No Solace in Shadows – A Review of Liyla and the Shadows of War

Much of the current debate around video games revolves around whether or not games should be viewed through a political lens. There are many gamers who advocate for better representation of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people in games, and there are others who reject these demands as “politicizing” the ostensibly non-political. For those who argue for representation, representation is necessary in order to allow new bodies and experiences to be brought to the fore in our virtual worlds of gameplay. In addition, representation can also be about giving voice to marginalized and little-heard perspectives about gender, sexuality, and geopolitics.

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Recently, game designer Rasheed Abueideh came into conflict with Apple over the placement of his new game, Liyla and the Shadows of War, in the App Store. The reason for this conflict: Apple considered his game too political for the Games category. Liyla and the Shadows of War is about the war in Gaza (also knows as Operation Protective Edge) during the summer of 2014. Though based on real events, the player explores war-torn Gaza through the fictional story of Liyla and her family as they attempt to escape the ensuing violence. Although Apple eventually reversed their decision and categorized Liyla and the Shadows of War as a Game (as opposed to an Educational app), this situation sheds light on the current questions over the political content of video games.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for the game. Though the game is quite short, if you want to preserve the narrative, I recommend playing it before reading on.

But what is Lilya and the Shadows of War like to play? For an experienced gamer, there are certain features that stand out. The game has no introduction or tutorial. Instead, the player is thrown right into the thick of things as you take the perspective of Liyla’s father and attempt to guide him home to his family. As you do so, warplanes and drones fly through the air, firing missiles in your direction. At one point, you push a dumpster in order to use it as a shield against gunfire. Upon meeting Liyla and her mother, you attempt to flee as your home is destroyed. Yet soon after, Liyla’s mother is killed and you must leave her behind as you search for safe haven.

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In each of the subsequent scenes, Liyla and her father must run through the war-torn landscape, avoiding fire, missile-bearing drones, and white phosphorous. And unlike games that reward clever game play, in this game you are often placed in the proverbial no-win situation. When you come across a group of boys playing soccer, Liyla asks her father if they can accompany them and the player is offered a choice: Approach the boys and encourage them to join you in your escape or leave them behind. No matter the choice, however, the boys are killed with missile fire, the only difference being that if you elect to have them join you, Liyla is killed as well and you must start over.

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In another scene, the player is given another no-win choice: Hide in the UN school or keep forging ahead. As soon as you make your decision, the school is also bombed, leaving it in ruins. Finally, you come across an ambulance where the father gives the last remaining space to Liyla. Upon the ambulance’s departure, it too is bombed, killing the passengers and Liyla. You look on as her father holds her lifeless body and watch her soul, along with those of many others, float up towards the heavens. As the credits roll, statistics about the war in Gaza play across the scene, each statistic related to a particular scene from the gameplay.

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The game recommends that you play the game with headphones in a dark room to complement dimly lit, gray scenes.  War casts a shadow over the entire landscape, from the silhouetted characters and platforms to the shadows where you hide from gunfire. The scrolling backgrounds paint a grueling picture of a war-torn Gaza. You run by crumbling houses, burning vehicles, and the ruins of what used to be towns. A harrowing tune plays as you run across the dusty plains escaping danger. Yet, in some scenes, the game is silent. leaving only the eerie sound of crackling electric wires and the sizzle of white phosphorous. The final scene where the souls of the departed float into the sky is heart wrenching, as the blue wisps are one of the few sources of color in the entire game, and even they slowly fade to nothing.

While Liyla and the Shadows of War follows the gameplay structure of a platformer, (a game where the player must navigate around platforms and obstacles to advance) the game primarily functions as a way to deliver a general overview of the Gaza War. No skills are acquired, insofar as most situations, such as hiding from a drone or jumping over fire, only occur once. Furthermore, the use of the statistics at the end drives home the idea that while you are meant to play the game in order to very briefly view the life of a resident of Gaza. The game’s short length (in contrast to others video games designed to be played for dozens of hours) prevents you from inhabiting that role for too long.

