March 31, 2010
Collective Simulation. How game fans collectively project (and shape) possible futures of their medium. (Part 2 of 2)
By: Stefan Werning
As a working hypothesis, media content produced and used in this manner arguably changes the status of media production, which becomes increasingly reminiscent of quasi-verbal, almost real-time communication and allows for companies to more literally ‘communicate’ with users via their products. The added flexibility and shortened development cycles also allow for involving users more directly into the production process itself, thus making it a channel for bidirectional communication. This strategy appears especially vital for small publishers; for example, Jaleco’s rather plain Nintendo DS RPG Wizman’s World, scheduled for release only in Japan so far, has been discussed intensely among the very specific Otaku-esque audience it is aimed at for including a creature type based on the winning design of a dedicated contest held on the image sharing community 2chan.
While these strategies appear peripheral, they will likely become increasingly relevant, at least for smaller companies, since maintaining multiple, smaller and more clearly defined audiences is becoming all the more important for staying competitive.
This shift of focus is structurally comparable with the recently surfacing problem, that communication in online communities is not easily scalable. (cf. Thompson, 2009: 30) Looking at communities consisting of Twitter followers or blog subscribers, Thompson described how communication and the mechanism behind social networking break down when groups centered on a person or institution become too big. In those cases, sub groups, which would create alternative environments for communication within larger groups, are not formed and the reduced probability of being heard makes the effort of posting or contributing less attractive. Analogously, even game publishers behind mass-market franchises need to increasingly embrace smaller but more manageable audiences; for example EA recently launched several ‘side projects’ (Henry Hatsworth, Zubo, Bruetal Legend) that speak to smaller but well-defined audiences.
As the initial examples of game fan activity illustrate a very keen understanding of the enabling technologies, this body of knowledge, which fundamentally establishes group identity because it represents a ‘common denominator’ and allows for distinction from other media users, can be actively capitalized on.
One way of doing so is by referencing and playing with familiar interfaces of digital technologies; for example, an intensely discussed online ad for the 2008 game Wario Land: Shake It appears to be a simple clip hosted on Youtube but, slyly referencing the core mechanism of the game, deconstructs and destroys the interface throughout the video using modified source code for this particular video page as per a special agreement with Youtube. (Link).
As a variation of this theme, the very recently released game Dante’s Inferno has been advertised by hiding demonic faces in the form of ASCII art in the source code of major games websites such as IGN; while the appearance of the pages does not change, users can see the images by displaying the HTML code in their browser. Again, this topos of ‘evil that lurks beneath’ ties in with the game narrative and, thus, intensifies rather than disrupts the game experience and adds a layer of meta narrative around the game. A defining characteristic of these strategies is, thus, the fact that they require and propagate algorithmic literacy, if only, in these cases, on the level of markup languages.
Even though the aforementioned strategies might appear to be currently not applicable in other media industries as well, several examples hopefully indicated that this might change in the near future, not least because of the increasing use of similar enabling technologies and forms of media use.
For Further Reading
Albrechtslund, Anne-Mette “Gamers Telling Stories. Understanding Narrative Practices in an Online Community” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 16:1, 2010: 112-124
Gray, Jonathan, Mittell, Jason “Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption and Rethinking Textuality” Particip@tions 4:1, 2007 Link
Lindley, Craig “Ludic Engagement and Immersion as a Generic Paradigm for Human-Computer Interaction Design” Entertainment Computing – ICEC 2004: 145-185
Thompson, Clive “In Praise of Obscurity” Wired 18.02, 2010: 30 Wirman, Hanna “On productivity and game fandom” Transformative Works and Cultures 3, 2009 Link
Stefan Werning has written on a wide range of topics, often with a focus on interactive media as well as a comparative look at the use and implications of media technologies. His MA thesis on computer game adaptations of literary works won him the Ambassador's Award of the US Embassy in 2004. Until 2006, Stefan worked as a stand-in assistant professor for media studies and as an associate lecturer at the Asian Studies Center in Bonn. Other professional experiences include leading a project group at the Fraunhofer Institute Media Communications (IMK) (2002-2004) and working as a senior product analyst and supervisor of user-generated content at Nintendo of Europe (2007-2009). Stefan is a member of the working group 'computer games' at the German Association for Media Studies (GfM). As of October 2009, he is working as an assistant professor for Digital Media at the Applied Media Studies department at the University of Bayreuth. Recent publications and presentations include: "The Convergent Use of Programmable Media for Terrorism Modeling and Social Simulations in Civilian vs. Military Contexts," In: Rolf Nohr, Serjoscha Wiemer (Eds.) Strategie Spielen Münster: LIT Verlag, 2008: 114-136; “TV and Digital Games – Challenges and Opportunities” presentation at the KFA symposium Digital New World – Vom Internet ins Fernsehen held by the ZDF, Mainz (January 16-17, 2009); „Introduction to ‘New Media Studies’“ guest lecture at the department for Media Studies at the university of Amsterdam (June 11, 2009); Real Wars on Virtual Battlefields? The Convergence of Programmable Media at the Military-Civilian Margin (dissertation) Bielefeld: transcript, 2009, "Media Processing. Understanding non-interactive media use in the context of digital technologies." presentation at the symposium Neue Medien in der Kunst: Geschichte – Theorie – Ästhetik held by the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich (January 22, 2010)
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Convergence Culture News
Research Memo Abstract
Embracing the Flow
By: Nancy Baym
One of the most vexing issues facing the content industries is their loss of control over the distribution of digital material. Combined with the ability of consumers and fans to organize and voice opinions more loudly than ever before, many industries, including recording, broadcast, and motion picture, find themselves acting from defensive postures, seeking to shut down grassroots activities and file sharing. In contrast, some in the industry, particularly (though not exclusively) independent artists, have embraced this unfettered flow of materials and discourse.
