Experimental playcentric writers’ room

Playcentric writers’ room initiative (together with Story architects and Media Arena) in Gothenburg coming up.
Before that, read Learn Do Share #3!

More information soon.

SCMS 2013

I will try to briefly summarise my impressions and thoughts after the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) 2013 conference in Chicago, which ended last Sunday.

I have not attended a SCMS conference since Philadelphia in 2006, so my first impression is that something has happened. The quality of the presentations I listened to was higher and the research questions seemed more relevant in relation to the contemporary media ecology. This may of course be a result of a more deliberate choice of panels to attend and some luck. Due to KLM’s aircraft problems my arrival was delayed one day…so I only attended about a dozen panels out of approximately 450! Since I was not presenting I could be more focused on other scholars’ presentation.

Another contributing factor may be my focus on game studies (as well as some of the few transmedia oriented papers I found). As new in the field I took the opportunity to get an overview how game studies looks like in a cinema studies, that is humanities, context. I do not know the rationales to rename The Society of Cinema Studies into The Society of Cinema and Media Studies I am most delighted that “Media” here is not what “Media” is for Social Science-oriented Media and Communication studies or Cultural Studies. With the exceptions for some digital humanities and audience research panels I encountered few traces of quantitative research or policy studies. On the contrary, I noticed a strong emphasis on aesthetical, technological, and cultural perspectives.

Among many fascinating and well-researched papers and well-composed panels, what struck me the most was the need for further development in historical and political analysis of games. Again, two fields fit for humanities media research.

The two-panel “Debugging the History of Game Terminology” (parts of what seems to be a most promising book project) gave many examples of longer historical perspectives as well as the importance of looking at other sources than the existing, often anecdotal, accounts of game history. My first reaction to the second panel was the need for something equivalent to the early cinema studies of the 1980s and 1990s in game history. We see some of this happening within platform studies, but, what was also the results of early cinema research was redefinitions of the objects of study, discovering unexpected uses of media technologies, and probably most importantly, unveiling surprising relations to other cultural, technological, economical, political etc. contexts. Since early cinema research was not only a remarkable archival enterprise, but often a theoretically advanced and creative field as well, it was great to encounter theorisations somewhere between the highly philosophical tendencies of media archaeology and the less theoretical traditions of computer science.

Given the long tradition within cinema studies to focus on questions of identity, political analyses come easy to hand even in studies of games. It was thus not surprising to find excellent analyses of representation of race, gender and class in games. But, as was frequently discussed, race, gender and class is not only a question of representation. It may even be, as Jennifer Malkowski remarked, that games has an advantage in the fact that if a character is made with too much prejudices no one will find it interesting to play. (That the marketing and discourses around games often becomes misogynist and racist is another thing; but of course even more important to analyse and counter). Here Edmond Chang‘s concept of technonormativity may be of use, in adopting queer and trans-/(and/or post-?) humanist theories, either for analyses of individual games or perhaps even for platform studies?

A key concept may be one that showed up en passant during the discussion following the “Gaming the Landscape” panel late Saturday afternoon: game engine politics. The importance of performing political analysis of game engines, or at least of the gaming consequences of game engines, had arisen already during the panel (together with Debugging…II) I regarded the most interesting, “Playing the Past, Playing the Future: Time in Contemporary Video Games with TreaAndrea Russworm, Edmond Chang, Jennifer Malkowski (also chair) and Alenda Y. Chang. It is, or should be, rather obvious that what the person playing the game can do and is prevented from doing could also be a political question. Perhaps even more political than the questions of representation, given the interactivity of video and computer games. Game engine politics thus involves and has to include everything from platform to gamer and back again.

Adding to this I was happy to hear references (by Peter Krapp) to Claus Pias‘ great German-language writings on games, as well as uses of Giorgio Agamben’s philosophical works in an analysis of transmedia productions (Marc Steinberg).

I will return both to methodologies of game history and game engine politics later on.

Appreciating mid-level film culture

The last few days the Swedish independent filmmakers union (www.off.se) are promoting their new film Bergmans kuk [Bergman’s Cock], a film about “democracy and film policy”. In the poster, they argue that it is “undemocratic” that state funding only will go to producers, and not to directors. (Obviously according to OFF the Director is the only creative agent involved in filmmaking.) They also counter a creative industries kind of argument that the Swedish film industry should be twice as large as today, by the statement: “Size does not matter”.

Obviously 30 years of critique of auteurism is not enough here, but logically speaking isn’t it strange to say that complete power to the director is a democratic move?

Seriously, the independent filmmakers union and their friends have for some time rallied against producers. To put art against commerce is of course an old, but still efficient strategy. But is that really what it is about today, here in Sweden?

Here some fast thoughts.

