Are Video Games The Next Great Frontier For Storytelling?

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In a short answer, yes, I believe they are.

The study of “ludology” refers to video games. This was news to me before we talked about it in class this week. I say this, because I know basically nothing about video games. I have never owned a gaming console, I haven’t played video games since I was about 14, and even then it was once every blue moon when I went to my cousin’s house and we did two-player Need For Speed racing on his PS2. What tiny bit I know about video games at all is from commercials, my 15 year old brother, or my friend who is a media studies grad student that occasionally talks about games, though she doesn’t play them much either.

My experience with video games is pretty much restricted to Sims and Nancy Drew PC games. Why? Because Sims isn’t really a ‘video game’ as much as a simulator game, and I read Nancy Drew books as a child to the point I almost managed to read every single one in existence. I read about 3 of them PER DAY in middle school. So, when I was 11 and discovered the PC games, I went crazy for them. I’m 26 years old and I’m still an avid fan of those games. (WHEN WILL THE NEXT GAME COME OUT?!?! CURSE YOU HER INTERACTIVE!!!)

However, when it comes to ludology, there’s a lot I don’t know and even more I didn’t get in the class discussion regarding it. However, there is one thing that I found very fascinating and absolutely agreed with, and that was an article by Naomi Alderman in The Guardian entitled, “The First Great Works of Digital Literature Are Already Being Written“. In this article, she discusses the reason that literary minds and game creators don’t come to an understanding regarding the fact that video games are the future of digital literature. As you may remember, I discussed the idea of ‘digital literature’ in a post a while back about “How Literature Impacted The Internet As We Know It.” In that post, I discussed the idea of hypertext literature, which is something that Alderman talks about in her article.

“[more] aggravating even than this are the forums, summits, breakout sessions and seminars on “digital literature” run by exceedingly well-meaning arts people who can talk for hours about what the future might be for storytelling in this new technological age – whether we might produce hyperlinked or interactive or multi-stranded novels and poems – without apparently noticing that video games exist. And they don’t just exist! They’re the most lucrative, fastest-growing medium of our age.”

What she says here is true, in my experience. There is so much I don’t know about video games, but what I do know is that there are a plethora of games that have absolutely incredible stories behind them. I’ve witnessed a few such games, whether it be by watching YouTubers play “Undertale”, or by having watched some friends at college play “Journey“, which Alderman calls, “Sublime”. (She isn’t wrong, I managed to catch someone at the ‘end’ and the sheer concept of how it ends/begins is mindbogglingly creative!)

There are tons of games that have no amazing storytelling going on, for sure, but I’ve witnessed the creativity in some video games, and it honestly makes me sad that less people recognize the literary value and potential of video games as an extremely interesting interactive narrative.

However, the truth is simple, as Alderman states very clearly at the end of her article.

“The problem is that people who like science and technology, and people who like storytelling and the arts have typically been placed in different buildings since about the age of 16. We haven’t been taught how to admire each others’ work, to recognise excellence, or even to know that there is excellence in “the other culture”. There’s a kind of sullen arrogance on both sides, with some people in both camps simply denying that the other knows anything worth listening to. There is a kind of “worthy” arts professional who thinks that knowing nothing about games – like saying “I don’t even own a television!” – is a marker of intellectual superiority.”

Until we all get off our high-horses and learn to appreciate and interact with creators of different media, then this digital age we’re all in is going to be an annoying experience for everyone.

 

The Shifting Sands of Creative Writing: Authors Embracing Fan Fiction

Anybody that has ever studied in the field of media and culture studies has read the works of Henry Jenkins, most importantly, his works regarding participatory culture and convergence culture. One of the topics that Jenkins often touches on in his writing is the concept of consuming culture vs participating in culture vis-à-vis fan fiction.

Though I assume every single person reading this knows what fan fiction is, because it’s 2017 and we all have the internet, in case you stumbled upon this while time-traveling from the past, fan fiction is when the audience members of any type of media (usually books, television, or film) write their own stories based off of the characters from the work and share them with like-minded fans.

Though many of Jenkins’s most popular works among professors are a little outdated these days, he has mused at length on the legality of fan fiction and its cultural significance, value, or lack of either in his works for almost the duration of my entire life (Textual Poachers was published in 1992, I was born in 1991). The question of whether or not fan fiction falls under the protection of fair-use regarding copyright law is one that has plagued the world since the beginnings of fan fiction, and it is one that Jenkins has tried his best to reason through.

