Games User Research Summit Poster Presentation

This past week, I was fortunate enough to attend the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) as an Xbox Women in Games ‘Game Changer.’ I was able to connect with a lot of amazing folks in the video games industry, including the various researchers, analysts, and data scientists associated with the field of games user research. Since my own research in academia overlaps with the field, I attended the annual U.S. Games User Research Summit, held on the Tuesday of GDC, where I also presented a research poster showcasing the results of a gameplay experiment.

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Me with my poster at the GUR Summit!

I’ve elaborated on the pilot study results in this blog post, which highlights the implications for how female game characters are perceived by female players when the same character is portrayed in sexualized clothing or non-sexualized clothing. In a nutshell, the same character portrayed in sexualized clothing was perceived as more incompetent than her non-sexualized portrayal. This finding was found in an action-horror game where female users played the same level of the same game for 15 minutes each. Using the same game character within the same video game (and game level) helps to minimize any confounding variables introduced by varied gameplay strategies and enemy encounters, which have not always been avoided in other similar studies (e.g. Behm-Morawitz & Mastro, 2009).

The second study outlined in the poster utilized the same female characters (but a different set of female participants) and asked questions about the player’s self-perception following gameplay. Participants completed a 2 x 2 (sexualization x game difficulty) experiment. Before participants arrived to complete the experiment, they were randomly assigned to the sexualized or non-sexualized character attire and a casual or normal game difficulty. In short, no differences were found between any of the four conditions with respect to player’s self-esteem, self-efficacy, and body image. You can view the full findings (in condensed poster format), as well as my thoughts on the study’s implications, in the below PDF version of my poster.

 

 

Admittedly, this poster is a condensed form of a research project where I measured additional variables (e.g., user’s self-discrepancy; identification with game characters), yet the additional variables did not change any of the outcomes. As such, I focused on the variables most likely of interest to an audience largely embedded in the video games industry. If you’d like to read the full paper, feel free to get in touch and I can send you a copy.

Since the study produced null findings, I will likely conduct a follow-up study with a different game and different characters to see if I can replicate the results (or not!). Either outcome would be interesting to discover.

If you’re curious as to why I limited the sample to self-identified female players (which I was asked about a couple times at the Summit), that is simply because I’ve been interested in women’s experiences with digital games as part of my broader research agenda as a PhD student.

Citations

Behm-Morawitz, E., & Mastro, D. (2009). The effects of the sexualization of female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept. Sex Roles, 61(11-12), 808-823. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9683-8

Five Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Community for Women and Allies in a University Game Design Program

My Backstory

When I enrolled in my first game design class as a Master’s student at the University of South Carolina in 2013, I was one of only two women in a class of about twenty. The other young woman and I sat in the same place every day, sharing a table at the front of the room. It was great having someone like me to chat with every day, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit awkward or singled out some days because everyone else keep their distance.

After graduating with my Master’s degree, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Media Arts and Sciences at Indiana University (IU). I shifted by research focus from educational game design to understanding the social-psychological effects of games on players, as well as the socio-cultural underpinnings of the historic gender gap in the video game industry workforce. My first semester, I was graduate assistant for a course on the video game industry – unsurprisingly, only a couple female-identifying students stick out in my memory. Women in game design programs at public universities are still very much minorities.

In the fall of 2015, I was asked to apply for a position at IU’s Center of Excellence for Women in Technology (CEWiT) as the lead intern for a new special interest group (SIG) – Women in Game Design. At the time, CEWiT was starting up SIGs centered on various technological fields (e.g., coding, web design, social media) with the purpose of empowering women in technology. CEWiT was particularly interested in supporting game design, given the male-dominated status of IU’s program.

cewit-award

Me with game design instructors Will Emigh (left) and Mike Sellers (right), after winning CEWiT’s Outstanding Student Leadership Award in 2016. Photo courtesy of CEWiT.

As a gamer and a woman researching games and the industry gender gap, I felt personally dedicated to the cause. The 2017-2018 academic year marks my third year as the lead intern for the Game Design SIG.

The Strategy Guide

The basic premise of the Game Design SIG is to plan and host workshops and social events that are relevant and of interest to women pursuing game design. In this post, I’m going to highlight five strategies that I have developed over the years in cultivating an inclusive community for women and allies in IU’s game design program, and how I believe these strategies have made an impact. In this pursuit, I hope this blog post will be helpful for other students or faculty hoping to spearhead their own initiatives to empower and promote women in game development programs.

Let Women See Their Peers in Leadership Positions

 While knowledge and the ability to teach are two important factors in selecting someone who can lead or assist with a workshop on game dev software and other skills, it’s also important to consider someone that female participants can look up to as a role model. For the game design SIG events, I strive to feature skilled and knowledgeable women who are eager to share what they know with others. By featuring female leaders as workshop instructors on topics such as video game art and game engines, the SIG provides role models for female students learning these subjects. This may have a particular impact in programs where the faculty are men or are mostly men, as it breaks the status quo.

The same principle applies when finding guest speakers. At IU, I’m fortunate to have ties with alumna such as Hasbro’s Jenna Hoffstein and Telltale’s Mary Kenney who have graciously talked to our students via video conference calls on their areas of expertise. The women in game development community is extremely supportive, and I have been able to secure guest speakers unaffiliated with IU simply by reaching out via Twitter or email.

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Me (left) instructing a level design workshop at CEWiT’s annual conference. Photo courtesy of CEWiT.

Collaborate with Existing Game Design and Gaming Communities on Campus for Social Events

 Social events are hugely important because they allow students across different years of the college experience to get to know one another in a low-stakes setting. This is especially true for women game dev students, several of whom at IU have expressed to me the struggles of ‘fitting in’ with their peers in male-dominated classes. Over the years, I’ve learned that social events (usually centered on gaming and informal meetups) have proven most successful when other game dev and gaming student organizations are also directly invited to our own group’s game nights. In the past, I have tried to implement “pop up” events such as a Pokémon Go meet up, yet such events usually struggled to bring in a large crowd. For any social gathering, not everyone is always comfortable showing up alone if they have the impression that they will largely be among strangers – even if the strangers are other like-minded people.

