Thursday, September 11, 2014

I am still a gamer

Being a game scholar who also plays, who studies gamers and play from the inside and the outside at the same time (one of these days I promise to write a methodology paper), I am not going to give up the "gamer" label. Neither, I hope, are my many gamer friends and gamer research subjects. But the last few weeks have definitely made me rethink the culture a couple of times.

The consistent attacks on Anita Sarkeesian for her Tropes VS Women series at Youtube is really horrifying in a "can't look away from the disaster" kind of way. While I might have gone a little easier on the moral preaching at the end of her otherwise really good latest installment, Women as Background Decoration: part II, in general I am impressed with the thorough work and solid research she has done for each movie. The attacks on her, resuming as regularly as her publishing, is like what happens when you drop a stone in an ant's nest - a thousand agressive little bastards swarming blindly to attack as venomously as they can.

Then another stone drops - as Zoe Quinn - a game designer - is attacked by her ex boyfriend. Now ex boyfriends are not the most reliable sources for information about anybody's love lives, but it was gobbled up and then used to attack Quinn for having an active sex life. Now, there are a lot of stories online about this. If you try to figure the story out, you will find one camp that is busy claiming that it's not about sex, but about ethics in game journalism, (or if it is about sex, it's for a good reason) while another camp claims the whole sex angle is a cover-up from the games press.Then somebody launches a twitter campaign with the hastag not your shield. Having spent years as a meat-shield (a bad one, though), I tried to figure that one out, but never managed to understand what it was about. OK, I did get that there were a lot of different people saying they were not shields in this discussion but - not what shields? Whose? Not the misogonysts' shield? Not Quinn's shield? Sarkeesian's? The game journalists' shield? The tweets under this label were as confusing as the rest of this disussion. Which may not be surprising, as it may be coming out of 4chan - at least according to Reddit.

For a while there, I was really annoyed. Why throw your voice in with either party there? Yes, journalism should always be read critically. It's my job to teach people to do so. But if you read the attacks and how they kept twisting back and forth and also reeling under the attacks on 4chan and reddit coming with the Celebgate or the Fappening, I have surprisingly little trust left. After having seen girls and women being treated as not real gamers for so many years - why would anybody worry about what happened to the gamer tag?

That's when a student walks into my office, and want to study gamers. He hasn't read about any of this, he has a serious question about a fun and interesting activity, and he wants to have a female supervisor because he expects me to know what I am talking about. And he's a gamer.

That's why it matters. To be a gamer isn't to be one or the other. To be a gamer is to be a person who enjoys playing games. Some of these gamers will be jerks, just like some men beat their wives, and some women beat their husbands. Being a woman doesn't make me an abusive wife, just because some women are. Being a gamer doesn't make me neither a fake last-minute addition to a fading fad, nor a ranting maniac who gets a hard-on from abusing women online. (For those who speak German, a special little treat about trolls here.) Being a gamer is about wanting to play. The attackers who spend more time planning how to ruin Anita Sarkeesian's day than playing games are not gamers. They are trollers. So are the ones who really worry about Zoe Quinn's sex life. Just add voyeurs to that.

As for the boob-plate - I don't think we need to worry that it will ever be extinct. Feminist criticism of film has not made the Bond-girls dress up - it has just given some of them more interesting, and hotter, roles. Feminist criticism of games will not make babes, boobs or naked waists disappear, but it may lead to more alternatives for those players who don't play mainly to sit around being sexually tittilated. It may also double the market for games, by including women. And with a doubled market there will be more production, and so more variety and more competition. We could get back innovation, and see whole new fields of game production open up. But like with films - the boob-heavy (literally) segment will survive.

And hopefully, the gamers will remain. Because I love them, I love the spontaneous rants about impossible bossfights, the detailed descriptions of gaming systems, the light in their eyes as they talk about the latest achievement, the desire for new adventures.

--------

And as a special mention - I find myself surrounded by Frankfurter school followers, radical scholars all, in the very suspicious DiGRA. (Note, reddit thread has been linked in reddit to r/conspiratard.) Feminist professors and bloggers are out to get their games. And they are fighting oppressive systems, criticising the structure of peer-reviewing. Yep, that will really hurt the gaming industry... *facepalm*

I guess I should study trolls next.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The swing of the pendulum


Do you think these girls worried about getting likes to their Facebook updates?