In 2006, Jenkins posted on his blog in response to a critique from a law professor about how he tried to derive a definition of fan fiction and participatory works as well as their place in the law. In “Fan Fiction as Critical Commentary” Jenkins approaches fan fiction as a method of critical commentary about a work just as relevant as a critical essay:

Just as a literary essay uses text to respond to text, fan fiction uses fiction to respond to fiction. That said, it is not hard to find all kinds of argumentation about interpretation woven through most fan produced stories. A good fan story references key events or bits of dialogue to support its particular interpretation of the character’s motives and actions. There are certainly bad stories that don’t dig particular deeply into the characters or which fall back on fairly banal interpretations, but the last time I looked, fair use gets defined in functional terms (what is the writer trying to do) and not aesthetic terms (what they produce is good or bad artistically). Fan fiction extrapolates more broadly beyond what is explicitly stated in the text than do most conventional critical essays and may include the active appropriation and transformation of the characters as presented but even here, I would argue that the point of situating the characters in a different historical context, say, or in another genre is to show what makes these characters tick and how they might well remain the same (or be radically different) if they operated in another time and place. Fan fiction is speculative but that does not mean that it is not at its core interpretative.

I find Jenkins’s idea very interesting and something quite relevant to the modern author. I think it’s important for authors to notice what he is saying, even if they may not agree. Most of us are old enough to remember the days of Anne Rice’s crusade against fan fiction based on her works, and these days there are still some authors who are harshly against the idea of fan fiction, but for the most part, fan fiction is something that has become more accepted and normal by many authors.

Why am I even talking about all of this, you ask? I ask because many of you, my followers, are authors. Whether you are a published author or a prospective author like me without any published works, I would hazard a guess to say at least 75% of you are authors in some fashion. And because of that, I find myself curious!

What do you think about fan fiction in a legal sense or just in general? Would you be against people writing fan fiction about your works? Would you dislike it enough to seek legal action? Would you embrace it? Would you celebrate that as a measure of status (as in, “I’m so popular people write fan fiction about my work!”)?

I’m really curious to see how you guys feel about this, so let me know in the comments!

The Curse of Copyright

Anyone who has ever looked for something on YouTube has inevitably ran into a video without audio because there’s a song playing in the car while the person is filming, or it’s a video of a child dancing to some song, and these videos were flagged for copyright violation. While these things are frustrating, copyright becomes a real problem when it comes down to amateur artists being sued.

Lawrence Lessig writes about something called Read Only culture and Read/Write culture in his book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Lessig tells us, something most of us already know: the strict rules of copyright laws are both annoying and a big hindrance to amateur artists’ creativity.

Picture this: A fledgling filmmaker with no budget finds the perfect song to use in their film, they put it into their film, they upload the film on YouTube – no monetary gains, just personal accomplishment – so that they can eagerly watch every time the views number jumps up… and then the film gets flagged for copyrighted content and they’re ordered to remove it. A film studio wants to use the same song in a blockbuster movie to make tons of profits, so they can afford what to the average person would be an exorbitant licensing fee to use the song in their movie, but this first-time-filmmaker suffers because using a song, even not for any gain, is illegal because of our copyright laws.

One of the things Lessig advocated for in his book was to reform the copyright laws in the US to allow a separate measure of access for amateur creative use without being held to the same expectations as those who can afford to buy the full rights to things. This goes for people making fan videos of their favorite TV shows, or young artists sampling beats from a song for their new song, to the filmmaker who wants to use a piece of music in their film.

I am sure most would agree that the future for creativity in the digital age will have to involve some type of this kind of reform simply to ensure creativity manages to flourish.

 

Book Review: Play Dead by Anne Frasier

Play Dead (Elise Sandburg Series Book 1)Play Dead by Anne Frasier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Play Dead by Anne Frasier is an absolutely stellar mystery story that will entertain any reader who enjoys a good crime thriller. The lead character, Elise Sandburg, is an interesting woman with a compelling past that unfolds in an intricately interweaved sub-plot that never feels forced into the narrative. With a captivating cast of characters, all with intriguing stories and backgrounds, the mystery of a string of poisonings with a supernatural swing to things grows more and more gripping as the killings stir up deeper mysteries that could only take place in a book set against a backdrop of the haunting beauty of Savannah, Georgia.

