Monday, September 20, 2010

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.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

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.

Friday, July 30, 2010


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.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

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.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Lesson 5: Discourse
C&I 675: Researching Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Spencer Striker

Assignment Due: Collect an in-game chatlog and analyze it for (a) linguistic features and (b) big-D Discourse.

At 1:42am on July 15, 2010, I was adventuring on the Loch Modan map of World of Warcraft, collecting Tunnel Rat Ears from their cruel and unwilling owners, when Papanov shot me a piece of dialogue that I neither paid attention to at the time nor fully understand now. He said, “need help.” I had noticed that another player had entered the Tunnel Rat village where I was slaying the pesky devils, but I had only though to myself, “Good, perhaps this person will thin them out so I can kill them more easily.” Shortly thereafter Papanov asked me to ‘Join a Group,’ something I’d never done before—at least not with a perfect stranger while out in the wild. After a brief hesitation, I accepted. Now, I will analyze the hour and a half that I spent campaigning with Papanov—a conversation that oscillated between being something like the crisp communication of two soldiers on a mission together and the awkward, uneven exchange of two foreign travelers separated by age, language, and worlds of experience.

Analyzing my conversation with Papanov as a little d discourse, ie. the functional, commonplace aspects of language that people use to get things done.

“Need help.” This short, curt phrase—which I missed at the time—could either mean: he needed help or he was wondering if I needed help, and was willing to offer it. In general, Papanov utilized an ambiguous, interpretable lack of punctuation in all of his communications. This mode of writing reminds me of the poor email etiquette I experience often from my colleagues at work—emails that are short, curt, and lacking in the formalities of civility that people use when speaking in person. Stripped of these elements—niceties, punctuation, opening and closing salutations—these brief digital messages can appear cold, even hostile. Of course, this is rarely the intention of the sender. The person sending the message is simply busy mass processing so many of these micro-communications that to add such embellishments seems like an unnecessary extra effort. This becomes the norm, and everyone follows suit. But the problem is that without the affectations of politeness, reading email can become a cold, stark, utilitarian endeavor. The personality goes out of it. Of course, Papanov’s bare writing style contains elements of this so-called ‘poor email etiquette,’ but also many elements of Millennial Generation speak.

Upon completion of the tedious, grinding task of collecting twelve Tunnel Rat ears, in an attempt to seem friendly and enthusiastic, I added an exclamation point, “Just got my 12th ear!”

“And,” he responded.

Again, the dryness was interpretable. Did he mean, genuinely, “what’s the significance, my friend? Please explain.” Or did he mean, “so what, n00b, do you have a point to your amateurish, overly enthusiastic blustering?” Rather than enquire, I decided to test whether Papanov was truly committed to our newly formed friendship by declaring, “off to filthy paws if you want to come.” I decided to stop using punctuation as well—being an experienced texter, I was able to make this ‘code shift’ swiftly. As I ran off, he followed close behind. Then he said, “nice bear.” Once again, I couldn’t tell if he was being facetious, making fun of my Level 12 Elder Black Bear pet—of which I have grown irrationally fond, coming to see him as an old trusted (digital) friend—or whether he legitimately was admiring my big, furry, ferocious sidekick, something he could never have due to his race and class.

“Click number lock.” I had no idea what he meant and it seemed irrelevant to my obsessive leveling. “Click number lock? Wha?” I responded. At once I intended to a. tactfully not ignore his advice and b. via the use of the slang, Wha, demonstrate that I was ‘hip, with it, down with the lingo.’ “its makes u run non stop just click.” “I see, but where’s the miners gear?” I asked. Again, I tried to demonstrate that I was listening to his advice appreciatively, despite my preoccupation with leveling. Though I said, “I see,” I still had no idea what he was talking about, and didn’t really care either. Later, of course, when I finally processed what he meant, I realized he was observing how I was struggling to move fast and he was offering valuable advice on how to move faster with more consistency. Throughout our exchange, Papanov was eager to impart advice to me—more so, I believe, because I both communicated that I could use it and was open to receiving it.

