diving” through the net. In Ghost in the Shell, the Internet is not a separate space, but one that is seamlessly integrated into the human terrain. The main character, Motoko Kusanagi (known as “The Major”), gazes out and sees not only the physical world, but data files, text messages, and visual conversations with her unit in her field of vision. When the Major dives into the Internet, she can create a digital avatar that can see and interact with other avatars online in round-table chat rooms or just appear as a stream of data as she passes through secure firewalls.
In this show, the Internet is ever present and seamlessly integrated into everyone’s field of vision and experience. The Matrix creates a similar image of the net where all humans are connected to a shared, networked reality. The main difference, however, is that The Matrix creates a simulated reality of which no one is aware. While the people of Ghost in the Shell exist in a composite reality where the boundaries between the internet and the “real world” blend, the people in the Matrix have an simulated reality so seamless that only a chosen few can intuit the difference.
As the internet has become more of an integral part of our daily lives, popular media no longer seems as interested in the question of the internet as a place. It seems to me that of the various representations out there, we have more closely adopted the view of Ghost in the Shell – the Internet is a space that is now experienced as a blend of the physical and the digital.
Our smart phones and tablets have become extensions of our bodies. We wear Bluetooth headphones that allow us to rock out to music without a cord. Amazon Echo and Siri allow us to talk to our computerized assistants (I’m temporarily putting aside the questions of corporate and State surveillance). The discontinued Google Glass allowed users to interface with the Net just like Ghost in the Shell. You can see the Web right in front of you, even as you walk down the street.
Is our popular media no longer as fascinated with the question because we think we already found the answer? I don’t believe so. The question is not so much resolved as it is debated. Countless articles exist on the dangers of smart phones, tablets, and other connected technology. Many of them report on technology’s effect on the brain or on communication or on its effect on labor and productivity. Adolescence and childhood, in particular, become sites for the debate on technology as we worry about the effects of an interconnected digital reality on the physical, mental, and social well-being of children.
I think this is evidence that we’ve moved away from thinking of the Internet as a separate space to an integrated network so pervasive that it becomes a cultural battleground.
What do you think? Is the internet a place you go to? Or, is it something else entirely?
What makes the children’s television show, Steven Universe, so compelling? I must confess that I joined the bandwagon pretty late and after some resistance. But, one week and 41 episodes later, I am hooked!
Steven Universe is about the titular character, Steven Universe, who is raised by the Crystal Gems, three magical aliens, in the resort town of Beach City. Half-human, half-gem, Steven spends half of the first season learning to control his magical gem powers with the guidance of his family and support of his friends and the other half on his own sort of wacky adventures where he develops other skills like empathy and how to emotionally support the people he cares about. Despite the idea floating around that this show, like others such as Adventure Time, is actually developed for young adults and not children, the show demonstrates some classic children’s show formatting:
- 15 minute episode segments
- The main character is a boy with a strange cohort of family and friends
- Steven does not participate in the institutions of childhood (school, church, sports teams)
- Conflicts are resolved within the time frame of one episode
- Characters verbalize their conflicts and tensions with other characters
- Episode themes are clearly articulated in dialogue (clear morals)
Premiering in November 2013, the show is a hit. And, not just a hit with children, but with teens and young adults as well. A simple Tumblr search finds fan art, fan fiction, theories and speculation, and even a blog that imagines text message conversations the characters would exchange. A search on DeviantArt found over 70,000 pieces on Steven Universe. It’s even been nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Short-Form Animated Program. People watch this show and have a lot of feels.
But, again, what makes the show so compelling? I have a few ideas: The soft pastel animation is warm and friendly and light
The music is also upbeat, soft, and I think the ending theme (below) adds a bit of serious weight to the silliness of the plot
The references to other shows is evident. I’ve noticed references to Sailor Moon and other magical girl anime, video games such as Pokemon and Final Fantasy, and even films such as Lars and the Real Girl and A Hard Day’s Night. These references, like the references in many children’s shows, are meant to engage older viewers with material that is aimed producing a feeling of nostalgia. But, I find it difficult to view Steven Universe as simply catering to young adults to increase viewership. The influence of Japanese anime on the animation style not only attracts the viewership of young adults of the Internet generation, but it incorporates the style as part of a canon of American media influenced by anime that is actually quite extensive. Steven Universe may be a good example of “what happens when something moves across platforms and across national boundaries.”
Yet, where Steven Universe really seems to shine is in its creation of family dynamics. PBS Idea Channel explored the idea that Steven Universe expands the idea of family to include the nontraditional elements that make up Steven’s strange family. And, I could not agree more. Many of the episodes of Steven Universe focus on character development and the complicated relationships that Steven has with the other Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The Gems act as both parental figures and siblings to Steven. They take care of him, provide support, embarrass him, misunderstand him, and provide him with the opportunities to take risks, to take on responsibility, and to learn to cope with failure and disappointment.
Each of the Gems takes on a primary role in their relationship with Steven. Amethyst takes on the role of the big sister, Pearl is the disciplinarian and tutor, and Garnet is the save-the-day-mom figure. In fact, the creator of the show, Rebecca Sugar, has stated that she based the Gems on the roles she took on in her relationship with her little brother, Steven. Sugar also draws upon theories of emotional development in the development of the show’s characters.
