Dave Studies Media

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pants on Fire

A while ago in class we talked about all the problems that arise when a news station starts putting out misinformation. I would have always just thought of this as bad reporting, a sign of a poor news source, and that's about it. Now I'm of the much less naive view that publicizing falsehoods is an attack on democracy itself.

I just about jumped out of my seat when Ian talked about the story of The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, the 1975 German film about a woman slandered by the media. In the story, an average, respectable woman finds herself in a romantic relationship with a man she has just met. It comes to light that the man is a terrorist, but the woman still admits to having feelings for him, since she didn't know his affiliations when they met. For this, a species of treason in the eyes of the public, she is mercilessly attacked in the press and other media. When she tries to clear her name and set things straight, her story is twisted into heinous lies that say the opposite of what she meant. Desperate for a way out, and also probably for revenge, the woman ends up shooting and killing the journalist who was behind most of the scathing publicity.

So why was I so excited about this? Because, in the week proceeding the class when we heard about this, I was closely following a news debacle that took place on Rupert Murdoch's notorious Fox News, or "Faux News" as the clever web community likes to call them. I was following the story as reported by one of my most-read blogs: GamePolitics, a site owned by the ECA that reports on how the gaming industry is currently affecting political issues, and vice versa. This particular story happens to mirror that of Katharina Bluth perfectly. "What's the story," you ask?

Faux news picked up on some mostly web-based controversy around BioWare's Mass Effect, a roleplaying adventure game for the Xbox 360. The concerns were all coming from the fact that, for one of the first times in the history of video games, there is an undisguised, somewhat customizable sex scene featured at one point in the story. Whoahbigdeal. I should mention that Mass Effect is rated M for Mature, meaning that stores agree not to sell it and similarly rated titles to people under 17. Meanwhile, this "sex scene" is so tame compared to what you can find in any given episode of HBO's Rome, that it's even featured on YouTube if you go looking for it. Still, I say, even if Mass Effect's sex scene were explicit enough to give you flashbacks from The Dreamers - so what? Why is there a double standard on what's ok to put in a video game and what's ok to put in a movie?

Mostly, it's because of the not-yet-obsolete idea that video games are for kids. This is the angle Fox News took when they decided to slander Mass Effect. Here are some of the lies, (not exaggerations - outright fallacies) they publicized:
-the sex scene contains full nudity for an extended period of time, and the player is in full control
-the game is marketed to young adolescents
-the incident, and the game in general, is boorish and objective of women

Fox's guest expert for the debate, a pop psychologist named Cooper Lawrence who had never actually played Mass Effect or viewed the sex scene they were talking about, earned the wrath of gamers when she went on the air and made every mistake she could have. Not only did she support Fox's outrageous statements without knowing anything about it, but was also condescending to the gamer representative she was there to debate against. Since there is little a sub-culture of irate gamers can do to retaliate against a media giant like Fox, they went after Lawrence. Her book, featured on Amazon.com, suddenly received an overflow of the lowest ratings possible, making it the least-reputable book on the site. "The Internet hath no fury like a gamer scorned."

Eventually, Amazon undid the damage to Lawrence's book, and Cooper herself issued a statement recanting what she'd said on TV. Of course, many gamers are still angry since the damage has been done - likely the only people who read Cooper Lawrence's amending statement were the gamers who knew better in the first place.

Anyway, I thought this was a really interesting parallel - in this real-life incident, we have Mass Effect, (and in a larger sense, the gaming industry/community,) as Katharina Blum: a party unfairly targeted for slander by the insuppressible media. And then comes Katharina's retaliation - in the movie, she shoots a prominent journalist. In this case, we observe this book-attack on Cooper Lawrence, and recognize that it is the most devastating retaliation gamers could think of and carry out.

All of this got me thinking: what could gamers have done, or indeed, any sub-culture do to retaliate against MSM forces when they catch them doing wrong? The reason I ask is this: just like Katharina Blum's shooting of the journalist is tragic, and ironic since it will condemn her to the image she was trying to avoid, the sacking of Lawrence's book does little good for gamers either. However, it's very difficult to come up with constructive alternatives. I asked Ian why we don't see more cases of news outlets blowing the whistle on one another, and he pointed out that doing so is usually not in the MSM's best interest. Still, I think this idea merits more thought. How could a bunch of random people discredit - to the masses, not just savvy media students - a powerhouse like Fox News?