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A group of students dressed in costume for Game Design SIG’s Halloween Game Night. Photo courtesy of CEWiT photographer Erin Sky Powell.

By inviting other student organizations focusing on game design and gaming, the SIG has been able to host lively game nights that bring in a number of diverse students face-to-face in a friendly setting. I’ve found that students are more open to attending social events when they can arrive to the event with a group of their friends, usually from the invited organizations. While folks may attend with a group of existing friends, our community grows when they socialize with acquaintances and new faces after arriving.

Advancing Women-Identifying Students is Half the Battle

 A main focus of the Game Design SIG initiative is to empower women interested in game development. But exclusively targeting women-identifying individuals – who are already a small percentage of game design programs like the one at IU – risks missing out on opportunities to advance other individuals who could benefit from involvement in the SIG.

Initially, my perspective on creating events for the SIG centered on asking myself, “what events will appeal to women interested in game dev?” but over the years, my perspective on creating events has shifted to be more holistic, appealing to the broadest possible range of students in game dev. In addition to the above, I also ask myself, “what types of programming are needed to fill potential gaps in student knowledge – both academically and socially?” Asking myself this question, I have found, serves the needs of many women students in IU’s game design program, and also the needs of many other students who may be new and unfamiliar with the game design curriculum. In adopting this strategy, the SIG has offered accessible workshops that appeal to students of all kinds, contributing to a healthy growth in student engagement and participation.

“Feminize” the Traditionally Masculine Space of Game Dev

 Related to my previous strategy, I not only seek to create programming that female-identifying students, in particular, might benefit from, but also strive to create events that “feminize” the traditionally masculine space of game development. For instance, the game design program at IU can only cover so much ground in what it teaches to students, and the formal education tends to stick to game design principles, group collaboration on projects, and other expertly taught practical lessons.

Yet something typically not taught in the classrooms are issues related to work-life balance, stress management, intragroup conflict, and team communication – essentially, the many “soft skills” relevant to being a successful person and game developer. By partnering with our university’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and reaching out to expert guest speakers on such topics, the SIG has been able to offer events featuring a feminine-sensibility which benefit many of our students who may need assistance in these areas. Additionally, if we want to see more open discussions about crunch and improving quality of life in the industry, we need to inform students about these issues early in their careers.

Be an Active Ambassador for Women in Game Dev and Tech

 The most crucial strategy for anyone seeking to spearhead and lead a similar initiative at their own university is simple: never stop being an ambassador and support system for women in game dev and tech. The game design program at IU is still relatively new, and each year I’ve always been able to notice the handful of new women entering the program. As such, I’ve made it my goal to introduce myself to those new faces, tell them about the Game Design SIG and how they can get involved, and share the overall mission of CEWiT with them.

game-gab

A fun way of implementing this strategy is hosting a Friday social we call “Game Gab,” which succeeds in getting people of all genders and ages interacting with one another beyond the classroom.

It takes a good deal of effort to always be on the lookout for opportunities to reach out, but it’s made a big difference for our community’s growth and student participation. Sometimes, all it takes is one student to make an impact. At last year’s Global Game Jam at IU, I helped a young woman bring her game to life – she did all the art, and I did the programming in Unity using Fungus. She was so ecstatic seeing her artwork come to life in a game, that she decided to major in game design and now works for me as an intern in the Game Design SIG.

Unfortunately, not all college’s and university’s hoping to implement a similar initiative will have the support of a campus-wide organization like CEWiT. And I’ve also been fortunate that the faculty in IU’s game design program are incredibly supportive in spreading awareness, providing feedback, and helping to promote the SIG events. This kind of partnership is essential, and I expect many faculty and staff would assist in such an endeavor for their own university’s game design programs. A good place to start is to look within your own program or department for people who can help champion the cause.

Skillful or Incompetent? How a Video Game Character’s Sexualization Affects Their Perceived Skill

One of my over-arching research interests involves how the appearance of video game characters effects the player-experience, as well as how identification with game characters effects self-perception on social-psychological dimensions.

Last fall, I started a pilot study (think of it as a trial or test-run) for an experiment where college-age, self-identified women played a video game where the character was either dressed in a sexualized or in a non-sexualized outfit. Essentially, the pilot’s main purpose was to confirm that my experimental conditions were reliable, or to put it another way, perceived as consistent when multiple people did the study. Because I was interested in exploring the effect of a game character’s appearance on self-perception, I wanted to be sure that people would consistently rate the sexualized character as, well, sexualized, and that the same character dressed in casual attire was perceived as non-sexualized. Thankfully, my pilot study confirmed this, and I was able to launch the full experiment in January.

While I did eventually finish the full experiment in April, I’ve yet to actually sit down and examine the results (but soon, after I finish analyzing my character design interview data!). However, I did find a somewhat unexpected – but nonetheless interesting – outcome from the pilot that sheds some insight on how a sexualized appearance of a game character influences their perceived skill.

rodeo-claire

The Pilot Study

For my experiment, forty-three undergraduates played the game Resident Evil: Revelations 2. All participants self-identified as female and the majority identified as White/Caucasian (81%). The average age of players was twenty years old. Everyone in the study played the Story Mode portion of the game for fifteen minutes. Following game play, participants filled out a questionnaire about the video game and the playable game characters, Claire and Moira.

As mentioned above, the pilot tested whether my conditions were reliable. Each participant was randomly assigned to either play as Claire and Moira in their sexualized or non-sexualized attire. Resident Evil: Revelations 2 was perfect for testing these two conditions because the story can be played with either characters’ default or bonus costumes (the player can switch between Claire and Moira in the story mode, as they both appear onscreen at the same time). For the purposes of my study, their default costumes were used for the non-sexualized condition. Claire’s bonus Rodeo costume and Moira’s bonus Urban Ninja costume were used for the sexualized condition.

claire-moira-costumes

Left to right, top to bottom: Moira (default/non-sexualized attire), Moira (bonus/sexualized attire); Claire (default/non-sexualized attire), Claire (bonus/sexualized attire).

