Blogs

Digital Labour: The Case of WoW Glider

When I think about playing videogames like World of Warcraft or EVE Online I often run-up against one significant barrier: that I don't have enough time to put into it. If you want to maintain a constant presence in these spaces you have to make a significant sacrifice to other activities, due to the social nature of the game. This means you have to plan around other player's schedules on when to get together and complete missions and the like, nevermind that you also need to engage in a certain amout of grinding - the process by which you level-up and aquire in-game currency. Grinding is the fundamental process in which most of your time is consumed in these games. The worst parts about grinding is the mind numbing monotony – it is the videogame equivalent of the factory conveyor belt. You repeat the same action for hours on end with little social interaction or complexity. It is boring, and certainly not fun.

Enter WoW Glider – a program that essentially puts your avatar on auto-pilot. With it you don't have to actually play the game to level-up. In so doing it alters the relationship with labour that you have in the the virtual world. It breaks the cycle of capitalist production of the self – the work-ethic by which neo-liberalism deems you worthy as a citizen. Many players of World of Warcraft hate people who use Glider, because they haven't truly worked for their keep. They haven't earned their status as a player like everybody else has, because a computer laboured for them.

Encountering 4chan and Anonymous: Moot and Canv.as


He started one of the web’s most dynamic communities when he was just 15. He was a TIME man of the year before Zuckerberg. He testified as an expert witness during the trial of the young man who broke into Sarah Palin’s email account. He’s the liaison between Lerer Ventures and the burgeoning New York hacker community. To some, he’s “the supreme overlord of the Internet” (link NSFW). To others, he’s just an elaborate hoax. However, to at least a few of the internet’s previous generation of innovators -- including one of founders of the Huffington Post and the guy who started del.icio.us -- his ideas are worth over a half a million dollars.

His name is Christopher Poole, but he’s better known by his online handle: “moot”. He’s the brainchild behind 4chan, and the president of what will likely be one of the most intriguing start-ups of 2011: canv.as.

The Convergence of Art and the Internet

I spent some time in New York in early December and I was really pleased to devote a few hours to the New Museum, where there were two ongoing exhibits that touched on subjects close to my heart: "The Last Newspaper", and "Free".

SAM_0243

I was most curious about the free exhibit, because we're still seeing new directions for how the internet disrupts both meanings of the word free - how we think about liberty (personal and societal), and how we assign value to things. Seth Price's essay "Dispersion" is both an inspiration for the exhibit and a part of the exhibit, where it is the eponymous essay in Essay with Knots. From a New Museum article about his work: "Price discusses attempts by conceptual artists to circumvent the structures of the art world and the art market by co-opting the distribution-oriented, communicative media associated with popular culture."

Free Exhibit

In "Dispersion", Price's primary focus is on how the way we foster collective experience has shifted:

Procedural Rhetoric and America's Army

Currently my work has taken me to a study of America's Army, the US Department of Defence's military recruitment game which was originally released in 2002. My interest in the game was that it was a great example of a videogame that was created by the state for the purpose of “things public”. That means instead of only addressing citizens as consumers (buy this game and have fun!), the game addressed consumers as citizens i.e. “have fun and learn about a way to serve your country”. For me this is a relatively rare occasion where the state has used a videogame to provide information and an ideology that serves its interests. I believe that while this might be one of the first and most effective uses of the form and I don't think it will be the last.

In my work I often use the writings of Ian Bogost as a way to think about why games are so effective as a means of communication. He argues that what makes videogames unique is that they run on computers – and as such they run through procedure. Computers use parameters and then proceed to operate inside of them, meaning that videogames also must stick to these general rules of the form. What makes videogames unique to 'real world' games is that they are hard-coded with arbitrary limits and assumptions that we as players have to learn to play inside of if we want to successfully navigate them. Bogost says that it is these assumptions that become a form of argumentation that he calls procedural rhetoric.

