Politics and Play

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, and an especially long time since I’ve blogged “for fun” outside of a class requirement, but with the semester starting up again, I wanted to start off with positive habits, creating a space to think through things. For now, I’ve been thinking a lot about politics and what my own interest in play can bring.

Wary of becoming another “It’s Time for Some Game Theory” guy or the writer of a naive think piece that praises some creepy gamifying tactic, I nevertheless think that play, games, etc., have a lot to offer how we consider politics.

Game theory
Image from Know Your Meme

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Thinking through gun control

Mostly, I’ve just been trying to think through a few gun control-related things. I see opinions all over. Memes. Tweets. Enraged Facebook statuses. This may be part and parcel to that storm, but I wanted to take the whole thing slowly.

I really have nothing major to gain or lose in this debate personally. While I live in a violent city (Syracuse), I’m rarely in harms way directly. Perhaps now and then, but gun violence is not a daily reality in my physical proximity. I don’t own guns, but I also don’t have anything against gun ownership. I’m friends with hunters and gun enthusiasts, and consider them fine people. I also recognize that gun ownership is a constitutional right. More than that, it is part of the Bill of Rights, alongside things like freedom of speech and no double jeopardy.

But as Colbert said, when things like mass shootings keep happening, we should look at changing. I suppose the alternative would be to not change and take things how they are, which is an option. Moreover, I don’t think the idea of “change” needs to be threatening or draconian. Middle ground exists. Places for dialogue. Places for compromise. So mostly I want to point to conversations that I don’t see much in the mainstream media or on social media, including the stakes and confines of the debate itself.

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5 YouTube Accounts for a Brain Snack

These days, YouTube is still a great place to find videos of cats or middle school students acting out the Scarlet Letter, equipped with shaky camera shots and wind-buried dialogue. But it’s also a fascinating place to find some videos for a quick brain snack, a short (3-15 minute) video about an “educational” topic, often released weekly. Not only are such videos great background noise for morning routines, they can add some pep and multimedia to a lesson.

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The YouTube Intellectual and Reading

I like YouTube. I like it more than television. Sometimes more than reading. It has plenty of strange alcoves and diverse pickings, from “weird YouTube” with its singing manikins and smashed together YouTube poop to the comedy skits of Mega64 and others. And this just scratches the surface.

I’ve noticed an interesting figure in some of these places. I call it the YouTube Intellectual. An ever-growing spattering of YouTube channels center on intellectual topics or deal with popular topics, like video games, in intellectual ways.

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Noise

“Noise,” as a word, references both the little auditory ripples, wiggles, and waves that surround us and the more metaphorical “noise” that we ascribe to things like media or a crowded, overwrought curtain pattern. Both are pretty similar.

Twitter, for example, bears some resemblance to a street, where each car is sort of doing its own thing, or like a crowded market place, filled with words, many of which I do not care much about, jostling together. Many little conversations or rhetorical projectiles surf by: ideas, images, arguments, rage, humor, injustice, grilled cheese.  They’re all here through a combination of forces, many of which go far beyond me.

To get more specific, I think the busy street and the crowded Twitter feed have four main qualities:

1. Ceaselessness

2. Perceived Disorganization

3. Perceived Lack of Harmony

4. Overwhelming “Volume”

Music provides an easy way to understand this, as it’s more accessible than most nonhuman noise. Ceaselessness, quality one, implies an ongoing character to the sound or media. Twitter always updates. Small gaps of silence exist, but each moment, a new tweet fills the gap. Like Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata’s finale, with its breathless arpeggios, or one of Steve Reich’s pulsing rhythms, noise keeps going.

In the world, noise is always around us. As R. Murray Schafer writes in The Soudscape, “The best way to comprehend what I mean by acoustic design is to regard the soundscape of the world as a huge musical composition, unfolding around us ceaselessly. We are simultaneously its audience, its performers, and its composers.” Sound enfolds us into worlds, into cocoons of ambience, with its ever-present persistence. Reversing this, music also creates worlds, as Mahler argued or Brian Eno undertakes through his ambient music.

But all this has some sort of organization. Some sort of progress, in a sense. It also has harmony. So our next two qualities, disorganization and dissonance, become key fracture points. Take an an Olivier Messiaen piece, which deliberately tries to break traditional tonality in many places, or Cage’s 13 Harmonies, which doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and you get closer, for many people, to “noise.” Indeed, as Cage said in one interview, he prefers noise to the “talking” that most music does.

Sometimes, different world music strikes our ears in odd ways because it may not follow traditional, Western grammar and syntax. It is a different language. But noise lacks grammar and syntax, or at least it lacks the grammar and syntax we can understand. It is alien, and through that distance, it comes across as aharmonic and arhythmic.

Returning to Twitter, I suppose one might argue that it is aharmonic and arhythmic because it lacks an organizing hand. It’s a cluster of voices, in a variety of media, thrown together by a variety of forces. We don’t have newspaper ledes or 5-paragraph essays or whole canvases by a single painter; it’s a quilt stitched by many hands, with different agendas, different materials, different syntax, voice, and grammar.

More deeply, no ideology or purpose grounds these utterances. The #BlackLivesMatter tweets exist alongside angry tweets aimed at Anita Sarkeesian, or stories about Kim Kardashian’s latest shoot or a picture of cats. Lies exist alongside facts. Satire alongside news.

But noise only becomes “noisy” when the volume is too high. It floods in, assaults us, pounds its arythmic, aharmonic agenda against our temples. It hits us with cute cats alongside Syrian refugees. Pictures jumbled up with words, and videos, and hashtags, and emoticons, and all-caps yells, and snide one-liners–ceaseless and staggering.

