Conferences, Life Writing, Research Creation/Critical Media

RCADE 2019 Talk: Reflections on Critical Media Lab’s CAFKA 2018 ‘Digital Rituals’

Below is a brief ~10 minute talk that I presented at RCADE 2019 at Rutgers-Camden in Camden, NJ as part of a panel called “Infrastructures and Rituals of Trash.” I presented alongside Lai-Tze Fan, Meg Honsberger, and Jason Lajoie. The talk reflected on the Critical Media Lab’s Digital Rituals exhibit that was featured at CAFKA 2018. I blogged about here. And you can read more about it over here and view the computer-generated obits here.

 


 

As part of the 2018 CAFKA arts festival in June, the Critical Media Lab ran an interactive exhibit called Digital Rituals. If Lai-Tze’s E-Waste Peep Showfocuses on what happens to e-waste after it has been traded in, Digital Ritualsfocuses on the trade-in and re-contextualizes that process as a ritual. Exchanging a phone is certainly a practice, a routinized activity encouraged and proliferated by planned obsolescence; but it’s a practice that shies away from being ritualized: it’s a practice that hides itself. Among the criteria of rituals outlined by Ronald Grimes in The Craft of Ritual Studies,Digital Ritualsfocused on ritualizing the trade-in through a series of reflective, celebrative, and stylized actions performed by ourselves and by the participants. Organized by Marcel O’Gorman, Meg Honsberger, Jason Lajoie, Julie Funk, Andy Myles, Matt Frazer, and myself, Digital Rituals was a funeral home and service for dead cell phones.  We asked participants to bring in a dead cell phone that had not been traded in. During the in-take, we welcomed participants, offered them our condolences, and then took them through the necessary steps of the funeral process: we took the name of the phone,   took a picture of the phone in a 3D-printed coffin,  created a computer-generated obituary from information about the phone, created a 3D-printed memorialization model, and then said a few words at a garden grave site outside with the 3D models glued to a marble slab. We had promised that we would send the phones to an e-waste disposal, but, curiously, we all kept them for some later unknown project.

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Digital Rituals wasn’t as successful as we hoped. We only had a few participants attend, and even fewer were willing to give up an older phone of theirs. Yet, the few interactions I did have while running the exhibit made me interested in the autobiographical narratives from participants that emerged throughout the funeral home in-take, whether it be from those who gave up their phones or from those who refused to give their phones to us. I became particularly interested in the unexplained reasoning of keeping a phone whose data can no longer can be accessed: Why do some of us keep the phones we keep? What purpose do they serve, especially after the fact that certain materials can no longer power the phones or the data from those phones are uploaded to a computer or transferred to the next phone? Referring to museums that collect and show old technology, Jennifer Gabrys argues that “Electronic memories…give rise to specific modes of electronic waste” (Gabrys 105). But I am thinking of the new modes of electronic “waste” within the home, how they act as a kind of archive or materials waiting to be  archived. To flip Gabrys’s quote around, I found Digital Ritualsto be focused on the specific forms of electronic waste that give rise to specific modes of memory and autobiographical telling.

The autobiographical narratives and disclosures that emerged in Digital Ritualsreflected on their usage of the phone, how they carried it, specific memories and individuals associated with the phone, and how they modded it, if the type of phone afforded this. These narratives reminded me of Anna Poletti’s concept of the “archive of play,” a concept that I keep on returning to for autobiographical narratives or disclosures around media and media consumption practices. I want to quote Poletti at length because there is nuance to the quote worth quoting in full. Poletti writes,

“In referring to “the archive of play,” I here describe the materials produced and left behind by the activity of playing…[which result in] a rich resource for self-representation and life narrative…The materials, and the archive itself, may or may not be cherished by the autobiographer. The archive of play may not be valued or recognized as an archive. Many, one suspects, are thrown away during spring cleaning or the purges of objects that regularly occur in societies with high levels of consumption. Where such archives do persist, they may constitute the flotsam of a previous life that is stored in out of the way places and rarely accessed, or stored by members of one’s family or childhood friends. The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated.” (Poletti 113-14)

The “archive of play” opens up auto/biographical material to trash, clutter, digital clutter, and e-waste stored in boxes, material that is never intentionally to be autobiographical but simply generated from play or general use. Everyday uses of phones produce material traces, and the phone itself is a material trace of a specific moment in an individual’s life. Significantly, the material generated from play and use are not always recognized as autobiographical and may never be cherished by the individual, but rather left undisturbed, hidden away in some box in some cupboard, or traded in and forgotten. But that archive of material becomes of value “once an autobiographical project is initiated” by the individual or by others.