1. Experimental vs. blockbuster film is not a relevant argument. Even if blockbusters often are receiving public support they are less and less dependent upon state support. So even if “industrial” support to blockbusters would go away, it would only marginally change that part of the market. One possible result might be that producers would have to look more at foreign markets than the broad domestic audience, which would be good for European co-productions and potential US remakes, but bad for the not-so-good-but-with-popular-comedians kind of domestic comedies. And, of course, it does not affect foreign films’ app. 80 % share of the market. But it affects the structure of the cinema-going public.

2. Cinema going is a culturally important social practice. Blockbusters and experimental films share one characteristic: they have quite homogenous audiences (teenagers and university educated urban white middle-class respectively). The present state support system has become a corrective to that. According to Nordicom statistics the major change during the last 20 years is that in the age group 45-65 twice as many went to the cinemas in 2011 as in 1991. (And in the group 65-79 the increase is even bigger). In the 15-24 group there is a small decrease while the 25-44 is constant. The relation between the 25-44 and 45-64 group may indicate that more 50 year olds continue their cinema going habits from before or that a new middle-age audience appear, that is, people who did not regularly go to the cinemas ten or twenty years earlier. Either alternative, the small box office figures for experimental films cannot explain these large-scale figures.

Adding to this, there is a small difference between the figures for men and women: the increase among women was slightly larger than among men in 2011 than in 1991.

More interesting is Mediebarometern’s categorization according to education. I don’t know how they define their three levels (low, medium, high), but I suppose they use the official statistics agency’s definition (only pre-high school, high school, or post-high school education). In the group “low” there are frequent changes, but no significant, large-scale change between 1991 and 2011. In the group “high” it’s a significant reduction since 1991 (it seems though that this group had a peak in 1990-91 with another peak around 2000). But generally there is a small reduction in this group since the late 1990s. In the group “middle” there are some smaller peaks than in the “high” group but about the same figures seen from the late 1980s to 2011. These are figures that are relative to the population. During this period only the “middle” group is the same (about 45 % of the population). The group “low” has gone from being about one third of the population in 1990 to 14 % in 2010. Consequently the group “high” has increased from 23 % in 1990 to 38 % in 2010. So even if there are so many more people with high education in 2011 as large share of them are going to cinemas. And the same for the people with “low education”. Even considering that teenagers hardly fit into this categorization, in real numbers more people with high education are attending cinemas in 2011 than in 1991! Given the popular image of cinema as an entertainment for young people, the Swedish support system obviously has been doing something right the last two decades in increasing the (age and education) diversity among the cinema going public.

3. The public service argument: There is no film culture without the “middle” audience and the “middle” films. Here size does matter. If there are any precursors to the successes of the US cable quality television (HBO) it is hardly to be found in the marginal US public broadcasting, PBS, but in the large BBC. The recent Danish successes in the US are also based on the outcomes of a strong and large public service broadcaster, DR, Danish Radio. Defences of the public funding of public service broadcasting is partly based on size, if it becomes too small the public interest in paying for it buy licenses or by tax will decrease. But equally important for public service is its potential for change, whether it is the change of the public, or politicians, or the media industries. And, again, a large public service affects the commercial industry more than a small one (if not we would not have had the European regulations of public service’s impact on commercial matters).

In most small countries film production have always been dominated by reasonably successful, reasonably artistic films. Not as popular as Hollywood’s, not as artistic as the avant-garde’s. Or, as Edgar Morin wrote in 1961:

The super-production and the independent film tend to wipe out the zone of the standard mid-level film the movie industry was built on. (Communications, 1, 1961)

The Swedish system has thus contributed to a more diversified cinema going public both at the multiplexes (not only kids) and the art house cinemas (not only the avant-garde), despite a cinema market dominated by two major cinema-owning companies. And, it is neither blockbusters nor experimental films that have dome this, but the “mid-level” films: those on number 3 or 4 to 10 at the box office lists during the last decade:

– Films that are too expensive to bear their own costs and not popular enough to break even without subsidies.

-Films that for hundreds of thousands of people have created an entertaining and probably thoughtful experience. For many of those, perhaps the only films they see in a cinema.

– Films, like the two most recent film awards winners, Sebbe and Apflickorna, which are made by young, talented “mid-level” filmmakers: artistically and industrially competent.

That is the kind of films the independent filmmakers union want to stop.

Does this mean that cinema is a bourgeois medium made by a bourgeois industry for a bourgeois audience? YES! And that is what makes cinema such a wonderful medium, such a wonderful business, such a wonderful art.