Analyzing my conversation with Papanov as a Big D discourse, ie. the ways of thinking and being in the world.

Almost from the first moment I began interacting with Papanov, I got the sense that he was very young—a boy between the ages of ten to thirteen. “Want 1 gold,” he said, all of a sudden. This was a question, though there was no question mark. By now, I knew what he meant. And I accepted the money without question too, instinctively recognizing this to be a rare expression of generosity, a unique opportunity—perhaps my reward for being a faithful friend. “Thanks.” “No prob,” he responded. Then a little later, “my bros gana b pist.” Aha, I thought: he’s a kid who’s hijacked his older brother’s WoW account. Throughout our Discourse, I learned many meta-level things about him and he learned much about me—though probably not that I was secretly recording our conversation for analysis for a university course on Virtual Worlds.

I acted like a newbie multiple times during our time campaigning together, but perhaps none more grievously obvious then when I tried to lead the two of us to collect the head of Chok’Sul, an elite level monster on the outskirts of the map. “Let’s get out of here and go get the head.” I led us across the long bridge. “No hes levl 2o,” Papanov warned. “hes lvl 20.” He repeated, as I ignored him and pushed into Chok’Sul territory. “Don’t swim,” he said cryptically. Then, “stop.” I led us straight into a gang of overpowering, aggressive Dark Iron Insurgents who quickly killed us both, and our little pets too. I tried a few more times to doggedly push ahead in the face of overwhelming bloody setbacks before leading us to retreat to the bridge.

I learned the hard way—through experience—what Papanov had tried to impart to me through warnings: that we weren’t ready for that quest yet. Of course, despite the fact that I made a ‘faux pas,’—a newbish social blunder—Papanov did not seem to really care or hold it against me. My interpretation is that he preferred playing socially and found my amateurish mistakes more charming and interesting than it would have been to simply go adventuring on his own. The fact that he had so much gold—and that he was probably playing his brother’s avatar—causes me to think that his brother has long since taken other avatars to elite levels in the game, and that this younger brother, who’s not terribly committed to the leveling up of his brother’s level thirteen character, is in fact far more interested in the social interactions possible in a late night round of gaming. Who will he meet? What kind of interesting experiences might he have? Realizing I had little to teach him, he took on the role of mentor—albeit sometimes cranky instructor—teaching me how to run, trade, take free gold, back off when not ready, duel, and even dance. I became his apprentice, as he sought to move me “from the periphery to the center.”

The Following Transcript Occurred on 7/15 between 1:42am-3:19am; a d/Discourse Between my avatar, Zzblackstone, and Papanov in World of Warcraft.

(Certain non-communication text has been edited out to make it easier to follow our conversation).

7/15 01:42:57.486 Papanov says: need help

7/15 01:55:01.062 Papanov has invited you to join a group.

7/15 01:55:57.628 Zzblackstone says: Just got my 12th ear!

7/15 01:56:14.614 Papanov says: and

7/15 01:56:40.492 Zzblackstone says: off to filthy paws if you want to come

7/15 01:59:17.001 Papanov says: nice bear

7/15 02:01:17.206 Papanov says: click number lock

7/15 02:01:22.353 Your share of the loot is 8 Copper.

7/15 02:01:26.781 Papanov receives loot: Worn Leather Vest.

7/15 02:01:45.890 Zzblackstone says: click number lock? wha?

7/15 02:04:34.412 Papanov says: its makes u run non stop just click

7/15 02:05:10.852 Zzblackstone says: i see, but where's the miners gear?

7/15 02:05:27.485 Papanov says: ?

7/15 02:05:34.851 Zzblackstone says: guessing its in here

7/15 02:09:02.936 Zzblackstone says: Let's get out of here and go get the head

7/15 02:09:35.826 Elder Black Bear dies, you gain 54 experience.

