August 11, 2006
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: Joshua Green's Web 2.0 Roundup
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: Doris Rusch on Dynamic Meaning-Generation in Games
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. We are honored this week to have original writing from two of the Convergence Culture Consortium's three principal faculty investigators from here at MIT featured in this update. The opening note features Joshua Green's roundup of news over the past couple of weeks about the Web 2.0 and user-generated content. This week's closing note is from C3 Research Affiliate Doris Rusch, based on her research in gaming and the generation of meaning through examples like Silent Hill and Hitman. As usual, the update also includes links to all the entries from the week from the Convergence Culture Consortium blog. Some of you all are already contributors to the blog or else regular followers and even commenters on the blog. We encourage everyone who is part of the C3 team, including faculty and corporate partners, to engage in this public part of C3's work. If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at email@example.com.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
Web 2.0 Roundup
By: Joshua Green
Last Monday's announcement that YouTube is now 'more popular' than MySpace gave me pause to consider once again the fate of Web 2.0, user-generated content and online media. The last fortnight has seen a veritable YouTube-a-thon, so I thought it might be pertinent this week to use the newsletter to do a bit of a round up. Growing at a rate of 297 per cent in the first half of 2006, YouTube seems to have surpassed MySpace as the darling of Web 2.0. With the New York Post speculating YouTube could be worth as much as $1 billion and YouTube founder Chad Hurley making noise about an IPO, now also seems like a good time consider what the value of YouTube might be. Or more specifically, where its value might lie.
Talk of $1 billion price for YouTube is reminiscent of the purchase of MySpace a year ago by News Limited for nearly $600 million. This confused me until I realized the value of the then social networking king lay not in banners, branding and bragging, nor in the fact MySpace had become a killer tool for generating buzz about music and other media properties. This contributes, surely, but I think a good chunk of the value of MySpace comes from its function as a giant, seemingly self-autonomous and constantly updated database about the tastes and trends of teenagers. The value of what News bought would seem to come from the fact that, without much prompting, one of the most sought-after market segments in the world pours hours into participating in a qualitative research project. They provide for the most part semi-reliable demographic data, detail what's hot and what's not, and illustrate it all with pictures, music samples and external links.
YouTube doesn't provide nearly as much information about it's user-base. It does offer an 'account' system, enabling the system to track your usage and aggregate figure on what's hot, making it a good place to watch trends. But it would seem to me that principally the value from YouTube comes from serving 70 million videos a day, which certainly translates into a lot of eyeballs. So it came as no surprise to read on the C3 blog that failed NBC sitcom Nobody's Watching had been given a new life after being 'leaked' to YouTube. And yet, as demonstrated by the case raised by Robert Tur against the posting of his LA riots footage, the C-SPAN and "Lazy Sunday" incidents, exposure is not always enough to convince content creators to trust their material to the masses.
This seems to be true for emerging content creators as much as large media owners. The net bristled this last week with controversy regarding YouTube's terms of service. These included a somewhat standard bit of legalese which seemed to suggest that by uploading content to the service you grant YouTube the right to capitalize on that material should they uncover a market. The noisy consternation that followed resulted in a clarification from YouTube Marketing Manager that the questionable paragraph was necessary to enable the service to provide the embed functionality (see Xeni Jardin's post on BoingBoing referenced below).
Discussing the ire leveled against YouTube's Terms of Service, which both BoingBoing and Wired bloggers initially sensed as exploitative, Heather Green over at the Business Week Online pointed to one of the big challenges raised by the popularity of video sharing online - working out how to divide the spoils. With ads now being sold on the site and a 'Director's' section which charges a fee for premium uploading rights, YouTube might be finally on the verge of turning and returning profits. Moving away from the life-support of venture capital either though sale or IPO would necessitate a revenue sharing relationship with the creators of the 60,000 videos that are uploaded each day. The uncertainty over the Terms of Service, and also, I suspect an uneasiness about the way content uploaded to YouTube can easily become disconnected from obvious references to its creators when embedded in other sites, has resulted in some video bloggers and small-time content creators, the sort you'd think would benefit from the exposure YouTube can provide, requesting their work not be posted on such sites.
On the flip-side of this coin are creators like Iron Sink Media who in May 2006 launched a 19 part episodic romantic comedy, Soup of the Day. Each episode, roughly 5 minutes in length but stretching at times to around 9, was provided on a variety of services including YouTube and as a free download from iTunes. Claiming the story was 'interactive' Iron Sink provided links from YouTube to MySpace profiles for each of the characters, encouraging viewers to add them as friends and comment on the narrative. Iron Sink also posted short episodes of a program called Missile Blast to YouTube. A parody of Rocket Boom, Missile Blast featured in the narrative of Soup of the Day but took somewhat of a life of it's own, sending it's host to Comic-Con 2006, where she ambushed a few unsuspecting subjects. Iron Sink's strategy is an old one; now the series is done and achieved a certain degree of popularity they intend to release a re-edited version for sale on DVD complete "and uncut", with extra material and hopefully avoiding some of the clumsy 'clothes on love scenes' imposed by YouTube's terms of service. The series has also been re-cut into 3 minute episodes, intended, it seems, specifically for portables.
