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Monthly Archives: May 2015

Wikipedia’s open source model—its defining quality—is fundamentally built on the idea that there are no grounds for power, but the sheer number of people who become active as a result should be enough to offset those who post misinformation. In order to understand this idea, we need to understand both the concepts of Rancière’s democratic paradox and Mayer-Schönberger and Kukier’ concept of big data (these explanations will be fairly similar to those I used in my paper on video games, big data, and the democratic paradox.) As a contributor to Wikipedia, I was able to experience firsthand how accurate this assumption is and how well the model works.

Starting from the notion that democracy is defined by a lack of grounds for authority, Rancière essentially argues that democracy as a form of government is essentially indistinguishable from democracy as a form of social and political life. Political activity thus becomes a struggle against categorization, putting these boundaries into play and disrupting them. This implies that policy and institution are both legitimized and delegitimized by the people. That is to say two things: while the peoples’ approval determines whether or not policies are enacted, the people as a whole both give rise to these policies and render them powerless because those the policies governs have equal grounds to rule as those who wrote it. Thus, the lack of grounds for authority would seem to necessitate an excess of political activity; a constant challenging and restructuring of these policies and institutions against categorization and oppression. This is one of the assumptions behind Wikipedia’s edit policy: each article will be constantly challenged and edited, a perpetual work in progress, getting infinitely closer to the objective truth. This only works, however, if there are enough edits to maintain this perpetual improvement.

Thus, the second component of Wikipedia’s assumption behind this model is that there is enough edits to offset poor quality ones. This is a fundamental component of Mayer-Schönberger and Kukier’s idea of Big Data: we need not be concerned with the “why” so long as we can observe and apply the “what”, and further, we need not be concerned about low quality data, so long as we have enough data that its effect is negligible.

In my experience as a contributor, Wikipedia was relatively (although far from perfectly) successful by both of these measures. I initially submitted an article for review, which was denied by a senior editor to be an independent article due to the relatively journalistic style in which I had written it. This creates a hierarchy which Rancière would argue technically defies democracy for two reasons: firstly, it creates a qualification for power which goes against democracy’s most essential value. Secondly, according to him, any structure that is created in a democratic society can (and should) be immediately demolished. However, this is paradoxical in itself because it is precisely this structure which allows the encyclopedia to be maintained more efficiently.

In order to make a successful contribution, I added my content to an article I believe it was relevant to. Although there have been no subsequent edits since my own in several days, a look at the article’s edit history and talk page reveal an extensive process of editing and reshaping which have created quite a thorough and robust product. Although the edits are not constant, in my view, they are frequent and extensive enough to be successful in maintaining a high standard of neutrality and accuracy.

Overall, Wikipedia’s policies and structures can certainly not be classified as inherently perfectly democratic, nor is there enough data to prove unequivocally that the articles are without serious flaws. However, it works reasonably well according to what the encyclopedia was designed to do, and presents a strong case study to observe how democracy is compromised in many areas of the internet in order to maintain a sense of reputability.

 

Link to the article I edited

Link to my edit

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Kukier claim in Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think that the use of big data is so pervasive, so effective, and so radical that it is fundamentally changing the empirical process across practically every discipline from emphasizing the “why” to the “what”. That is, human beings need not be concerned with the causal mechanisms that underly correlations so long as we can observe and apply them; further, these correlations should give rise to our scientific theories and experiments rather than the other way around. This kind of shift would completely change how we think about the challenges we regularly come across in our lives, not to mention the hundreds of industries that have an ever-stronger grip on everything we do. The essay Narrative Architecture and Big Data by Jacob Stern claims that this shift will translate to video games, incentivizing an emphasis on sales as opposed to depth and complexity.  In contrast, according to principles of Ranciere’s democratic paradox, big data does not pose a threat to innovation and creativity within video games as an artistic medium because emphasis on sales and emphasis on game quality are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This is idea fundamental to the game industry and player culture, which rendering the distinctions Stern makes between games developed for the masses or created for their own sake largely invalid.