After game play, everyone was asked a series of questions about the characters. I wanted to ensure that the characterizations were consistent despite the changes in attire. The only difference I hoped to find in the study was for differences in sexualization between the default and bonus attire conditions (which I did find). In addition to several questions about the characters’ attire, both characters were assessed based on six adjectives using a 7-point semantic differential scale. The characters were rated on the following: attractive/unattractive; strong/weak; aggressive/submissive; violent/passive; skillful/incompetent; good/evil.

No significant differences between the two portrayals were found in terms of Claire’s and Moira’s attractiveness, strength, aggression, violence, and moral character. However, significant differences were found for Claire’s skill, in which participants rated sexualized Claire as more incompetent  (i.e. less skillful; Mean = 2.70, Standard Deviation = 1.75) than non-sexualized Claire (M = 1.63, SD = 1.01). This outcome was not the case for Moira.

This difference may have emerged because Claire is the main playable character who is capable of attacking enemies with a gun whereas Moira can only attack enemies with a crowbar. As such, most participants played as Claire for the majority of the time. The difference in Claire’s rated skilled by attire suggests that players may have deemed her sexualized attire as impractical for fighting zombies. This may have influenced Claire’s perceived competency as questionable given the game’s context in which a lack of clothing seems like poor judgement.

claire-rodeo

Costume and Context Matter

Although I was not anticipating any differences in Claire’s skill between the sexualized and non-sexualized attire conditions, differences did indeed emerge. What does this tell us? I think it stands to reason that the sexualization of female game characters as an expression of empowerment will not always hold for specific contexts. Given that Resident Evil: Revelations 2 is an action-horror game where the main characters are kidnapped and imprisoned against their will, seeing Claire in a state of relative undress likely enhances her vulnerability in the situation which could have an effect on her perceived skilled, or ability to handle the circumstance.

Claire’s sexualization had the effect of diminishing her perceived competency. Given that players were fighting zombie-like enemies in a run-down facility, her attire may have conveyed a lack of sensible judgement on her part. Given the outcome, I think it demonstrates the importance of considering how sexualization of a game character is interpreted within the context of gameplay. When a game presents a situation where a character is vulnerable and fighting for their survival, as with Resident Evil: Revelations 2, a sexualized appearance may influence whether that character is deemed competent enough to handle the situation. This is especially important for game designers to consider when creating a character they want to portray as skilled and competent, despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them.

Obviously, it should go without saying that a different game and a different character may produce different results. Furthermore, participants in this study went into the game ‘blind’ and were unaware that the sexualized Rodeo attire is a bonus costume not intended as the default attire worn by Claire in the game’s story mode. Her default attire in the story is non-sexualized, and it is a player’s choice which costumes they want Claire and Moira to wear in the game. Understanding this context, as well as enabling a choice of costumes, could also lead to different results. Expect more nuanced findings once I do the data analysis for the full experiment, in a few months!

UX Playtesting Analysis: Tori

tori-menu

Several weeks ago – not long after I returned from my first Game Developer’s Conference – I realized something important: I’d like to apply my social scientific research skills and knowledge of media theories towards games user research. I’m fortunate enough to be in an interdisciplinary Media School where I’ve established a good rapport with many of the faculty members in the Game Design program as an Associate Instructor and the Lead Intern for Women in Game Design. After considering that I had certain skills that might be useful to the student game developers in the program, I pitched an idea to Professor of Practice Mike Sellers: his game design students in Workshop I, the first major game development course required for all students pursuing the B.S. in Game Design, could benefit from UX analysis and thorough playtesting feedback. So why not receive a little help from a Ph.D. student eager for more experience in conducting this kind of research?

Prof. Sellers agreed that I could offer useful insights and a collaboration was born!

The first student game project I’ve playtested is Tori, a meditative music exploration game in which players assume the role of a small bird collecting sounds from a stylized environment made up of several small islands. I recently sat down with Joseph Adams, a developer on Team Tori, for my first playtesting session with Tori where I offered some feedback on general usability, discussed below.

Gameplay and Feedback

Currently, the ‘bubbles’ which represent the aura of sounds for different objects in the environment are all colorized the same – a pale yellow color. These sounds can be collected by the player and dropped, in bubble form, to a new location. The collection and re-placement of sound-bubbles is an integral mechanic of the game’s progression system.

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Collecting sound bubbles in Tori

I suggested that the different objects, and thus sounds, might be color-coded, so that when player’s drop these sound-bubbles in new locations, they might more readily recall which bubble represents the sound attributed to a rock, bell, lantern, or other unique objects in the world. A color-coding scheme might be integral further into development, as players will be tasked with dropping sounds in new locations in order to replicate a tune provided by a non-playable character, in order to unlock new islands to visit and explore. As is, the placement of bubbles that are all the same color, especially when the player is expected to imitate a tune using the collected sounds, could get a bit confusing. Currently, there is no feedback that identifies what object the sound-bubble represents once it has be removed from the object and placed elsewhere in the environment. Color-coding the sound-bubbles to be unique based on the object of origin could simplify the identification process.

tori-wings

Particle effect on wingtips to signify increased velocity

I also noted that additional audio-feedback might improve player experience. Currently, when players fly downward, the speed of flight increases. This interaction is paired with visual feedback of a particle effect trailing from the tip of the bird’s wings – a ‘speed trail,’ perhaps. It’s pretty and conveys the message, but might be paired with an accompanying sound effect, such as rushing wind, to match the visuals and reinforce the feedback.

This particle effect was misinterpreted by a player during a recent playtest. I took notes, along with student developer Joshua Smith, during a session with university students who played Tori for the first time. We invited the players to voice their thoughts as they played, and a participant misinterpreted the ‘speed trail’ as visual feedback to signify when the bird is carrying a sound bubble. Thus, playing an accompanying sound effect (e.g. rushing wind) might reinforce the visuals as the effect of speed during flight.