Personally, I like the ideas put forward by some GamePolitics readers. Being of the opinion that the amazon attack was in poor taste, a poster called Sparky112 writes:

The best recourse is organization. Hell, the vast majority of people reading this blog are probably angry about the incident. Someone (the ECA?) needs to organize a letter-writing campaign to major newspapers decrying the incident in question, so that all those angry people can do something productive that’s going to last beyond the twenty seconds it takes some Amazon employee to delete all the negative postings unrelated to the book (which, as many people noted, was already failing quite well on its own without the help of angry gamers … so, wasted effort).

Plenty of people read the editorial sections of newspapers, and while it’s not Fox News, who really wants to be on Fox News anyway? ;) Seriously, though, if we spend all our time saying, “boo hoo, we don’t have any power,” then that’s going to continue to be true. And it just makes us look worse if we resort to extra-legal tactics to get our point across. If instead we respond through letter-writing and pestering video game companies (who DO have power) to make public responses to video game slights, then we’ll slowly but surely gain momentum.

Look at the success of MoveOn.org. They are an advocacy group which grew out of a single incident (the Clinton dalliances) into a vibrant organization. Now, they’re not exactly making any politicians tremble in their shoes for fear of offending them, but they receive media attention and organize meaningful campaigns for issues which are important to a certain segment of Americans. It’s not impossible for people to organize and move forward under a banner of common interest. There just needs to be an effort of this kind for gamers.

In response, NecroSen writes:

@ sparky112

I stand by what I said earlier about this situation. I believe the Amazon trashing was an equal and righteous action, simply because it gave a voice to the people that so many assume will just sit on their asses and do nothing.

You say we should all band together and find a more morally sound medium to carry our voice, and I agree: every one of us should show the responsibility to take this mentality to a political scale, to get the word out that we will not be marginalized and blamed for the ills of society.

All I’m saying is that you may not agree with the method of trashing someone’s book on Amazon, but see where it took us in the past few days. It gives outsiders such as Cooper Lawrence and the Fox News people that misled her a real perspective of our situation (though I doubt Fox News will get the point). It gives many of us jaded gamers a shining example of what we are really capable of if we band together. And, hopefully, it gives people a better understanding of the idiocy and utter uselessness of Fox News as a network.

Now, let me just state that I would also prefer we took action that had more moral justification, but I am willing to accept this as a victory to be learned from. Let’s all take this as a lesson not of what kinds of guerrilla attacks we can use in the future, but what we can effectively do as a collective group. Write to your Congressman, voice your opinion openly to friends and family, engage in intelligent debate with people who don’t agree with you, actively seek information about related issues in the media, and generally be an active citizen and a real human being, not a slave to the whims of talking heads.

…Especially those on Fox.


Additional stuff:

Click here to see the original Fox News report that started all the fuss.

Below are some of the articles from GamePolitics that followed this story as it happened:

Fox News Smears Mass Effect

Cooper Lawrence: "I Misspoke" About Mass Effect

ECA's Hal Halpin Calls on Fox News to Retract Mass Effect Story

Is it Time for Gamers to Forgive Cooper Lawrence?
a particularly good discussion of the whole issue transpired in the comments to this post...note it is from here that the above excerpts are taken.

MSM Shoots Self in Foot with Sensationalized Game Coverage

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Monday, February 18, 2008

The Power of Humor and Truth

There's this clip I really like of Jerry Seinfeld doing stand up in New York. He mentions how difficult it can be to use an unfamiliar shower - how much difference will a tiny twist of the dial make? The best is the hair on-the-wall part, but have a look for yourself:

This is so funny to me because of how true it is. I have definitely been in that situation with the hair, and done the exact same things to rid myself of it, in the same order. It's funny because it's not something I've ever heard discussed anywhere else, (so I'm not expecting to hear it), but I recognize it as being valid.

In the same way, a lot of comedy is funny because we recognize the truth in it. There's another part I like in a Robin Williams stand up routine, in which he alludes to the uselessness of certain products sold on TV infomercials. He does a good job of outlining how ridiculous the premise of it is, and makes a joke out of a concealed but strong suggestion that people start thinking more carefully about the things they buy.

If comedy thrives on truth, then I wouldn't be quick to dismiss "fake news" as having no real potential. As it exists right now, in forms such as The Daily Show, it's certainly important to understand the issues before you watch. But perhaps one day we'll find a way, (likely one that embraces the "also/and" model [I believe that's what we called it?]) to integrate this sort of familiar humor into our main channels through which we get our information.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

And Now, the Moment You've All been Waiting for...

Holy crumbs.

It's here.

I want one, and I am pretty much lost for any more words to say about this. I'll agree to research what the implications of these things becoming household items might be, just as soon as I procure one for myself to keep in my basement. For purely academic reasons.