Not all videogames argue very well, and like any argument, they can fall completely flat. Those games that do make an effective argument, Bogost calls persuasive games. These are videogames that make arguments about the way the world works, and in so doing cause us to consider their point of view.

Where Reality TV, Literature, and Social Networking Converge

A quick note inspired by today's Metaviews Teleseminar on the Internet as Application. There was a brief discussion about the relative stickiness of Facebook in spite of its failure to consistently offer trustworthy custodianship: why people leave, why they come back, why they stay, and, above all, how for some people it represents a really special different way of interacting with others. On social networking sites people can find voices more powerful than they might have offline.

When I think about the idea of being famous to your friends or of having a 'successful' Facebook identity, I think about Sheila Heti, whose book, How Should a Person Be?, is (amongst other things) an exploration of how we conceive of our own identities.

From the excerpt on her site:

"I can tell that a lot of young people today are interested in being famous. I’ve often heard that while young people used to want to be doctors and ballerinas and firemen, now they want to win a singing competition. I do too.

"How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity. But for all that I love celebrities, I would never move somewhere that celebrities actually exist. My hope is to live a simple life, in a simple place, where there’s only one example of everything.

"By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in. I don’t want anything to change, except to be as famous as one can be, but without that changing anything. Everyone would know in their hearts that I am the most famous person alive — but not talk about it too much. ... It is the quality of fame one is after here, without any of its qualities."

Bringing Videogames into the Public Sphere

Hey there digital friends! My name is Daniel Joseph and you might have read about me already. My colleague and friend Luke wrote a post about some of my ideas a little while ago and I've been asked to help out with blogging here on Metaviews. Metaviews is an organization with its eyes set on the digital issues that we are dealing with right now. To me the problems and questions concerning democracy, digital citizenship and the continued role of civil society are immensely important, and I believe that videogames need the attention that we more readily give to other forms of media and technology.

Some (even in the world of academia) are often surprised to find out that there is a growing field known as Game Studies, where people like myself labour away at trying to understand more about the form. While only existing for around 10 years the amount of scholarship produced has been quite extensive. Yet a lot of this work has been focused on defining and understanding the form of the videogame. Think of English and Film departments in Universities – they focus on defining what is/isn't a poem/prose etc.

I instead am more interested in discovering how videogames interact and impact us as a public – that means investigating the links between the production of videogames in corporate campuses, state-sponsored development grant programs, and their consumption through our home consoles, computers and cell phones. That means understanding why videogames are not just consumer objects driving the economies of the developed (programmers, artists, commercial outlets, massive marketing budgets) and developing world (the mining of minerals for computer components and the assembly of hardware), but also as places where identity, value and power come together.

The Viral Me by Devin Friedman

A fascinating and thorough look into Silicon Valley and one of its key arteries, Y Combinator, in "The Viral Me" by Devin Friedman in GQ Magazine. Here are some key quotes:

YC lesson one: Your smartphone is now, or will be, your basic interface with the world... YC lesson two: Fuck the business plan. Throw your thingy up as soon as possible, see how people use it, and change it to fit what they want.

Devin does a superb job of immersing himself into valley culture and language while maintaining his critical distance. Some of the best parts of the article are classic reporting from conversations where you wish you could be the fly on the wall to hear more than the snippets we get such as:

"FB can already tell when you're about to break up with someone: certain communication patterns emerge"

Gossiping about reading

I was interviewed by the Is Well Read blog. The concept behind Is Well Read is that every couple of weeks Jackie profiles different people talking about their reading habits, their obsessions, and their favourite books.

In my interview, we focus a fair bit on how working at the Librairie Drawn & Quarterly affects my reading and recommending books. I also admit that I only finish books I don't like if someone recommends them to me, and talk a little bit about how I go about recommending books to and for total strangers.

Here is the link:

http://iswellread.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/julia-is-well-read/

And here is a little snippet to get you interested:
"My relationship with books changes so much over even short periods of time that I am hesitant to re-read much, because I worry that when I go back, it won’t hold the same emotional power as the first time I read it."

