As We May Think - And the World's Waking Up

As We May Think, first published by Vannevar Bush in The Atlantic Monthly in 1945, is a mind-blowing work of prognostication on the future potential of technology. Bush reminds me very much of Ray Kurzweil who in many ways is the futurist/technology profit of our times. It's interesting to think that Vannevar Bush's conceptualization of the Memex as a collective memory machine was in part inspired by the horrors of war. I have often thought about mankind's pattern of generational wars in this way. It's as if each successive generation loses the memories of the previous generation and feels instead the barbaric impulse for war that is endemic to our mammalian nature. This leads more or less directly to the thought that if we, as a society, had a collective memory machine then horrible apocalyptic wars, such as WWI and WWII, would not be possible, (since the current generation would remember all the terrible lessons of the previous generation, and so on).

Vannevar Bush anticipated the Internet and the World Wide Web as well as hypertrext, computers, speech recognition and Wikipedia. All have come into being with greater or lesser efficacy and usefulness for people. But have these tools given rise to a collective memory that will end all wars? These technologies have taken strides in this direction, one might argue. The world is connected in a way never before seen in human history. But we're in an experimental phase. Consider Julian Assange leaking all those top secret cables. This creates a world of open information but it also creates fissures in the fabric of world order that can be exploited--it's unclear whether such actions lead to a safer or a more dangerous world. Ray Kurzweil, our Vannevar Bush, envisions the singularity, the downloading of our brains, our merging with machines, and the world's waking up. Based on the unlikely success of Bush's ideas, have we any reason to doubt Kurzweil's?

Information Fatigue

The term “information fatigue” was first coined in the 1990s by British psychologist, David Lewis. But as history shows us, people have been complaining about information overload for thousands of years.

The topic is explored in Harvard historian, Ann Blair, in her latest book, “Too Much to Know.” Dr. Blair reveals through sources that humans have been feeling overwhelmed by the accumulation of knowledge in encoded form—as a scroll, as a handwritten codex, as a typeset book—basically since the moment these technologies created gluts of information. James Gleick traces the history of information technology and computer science in his book, “The Information,” about which he says in an interview on the Bat Segundo Show:

Gleick: …I’m hesitating to call it “problem” of information overload, of information glut — is not as new a thing as we like to think. Of course, the words are new. Information glut, information overload, information fatigue.
Correspondent: Information anxiety.
Gleick: Information anxiety. That’s right. These are all expressions of our time.

The question that really intrigues me is how to deal, as a modern human, with the double-edge sword of information ubiquity. On the one hand, this is what human beings have always craved, since the Stone Ages, when information was very hard to come by and major world-changing ideas came along only once every few thousand years. Nowadays, via the network effect, groundbreaking research is happening around the world, all the time. But on the other hand, though we live in a golden age of information availability, we don’t quite have the tools to deal with it, at least on an individual level. Personally, I think email is an example of a poorly designed and failed method of digital communications technology—simply the worst. We need information systems that truly work to enhance the individual and the society. 

The question becomes: how to have our cake and eat it too? (Or is the cake a lie?)

How Google "Sees" Me

I find this exercise very interesting because I teach a class at UW-Whitewater that I developed called Social Media Optimization and the New Web. One of the first things I ask students to do in this class is to Google themselves using a variety of modifiers, such as: Google Search your name, image search, video search, news search, add limiters such as “Wisconsin” or “Whitewater,” then try all these same techniques in Yahoo and in Bing, etc. Students are almost always weirded out by some the results they weren’t expecting. Often they’re disappointed to learn that they are the equivalent of cyber-ghosts, invisible to the web. In other words, they have no search visibility or social media influence. In building up my project, GameZombie TV, I used to search (or egosurf) “GameZombie” religiously, looking to improve the SEO and SMO of the project online. This assignment has given me the opportunity to egosurf myself, which I haven’t done in a while.