For those few participants in Digital Rituals, the process of picking out a phone to hand over to us initiated an autobiographical project, even if the individual ended up keeping the phone. Digital Rituals itself was not an autobiographical project, at least not intentionally so. But I am intrigued by how it was unintentionally an autobiographical project, and how the project resonates with certain ways in thinking about our relation to e-waste and the personal relationship we have with our phones. One participant shared a disclosure about their customized blue casing of their Blackberry curve: she remembers ordering the part, and how it reminded her of a friendship they had during high school and the early beginning of a new relationship. Another participant shared at great length their experience with their first phone: how novel it was to always carry a phone around with you, but that they wore their phone around their neck because it was too bulky to fit in their pocket. Others could tell you exactly where each scratch came from or how their phone shattered, eulogizing the last moments that they had with their phone. These few narratives highlight a specific trend: the autobiographical material that was recalled did not refer to the data and content on the phone; instead, they mention the material components, peripherals, or markings that signal a specific life narrative or disclosure. Some even referred to the functionality of the phone: a collective reflection on the purported newness of a specific phone, such as the Sidekick, or how certain users would develop strategies to get around a broken button or trackball. These disclosures and narratives drew attention to why some people, including myself, kept a phone when the data could be transferred to another. It wasn’t really the data on these phones that coaxed life narratives but rather the material components, peripherals, and functionality that coaxed these narratives, especially as participants tossed and turned the phones in their hands during the in-take.

To wrap things up and pass it over to Meg, I’d just like to conclude with the observation that the autobiographical disclosures and narratives of Digital Rituals that emerged reminded me, and some of us at the Critical Media Lab, of Marie Kondo’s Netflix series, Tidying Up. While different ritualized actions, both Digital Rituals and Tidying Up ask individuals to reflect on their phone and/objects through a series of reflective actions. There is also, as Kylie Cardell argues, an autobiographical aspect to Kondo’s concept of sparking joy. Cardell writes that sparking joy “provides an opportunity for self-conscious as well as discursive constructions of the self as part of a process of editing and crafting a deliberate, intentional representation” (Cardell 500). Whether participants said goodbye to their phones or kept them, Digital Rituals made participants reflect on and conscious of the autobiographical value of their domestic e-waste sites. The personal collections of dead cell phones are an archive that is, to borrow a phrase from Gabrys, “more akin to a disorderly waste site” (Gabrys 119). Yet,these saved electronics stored in boxes have autobiographical potential, and the act of saving these cell phones are an autobiographical act. In the disorderly waste site of my domestic collection of phones, hidden from sight, tucked away in drawers and boxes stuffed in closets, are traces of my life; that collection is is an articulation of my personality, memories of the past, and records of “new media.” While Digital Rituals stumbled into having participants interpret and narrate the autobiographical material surrounding their dead phones, the installation drew attention to the disorderly waste site of dead cell phones within the home that serve as literal artifacts that tell a life trace.

Life Writing, Research Creation/Critical Media

Biographies of Phones, a personal history

Today’s blog post is going to be a brief one – exactly one 30m pom – because I have some marking, and I’m about to come into a huge wave of marking from the TA job and a grading job I picked up. So, I’d like to fit in some article writing as much as I can this week. But I also have to start working on the thing that this blog post is about: the biographies of the phones that are kept and never thrown away, or the personal histories one has with the various phones of our past.

This topic is, more or less, what I will be presenting at RCADE this year in April. And the presentation paper comes from and is about my time co-running the “Digital Rituals” CAFKA exhibit with fellow Critical Media Lab colleagues. Together, we created a funeral-home like space in which we would receive participants’ old cell phones that they would like to get rid of. From the appointment, we would take down certain information, generate a computer-generated obituary, create 3D printed miniatures of the participant’s phone that were placed on a marble slab outside in our garden, and then hold a brief ceremony bidding fair well to the phone. You can read some of the obituaries here.

The obituaries are what attracted me the most, but not the ones posted on the website. While I did enjoy the playfulness of the computer-generated obits, I was more interested in the stories that were shared when a participant came in and gave up their phone. While we did not receive that many participants (due to numerous circumstances), the few people who did would tell their memories of their phone, fiddling with the phone in their hands; putting it down, picking it back up; if it was a flip phone, they would open and close it, move their hands/fingers across it, recalling the muscle memory that came with operating the phone. I loved these stories. Equally, there were some who refused to give up their phone, but still shared a story or at least noted that they are saving it for personal reasons.

And while we intended to submit these phones to an e-waste company, we held onto the phones for personal reasons (or at least I still think that is the case – now that the CML has moved to its new location, I’m unsure if those items were saved).