7/15 02:09:41.001 Papanov says: no hes levl 2o

7/15 02:09:41.438 You receive loot: Chipped Bear Tooth.

7/15 02:09:41.838 You receive loot: Bear Meat.

7/15 02:10:04.721 Papanov says: hes lvl 20

7/15 02:14:40.532 Papanov says: dont swim

7/15 02:16:04.785 Zzblackstone says: do you need to swim for this

7/15 02:16:23.195 Papanov says: i hav 9 gold 81 silv 68 copper

7/15 02:16:40.119 Papanov says: im ritch!

7/15 02:16:48.686 Zzblackstone says: awesome

7/15 02:17:17.085 Papanov says: stop

7/15 02:24:24.516 Papanov says: trade

7/15 02:24:50.395 Zzblackstone says: what do you want that I have, never traded before

7/15 02:24:56.783 Papanov says: dude trade

7/15 02:25:40.628 Papanov says: right click on my picture

7/15 02:25:47.858 You receive item: Battered Mallet.

7/15 02:25:47.860 You receive item: Light Leatherx5.

7/15 02:26:20.564 Zzblackstone says: k

7/15 02:26:54.532 Papanov says: how is it

7/15 02:27:16.329 Zzblackstone says: can we swim over ther

7/15 02:27:22.911 Zzblackstone says: e

7/15 02:27:36.544 With arms flapping, Papanov struts around. Cluck, Cluck, Chicken!

7/15 02:27:52.600 Papanov falls asleep. Zzzzzzz.

7/15 02:28:09.103 Papanov bursts into dance.

7/15 02:28:18.541 Zzblackstone says: Can we take a boat?

7/15 02:28:29.543 Papanov says: idk

7/15 02:29:16.699 Papanov creates: Soul Shard.

7/15 02:29:22.673 Papanov creates: Soul Shard.

7/15 02:29:24.042 Stonesplinter Seer attempts to run away in fear!

7/15 02:29:26.057 Stonesplinter Seer dies, you gain 57 experience.

7/15 02:29:31.313 Your share of the loot is 8 Copper.

7/15 02:30:20.994 Papanov says: thanks

7/15 02:33:05.432 Papanov says: want 1 gold

7/15 02:33:38.523 Zzblackstone says: thanks

7/15 02:33:58.075 Papanov says: no prob

7/15 02:37:10.505 Papanov says: my bros gana b pist

7/15 02:42:10.567 Papanov says: watch me

7/15 02:42:16.932 Papanov sets

7/15 02:42:21.843 Papanov sets

7/15 02:42:26.472 Papanov sets

7/15 02:42:26.657 You have selected Need for: Simple Branch of Shadow Wrath

7/15 02:42:30.952 Papanov sets

7/15 02:42:44.638 Papanov has selected Need for: Simple Branch of Shadow Wrath

7/15 02:42:44.639 Need Roll - 91 for Simple Branch of Shadow Wrath by Papanov

7/15 02:42:44.640 Need Roll - 90 for Simple Branch of Shadow Wrath by Zzblackstone

7/15 02:42:44.641 Papanov won: Simple Branch of Shadow Wrath

7/15 02:42:45.001 Papanov receives loot: Simple Branch of Shadow Wrath.

7/15 02:43:17.218 Papanov says: wat u want wat mark

7/15 02:43:19.147 Stonesplinter Seer dies, you gain 57 experience.

7/15 02:43:29.625 Papanov sets

7/15 02:43:31.642 Your share of the loot is 2 Copper.

7/15 02:43:35.859 Papanov sets

7/15 02:43:43.443 Papanov sets

7/15 02:43:52.909 Stonesplinter Skullthumper attempts to run away in fear!

7/15 02:43:54.963 Stonesplinter Skullthumper dies, you gain 60 experience.

7/15 02:44:36.695 You receive item: Simple Branch of Shadow Wrath.

7/15 02:44:36.753 You receive item: Worn Leather Vest.

