June 16, 2006
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: Hugo Liu on Katamari Damacy, Part II
- John Campbell reaches out to C3 team regarding new convergence course
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: Jason Mittell on on Lost ARG, Part I
Download the PDF here: 2006-06-16
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. This week's issue of the update features something we've not had before here in the newsletter, a request from a faculty member for suggestions about an upcoming class he will be teaching on new media and convergence. We are hoping to use this newsletter as a tool for the C3 team to communicate with one another, so I do encourage anyone who has any suggestions for John's course to get in contact with him, and that includes not just the faculty members who receive this newsletter but the industry folks as well. And, as always, feel free to direct any comments about the newsletters this week or the pieces by Hugo Liu and Jason Mittell for publication in next week's update. The second part of Jason Mittell's piece about the LostARG will run as the opening note in next week's newsletter.If you have any questions or comments, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at email@example.com.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
By: Hugo Liu
... continued from last week
Rolling a katamari affords the sensation of progress. Each time the katamari grows in size and in stature, there is excitement in knowing that more objects are rendered accessible and consumable. Some of this excitement is forward-looking-- fueled by an ambition to advance game-play, but there also exists a controlling desireto roll over previously unrollable objects because they had once oppressed and frustrated the player. The duality of desire formed by ambition and control elegantly illuminatesthe character of the consumer libido.
Consumers with ambition as their modus operandi are interested in advancing their capital situation. For example, upwardly mobile consumers have a tendency to spend the bulk of their economic, cultural, and social capitals on those goods which lie just within and just beyond their horizon of means along these various capitals. That is because the consumption of goods at these limits is perceived as a way to progress one's capital situation; and indeed, this behavior is a form of dividend reinvestment.Conversely, consumers whose libidos are seated in ambition would not at all be interested in goods which do not challenge any capital limits because those goods do not afford progress. For the most part, this strategy of testing limits is promising for the ambitious consumer and ambitious player alike. However, if one miscalculates and ends up indulging in goods too far beyond one's horizon of means--"living beyond one's means"--such a wreckless incident could have cascading and disruptive consequences.In the Katamari game, players with an appetite for rolling objects that are too large or too irregular (e.g. a lamp post) find that those objects cause the katamari to become lumpy, unwieldy, and difficult to roll. The rectification of only resort is to restore the roundness ofthe katamari by uniformly increasing the katamari's size. It could be argued that this cascade of consequences in Katamari really just parallels theDiderot Effect in consumer culture-- consuming too far beyond one's means often triggers a radical and unaffordable upgrade of all of one's possessions.
Now suppose that a consumer's desire is seated in control rather than in ambition. The controlling consumer is likely to buy mundane goods, lots of them, in order to feel secure, or possibly to prove to themselves that they can. Instead of trying to stake out a better capital position, they focus on fortifying their current capital position by methodical consumption of goods they clearly can afford. This mode of consumption is often rooted in psychic repression. Such a consumer may have repressed desires for goods that are too far beyond the horizon of means; these repressed desires can produce a feeling of loss of control and thus angst which must be transgressed or "taken out on" mundane goods. In Katamari Damacy and other collection-based games, some players don't aim to beat the game at all; instead, they are interested in hoarding and organizing objects. The game itself facilitates this by allowing players to view galleries of all objects collected thus far. Whereas ambitious consumption focuses on exotic goods near the horizon of means, controlling consumption may actually focus on mundane goods near (but tautologically above) the horizon of languishing desire. If it were possible for producers to infer the modus operandi of their target consumers, be it ambition or control, then they would know not only what to sell, but also, how to pitch those goods to best resonate with target consumers.
One final burning paradox-- would it be possible to produce goods which appeal to both ambitious and controlling consumers? Surely it would be a coup to tap into two pools of demand rather than one. Such a feat is not only possible, but is in fact, a trend in the marketplace today-- the retail chain Target is a par excellence example of such a dual-m.o. producer. The solution to this prima facie paradox is to recall that goods are located along multiple dimensions of capital-- social capital, financial capital, cultural capital, educational capital, etc. Any single consumer good can be at the high end of one capital, while at the low end of another capital. Case and point-- Target is renowned for making affordable versions of previously unaffordable goods. Isaac Mizrahi has crafted clothes for high-end fashion, but Target offers Mizrahi creations on-the-cheap. A Mizrahi for Target dress, then, is at the high-end of cultural capital, but at the low-end of financial capital-- thus it can appeal dually to consumers ambitious with respect to cultural capital, and to consumers controlling with respect to financial capital. Then of course, there are consumers with both modi operandi. If we extend the Target-paradigm to other combinations of capital, more interesting and exotic possibilities are revealed. Apple's iPod shuffle attracts both philosophically ambitious consumers interested in the advertised motto "enjoy uncertainty," as well as financially controlling consumers looking for something far cheaper than an iPod with a screen. Lest we forget that this missive sprung from Katamari Damacy-- that game itself is dual-m.o. It appeals to players who want to beat the game, as well as to players who just want to collect stuff.
