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The Residual Media Depot summer school

I had the pleasure of being one of the participants in the Media Archaeology summer school in Montreal at the Residual Media Depot (Concordia). Invited by Darren Wershler, and teaching alongside also Lori Emerson, we had a wonderful group of participants from Canada, Finland, USA, UK and Spain whose own projects and their work at the Depot during the week demonstrated a fantastically broad spectrum of what media archaeology can perform.

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I could not emphasise the word perform enough: while we engaged with the theoretical limits and limitations of theoretical work in and around media archaeology, including how it interfaces with for example infrastructure studies, the various probes the students presented and the hands-on work in the Depot investigated the idea of collections as part of the methodology. The performative aspect of media archaeology – and theory broadly speaking – allows to both see it as a situated practice that benefits from its access to institutions and collections as well as creates the space for such to exist: to imagine a media archaeology lab or a collection becomes also a projective way of engaging with the current themes of reshifting humanities infrastructure and institutional changes. As Wershler and Lori Emerson, the director of the Media Archaeology Lab at Boulder, Colorado, also underlined, it is through the particular materiality and access to collections that one can think differently in relation to what are often deemed objects of (media) cultural heritage.

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Relating the course’s themes to also his own research, Wershler explained how his interest in the cultural life of signals builds on work in the Depot too. To engage in the work of assembly through old but still functioning systems one is led to understand the various ways the life of signals is constantly constructed and re-constructed across multiple fields of agency from hobbyists to the mini-industry building the various technological tools for an afterlife of for example consoles.

Media archaeology embodies multiple temporalities. The different theoretical frameworks from Erkki Huhtamo to Siegfried Zielinski to Wolfgang Ernst are different solutions to the problem of time – how to approach time differently in methodological ways and in ways that understand technical temporality. For example, Ernst’s ways of approaching time criticality and temporal operationality are something that both offer a different ontological take on technology and also can act as interesting guides in how we work with collections such as the Depot.

In my view, the Residual Media Depot was a perfect platform for the workshop. Wershler had designed the week as a mix of theoretical investigations, student probes and practice-based work that functioned somewhere between maker methodologies, art practices and an archival interest in collections that are important for media theory too. The collection is focused on cultures and technologies of gaming with a special focus on consoles, but as Wershler emphasises, it is not a game archaeology depot. The consoles and the material around them is an entry point to media history and signal culture.

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In several ways, the Depot’s work aligns nicely with the Media Archaeology Lab but also with our AMT group: to establish a framework and an enabling situation for a research-teaching continuum that is interested as much in practice-based work as it is in explicating what practices of theory are. All of this feeds also as part of the Lab Book we are writing together.

You can find more information about the Depot on their website and on the same site you can find all the student probes from our week of Media Archaeology.

The Residual Media Depot (RMD) is a project of the Media History Research Centre in the Milieux Institute at Concordia University.

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The Last Pokestop

One does not need an episode of Black Mirror to imagine this quiet future-now landscape: the smaller and smaller rural towns and villages in Finland, emptied of jobs, paper factories, community halls and services.

First came the replacement of the abandoned paper mills with international corporate data server facilities. Gradually the towns turned only into pokestops for the random visitors passing by.

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The 21st century Finnish version of the lyrics “This town, is coming like a ghost town” is the ghostly presence of a pokestop that is too far away. The last pokestop.

War, scarcity and other playful things of life

January 21, 2010 Leave a comment


Fun Inc. by Tom Chatfield was not as interesting as I hoped it is going to be. For most parts, it was telling what I already knew; that games are not played only by teenaged boys in their cellars, alone, with a blood-craving look in their eyes. No, instead they are social, reach various social layers, teach us a variety of skills from emotional to intellectual, and that also the army and the education institutions are interested in them. Fair enough, perhaps we still need such books to spread out the fact that games are not just games, but constitute a key feature of contemporary digital culture. Its not only “games” as objects or products but a whole set of patterns of behavior, gestures, affects and emotions that constitute a wider field of “gamelike” elements of which digital culture consists of. Hence, such seeming oxymorons as serious games (games used for learning or other “serious” activities like politics) are taking over. Or then casual games, used to fill in that 3 minutes you have of your personal time. I am still yet to see that perfect post-fordist analysis of the management of time and a care for the self in the context of casual gaming.

