Communication and Technology in the Wild

For my Communication & Technology in the Wild experience I observed Eddie Lohmeyer’s “Joust Assemblage #612 in Black” at the Fish Market Gallery.

The display was in a small, dark room. There was a projector and a video game, Joust, being projected onto the wall farthest from the door. The ambient noise was coming from the video game, it was very soft, and quiet conversation among the spectators. There was light shining on the two white stands where the “controllers” were. Other than the projected game, nothing else was on the walls. Based on these contextual details, the medium is certainly meant to be consumed in a dark space. However, I am unsure that the other factors — small room, blank walls, etc. — are representative of the medium’s intended context, or just the assigned space for the display.

When I walked in, I noticed the video game and then saw that two people were actually playing the game. But not with the controllers typically assumed. On two separate white stands there were these compilations of black materials: a broken iPhone, wires, all these hard materials compiled into something that looked halfway melted together. A silver “bracelet” went around the player’s wrist and with a “stylus” type object the player would touch different areas of the display. By touching different parts, the game characters would move/jump/respond accordingly.

Many people see video games as a source of negativity in societies. For instance, Liel Leibovitz, an assistant professor at New York University said this,

“The realm we enter when we grab the controller and turn on the machine is that of dumb pleasure, governed by the sweet mindfulness — solipsistic, sensual, nearly orgasmic — that is common, indeed, to war and to trance and to other exalted phenomena that we can never fully understand but can only experience.” (“Video Games as Useful Media: A Multiplayer Perspective, p. 75)

After observing this display and the interactions that took place, I cannot disagree more. Video games as a medium are educationally enriching, invite social engagement, and mirror cultural concepts.

When thinking about how the history of this medium is represented I kept thinking about arcades. The set up and the way individuals were interacting with one another was similar to an arcade setting. A couple people actually playing the game, interacting with the medium, and the rest of us were watching. We were watching other people interact with the medium itself. In fact, more people were interested in observing the game being played than actually playing it. This reminded me of the section of T.L. Taylor and Emma Witkowski’s article, “This is how we play it: What a Mega-LAN can teach us about games,” where they discuss the role of spectatorship in gaming.

“…If we were to stand back and look around that imagined player a bit, what we would often see are people sitting alongside on the sofa or someone with a chair pulled up next to the player, all watching the action on the screen, sometimes (but not always) waiting to take their own turn but just as often playing-over-the-shoulder or giving tips…We want to argue that to understand play in computer games we need to more fully attend to the nature of spectatorship.” (p. 3)

At the display, many spectators were giving tips on where to touch the controller and what action to complete. Most were eager to give help, but there was not a lot of urgency to play next.

After watching the display, I started considering my own thoughts and interactions with it. I noticed the spectators’ lack of enthusiasm to play the game themselves and started wondering if there was hesitancy in some way. And then I started thinking about Uncertainty Reduction Theory. For myself, there was definitely hesitancy. When looking at the “game,” I was almost uncomfortable. I did not understand how it was working or what the purpose of it was. I was extremely uncertain. And because of that, I was very hesitant to interact with it or play it myself. I had not seen something like that before and had reservations about it, even though it was just a game. I did not want to do something wrong or somehow mess up the display. But, as time went on, spectators and myself started to warm up to the idea of playing and eventually started tinkering around with the controller. For myself at least, this was to reduce the uncertainty I felt about a video game experience so unlike what I have ever interacted with before. Although Uncertainty Reduction Theory is applied/observed between two people, (“Uncertain Outcome Values in Predicted Relationships Uncertainty Reduction Theory Then and Now”), I see it expanding further to apply to human and machine interactions. (Side note: I was surprised to have trouble finding research regarding URT and games. I think scholarship regarding the relationship between the two would be beneficial.)

Similar to this idea, I viewed the display as a disruption of electronic gaming norms. Because the controllers were so unusual and surprising, it disrupted the users potential previous interaction with the game Joust or simply their interaction with “normal” video game console controllers. I believe that this disruption also caused a disruption in fully engaging with the medium. In “Slot of Fun Slots of Trouble: An Archaeology of Arcade Gaming” Erkki Huhtamo said,

“Playing became a way of being in two places at the same time (bilocation): entering into an intense relationship with an enclosed microworld and remaining at the same time part of a group of peers in the surrounding physical space.” (p. 10)

While playing video games that are more familiar to us, it is easier to become submerged in the game itself. And on the other hand, when the game, or in this case the means for playing the game, is foreign that we remain more in the physical space. In a sense not allowing our minds to fully enter the “microworld.” I believe this to be true because of watching individuals interact with the display with what appeared to be hesitancy to fully embrace it, or perhaps a greater interest in remaining part of the spectator group.

The roles of the employees/volunteers were minimal in this process. Lohmeyer was in the room monitoring, offering help to those playing and explaining the display. Other than him, there was not really a need for anyone else to help maintain the space.

There were not written rules for interacting with this medium, but certainly some unwritten. First, without being sure if the display was even intended for use by viewers, it was necessary to ask before using. Second, the materials that made up the controllers should be handled delicately, especially for those of us who have no idea what is controlling what/how fragile the system might be. I am unsure if within the video game community there are unwritten rules or expected norms of behavior.

