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.

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

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.