7/15 02:44:45.224 Your share of the loot is 10 Copper.

7/15 02:44:45.613 You receive loot: Linen Clothx3.

7/15 02:44:56.547 Papanov says: cant use it

7/15 02:45:00.069 You receive loot: Calico Tunic.

7/15 02:46:02.596 Papanov says: wat shape u want

7/15 02:49:20.606 Zzblackstone says: let's trade later when I can sell some stuff

7/15 02:49:25.970 Zzblackstone says: too full

7/15 02:49:34.940 Papanov says: k

7/15 02:49:50.559 Zzblackstone says: need to kill two more stonesplinter seers

7/15 02:50:21.964 Papanov creates: Soul Shard.

7/15 02:50:24.757 Papanov creates: Soul Shard.

7/15 02:51:02.223 Papanov says: all i can use is wrist bands pants and boots cloth onley

7/15 02:52:15.686 Zzblackstone says: one more seer

7/15 02:52:52.625 Stonesplinter Seer says: Destroy!

7/15 02:52:59.540 Papanov says: wat shape u want above ur head

7/15 02:53:53.071 Papanov says: ready

7/15 02:53:58.514 Zzblackstone says: awesome, let's get out of here

7/15 02:54:59.977 Papanov sets

7/15 02:56:20.517 Papanov says: that better no mark aboveur head

7/15 02:57:38.930 Papanov says: wait

7/15 02:59:22.630 You gain 1050 experience.

7/15 02:59:22.631 In Defense of the King's Lands completed.

7/15 02:59:22.631 Experience gained: 1050.

7/15 02:59:22.631 Received 7 Silver.

7/15 02:59:22.633 Received 3 of item: Lesser Healing Potion.

7/15 02:59:22.634 Reputation with Ironforge increased by 250.

7/15 02:59:22.942 You receive item: Lesser Healing Potionx3.

7/15 03:00:16.187 Quest accepted: In Defense of the King's Lands

7/15 03:01:05.144 Papanov says: in need 2 finish quests 2

7/15 03:01:10.665 Changed Channel: |Hchannel:-1073752334|h[(null)]|h

7/15 03:01:10.665 Changed Channel: |Hchannel:-1073752334|h[(null)]|h

7/15 03:01:14.574 Changed Channel: |Hchannel:-1073752334|h[(null)]|h

7/15 03:01:14.575 Changed Channel: |Hchannel:-1073752334|h[(null)]|h

7/15 03:01:50.003 Zzblackstone says: cool, I think I'm gonna crash buddy, but it's been great playing with ya

7/15 03:01:54.046 Elder Black Bear dies, you gain 54 experience.

7/15 03:02:06.270 Papanov says: k

7/15 03:02:27.719 Duel starting: 3

7/15 03:02:28.738 Duel starting: 2

7/15 03:02:29.762 Duel starting: 1

7/15 03:03:12.363 Papanov has defeated Zzblackstone in a duel

7/15 03:03:12.365 %s has earned the achievement Duel-icious!

7/15 03:03:24.729 Papanov says: nice job

7/15 03:03:36.398 Papanov says: now u win

7/15 03:03:42.517 Duel starting: 3

7/15 03:03:43.537 Duel starting: 2

7/15 03:03:44.553 Duel starting: 1

7/15 03:03:58.418 %s has earned the achievement Duel-icious!

7/15 03:03:58.418 Zzblackstone has defeated Papanov in a duel

7/15 03:04:11.940 Zzblackstone says: Fun, thanks

7/15 03:04:14.215 Papanov says: achevment

7/15 03:04:19.925 Zzblackstone says: yeah

7/15 03:04:25.958 Zzblackstone says: good stuff

7/15 03:04:49.400 Papanov says: ya stayin

7/15 03:04:56.910 Elder Black Bear dies, you gain 54 experience.

7/15 03:05:20.974 Zzblackstone says: trying to hit 13, v close

7/15 03:05:42.207 Papanov says: num lock

7/15 03:05:43.649 Zzblackstone says: gonna buy stuff and grind to 13 in town

7/15 03:06:21.723 Zzblackstone says: good tip

7/15 03:07:37.685 Papanov says: right click on my pic and claick fallow then no hands

7/15 03:07:46.128 Elder Black Bear dies, you gain 54 experience.

7/15 03:08:13.860 Papanov says: u do it

7/15 03:08:33.270 Zzblackstone says: cool

7/15 03:08:53.766 Papanov says: look ma no hands

7/15 03:09:02.141 Mangy Mountain Boar dies, you gain 60 experience.

7/15 03:09:26.569 Elder Black Bear dies, you gain 54 experience.

7/15 03:09:50.608 Papanov says: cood i tipe this wile following u manuley

7/15 03:09:57.536 Grizzled Black Bear dies, you gain 57 experience.

7/15 03:10:05.658 Discovered Grizzlepaw Ridge: 90 experience gained

7/15 03:10:21.678 Mangy Mountain Boar dies, you gain 60 experience.

7/15 03:10:27.125 Papanov says: wat the

7/15 03:10:52.203 Grizzled Black Bear dies, you gain 57 experience.

7/15 03:11:18.746 Grizzled Black Bear dies, you gain 60 experience.

7/15 03:11:20.506 Papanov says: how close r u now

7/15 03:11:42.072 Papanov receives loot: Chipped Bear Tooth.

7/15 03:11:42.464 Papanov receives loot: Bear Meat.

7/15 03:12:11.390 Elder Black Bear dies, you gain 48 experience.

7/15 03:12:41.124 Forest Lurker dies, you gain 41 experience.

7/15 03:13:26.843 Papanov whispers: jkrykfkjytkuyttttytuutyiui

7/15 03:13:41.428 Papanov sets

7/15 03:13:48.834 Papanov sets

7/15 03:13:57.588 Papanov sets

7/15 03:14:10.334 Mountain Boar dies, you gain 41 experience.

7/15 03:14:29.643 Mountain Boar dies, you gain 48 experience.

7/15 03:14:43.696 Mountain Boar dies, you gain 48 experience.

7/15 03:14:52.797 Papanov whispers: nice

7/15 03:14:55.701 Zzblackstone says: I got 13

7/15 03:15:10.652 Zzblackstone says: Nice playing w ya, let's do it again sometime

7/15 03:15:23.835 Papanov says: this

7/15 03:15:35.606 Papanov says: wait

7/15 03:15:50.805 Papanov says: meat u in the town later

7/15 03:16:09.667 Zzblackstone says: sho nuff, good night bud!

7/15 03:16:11.221 Papanov says: pres dance

7/15 03:16:31.810 Zzblackstone says: where

7/15 03:16:33.847 Papanov bursts into dance.

7/15 03:17:08.213 Papanov says: the main town behind me

7/15 03:17:20.264 Zzblackstone says: where's dance button

7/15 03:17:57.698 Zzblackstone says: later!

7/15 03:18:04.973 Papanov says: no tipe dnace but befor that hit the slash buttin

7/15 03:18:14.210 Papanov says: dance

7/15 03:18:35.565 You burst into dance.

7/15 03:18:36.833 Papanov dances with Bear.

7/15 03:18:51.893 Papanov says: nice moves

7/15 03:19:00.389 FRIEND_OFFLINE

7/15 03:19:06.584 Papanov says: wait

7/15 03:19:10.903 Zzblackstone says: thanks

7/15 03:19:13.013 FRIEND_ONLINE

7/15 03:19:34.660 With arms flapping, Papanov struts around Bear. Cluck, Cluck, Chicken!

7/15 03:19:46.020 Papanov dances with Bear.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Framing Games & Learning

Lesson 2: Framing Games & Learning
C&I 675: Researching Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Spencer Striker
Assignment Due: Analyze the first ten levels of World of Warcraft based on Gee’s 36 principles. How is the game built for learning?

Analyzing World of Warcraft’s Notion of Framing Games & Learning via a Close Reading of James Paul Gee’s “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.”

So, I’m finally starting to ‘flow’ with my Dwarf Hunter, ZZ Blackstone—I mean flow in the sense of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, or better yet, Jenova Chen. I’ve overcome the initial inertia of learning a new game system, a new control layout, a new gestalt—a new mise en scene. And yes, as Gee suggests, I’m becoming increasingly addicted to the gameplay, continuously seeking one more quest—one more level up—before I can find a good place to pause. This kind of perfect balance in the unfolding gameplay action reveals expert game design on the part of Blizzard. Their design team has executed a masterfully incremental learning by leveling up/leveling up by learning system, that’s always just hard enough to be challenging, but fulfilling and rewarding at the same time.

Since I only have a few pages to work with here, I’m going to select some of James Paul Gee’s key Video Game Learning Principles and apply them analytically to my specific experience playing World of Warcraft’s first ten levels.

2. The Design Principle. As Raph Koster once said in a GZ interview, “all games are systemic,” meaning they play out according to hard and fast rules. These gameplay dynamics and conventions can become well understood, predictable, and eventually mastered by students of the game, as happens when Halo players exploit glitches either to gain an advantage or to amuse themselves. In the process of unmasking the game’s design architecture, players begin to appreciate the artifice of game design and its principles. The corollary here might be an appreciation for the illusory craft of filmmaking. As a viewer, once one has begun to analyze and think critically about special effects and the trompe d'oeils that one is experiencing, a person may begin to enjoy films even more, since one is now able to appreciate this multimedia art form from a more rewarding, multi-faceted vantage point.

6. “Psychosocial Moratorium” Principle: My experience with WoW’s first ten levels has been similar to nearly every video game experience I’ve ever known in that failure is engineered into the game’s core design—it is expected to occur early and often. In WoW, I find it both original and uniquely morbid that you reawaken from death in a graveyard as a ghost and that you have to go reclaim your corpse. This strikes me as an idiosyncratic design convention that seems to have stuck. As experienced gamers might both hope for and expect: there’s no punishment for dying, other than the annoyance factor and the lost time. Other games, such as GTA, punish the player for dying by taking away money and weapons—a kind of tax for foolhardiness. As Ben Mattes points out in a GZ interview, modern games such as the new Prince of Persia utilize gaming conventions, exemplified by the reconsidered role of Elika, to prevent the act of death altogether. The goal is to prevent the game’s ‘flow’ from breaking.

Historically, games can wind up falling into a pattern like this: wind up, try it, fail, resurrect; wind up try it, fail, resurrect; wind up, try it, succeed, etc., on and on. Therefore, developers such as Ben Mattes have sought design methods to maintain continuous ‘flow’ and immersion. Therefore, Elika always saves the Prince of Persia when he falls, returning him to the moment just before he put himself in danger. This way the gameplay remains continuous. The trouble is that without any consequence for failure whatsoever players don’t feel properly challenged—the stakes aren’t high enough—and so they lose interest in the game.

The tone has to be just right.

The 12. Practice Principle is at work here, whereby the learner/gamer gets lots of more or less non-boring practice. This type of grinding performs a balancing act between being necessary in the early levels as a design tool intended to teach players the basics while providing players with a fun, rewarding experience.

Getting this right is invariably a challenge for both the designer and the gamer. The player can’t enjoy the game’s later levels without a firm grounding in the game’s systemic principles, but if the training is excessively tedious, the gamer will burnout, resent the game’s dull limitations, and rage against the designer’s lack of empathy, nuance, and controlled mastery. Harmonious design is essential for the 13. Ongoing Learning Principle and 14. “Regime of Competence” Principle to work, whereby the gamer is always testing the edge of his or her skill level, always having to build upon the skills learned earlier, unravel a previous understanding, and add a layer of complexity to it. This is where I think Gee really nails it. He’s absolutely right that game designers are excellent teachers—they utilize not only their own endless personal testing to find this sweet spot, but they also employ testers to play the levels endlessly until the level designs are functioning perfectly.