 I can hardly read anything about women and social media, without seeing somebody complain about the peer pressure on over-performing housewives through social media. Psychologists talk about tripple pressure (norwegian link) - where women are not just responsible for a perfect home and a perfect career, but also are supposed to entertain and engage the children in their free time. This leads to women being 60% more on sick leave than men.

Normally, I just look past this issue, and shrug. I can bake when I want to, and leave it be when I want that. I played with the kids, but also yelled at them until they cleaned their own rooms and helped making dinner. And while I did finish a Ph D, I went a bit over on the time, and I guess there were a few typos in the script. "Good enough" has been one of my refrains, the other is "better luck next time."

But today I read an article in a Danish newspaper about "saying pyt" - which means "don't worry." Scandinavian has a few good words. English speakers know about "uff" or "uff uff" - which means "oh no, that is bad" - to varying degrees of badness. Now I want to point towards "pytt" or "pytt pytt", which means "it's nothing to worry about, it's not really important, just let it go."

Anyway.

I am old enough that digitally communicated peer pressure was never a problem. I never worried about seeing somebody else's cupcakes online, just to realise that mine looked like a lump of dusty coal in comparison. I did however not grow up without pressure on behaviour, performance, display and manners. Everything I did became a source of careful scrutiny and commentary, no, not online, but from the neighbours, or from the imaginary neighbours in my mother's mind. What "they" would say ran most of my childhood, and kept haunting me whenever I spoke with my mother until she died.

The sixties and seventies in a suburban neighbourhood was all about performance. The houses were showcases for the success of the families living in them, outside and inside. The size of the cars, the size of the garage, the price of the new tile on the roof, the quality of the lawn. Children's parties were a competition of cakes and entertainment, not to mention dress and manners. We were ruthlessly drilled in how to greet the hosts and how to say goodbye, carefully reciting the correct litany. We were always representatives of the family, constantly judged. And we, the kids, got off easy.

The women would host "clubs" - social meetings at each others' places, where it was all about dressing up, serving something fashionable and delicious, and then talking about what was going on. This was as much a display of perfection as any mommy blog. My mother said carefully thank you, and went out to spend the afternoon in the greenhouse. She knew very well that she could never match their fashionable clothing nor the elegant interior design. That didn't mean she didn't care. Every contact with the world outside the garden fence was scrutinised with the aim to decipher the one thing important to her: "What would the neighbours say."

Growing up in the seventies was a great way to learn to say "I don't care." The norms of society were blasted wide open by women entering new areas of society. The elegant housewives who kept the houses spotless and refused us entrance to most of the building if we wanted to play (mostly they ordered us to play outside, no matter the weather), were replaced by hippies with ecological gardens and busy working women. Divorces ceased being disasters we read about in the papers, and children born out of wedlock were no longer "uekte" - bastards born to eternal shame. My mother's "what will the neighbours say" could be fended off with a reference to how oldfashioned and intolerant that was. Who cared about a gaggle of old women anyway, life was here, now, rapidly changing and unfolding before our eyes!

And then I am suddenly older than those housewives were, and I realise that the pendulum has swung back. It may look different, because the acceptance today's young women seek is from an online circle, not from a knitting club organised every week in a new home. The perfect cupcake (which, I just want to mention, my mother would have baked in the late hours of the night, to have them waiting to tempt us into thoughtless indulgence in the morning with their perfect texture and intense tastes - my mother could bake the aprons off any online perfectionist, if we managed to drag her in from the garden) is just the same as the perfect snack for the club, and the pictures of the lovely garden are just a new mediation of the garden which used to be the showcase. It has swung back to the point that we again actually care about what the neighbours may say.