I’m not the only person to look at media this way. Bruno Latour, for one, moves toward it. But I think we do gain something from studying noise. From sticking our eyes, and ears, and hands into the static and car horn cacophonies of Twitter and the street outside. I’m not quite sure what that “something” is, perhaps a better appreciation for noise, like John Cage, or a better ability to sift through it. I hope, however, that whatever we gain may reduce our anxiety and make us better listeners.

Empathy and Videogames

Most of us, at least in Europe and the UK, remember debates around violence in videogames. School shootings, muggings, general deviance. Like the satirical meme Angry German Kid tries to make fun of, some circles see gamers as crazed keyboard-pounding, gun-hoarding loners.

While studies have complicated this question, videogames have grown regardless of an answer. They surpassed DVD, music, and cinema sales in the UK in 2008 and boast massive opening sales, as with Grand Theft Auto V.

In an academic context, media and literacy scholars like Ian Bogost and James Paul Gee discuss videogames as learning tools and media interfaces. And the folks at PBS have an informative and engaging YouTube channel for game studies.

With videogames growing as a medium, questions like violence, literacy, or ideology become more important.

Lately, I’ve had empathy on the brain as I research for final papers that center on the topic. I’ve also been playing videogames. In particular, I recently got a game called This War of Mine, where you play a noncombatant in a war zone, trying to survive amid the strife.

Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]
Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]

With a catchphrase, “In war, not everyone is a soldier,” the game offers a potent dose of empathy. In fact, for me, it turns the violence debate on its head: how can videogames build empathy?

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Would Kant do the Ice Bucket Challenge?

Most of you are probably familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Celebrities have taken part, including Bill Gates, and it’s been filling social media.

But for those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty simple: when challenged, you either dump ice water on your head or donate $100 or ALS research and treatment. Many donate the money regardless, but if you do dump the ice water, you can challenge three more people, giving them 24 hours to comply. In effect, it goes like this:

The goal, besides raising money, is to spread awareness. The viral quality of the campaign has proven particularly effective, raising over $100 million dollars, according to this article from Aug. 15, and bringing ALS to the forefront of the public sphere. It is a brilliant viral campaign, seeming to make a positive difference.

But for some the project feels too public, too self-broadcasting. It reeks of shallow millennial-led narcissism and low-effort activism, where over-rich Americans throw cold water on themselves, film it, send it to the world, and think it constitutes “help.”

Well, despite some reservations, I think it does.

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Internet Dialects and Online “Space”

I know I’ve been posting a lot lately about the Internet and digital literacy, but this time, it’s based off on one of the more recent Idea Channel videos:

To summarize, many online “speech communities” from specific groups and interfaces have their own linguistic patterns, expressions, and focuses. In the language of the video, they have “dialects,” just as different geographic regions have different wording, slang, and linguistic personalities.

For example, as the video shows, the /b/ forum on 4Chan feels and sounds coarse, chaotic, and (to some) unfriendly. Or Tumblr tends to use many .gifs based off of the .gif-friendly interface.

As I think of these topics, I often turn to the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his conception of the “public sphere.” While the details often differ depending on the theorist or the argument, the public sphere is essentially a space where people from different backgrounds can meet and discuss topics in a united context. Imagine a park, bringing together a web of people, or a coffee shop, open constantly to the public.

A handy diagram to give some clarity. [Image from main.nc.us]
A handy diagram to give some clarity. [Image from main.nc.us]

For Habermas, one of the key principles of the public sphere is its “universal access.” Here, many others attack him, as access to the public sphere often requires certain things, like a reliance on shared symbols and rules, a level of education, and material access. Many also critique his assertion that this public sphere must be rational, a carryover from the historic genealogy that Habermas uses. Action- and meaning-defining discourse may be happening, they arguem even if it is not “rational.”

Thus, while the Internet may seem like a “public sphere” of sorts, it clearly isn’t because it lacks this universal access. You need a connection, something many people do not have, and the Internet lacks the order and unity that a public sphere seems to imply. Its borders and spaces have no geographic limitations. Some exist beyond the realm of legislation. Professional or educational websites coexist with amateur, joking, obscene, pornographic, criminal, and chaotic spaces. Many different languages and symbols collide, and many users don’t “discourse,” but troll or produce random content, like “YouTube poop.”

My vocabulary is deliberately spacial and organic here. Like our living spaces, the Internet is a lived-in space, changed by those who live in it. Or, to go back to language, the Internet is always in a constant dialogue with itself, as the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin might have seen it. It builds meanings, connotations, and references constantly through the shared use of its symbols and spaces. Memes change. Expressions change. Words emerge, like “smol” or “lol.” The Internet and digital technology, in Bakhtin’s language, is the new novel, alive and changing.

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Creepy pasta and Internet “culture”

I’m not talking about some new Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese Halloween-themed release. “Creepy pasta,” a term from 2007, refers to  memes of creepy stories. They are like urban legends or folklore from the Internet. The term itself comes from “copypasta,” a name from 2006 given to easily “copied” and “pasted” documents, around since the 80s.

Creepy pasta has similar roots. In the 90s, for example, people often copied and pasted creepy stories and sent them via e-mail. Many of these ended with an infamous clause, like the Mickey Mouse one that threatened an evil Mickey Mouse would invade your home unless you forwarded the message. Others threatened curses or a ruined love life. As people forwarded the messages, the creepypasta spread.

Image inspired by the "Suicide Mouse" creepypasta. Mickey Mouse is actually quite common in these. [Image from Villians.wikia]
Image inspired by the “Suicide Mouse” creepypasta. I guess Mickey Mouse horror stories live on. [Image from Villians.wikia]

With the advent of Myspace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, and YouTube in 2005, these sorts of things continued into other social media, with comments today using the same ploy. Fortunately, creepypasta has more to offer than evil Mickey Mouses and poorly worded threats.

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