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While brief, Liyla and the Shadows of War is an excellent, though haunting, portrait of the Gaza War and life in the occupied territories. While certainly a political game, I do not accept the belief that such a designation is a criticism. Indeed, Liyla and the Shadows of War helps illustrate how gameplay is “always already” political, as Derrida might say.

Video games, I would argue, are useful sites for the “playing out” of politics, because their interactive elements allow players to take on and explore a range of roles and experiences. Liyla both resembles and diverges from the typical manner in which roleplay occurs, and this allows for an “estrangement effect” in the Brechtian sense: you are not given catharsis or resolution, or even the pride of gaining mastery over a virtual environment. Instead, you are boomeranged back into the real world of political conflict and devastating war.

As the culture war over the occupation’s legitimacy grows more fervent, Liyla can serve as a cultural artifact that attempts to amplify the voices of the Palestinian people. Liyla feels to me like a necessary response to Israeli State propaganda, whose heavy machinery funds anti-BDS trainings across college campuses, pushes for anti-boycott legislation in various states and countries, and works to undermine the cultural legitimacy of Palestinians within Israel itself. The game is probably not for the residents of Gaza – they know what that life is like. The game is also not designed for Israelis, as Hebrew is not a language option, only English and Arabic. The audience rather seems to be for those outside the region who might need a different sort of knowledge and experience that the news cannot deliver.

As I mentioned, the audience is not delivered a happy ending, and that may the most political thing about the game. There is no politics of peace or reconciliation or hope. This absence reflects the ever growing rift in Israel-Palestine over the broken peace process, where peace seems impossible. There is no return to daily life, no repairing of the social fabric. There is only endless war and occupation.

Edit: I edited this piece on 2/13/17 for style and to add some new links.

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The Internet of Despairing Things

“Hi, thanks for checking in. I’m still a piece of garbage.”

Is melancholy a dominant emotional state of many internet users? Why does everyone seem so sad and depressed? Are websites like Upworthy a response to this negativity? A feeble attempt to inject the positive into an all-consumingly depressing world? We all see those Facebook memes about positive thinking. Or people declaring that they’re going to start posting pictures of baby animals to interrupt the stream of negative images and stories. But whatever happy place we flee to, there still seems to come that periodic “knock knock.”

Who’s there? It’s depression.

While melancholia is a classical malady, something I have noticed over the past few years is the proliferation of posts online that feature extremely negative content. Posts related to depression & anxiety (in both their clinical and everyday senses), death, despair, and hopelessness gets tens of thousands of shares and likes.

These posts paint pictures of young people barely able to get by, suffering feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and an intense desire for death. These feelings may stem, in part, from the proliferation of micro-experiences online. As Dominic Pettman argues in his book, Infinite Distraction, new media increasingly modulates everyday social experience. Specifically tailored and modular feeds disperse people into micro experiences, where no one is seeing or feeling the same thing at the same time as others. This may lead people to develop an agonizing sense of isolation.

While social media seems to engender a sense of immediacy to social contact, in reality, it may, at the same time, widen the gaps. As some of the posts show, others often respond with encouraging messages and GIFs, but often that may not be enough.  We despair that our favorite followers are in different states, countries, and time zones. For those who might face harassment online for their opinions or identity, being online sharpens the double-edged sword, where threats encourage victims to log off and eschew contact of any kind altogether.

Some come to feel that they no longer live, they just exist. There is no joie de vivre, just an existence that will hopefully come to an end sometime soon. In this existence, life seems to happen only to survive.

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These micro-experiences create a feeling of distance between people that can become unbearable. But, the problems of social distance alone cannot account for these intense feelings of despair. In a political economy where the social safety net has been eroded, precarity is the name of the game. The fear of failure is enhanced not only because we witness the Hollywood highlight reel of other’s success, but also because failure can have dramatic consequences. Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. Further, student loans cannot be easily forgiven in bankruptcy, demonstrating that even when young people hit rock bottom they now have to start digging. Most Americans don’t have enough in savings to survive any sort of emergency, while stagnating wages prevent most from saving hardly anything at all.