A social networking analysis of the term “Spencer Striker” returns a lot of results because I set virtually everything to public and have published content online for five years or so. I have linked tons of my social network profiles to my Google Profile which helps Google know which online identities are mine—it’s kind of like submitting your website to Google’s spider index: Google would have found it anyway, but this way there’s no ambiguity. SEO is still pretty imperfect, as I’m always totally frustrated by this image ad of a hammer that shows up when I search myself—it’s a hardware store bid on a “Spencer…Striker” hammer. Doh! And during image search, uploads to Google Plus show up as me, because they were uploaded by me, but of course they are not me—they are the subjects of the photos I have taken. This happens because Google is blind, and can only associate tagged words in an algorithmic attempt to generate relevancy. This tech will get better and better in the future and we should all keep an eye on how Google “sees” us.

Understanding Infrastructure: Dynamics, Tensions, and Design

For this week, I read the article called “Understanding Infrastructure: Dynamics, Tensions, and Design.” The article is in fact a “Report of a Workshop on “History & Theory of Infrastructure: Lessons for New Scientific Cyberinfrastructures,”” published in January of 2007 by the scholars, Paul Edwards, Steven Jackson, Geoffrey Bowker, and Cory Knobel. This report summarizes the findings of a workshop that took place in September of 2006 at the University of Michigan--a three-day National Science Foundation-funded “think tank,” so to speak, that brought together experts in social and historical studies of infrastructure development, domain scientists, information scientists, and NSF program officers. The goal was to distill “concepts, stories, metaphors, and parallels” that might help realize the NSF vision for scientific cyberinfrastructure.

To begin, this workshop and report on cyberinfrastructure is highly technical, so I will attempt to translate some of the work and findings that are directly relevant to our class, LIS 201: the Information Age, as presented by Professor Greg Downey. The authors utilize Steward Brand’s notion of the “clock of the long now” to remind us to step back and look at changes occurring before our eyes that are taking place on a slower scale than we are used to thinking about. Citing Brand, the authors argue that the development of our current cyberinfrastructure has occurred over the course of the past 200 years during which time an exponential increase in information gathering and knowledge workers on the one hand and the accompanying development of technologies to sort information on the other, has led to a “cyberinfrastructure.” Manuel Castells, a Spanish born and highly influential sociologist and communications researcher—whom Dr. Greg Downey mentioned in class—argued that the roots of contemporary “network society” are new organizational forms created in support of large corporations. While James Beniger—another scholar Professor Downey mentioned in class—described the entire period from the first Industrial Revolution to the present as an ongoing “control revolution.” As we have seen in class from such examples as the old corporate education films and Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” the control revolution describes the trend in society toward efficiency, commodification, compartmentalization, specialization, and of course control—of both information flow and how people carry out their work and lives. The authors ultimately define cyberinfrastructure as the set of organizational practices, technical infrastructure, and social norms that collectively provide for the smooth operation of science work at a distance. The cyberinfrastructure will collapse if any of those three pillars should fail.

I find this last thought particularly interesting because the very idea of a functioning modern cyberinfrastructure depends upon the implicit “buy in” or “cooperation” of the society. It reminds me of what the great biologist, E.O. Wilson once said, that if all the ants were suddenly removed from the world, our entire ecosystem and the world as we know it would collapse. The same is true of human beings’ presumed complicity with the rules, regulations, and norms that comprise our modern cyberworld—if we suddenly stopped playing by the rules, the whole house of cards would come crashing down.

Commodore 64 - and the fleetingness of cool

Love this retro video about the launch of the Commodore 64, originally broadcast in 1988.

"The Commodore 64 was the first computer for many families. This program looks at what you can do with the famous C-64. Demonstrations include The Wine Steward, Skate or Die, Strike Fleet, the Koala Pad, Master Composer, Tetris, and Berkeley Software's GEOS. Includes a visit to a Commodore Owners Users Group meeting and an interview with Max Toy President of Commodore."

It's so interesting to me because I was a kid when the 64 came out and my family bought one. I vividly remember playing lots of different games on the system--thinking at the time that the system was such a huge improvement over the Atari 2600. Of primary relevance to the study of the Information Society is the phenomenon of rapid technological advancement demonstrated by the very campiness of this video in 2011. The ideas being introduced in this machine include the use of color, a more user-friendly graphical user interface, the ability to run basic programs as well as games, and a consumer-friendly price point. All of these elements of the computer are alive and well in the current market. But the music, the production value, and the corny way in which the hosts talk about cutting-edge computer elements like the Basic programming language and floppy disks reveals to the modern observer the fleetingness of being on the cutting edge.