So, my proposed talk is focused on the stories that were told within that exhibit. Few sources, but I will be building off of those sources because they got me thinking through Anna Poleitti’s “archive of play,” a concept that I really like and keep on returning to. I may have written about this before – it’s a concept in my upcoming article on Cibele, and it makes an appearance in my Game Boy Camera article that just got submitted – but here’s an excerpt:

In referring to “the archive of play,” I here describe the materials produced and left behind by the activity of playing. Of course, not all play produces a material trace. That play that does, however, results in material that is…a rich resource for self-representation and life narrative. Materials in the archive of play are diverse and can include: stories, hand-drawn and digitally produced illustrations, letters, videos, photographs, puppets, costumes, collage, and automatic writing. Indeed, the kinds of materials in any individual’s archive of play is themselves informative and of interest, as I will discuss later. The materials, and the archive itself, may or may not be cherished by the autobiographer. The archive of play may not be valued or recognized as an archive. Many, one suspects, are thrown away during spring cleaning or the purges of objects that regularly occur in societies with high levels of consumption. Where such archives do persist, they may constitute the flotsam of a previous life that is stored in out of the way places and rarely accessed, or stored by members of one’s family or childhood friends. The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated (“Autobiography and Play” 113-4)

Excuse the lengthy quote, but I think it’s worth it for the nuance here. The reason why I like “the archive of play” so much is that it opens up what can be auto/biographical material. I love that material generated from play (and, use in general, perhaps?) is not always recognized as archive and may never be, and that it may or may not be cherished by the individual. But that material, that archive, becomes of value “once an auto[/]biographical project is initiated” by the individual or by others. For those few participants in “Digital Rituals,” the process of picking out a phone to hand over to us initiated an auto/biographical project. Perhaps “project” is too strong, too big of a word to describe those disclosures or brief narratives. But it was our project that initiated those disclosures from the participants and from ourselves. One participated shared a disclosure of their customized blue casing of their Blackberry curve, how it reminded them of a friendship. Another participant discussed how they wore their phone around their neck because it was too bulky in their pocket. Others could tell you where each scratch came from or how their phone shattered.

When I upgrade to a new phone, I don’t think of my previous phone too much as an archive, just as I don’t think of my Game Boy Camera as an archive. Only when the thought of throwing the phone(s) out, then I think of it has an archive, of archive I need to keep – there are pictures that weren’t uploaded, voice recordings of song fragments, notes taken from who knows where that aren’t uploaded, etc. Some of it is trivial, may not be of any worth. But it doesn’t have to be.

The timer has gone off, my pom is over. But in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be re-reading Poleitti’s article and a couple more that may help with some theoretical backing to this presentation.

Life Writing

Pocketed idea: Conversations w/ ppl who @ me

It’s the last week of classes for the term. Actually, at the moment of writing this, it’s the last day of classes. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been caught in marking, writing, reading, and applying for jobs. Looking back on the whirlwind of this semester – including finishing the PhD and successfully defending – I am surprised by the writing I nearly constantly kept up while teaching two courses. It was a bit of a challenge because it was something new, but it’s been a useful exercise of maintaining a teaching and research workload balance, and maintaining a work/life balance.

Throughout the term, I have been focusing on two papers – one that I am co-writing, and the other one being my Game Boy Camera paper that I am developing from my RCADE talk. Both papers are in the “let’s do one more round of research to make sure no glaring omissions are made” before editing and shaping it to be ready for submission. And I feel good about where those papers are.

But I have also had “pocketed ideas” – ideas that I really liked and am really excited to write, but can’t. Instead, I am slowly collecting secondary sources and reading here and there. And I thought it’d be a good exercise to write out this idea, as the blog, for me, has always been a good writing exercise of thinking through fresh and new ideas.

So, here’s one: the podcast, Conversations with People Who Hate Me by Dylan Marron and its auto/biographical coaxing.

Since it’s beginnings, I’ve been really interested in Marron’s podcast. If you’re not familiar with the podcast, the basic premise is that Marron calls people who have left “hateful” comments on any of his online material, which is left-leaning. In the second season of the podcast, he has been moderating calls between two people, where one person received a hateful comment on any of their online content or are people who Marron knows has opposing views on a particular subject. Despite the majority of the callers being right leaning, or, in the case of moderating, politically right and left, Marron has had discussions with left-leaning individuals that have critiqued his work, or moderated two left-leaning individuals who had different opinions on a particular political matter.

It’s been fascinating to listen to Marron have and moderate these discussions. And as I was preparing my Digital Lives and Introduction to Academic Writing classes, I thought this podcast would be a good example of auto/biographical coaxing.

This idea didn’t come right away – I just really liked the podcast, and threw it on the syllabus under the week of Online Affect (and for Intro to AW, I made it a last minute optional listen for a unit on digital rhetoric). But when I listened to the episodes a second time before teaching it, I noticed how big of a role life narratives or disclosures were in all of the discussions and in Marron’s moderation.

For Marron, it becomes easier to have certain discussions or see the other person’s viewpoint (and for the other person to see his viewpoint) by coaxing and telling a life narrative or disclosure. While he doesn’t say this outright, you can listen to how he develops certain coaxing strategies throughout the podcast, and that he sometimes tells similar life narratives in response to certain claims the other person makes.

In my Digital Lives class, we discussed how the life narratives/disclosures allowed for certain abstract arguments (whether by Marron or by the caller) to be grounded in real life experiences. While not changing someone’s perspective, there are moments of empathy and connection between people on the podcast.