A few points in favour of today though:
  • It's ok to be queer. Actually, in many of those neighbourhoods it's now fashionable.
  • It's ok to be divorced, single mother, or just living together.
  • It's ok to have a job, and send the kids in daycare, kindergarden or pre-school.
  • It's ok to not have a car.
  • And kids get to come inside when it's raining or snowing. I like that part.
As for the rest: Try to learn something from the seventies. Perhaps you don't need to emulate all the ideas about drugs, sex, spitting in public, innovative use of safety pins and pretty bad social realist provocative literature and film, but learn to say: "It's a trap the system has constructed, and it's more important to find my own path than to satisfy the system." That should take care of most situations where you feel like you are about to drown in "what the neighbours might say." Or in concerns about Facebook likes. If needed, substitute that cute button you were about to take a picture of with a safety pin or some duct tape.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Procrastination: thinking about methods and gender

I have to finish one article, make a presentation, and edit another article. I also need to write a litt. review, and start outlining an application and an agenda. All of it has to happen now, there are people waiting, eagerly.

So of course, I can't work. That is exactly how it works.

Instead I keep thinking about all these other issues. For instance the question of method, discipline and the production of knowledge. I was recently at the conference Multi.player 2, in Münster, organised by the overly active Thorsten Quandt. Thorsten Quandt is a well known name among those who do quantitative media research, and he is now looking at games. Luckily for the rest of us, his mind isn't just organised and running at high speed, it's also pretty open for the fact that research isn't just numbers. However, the Multi-player conference was a trip into a very different discipline, and hence, also into conversations that felt very, very old school.

One thing is the idea that you can measure your way to understanding qualitative questions. Perhaps the most annoying example was one study looking at pro-social and anti-social behaviour in players. Players played, then reported their behaviour, and asked if they had fun. Prosocial players had, according to the study, more fun. The problem was not the results, I am convinced that having helpful friends and being helpful yourself is vital for multiplayer fun. The problem was the lack of definition of anti-social. Since anti-social was so diffcult to define, it had just been ignored. And so we don't know what anti-social is, who the anti-social players are, nor whether they have fun to.

From our work on the Dark Side of Play (soon to be published at Routledge), I know that there are popular games where the players are deliberately very nasty. Eve Online is one of the best known games for scams, double-crossings, and general ruthlessness. So, when you enter a game like that and do everything you can to gain resources, double-crossing your friends, cheating your guild and robbing innocent newbies, are you pro- or anti-social? The game, as it is being played now, is interesting because of the high level of risk playing it offers to the players. It wouldn't be the same game if all the players were helpful. And people still have fun while playing.

So how can you quantify anti-social, when it may actually be pro-social? And what does the first finding mean, when you can go to the next game, and find that the same behaviour gets a very different result? No smart suggestions to that problem were presented.

Next came the gender session, and for once I was able to pinpoint a moment of serious mansplaining while it was going on! I felt I unlocked an achievement or something. Here we are, listening to research - quite good and thorough research as well - on how carefully games are designed to give a very small demography what the designers think they want, which means hypersexualised female figures. It was more same-old same-old, but with a few new twists. That's when the mansplaining starts. Here's this male researcer who has never studied gender and design, carefully explaining to the young woman at the podium why the designers choose to do it this way. On behalf of all male designers, of whom he was not one, he felt the need to educate us on what men want and why give it to them.

I think what surprised me the most was the combination of overwhelmingly data heavy research, and extremely uninformed responses to other peoples' research. One should expect all these quantitative researchers to at least qualify their statemens with an "from this point of view". But no.

That doesn't mean Multi.player 2 was a bad conference. The keynotes were brilliant (I am a Chris Ferguson fan now), and a lot of the presentations were good too.

And now I need to stand up, breathe and stretch. No, not all of these. But we-who-sit-in-chairs should make some of these stretches every hour, and all of them once a day, as I was carefully told this morning. Have fun!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Lessons from an Italian beach

The Internet keeps bringing these alarming stories about the scrutiny and control women's bodies are under, and this summer brought great stories like this about how 38 year old celebrities feel it's time to stop wearing a bikini. This is something I keep seeing repeated online, particularly from the US - how important it is to have an absolutely perfect bikini body in order to wear a bikini.

Going to Italy was, in that context, amazingly liberating. At the beaches I found there, a bikini body was defined by a body wearing a bikini. Of course, we all know Italians know about style, about beauty, and worship the beautiful body shamelessly, so it might seem a bit odd that an Italian beach would be such a liberating experience. However, going to the beach there isn't mainly about the body. It's about the beach.