Goals for the Course
C&I 600: Methods of Instruction w/ Technology
Dr. Michael Thomas
Spencer Striker

Goals for C&I 600 – Methods of Instruction With Technology

General Goal

I’m terribly excited about this course. I entered the PhD program at UW-Madison in Educational Communications & Technology in order to study on the deepest level the theory and practice of designing cutting edge 21st Century Learning Environments.

ELPA Core - Prereqs

In the Fall and Spring of 2009 - 2010, I satisfied my 12 credits worth of ‘deficiencies’ in the formal study of Education, by taking four courses in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis, including an excellent class, ‘Financing Postsecondary Education,’ with former UW-Madison Chancellor, John Wiley. I enjoyed immersing myself in this ELPA core while simultaneously engaging hands-on with the development of the Media Arts & Game Development program at UW-Whitewater. My studies, discussions, and reflections in ELPA directly informed and complemented the types of administrative work I tackled at UWW, including program development, marketing, conflict resolution, resources allocation, and budgeting. My administrative service to the university included helping build the Advisory Board, helping build a 21st Century multimedia lab with a $100k lab modernization fund, and executing a social media optimization marketing campaign to build a community around the program.

While I enjoyed this work, I simultaneously learned more about myself, becoming more self-aware of my intrinsic fascinations and goals. In the end, I found it a welcome relief to begin my formal studies in the area of Ed Tech, this being the area that drew me to study at UW-Madison in the first place.

Designer of 21st Century Learning Environments

To be totally honest, I have been looking for a clear definition of what I want to achieve/be in the world. My Master’s Thesis at Indiana University, GameZombie TV, has proven a pretty darn successful project, all things considered. Bragging points include: millions of video views around the world, hundreds of students positively impacted, and four Webby Awards. But I must consider where this work stands in terms of a larger agenda, a bigger mission and purpose. I always wanted to keep GZ in the university—it has always been my instinct. Though we positioned the web video studio to achieve escape velocity from the university, perhaps my unconscious yearning to keep the project connected to academia prevailed.

Now I find my propensity for hard work pushed to the max, but in a good way. My core commitments include: PhD student in Ed Tech at UW-Madison, faculty in MAGD at UWW, and Exec Producer of GameZombie TV, (which is now run simultaneously out of Wisconsin and Indiana). But in the big picture I see these three threads cleanly converging on the single purpose of becoming a leading designer of cutting edge 21st Century Learning Environments.

Expertise in the Field of ECT

The most obvious goal I have for the course is to develop my formal expertise of the field, building mastery of ECT’s key works and primary themes. Beyond this, I want to zero in on important, unanswered research questions that I can attack. I’d like to formulate a preliminary dissertation thesis as well as begin deep research of the topic and resource organization. The two topics I have most seriously considered are:

  • how multimedia technologies and immersion are affecting the way we think, work, and live
  • and the successful development and implementation of project-based digital multimedia learning environments.

Conferences, Journals, Grants, CV
Critically, I would like to begin to attend the important Ed Tech conferences around the country, read the most important journals, (and begin to develop works for publication), as well as research and develop grants, (both for my doctoral studies and my applied work at UWW). I would also like to remaster my CV—and web presence—repositioning myself as a scholar/designer of Ed Tech. I would like to do all of this while remaining sane and not damaging my body by too often neglecting sleep. I’m teaching five classes at UWW, (all of which I have personally developed), taking two classes at UW-Madison, and overseeing GameZombie in two states. I’m living and working in a liminal zone where I honestly don’t know if I can deliver the goods, but the challenge is the type of masochism that puts hair on your chest and makes you stronger, in the Nietzschean sense of the word.

Circulations In & Out of Virtual Worlds

Lesson 8: Circulations In & Out of Virtual Worlds
C&I 675: Researching Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Spencer Striker

Assignment Due: Write a reworking of the issue of “transfer” of learning in relation to MMO gaming based on these two articles:

• Malaby, T. M. (2006). Parlaying value: Capital in and beyond virtual worlds. Games & Culture, 1(2), 141-162.