In order to understand the democratic paradox as it relates to video games, we must first understand its implications as a sociopolitical construct. Rancière presents the idea first as a truism that is relatively intuitive: the democratic government is threatened by the excess of social/political activity it needs in order to function properly. Social/political activity must be somehow regulated in order to keep the government and society stable, which makes most democracies as we know them today actually aristocracies with the approval of the masses. The conception of the paradox pits democracy as a form of government against democracy as a form of social and political life; however, as Rancière argues, it from this very notion—this separation between the government and the people—from which a much truer, much more profound paradox arises. If democracy is defined by the absence of grounds or qualifications for power, then everyone should have the opportunity to exercise this power equally; to move between universals and particulars, between citizen and man, to challenge the order society follows. In this type of society, he claims, the function of political activity to challenge this order and the function of control and policing to maintain it are inherently intertwined. Democratic government is not threatened by social and political life, but indistinguishable from social and political life, making Democracy the institution of politics as such. Political activity thus becomes a struggle against categorization, putting these boundaries into play and disrupting them.

Stern claims that big data will incentivize “pop” games based on sales and other types of consumer data (such as non-substantive additions to already lucrative franchises) over more innovative “independent” games designed purely out of creative spirit (e.g. indie games). He/she is implying that video games as an art form are threatened by games as a product; however, games as a product and video games as an art form are not so neatly separated either.

Perhaps the clearest way the video game market exhibits the democratic paradox is in the sense that, just as policy and institution are both legitimized and delegitimized by the people who make them up, the video game market is both legitimized and delegitimized by those who make it up. That is to say two things: players’ response and sales already have an enormous impact on which types of games are created and which are not, but more importantly, players both give rise to the market’s existence and render it powerless to quantify a game’s artistic value because they are just as capable of judging as those who created it. (Policies and institutions function in the same way; while the peoples’ approval determines whether or not policies are enacted, the people as a whole both give rise to these policies and render them powerless because those the policies governs have equal grounds to rule as those who wrote it.) This is exemplified by games which are not quite as immensely popular as those in the top tier, but have massive cult followings which validate their artistic genius and encourage innovation and experimentation. For example, Supergiant Games received massive praise for their cult hit Bastion, known for its incredible aesthetic beauty and high quality of gameplay despite a relatively traditional post-apocalyptic story. However, instead of following that simply with a game of the same type, the studio produced an equally beautiful game called Transistor with deeper characters and a more complex narrative that defies video game and scientific conventions while challenging the player to experiment and develop unique combat styles. While these games may never enjoy the sales of games such as Titanfall or Call of Duty, this does not discourage the developers in any way from continuing to create incredibly well made and thought provoking games.

The line between creators and consumers of video games is also becoming less and less defined as many companies such as Bossa Studios are making player feedback an integral part of the game creation process, while subcultures surrounding particular games based in YouTube playthroughs, commentaries, and other related fan content can become an integral part of the player’s experience. For example, we discussed gold farming in World of Warcraft and how the game’s economy became increasingly intertwined with that of the real world, which drastically impacted how certain players participated in the game and what they got out of it. This is not limited to MMOs, however; it takes place across genres, content, and fan bases. Super Smash Bros, Nintendo’s immensely popular fighting franchise showcasing the company’s most iconic characters, has a very active professional competitive scene and wildly dedicated fan communities surrounding it. In the case of sandbox games such as Minecraft or god games such as Civilization, among many others, mods and DLC (downloadable content) created by players form huge proportions of the games’ content (Minecraft has a number of unique online servers containing player-created worlds that are dedicated to particular styles of play as well).

Finally, Just as political action is the disruption and putting into play of lines that divide categories of people, innovation in the game world often involves the disruption and putting into play of lines that divide categories of games (as well as other forms of media). Henry Jenkins frames these boundaries in terms of franchises such as Star Wars or Pokémon that traverse media as parts of what he calls a “larger narrative system.” In Game Design as Narrative Architecture, he describes these systems as unique domains “which [depend] less on each individual work being self-sufficient than on each work contributing to a larger narrative economy.” Aspects of the narrative structure are experienced in different ways through different media to create a broader, more complex, and more fleshed out universe and story. “In such a system, what games do best will almost certainly center around their ability to give concrete shape to our memories and imaginings of the storyworld, creating an environment we can wander through and interact with,” again according to Jenkins. These boundaries can also be disrupted within games themselves; for example, The Stanley Parable combines the rigid path structures of a choose-your-own-adventure book, the panoptic gaze of an omniscient narrator, and the illusion of freedom of an RPG to create an incredibly witty and insightful commentary on traditional video game tropes as well as remarkably self-aware commentary on choice and authority.

All of these modes of interaction prove that video games as an art form and video games as a product are not two distinct realms. By extension, it cannot be assumed that Big Data will cheapen the artistic depth of video games and reduce them to empty pieces of entertainment because they are fundamentally intertwined. The future of these games will see innovation and experimentation just as much as response consumer feedback—often in the same places—and we must embrace this interplay to allow their full creative potential to be realized.  In Jenkins’ words, “there is not one future of games. The goal should be to foster diversification of genres, aesthetics, and audiences, to open gamers to the broadest possible range of experiences.”