All in all, Tori is a simple and beautiful game that shows a lot of promise for its unique aesthetics and features. I look forward to conducting more playtests with new users and discovering new ways to enhance the project’s usability and player experience!

Follow Team Tori on Tumblr & Twitter for more updates. Many thanks to Prof. Mike Sellers and Team Tori for collaborating with this video game researcher.

Re-post:‘Through the Gates,’ ep. 31: Jess Tompkins on women in gaming

Indiana University’s Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President featured me on a segment of their weekly podcast, ‘Through the Gates.’ You can give it a listen on SoundCloud. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Tompkins describes her life-long enjoyment of video games and the gender politics that manifest in the game design industry and gamer culture. She explains that, in her early years, the sexualization of women in games “seemed normal,” saying, “I was being exposed to sexualized women in advertising, in films, long before I saw sexualized women in games.”

-From ‘Through the Gates’ official blog.

MART 702: The Hermetic

Last week’s reading and discussion of The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus inspired me to create a remix of my classmate’s previous projects in the course. I argued that the remediation of their videos as animated .gifs hosted to a website remediated (new media format) and remixed (new meaning) their projects served as the alchemical substances from which a produced a philosopher’s stone.

I anticipated mixed feedback from my peers; I thought they might feel somewhat violated that I used their works for my own purposes without their consultation. This expected reaction was intended to augment the isolation experienced by an alchemist, such as Paracelsus, but in this case, me (the artist). On the contrary, my classmates voiced that they loved the concept and thought it clever! Such much for the veiled hostility; the presentation was not at all uncomfortable.

[P.S. the below is not my best writing, as I was severely rushed last week]

http://artalchemy.net46.net/index.html/

“Now at this time, I, Theophrastus Paracelsus Bombast, Monarch of the Arcana, am endowed by God with special gifts for this end, that every searcher after this supreme philosophic work may be forced to imitate me… Come hither after me, all you philosophers, astronomers, and spagyrists, of however lofty a name ye may be, I will show and open to you, Alchemists and Doctors, who are exalted by me with the most consummate labours, this corporeal regeneration. I will teach you the tincture, the Arcanum, the quintessence, wherein lie hid the foundations of all mysteries and of all works.” Thus wrote Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a Swiss German Renaissance physician and occultist who preferred the sobriquet Paracelsus, in his meticulous compendium on alchemy (p.45). Today, his texts are available in English as The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus.

However, readers who expect to uncover the alchemists’ ancient secrets through the author’s vast wisdom and instruction might be disappointed. The opening passages of the book promise that alchemy is a practice that rewards few. Paracelsus writes that, “You who are skilled in Alchemy… who willingly undergo toil and vexations, and wish not be freed from them, until you have attained your rewards… experience teaches this everyday, that out of thousands of you not even one accomplishes his desire” (p.10) His words suggest that alchemical knowledge is only imparted to those who devote their entire life to the craft: “Is this the failure of Nature or of Art? I say, no; but it is rather the fault of fate, or of the unskillfulness of the operator” (p.10). His words of caution imply that only a select number will achieve proficiency in the purported craft. These passages, above, imply that Paracelsus’ writing, at the literal level, appears to imbue scholarship and knowledge to aspiring alchemists. Figuratively, the book is a much different read.

The allegorical interpretations of this monograph are a testament to the deception of words and appearances. There is no doubt that Paracelsus was a brilliant man. But was he a brilliant alchemist? The answer to this question is open to interpretation. Paracelsus explains that, “In this Art, nothing is more true than this… all the fault and cause of difficulty in Alchemy… is wholly and solely lack of skill in the operator… the straight road is easy, but it is found by very few” (p.11). His brilliancy lies in is his power to convince others that he possessed vast occult wisdom and performed transmutation, the changing of one substance into another. This is evident in his bombastic words, “An inferior intelligence does not easily perceive occult and abstruse objects… Many persons, puffed up with pride, fancy they can easily comprehend all which this book comprises” (p.11). To rebuff Paracelsus and his text as the words of a driveling madman was equivalent to ignorance. It is imagined that few men might have contested his expertise for fear of being branded incompetent.

In class, we discussed how Paracelsus’ book was a cunning means to influence his readers and assessed that, “a good alchemist is someone who has convinced others that they are a good alchemist.” This statement intrigues me because I accept that most, if not all, people might relate to it. I assume that the majority of individuals, at one point or another, have performed a pretense to appear/behave like something/someone they are not. In a world that prioritizes appearance and opinion over character and knowledge, it is not an impossibility to imply that humans adopt facades in order to be accepted, loved, or to survive.

I am also drawn to the central tenant of alchemy: transmuting one thing into another; and that this is possible because every thing shares in common the essence of everything. Paracelsus asserts that, “Any one can at pleasure learn this Art in Alchemy [transmuting mercury into silver or gold], since it is so simple and easy; and by it, in a short time, he could make any quantity of silver and gold… the method of making Sol [gold] and Luna [silver] by Alchemy is so prompt that there is no more need of books… than there would be if one wished to write about last year’s snow” (p.13). Paracelsus implies that, for a gifted Alchemist, gold and silver are an unlimited bounty. At the literal level, he speaks of Sol and Luna in the valued mineral forms. For the context of Alchemy as a philosophy, Sol and Luna might be construed as positives arising from something negative, or the improvement of something deemed average into a more spectacular form.

For an Alchemist’s response that plays with these concepts, I transmuted the previous projects of my classmates James, Keyes, Jordan, Alison, and Katie. I re-mixed their respective video projects, the previously submitted responses to Invisible Cities and Portal. In this way, their works served as the object of transmutation. I.e., I produced an original series of animated gifs from their videos. Two of the remixes are more obvious than others (obvious meaning that it is apparent what the original project was). Two are happy accidents; glitches produced by unusual css formatting of a div container. The glitches are more experimental and less obvious than the other transmutations.