• Leander, K. & Lovvorn, J. (2006). Literacy networks: Following the circulation of texts and identities in the schooling and online gaming of one youth. Cognition & Instruction. 24(3), 291-340.

Trust in Bytes

In June of 2008 Mr. and Mrs. Bungarz got married in a modest wedding in Canada, two years after they started dating in Second Life. Their synthetic world wedding was far larger and more ambitious than their real-life wedding. In the process of ‘transfer’ from the virtual realm to the real one, the young couple became subject to a different set of constraints, different rules of the world—perhaps not better or worse, just different. In 2009, Cory Doctorow launched his novel, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, in the world of Second Life. He created virtual copies, gave a virtual interview, and signed virtual books for fans. Doctorow is a proponent of Chris Anderson’s theory of ‘Free’—an economic theme of the new web in which giving away products and services for no direct monetary exchange facilitates the ability to make potentially more money via alternate, tertiary means. In this case, Doctorow transferred his real world social capital into cultural capital via his magnanimity and originality, transferable into prestige and indirectly transferrable into increased revenue from book sales and speaking engagements down the road—virtual or otherwise.

Every morning in the United States, there are people who wake up, eat their Cheerios, make their way to their office desk, fire up their computer, and kill people halfway around the world utilizing gaming technology, secure satellite imagery, and the latest predator drones. These remote operators of unmanned killing machines balance a fine line between the real and the virtual, transferring all their skills for detached manipulation of graphics on a screen—representing objects thousands of miles away—into real world death and destruction. After work, they drive home from the theatre of combat to their suburban homes and have dinner with their families.

People are already used to the idea of purchasing goods that we durably own but that are intangible—such as ringtones downloaded from the web or movies purchased from iTunes. In either case, we must trust that these invisible bytes for which we have exchanged our real world hard earned dough—money which is itself also a manifestation of social trust—are actually ours, irrevocably, and not subject to random seizure or deletion by Big Brother. The concept of transferring different types of value (or destruction) from the real world to the synthetic world and back again has numerous ongoing precedents and will likely accelerate and complicate in the future. Consider, for example, the coming rise of virtual sex, as prognosticated by futurist Ray Kurzweil. He believes that in twenty years people will enjoy synthetic sex better than real world sex because it will be enhanced, custom-designed, and complication-free, ie. devoid of unwanted pregnancy or the spread of infectious disease. The question of whether a virtual affair constitutes infidelity will no doubt be negotiated.

The Tao of the Don

As developed by Thomas Malaby, synthetic worlds—such as MMOs—are likely to proliferate in the coming years, becoming increasingly interchangeable with our real world via the exchange of market capital, social capital, and cultural capital. Regarding synthetic world economies, the question arises: with so little ‘overhead’ for commodities, how can market value become established? People will pay whatever they think something is worth. Value, therefore, arises organically out of human systems of agreed upon rates of exchange which in turn arise from how much people really want something and how hard it is to get, (determined by scarcity, artificial or otherwise). Consider great works of art. Is an original Van Gogh painting really worth tens of millions of dollars? Would you pay that much? Would I? But the fact is that somebody will pay that much, and therefore, that’s how much it’s worth. The value of exchange is in constant negotiation. Gold and diamonds, two of the real world’s most valuable commodities, have little intrinsic worth. Their value exists only in the imagination of the market economy, a system built on agreed upon rules, much like the World of Warcraft or Second Life.

“Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, consider this justice a gift on my daughter's wedding day,” said Don Corleone, the master of using social capital as a resource, leveraging reciprocity. When the Don does you a favor, he implicitly implies a moral obligation on your part. He creates a web of indebtedness, thereby elevating his position in the tribe. We see this same behavior going on in MMOs, whereby for example an elite player may present lots of value to less experienced players, offering weapons, gold, and hard earned information, but by accepting such help, n00bs sign a social contract whereby they find themselves entering into a form of moral debt.
So, what happens to your avatar when you die? We’ve already seen this phenomenon in Facebook, where the social page of the deceased is handled according to recently designed rules. The page can only be taken down by Facebook after verification by a family member or loved one. But the bereaved maintain the option to keep the page alive, transforming it into a memorial for the dead, one that transfers the social and cultural capital of the deceased between the worlds of the living and the dead—the real and the virtual.