In the episode, Fusion Cuisine, Steven’s friend Connie tells her parents that Steven has a nuclear family in order to continue hanging out with him. Steven attempts to convince Connie’s parents that his family is normal, but when his plan fails, he and Connie attempt to run away. When Connie’s parents see the Gems disciplining Steven, they realize that the Gems are actually responsible parental figures and will continue to allow Connie and Steven to be friends. While I appreciated the ending of the episode, what allowed Steven’s family to be incorporated into the normative understanding of what constitutes family units is through the use of discipline in order to exert control. The Gems only convince Connie’s parents that they are worthy parental figures by grounding Steven after his attempt to runaway. Good parenting is seen as shutting down your child with love and doing things for their own good, despite their feelings on the matter (something Steven comes to resist a bit later).
Pearl: We would never starve you, but you will lose your TV privileges… for 1,000 years. Steven: No! The midseason pre-finale of “Under the knife”! How can you do this to me?! *cries slightly* Greg: *Disapproving look* Because we love you, Steven. Steven: *Groans* Dr. Maheswaran: Wow. That was a masterful use of the “because we love you” shutdown. I’m quite partial to the “it’s for your own good” myself.
There is nothing vague about these complex relationships. In typical children’s show fashion, the show does not dance around the issues it desperately wants to convey to the audience, but has the characters discuss and challenge particular ideas in dialogue.
“Man, why did Connie have to say I have one mother instead of zero… or three?” -Steven Universe
Steven actively tries to understand his relationships to the Gems. Notably, he doesn’t know the answer to the above question. Are they his mothers? Sisters? Guardians? Do they have to be only one of those things? I think that the Gems play all of these roles for Steven with much of the character development focuses on how Steven discovers his own role on the team (This is ignoring the very queer nature of the Gems themselves, which will probably be the subject of another post). What makes the show compelling then, could be the themes. Jack Halberstam argues that animated films succeed “to the extent to which they are able to address the disorderly child, the child who knows there is a bigger world out there beyond the family, if only he could reach it.” The discussion of topics that we normally would not expect from children’s media (due to the perception of silliness, frivolity/frivolousness, and that children must be protected from potentially harmful ideas) are exactly what makes them successful.
I would argue that allowing Steven to even ask such a question, the creators of Steven Universe are pushing the continuously ongoing discussion of the nature of childhood and the family unit in a positive and progressive direction. It’s a show for the queer child who might find family in a universe that only seems to become queerer.
Watching last night’s GOP Debate left me with the question: What, if anything, was actually discussed? Between the buzz words, character assassinations, and Donald Trump hand waves, there was absolutely nothing. The GOP Debate was just that: buzz words, character assassinations, and Trump jazz hands.
But, if the debate has taught us anything, it has taught us that absurdity comes in many forms, and 10 manifestations appeared on stage last night. While we may be quick to jump on Trump as the politico ad absurdum extraordinaire, I’m convinced that his presence next to the other candidates ensures that everyone else’s absurdities seem like sagely wisdom.
Some of my personal favorites:
Senator Ted Cruz’s assertion that he would open a federal investigation into the recent allegations that Planned Parenthood profits off the sales of fetuses. This was said despite the fact that there is strong evidence that the videos are heavily edited and the organization that released them is known for such antics
And, is there a better way to distance yourself from past sexist statements than by making new sexist statements?
Trump accused the Mexican government of purposely sending all of the “bad guys” over the border to commit “killings, murders, and crime” and suggested that we build an actual wall between the United States and Mexico.
While Trump was espousing on his Game-of-Thrones-binge-style-politics with all of the political acumen of Cersei Lannister, you may have missed Senator Marco Rubio suggesting that while he would like to expand the fence, El-Chapo may dig underneath that too. Absent from all of this was Governor Rick Santorum’s statement during the second-tier debate that breaking up immigrant families is justifiable. The evidence: “the compassion in our laws.”
But, thank goodness Trump was there to remind us that before he graced us with his presence, no one had ever discussed immigration before.
IRAN AND FOREIGN POLICY
There was general agreement that the Iran deal was bad. Though, there was also a general agreement (by me) that the candidates wouldn’t know the meaning of the word diplomacy if it dropped a bomb on them. Allegations that the United States gave too much away or that we did not benefit belie the fact that diplomatic efforts are about compromise, not winning.
Scott Walker chimed in with his childhood memory “tying a yellow ribbon on the tree in front of my house during those 44 days (of the Iran hostage crisis)”
War, destruction, and chaos will reign when diplomacy wins out, apparently.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
This doesn’t even begin to cover every bit of absurdity that occurred last night. Ben Carson solved America’s racial divide by reminding us that he sees only brains, not race. Senator John Kasich stood out for his seemingly reasonable demeanor (but reasonable does not equate to right) and he even has gay friends! Mike Huckabee reminded us of the true aim of the military is “to kill people and break things,” not a “social experiment” for transgender people.
But, I think what we really learned is that Americans can’t say no to a face like this: