Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Technology of the Kill

I like the theoretical argument that computer games, like MMOG’s such as World of Warcraft (WoW) can be good for learning, and Thomas and Brown marshal a lot of different theoretical strands from across different disciplines to show that “good” learning goes on in games that involve social cooperation and specific tasks. The problem is (like most theory) the data is taken from one context and assumed to apply to another area.

I may like the idea these complex computer games teach skills, but I am not convinced that this is something all teachers will find useful to their goals. In fact, despite the compelling arguments that playing these games involve skills that are most certainly being learned and applied in the process, I still would like to see how real players of these games are applying these skills to tasks outside the game. My worse fear is that in some ways these games can contribute to a superficial and shallow orientation to tasks, moving students further from the kind of writing I find so hard to get them to do—long, extended arguments (minus blood and explosions) that can engage real world tasks in meaningful and thoughtful ways.

Okay, but there is the fantastic bonding and social cohesion that Thomas and Brown rightly point to, and I even experienced this profound experience in my short venture on WoW. It does seem that the social bonds can find meaningful expression outside the game, but there are many things that can build community, and they may not entail the kinds of tasks (alright, I’ll say it—violent and territorial) that many games seem to glorify. My question is this: does it matter what tasks are performed in virtual worlds? Is it enough to say that they build cohesion without looking at the nature of this bond?
I am thinking here of the “social bonding” or “trigger” that moves experience outside the game discussed by Thomas and Brown on page 163, where they note how one player said “He may be your good friend, but have you ever killed Arugal together?” adding that “the connection she felt to the group had been powerful and intimate” (163).

To complicate the question about the nature of the bonds being established in games like WoW, I am going to go a bit Burke on you for a moment (which means taking a theory and applying elsewhere, where it may or may not be applicable!). In his attempt to understand how nationalism and social organizations find themselves in bloody conflict without fail, Burke sought the source of the second world war in what he called “The Rhetoric of the Kill”: “On every hand, we find men, in their quarrels over property, preparing themselves for the slaughter, event to the extent of manipulating the profoundest, rhetorical, and symbolic resources of human thought to this end . . . .With the evidence of the Crucifixion before us, we cannot deny that consubstantiality is established by the common involvement in a killing. But one must not isolate the killing itself as the essence of the exaltation. Rather, one can account for the consubstantiality as arising from a notable, or solemn experience” (A Rhetoric of Motives 224-226).

It does seem that MMOGs can provide a solemn and notable bonding experience, but I just wonder if the nature of the tasks that groups bond in and over can help perpetuate the kinds of social bonds that allows and even condones a kind of group-think attitude that can be used to act violently towards others not inside the group. I do think that the bonding can be done in ways that might make the “rhetoric of the kill” a central feature of cohesion, which means that violent games may be another way to perpetuate bonding thru the kill. Of course, the majority of WoW players, like citizens of nation states that go to war, are peace-loving people, but this does not seem to prevent them from allowing violent acts to be committed by specialist who belong to their nation groups. “All for one and one for all” to quote Victor Hugo’s Three Musketeers—but were they really the good guys?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Welcome to WoW

This is my first time I’ve played a computer game of this caliber, and I can see the allure. The colors are vivid, the environments interesting, and you get to run amok in it, quite cool really.

First Night: No one to play with, I constructed two Taurens, a male and a female. I actually wanted to see what the differences were, given that most of the other creatures look human-like, and this one had a nice background story. I used to live in a yurt, so the Mongolian/Earth Goddess culture was enticing. I picked Tauren because it seemed the least human of them all, yet, for all purposes I don’t think this mattered that much to how I interacted with the game. I felt like the little man in the seat of a contraption that he barely understood, able to harm oneself and others, even though I knew it was a game. I couldn’t do much my first time out, so I ran around and stomped a bit, pushing buttons and seeing what would happen.

Second Night: Playing with a group (our horde) was interesting and let me understand why so many people like to play. I didn’t find the task of bludgeoning the birds really fun, but the teamwork aspect was. It was weird to know that my classmates were out there at home on their computers, but also with me as we played the game. The help I got from Chris (critta) let me see how alliances and hordes can help each other, and he let me bypass some learning curve issues when trying to get my character to do certain tasks.
Chris was like my lifeline, and I really got a taste of the bonding that happens, because it seemed to outrun my own distaste of the game’s violent missions.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Whose/What/Why is Identity /Are We Talking About?/Is it?/Important?

Alrighty then, Identity is contested. After all the readings about identity and technology, I confess to some identity-fatigue, but overall I was struck that not many authors even tried to define “identity,” as Helen Kennedy mentions. But alas, Kennedy only calls for more research on what it might mean to have a whole or fragmented identity.