Engaging a Sociotechnical Array

Leander and Lovvorn draw on the Actor Network Theory and the everyday literacy practices of one youth, Brian, to illustrate how literacy practices involve the circulation of diverse ‘actants’ postulating that space-time dimension of different literacy networks have direct relevance to understanding literacy engagement, agency, and identity. For Brian, the movements and positions of texts in activity demonstrate means of interpreting literacy related to engagement, agency, and identity. Movements and position of texts in circulation demonstrate greater text/object and text/body hybridity in Star Wars Galaxies vs. during his history notes routine, including more unpredictable rhythms of engagement and cycling speeds, enabling increased hybridization.

Brian interprets a far more complex and engaging sociotechnical array when playing the SWG and he has a stronger sense of how his work on the game results in his accumulation of market, cultural and social capital--he’s constantly advancing and leveling up. In history and English class, he cannot see the end in sight. The notion of ‘getting into to college and doing well in life’ is too vague and cosmic for the young man, too ethereal. He cannot see how his history projects can be exchanged for another kind of value or capital after they have been translated to a grade. His project just goes to the bottom of the pile to die. In the world of SWG, Brian produced and shared image files, read discussion boards, chatted with other players inside and outside of the virtual world and sent bug reports to the developers. Refining and implementing the robust tools of engagement of the virtual gaming world into the classroom could cause Brian to enjoy school more and get smarter faster. For example, students could be awarded points and level up, transferring a popular and motivating game element to the real world.

Knowledge Work

Lesson 7: Knowledge Work
C&I 675: Researching Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Spencer Striker

Using online (in- and out-of-game) WoW resources, find the answer to one genuine question related to your character class. Using the articles as the basis, trace your problem solving process & the resources you were able to leverage toward developing an answer.


· Thomas, D. (2009). Scalable learning: From simple to complex in World of Warcraft. On the Horizon, 17(1), 35-46.

· Steinkuehler, C. & Duncan, S. (2009). Informal scientific reasoning in online virtual worlds. Journal of Science Education & Technology.

“Where can I get the best gun possible for my Dwarf Hunter?”

I started with this simple question, which led me down the rabbit’s hole of inquiry and investigation. Naturally, there was no direct or best answer. In fact, the answer changed over time, as my character leveled up, accumulated more money, and unlocked more areas of the map. Concomitantly, the answer changed as I learned more about the World of Warcraft, investigated more online and offline resources, consulted experts, and of course learned to ask better and more informed questions.

The process of discovering where and how to obtain the best possible gun for my Dwarf Hunter required me to utilize an informal scientific methodology, starting out with a research question that led to an intensive engagement with the bricolage of resources available. The process of inquiry was complimented by hands-on trial and error exploration. Ultimately, I arrived at a temporarily satisfactory conclusion—one that will need to be reexamined and updated at a later time, when the field inevitably advances, (ie. my character grows stronger and richer and certain elements of the world update and other relevant information refreshes).

The answer turns out to be that the level 15 gunsmith, Irene Sureshot, who lives in a remote community on the southeastern edge of Loch Modan, sells a Large Bore Blunderbuss, which costs a hefty 35 silver and 83 copper.

But getting to that information was no easy feat.

The journey of scientific inquiry first began when I asked Adrian—our Virtual Worlds resident expert—on the first day of class which hunter and class he recommended I choose. He recommended a Hunter Dwarf because the character would eventually be able to deal lethal amounts of damage per second, but not until I’d acquired a tank pet that I could sick on enemies, and a powerful gun that I could meanwhile use to blast them from a distance. I did not get a pet until level 10, and even then, I got the wrong kind of pet, (a spider), having to do research, consult, and explore through trial error, in order to figure out how to abandon my spider and then tame an Elder Black Bear, (which I later learned I could rename Hrothgar). I then attacked the question of how to obtain the best gun possible—an inquiry that required several attempts before I arrived at a satisfactory conclusion.

I studied a variety of resources—almost entirely online—including World of Warcraft’s massive forums, WoWWiki, Thotbot, Wowhead, Curse, and the Game Manual. I experimented with a variety of Google searches including such terms as: “…hunter dwarf best gun merchant gunsmith loch modan blunderbuss ironforge rifle auction where how to most damage per second dps…” etc., in different orders and combinations, unearthing various nerd conversations from the recesses of the Internet, living and dead.