In fact, “empathy” was part of a tagline for Marron’s show – not necessarily said in the show, but were stickers in the merch store that said “Empathy is not an endorsement” (which are, upon checking, no longer there – but he does mention this these stickers on his show a couple of times!).  Marron states in the beginning of the first couple of episodes that his aim isn’t to change people’s minds, find common ground, or critique the other caller, but rather to help both of them understand why they wrote that hateful comment.

Now the “hate” in this title has received some critique, to the point that Marron is considering renaming the podcast. His callers claim that they don’t hate Marron, they just wrote a hateful thing that they are sorry for. And the “hate” doesn’t have Marron engaging with hate groups of any sort. Still, we did discuss in the class how “hate” can be a flattening  of someone to a stereotype and/or a depersonalization/distancing process, and thus making it much easier to write hateful messages. In particular, we discussed the “hate” in the title of the podcast in relation to Ahmed’s quote on the circulation of hate. Ahmed writes, “The impossibility of reducing hate to a particular body allows hate to circulate…[and] justifies the repetition of violence against the bodies of others” (Ahmed, “Affective Economies, 123). For many of the callers, they never thought Marron would even see their comment.

The coaxing and telling of life narratives/disclosures in Conversations with People Who Hate Me make possible the reduction of a hateful action to be reduced to a particular body in the hopes of halting that circulation of hate and confronting hateful actions. Or at least, I’m playing with that idea. The podcast and the significant role coaxing plays is an interesting idea to consider, especially in relation to the Change My Mind memes and youtube series (spoiler: he, and whomever says this, doesn’t really want their mind changed). But this is an idea I may exploring next term!

And now I am off to do some marking and reading before I conclude my final class. Cheers!

 

Games, Life Writing

The Final Automedia Game Club Meeting

Last Thursday, our automedia game club met for our final meeting. For this meeting, we just decided to talk about anything related to automedia games or auto/biography theory, or anything that was not on our list. It was a really illuminating and great discussion.

The original schedule did have a specific game, of which we briefly discussed: Sean Han Tani’s All Our Asias. Although the game is not described as auto/biographical, it was described as a “deeply personal game” in a Waypoint interview with Sean Han Tani and Danielle Riendeau. So, we discussed how to analyze games that incorporate possible auto/biographical content in a fictional game. Or, specifically to All Our Asias, the role of memory in constructing a life narrative. But mostly we talked about the PS1 visuals that are used, that really communicated the abstract fuzzy content of memories and how these very abstract visuals resonated with the general title of “All Our Asias.” If the game is a “deeply personal game,” there was some creative distance in the abstraction and fictionalizing of the personal content so that it would connect to other Asian American experiences.

A group member then brought our attention to an article written by Kawika Guillermo called “Can You Live A Video Game? Autobiography and Living the Author in Video Games.” In that article, Kawika writes,

As Robert Yang said, “no one makes personal games,” and it’s not difficult to see why. First, the gaming player-base is international, so the political implications of telling “identity stories” would have totally different meanings to non-American players, and may cause the game to look provincial.

While not explicit, Kawika points out that “personal” or “identity” stories may not be accepted or be misconstrued by other players. They will be dismissed as “not a game.” Yeah, that bullshit. Or, in the case of That Dragon, Cancer, people criticized the creators for “profiting” off of the passing of the creators’ child.  Kawika goes on to describe that his experience playing automedia games is characterized by frustration.

The article made us think about the autobiographical pact for games. The pact, as it is understood in a/b studies, is an agreement between the reader and author that the name on the cover of the autobiography is the same as the character in the novel. It’s a pact that establishes it’s truth claims and that the life narrative is an auto/biographical narrative. Usually, the reader is the one that has to be convinced. But other than a few scandals (such as the James Frey A Million Little Pieces controversy) or some playful blurring what is real and not real in life narrative by the author, readers accept the truth claims “until proven guilty.” This is a wide generalization but it led us to this point: for games, the autobiographical pact is tricky and precarious because the toxic culture around games don’t want personal games or don’t believes games should be or can be personal. They refuse to accept the pact and might (but not always) refuse to play the game or acknowledge the games’ truth claims. Or the game becomes a target for hate campaigns. So although Robert Yang says “no one makes personal games,” people do. Yet, he points to the larger risk of making personal, auto/biographical games, especially for marginalized devs. The discussion made reconsider the autobiographical pact and how I understand it working in games.

We then looked at Lizzie Stark’s post “Designing Autobiographical Games.” Her focus was on designing auto/biographical LARPs (Live Action Role Playing). None of us have participated in LARPs, but we discussed the possibility of table-top RPGs and how tricky it is to tell a life narrative when players have so much more agency. We scrolled through the rules of the game, and it was a lot to absorb so we didn’t chat much about it other than sharing Stark’s rules for her auto/biographical games.

And that concluded our meeting and the summer club. It’s sad that it has to end, but with a looming defence date, two courses to teach, and some papers to work on, I’ve got my hands full for the next coming months. But it’s something I’d like to do again simply because it’s just good to chat out scholarly stuff in an informal non-academicy way/setting. Despite some academic talk, our conversations were mostly about our experiences playing the game and our thoughts on the life narratives and how they were told through the medium of games. And those conversations were highly informative for my thought processes and academic tinkering with automedia games.