This novel will thrill and ensnare even the most seasoned reader of crime thrillers with a deeply disturbing mystery that goes deep into the dark underground of Savannah and will chill you to the core. I cannot recommend this novel enough, because every time I thought I knew what was coming, the story was one step ahead of me, constantly making it clear that I had no idea what was really going to come next. The fantastic looks from the killer’s perspective will draw the reader into the disturbing mind of a psychopath that evokes suspense unlike anything I’ve read in years.

I would go as far as to put Play Dead on part with Silence of the Lambs when it comes to a good, solid crime thriller, and anybody who knows my reviews knows I do not give a book 5 stars lightly. This is the best book I’ve read in about two years and I am not even slightly exaggerating when I say that. I’m eager to read the rest of the series to see if Frasier can keep the momentum going, but even if she can’t, I will still appreciate this book as a standalone novel for what it is. Read it, I implore you!

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How Virtual Is Your Reality?

One of the things that was once a term related to science fiction that have now become real life is the term “Virtual Reality”. When I was a kid, virtual reality brought about images of giant goggle helmets and gloves with wires on them. These days, VR headsets are things you can get for a relatively low price and just plug in your Samsung smart phone to experience virtual reality. However, that is really the most basic, simple product when it comes to the idea of a “virtual” space.

Have you ever known someone or have you ever played games such as Runescape, World of Warcraft, or Guild Wars? Or even Dungeons and Dragons? These things are all a sort of virtual reality.

Games in which people play a character of their creation and fulfill a role in the gaming world are in every way virtual reality. In her article, “Constructions and Reconstructins of Self in Virtual Reality: Playing in the MUDs”, regarding online PC virtual reality games, Sherry Turkle tells us,

“[These] worlds exist on international computer networks, which of course means that in a certain sense, a physical sense, they don’t exist at all. From all over the world, people use their individual machines to access a program which presents them with a game space-in the high tech world such spaces have come to be called “virtual”- in that they can navigate, converse, and build.”

And while games like this as virtual reality are not something most of us would struggle to imagine, I’m using those as an example to paint a picture of what virtual reality games are for the people who play them. As Turkle told us, these are international networks without any physical location where people can interact and build their own ‘self’ for the world.

Think about your online life. How many of us have a carefully cultivated presence online behind which we build a persona for the world to see? I confess, as a kid I was a HUGE fan of Harry Potter. I’m talking not just reading the books, but going to all the websites and being active on all the message boards. I can’t even remember what my username was, but I remember that I used the same username on every website (this was pre-twitter and tumblr, so I didn’t find just one location to be active on). Remember those little ‘build your own doll’ avatar makers that existed in the early 2000s where you designed a little cartoon version of yourself to use as a userpic? I had the same one of those on all my accounts. Because I was so active on all these websites, people recognized me from other sites they were on.

This was a virtual reality. My little 12 year old self has a virtual persona that wasn’t at all related to my real self. At the time, you had to be 13 to be on any website, so I was 15 to the websites. My avatar was redheaded when I have black hair. My name I do not remember, but it was nothing even remotely related to my real name because I grew up in the era of “never tell strangers online your real name”. I made guesses about what would happen in the next Harry Potter book and discussed these theories with people from all over the world. I would spend several hours each week talking to people who only knew that I was a 15 year old girl with red hair and a different name who loved Harry Potter as much as they did. This was its own reality. I’m sure most of those other people were also too-young-for-the-website kids with fake names and made up features on their avatars, but we all played these roles in our own nerdy fandom reality.

These days, social media allows us all to live in a virtual space. One of my best friends in my whole life, who has been my friend for the past decade, is a lady from England that I have never met in person. For the past ten years, we’ve shared not just correspondence almost daily, but life events, family tragedies, secret hopes and dreams, support, and love. She is just as any friend is to me, even though we have never been on the same continent. Our entire relationship, you could say, is therefore “Virtual Reality” rather than regular reality. Everything we have done together has been virtual by nature of space and time.

But it’s real. Our friendship is inescapably real. That raises the question, is virtual reality necessarily something that’s not real? Do the personas we build that depict a version of ourselves differ from the personas we build face to face with clients at work or relatives we don’t want knowing our secrets (I’m bisexual and very few relatives know this, for example). Though I am my genuine self with my friend, there are still parts of my life she doesn’t witness just by nature of the distance (think how she’s never seen inside my shoe closet, for example, so she may not realize I’m a shoe-addict).