I paid attention to the conversation threads of fellow players in the world in order to immerse myself in WoW’s discourse, unconsciously becoming more confident of what I knew and didn’t know about how the world worked and where best guns for a hunter dwarves can be found. And once again, I consulted my local expert, Adrian, both online (via in game text) and offline (in person). He could not be certain where such a gun existed exactly but believed it could be found either via an auction in Ironforge or via concentrated research like I described above. Finally, I continued to explore the map either through the in game overview layout, hovering over different elements and reading about them, and via running around the World of Warcraft ‘in person,’ both living and dead. (Dead exploring has certain advantages, like the fact that you can’t be killed…again).

The key breakthrough came via a combination of different strands of research. I learned that the right search term was ‘gunsmith loch modan’ which revealed the page on Thotbot, which had since become my favorite resource site for its clear presentation highlighted by maps. I discovered that Irene Sureshot, the gunsmith, dwelled in a remote area of the map I’d been exploring for days, though I had never uncovered her neck of the woods. By keeping the Thotbot page open in the browser and using ‘windowed’ mode in WoW, I followed the in game map to her position, unlocking a whole new section of Loch Modan, and simultaneously the achievement for having fully explored the area. Irene did indeed sell the strongest gun I’d yet encountered.

Combining the Large Bore Blunderbuss with various spells, such as the Aspect of the Hawk, and my leveled up tank pet, Hrothgar, I had at last become what I set out to become in the beginning—a mean, lean, Dwarf Hunter, dps machine. And I had arrived at this glorious moment via a long, arduous process of informal scientific inquiry, reasoning, trial and error, and discovery.


Lesson 4: Identity
C&I 675: Researching Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Spencer Striker

Assignment Due: Who is your avatar? What is the relationship between your avatar and your self? Use the readings to explore this relationship.

Analyzing World of Warcraft’s Notion of Identity via a Close Reading of Turkle, S. (1997). Aspects of the self; Tinysex and gender trouble. Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the Internet (pp. 177-232). New York: Touchstone.

Writes Turkle: “…for him, a favorite MUD afforded an escape valve for anxiety and anger that felt too dangerous to exercise in real life. Julee’s role playing provided an environment for working on important personal issues.”

Ventilation and/or Therapy

This notion of video games as ventilation and/or therapy reminds me of several things at once. On the one hand I think of the intensely visceral experience I have had playing Grand Theft Auto IV as Niko Bellic (more so than the detached experience I have had playing my WoW avatar, ZZ Blackstone). And on the other, I think of the violence in video games controversy—in particular, the debate after Columbine as to whether Klebold and Harris were influenced to commit atrocities by their experiences playing Doom and Wolfenstein. Turkle’s point, written in 1995—fourteen years before GTA IV came out in 2009—remains relevant to this ongoing debate.

Niko, the Homicidal Terrorist

Niko is not the ideal, rugged handsome hero like Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Christian Bale as Batman, or Daniel Craig as James Bond 007. Rather, he’s a scumbag. More aptly, he has a scumbag-quality that plays on a video game screen as it never could in a feature film, which is a passive representation, a narrative that unfolds without any interaction from the audience. Important to note: there’s never been a GTA film adaptation despite huge sales of the franchise. Niko goes so far over the edge—in his role as avatar, controlled by us, the gamers—that he’s not even a charismatic anti-hero, he’s a homicidal terrorist.

Or, perhaps more to the point, he makes us into homicidal terrorists.

When I play as Niko, am I “working through”? Playing as Niko in GTA, more so than in any other gaming franchise—including WoW, Assassin’s Creed, or even Hitman—there’s a sometimes scary sense of crossing the line, going too far. Massacring civilians in an ultra hyper realistic New York knock off can definitely give you the creeps. But simultaneously, when that guilty pleasure is at its most raw, that’s when the game is the most impactful, the most fun. As the lead designer of Prototype, Eric Holmes, has said in interviews: players want to behave badly. If there’s a bus full of schoolchildren dangling from a cliff, in an open world action game, such as GTA IV, you better believe most gamers are going to send those kids to their bloody demise. Gamers want to behave badly and games like GTA IV serve players this experience on a macabre, morally ambiguous platter.