 

Games, Life Writing

Automedia Club pt2: The Archive of Play

Last week, my local automedia game club met together and we discussed Nina Freeman’s Cibele and Davy Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide. Both are very different automedia games, and whether or not the The Beginner’s Guide is an automedia is debatable (still, it employs biographical and autobiographical writing).

The “theme” that ties these games together is “the archive of play.” The concept comes from Anna Poleitti’s essay “Autobiography and Play: A Conversation with my 12-year old self.” She defines the “archive of play” as “the materials produced and left behind by the activity of playing” (113). She elaborates,

Of course, not all play produces a material trace. That play that does, however, results in material that is…a rich resource for self-representation and life narrative. Materials in the archive of play are diverse and can include: stories, hand-drawn and digitally produced illustrations, letters, videos, photographs, puppets, costumes, collage, and automatic writing…The materials, and the archive itself, may or may not be cherished by the autobiographer. The archive of play may not be valued or recognized as an archive. Many, one suspects, are thrown away during spring cleaning or the purges of objects that regularly occur in societies with high levels of consumption. Where such archives do persist, they may constitute the flotsam of a previous life that is stored in out of the way places and rarely accessed, or stored by members of one’s family or childhood friends. The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated…In some cases, the archive itself demands remediation or engagement in the contemporary moment, as I will explore in the examples of “A Conversation With My 12 Year Old Self” and the auto/biographical film Tarnation (Caouette 2003). (113-14)

Poleitti’s focus is on film, and the “play” that she refers to seems to refer to childhood play or, as she puts it, materials produced by play. Cibele and The Beginner’s Guide are two games that I (and later, the group) felt really spoke to this concept, especially the line “The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated.” Documents in Cibele are taken from Freeman’s hard drive, and the premise of The Beginner’s Guide is that Wreden is taking you, the player, through old games that were made by “Coda.”

While these games certainly contain a archive of sorts or an archive of play, as described by Poletti, the group discussed our play. In both cases, the archive is remediated, but it is also designed for players to play with it in a certain way.

We discussed how Cibele just kinda dropped you into the game and you let you play with the folders of fan art, chat logs, poetry, blog posts, and photos (majority of which are selfies). The archive is remediated but as an archive? (as opposed to The Beginner’s Guides guided narration; there is still a narrative throughout Cibele, but there is more player agency to explore). So, in Cibele, the autobiographical narrative is generated through the player’s play; the more the player plays with the files, the more of the narrative arc about Nina’s coming of age is disclosed. While Poleitti’s concept focuses on the author’s play (both in past and in present, I think), we discussed how the player’s play shaped the narrative of Cibele.

This play is not only in the exploration of documents, we noted, but also in the MMO game-within-the-game. We liked that the conversations between Nina and Blake didn’t occur/continue unless you fought with each other (although we also talked about how these conversations were awkward and cringe-y – that is, Blake’s come-ons were very cringe-y). It took some of us a little too long to figure this out, and how this may speak to our play styles in MMOs that doesn’t put the social as something primary but secondary. We also talked about the stripped down mechanics of the MMO. In a Designer Notes podcast that features Freeman, she mentions how she had much more mechanics in the MMO section of Cibele, but stripped these mechanics down to emphasize the social experiences of MMOs and how integral they were to her identity work. This decision, we found, further added upon making the social interactions of MMOs primary rather than secondary.

In The Beginner’s Guide, the player’s play doesn’t really shape the narrative. There is some exploration, but it is guided and there is not much additional narrative generated through playing around in these spaces. It becomes even more suspect when you find out that Wreden has been altering Coda’s games to fit the life narrative that he wants to write about Coda. (I will note that one group member noted that Cibele felt way more voyeuristic thank TBG, primarily because of the desktop and the selfies and the intimate photos that Nina shares with Blake, her romantic interest in the game).

But the ending of TBG seemed too fabricated. While there has been some controversy of the ethics of TBG since Wreden has compiled Coda’s games into this narrative without Coda’s consent, it is unclear who Coda might be and the group has some theories: 1) The Beginner’s Guide is mostly fictional, including Codaand the game might be a critique of fans and critics imposing meanings on Wreden’s games. 2) Wreden is Coda; or rather, Coda is a part of Wreden, and the games are made up: The narrator Wreden represents the part of Davy Wreden who enjoys success and wants to make his games public and wants to engage with the public; Coda represents  the part of Davy Wreden who does not enjoy the success, doesn’t want the public attention, or wants to make games for people but for himself. 3) Same as 2 theory but also adding that the games that we play through are actually from Davy Wreden’s own computer. 4) Coda is actually real and the game is about that toxic relationship, but perhaps the ending is a bit fabricated.