What would Bolter and Grusin say about this?

Edit: I thought I'd add to this entry for the sake of at least saying a little of what I think. I sometimes forget that what I think is obvious about something like this might not be so obvious to everyone else.

I responded to a post on Lauren's blog, that is itself a response to this post. I'll just copy and paste my comment since it's the same as what I would have said here.

Yeah, the implications for this are really huge, and I think I'm going to look into it more for my term paper.

Though I can tell you right now that it's more complex than what you're saying here. Imagine how much this technology can contribute to training simulations, (everything from police+military, to things like sales or presentation). I think the biggest improvement for this technology will be when you can incorporate other people into the illusion, and then be able to take whole tour groups in museums back to important historical moments, re-created digitally for you to witness firsthand. Wow.

Of course, VirtuSphere used purely in an entertainment/video game setting is Escapism at its finest, but we already know that more primitive things like immersive computer games have a mix of positive and negative outcomes.

Anyway, there's a lot more to be explored and I'm pretty excited to see VirtuSphere and products like it make their way into the market.

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Internet in Crisis

Since that email got sent around about the Net Neutrality issue, I thought I'd take a few minutes to share my thoughts on it.

I've been following the issue for well over a year now, although I didn't understand the scope and importance of it at first. It's a complex issue, but in a nut shell, this is what it is for those unfamiliar:

The internet's always been a level playing field for everyone involved. The fact that anyone can use the internet for anything they want, without any kind of discrimination makes it an incredibly democratic tool. Whether your internet usage is limited to managing email, or you're a power user downloading 100 gigabytes of data per month, you pay the same, universal fee to do it. That's what "net neutrality" is. But now ISPs in the US and Canada are proposing that they be given permission to impose a tiered model. The best comparison is with TV packages. Just like there are multiple tiers to choose from with TV, (from cheap basic packages to expensive deluxe ones,) the telecommunications companies would like to charge consumers more to have certain privileges.

What constitutes a privilege? Pretty well anything you can think of. Downloading any media, accessing certain servers; even instant messaging could become like texting - pay for each one sent, or get a monthly plan. It certainly eliminates the potential for startup web companies, who would be muscled aside by the big kids who can afford to pay to stay on top. Discrimination is already being implemented in some private institutions. My good friend in the Computational Art program at Concordia University reports that the school throttles most downloading and uploading from/to the web, as well as video hosting sites like YouTube. This angers Media students since a lot of course material (multimedia) is only available through those channels.

In my mind this is an even more pressing issue in Canada than in the states. Rogers and Bell, and Cogeco to a lesser extent, basically have an oligopoly going on Canada's internet access. What other Canadian ISPs can you think of? They exist, but most Canadians are limited to one or two of the big three. The corporations argue that they have the consumers' best interests at heart, with the substantial increase in profit they'd be pulling in giving them the means to better serve paying customers. My little rebuttal to this is that the current capabilities of the internet are good enough for most people, and most do not take advantage of the full potential anyway. Others believe it won't matter if Net Neutrality is abolished, because startup competitors would likely start springing up to offer un-tiered access. Still, I'm not convinced that a few little startup ISPs would put much of a dent in the Rogers/Bell empire.

This is an important issue for me because, I admit it, my life is pretty heavily mediated - especially by internet access and everything that goes along with that. The forced lifestyle change I'm afraid is at hand here is so dramatic that I'd consider moving, likely out of the country, if I saw my concerns starting to become reality.

To show your support for keeping Net Neutrality in Canada, you can follow the link in my sidebar, (the neutrality banner under "Soapbox") and add your name to the petition. If you like, you can also choose a banner to stick on your blog to help spread the word.

This video is a little old now, but still relevant. Professor Andrew Clement does a good job explaining the range of negative effects that could be expected from a discriminating system.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

No Touchie - The Next Step

Think that TED Talks video we all received about the multi-touch tech was amazing? Well, so did I. Then my friend pointed me to this. While it's not as well-developed, and currently not as useful as the multi-touch devices such as Microsoft's Surface, this new development from Elliptic Labs may be the next step in computer interfacing. Forget touch-screen. This is a screen you don't touch at all, and as the Gizmodo article explains, doesn't require you to wear any sensors. Here's the brief video demo:

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Age of Microcelebrity - Death of Privacy?