While we're talking about the balance of control, exposure and revenue stream, search doyen John Battelle approached the $1bn proposal by asking just who YouTube might be valuable to. Responding to the NY Post article cited above, Battelle speculated on his blog that copyright issues make YouTube a less than attractive acquisition for many of the large players mooted as prospective buyers. This is based on Battelle's understanding that the core of the 70 million videos YouTube serves per day are copyrighted material. This is not to suggest the bulk of the material on YouTube infringes copyrights (though it would be interesting to see the figures on how much did); merely that working out ins and outs of who owns what and who had the right to put it there in the first place may bring headaches to risk averse media and IT companies (Microsoft for instance) who would seem to be at the top of the list of possible buyers. Similarly, Battelle raises the possibility that should YouTube be bought up by one of the major media players, the others are very likely to both pull their material and watch the site a little more closely.
So what is YouTube worth? After setting out to do this round-up, I realized that I hadn't, for a very long time, sat and actually thought about YouTube. Despite an avowed interest in user-generated content, YouTube had become, for me, a fixture of the Web 2.0 environment. Watching the rise of YouTube over the last 12-18 months has been great fun. But it's only now that the prospect that the site might be sold or floated that I've started to engage with what YouTube actually offers. As an exercise in media democratization and as a demonstration of the value of user-generated content, YouTube is a fantastic success. Seeing it bend and shake as incumbent media players and large content owners adjust to a landscape where, given the means and the time, citizen-consumers both produce and watch their own content as well as dig up and share material once thought value-less (the original pilot of Buffy available is excruciating to watch) is some confirmation the exercise has cultural value. But is it worth $1bn dollars? Of that, I'm not really sure. The hype surrounding both Web 2.0 and social networking is starting to become deafening, and somewhere in the din I can hear the echo of Napster and a bubble bursting.
Arango, T (2006) "$ky's the limit: Sun Valley buzz boosts YouTube toward $1B", New York Post, online edition, July 26, http://www.nypost.com/business/kys_the_limit_business_tim_arango.htm
Battelle, J (2006) "YouTube Worth $1 BIllion? But Who Will Buy It?" John Battelle's Searchblog, July 24, http://battellemedia.com/archives/002745.php
Garrett, D (2006) "Hettrick launches Web series", Variety.com: Variety Home Entertainment, June 4, http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117944620?categoryid=20&cs=1
Gelsi, S (2006) "YouTube CEO: IPO would be 'exciting'", Market Watch, July 27, http://www.marketwatch.com/News/Story/Story.aspx?dist=newsfinder&siteid=goog%20le&guid=%7B2005B7B7-19FE-4B57-A324-66CC18255C9D%7D&keyword
Green, H (2006) "Whose Video Is It, Anyway?", Business Week Online, July 27, http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/jul2006/tc20060726_601698.htm?chan=technology_technology+index+page_internet
Green, H (2006) "Ze Frank, YouTube, and Making Money", Business Week Online Blogspotting, July 28, http://www.businessweek.com/the_thread/blogspotting/archives/2006/07/ze_frank_youtub.html
Hau, L (2006) "CNN Asks Audience For Help", Forbes.com, July 31, http://www.forbes.com/technology/2006/07/29/cnn-news-video_cx_lh_0731cnn.html
Jardin, X (2006) "YouTube's new policy says: we own your content. UPDATED", BoingBoing, July 20, http://www.boingboing.net/2006/07/20/youtubes_new_policy_.html
Lieberman, S and Petrecca, L (2006) "New TiVo service to measure its ad-zapping fallout", USA Today, July 26, http://www.usatoday.com/money/advertising/2006-07-26-tivo-ads_x.htm
Van Buskirk, E and Michaels, S (2006) "YouTube's 'New' Terms Still Fleece Musicians", Wired Blogs: Listening Post, http://blog.wired.com/music/index.blog?entry_id=1523392
Sweney, M (2006) "YouTube overtakes MySpace", Guardian Unlimited, July 31, http://technology.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1834036,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=20
Soup of the Day: http://soupmovie.zabberbox.com/
Joshua Green is the new research manager for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a Postdoctoral Associate in the creative industries at the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT.
----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
MyNetworkTV in HD. Sam Ford writes about the new network's decision to launch all of its content in high-definition, making it the first broadcast network to do so.
Flavor of Love Fan Response. Sam Ford writes about the fan community's strong response to the VH1 reality romance show featuring the former Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav.