I think we all really liked 3) because it seemed to make the most sense. And it’s not unusual for an auto/biography to contain fictional elements or some kind of “fictional prop” to tell an autobiographical narrative. And perhaps there are elements of 1) and 4) in there: that the ethical implications of the game draws attention to the unethical engagements Davy Wreden has experienced?

We threw our hands up in there air and called it a day.

But wait! there was one more theme that emerged out of our conversations: games as a backdrop of or as a site for identity work. In Cibele, the MMO is integral not only to Nina’s identity formation but also the formation of her relationship with Blake. One member really enjoyed how the game communicates the importance of games in one’s life (there are also blog posts that refer to Final Fantasy X/X2 in this capacity). In TBG, games literally are seen not only as a place of identity work but as something that can be read to reveal a narrative of someone. Although the game questions and critiques this approach, it still uses games to communicate life experiences.

This theme that popped up also made us briefly talk about Path Out, how there is a subtle moment that draws attention to Abdullah’s attachment to games. While it may seem obvious that the choice of having an autobiographical narrative told within a game is motivated by the fact that the autobiographer has an attachment to games, it’s not like every literary autobiographer mentions their attachment to books. Rather, it becomes particularly significant in how the autobiographer representations this attachment to books or to games. So, it might be something to consider when other games include games-within-games or refer to games within their automedia game!

And that about wraps our discussion last week. While our discussions don’t directly speak to Poleitti’s concept of the “archive of play,” I think we talked about the concept in a way that builds upon it to include the play of the player in games. I really liked this concept, and I think it can be useful in games studies, especially in regard to automedia games.

 

Games, Life Writing

First Automedia Game Club Meet-up: Path Out and Dys4ia

For this summer, I have organized a local “game club” that focuses on autobiographical – or automedia, as I prefer – games: games that tells a life narrative or disclosure about the developer’s self and/or others. The organization of the club reflects my current interest in digital life writing and automedia games. The size of the group is about 7, although people will come and go as they please. We meet once a month, trying to play at least 2 games per month. Following each meeting, I will write a brief summary of our discussions here our blog. While the group is mostly composed of academics, the discussions won’t necessarily veer that way.

 Last week was our first meeting to discuss Path Out and Dys4ia. In the beginning of the meeting, we discussed the term automedia, as defined by Julie Rak, and how it is a useful term to characterize autobiographical texts that are composed of a range of media. The term is especially pertinent to Path Out, one member pointed out, because the game includes 16-bit graphics and live, Twitch stream-y video throughout the game play.

The highlights of our Path Out discussion was the game’s interruptions of live video and its critiques of Western games and game design. Path Out is described as a “autobiographical adventure game” and it tells a life narrative of a Syrian refugee, Abdullah Karam, and his escape from Syria. The game begins with you controlling a sprite navigating through a forest. Eventually, you are caught and are killed. At that moment, Karam appears in the upper left corner of the screen in a style that is reminiscent of Twitch streams (thanks to an acute observation from a group member) and says to you, the player, “if you did this in real life, you wouldn’t survive.” We really liked this reminder that despite the game allowing the player to retry certain areas, Karam never had that chance. It was a nice way to begin an automedia game, emphasizing that this game is trying to tell a life (in a similar but different manner than Dys4ia‘s opening disclaimer).

Throughout the rest of Path Out Karam interrupts the game to critique the design of the game. He comments that the city he grew up in doesn’t look like the one depicted in the game, that the game’s depictions are clearly very Western. There’s also a time where a camel is in the streets, and when the player goes up to the camel, Karam appears and says, “Guys, really?!”, comments how the game is caught up in Western ideology, and then the camel disappears when Karam requests it. We really found this subversion interesting, establishing since Karam is collaborating with a developer – Karam is only the writer of Path Out.

What transitioned our discussion from Path Out to Dys4ia is our realization that we experienced the game slightly differently. Turns out there are different paths out in Path Out. I had experienced a version where Karam comes onto the screen to say that what is currently happen didn’t happen to him but happen to others; another member didn’t get that section or any video of that kind. So, despite Path Out being a game about Karam’s experiences, it also seems to be aiming for telling the experiences of others (which is classic relationality in autobiography studies!).

In contrast, Dys4ia makes it clear that it is own the experiences of Anna Anthropy, the author of the game. Dys4ia is about Anthropy’s experiences with Hormone Replacement Therapy. Anathropy makes it very clear in the disclaimer at the beginning of the game that the experiences depicted in the game are “my experience” and “is not meant to be representative of every trans person.” We discussed how this, like the video used in Path Out, establishes the autobiographical pact, a term in autobiography studies that defines the moment when the reader “accepts” that the story being told is true (more or less). For us, we found it interesting that Anthropy makes it clear that the experiences expressed in the game are not representative of any other trans person, but Path Out seems to incorporate others’ experiences when telling Karam’s. There are definitely reasons behind these choices, but we didn’t get too much into detail – just discussing that making this choice is one to critically analyze.