For the context of my project, I use remix to mean “a new context” and remediation as a “a new form.” The remediation is from video to animated gifs, still images, and presentation on a new webpage called Art Alchemy. Paracelsus explains that during the transmutation process, “… the Alchemist, who again corrupts, mortifies, and artificially prepares such a metallic body” (p.17). Similarly, I “corrupt” and otherwise alter the original projects of my peers into something else. Transmuted into the animated gif format on a webpage, the stills from video are less transitory; as animated gifs embedded into a website, they continue to play in cyclical fashion until the user leaves the webpage or closes their web browser. This means that the stills may be more closely examined than they would be in their original format.

For example, this is my intention with the transmutations of James’ and Katie’s video projects for Invisible Cities and Portal, respectively. “Absentia” features a table that expanses four columns by three rows. Each cell contains an animated gif. “Refresh your visit” appears at the very top of the page above the table. Upon refreshing the page, the gifs appear in new cells each time. One cell, located in the top left corner, abruptly cycles through all of the gifs that load into each table cell.  Truthfully, I wanted the javascript to perform this task for all of the cells but there is an error in the code that prevents this. Arguably, the new format for James’ video might not change/alter the message of his work; there still exists a sense of absence and quiet from the images that I have chosen to display on the webpage. I kept the essence in tact but chose to alter the way it is mediated. Instead of playing in sequence from beginning to end, a narrative timeline no longer exists. The objects in frame remain in frame and at the same time, they may appear in another frame within the cell on the table. In this way, the remediation calls attention to the materials that clutter spaces. The repetition of these objects is meant to espouse a sense that the things once valued never remain so.

Similarly, I conveyed how gifs may concisely and, perhaps, more efficiently, perform the same message of a video. I demonstrated this using Katie’s Portal project, a video response that visually represented the themes of fragmented self and surveillance. Her montage featured several intriguing sequences, which unfortunately, suffered from overexposure. I felt that the he presence of several long takes in the original piece was unnecessary. As such, I screen capped the five most relevant shots, imported the stills into GIMP photo editing software, and copied the layers to ensure that each image, once animated, would loop back to the beginning of the sequence. It was tedious but worth the effort. “Refraction,” my transmutation of Katie’s video, is one of my more successful remixes. Again, the thematic connotations of the piece are not disturbed via the transmutation process; rather, it was my attempt with “Refraction” to reinforce them through succinct visuals.

Two of the pieces are the result of a glitch of the animated gifs created from Keyes’ and Jordan’s video projects. “Spectra,” the corruption of Keyes’ response to Invisible Cities, illustrates how a conceptual piece remains susceptible to further abstraction. “Spectra” compresses a gif of Keyes’ video of peripheral lights to create a spectrum of colors as they animate across the screen. “Noisy,” the bastardization of Jordan’s Portal response is a similar but less stunning visually.

The transmutation of my peers’ artwork into a different form suggests that I might have a higher opinion of my own creations. This also reflects the status of Paracelsus, who was estranged to his contemporary community of scholars and doctors. My remix project might espouse a similar reaction from the artists whose work I manipulated for my own purposes.

 

MART 702: Portal

Here’s my second post for Media-ART 702. Last week, we played Portal and discussed the game’s themes of self and surveillance. My project response to Portal is a mock webpage for an imagined service that provides a new use for data stored to today’s popular social media platforms. The website is available here: familybook.co.nf

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Artist Statement (in case you’re confused, but I think the project speaks for itself):

Portal, a 2007 video game developed by Valve Corporation, shares in common the controls and aesthetics of a traditional first-person shooter. The puzzle-based room navigation as assisted by a portal gun, however, is anything but orthodox. Portal places players in the role of a test subject at the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, a facility that studies the corporation’s experimental (and potentially dangerous) technologies. Throughout a series of tests, players are provided a gun that fires inter-spatial portals that function as doorways. These thresholds are fired onto flat surfaces to provide access to additional areas of the test chambers that cannot otherwise by reached. The game challenges players to become problem solvers as they avoid various obstacles such as turrets, impassable force fields, and poisonous water in order to make their way to the exit area. The creative placement and, at times, carefully timed firing, of portals onto flat surfaces is the main mechanic for play in this game.

In addition to engaging gameplay, Portal also tells a compelling story. As mentioned above, the setting is a testing facility and the portal gun is provided to players in context of a routine laboratory test. When players make progress to new test chambers (i.e. levels), they are encouraged by the melodic, disembodied voice of GLaDOS, an artificial intelligence program, to continue onwards with the promise of “cake” and “grief counseling” upon completion of all test sequences. Each room features several security cameras to signify the all-seeing presence of GLaDOS, who constantly monitors the activity of players to provide instructions and feedback. In this way, GLaDOS serves as the narrator to the game’s events. It is players that move from room to room and advance the plot, but it is GLaDOS who provides the context. Players, as embodied in the character, are entirely mute. All narrative information, including what happened, how it happened, and what will happen, is provided by one character and is, therefore, subject to bias.

Portal is still relevant to gamers and for game critics/scholars years after its release. What has allowed this game to stand out in a saturated market and become a fan favorite in the collective consciousness of gamers is its memorable protagonist and antagonist duo, Chell and GLaDOS.  The player-as-Chell is silent, a common archetype of first-person characterization because it encourages players to suture themselves to the body of the player-character and to become immersed within the gameworld. From the first-person perspective, Chell’s body is not seen until the player encounters their first portal. Looking into a portal, the player is able to see the body of Chell stepping into and exiting from one portal to the other. This allows players to catch brief glimpses of the character’s body. The first appearance of Chell reveals that the player-as-Chell is, in fact, a woman. Chell’s gender plays against the expectations of gamers because many first-person shooter games often, almost ideologically, default to a male character for the player’s control. Chell’s embodiment of the player-as-female is striking not only because it is atypical, but also because she has a counterpart in GLaDOS.