Hugo Liu is a post doc with the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with MIT's Media Lab, and a faculty adviser with the Convergence Culture Consortium. He researches artificial intelligence and design aesthetics.
----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
Religion in Cyberspace. Hojgaard and Warburg's Religion and Cyberspaceexamine the ways that religious messages are changing drastically by adapting to new media forms.
TiVo Provides Internet Video on Television. TiVo announced that it will be able to allow those TiVo devices equipped with Internet service to play Internet video on television, further blurring the line between what television and video is.
MyNetworkTV and the Telenovela. The new MyNetworkTV network, launched by FOX, will start in the fall with a lineup of two telenovela series. Meanwhile, Lifetime will be airing the telenovela Bianca. What impact will this new storytelling style have on television viewing?
Netflix: Great Idea, Bad Distribution System? A New York Timeseditorial about Netflix brings to light many questions about the company--it's a great idea taking advantage of the Long Tail theory, but it's tied to one of the worst distribution systems around--the U.S. Postal Service.
Crime Investigation Shows Invading iTunes. All of the CSIfranchise, as well as several other CBS crime investigation shows, are joining the Law and Orderfranchise on iTunes.
Television Push for Digital Opening Transmedia Opportunities. New initiatives, such as the online-only style channel Code Networks, CBS's ShowBuzz entertainment news product, and Lifetime's creation of a digital media executive vice-president signal further moves toward an atmosphere for transmedia creation.
The Push Toward Online Gated Channels. Disney's SoapNet has launched the SoapNetic online distribution platform to work only with those who use Verizon, causing particular distress for the many fans who do not have or do not even have available Verizon online service.
Series Debuting on Web Before Network TV. The new Sundance show House of Boateng will be launching on the AOL Black Voices Web site in the two days before the first episode airs on the cable channel.
Traditional Ad Revenue Declining from Earlier Projections. TNS Media Intelligence announced last week that advertising revenue is down from projections it made earlier in the year but that Internet projections have increased substantially.
The Colbert ReportTackles Indecency Fines. Stephen Colbert tackles indecency fines in his "The Word" segment, coming to the conclusion--as we did last week--that the fines will stifle creativity on television.
Sponsorship, Product Integration, and Reality Television. Project Runwayhas built a long and impressive list of integrated sponsors for its upcoming season, which provides evidence of the many reasons why viewers accept product integration on these types of programs than in fictional content.
Nielsen's A2/M2. Nielsen is going to eliminate the paper trail and launch into a fully electronic measurement system, also allowing for measurement of "non-traditional" viewing, such as on Internet and cell phones, by 2011.
--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------
Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/
--------------- FACULTY REQUEST -------------
The following request was sent to me to forward to the entire C3 team to help generate responses about a new media course that John Campbell, C3 associated faculty member, will be teaching in the fall.
Dear C3 Team:
I am hoping to solicit suggestions and recommendations from the C3 community on a new media course I will be instructing this fall. For those not acquainted with me, I'm a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania primarily studying communities in cyberspace.
Starting this fall, I'll be teaching a higher-level undergraduate course entitled New Telecommunication Media at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. The course has not been offered during the last 10 years, so the department has granted me free reign in devising the syllabus. I'm approaching the course as an exploration of our contemporary media landscape and plan on using Henry Jenkins' forthcoming book, Convergence Culture: When Old and New Media Collide, as one of the central texts.
Keys topics I intend to cover in the course include: media convergence; intellectual property in the digital age; advertising and niche marketing through new media; globalization; surveillance and privacy; the political economy of new media (including media consolidation); cyberspace; online communities; mobile communication technologies; and the public sphere (democracy) and new media. I welcome suggestions on other topics that such a course should encompass as well as any recommendations for specific readings relevant to new media.
--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
Lost in an Alternate Reality
By: Jason Mittell
As many researchers have discussed, transmedia storytelling is on the rise, but we’re still immersed in an experimental phase—traditional media venture into new formats while emerging creators chart new directions, all with unpredictable outcomes. One of the latest innovations from a high-profile source is the television show Lost’s venture into the emergent form of the Alternate Reality Game (or ARG). What can “The Lost Experience” teach us about transmedia storytelling and the differing ways television and games function as narrative media?