Playing Dys4ia, we enjoyed the mechanics behind the game that were connected to communicating Anathropy’s experiences with Hormone Replacement therapy. With Path Out, which was like an RPG, we couldn’t quite see how the mechanics were connected to Karam’s experiences or exactly why an RPG (the game is admittedly only one chapter finished). One member pointed out that, despite being limited to the arrow keys, the movements in Dys4ia were sometimes disorienting, and felt that this disorientation was intentional, a point I really like. We were particularly surprised when we decided to play the game together and realized that near the end of the game this series of sequences happen in the final act: at one point, you play a mini game like Breakout (or Brick Breaker for you Blackberry fans) that ends once you make a hole through out the wall, and later on in the final act, right before the ending of the game, there is a quickly changing tetris shape that heads towards the hole that you made. The hole that the player can make can be different each time – we tried it, and it worked. So, really liked this ending because although the experiences in the game are Anthropy’s experiences, this ending gestures to players who may be going through similar experiences. Thus, we found the final act’s title, “It Gets Better?” to be fitting because it reflects the #ItGetsBetter  project that started in 2010 (Dys4ia came out in 2012).

And that sums up our first discussion! Most of this is from memory and few notes jotted down after the meeting, so I’ll try to be less rambling next time. Thanks for reading!

Games, Life Writing

Upcoming: Autobiographical Game Club

In the fall term last year, I proposed an autobiographical game club (like a book club but with games). But because it was the fall term and because I hadn’t really given a list of what we’d be playing/reading, it never materialized.

However, this summer, I’ve decided to re-attempt the Autobiographical game club and I’ve gotten a lot of interest. The club will be starting in June just following my CGSA presentation in Regina on May 31st, and it will be a local one (in Kitchener-Waterloo). However, feel free to “follow along”: Below is our reading list and I’ll be writing blog posts about our discussions (usually in the first week of the month). Although this will be more laid back and fun, I am hoping that this group and the discussions will get me thinking of a postdoc project since I (and my committee) are planning for my defence to be some time in the summer.

Here’s the list: I’ve tried to group them thematically and/or with readings (I’ve removed the date and times because I want this group to be local):

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Games, Life Writing, Photography

Playing w/ Photos: Thinking Through “Fun-tography”

So, photography has been on my mind a lot as of lately. I’m currently an RA for Dr. Aimée Morrison, and I’ve been researching into family albums and other photography-related research for her work. This has been the bulk of my photography submersion. But I’ve also been re-playing Life is Strange for my Superhero course, and of course photography plays a significant (and sinister) role in that game, both in the content of the game and in the play mechanics of the game (all of the achievements besides completing the episodes are related to taking certain photos throughout the game, a series of achievements that coax you into exploring the game for that perfect shot). This reminded me of another photography-based game I’ve been meaning to re-play: Beyond Good and Evil. But what’s been on my mind is the Game Boy Camera, since I had my students do a group presentation on it one week in my Digital Lives class.

I have an opportunity to prepare a small media archaeological talk on the Game Boy Camera (GBC), tying in the talk to the theme of “rituals.” I’ve decided on thinking through the “fun-tography” campaign of the GBC, and the rituals of “fun-tography” in photography. Although a mentor was quick to note that Huizinga associates ritual with play, I’m still interested in the concept of “playing” with photography and photography’s association with “fun” and “play” rather than professional/studio photography.  Here’s the Huizinga quote: ““The ritual act has all the formal and essential characteristics of play, particularly in so far as it transports the participants to another world.”

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The GBC certainly takes the GBC photography and its photographed subjects to another world: pictures that users take are incorporated into the games provided in the GBC cartridge, similar to the way that Miis (a character designed by the player, to presumably look like “me,” the user)  can be used in Nintendo’s latter couple of consoles to play in games.

Still, I’m hesitant to pin “fun-tography” with “transporting to another world.” So, I decided to see if the first affordable Kodak film advertised fun, and I wanted to see what that fun looked like. Below are a couple of ads of the Kodak Brownie, launched in 1900.

“Play” and “fun” in these ads do appear right from the get-go. In fact, the Brownie, in these ads, is advertised as a toy for “boys and girls” and can bring some delight and pleasure to adults, too. But the “fun” and “play” in these ads refer to either capturing play or having fun photo-biographically indexing the world. At least for me, it seems that the play with photography in these ads is not “transporting” people to another world, but rather strengthens their relationship to reality.

But the other kind of “play” that GBC offers is drawing on your photos or placing stickers on them. These features immediately recall Snapchat, but I also stumbled upon an excellent chapter in Digital Snaps: “Play, Process and Materiality in Japanese Purikura Photography” by Mette Sandbye. I’m looking forward to reading this later this morning because  Purikura photography is, from what I read from the abstract, photo booth photography, and it had me wondering if the GBC is like or inspired by or a precursor to Purikura photography. Because the GBC feels very photo booth-like.

