February 23, 2007

Weekend of February 23, 2007

*Editor's Note

*Opening Note: Debora Lui on Facebook and Social Networking User Behavior

*Glancing at the C3 Blog

*Closing Note: Stefan Werning on Episodic Gaming, Part I

--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------

Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. As usual, this week's update includes links to all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog. Also, the site now features tools to favorite the blog on Technorati, so be sure to do so if you read on a regular basis.

This week's update features an opening note from C3 Media Analyst Debora Lui, who writes about the ways in which social networking sites like Facebook are leading to new ways of communicating for today's teenagers and undergraduates. The closing note is from Stefan Werning, a C3 affiliate in Germany, who takes a look at episodic gaming "beyond business models" and compares them to current rhetoric about serialized television. The second part of this two-part series will appear as the opening note in next week's Weekly Update.

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

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

Facebook: A Mini Case Study in Social Networking User Behavior

By: Debora Lui

Back in November, I wrote about how use of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook has changed the ways in which the younger generation communicate with each other. This has become more apparent to me in recent months; while my participation in C3's socnet research group does not include interviews, I recently spoke with a college senior about her experience with Facebook. Even though I have been using computers for most of my life, the conversation pointed out to me the difference between me (and my peers who are also in their late twenties) with people who are just five years younger.

Trying to acquaint me with her use of Facebook, she said: "Adding yourself to facebook groups is a form of self expression." This definitely surprised me. I had always assumed that online groups were just an extension of groups in real life, tools used to accomplish real world tasks, from gathering a group to see a movie to maintaining a group work schedule. The idea that someone might join an online group just to support or express an idea (current Facebook groups include: "I Have No Idea What's Going To Happen To My Life After Harry Potter 7 Comes Out" and "I'll join any group just to pop up on people's news feeds for a few hours" for example) is completely alien to me and presumably people of my generation and older.

Another thing that surprised me about her use of Facebook was the concept of wall posts. I had always thought of wall posts on Facebook as something like testimonials from Friendster (the first popular social networking site in the U.S., which was founded in 2002). Testimonials were one of the most unique features of Friendster, declarations that your friends posted on your profile in order to vouch for your character or personality. Because Friendster was initially pitched as a dating website, testimonials were designed to encourage potential dates or significant others. However, as the character of Friendster changed (and became less focused on dating exclusively), the character of the testimonials changed as well: earnest declarations of someone's good character
evolved into irreverent comments such as "Tom is my hero," or "Dave should be the next governor of California." Nevertheless, the testimonials still remained a static part of the site - one-time comments that were not generally meant to be edited nor encourage much additional participation.

While wall posts on Facebook have retained the character of being public declarations, unlike on Friendster, comments are usually part of some longer dialogue or a part of everyday communication. When I looked at the college student's posts she had nearly one thousand, most of them about mundane everyday activities (i.e. "i wanna watch zoolander...you still have that?" "My god Mark and I spent two and a half hours making those bloody cards, you better appreciate it and I better get a nice one!"). But while wall posts are used as an everyday messaging system, it is completely different from other forms of electronic communication (e-mail or instant messaging) because the correspondence is totally public.

This wall post system points to the other change, namely that kids today view privacy differently than their elders. Whereas for most people the right to privacy is of utmost importance, for these students online, privacy is something which is valued much less. New York Magazine recently featured and article, "Kids, the Internet, and the End of Privacy: The Greatest Generation Gap Since Rock and Roll," that discussed just this issue - how the younger generation regularly reveal aspects of their private lives on the Internet and how they are generally more uninhibited. Because kids today have grown up with the idea having your information publicly available online, revealing it themselves through comments, photos and videos on social networking sites seems to like no big deal. Users of Facebook regularly list their phone numbers and instant messaging screen names on their profile. Even though the age difference is minimal, I am constantly surprised by how far apart my idea of safety and privacy is from people of this age.

One final thing that surprised me about young people's use of Facebook is how it has changed the ways in which they view other forms of communication. When I mentioned email, the college senior waxed nostalgic about it, saying things like: "It must be nice to use email to keep in touch; you can write longer letters." For many of my age (mid-to-late twenties), email is still the primary way we communicate with each other casually; it's fast and convenient. However, many younger people seem to view email as a formal and even outdated form of communication. These people seem to view writing emails in the same way that I view writing post mail (i.e. it's a forum for writing longer letters with a longer lag time between responses). I suddenly saw how much of my pre-computer life influenced the way that I use things online - and how many of these college students haven't grown up with that same baggage.