Bonus: You get to admire my nerdy cool Halloween costume!

Anonymity vs. Pseudonymity


Well, a quick post today, but one that I hope is thought provoking.

In researching 4chan, it's difficult not to come back to the recurring theme of anonymity. The concept is at the core of what the site and its community (known as Anonymous) represent, and the thousands of unidentifiable users cloaked in a shroud of namelessness are what make 4chan simultaneously one of the most creative and vibrant places on the internet and also one of the most disturbing.

Regardless of your view on the pros and cons of anonymity, I'd like to suggest that the term is somewhat misused. Type it into a dictionary and you'll usually get two definitions: something along the lines of "lacking attribution," as in an anonymous author, but also something akin to "lacking individuality, unique character, or distinction."

The former definition is how we typically conceive of online anonymity, typified by the angry commenter on newspaper websites starting flamewars while hiding behind a username. And for the most part, this is how anonymity functions on the internet.

Encountering 4chan & Anonymous: The legality of DDoS attacks


Some outlets are reporting that Operation Payback, Anonymous' two-month campaign against the forces of copyright, has concluded, while the homepage for the raid claims that the group has simply decided to change tactics in an attempt to legitimize itself.

Either way, it seems like the wave of denial-of-service attacks against targets like the RIAA, Gene Simmons and the U.S. copyright office have come to an end -- at least for now.

As part of my research, I lurked on a number of forums associated with Operation Payback -- I hung out on various IRC channels, and watched threads about the raid on 4chan -- and made some fascinating discoveries: the chat forums were populated by people from all over the world, the attacks consisted mainly of people using various flooding programs (such as the Low Orbit Ion Cannon pictured above) but some anons claimed to be using botnets as well, the sites and servers used by the group were just as likely to be the targets of DoS attacks as they were to wage them, there is no consensus within the community that Operation Payback is the right thing to do, and many users claimed that the raids were their first forays into the world of electronic (civil) disobedience.

However, it's not those findings that I want to talk about today. At the moment, I'm more interested in interrogating the role of DoS attacks in the contemporary political landscape of the internet.

Anonymous has no shortage of detractors. Some claim the group's antics inflame moral panics about online security and lend credence to arguments for tighter control of the internet. Others point out the hypocrisy of advocating free speech while simultaneously taking down a musician's website because of statements he made regarding piracy.

Encountering 4chan & Anonymous: Some thoughts on trolls

I'd thought I'd begin today's post with a quote from Gustave Flaubert:

"Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work."

I think Flaubert's words are as good a place as any to start a discussion of internet trolls. After all, according to Matthias Schwartz, a troll is "a normal person who does insane things on the internet."

Seeing as 4chan is widely regarded as one of the internet's net exporters of trolling activities, I've been doing a lot of reading on the subject. I've encountered excellent work by Burcu Bakioglu on trolls (also known as griefers) in Second Life, as well as the always-insightful Biella Coleman, whose ongoing study of trolls compares them to hackers, phreakers and mythological tricksters.

Rethinking Video Games

America's Army

My colleague Daniel Joseph is a burgeoning video game scholar. The two of us had a really interesting conversation after class the other day that I think is worth sharing with you MetaViewers.

Throughout much of the 20th century, art (paintings, cinema, music, theatre, etc.) was regarded as not only an aesthetic object, but also a possible tool for nation building, cultural cohesion and even propaganda. There's no shortage of historical analysis highlighting the centrality of arts and culture to places like Hitler's Germany, or Stalin's Russia, and on a brighter note, Canada -- at least since the Massey Commission -- has acknowledged the role of art in creating a shared Canadian identity.

This legacy persists today, and manifests itself in numerous ways, not the least of which are Canadian content laws, or cultural exemptions in free trade agreements.