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But in my cautiousness to attribute “writing on/playing with” photos with new digital tech, I did look into the ability to write on/play with the photos. And hey, that was the Kodak Autographic. Released in the 1920s but discontinued in the ’30s because of poor sales, the Autographic afford users the ability to write on their negatives, which either could be erased or kept in the photos. This feature was mostly for documentary sake, especially when trying to create a photo album and you wanted to maintain a sort of continuity. But I haven’t come across any drawings on photo negatives YET. It would be a delight to see. Either way, the playing and writing on photos, again, don’t quite transport users to another world.

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So, is there a ritual of “fun-tography” that can be traced through “cuts” in photography’s history? I think so. I still have to define what “ritual” means, of which I have a handy set of definitions from Ronald Grime’s The Craft of Ritual Studies that I need to sift through and pin down a definition. And I need to take care around the definition of “play” as well. So here’s hoping I conjure up an abstract by the end of the day.

Games, Life Writing

End of Term’s ‘Beginner’s Guide’

Recently, I’ve been interested in games that are “autobiographical.” They’ve only just come across my radar, but they’re also a relatively recent phenomena. Games like Cibele or Dys4ia or That Dragon, Cancer, which are explicitly autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical). There are others, I’m just in the very early stages of research. I prefer the term “automedia,” which Julie Rak outlines in her wonderful essay “Life Vs. Automedia” because games are more than just writing: it’s a combination of video, writing, coding, pictures, drawings, etc. But Rak’s essay explicitly addresses the autobiographical acts and practices of players on Sims 3 and not necessarily a game that is made to be an automedia like Cibele or like That Dragon, Cancer. So I plan on working out these ideas – how to discuss autobiographical games – in a paper and during the upcoming conference season.

But I also tested out these ideas in my “Digital Lives” class earlier this term. I find classes to be a productive way of testing out ideas and approaches when I’ve thought them through enough. The lecture was on Cibele, and a few of my students were interested in pursuing either the game or the topic “autobiographical games” for their research paper. One of my students decided on The Beginner’s Guide, a game that I have heard before but have not played. When the student described the game to me, it was on the basis that it was a biographical or autobiographical game because the game was about a game developer “Coda” but it was also about “Davey,” the author of the game, and his relationship to Coda (and this is why in Life Writing, the / in auto/biography, is quite useful). The student described  the game as simply: You walk through Coda’s games as the narrator describes the story behind Coda and his relationship to Coda. The student then said that the climax of the game is Davey’s realization that he had wronged Coda and admits fault for why their friendship fell apart. (This introduction of the game was important to me because it framed how I was approaching the game. This sounds odd, but if I had heard nothing about the game itself and played it, I would’ve maybe been more skeptical about whether or not it’s auto/biograpical).

So, I thought it was another interesting auto/biographical game – a game composed by an author of another individual’s games, which tell – or you are led to believe that they tell – a narrative of this person’s life and their relationship to the narrator. Without even playing it, the game, as described by the student, reminded me of Anna Poletti’s “Autobiography and Play,” in which she outlines the concept of  “archive of play”: the play of the author with the data of their archive to assemble it into the narrative that readers or viewers read/see. Except for The Beginner’s Guide, the play of the author is not with their own data but another’s (and the author manipulates Coda’s games throughout the game so the player can access inaccessible areas or speed up the process). And more, games also introduce an additional “archive of play” – the player’s play. Though, the player’s play with the data in The Beginner’s Guide is highly limited to what Davey chooses.

But then I played the game. And then I read all of the hoopla over the game when it first came out in 2015. ***Spoiler Alert***

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So one major discussion was: if these are Coda’s games, did Davey have his permission to use these games? (the narrative of the game suggests “no,” and Davey has those games because they had been sent to him in confidence). But the follow-up question is: who is Coda? And is he actually real? Or is Coda Davey himself?

These sets of questions are interesting to me from a Life Writing Studies perspective.  Because Wrenden, the author, does not confirm or deny whether or not Coda is real, the game poses some serious ethical questions if he had simply used these games to create his own narrative (Davey says that the act is meant to reach out to Coda and to apologize). And, as many people pointed out when the game was released, this puts some ethical responsibility on the player, who plays the game, and the distributer of the game.

And even if Coda is “fictional” or about Wrenden, the game still questions the ethics of the player, the complicit willingness to go through someone’s private games.

I do not want think of The Beginner’s Guide as being purely fictional, though, as some suggested. If Coda is fictional and represents Wrenden himself, and that this “Davey” and “Coda” relationship represents different stages in Wrenden’s life, this is still approachable from a Life Writing angle. Or maybe Coda is someone else kept anonymous, but the games are Wrenden’s own (another suggestion), it’s still auto/biographical. All auto/biography has its artifice.

So I appreciate this student bringing this game to my attention. The game is interesting because how you choose to analyze it depends on what you choose to believe. The student did. But I also think that in order to discuss the ethics of the game, some kind of confirmation that Coda is a real person is needed.

So, I’ve got that game on my mind. But I’m also currently working through dissertation chapter revisions and marking. And it’s almost the holidays. So yeah, I’m looking forward to conference season to work out these ideas.