The artist is older than the fish (Uses of McLuhan)

With writing, therefore, comes logical analysis and specialism, but also militarism and bureaucracy. (McLuhan, “Culture Without Literacy”, 1953)

An analysis of the ongoing literarization of the arts, and arts education, following its incorporation into, or subordination of, such a highly bureaucratic and militaristic organization as the modern university, can benefit from a reading of McLuhan.

The division between visual and literary languages is a fact which also set a great abyss between science and the humanities. Thinking as we do of culture in book terms, we are unable to read the language of technological forms.

The academization of the arts, with its focus on the written text, will therefore make it difficult for the arts to deal with not only ‘technological form’ but everything in the world outside human beings. So if the poets no longer explain the world, we have to rely upon the fish.

Consequently we must unlearn literacy. Unfortunately we can not write about how…

Towards an ontology of transmedia worlds, part 2

In the introductory chapter of his book The Democracy of Objects Levi Bryant writes

[…] that the condition for the intelligibility of experimental activity is the existence of objects that are intransitive or independent of mind and perception. For if objects were dependent on mind, perception, or culture, then there would be nothing to discover in the closed systems produced in the experimental setting. [note]

This argument is based on philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar and his question ‘what must the world be like for science to be possible’ [Bryant, ch. 1; Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 23].

With risk of a circular argument, I will try to use this thinking for an analysis of transmedia storyworlds. Most theorists (most prominently Christy Dena and Henry Jenkins) of transmedia storytelling mention the existence of common ‘world’ or ‘universe’ as typical for transmedia projects. In my view, Bhaskar’s question and Bryant’s analysis provide a good start for a discussion of what a transmedia world must be like in order for transmedia products to be possible. The reason for this is a hypothesis that through such an analysis we will also be able to discuss the conditions for good transmedia projects.

It may sound strange in a discussion of something made by human being as transmedia products to talk about intransitive objects, that is, things that exists independent of our minds. These intransitive objects, according to Bhaskar and Bryant, are often ‘out of phase’ with events and experiences. There are always things that we can not experience, or that we not yet have experienced, or do not know how to experience.

Bryant uses Bhaskar’s diagram to distinguish between

– ‘the domain of the empirical’ – where events are reduced to experiences and mechanisms are excluded,

– ‘the domain of the actual’ – where some event may be possible to experience, while other events are not yet experienced or impossible to experience, and

– ‘the domain of the real’ – where mechanism, events and experiences may or may not occur together. [note]

If I have understood Bryant’s analysis, in order to understand conditions for experimental science Bhaskar distinguish between closed system, where mechanism and events goes together (for example a laboratory experiment) and open systems, where events are not possible to relate to a specific mechanism (most everyday situations).

My conclusion of such an argument is that for us to answer the question of what a transmedia storyworld must be like for transmedia products to be possible, we have to develop a way to create a version of Bhaskar’s closed systems. Either as an empirical analysis of existing storyworlds and their parts, or a speculative analysis including both conceptualizations and analyses of these conceptualizations.

My first case will be Fritz Lang’s and Thea von Harbou’s ‘world’ of Dr. Mabuse.

Towards an ontology of transmedia worlds, part 1

Following Christy Dena‘s great 2009 dissertation and Henry Jenkin’s seven principles of transmedia storytelling (and his many older and more recent texts on transmedia) nothing is more important for transmedia fiction than the creation and development of fictional worlds.

A world is larger than a story, it involves things that not neccessarily are included in any story. If a world is something else than a story our regular tools for analyzing stories can not be used for analyzing the world. If we still try to analyze the world as a story we will not be able to understand those aspects of the world that are not part of the stories. We will thus reduce the world into a story.

On the other hand we can only use sociological or anthropological methods as long as those include tools for distinguishing between a world and mediated world. Transmedia worlds are not neccessarily man-made (I will return to that) but still, our main access to them are mediated (media understood as an extension of any object). So, we still need tools for understanding those extensions. More important, we also need tools for analyzing these worlds and their parts. Not only because the transmedia world, to be interesting, has to be larger than its stories, but because even its parts are hiding things, or aspects of themselves, from the whole and its stories.

My point here is that the parts that build up the whole of the transmedia world is not its distributed stories. We have to distinguish between the parts of the world and the parts of its stories. Next section will deal with the analysis of the parts, the withdrawn objects, of the transmedia world in order to develop a way to analyze the relations between these parts and the distributed stories.

Before we start discussing transmedia criticism

On Monday I start a course on transmedia criticism as part of the undergraduate education in film studies at the University of Gothenburg. Geoffrey Long’s ‘How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism’, recently re-blogged by Henry Jenkins is a good starting point. There are so many empty promotional, consultant-speak-filled calls for transmedia. But so few really good motivations for why we should care about transmedia fictions.

I will during April and May use my blog to document how my students will help develop better critical approaches to transmedia phenomena.

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