Case in point: driving in GTA is truly sociopathic; the gameplay mechanics cause you to smash into everything, killing pedestrians brutally and constantly. The game invites this. It’s almost impossible to drive patiently enough to avoid wreaking carnage—the game play designers expect and encourage you to drive like a maniac. That’s why it’s so easy to replace totaled cars by jacking new ones. Of course, throughout this entire murderous experience, there’s a snarky laughing up your sleeve quality to the whole thing, which perhaps alleviates what might otherwise be a dark rehearsal for a life as a narcissistically delusional mass murderer. Cops are another case in point. Players know they’re being abhorrent when they kill cops. In real life (RL), cops are intimidating. They make a room go silent. They cause us to become self-conscious and evaluate our behavior to make sure we’re acting ‘within the law.’ People have a complicated view of cops. We need them, we respect them, sometimes we like them, sometimes we hate them, sometimes we’re afraid of them. Killing cops in GTA provides a kind of visceral pleasure—we experience guilt intermixed with a sociopathic catharsis.

GTA Designers Smart-Ass Approach to Cops

Importantly, the way the GTA IV designers have written, performed, and recorded the voices of the in-game police reveals their smart-ass approach to the whole thing. GTA cops are extremely aggressive, rude, mean, and foolish—somewhere between Keystone cops, Reno 911, and real life cops caught on YouTube beating civilians. They’re rarely if ever portrayed as 3 dimensional, sympathetic, or heroic. Ironically, being chased by cops actually serves in the game as a way to keep the player in check because evading cops can become a dreary penance for acting too mischievously. The more cops you kill the higher your Star Rating becomes, making it exponentially more difficult to lose the heat. For practical game play purposes, it makes the most tactical sense to kill the least amount of cops possible so you can break free with only 2 or 3 stars. Elevating your star rating to 4-6 is purely recreational, like a survival mode, because you will almost certainly be killed or arrested, wind up back in the hospital or jail, and lose your money or weapons. The designers force you to be somewhat reasonable, (and non-bloodthirsty), if you want to progress through the game’s story. So even in the game—as in life—we are forced to follow the rules, and get in line.
Returning to this idea of “working through,” which Turkle develops in her book: is that in fact what’s happening in violent video games, like GTA IV? Am I “working through” my repressed sociopathic impulses via my identity association with Niko Bellic? Turkle points out that truly successful therapy requires a professional therapist to help you break free of your crazy cycles, of your lack of ability to see beyond the same murky mistakes you make over and over. She makes the point that ventilation is not the same as progressive psychotherapy. In this analysis, the notion that playing Niko Bellic affords the opportunity to heal or clarify issues for troubled youths is a dubious one, because people with problems need more than to exercise/exorcise their violent impulses.

“Working Through”

This brings me back to the second part of this thought, which is whether or not Harris and Klebold were damaged by playing violent games, or nudged toward the brink. In my view, these were deeply troubled boys with dark issues of rage inside them. They were denied access to play games during the month leading up to the massacre, which presents evidence that their ventilation of violent impulses through video games had been working on some level, as if they were self-medicating. I personally do not get the impulse to shoot anyone after vicariously inhabiting the body of a psycho like Niko Bellic, and I believe the overwhelming majority of people who play violent video games share this sentiment. On the other hand, young people who have violent impulses will probably continue to be disproportionately attracted to violent video games, but perhaps this is a good thing, since the games will serve as an outlet for this aggression, rather than a primer for real world killing.

The Social

Lesson 3: The Social
C&I 675: Research Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Spencer Striker

Observe a major in-game city for one hour. Make an argument, using your own observations as data, for MMOs as social or nonsocial.

Analyzing World of Warcraft’s City Life via a Close Reading of “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen Name): Online Games as “Third Places”” by Constance Steinkuehler and Dmitri Williams and of “Alone Together? Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Games” by Ducheneaut et al.