Learning a foreign language reminds me of playing video games in the sense that when you first look at a new language lesson, it could not appear more obtuse, random, and incomprehensible. It simply hurts your head to look at symbols and grammatical exercises for which you have no context, no clear means of deciphering their significance. But upon approaching the problem in increments, you decode this word, now that. And soon thereafter, the entire lesson makes perfect sense, and you can’t remember what it was like not to know what to do. You can no longer look at the lesson with that same lack of understanding—the memory of incomprehension becomes difficult to recall. Well-designed games achieve this via teaching/learning principles, to a point where after you’ve achieved Level 10 on WoW you can no longer remember what it was like to awkwardly move your character around the initial spawning area, trying to figure out how/why to click on a Quest Giver.

25. The Concentrated Sample Principle sustains as an ingrained training method in the early stages of video games, including WoW. Players must perform many types of fundamental tasks that are secretly training them, similar to the way Mr. Miyagi trains Daniel-son in the Karate Kid by making him paint fences and clean pools, only instead of Miyagi’s emphasis on monotonous work tasks, game designers attempt to integrate elements of enjoyable quests into core skill building. Importantly, modern designers avoid instruction manuals, attempting to integrate the instructions into the early stages of the game—something you experience both in WoW and in nearly every console game these days. Requiring a player to stop and learn the gameplay mechanics kills immersion and ‘flow’ and is therefore unacceptable. As defined by the 28. Discovery Principle, the game should unfold like an appealing, pleasure inducing narrative, totally immersing the player, creating invisible walls, and presenting the illusion that the player is experiencing an organic story world that emerges as they discover it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Big Lies

I had actually already read this article once before and took another look at it when Dr. Gould suggested it. I have to admit that my first instinct is repulsion, for multiple reasons. On the one hand, I find the whiny tone of the piece irritating. It seems to sound like the bellyaching of every lazy undergrad I've ever heard from combined with the bellyaching of every frustrated mid-career entertainment professional I've ever heard from--who incidentally, seem to be the same people, just a few years down the road. That may seem harsh--but that's my honest first instinct. On the other hand, however, I'm sensitive to the pragmatics of a labor market situation where there's a surplus of qualified, (sometimes even overqualified), applicants for the current number of available jobs. This type of brutally competitive labor market situation invariably creates unfortunate and unfair scenarios. The author is onto something and it's important that he's expressing this frustration clearly, though as an employed professor, he seems to be doing it vicariously, perhaps as some exercise in therapeutic empathizing. Bottom line, I think it's critical that insiders blow the whistle on an unfair labor market to bring awareness to a potentially unethical situation--schools churning out students with expensive, hard to get degrees for which there are no jobs. However, it's important to take an entrepreneurial, competitive attitude toward things rather than an aww shucks, defeatist, victimized approach. In this day and age, 'big lies,' simply shouldn't be perpetrated when individuals have the ability to do so much research on the web.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Labor Market Basics

I found Gray and Herr's Chapter 5, Labor Market Basics, very relevant and illuminating reading, if not somewhat unsettling. The straight dope is not always what you want to hear. Is the best place to start workforce education in graduate school after one has achieved a strong liberal undergraduate education? Would I advise this to my students at UWW in the Media Arts & Game Development Program? Not exactly. I don't think graduate school is for everybody. Generally speaking, I think the best advice for undergraduates is to get a good balanced education, focusing equally between a broad liberal arts emphasis and a narrowly focused high skills niche where a job market exists and one can achieve a "labor market advantage." 