I think Kennedy mentions Stuart Hall, and he certainly has discussed the meaning of identity as tied to culture and a host of social mechanisms. I don’t know what cutting edge is when it comes to identity and the Internet, but James Gee’s take on risk-taking and identity role-playing etc. would probably seen by Kennedy as falling short of interrogating the notion of anonymity as useful or even possible (still, her academic identity is not stable, she could’ve changed her mind?).

As for the her@ study sample Kennedy examines, I was a bit perplexed by her assessment of the homepages she examines. The personal pages featured images and collections from their lives, but I’m not sure why these seemed especially expressive of identity disclosure. I realize Kennedy is testing the claims of anonymity as a staple feature of internet social forums, and she acknowledges the different nature of homepages that invite images, links, and such, that can reveal much about the authors, but would she view white mainstream pages with the same features as “outing” one’s racial identity as she does with those of the women of color? Whose identity are we talking about here?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pointing out the gendered electronic environment, this week’s readings emphasize the power of technology to heighten and possibly mitigate existing ideologies and cultural binaries. Laura Sullivan’s “Cyberbabes” reviews influential feminist theories that explore and reveal the objectification of the female image and websites that invite men (and women) to participate in this process. Her own experience with the “long hair” website demonstrates that the social construction of gendered identities and roles continues unabated if not assisted by the internet, which should come as no surprise, but the details of appropriating images opened my eyes to the different e-encounters gender enjoins. The gender gap is not only in the number of users, but in the different way that men and women use and are used by the Internet. The “gap” is still there (check out this Pew Study from 2005 ), but it continues to be viewed as a numbers contest and not a description of systemically enforced gender identities as such.

I was moved by Sullivan’s desire to communicate with her male audience, in spite of the difficulties and frustrations, and I found her conclusions about the need to contextualize “a materialist view of technology” in the classroom compelling. Helping students to realize the potential pitfalls of identity formation can offer a platform to discuss long-standing and newly emerging sexism on the Web.

Hawisher and Sullivan propose that maybe with more women internet users, the nature of the Web can change, but it does not seem to be case. The Web, like the universe, expands outward, so this means sexism and counter-sexism will exists side by side. New liberatory (Check this Women's Resource's page out) and sexism as usual will proliferate, but unfortunately, I don't see the kind of reaching out and changing from the inside that Laura Sullivan seems to point to.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sycrhonous Chat: Babel In Burke's Barnyard of Human Noises

"The Rhetoric must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counterpressure, the Logomachy, the onus of ownership, the Wars of Nerves, the War. It too has its peaceful moments: at times its endless competition can add up to the transcending of itself . . . Rhetoric is concerned with the state of Babel after the Fall" (23) K. Burke Rhetoric of Motives

Our class chat shows seems to touch on the this "Babel after the Fall," in which all of our collective voices touched off a set of actions and reactions that quite often take the form of "pressure and counterpressure,' even as some of us sought some transcending benefit, the momentum of personal fractious concerns and barnyard yelps remained a persistent feature.

Did our experiment prove anything about Synchronous Chats? I suppose there are some items worth considering, especially in light of some of the studies I've asked us to review for this next debriefing session. First, I don't thing we are a representative sample, and our experiment was clearly not graded for performance--this influenced the outcome no doubt. Our familiarity with each other no doubt changed the course of this discussion. I don't see a typical class beginning their chats like this, but they may end up there once people feel free to pull each other's chains.

One thing seems likely, at least with respect to our class: The even if the purpose of a chat is clearly outlined and prompted there is still no guarantee that all participants will adhere ground rules or to stick to topic issues only. It also seems likely that any chat is apt to succumb to the lowest common denominator (no offense to anybody, really). If enough participants do not want to stay "on topic" the rest of the class can only "yelp" in response or give in.

What it did seem to do was either loosen-up or wind-up participants, sometimes both in the same session.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Life in the Sirc-us or

Sirc MMM-Venting Conventional Texts

I’ve always wanted to write something like the Rhetoric of Rock-n-Roll, or make some concert t-shirts with images of cartoon heroic ancient toga-wearing guitar-toting heavies, a civic battle of the bands, if you will.
I survived the “Revenge of the Rhetors Greek City-State Known World Tour 338!” and all I got was this lousy pedagogical attitude about what constitutes good writing . . . I mean this lousy t-shirt. Whooooo! “Free bird” “Free bird” Free bird”

O.K. well, this is what happens when I see Geoffrey Sirc use lyrics from REM to make a point about revolutionizing what teachers do when they talk about composition. For Sirc the artistic effrontery of works of Marcel Duchamp offers:
“Modernism-in-general: self-definitions when the definitions are endless, disciplinary critique as anti-discipline, and composition as a catalogue of the ideas that grow from such work. Duchamp wanted to evolve a new language, a new aesthetics, a new physics, dissolving the conventions that would inhibit such a realization” (183).