Marc Prensky writes about just this phenomenon in his essay "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," which deals with how digital natives (people who have grown up within the digital world) versus digital immigrants (people who "who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology"). Prensky speaks about our pre-digital baggage: "As Digital Immigrants learn--like all immigrants, some better than others--to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their 'accent,' that is, their foot in the past. The 'digital immigrant accent' can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it." While Prensky is mostly interested in the education of digital natives (and not biasing our educational systems with the digital immigrant bias), it seems that understanding digital native behavior would also be invaluable when trying to reach them in the marketplace as well.

As research continues into the Web 2.0 world of social networking, it seems just as important to understand the mentality of the users of the site as well as the technical aspects and features of the site. Certainly all of this is intricately linked, but the more that we examine rather than ignore the users of the sites, the better we can reach them in the future. This certainly seems like a good idea considering that many of these digital natives will be running our companies and coming up with the next generation of technological innovations.

Debora Lui is a new graduate media analyst with the Convergence Culture Consortium and a Master's candidate in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. Lui is a 2003 alumna of MIT with a double major in architecture and management science. She is interested in studying the history of spectatorship and the sensory interfaces that audiences use to engage with media, particularly in how they can relate to our connection to architecture and our physical environment, as well as film and television studies.

---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------

Fora.tv Provides Another Model for Niche Video Sharing Sites. Fora.tv provides another model for focused video sharing sites, with this site targeting those interested in political commentary with what has been labeled "the thinking man's YouTube."

Revver Announces Distribution Deal with Verizon FiOS. Another deal for content sharing emerges this week, as Revver deepens its relationship with Verizon.

Anatomy of a Spinoff: Will Grey's Anatomy Create a Compelling New Show for Addison? The ABC show will be testing a two-hour pilot-of-sorts for a new show this spring, much akin to the way in which All in the Family launched The Jeffersons.

Momentary Community Arises Around Facebook Group to Raise a Student's Grade in Econ. A group originally formed around a rather narrow purpose leads to deep discussions about religion and science, sharing clever photographs, and a community that outlived its original purpose.

Not Just "Merely Entertainined": Information Gathering and Ad Recall for The Weather Channel. The Weather Channel claims that their information-seeking viewers are more involved with their programs and that their shorter ad breaks are harder to skip. What is the significance of their higher ad recall?

FCC Discusses Increasing Authority Over Violent Programming, Cable and Satellite. The FCC continues to discuss expanding its ability to monitor and regulate television content with this latest round of testing the viability of regulating violence and cable TV fare.

Joost Deal with Viacom Expands Platforms for Content Across the Company's Brands. Joost's deal with Viacom provides a great opportunity for further expansion of cross-platform distribution for Viacom properties.

Citizen Journalism and the Replacement of the Pros with User-Generated Content. A Clear Channel owned TV station in California has let its news staff go and instead focused on user-generated news content. What does this mean for convergence in journalism?

MTV's Scarred Raises Discussion About User-Generated Content on TV, But the Phenomenon Is More Than Just a Modern Fad or Buzz Phrase. The MTV series combines consumer-generated media with a celebrity host in a package that, while very different in tone, echoes of America's Funniest Home Videos and other similar shows from the past.

Showtime Interactive 2.0 Adding DVR Features, More Access to Ancillary Content. The new interactive service builds on Showtime's previous offerings with the ability to schedule DVR recording weeks in advance, among other features.

DVR Viewers Watching Commercials After All? Nielsen Study Shows Significant Number of Commercial Viewers, Especially Same-Day. The latest numbers released by Nielsen finds that people who watch television shows through DVRs watch an average of 2/3 of the ads and about half of their shows at their scheduled times.

LCDs Unquestionably Driving the Push for Widescreen and HD TV Sets. A DisplaySearch study confirms that LCD TV sets have surpassed plasma in driving widescreen/HD TV sales.

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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/.

--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------

Episodic Gaming: A Look Beyond Business Models, Part I

By: Stefan Werning

The following is the first of a two-part series about serial storytelling formats in relation to episodic gaming. The second half of this piece will appear as the opening note of next week's Weekly Update.