There is an evident paradox between the necessity of both chaos and regulation on the Internet. According to me, this is the quintessential limit of participatory democracy and this is precisely what representative democracy was made for: to curb the spread of pernicious ideas that don’t serve the common good. It is even more complicated with the Internet because it was build upon chaos, it is part of his DNA (cf. “hacker ethic”). And, more importantly, this “public space” is no longer governed by states, but by companies that provide Internet access or services. Rancière’s “paradox of democracy” doesn’t really apply to Youtube or Facebook because regulation is not handled by governments but by private entities that were not chosen by the people. Queer politics is definitely an interesting reaction to that (see the “free the nipple” movement on Twitter).

Alex Garland’s new film Ex Machina provides a really interesting view of search engines/big data analysis as capture. Through analysis of the data collected of search engine usage habits, the film describes how the CEO of a monopoly of a search engine constructed a grammar of human action. These grammars helped him construct norms and expectations through which he programmed an artificial intelligence indistinguishable in many ways from human beings. The normative function of capture helped him construct a subject upon which he could call and with which people could interact. The AI’s model of the world is entirely based on probabilistic correlations based on data and the decisions made by her (and her software) were motivated interestingly in a way that contradicted her programmer’s intentions.

Massive scale debates happen regularly between copyright holders and fans producing fan work and the line between official and paid for work and fan/community contributions is continuously blurring. Consider sites like the Huffington Post or Buzzfeed where community contributors can write and publish content that is virtually indistinguishable from content created by paid writers.

Sites like Television Without Pity focuses on showcasing television criticism from both paid writers and from community contributors who discuss their views and analysis in forums and comments. The balance of quantity of content produced is shifted heavily towards unpaid contributors, which is entirely what Television Without Pity wants- it plays into heavy customization/personalization, the trending logic of digital era marketing.

People who post snarky and ironic commentary on TWoP voluntarily build a better television-viewing experience for themselves and other viewers who share their savvy sensibilities, thus reinforcing and deepening their participation in television’s commercial enterprise—becoming better consumers (of whatever television advertisers promote to them) in the process of becoming skilled producers.

 

what makes karen carpenter such a cult classic other than its obvious production direction?

will all our quantifiable data about our personal lives exist as big data at some point in the future?

will all new media technology utilise participation instead of a simple interface in the future?

If Software and Digital Media are eating the world, then Big Data are the molars chewing through it. “Big Data” in Data Science refers to analyzing and processing enormously large data sets captured by computers by using complex algorithms, or “things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more,” (Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier, 6).

In the following paper, I argue that Big Data puts video games as an artform into crisis. I argue that although Big Data offers the promise of clear and new insights into society, Big Data threatens the future Video Games by offering a huge intellectual and financial incentive for developers to prioritize offering incremental improvements on current video games, rather than taking risks to experiment and innovate video games’ “narrative architecture”. And despite the progress in video games since the advent of these newly developed analytical capabilities, Big Data threatens the evolution as video games as an artistic medium.

In Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Jenkins claims that “there is no one future of games” (Jenkins, 2). Jenkins argues that games are an “emerging medium”, comprised of “spaces ripe with narrative possibility,” and that, “the goal should be to foster diversification of genres, aesthetics, and audiences, to open gamers to the broadest range of experiences” (Jenkins, 1). He describes numerous ways that games have a huge potential to be a new space–a new medium of art–for creators to conceive of new means of building worlds and stories that are enacted, embedded, and spontaneously emerge, which he calls “narrative architecture”. Jenkins claims that these new, innovative forms of “narrative architecture”, have the potential to change the way we experience the very notion of play and narrative.

However, although games have the potential to be incredible spaces for artistic innovation in narratology, I claim they are historically, and inherently dependent on capitalism. For example, in class, we had the opportunity to play what many argue are the two most disruptive, pioneering video games in “narrative architecture” developed for the public in the past century. One was Myst, a graphic, adventure, puzzle, RPG video game. The other was Doom, which many say was the origin of the first person shooter genre, also was one of the first three-dimensional graphics games. And while both of these games represented huge shifts in the narrative architecture of popular games, it’s important to remember that these games that they were developed in commercial contexts. Myst was the best selling game of the 21st century. And since its debut, 10 million copies of Doom have been sold. Some of the most influential and “game-changing” (excuse the pun) examples of narrative architecture in the Digital Age have been created for commercial purposes. And for good reason–video games are incredibly expensive to make. In the past 10 years, the cost of developing a single video game has increased from an average of $1-4 million in 2000 to $20 million in 2010 because of increasing competition and technological advances that have skyrocketed production costs in the industry.