In video games, it is unusual that both the protagonist and antagonist are female, and in this respect, the subtext is worth investigating. GLaDOS is Chell’s antithesis; she lacks a human corporeal form and, for most of the game, remains a disembodied voice. In contrast, Chell has a body but never speaks. Together, but separately, they constitute a “complete” person, or in this case, woman. These characteristics of Chell and GLaDOS conjure to mind the old sexist statement that, “women should be seen and not heard.” Chell, as the seen but not heard woman, ultimately fights against and destroys the woman who is heard but not seen, GLaDOS. The opposition between these two women suggests that Portal might make a statement about the expectations for women in a “man’s world.”

There is also the age-old adage that says that, “actions speak louder than words.” This is also useful for the discussion of these two characters. Players-as-Chell are given the choices/actions that lead to the (apparent) destruction of GLaDOS. Throughout the events of the game, GLaDOS provides a near-constant barrage of commentary. In the beginning, it manifests as lukewarm praise, only to intensify to chiding reprimands, passive-aggressive statements, and, towards the end, snide insults. In Portal, Chell, the index of “action” overcomes the “words” of GLaDOS and escapes almost certain death. This symbolism might allude that it is our choices, not our words, which define who we are and what we become. Words are easily forgotten, but actions rarely are.

Portal may or may not make a statement about sexism or passive and active personalities; the game’s message and characterizations can be interpreted many ways. Regardless of the type of subtext one chooses to read, what I find most interesting about Chell and GLaDOS is that they are both incomplete characterizations. In this respect, gender is a moot point; I place the emphasis on their piecemeal forms. Chell represented as body/action and GLaDOS as voice/words made me consider how “self” is represented (and stored) in the domain of social media, now and in the future. In the relationship between these two characters a variety of symbolic messages may be read; in the context of my project, I view GLaDOS to represent social media and Chell as the user of such a service.

My response to Portal is a commentary on this theme. FamilyBook.com is a mock website and video for an imagined online service that provides users access to data stored on today’s popular social media platforms. I built the webpage using Adobe Dreamweaver and coded it with HTML and CSS; I did not use a template. The video was captured from my laptop using QuickTime and edited using VideoPad freeware. I also provide the voiceover narration. The logo and “family tree” image were created using the freeware graphics-editing program GIMP.

This project envisions that, in the not-to-distant future, popular social media platforms such Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Instagram will become obsolete and defunct. They will likely be replaced with advances in technologies and changes to social mores and practices that occur over generational shifts and population changes. However, the data stored to a social media platform may continue to exist long after the demise of the actual service. FamilyBook.com suggests that the data saved to social media servers might be used in unexpected ways many years from now. It invites people to reconsider how they use such services and their relationship to the social media/corporate entity.

A service like FamilyBook implies that social media data may be available for new uses in the future. It proposes that personal data saved to social media might become searchable as an online resource for family members, historians, and the general public. This envisioned use is not unlike the contemporary service Ancestry.com, which allows users to browse massive databases of census records, city directories, voting lists, travel logs, military service documents, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, and other digitized data from the recent past.

In this contemporary moment, information is decreasingly stored on the paper document and increasingly saved to a digital format. I am oddly fascinated that personal Facebook profiles, including statuses and photos, continue to exist after the death of the person to which they belong. My bizarre and cynical theory that data from Facebook might become available as a service similar to Ancestry.com; that is, future people (this generation’s great-great-grand-children) might pay to access Facebook as an archive for the retrieval of data about their ancestors (i.e., people who use Facebook today), is not so implausible when understood in the context of today’s methods of genealogical and historical research. During the research process, information is pulled from a wide array of available sources. This assumes that social media will be an invaluable time capsule for the researchers in future generations.

My response to Portal invites a critique of the practice of habitual photo/status sharing via social media and suggests that such activities might have unforeseen repercussions decades after the time of original posting. I was inspired by Portal‘s theme song, “Still Alive,” as sung by GLaDOS during the end credits. I find that the lines “While you’re dying I’ll be still alive. / And when you’re dead I will be still alive” are particularly relevant to my project. In the context of FamilyBook, I take this to mean that social media profiles will “live on” to represent their users long after they cease to exist in the real world. The gaze remains upon individuals long after the demise of their corporeal form; yet, this idea is rarely something that is considered by the average user of social media.  Most people who use social media share information about their lives with friends and family and think only in terms of the present moment.

The FamilyBook.com project reveals that personal data distributed on social media might be “still alive” and continue to represent individuals long after they die. This project asks its viewers to reconsider the long-term consequences of using social media because these platforms store valuable personal information to databases for a period of time unknown to the user. There is also a large degree of invisible surveillance that monitors user’s activities on services like Facebook. For example, data stored via Facebook exceeds that of what is publicly viewable on the profile timeline. According to Facebook’s Data Use Policy, “We receive data about you whenever you use or are running Facebook, such as when you look at another person’s timeline, send or receive a message, search for a friend or a Page, click on, view or otherwise interact with things, use a Facebook mobile app, or make purchases through Facebook” (https://www.facebook.com/about/privacy/your-info, accessed February 10, 2014).

In this respect, Facebook.com and similar social media services, are akin to GLaDOS because they too are monstrous, all-seeing, all-knowing entities. Everything posted to a social media profile is saved to massive, comprehensive databases. This is not unlike GLaDOS who oversees and analyzes the series of tests performed by Chell. As an AI computer, GLaDOS has her own database for storing and retrieving information. She even imparts this knowledge to the player about Chell’s past and suggests that she has “no friends” and was “adopted.” GLaDOS employs this knowledge to exploit the insecurities of her test subject to signify data/information as power. Here, there is another parallel to Facebook. When personal data such as a status update, photo upload, GPS check-in, or comment is posted, it is certain that an entity like Facebook, as long as its servers are “still alive,” might have access to it for years, decades, even centuries, after the time of the original submission. Data of the magnitude amassed from social media is indeed a powerful tool for a corporation.