A fairly recent blog piece about serial TV formats (http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/2007/01/is_serial_programming_a_format.php) raised a number of interesting questions, among them the general bad reputation of serial TV shows for allegedly impeding innovation. The fuzzy use of terminology, e.g. switching back and forth between 'genre' and 'format' is certainly another important issue and ultimately illustrates that both terms do not really reference a 'solid' set of criteria any more but operate mainly as discourse vertices.

As such, however, they can be powerful since successfully labeling a type of narrative a 'genre' in popular usage can effectively create and direct attention; concerning digital games, even games sharing a reusable interface algorithm (e.g. a Final Fantasy-style turn-based battle system) with highly divergent narratives are considered a 'genre' in its own right which might not be a bad thing from a producer's perspective because it allows for easily inscribing one's product into an approved context.
In the debate about actual episodic games, certain issues are constantly reappearing. Downloadable episodes for games like Half-Life 2 and Sin Episodes have been repeatedly criticized as rip-offs with unstable business models (e.g. http://www.next-gen.biz/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3396&Itemid=2). While a platform like Steam is certainly necessary to compensate for the marketing advantage of full-priced titles, assuming a certain level of 'maturity,' it could actually allow for the medium-risk implementation of innovative elements. With respect to economic issues, David Edery already convincingly dismantled many alleged disadvantages of episodic gaming (http://www.edery.org/2006/04/in-defense-of-episodic-content/) which I'd like to complement with a closer look at the content and media usage level.

Apart from looking at actual episodic games, establishing episodicity as both a design pattern and as a pattern of reception for microstructuring a complex 'closed' game could prove beneficial. For instance, at the 2006 annual game studies symposium held by the German Association for Media Studies, a colleague suggested that the distribution of save points in console RPGs led to a similar experience like watching a serialized TV series. I think this observation could be backed by the fact that most save points inherently represent a 'cliffhanger' because they are usually placed before a sequence that players might want to revisit, be it a difficult situation or a memorable cut-scene.

Taking up the 'complexity' issue from the aforementioned post, the experience with serial TV formats could certainly be an inspiration for creating closer links between game episodes to create a meaningful framework. This is not limited to narrative complexity, for instance in the form of a differentiated character constellation as in many recent TV formats, but could also include gameplay complexity such as elaborating on and tweaking reusable gameplay mechanics assuming that players are familiar with the basic controls. The Castlevania games and other long-running game series provide useful clues as to successfully incorporating gameplay complexity within sequential logic.

One such pattern is the continuous spatial 'opening;' while the early games used discrete environments (levels), Symphony of the Night offered a nonlinear castle to explore, Circle of the Moon implemented extreme high jumps late in the game (violating expected bodily movement constraints), Harmony of Dissonance introduced a duplicate 'dark' version of its entire environment and Aria of Sorrow added flying as movement type. Most recently, Portrait of Ruin was the first game in the series set in large outdoor environments. Other, comparable patterns should be tentatively formalized as 'guidelines' to make episodic gaming a meaningful experience, following the currently popular methodological lead of Björk/Holopainen's Patterns in Game Design (2004).

For instance, consider implementing a generic fishing mini-game, a subgenre whose continued popularity was recently reconfirmed by Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on Nintendo Wii. While the basic game could introduce the rudimentary game mechanics, the following episodes could add more nuanced controls as well as more types of bait and fish. Fishing could even be used in quests to 'reward' players spending time of the peripheral elements of the game.

Most importantly, continuing the gameplay element over various episodes would create meaningful 'expert knowledge,' which is both represented by the player's performance in the game but also, more interestingly, structures 'external' player interaction/communication through forums, FAQs etc. Players following the game from the beginning would be able to capitalize on their knowledge of previous episodes, leading to 'expert' or 'veteran' narratives similar e.g. to war veterans' tales which constitute a popular rhetorical mode in contemporary media. The emergent master/pupil semantics considerably enhance the game's immersive quality, e.g. if an experienced player can again apply his knowledge of which type of fish can be found in which type of environment etc. in later episodes.

This article will be concluded in the opening note of next week's Weekly Update.

Stefan Werning is a doctoral candidate and works as an associate lecturer at the Asian Studies Center in Bonn, Germany. He is a member of the working group ‚computer games' at the German Association for Media Studies and writes on topics including e-learning solutions based on digital games and modeling terrorism in recent military policies to interactive media analysis.


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