My Name is Earl on MySpace. Sam Ford writes about the new MySpace page for the popular NBC show and the further use of MySpace's social reach for content providers.
TNT DramaVision. Sam Ford writes about the new Turner Broadcasting broadband platform and further transmedia potential online.
Nielsen Measurement of VOD. Sam Ford writes about the substantial changes Nielsen has been making to its measurement systems, such as the new development with Insight Communication to measure video-on-demand.
More Notes from ComicCon. Henry Jenkins' post more notes from C3 media analyst Ivan Askwith regarding his recent visit to the ComicCon in San Diego.
Google Video and MTV Networks. Sam Ford writes about the new deal between MTVN and Google to provide online syndication for popular shows from the network.
Bravo Launches Mobile Content. Sam Ford writes about Bravo's new deal with Amp'd Mobile to provide mobile content to Amp'd users and the problems with gated content.
CNN Exchange and User-Generated Content. Sam Ford writes about CNN Exchange's new outlet for citizen journalism and its relationship to Dan Gillmor's We the Media.
Snakes on a Plane Phone Call Promotions. Sam Ford writes about how he is crank calling all his friends using authentic recorded calls from Samuel L. Jackson that are being used to promote the cult favorite film.
Express Your Desires Fan Fiction Contest. Sam Ford writes about the new contest sponsored by Avon Books in which readers will communally create their own romance novel.
Viewer Mash-Ups Created for The Washington Post. Sam Ford writes about how the prestigious newspaper is allowing viewers the chance to produce mash-ups based on interviewer footage they provide on their site.
As the World Turns InTurn. Sam Ford writes about the new online reality television show where young actors vie for a short-term role on the daytime serial drama.
The Drive-In Theater and the Experience Economy. Sam Ford writes about the local drive-in theater in Beaver Dam, Ky., and the potential revival of the drive-in through exploiting the uniqueness of the event.
The Bottom of the Branding Barrel. Sam Ford writes about his recent experience with yard sale culture and when brands hit rock bottom in price haggling and negotiation.
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--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
Reality-Clash and the Concept of Dynamic Meaning Generation
By: Doris Rusch
The idea that games can be meaningful in a sense that exceeds "meaningful play" still seems to strain people's imaginations. And those who are convinced about computer games' potential to provide a wide range of emotional experiences, not just those within the continuum of frustration and triumph, and to be thought provoking and revelatory of the human condition, often have difficulty to imagine how this potential can be tapped. In my current research project about "involvement and meaning-making mechanisms in single player dramatic computer games", I am trying to figure out in what respects games are special compared to traditional media, why they have largely been lacking depth and meaning so far, and what strategies could be employed to tap their potential to produce a wide range of emotional experiences and generate meaning in a way unique to the interactive form. The following introduces some ideas I have been exploring in this regard.
I suggest that the precondition to produce a wider range of emotional experiences and more meaningful games is the integration of fiction, because fiction can introduce a variety of human source concerns into a game, e.g. freedom, love, security, confirmation of social values and believes. In the course of events, these source concerns are endangered and the whish to restore the desirable state provokes a change in action readiness, which psychologists have defined as emotion.
But while it is easy to call for integration of fiction into games, doing it successfully has proven to be challenging so far. Drawing on Jesper Juul's convincing argumentation that computer games are half real, because they consist of real rules and fictional worlds (Juul 2005), and relating this observation to Frijda's Law Of Apparent Reality, which states that emotions are evoked exclusively by events that are appraised as real and that their intensity corresponds to the degree to which this is the case (Tan 1996), a problem becomes obvious: due to their higher-reality status, the rules in the sense of the game-play are simply more involving than the fictional components with their lower reality-status. The rules win the battle for the player's attention and force the fiction into the background. This reality-clash makes it hard for the fiction to have an impact on the player.
But it all depends on how fiction is integrated into a game. To offer possible solutions to this dilemma, I have turned to Roland Barthes' functional units of texts - nuclei (or carindal functions), catalysers, indices and informants (Barthes 1988). By redefining these units for the interactive medium, accounting for the additional operational level of the rule-system (the other two being the level of fiction and the level of interface), various strategies could be identified of coupling functional units in a way that allows to more efficiently use the fiction's potential to produce thought provoking and deeply moving games. The most fundamental difference between functional units in traditional media and in games is the fact that in the latter they are not just received and interpreted as something given by the text, but to a large extent enacted by the player. Thus, games have the potential to produce meaning in a way no traditional medium can.