The user of social media is not unlike Chell, who, while actively agrees to the terms of use and openly participates according to the rules, is subservient to the system. It is also relevant to consider that Chell is only useful to GLaDOs as a means to an end: to test the portal gun. Once the test is complete and the data is collected, Chell becomes expendable. But, this is also the moment in which the player-as-Chell decides to fight back at GLaDOS. Once the player-as-Chell becomes aware that they have been used and that they will not be promised their freedom (or cake), they take the initiative to destroy GLaDOS. Similar to the self-serving AI, the all-seeing, all-knowing Facebook Inc. amasses data, not for the benefit of the people to which it originally belonged, but to make a profit.

In this regard, users of social media sites such as Facebook are not the recipients of a product, but the product being sold. It is public knowledge that Facebook reaps revenue from advertising space. Users of Facebook, therefore, are the product being sold to the advertisers. To make for effective audience reach, Facebook allows advertisers to cater to their specific demographics; i.e. certain ads will only appear on the newsfeed for specific locations and vary depending on the age, gender, and “likes” of the user who is accessing the site. In order to do this, Facebook pulls the data about a user’s location, interests, and gender. This method of demographic-based advertising encourages companies and services to place their ad on the website because they will reach niche audiences. In this way, Facebook sells its users’ data and eyeballs to companies who purchase the ad-space. Facebook is like GLaDOS; and a user of its service is not unlike Chell, incompletely represented as various points of data, that may or may not be useful.

Portal is a fascinating game to play and interpret. The incomplete characterizations of Chell and GLaDOS as two very different and oppositional women make them a memorable duo.  My response to the game has taken this theme of incomplete forms, and the messages of surveillance and power, and applied them to contemporary social media services and their habitual use. The imagined FamilyBook service is a critique of social media entities and their practices. The project encourages people to look beyond the present moment to envision a future service that offers personal data posted to social media to the public (for a price). The website is an uncomfortably reminder that personal data might be “still alive” to represent the self digitally, long after the time of original submission of data and that this information may reach unanticipated audiences. It also asks people to consider how beneficial the relationship that one has with a social media platform, such as Facebook, may or may not actually be. This is not unlike the relationship that Chell experiences with GLaDOS in Portal. At first, the AI appears helpful, but the façade emerges once she has what she wants: the cold data amassed from a series of tests performed by the human user, who is only useful as a means to an end.

MART 702: Response to “Invisible Cities”

Download the project, Invisible Boundaries, for Mac OSX.

Invisible Boundaries is, first and foremost, an artistic response to Italo Calvino’s text Invisible Cities. The narrative of the book is about Marco Polo’s companionship with emperor Kublai Khan. Marco Polo tells to emperor Kublai Khan fantastical stories about the myriad cities within his expansive empire. Each city, described to readers (and Kublai Khan) in one-to-two page chapters, is more unbelievable than the last, but with good reason: the cities that Marco Polo describes do not actually exist. In fact, the truth (revealed halfway through the book) is that each city described is actually the same: Venice.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities alludes to many different themes. A reoccurring analogy in the book is one of place and memory. Many of the different cities (i.e. chapters) resonate a sense of longing/nostalgia for a past/place that are impossible to re-experience/revisit. For example, Calvino’s description of Isidora (Cities & Memory) reads, “In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he [an old man] is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories” (p.8). I interpret Calvino to mean that humans never truly appreciate what they have until it is gone. When something is no longer as it once was, like the old men who stare at the city’s youth, one can only remember. It is in a moment of remembrance that humans pine for what they no longer have. Time moves forward and the people, places, and choices that once were present are no longer available. Invisible Cities constantly reminds readers of the ephemeral nature of existence (peoples and places) and the memories associated with them. This is a theme I aimed to recreate in Invisible Boundaries.

Invisible Boundaries is a first person virtual experience in which users explore the personal memories of the artist. These “memories” (i.e. levels) represent the lingering vestiges of her childhood home in Lebanon, Connecticut. The player is invited to walk across a mostly linear landscape for an unknown purpose. Invisible Boundaries never makes its objective clear. Users may find the experience trivial, at best, or frustrating, at worst. This is the artist’s intent. All movement is linear; the scenery lacks contextualization (and possibly coherence) aside from the obvious that there is a sense of similarity between the levels; and the message/narrative is extremely abstract. Is it worth your time to venture into the landscape of Invisible Boundaries? The artist’s response is to break it. The majority of the experience is succinct and obvious; however, there are areas where the seams are broken, much like “real” memories. A glitch may be exploited here or there and something unexpected may occur as result. Memories often conceal just as much as they reveal; similarly, Invisible Boundaries suggests that its users break through the invisible walls that confine them.

The prose of Invisible Cites features hazy, dream-like visuals and thought-provoking analogies. Unlike the book, Invisible Boundaries does not feature hazy, dream like visuals and thought-provoking analogies. In these attempts it is likely a failure. What it achieves, at its most base, is to force players along a predetermined path across one of four landscapes. The first of these scenes guides players towards a lake. A stonewall frames the pathway, evoking the historic New England atmosphere. Once players reach the lakefront, they are presented with a wooden dock. When the player walks on the dock they are suddenly transported to the opposite side of the lake and the sun is setting. What does this sudden interruption signify? Could it be a flash-forward in time and space? Or is it a new memory altogether? The player can only move onward; the interpretation is as good as anyone’s.  When Marco (i.e. Calvino) describes Zaira (Cities & Memory) he says that,

“This city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lighting rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls” (p.11). I take this passage to mean that spaces may be “read” like a text; signs (e.g. scratches, indentations, scrolls) leave a minute trace of what once was. In this way, certain signs in a space may evoke memories. These marks/memories within cities/spaces/landscapes are indexes to the past; a past that is often foreign and unknowable because the past that is known about a specific place/time is limited to that of one’s own experiences. A place has different meanings and associations for each person who encounters it. Invisible Boundaries has it’s own marks that may signify different associations for different people.