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It’s not surprising that being able to simply manage is considered a daily achievement. Video games such as Animal Crossing allow players to tap into the everyday successes and pleasures that usually come with a secure life: home ownership, planting a garden, civic engagement, and leisure activity.  Games like these are designed to be played in the spare everyday moments of leisure that have become increasingly sparse and give players a feeling of discrete and visible success in a world that seems so uncertain.

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Where do we go from here? I am far from a technological determinist who believes that social media can only dictate these kinds of feelings and situations. Yet, I have also felt these feelings of despair and isolation acutely as I refresh Twitter feeds and my Tumblr dashboard.  While cutting ourselves off from social media and taking a digital detox may help some, others find that their only meaningful experiences are found online, however fleeting and distant. In a world that is increasingly connected through such forms, unplugging may be just as isolating as being plugged in. As Pettman notes: “Social media takes the guesswork out of loneliness, but not necessarily the sting.”

In light of this, I’ve become interested in the idea of ambivalence. In Network Aesthetics, Patrick Jagoda turns to the idea of ambivalence as a “mode of extreme presence”: a way of negotiating and thinking through an unclear present. Resisting the urge to opt out of networks (if that is even possible), Jagoda argues that approaching network totality through ambivalence requires learning to inhabit the contradictory and ambiguous feelings that come with it. By taking up ambivalence, we open ourselves to possibilities that are not yet clear, ready, or available.

War Games – Gender and Violence After Gamergate

Why are political criticisms of video games so often treated as declarations of war?

Gamers may understandably find the question of politics to be rather tiring. To debate whether or not video games are political is, in itself, an exercise in politics, insofar as debate is the process by which the limits of acceptable speech and criticism are negotiated by the community of of discourse. But if the debate about video games is intrinsically political, what kind of politics are we talking about? And if war, as Clausewitz said, is politics by other means, then what is the connection between video games and war?

Some gamers not only object to considering video games political, they object to reading video games politically. They reject both feminist and queer readings of video games and the presence of explicitly feminist or queer things in them. One player got so upset by the inclusion of a transgender NPC (non player character) in the recent expansion of the game Baldur’s Gate that he uploaded a video of him killing the character. After conversing with the NPC, the player directs his party to attack her. Graphically, she is torn to pieces. The video is titled “Tranny Abuse” and has over 30,000 views. This gamer rejected politics by turning to war.

Those who question why women in video games are scantily clad in the heat of battle, or bent into literally back-breaking poses, are frequently dismissed as reading too closely. The anti-political appeal to what John Huizinga called “the separateness of play” (“why do you have to analyze it? It’s just a game”) not only becomes part of a struggle to negotiate the boundaries of acceptable speech about video games but it also frames the boundaries of acceptable experience of the game itself.
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The most notable example of the gamer war against politics is the criticism and harassment critic Anita Sarkeesian faced when she began a web series on Youtube called Tropes Vs Women in Video Games. In these videos, Sarkeesian analyzes various tropes that designers of video games often appeal to in the creation of female characters. They present an analysis similar to what one might find in an undergraduate gender or media studies class. Despite this, she received such a flood of vitriol that she was forced to temporarily flee her home. War games shut down politics.

Critics of video games are not only deemed killjoys who are not only unable to enjoy games; they are viewed as existential threats to video games, justifying symbolic and actual violence. The act of criticism is treated as a declaration of war. And, this language of warfare is important. War talk legitimizes the mobilization of hordes of trolls in order to fight back in the war on video games and the enemy in this culture war are the Social Justice Warriors, a pejorative based on a caricature of socially progressive and feminist views. The warriors are organized into a feminist army, who collaborate to create false allegations of sexism or create a protectionist racket.

Harassers even speak of false flag operations, where victims of harassment are accused of faking the harassment for attention and money. When a group of people coordinate attacks on a particular person or forum, it’s called brigading.

The conflation between war and social justice allows gamers to perceive criticisms as clarion calls. Forums and subreddits become the battlegrounds where the culture war is waged while doxing (the publication of personal and identifying information) becomes espionage and military intelligence.

When your critics are warriors, violence becomes acceptable and normalized. Soldiers are expected to be casualties and character assassination borders on the real.