These days, the question between what is virtual reality and what is ‘real’ reality is one that’s much harder to answer than it once was.

Is Open Source Really The Future?

Most of us at some point have used open source software, whether we knew it or not. You’re using open source software right now. WordPress is an open source software. Currently I’m typing this on a Firefox browser. Firefox is also open source. I’m sure at some point you’ve been recommended to use Open Office if you can’t afford Microsoft, and I’m sure you’ve heard of Linux and Ubuntu if you haven’t used it yourself. In some of my IT classes we even used things like GIMP and Blender for image and graphic design stuff. At some point, all of us have used Open Source software.

How many of us know what that means, though?

What is Open Source?

According to the Open Source Initiative, there are 10 points that must be met for something to truly be Open Source.

1. Free Redistribution

The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.

2. Source Code

The program must include source code, and must allow distribution in source code as well as compiled form. Where some form of a product is not distributed with source code, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining the source code for no more than a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably downloading via the Internet without charge. The source code must be the preferred form in which a programmer would modify the program. Deliberately obfuscated source code is not allowed. Intermediate forms such as the output of a preprocessor or translator are not allowed.

3. Derived Works

The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.

4. Integrity of The Author’s Source Code

The license may restrict source-code from being distributed in modified form only if the license allows the distribution of “patch files” with the source code for the purpose of modifying the program at build time. The license must explicitly permit distribution of software built from modified source code. The license may require derived works to carry a different name or version number from the original software.

5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups

The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.

6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor

The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.

7. Distribution of License

The rights attached to the program must apply to all to whom the program is redistributed without the need for execution of an additional license by those parties.

8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product

The rights attached to the program must not depend on the program’s being part of a particular software distribution. If the program is extracted from that distribution and used or distributed within the terms of the program’s license, all parties to whom the program is redistributed should have the same rights as those that are granted in conjunction with the original software distribution.

9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software

The license must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with the licensed software. For example, the license must not insist that all other programs distributed on the same medium must be open-source software.

10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral

No provision of the license may be predicated on any individual technology or style of interface.

Why is this significant?

Robert Steel tells us in his book, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth and Trust,

“We are at the end of a five-thousand-year-plus historical process during which human society grew in scale while it abandoned the early indigenous wisdom councils and communal decision-making. Power was centralized in the hands of increasingly specialized ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ who not only failed to achieve all they promised but used secrecy and the control of information to deceive the public into allowing them to retain power over community resources that they ultimately looted.”

Steele’s point is a valid one if we look at society as we know it. In the prehistoric past, societies were reliant upon the idea of working together for a communal good. This was the only way a group of people could survive. This all changed over time as the concept of power and a division of power arose from the advancement of societies to a point that it wasn’t absolutely necessary to have a ‘communal good’ for the society to continue to function. The idea of how society works became one about class and separation of powerful from the powerless. Even though we in today’s modern, democratic societies claim ‘equality and freedom’, there is no denying that there are the powerful elites and the less powerful lower members of society.

Steele tells us that,

Sharing, not secrecy, is the means by which we realize such a lofty destiny as well as create infinite wealth. The wealth of networks, the wealth of knowledge, revolutionary wealth – all can create a nonzero win-win Earth that works for one hundred percent of humanity.

What Steele says is true. The only way to truly combat inequality in the future and work towards a common good for all of humanity is through free exchange of ideas and access to technology.

Now we get to the ‘but’…

But, as expected, Open Source doesn’t make the type of money that people want to make, and instead, it takes away from the paid software if the Open Source alternative is comparable in quality. Take a look at the past Microsoft has had with Open Source. There will always be a large amount of blow back against anything that challenges the status quo and threatens capitalism.

The question we’re left with is the same one that I asked: Is Open Source really the future?

According to the annual Future of Open Source Survey, the uphill battle may be leveling out just a little, because the use of Open Source software is growing and growing with very little to suggest this upward trend will be stopped by the makers of proprietary tech.

Overall, the use of open source software (OSS) increased in 65 percent of companies surveyed. The reasons given for using OSS include: quality of solutions, competitive features, and the ability to customize and fix the software. Additionally, 90 percent of this year’s respondents say that open source improves efficiency, interoperability, and innovation.

The results also show that,

Looking ahead, respondents say that, in the next 2-3 years, the main revenue-generating business models for open source vendors will be: software-as-a-service (46 percent); custom development (42 percent), and services/support (41 percent).