I would also advise students to develop their entrepreneurial skills so they can adapt to changing market conditions, know how to reposition themselves, research, network (aka achieve jobs through informal hiring procedures), successfully interview and obtain new positions. Considering some of the dreary statistics pointed out by Gray and Herr, including the fact that one and three college graduates will not obtain college graduate level work, (as of 1998), I think it's important students also study labor market projections and go out into the workforce with their eyes open. 

Students should look to achieve a unique set of skills related to high paying occupations, pursuing expertise in a vocation where there exists market demand. As of 1990, the largest growing labor segment was the "blue collar technical elite." Where's the sweet spot in 2010? Students should also bear in mind that education does not guarantee high wage full time employment—employers only pay for occupational skills that are in demand. Students need to become self-reliant enough to interpret the rapidly shifting job market opportunities of 2010; they should position themselves for success by balancing a liberal arts education with specific technical training as well as the development of entrepreneurial skills.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Time to Degree

Dr. Gould's point about undergraduate education time to degree at state schools versus private institutions applies to graduate school as well, I think, whereby it ultimately comes down to a seriousness of purpose, aka extreme focus on achieving a specific goal. It always concerns me when I hear people say they've been in a PhD program for an extremely long time. It seems the people that take the longest are usually single with "all the time in the world." They are content to live a life of the mind in comfortable grad student poverty. Ironically, the folks that are married with children and full-time jobs seem to finish their degrees the fastest. This is because pressure causes them to achieve tunnel vision and squeeze more work out of less time; value added by desperation--fear drives them to glory! 

Monday, March 1, 2010

Whether to Speak One's Mind?

The famous Prison Experiment by Phillip Zimbardo comes to mind:

"What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions we posed in this dramatic simulation of prison life conducted in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University. How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress." --Phillip Zimbardo

Another famous experiment, the Milgram Experiment, highlights a similar phenomenon, demonstrating how people will behave irrationally if their behavior is sanctioned by an authority figure. Both experiments reveal, somewhat cynically, the expression of irrational, morally compromised behavior under distressed or radically non-normal circumstances. One thing to take away, I venture, is the determination to be an independent thinker capable of going against the grain when your internal barometer informs you that a situation is corrupt, immoral, illegal, or generally offensive to your values. 

Dan Ariely explores this theme in his book, Predictably Irrational (2008). An MIT behavioral economist, Ariely sets up a series of experiments that reveal deep fault lines in the ways people make decisions.

In particular, he demonstrates that people have a very hard time following through on long-term decisions since our brains are hardwired to respond immediately to threats and opportunities. Futurist, Ray Kurzweil, makes a similar point when discussing technology trends and the difficulty humans have grasping the nature of predictable exponential growth.

I've been thinking about this question all week, actually, of how to relate a moment when my behavior was not consistent with my values in a work situation. Interestingly, this class is a work situation, in a sense, and so the context of sharing is colored by that. How honest should I be? Context shapes that question. Am I communicating to a public forum, a corporate blog, an email thread shared by my colleagues, a blind-cc'd email to a group of my students or a group consisting of people who work on my GameZombie team? Am I on a psychoanalysts' couch; speaking to my sister or my best friend; or am I in a job interview? What I choose to say and how I calibrate it will invariably be shaped by what Malcolm Gladwell calls my 'practical intelligence,' or my ability to successfully negotiate the situation.

I thought of a negative experience that people might find interesting. When I was an Assistant Instructor in grad school I told the professor I was working for that his lectures were 'boring,' because I genuinely thought they were. He was being lazy, providing a class of 120 students with one lackluster lecture after another. I cared about the material and he was strangling it. So one day, I told him so. But I did it with insufficient tact. He was offended and resentful. Afterward, he vastly improved his presentations, but he always held it against me that he felt obligated to work harder than he wanted to. At one point he thanked me for pushing him to improve, but I think he only half meant it. On another occasion, he told me it's sometimes better to just lie and keep your mouth shut--implying that's what I should have done. 

I'm glad I spoke my mind but I should have done so with greater empathy, using a softer approach to achieve the same results and avoid provoking an unpleasant response.