The pejorative use of SJW points to a rather disturbing characteristic of these purist gamers: creating a link between war and cultural critique, with a heavy dose of misogyny. Originally coined as a compliment, only in the past few years has the term Social Justice Warrior become an insult. It gained mainstream popularity during Gamergate. In short, the SJW is any individual or group (usually women) who holds, and is vocal about, socially progressive or liberal views. In practice, the insult is levied at any sort of feminist criticism of game design, development, gameplay, and/or the social practices of gamers and communities which someone disagrees with. These SJWs make up the feminist armyan army that takes only offense, not prisoners.

Conflicts like GamerGate were organized by relatively small groups of gamers who search for and manipulate information in order to attack perceived enemies. These enemies are almost always women and minorities and the attacks overwhelmingly feature gendered threats of violence and rape. While Gamergate as a named movement seems to have subsided, its supporters are still heavily invested in harassing women in the video game and tech industries and it seems to have morphed into a neo-reactionary movement poised to quickly jump on any new perceived threats.

What are the results of such movements? Death threatsRape threats. One person threatened to massacre the attendees of a talk Sarkeesian gave (she canceled it). Doxing. Bomb threats. Others have lost their jobs. In a note explaining why she dropped a lawsuit against her harasser, game developer Zoe Quinn said that she received an “almost one foot stack of threats and photos of me that people had printed out, jizzed on, and sent to my family.”

Do these voices speak for all gamers? Ian Bogost writes that the proliferation of video games into the wider public sphere is leading to a breakdown of the gamer as an identity category. The boundaries of the identity change not only as more people begin to play games but we realize that people traditionally excluded from being gamers have been playing all along. As gamers seek to navigate their  unraveling identity in the face of new players and critics, tension increases and violence ensues. And, as many have observed, the policing of group boundaries seems to be fiercest around the periphery.

But, I’m not sure if this policing of identity is enough to account for the level of vitriol and hate that is directed at critics. It’s one thing to let people know you are dissatisfied. It’s quite another to send mountains of death threats. China Miéville (s/o to Jennifer Doyle for this reference) might describe this as social sadism – the proliferation and excess of public cruelty.”Anyone who doubts that everyday surplus sadism is everyday need only read the comments below the articles, follow threads, brave twitterstorms.” What makes this form of sadism so pernicious is the speed at which it excuses itself: shifting the grounds (“its about ethics in gaming journalism), downplaying the abuse (“it’s only words on the Internet”). It’s not only the boundaries of the gamer identity that are shifting, but the “boundaries of permissible punitivity are constantly stretched.”

The excuses act as a veil of plausible deniability, which the gaming purists drape over their acts of violence. As Miéville notes, the veil is extremely thin and meant to be uncovered, which is what makes dog-whistle politics successful. Just a trace of deniability is enough for the tactic to work. The war against SJWs is waged not only through violence but through the manipulation of the language surrounding it. And it’s in these excuses, the shifting grounds, where we find Michel Foucault’s reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum: politics is war by other means.

 

Feelings and How to Mine Them

About a month ago, Facebook released a redesigned “like” feature, with the addition of animated emoji to represent 5 additional emotions. Now, in addition to liking something, you can love (heart) it or react with haha, wow, sad, or angry emoji.

reactions-graphics-video_480.gifFacebook 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.

With the new reactions, we can now sort our attention into discrete categories. This allows Facebook to fine tune our attention and interest. Now, the company can distinguish between the things we like, love, things that excite us, and things that inspire anger. But, only these things. You still can’t indicate mixed emotions. And, oddly, you still can’t express “dislike.” You can only express things that are in the range of the predetermined responses that Facebook gives us. Our nuanced and often cloudy emotional responses are flattened and compartmentalized into distinct “Reactions.” What we usually call our “mixed feelings” are deemed redundant and removed. After all,according to Facebook’s own PR team, the goal of Reactions is to keep Facebook happy and positive and to show and spread those happy feelings (read: posts) with others.
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In actuality, Reactions are a way for Facebook to develop more sophisticated algorithms to filter content and sell ads. The algorithm will feed you less “Sad” and more “Wow” so that you stick around. Happy people, studies show, share and post more. Dominic Pettman writes that “the PowerPoint Posse have figured out how to incite, tickle, and channel fleeting feelings into reliable revenue streams.” Facebook reactions are just a further demonstration of how our feelings are captured and transformed into revenue. These feelings are then incorporated and turned back upon us through algorithmic feeds and targeted ads. In effect, our fleeting feelings actually come back to haunt us.