Meaning that is produced through acting is much more easily and immediately grasped than meaning that is conveyed otherwise. The possibility to realize all sorts of functional units through the game-play sets a process in motion, which I would like to introduce as the concept of "dynamic meaning generation". What is noteworthy about this process is that playing style, which varies due to player experience, skill and intention, constitutes the meaning of the resulting text. Dynamic meaning generation stands for the complex interplay between the things the game offers the player to do, the way the player realizes these things through playing and how the individual playing style changes the player's as well as the game system's interpretation of the result. Of course, many of the player's actions - or at least their outcomes - are not intended. E.g. one might have wanted to jump from one ledge to the other instead of falling into the abyss or to kill the monster instead of being killed oneself. But there is also the possibility - and a growing number of games allows for that kind of play - that one can deliberately shape a game's meaning by the decisions one makes in terms of avatar behavior and the strategies one employs to reach a (self-defined) goal. My thesis is that no matter how much control the player has over his playing-style, it will always have a certain influence on the player's perception of the game-world, its characters and his/her relations towards them, and sometimes also on the way these actions are interpreted by the game-system.
So far, I have identified three main categories of strategies to shape dynamic meaning-generation. In the first category player action is cardinal (i.e. dictated by the game), thus allowing the designers a lot of control over the effect the strategy will have on the player. E.g. in Ico, empathy towards the NPC Yorda is achieved by forcing the player to act out all the metaphors of a caring relationship. To keep her from wandering off and being dragged into smoke-portals by shadow demons, one has to frequently call for her, take her by the hand and pull her out of the portals when she is about to disappear in them.
The second category does not force the player to do things in order to realize a predefined indexical meaning. The player has more autonomy to act out his/her own interpretation of the game and its elements, thus determining their functionality of being. E.g. in Hitman-Blood Money, the player, who adopts the role of a contract killer (the Hitman), has to eliminate a specific target. The only condition for accomplishing a mission is to kill the target.
But the game system interprets certain player actions as indices for the Hitman's level of professionalism and depending on playing style, the character is marked as "psychopathic mass murderer", or, on the other end of the rating scale, ascribed the much more honorable title of "silent assassin". To get the "silent assassin" rating, one has to generally leave as few traces as possible, avoid being seen and not to harm anybody except the target. This strategy focuses player attention on the character as such, on what he represents. The game clearly offers the player a role to identify with. But the beauty of it is that one does not have to accept it. One can deliberately choose a different role and run through town with blazing guns, killing 30 people on the way until one noisily takes down the target. But then the avatar is just not the elegant Hitman anymore, but a morale-lacking madman on a killing spree.
The third category is a cross between the first two. The game-system neither dictates player action nor does it offer the player significant room for self-realization. It aims at subtly making the player realize a sequence in a certain way so that the emergent narrative arising from the moment-to-moment game-play reinforces the narrative meaning that has been intended by the producers. The trick is to make one behavior more probable than another one. Thus player behavior very naturally realizes the pre-defined indexical function of a situation.
In Silent Hill - Restless Dreams, there is a point where the avatar loses his companion, Maria. She is killed (for the first time) in the Brookhaven hospital by the Pyramid Head. As common sense suggests and is further indicated by the following video-sequence, the situation is very sad, James is devastated. Still, life (or the game?) has to go on, the journey must be continued. Now, apart from the melancholic music, what is the game doing to convey the emotion, one would feel in such a situation? It uses the potential of dynamic meaning generation by cueing the player to realize the adequate feeling by giving him/her a destination that does not show up on the map, because one is in the wrong part of Silent Hill.
The result is that one has to run around for quite a while in the unnatural fog and the darkness, until one has found the way back into the other part of town. This running around evokes a strong feeling of distress, loneliness and disorientation in the player that wonderfully mirrors the feelings one probably would really have in such a situation. Depending on the player's sense of direction, the catalyser one produces in this sequence is more or less charged with indexical meaning, but chances are high that only very few players manage to steer James Sunderland straight to the point where he is supposed to be.
Of course, this is just one possible approach to bridge the gap between rules and fiction and to enable a wider range of emotional and more meaningful experiences. Further exploration is necessary for this fascinating medium to develop and to unfurl its full potential. As for me, I will try to apply the theoretical considerations in this article to a game vaguely based on a Kafka novel. This will for sure be a tough test and hopefully a fruitful experiment.
Barthes, Roland (1988): Das semiologische Abenteuer. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Hitman - Blood Money: IO Interactive, 2006
Ico: Sony, 2001
Juul, Jesper (2005): half-real. Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.
Silent Hill - Restless Dreams: Konami, 2003
Tan, Ed S. (1996): Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film. Film as an Emotion Engine. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
 Tan defines emotion "as a change in action readiness as a result of the subject's appraisal of the situation or event." (Tan, 46).
 Admittedly, this sort of behavior has its drawbacks, because it is sanctioned by the rule-system Every mistake one makes during a mission, will make the following mission more difficult to accomplish, because the watches are more suspicious right from the start, one lacks money etc.
Doris Rusch is an affiliated researcher with the Convergence Culture Consortium and is currently a postdoctorate fellow at the Institute for Design and Assessment of Technology at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria.
Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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