To be fair, Chatfield included some nice sections. His chapter on Second Lives pointed out the weird patterns of labour of social media platforms — from goldfarming to such original interventions as Jeff Crouse and Stephanie Rothenberg’s Invisible Thread’s project that staged a virtual sweatshop on Second Life.

Thinking about gaming cultures, I was reminded of (quasi-)Zizekian ideas concerning how people want their own slavery and such social media and game platforms are good examples of such. They are both able to articulate the real world cultures of scarcity, but at time same time showing how it seems impossible to even think/desire outside such modes of capitalist scarcity. Chatfield mentions one early virtual world The Palace (1995) that was supposed to introduce a world without real life limitations. As Chatfield writes, people were not however ready for such radical ideas, “People, it turned out, were extremely attached to scarcity. They liked it so much, in fact, that not only did they prefer virtual worlds in which there were strict limits on available resources over ones in which you would simply have anything you wanted; they were actually prepared to pay money to spend time in these scarce worlds.” (173) In Zizekian terms, even if such a world without limitations was somehow possible there, people did not find the needed cognitive and affective attitudes of how to cope with that. What to do with that lack of scarcity? In terms of how it articulates the artificial scarcity continuously maintained by neoliberalism, such virtual worlds become really interesting.

Finally, again from one of the better chapters, this one on the one on war, Chatfield seems to write suddenly like Friedrich Kittler. Hence, I could not resist quoting him in length (Chatfield that is):

“In this respect, it’s clear that being well prepared for modern warfare shares many elements with good preparation for modern life: you need to be able to live and breathe certain kinds of software and hardware. Most of your actions are mediated by complex machines, while your sphere of power and information extends well beyond the personal space you occupy. You are a networked individual, using multiple tools, often deluged with information and options.” (192-193)

Having just yesterday finally seen Gamer, something that Steven Shaviro has been going on about (and for a good reason), this description seems apt and accurate idea of some of the techno-affective links between gaming cultures and war; what Shaviro brings in his wonderful analysis of Gamer is of course neoliberalism. I cannot but warmly recommend his text on the topic.

Tetris: The Training Ground

June 2, 2009 4 comments

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I am for sure not the only one wishing Tetris a happy 25 year old birthday, but still, the game has deserved it. Its addicting, fun, and indeed: with no purpose in itself. Sounds familiar? Almost like everyday life, except the fun bit.

It’s also a wonderful piece of living media archaeology, especially now in the midst of the boom concerning “casual games”. That’s of course what mobile entertainment was/is supposed to be, but also all those small, simple games that you can just pick up / log into, and end as casually as you started them. Like mobile games, they are meant to kill the couple of minutes between chores, the tube trip to work place, or back, or the time while waiting for your date who is late.
Casual. Does not demand much attention, but enough to keep the game going. Addictive, but to a degree that it can be indeed left alone for a while. Part of the fragmented everyday routine, so that it can add an extra scale of fragmentation and hence act as a “training ground” for the crucial skills of contemporary work sphere: flexibity, readyness for changes, quickly shifting temporalities, etc.
I would be actually tempted to exaggerate that Tetris was an early crucial phase of this training — not only the senso-motorial skills that it and a bunch of other early games imposed on the user; but also in terms of its place as part of the everyday media sphere. I think Friedrich Kittler referred somewhere to discos as the training ground for future wars (the ability to react to impulses, maneuver in spaces defined by quick paced sonic and visual rhythms, etc.), but perhaps Tetris and other early games were the crucial training for our computerized post-Fordist sphere.

That’s actually what I quite often find lacking in some of the even brilliant Italian and Italian inspired writers of post-Fordism: a meticulous and accurate analysis of the network and computer society that contributes and frames those themes that Virno, Lazzarato, Negri, Hardt, etc. are offering. I know Bifo gets closer to this topic, but I feel that on this front, there is a huge amount to be done.

As a bonus, click here for 5 classic Tetris adverts! Hilarious stuff.
See also the Guardian story on the topic.