How did we get to this idea that there are just six basic emotions anyway? And where else do we see this in popular culture?

The Disney Pixar film Inside Out tells the story of 11-year old Riley and the five emotions in her mind (Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness) that try to guide her through the trials and tribulations of her family’s move from snowy Minnesota to tech capital San Francisco. As the story develops, we are presented with Riley’s increasing frustration and disappointment at the move while inside her head, Joy, Riley’s lead emotion, tries to manage the other emotions. When Sadness makes Riley cry in front of her class on the first day of school, Joy attempts to stop the memory of the experience (depicted as colored marbles) from being transported to long-term memory. This results in Joy and Sadness getting lost in the maze of memory and without their guidance, Riley becomes listless and depressed. The story becomes a grand adventure as Sadness and Joy attempt to make it back to the mind’s Headquarters.

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Throughout the film, Joy reminds all of the other emotions to think positively and to put on a good face for Riley’s parents.  The emotions attempt to quarter off Sadness as she becomes increasingly despondent and starts affecting Riley’s mood. Led by Joy and encouraged by Riley’s parents, they refuse to allow her to fully experience the sadness and loss that results from leaving life behind in Minnesota. . This emphasis on joy and positiveness, only increases Riley’s frustration which, when forced, only exacerbate Riley’s internal conflict and almost lead to the death of Joy personified towards the end of the film.
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Left to right: Disgust, Anger, Joy, Sadness, Fear

What can this popular narrative tell us about Facebook’s affect-mining ambitions? Similar to the emotions in Inside Out, Facebook has condensed the complicated and often confusing emotions people experience in their everyday lives into relatively few, distinct responses and interpretations. While Inside Out could be said to be about the emotional growth of a child, Facebook Reactions, in their quest to convey emotions as discrete and universal, can be thought of as infantalizing all of us. And Facebook does not present us with a way to mix emotions, unlike Inside Out, where the resolution of the plot comes in the realization that Riley’s experiences can be saturated with complicated and mixed feelings (the multi-colored memory marbles).

In fact, Facebook enlisted the help of the same psychologist who consulted for the development of Inside Out! One of the stronger elements of the film was its painting of Sadness as a necessary component to the human experience, not something to be quartered off and shunned, unlike the algorithms which will filter out the things we find disheartening.

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According to one of the design directors at Facebook, Reactions needed had two necessary criteria: universality and expressiveness. The emotions needed to be cross-cultural so that they would work everywhere Facebook is used, and they needed to be expressive, accurately conveying an appropriate emotional response. Through this, Facebook seeks not only to limit the types of reactions we can have to content, but also streamlines and universalizes the experience of it.

As Robbie Gonazales writes on Wired “not only, then, do we not want negativity directed at ourselves, but we also don’t want to level it at others. In that light, Reactions make much more sense. They may not reflect the world in which we live, but they’re a good deal closer to the one we want.” So the world we apparently want is one free from negativity – where our online experiences are filtered so that anything we React to with disgust or sadness is algorithmically disappeared. And Facebook is only happy to oblige and give us a world (the world mediated through Facebook anyway) without sadness or loneliness, even if that loneliness might be exacerbated by these media. As Pettman reminds us, “social media takes the guesswork out of loneliness, but not necessarily the sting.”