As Digital Media has become pervasive in society, an application of Big Data—Predictive Analytics—has increasingly been embraced by the private sector to, essentially, foresee events before they happen. These predictions are based on variables and correlations–“or the quantification of the statistical relationship between two data values”. For example, “an algorithm that can spot a hit song, which is commonly used in the music industry to give recording labels a better idea of where to place their bets” (58).

In class, we discussed that Big Data’s rise is representative of society emphasizing, increasingly, value on the “what” as opposed to the “why”. Mayer-Schonberger and Cuckier argue that, “correlations show what, not why, but as we have seen, knowing what is often good enough…these non causal analyses will aid our understanding of the world by primarily asking what rather than why…” and, “causality won’t be discarded, but it is being knocked off its pedestal as the primary foundation of meaning. Big Data turbocharges non-causal analyses, often replacing causal investigations” (68). In other words: society is changing, and Big Data and correlation are progressively becoming the primary ways in which we think about the world. High quality data is unnecessary if we have access to big quantity data. The qualitative is replacing the quantitative. The importance of “why” is giving way to the prominence of “what”.

And it is this shift in values–a large part due to Big Data–that I argue puts video games into crisis. We will increasingly see videogames focus on the “what” as opposed to the “why”. In the past year, the most popular video games (in order) were Titanfall, Call of Duty: Ghosts, NBA 2K14, and the Lego Movie video game. And compared to Myst and Doom of the 21st century, these commercial games are hopelessly populist and incredibly uninventive. Two of these games are franchises, one of them is a franchised game from a film, and the last is a first person shooter game. For the past several years, innovation has been primarily defined by incremental improvements in graphics and features, as opposed to substantial shifts in the narrative architecture of video games. In other words, the most popular way of escaping the ordinariness of everyday life and exploring the frontiers of the human imagination is to play video games defined by convention.

I claim that a large reason why is because of our shift toward trusting the insights of Big Data over the inspiration of ourselves. Big Data allows game publishers to mine their customers’ data, and tell their developers to churn out new games based on with quantitatively informed recommendations. Game developers who used to run creative studios are now being increasingly coerced into turning a profit and using their creativity to industrially manufacture narrative architecture. Furthermore, I predict that the video games will increasingly mimic the transformation of other creative arts into industries like music and movies. Just as there are pop songs and indie songs, independent films and movie franchises–we will increasingly see pop video games influenced by customer data, and independent video games influenced by experimental aspirations. And just as movie studios run test screenings of movies and musicians use algorithms to help produce songs–video game developers will increasingly use Big Data as an authority on customers desires that will determine content.

However the future of video games won’t necessarily be totally dystopian–just as we’ve seen an increasing popularization and datafication of video games, there has been a developing and increasingly flourishing movement of artistically oriented and independently developed video games that challenge larger systems of control. For example, indie games like Dys4ia, Journey, and To The Moon are helping redefine how we think about the potential of games as an artform. Additionally, new mediums for videogames themselves—like Oculus VR and Bounden—are introducing increasingly interactive elements into gameplay that will increasingly challenge our conceptions of reality and gamespace. In other words, despite the increasing tendency for game developers to succumb to data-driven approaches to game development, these new innovative indie gamers might save games as a medium.

In sum, although video games have the potential to challenge us with their narrative architecture, Big Data threatens this possibility by enticing developers to create by data. And despite the progress of indie video games, I claim society, as a whole, is moving toward larger systems of control through our newly developed analytical capabilities. Perhaps Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier said it best; “As the world shifts from causation to correlation, how can we pragmatically move forward without undermining the very foundations of society, humanity, and progress based on reason [and creativity]?”

Works Cited

Mayer­Schönberger, Viktor, and Kenneth Cukier. “1: NOW” + “4: CORRELATION,” BigData: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 1­18 + 50­72

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”,1-15.

 

Blog Links In Conversation With This Piece

http://blogs.brown.edu/mcm-0230-s01/2015/04/02/games-games-games/

http://blogs.brown.edu/mcm-0230-s01/2015/04/03/embedded-narratives-in-modern-games

Here’s a link to my final assignment for anybody who’s curious.