Sirc locates hypertext and new writing technologies to the plastic arts, because they are so easy to lift, reconstitute, and all without the effort of finding one’s voice or following a model text. It means that taking a urinal and putting a mustache on it makes a statement that is both artistic and anti-artistic, because it provokingly subverts the notion of conventional aesthetics as the only game in town. The critics and three-headed dogs of the Art World told Duchamp to take his art and go home, you can’t play if you don’t observe the rules. Who cares if people ate it up---he got so hot you can’t even piss in his urinal anymore—because now its is

Sirc would trade Bartholomae’s notion of the ideal text students must strive to achieve in the voice of their disciplinary communities and Bizzel’s contact zone for William Burroughs’ “Interzone” (192). “You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point . . . Naked Lunch is a blueprint, a How-To-Book” Burroughs says of his stream-of-tonic-consciousness style. I decided to try it:
“Panorama of the City of Interzone. Opening bars of East St. Louis Toodleoo . . . at times loud and clear then faint and intermittent like the music down a windy street . . The room seems to shake with vibrate with motion . . . Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains (stasis and death in closed mountain valleys where plants grow out of genitals, vast crustaceans hatch inside the break the shell of body) across the Pacific in an outrigger canoe to Easter Island. The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market” (Lunch 96).

Make sense now? Sirc says “over-specification, hyper-pedantry” (203) keeps the kids/and us down (gotta cite the pages George) and wants “composition to be seen as writing-at-large . . . let our default setting be the document, rich text format” (202). Alright, but this sounds a lot like a USA Network/Hallmark/Lifetime movie of a creepy commune where no one knows whose fucking who, but nobody understands or cares because they are so far out man, until the craziest one of um all takes things a bit too far. People will then take their stuff and go home, because we need some rules, otherwise it's just too groovy for real people with real lives.

What would George and Wysocki and Shipka say:
I know, but Sirc, “we all want to change the whir r-u-ld” Beatles

Monday, January 28, 2008

Teaching to Write for Computers (cat optional)

In Douglas Hesse’s article, “Saving a Place for Essayistic Literacy,” he seeks to “wrestle back the ‘essay’ from its history” in answer to some academics who seek to define a new kind of literacy in the computer age against the confines of the scholastic essay. Hess points to a contradiction, namely, that the logos driven academic essay with its well-defined topic and methods of documentation and perspicuity has moved far a field from the kinds of things the father of the genre, Montaigne, had actually written. Montaigne’s essays are not the articulation of airtight logical relationships in a linear development, but rather a series of overtly biased disjointed explorations steeped in rhetorical patterns more commonly found now in journalistic writing and yes, on the internet. The logical thread is there, but ironically for the technology involved it is not the industrial logical thread of the machine age that nosily stitches along prefab patterns, rather it is more like a single strand darning a pair of well-worn wool socks with a cat and a fire and glass of good port--spectacles if you need them (“post your photos here!”). There is a bit of old-fashioned musing that goes on in web spaces. It is as if the mind-stuff itself, those bits of refection, repose, and memory mix with the coinage of novel discoveries and armchair philosophy: The collection of the mind and the collection of things of the world.

I love the creative and anti-methodical approaches you find in internet spaces, and like Hess notes, there are plenty of traditional documents (academic essays, articles, reports, and the rest) on the web, so there isn’t an either or choice that needs to be made. In light of some calls from scholars for a new definition of writing literacy (Faigley and Romano) that takes its cues from the products of new technologies (and the call is still alive and well) I think Hesse’ point is valid and meaningful. There will, at least in the future of our student’s professional lives, be a need for cohesive logos/method driven documents like the academic essay and the formal report. Teachers like myself will continue to help students design and construct (even perform) in a variety of genres—on the web and on pulp. But I am unsure of how much web-based writing instruction is appropriate or useful.

The interesting fact is that Internet spaces have produced genres organically, partly based upon the technological possibilities and peoples' own ability to put them to use. I wonder if giving students courses in how to perform on the Internet in the same manner teachers taught the academic essay might even stifle and prevent new original and technologically emerging products? One problem with teaching web writing is that the entire formats and expectations are still emerging, which is a good thing, but it makes it hard to stay relevant. Think how quickly Internet guides and “how to” information about the web gets old fast. The textbooks often list defunct websites, search engines, bogus venues, and just plain outdated information that kill credibility and takes up valuable space.