Wow as a Neutral Ground & the American Wanderlust

Americans have long had a love affair with the freedom of travel—and of coming and going as they please. The unique attributes of our boundless continental geography in combination with the expansionist history of the settling of the Americas, the early 20th century automobile manufacturing revolution, and the building of a national highway system has led to a deep cultural fascination and affinity for freedom of movement. Americans like to be able to just get in the car and drive. If they’re not happy with their current situation in life, Americans reserve the right to pack up everything and resettle in a distant place—not asking for anyone’s permission to leave. Neutral grounds, or third spaces, are those places that are defined by a lack of obligation; thereby allowing people to do whatever they damn well please—within reason. To extrapolate on this further: the popularity of World of Warcraft in the United States can partially be attributed to American wanderlust and predisposition toward entering and spending time in neutral spaces where they have no “boss,” nothing they’re “required to do.”

Of course, as a caveat, I have observed from both playing the game and from my readings that entering into a guild “contract” can in fact bring the second place of work into the virtual world, thereby creating time and labor obligations, but I suspect this type of obligation is far less popular than the default playing style, which is to retain one’s total freedom of movement and decision-making, etc. After all, if you have to work in real life—and we all have to work—then the pleasure of immersion in a virtual world for most people must be the total freedom of the world. That’s what is relaxing about. That’s what’s fulfilling about it. That’s what keeps people coming back: the fact that they can, like free Americans, come and go as they please.

The Great Levelers of History & the Natural State of Man

There have been many great levelers throughout human history, one of which was the railroad, another was the mass-produced automobile, the personal computer, and yes, now the Internet. I believe the natural state of man is egalitarian. This was our Neolithic default condition. We evolved through the millennia as poor and struggling together to survive—to have enough to eat, to provide shelter for our families, to survive the harsh winters. It was not until the rise of civilizations, relatively recently in human history, that our society became drastically stratified and hierarchical. As Michael Moore brazenly points out in Capitalism: A Love Story, the richest 10% of Americans maintain 90% of the nation’s wealth. This is unfair, and humans have a natural abhorrence toward injustice. World of Warcraft functions as a leveler in that no matter how rich or powerful or connected you might be in the real world, in the world of WoW you are born again and forced to remake your identity, achievements, value, etc.

But therein lies another obstacle to the return to Eden: humans instinctively recreate the inequities of our real world in this virtual space. By default, we decide to create a world with levels, a world where some are weak and some are strong, and everybody’s trying to get to the top. It must be that humans can have it no other way. As famously observed in the Matrix mythology, the architects had tried to create a perfect world for humans to reside in, but they broke out of it, growing bored and rebellious. Humans crave inequality, risk, differentiation, strive, struggle, quests, and the chance for glory.

On Playing Alone Together: Laughing at and With Others & the Sense of Social Presence:

Playing an MMORPG for the first time this week, one of my strongest impressions is that the key difference between an MMORPG like WoW vs. a console-based RPG is the fact that there are so many “live” players around you. This does give the world a social network feel, like a Facebook video game? Of course, this could never be the case, I think, because people don’t play the game to share details of their lives. The constant stream of written dialogue and updates, chaotic as it is—requiring a specific “literacy” as Gee would say, one that can only be gained through lots of time reading and observing in WoW—nevertheless serves a kind of entertainment purpose. The anything goes, playful culture of WoW is predicated on a kind of exhibitionism and clever one-upmanship. How can I amuse you while amusing myself? How can I be funnier and more clever than the last person?

Because avatars are detached from real identities people are able to engage in a form of liberated behavior unavailable in the real world. In other game contexts, this can take different forms. In Grand Theft Auto, humans give into repressed sociopathy, letting loose all their carnal, bloody instincts in a way that’s inwardly very satisfying, precisely because you could never do these things in the real world. Similarly, though in a less illicit, less ultraviolent fashion, WoW affords people the chance to throw off the restrictions of the world and the consequences of outrageous behavior. For it is true, most of us are deathly afraid of being embarrassed in public. We have nightmares about—such as the common nightmare of walking around naked. Society socializes us unconsciously, tames us, makes us good little boys and girls. Virtual worlds afford the opportunity to be absurd and be indifferently celebrated for it. The social experience is, for the most part, not a binding one, but a solo one—perhaps even a shallow one. But a shallow social experience, without consequence, that’s amusing, and liberated from worldly obligation, is I suspect, exactly what people are looking for.