It seems that the answer to the initial question is yes. Open Source is the future, and little can be done to change that projection.

 

How Literature Impacted The Internet As We Know It

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When I say the word “hypertext” what’s the first thing you think of? Most likely, you thought of HTML, right? Hypertext is defined as, “a database format in which information related to that on a display can be accessed directly from the display.” For most of us, the reason the word “hypertext” doesn’t even connect for us, is because we grew up with computers, so the idea of selecting something on a display and accessing other information is so commonplace. We just think of it as, “Well, duh, you click the link.” In reality, Hypertext has a far more interesting history than most of us would imagine, and it links back to writing.

There was an attempt at a literary revolution led, arguably, by a person called Ted Nelson. Nelson is credited with being the person behind the concept of hypertext, hypermedia, and hyperlinks. In his writings in the sixties, Nelson saw the future of hypertext as a way to bring literature back into fashion in the 21st century as a way to take people away from television and its stagnation of creativity and make reading the new big thing again. The concept was that through the use of hypertext, books would be published online in an interactive way so that the reader moves on to different parts of the story by clicking links, basically.

Though nobody in the reading I’ve done calls it this, it sounds to me like an internet version of those Choose Your Own Adventure books I used to read as a kid.

While the idea was ambitious, as we all now know, Nelson’s dream of an interactive novel online as the next revolution of entertainment didn’t, in fact, work out in the end. There are multiple reasons for that, and some of them are pretty simple to work out the cause. One of the main issues was just the timing of it all. Another was the formats through which hypertext was meant to become a reality.

Before the internet, Apple came out with one of the first platforms for hypertext in a program called HyperCard. From what I can understand, HyperCard was a lot like a powerpoint platform, but rather than doing a presentation with it, it was meant to link slides together so that the user could explore a multimedia artifact via hyperlinks. In his look back on the HyperCard, Matthew Lasar tells us,

Even before its cancellation, HyperCard’s inventor saw the end coming. In an angst-filled 2002 interview, Bill Atkinson confessed to his Big Mistake. If only he had figured out that stacks could be linked through cyberspace, and not just installed on a particular desktop, things would have been different.

“I missed the mark with HyperCard,” Atkinson lamented. “I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple.

This goes back to the issue of timing that made hypertext miss the mark, so to speak. Before the broad release of internet connectivity, everything created was installed on a single computer. That meant that only the users of the computer the HyperCard was created on could access it. This was the same for a lot of computer programs at the time. There was no thought process leading up to the idea that one day soon, computers would be interconnected, so the creators didn’t anticipate needing that ability.

Though there were some attempts at making hypertext novels the Next Big Thing™, such as Douglas Cooper’s Delirium, Steven Johnson tells us why it was that hypertext stories just never took off.

It turned out that nonlinear reading spaces had a problem: They were incredibly difficult to write. When you tried to make an argument or tell a journalistic story in which any individual section could be a starting or ending point, it wound up creating a whole host of technical problems, the main one being that you had to reintroduce characters or concepts in every section.

As you could expect, such a difficult and complex medium for telling a novel-like story wasn’t successful. It would have created some really interesting stories, no doubt, but nothing that complicated would have ever been the next revolution to replace TV and change the way literature as we know it is experienced.

However, what we did get out of these revolutionary ideas was something equally as important: blogging! Yes, the very platform you are experiencing right now hails from the idea of hypertext fiction. And it wasn’t just blogging that came out of the hypertext revolution that never was, as Steven Johnson outlines in the same article.

It’s not that hypertext went on to become less interesting than its literary advocates imagined in those early days. Rather, a whole different set of new forms arose in its place: blogs, social networks, crowd-edited encyclopedias. Readers did end up exploring an idea or news event by following links between small blocks of text; it’s just that the blocks of text turned out to be written by different authors, publishing on different sites. Someone tweets a link to a news article, which links to a blog commentary, which links to a Wikipedia entry. Each landing point along that itinerary is a linear piece, designed to be read from start to finish. But the constellation they form is something else. Hypertext turned out to be a brilliant medium for bundling a collection of linear stories or arguments written by different people.

What may have started as an attempt at a literary revolution failed to bring about a new literary form that would bring literature back to the masses and dethrone the entertainment king that was television, but from the ashes of a failed endeavor rose basically the entirety of new media as we know it now. News, social interaction, education, communication, all of our common forms of new media that we utilize every single day is only made possible by hypertext.