Calvino addresses the unknowable in terms of place, experience, memory, and self. Invisible Boundaries attempts to channel these themes without blatantly acknowledging them. In his description of the city Tamara (Cities & Signs), Calvino explains that, “The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things…” (p.13). From this, I understand him to mean that one’s daily observances are governed by the reading and interpretation of the images around them. In our memories, we remember vague, but selected, images of privilege and give them vital meaning in order to better understand past experiences. The images, or signs, in Invisible Boundaries have vital meaning for me (the maker) in the way that I remember my childhood home. However, for anyone else, the representations are arbitrary (and possibly meaningless). Despite the arbitrary nature of signs, much of the imagery in Invisible Boundaries is symbolically charged. For example, the lake and river, fresh bodies of pure water, may connote purity because of their association with nature and baptism. The cemetery has strong symbolism of death, decay, and even fear and superstition. The bonfire may evoke death/rebirth because it may conjure thoughts of a funeral pyre or cremated ashes. For me, the meanings are more personal than these broad associations. The lake is where I spent my summers; the river is where I used to camp; the cemetery is where I rubbed the markings of old tombstones; the fire represents the giant bonfire my dad made in the backyard on the fourth of July. Calvino was aware of the power of particular signs in memories that espouse feelings and associations, as am I.

While there is an extent of freedom in respect to interpretation of the virtual signs, the design forces users to subject themselves to the rules of Invisible Boundaries. Calvino’s description of the city of Tamara is useful in this respect: “Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts” (p.14). In Invisible Boundaries, a player may assume that they have agency in this virtual world; in actuality, there is little. A guided path and invisible barriers prevent users from true freedom and opportunity to explore. The world has a discourse that must be obeyed to “complete” the experience; the user is subordinate to these rules, much like a visitor’s relationship to Tamara.

Calvino continues to explain that, “However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it” (p.14). Calvino’s words beg the question: do we ever really know a place? And once we leave, how do we really know that we have been? The more distant our memories are from the real, lived experience, the more dream-like and fictitious they become. People may visit a place, but after they leave it, all that they take with them are the memories. And memories paint an incomplete picture; they are simulacrum of the real. Therefore, it can be surmised that people often leave places “without having discovered it” because they misinterpret/misunderstand it.  At face value, Invisible Boundaries is defined by the invisible walls constructed from “box colliders” and the 3D models of trees, stonewalls, fences, and vegetation that line the perimeter of the virtual world. These objects are purposely placed to structure the experience. They enforce the idea that a user may “visit” this representational landscape, but they will never really “know” it. Furthermore, because this virtual world is a simulation of my personal memories that represent my childhood home, one cannot “know” the real place, either.

Invisible Cities is redundant. Cities share thematic chapters (e.g. “Cities & Memory,” “Cities & Desire,” “Cities & Signs,” etc.); some cities have almost identical allegories and symbolism in the stories as told by Marco Polo. This is intentional. Halfway through the narrative the audience learns that each of the cities is the same; Marco Polo simply describes the city of Venice to Kublai Khan each and every time. This is hinted at early in the book. When Marco (i.e. Calvino) describes Zirma (Cities & Signs) he says that, “The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind… Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist” (p.19). It begs me to ponder; does routine habit/practice/experience skew  memories or give privilege to some memories over others? People have a way of explaining a situation or series of events as, “It was all a blur to me.” I understand this in the context of Calvino’s text to mean that certain images/signs are privileged over others in a way to provide an aid to memories. The redundancy in recounting memories allows people to remember, and in the moment one remembers, it is the only instance that the past “exists” again. Invisible Boundaries is likewise redundant. Once the experience is complete, it may be replayed, but only to assume the same cycle. The cyclical experience is not unlike memory recall. Generally speaking, people remember to remember; in remembering, one may remember something that they had previously forgotten. Recollection is an unending, cycle of redundancy; this redundancy is necessary to maintain a semblance of self-awareness.

On his discussion of a “Continuous City” called Trude, Marco Polo/Calvino explains that, “This was the first time I had come to Trude, but I already knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged… The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end” (p.128). I interpret him to mean that people see familiarity everywhere; for this reason, there are some things that are inescapable, especially the past. There is always a sign (a reminder) that may trigger a memory of familiarity, that unusual feeling of déjà vu. Invisible Boundaries imparts a similar sense of déjà vu with each leap forward to a new scene/memory. There is a sense of familiarity of the landscape that each user will come to understand differently based on their unique, individual lived experiences.

Speaking on Tamara, Calvino adds “Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures; a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant…” I take this to mean that people constantly construct the world around them through signs in order to make meaning… and sometimes, people make meaning where there is none just to make sense of the perceived reality. Sometimes, a cloud should just be a cloud. But for most of humanity, they want the cloud to be something more than the abstract concentration of ephemeral condensation. Humans, in their vain attempt to understand, want to give the “cloud” meaning, an explanation that provides context; e.g. why must the dark cloud blot out the happy, eternal sunshine? So that the sun may be all the more appreciated when it resurfaces. Similarly, deriving meaning from memory provides comfort that life and experience is knowable; that there is some kind of “point” or value in the suffering and pain that life unexpectedly produces.

Similarly, yet differently, Invisible Boundaries aims to recreate these connotations associated with memories of a place. Memory, not unlike experience, is fleeting. When one recalls a past event/place, the memory of it is likely to change with every retelling; i.e. one may depend more upon the “spoke words” that are used to retell a memory because, overtime, the visuals become less vivid and the “images” that account for a memory are rendered unreliable. Recalling and retelling ultimately leads to an erosion of one’s true memories; i.e. the memories that are preserved shortly after the actual, lived experience. As such, all memories become an imperfect recollection. Memories are a large part of what constitutes the self. Therefore, if memories are imperfect it can be surmised that people are also imperfect. If Invisible Boundaries is flawed or pointless it is as an extension of my imperfect self.