When considering what these conditions tell us about the social/cultural status of the medium I started to do some research on video games and video game culture. I found that people, particularly those who do not consider themselves “gamers,” tend to consider video gamers solely as a subculture, rather than as an entity that permeates culture holistically. In “What is video game culture? Cultural studies and game studies,” Adrienne Shaw says,

”Defining gaming culture as something distinct and separate from a constructed mainstream culture encourages us to only study those who identify as gamers, rather than more dispersed gaming. That is, we should look at video games in culture rather than games as culture. Video games permeate education, mobile technologies, museum displays, social functions, family interactions, and workplaces. They are played by many if not all ages, genders, sexualities, races, religions, and nationalities. Not all of these types of play and players can be encompassed in a study of an isolated gamer community.” (p.14)

This kind of thinking coincides well with Lohmeyer’s display. The disruption of how users interact with the video game can also extend to disrupting one’s ideas about video games and those who play video games. For me personally, it is easy to assign a certain idea, usually stereotypical, of the people who frequently play video games or are interested in them. This type of thinking is unfair and can be inaccurate. Video games are used in so many different ways, like to represent theoretical ideas as is the case for Lohmeyer’s technology. I think the social/cultural status of the medium has begun to shift into a concept that is becoming more widely accepted, more widely used, and that the value of studying it is becoming easier to see.

Those who view Lohmeyer’s display might wonder what his motivation was for creating an unusual, and slightly confusing, video game adaptation. Besides representing certain theoretical concepts, there are other benefits to creating a technology like this. According to Ratto and Ree in “Materializing Information: 3D Printing and Social Change,”

“Many DIYers report that they are driven less by financial interests than more by intangible benefits such as opportunities to learn, apply creativity, and share knowledge (Kuznetsov and Paulos, 2010). While the implications of non–monetary gain on the digital economy will be discussed in coming sections, what is notable here is that these developments reflect a shift in consumer attitude away from the notion of material production as an experts–only profit–making enterprise, to a view of making and modifying as experiential learning (a notion that runs parallel to our research work in Critical Making).”

This is not a difficult thing to agree with. Besides Lohmeyer’s undoubted desire to represent something or make a statement, creating things is intrinsically rewarding. It is one thing to talk about an idea and an entirely more satisfying thing to make something on your own that represents that idea. It allows the narrative to extend to the physical.

An additional observation about Lohmeyer’s display is that not only was he disrupting the typical interaction with a video game, but in a similar way was also disrupting the preferred aesthetic for a machine. Typically, people like for their machines and technologies to be sleek, clean, and blend in with all other aspects of our lives in a seamless manner. In “Geek Chic: Machine Aesthetics, Digital Gaming, and the Cultural Politics of the Case Mod” Simon said,

“Like the iMac aesthetic, the goal of console and console game design is to minimize the hardware and maximize the spectacle of the gaming experience. It is a basic truism of game design that if a player has to fiddle too much with the console controller, then the game will not be commercially successful.” (p. 7)

Lohmeyer’s display is in stark contrast to this. Maneuvering one’s player on the game required touching arbitrary areas on the controller. Players had difficulties figuring out the controller and getting their player to respond because there were no apparent reference points for movement.

When thinking about the display, I started to wonder if the selection of “Joust” as the game played in the display was an intentional, purposeful decision, or if maybe it was a simple, straightforward game to coincide with the technology used. In researching the game itself, I found that it falls under the “Indie” category of video games. I was not sure what the implications of this were at first. According to Simon,

“Independent games however, invite us to focus on the complexities of the ways that games are made and on the micro-economics and idiocultures of game production and consumption. The stories of the provenance of indie games are no less romantic and smoothed over than those of Ubisoft…but playing an indie game as an indie game makes us attend closely to, and even participate, in the mode of production of the games we study.” (“Indie Eh? Some kind of Game Studies.” p. 3)

Whether or not Lohmeyer’s use of an indie game was intentional, which I choose to believe it was, its significance parallels to studying the console and the complexities therein.

In observing the display and researching on my own, I have thought a lot about games and disruption and the purpose of creating things or adapting things that have already been created. Video games as a medium has evolved faster than scholars have been able to keep up with. And it will continue to evolve. It is something that before much research I had not given much thought to. After observing the display and researching the medium, I genuinely see a lot of value in exploring the theoretical principles that coincide with video games and the ways they emerge in our culture.

Sources:

Berger, C. (2006). Uncertain Outcome Values in Predicted Relationships: Uncertainty Reduction Theory Then and Now. Human Communication Research, 34–38.

Huhtamo, E. (2005). Slots of fun, slots of trouble: An archeology of arcade gaming. In J. Raessens & J. Goldstein (eds.), Handbook of Computer Games Studies. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1–21.

Hunting, K. and Zolides, A. (2013). Video Games as Useful Media: A Multiplayer Perspective. The Velvet Light Trap. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 72–76.

Ratto, M. and Ree, R. (2012). Materializing information: 3D printing and social change. First Monday, 7(2).

Shaw, A. (2010). What Is Video Game Culture? Cultural Studies and Game Studies. Games and Culture, 403–424.

Simon, B. (2007). Geek chic: Machine aesthetics, digital gaming, and the cultural politics of the case mod. Games and Culture, 2(3), pp. 175–193.

Simon, B. (2013). Indie Eh? Some kind of Game Studies. The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association, 1–7.

Taylor, T.L. and Witkowski, E. (2010). This is how we play it: What a mega-­‐LAN can teach us about games. FDG ’10. Montery, CA, June 19-­‐21.

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