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Can We Be In Sync? A Review of Pettman’s Infinite Distraction

Infinite Distraction is a polemical look at the state of the internet and social media. Dominic Petman, a Professor of Culture and Media at the New School in NYC, expanded it from a Facebook post he wrote into a book looking at the ways in which new media increasingly modulates daily experience, through the creation of specifically tailored feeds. which are meant to disperse people into emotional micro-experiences, where “we never feel the same way as other potential allies and affines at the same moment.” (pg 29)
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Reading this book reminded me of Bifo Berardi’s The Soul at Work, where Berardi discusses the progressive mentalization of work and the extreme emphasis on cognitive labor, which is characterized by the manipulation and combination of signs and information. Pettman would probably agree with Berardi on the two main ideas of his book: hypersynchronization (the standardization of experience) and hypermodulation (the compartmentalizing and interchangeability of experience). Berardi is more interested in the decline of worker movements and labor activism than Pettman is, and spends a good portion of his book on that topic. Berardi also focuses on the exploitation of cognitive labor, which is what Pettman also seems to describe, even if he doesn’t necessarily use that term. Hypermodulation, taken with Berardi’s of the deterritorialization of signs and capital, reveals a global structure that prevents solidarity and makes organization difficult.
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Media companies and their execs and engineers believe they are free of ideology and bias in their attempts to globalize a specific type of human experience at the expense of others; an experience that is quite profitable for the companies in question. Pettman does not seek to blame specific individuals and in some ways he is correct about that, as it is difficult to accuse the media of covering up “the truth.” “Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.” (pg 11). The best example of this is the Facebook “Trending” feed, which placed news about the Flint water crisis next to the latest Kim Kardashian selfie. Content tries to go viral. It tries “to become an event,” (pg 70) where mutually exclusive ideas are granted compatibility and legitimacy.
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So, is Mark Zuckerberg’s face Facebook? Maybe so, since he is so vocal abut his work and online presence and his impact is just easier to discuss and observe. After all, no one talks about Tumblr’s creator David Karp like Zuckerberg, despite the strong negative feelings about “tumblr culture.” (Tumblr was bought by Yahoo, thus becoming absorbed into a large media conglomerate. Facebook shattered and restructured media in new ways and creates and controls a market far grander than Tumblr. I would argue Zuckerberg is more akin to Bill Gates).
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While Pettman is more interested in social groups, what would he say about the role of the individual? When the individual is treated as the ultimate social unit, they can and do great and powerful things as individuals. We can point to individuals and their actions in these instances as the effect of their decisions is so pervasive, as seen in India’s rejection of Facebook’s free internet scheme, which some have called digital colonialism. His response would probably be that, while true, they are still synchronized to a strong degree to support certain behaviors and ideas that are in line with neoliberal economics, which I would agree with. Perhaps the extreme power of these individuals is the illusion resulting from hypermodulation that Pettman discusses.

The weakness of Infinite Distraction lies in its brevity. It is a short little book that explains his two main ideas and what other people have to say about attention/distraction. I like his understanding of attention and distraction as two sides of the same coin and his analysis that contemporary media is about buying bits of that attention/distraction. It would be interesting to see him discuss how people want to buy into this distraction even as they resist and moralize it. Another analysis that would have been interesting is how the culture tak surrounding these phenomena is usually centered around those who are most vulnerable (the poor, students, marginal workers, etc). For example, hypermodulation affects employment in the form of the gig economy and and the precarity of independent labor that is not unionized and protected. The eradication of and fear of difference in the form of ultranationalism and anti immigration sentiment, which is related to the entitled opinion that everything should be consumable and synchronized to my ways (read: white, male, American or Euro-centric) of thought and being. An analysis of the analog base (which bodies are designing these systems) of this synchronicity would be beneficial. Ultimately, Pettman is optimistic and argues for a rethinking of distraction as an ally which can allow us to interrupt and break traditional modes of thinking and being.
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Do You Think This Is A Game?

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Comic by H. Caldwell Tanner

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.

Animal Crossing

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?

Animal Crossing

What do you think? Does life imitate video games? Do video games imitate life? Is this a distinction that is even worth drawing?

Where Do You Go When You Go Online?

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.

Mom and Dad from The Fairly Oddparents

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.

Violet and Dash (The Incredibles, 2004)

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.

An online chat room, as seen in Ghost in the Shell (C: The Man Who Dwells in the Shadows of the Net – CHAT! CHAT! CHAT!, 2003)

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.

Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live)

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?