This C3 research memo (1) briefly identifies the current situation of information and content flow and the kinds of steps being taken to combat it. Against this backdrop, it then (2) identifies the reasons one might choose to embrace these changes rather than fighting them (3) argues that these industries need to consider the role of social exchange in addition to the economic exchange models they are used to in building consumers’ willingness to pay for content they can obtain for free and (4) proposes specific strategies for building social exchange relationships in this environment. In what follows, I use music as an exemplar, but the discussion will not be limited to music.
The music industry is a microcosm of mass communication’s past and a harbinger or its future (Benkler, 2006; Briggs & Burke, 2009). Once local and interpersonal, inherently relational, and shared with co-present others, the phonograph and the recording industry it spawned enabled music to become a centralized mass-produced commodity. It was less than one hundred years ago that music became an object to be created at great expense, widely distributed and purchased at a set price, rather than an experience to be shared (Benkler, 2006). The music industry, like most media industries, is built on a highly centralized model that relies on tight control of distribution and, to a lesser extent, communication. Four firms (Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, EMI) are responsible for 72% of the global music market (Wikström, 2009).
Against this backdrop, the essay will articulate a number of incorrect tactics the music and the reasons these tactics are wrong. These reasons include:
a. The more persecuted file sharing becomes, the further underground and harder to track this behavior will be.
b. The flow of materials provides critical real time information about where and in some cases by whom, they are being taken up and used, which can be of great use in better planning campaigns, tours, targeting marketing, etc. Thus one sees companies such as Big Champagne, which the RIAA has been paying to track file sharing for years, as well as newer start ups like Band Metrics that assess the flow of downloads and buzz about bands as it happens.
c. Fan labor can be appropriated (and justly rewarded) in the service of promotion and audience building
d. Fan efforts can help content to find new audiences, including those in countries where materials are not currently available, and can hence reveal where future efforts might be expanded
e. The good will that ensues from permitting such activities builds consumer loyalty
The model driving the music industry for decades has been one of economic exchange in which the musicians and industry provide a scarce good (records or CDs) for which the audience pays money, providing artists with their primary revenue stream. Secondary revenue streams included live performance and, perhaps the most important marker of the audience’s affect, merchandise such as t-shirts and posters. The ubiquity of file sharing means that the once scarce good of the music itself has become an infinite good, freely available to those with the minimal competence and disregard for intellectual property required to download. The question of why audiences might still pay for music has become critical for the very survival of music as the industry it has become.
In economic exchange, a fixed good is exchanged for a fixed price according to legal rules of exchange. While there are and will always be elements of economic exchange in the relationship between content industries and their audiences, increasingly the building of social relationships is important in providing incentives for audiences to contribute financially. In social exchange relationships, the rate of exchange is motivated by feelings of trust, obligation and gratitude rather than price structures. Social media provide new means for producers and artists to connect with audiences in ways that allow them to build relationships, yet few have moved past viewing audiences as consumers to understand and interact with them as relational partners. This section lays out the dynamics of economic vs. social exchange (drawing on Blau’s early formulation) and argues that this model elucidates the ways people can provide rewards including money, but also services and the ephemeral but important motivations of affection, and validation.
There are many concrete ways in which content industries – and brands more generally – can make use of this flow of materials, discourse and exchange, and the research memo will conclude with some suggestions - illustrated with examples such as Amanda Palmer and Trent Reznor.
These suggestions include:
Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven and London: Yale.
Blau, P. (1964). Exchange and Power in Social Life. New York: Wiley.
Briggs, A. & Burke, P. (2009). A Social History of the Media (Third Edition). Malden, MA: Polity.
Wikström, P. (2009 The music industry: Music in the cloud. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Nancy Baym is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas, where she teaches about communication technology, interpersonal communication and qualitative research methods. She pioneered the study of online community and fandom in the early 1990s, writing about how soap opera fans built relationships with one another while transforming television viewing into a collaborative endeavor. Her book Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom and Online Community (Sage, 2000) synthesizes that work. Her recent publications include "The New Shape of Online Community: The Case of Swedish Independent Music Fandom" in First Monday, as well as articles in New Media & Society, The Handbook of New Media, and The Information Society. With Annette Markham, she is co-editor of Internet Inquiry: Conversation about Method (forthcoming from Sage), a book examining how exemplary qualitative researchers manage the challenges raised when studying the internet. She is currently studying the "friend" relationship in the music-oriented social network site Last.fm and writing a book, Personal Connections in a Digital Age, about digitally-mediated community, relationships and social networks for Polity Press. She was a co-founder of the Association of Internet Researchers and served as its President. She blogs at OnlineFandom.com.