Hearkening back to the lecture we had a couple weeks ago about the privacy issues around Facebook, I was immediately reminded of this great article I read in one of my older issues of WIRED magazine. Columnist and blogger Clive Thompson discusses how the mass availability of information, in particular personal data, has created a culture of info-junkies. And the fix is so easy to get. Thanks to our social nature, (the need to gain knowledge about others to help shape ourselves,) we're up to our eyeballs in tools that enable us to check up on one another constantly. And so, we do.

Thompson explains that this concept of "Microcelebrity" comes from the emergence of a class of people who are recognized with the same enthusiasm as Brad and Angelina, but within a much smaller group of people. While everyone who reads this post will know who Tom Hanks is, much fewer will be familiar with names like Dave Hurley or Steve "the Woz" Wozniak. (They are the co-founder of YouTube and the co-founder of Apple, respectively.) These men are mega-stars in the eyes of a sub-culture, and more people like them are emerging every day. At the beginning of his writeup, Thompson gives one such example:

"Whenever Peter Hirshberg is at a party, someone eventually pulls out a camera and takes a snapshot with him in it. Hirshberg — chair of the executive committee at the blog-search company Technorati — performs a quick mental calculation: Does the photographer look like one of those people who will immediately dash home and post all their candids to Flickr? "If I think it's going to end up on the Web, I straighten up more, try to smile the right way," Hirshberg says. "Because if it goes online, people I know will probably see it." (Thompson, "The Age of Microcelebrity". WIRED)

Indeed, the constant coverage of folks like Hirshberg is similar to paparazzi-like obsession.

So, all right, we have a bunch of mini-celebrities running around. The most interesting part for me, though, is what comes next. Thompson points out that young people are already adapting to lifestyles under surveillance and scrutiny, like a generation of micro-microcelebrities, if you will.

"If you really want to see the future, check out teenagers and twentysomethings. When they go to a party, they make sure they're dressed for their close-up — because there will be photos, and those photos will end up online. In managing their Web presence, they understand the impact of logos, images, and fonts. And they're increasingly careful to use pseudonyms or private accounts when they want to wall off the more intimate details of their lives." (Thompson, "The Age of Microcelebrity". WIRED)

I find this statement about my age group to be pretty accurate. While many people may not think of their behaviour at parties as a function in maintaining Web identity, they certainly know that the implications for ignoring or disregarding their own web presence would be severe. Thompson ends with another point I like, observing how this era of hyper-exposure is not such a big stretch from traditional means of broadcasting social messages:

"You could regard this as a sad development — the whole Brand Called You meme brought to its grim apotheosis. But haven't our lives always been a little bit public and stage-managed? Small-town living is a hotbed of bloglike gossip. Every time we get dressed — in power suits, nerdy casual wear, or goth-chick piercings — we're broadcasting a message about ourselves. Microcelebrity simply makes the social engineering we've always done a little more overt — and maybe a little more honest." (Thompson, "The Age of Microcelebrity". WIRED)

One noteworthy aspect of such a trend is that it follows in the footsteps of modern business models. Back in April '07, Scott Brown, also of WIRED, wrote a story about how the fictitious company in The Office practices "Radical Transparency" to beat out its competitors. Similar, real-world approaches to business are commonplace nowadays; (a prominent example being Google, which puts huge emphasis on being attuned to their users, and their users being attuned to them.) While it might seem alarming that individuals are becoming more like corporations, I think it is more accurate to say that corporations are becoming like individuals. More importantly, who's to say all this practice we get at being under surveillance on Facebook won't translate well to those of us going into business, since the two sectors are becoming so alike?

In our class discussion on privacy issues, the concern was brought up that our lifestyle of disclosure could reach a point where our perception of privacy is beaten to a pulp by Facebook and its descendants. That is, we would be so used to disclosing personal information that we'd be selling, or just giving it, left and right, to government, corporations, and more. These notions of privacy-deterioration are further discussed in Jon's post here. The second video is particularly interesting - check it out to see how Facebook is connected to major forces in data mining and high-up US federal departments such as the CIA.

Now, this may be very naïve of me, but I invite you to step in with your own opinions and questions, especially if you disagree. I'm a firm believer in keeping close and strict tabs on your own content. Facebook cannot force you to give it any information, so only give it what you feel is appropriate. As Clive Thompson said, the younger generation is already skilled at moderating and appropriately organizing, (and securing) our own content.

I cannot see the gradual destruction of privacy being such a problematic issue so long as everyone is prudent and mindful. For the same reason, while I understand and respect their motives for doing so, I don't agree with those who decide to delete their Facebook profile, or simply never create one on the grounds that Facebook is some kind of evil.

You decide what you put on the internet.

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