In contrast, video games -- despite their capacity to function as art, narrative or the basis for cultural formation -- have always been treated as purely commercial products. Regulation of video games consists of either consumer protections (ie. rating systems like "T for Teen!") or economic incentives like those present in Canada's recently unveiled Digital Economy Strategy. At the level of policy -- and even popular culture -- video games are seldom talked about as if imbued with the same powers as other cultural products.

Dan thinks this is because notions of cultural identity and nationhood are throwbacks to the Keynesian post-war era of the welfare state. Video games came of age in a time when Reagan and Thatcher were ushering in deregulation and neoliberalism, and thus the aura of art was not able to glom onto new and emerging cultural forms.

Network Politics Conference Wrap-up


I've been away from the blog for a few days, but only because I was attending the latest Network Politics conference at Ryerson University. The two-day event was part of a series of discussions organized jointly by the Infoscape Research Lab here in Toronto and the Research Centre in Digital Culture at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.

The event was an excellent and inspiring (especially so for a young researcher such as myself) meditation on how networks -- both in a technological and cultural sense -- can be discussed in political terms. It was most certainly an academic event, but I'm going to spill some virtual ink here as a shout-out to those whose papers I enjoyed and as a way to try and distill their ideas for a wider audience. If I'm successful in piquing your interest, I'd urge you to check out the recorded presentations on UStream.

Object-Oriented Politics?

Encountering 4chan & Anonymous


What attracted me to 4chan and Anonymous in the first place was the absurdity of it all. I had entered my MA program intending to study the impact of Canadian NGOs on on normative understandings of journalism in Africa, and somehow, the idea that I could write a thesis about LOLcats, m00t and Operation Slickpubes (NSFW) was too joyfully subversive to pass up.

However, like anyone who has spent some time among the trolls, I quickly realized how significant the community -- and the processes by which the community constitutes itself -- is. You can dismiss 4chan and its users as a peurile "internet hate machine" if you want, but it's becoming increasingly more difficult to do so. 4chan is the 285th most visited website in America (remember, there is something like 2 billion websites on the net), and the most active internet forum in the entire English-speaking world. The site receives over 11 million unique visitors per month and generates nearly one million posts per day. Not even YouTube musters that kind of user input.

Meanwhile, Anonymous -- shorthand for the subculture of internet users who frequent a series of online image and message boards, of which 4chan is simply the most well-known -- has been responsible for all kinds of crowdsourced antics ranging from a protracted protest against The Church of Scientology to flashmobbing an aging veteran with gifts on his birthday. At the moment, they're engaged in a battle with the anti-piracy lobby, having succesfully DDoS'd everyone from the MPAA to Gene Simmons.

Another Take on the Patent Wars

The patent thicket

Over the past few years, the mobile sector has erupted into a neverending series of lawsuits over intellectual property. The patent trolls are busily combing through lines of code and taking apart every new gadget in the hopes of finding some evidence of infringement. Heck, it's even rumoured that Oracle acquired Java from Sun earlier this principally because it would allow them to aim their litigation cannons at Google.

As the embedded illustration (courtesy of Techdirt) shows, the system is dysfunctional at best and broken at worst. Patents have been issued for the broadest of ideas -- for example, a Canadian court recently recognized Amazon's patent on its "one click" ordering system, thereby suggesting that Amazon created something new and innovative by allowing users to click a button to make a purchase -- and it's led to an environment where companies can engage in patent warfare for fun and profit... OK, mostly profit.

Many are now suggesting that it's time for patent reform. Like all forms of intellectual property, patents are supposed to spur innovation, not bury it under the weight of excessive litigation and enable corporate monoliths to suppress competition.

However, one of the threads that seems to be running through my blog posts here on Metaviews is that many of the arguments around culture and technology -- even the progressive ones -- fail to capture the entire picture. And while I certainly think it's time for a thorough reconsideration of what we consider to be patentable, there's a larger lesson to be learned from all this.