ARGs are an interesting cult phenomenon taking advantage of the ubiquitous role media play in our daily lives. Typically ARGs are launched subtly with a few well-placed clues (or “rabbit holes”), leading players into a trail of websites, phone numbers, newspaper ads, and physical events that posit an alternate immersive reality with embedded mysteries and puzzles. An ARG by its definition must operate in secret, as the goal is to obscure the boundaries between an emerging storyline and real life in a paranoid mist—only after the game’s completion are its “puppet masters” and underlying structure made public. To chart their way through the maze, players typically collaborate in a collective effort to solve puzzles and build a trail, using online forums, listservers, and Wikis to join forces. While some ARGs have emerged as fan-created grassroots efforts, the commercial applications for the form have been as “immersive entertainment-based marketing campaigns” for other products, most notably the film A.I. with “The Beast” and the game Halo2 with “I Love Bees.”
Given Lost’s dedicated fan base already congregating on numerous websites, the show’s focus on puzzles and mysteries, and its narrative world highlighting paranoia and deception, it would seem like the perfect series to be extended into an ARG—certainly the buzz was strong among both ARG players and Lost fans this spring as producers announced the launch of “The Lost Experience” for May 3rd to run throughout the summer during the hiatus of the television season. Now over a month old, it seems that the game has not lived up to expectations, for reasons attributable to the competing industrial and narrative norms of television and ARGs.
Attitudes toward advertising seem to be impacting reactions toward the game. Even with TiVos and online access, television viewers accept the premise that they are being given access to free programming in exchange for their consumption of advertising. Likewise, nearly every previous ARG has been tied into a marketing campaign for a film, videogame, or product—thus neither of these forms has some idealized artistic purity outside of the commercial realm. Yet players of “The Lost Experience” have been actively irritated with the integration of advertising within the ARG, as Sprite, Jeep, Monster.com, and Verizon have all had sponsored sites with embedded clues. In part this is due to the perceived weaknesses of the clues themselves, as people find themselves sifting through product literature for anti-climactic passwords revealing repetitive story information. Additionally, players seem to be put-off by the disconnect between the game’s content and the ads—much like television viewers bristling at product placement that seems tacky and superfluous to the action, ARG players accept the marketing dimension of games when there is significant payoff and integration of the content. The game seems to even acknowledge and mock this disconnect—one “Experience” character, DJ Dan, runs a podcast outing conspiracies and “shutting down the man,” while running corporate banner ads on his site. In one podcast (knowingly named “tel soul,” an anagram for “sell out”), a listener accuses Dan of hypocrisy—Dan responds with a rant singing the praises of Jeep and Sprite and claiming that it’s a “small concession to make for my voice to be heard.” Players are less sure, as they’re skeptical that Dan and other characters voices are offering anything worth hearing over the promotional pitches.
Another key disconnect between the norms of television and ARGs concerns storytelling. In an ARG, the narrative typically launches in the midst of an enigma, presenting a situation which not only fosters suspense but also asks players to question the rationale and existence of whatever they encounter—are these websites and emails real or part of a fictional world? How do these disparate elements relate? In many ways, the narrative of Lost does the same thing, placing characters on an island full of seemingly random elements (polar bears and hatches) and potentially deceptive psychological experiments. But “Experience” begins with a storyworld already having been established on television, with players bringing two seasons of expectations and theories into their interactions with the ARG. Thus, like all cross-media games, players want both to enjoy the game as a played experience, and find insights into the narrative world they are already passionately engaged in.
As of now, “The Lost Experience” seems to be failing on both of these counts. Judged as an ARG, players are griping on forums, blogs, and email lists that the puzzles are too easy—or in one case, impossibly difficult—and repetitive in format. ARGonauts (as they sometimes call themselves) seem annoyed by the high level of publicity “Experience” is getting, as the flood of new players are less savvy to ARG norms and frequently break etiquette in various ways, like posting solutions without explanations or highlighting fake websites. Additionally, the story seems to be mired in redundancy—the first month has essentially been spent highlighting ways that The Hanso Foundation (a mysterious entity within the television show) is corrupt and nefarious. Experienced ARG players are voicing concerns about “Experience” as offering too little payoff for the time they invest.
So are fans of Lost. How have television viewers reacted to the game? Tune in next newsletter for the answer – hopefully with sufficient payoff…
Jason Mittell is an assistant professor of American Civilization and Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College in Vermont and faculty adviser with the Convergence Culture Consortium. His research areas include television history and criticism, animation and children's media, genre and narrative theory, taste cultures and media, and new media studies and technological convergence.
Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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