They will flock there in groups of the young and the beautiful, or in families with grandmothers and toddlers, they will slip in between lunch and work, or they will move down to the beach with everything from a full kitchen to the evening gown. They will swim, read, tan, talk, shop (you know all those vendors that walk the beaches? They get a lot of eager business.), and generally get on with their lives right there on the beach. And they will wear bikinis, and they will be nice to each other.

An Italian beach will be crowded, people will be carefully making their way to and from the water on the few free centimeters of unpopulated sand between the towels and chair. They will be engaging in their conversations and occasionally invite the neighbours in on them. And since so much of an Italian beach will be taken up by the commercial beach clubs with their organised chairs, and the locals prefer the narrow strip of communal beach, they will be surrounded by their local community, all the time, and know to keep it light and happy. Civility is the rule.

And in this delightfully diverse crowd, you put on your sunglasses and lean back to watch life walk by, because it will. On the firm strip by the water you will see them all: The ancient ones, moving with calm dignity and delight in their designer swimwear and dripping with gold, or in a cheap bikini and worn flip-flops. The young ones, sleek bodies and firm skin, like seals playing in the waves. The frustrated parents, watching over children, the tired mothers, pregnant or recovering, with a baby at the breast. The thin and the fat. The pale and the brown. The reader hiding under the umbrella with a book. The poser, perched on the only rock that will elevate him for display. And there will bikinis, everywhere. And if they don't like the one they are wearing, soon there will be a vendor with a huge bag of bikinis, and he will open it and offer his goods, and the women in all ages will sort through what he offers and add to their collections with colours, shapes, buckles, frills, patterns, a wonderful riot.

So next time you worry about the way you look in that bikini, just stop, and rather think about how to make yourself comfortable, the Italian way. Towel, parasol, book, water, sunscreen, snack, bikini. That's the only right thing to worry about anyway.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why I need feminism

The anti-feminism statements online are painful and disturbing, and since I can't really figure out if those girls are being set up by male friends, if they are paid to do it, or if they are for real (what's with all those references to Poland, for instance?), I can at least consider my own connection to feminism. So, today's blog-post is a long and rambling description of my own relationship to feminism, and how what I considered personal experiences grew into political awareness.

I never defined myself as a feminist. That was because I never joined the organisations, organised the 8th of March rallies, or spoke up for women's rights in public arenas. I did not, however, believe that my life would be better if there were no feminists. I was too painfully aware of the battles that gave me the rights I had. And when my students started arguing against feminism when it was on the curriculum, I chose to address, but not worry about their arguments, and rather teach them to question, to observe and to think. An observant, thinking woman with a varied experience will see what it's all about, was my logic. And while I can't speak of them all, enough of them did come back to tell me that they had realised I was right, that I now feel my choices were justified.

And that's when I realised that my lack of a feminist card didn't matter.

I suspect the girls on the "women against feminism" blog (if you want to find them, also take a peek at "cats against feminism". It makes as much sense.) would have claimed my life is not that of a feminist. I am married and have two children and a grandchild, I frequently cook for my husband and all the kids, I need men to help me with the heaviest stuff, I even prefer to let my husband do things like changing tires and fixing leaks. I worry about my hair, and, in my old age, I have started wearing a bra. It's just more comfortable. I don't attack men just because of their gender, I don't insist on having jobs I am not qualified for just because I am female, and I don't call for female supremacy. I guess according to the internet definition, I am not a feminist.

However:
My husband cooks for me as often as I cook for him. We clean the house together, and whoever is the last to leave for work, or the first to return, does the dishes and gets the little tasks done. I am a bit better at remembering important maintenance details, I remember bills and savings and numbers, I update calendars and initiate changes. I have a better sense of space and distance, and I am more intuitively sensitive. He is better at researching, spends more time on getting the details right, remembers birthdays, is more polite and worried about what people will say, and is also physically stronger and able to go on after I have fallen asleep. When the children were small, he'd let me sleep in, after I had been up to breastfeed during the  night. He will do more dishes, but I will make sure we get all the laundry done, not just what's on top of the basket. He will take the car to the workshop, but I will notice the changes that makes it necessary. We complement each other in ways which have nothing to do with our genders, and everything to do with personal abilities. What does that have to do with feminism? Feminism permits it.

My background is a story of parents who wanted something different for their daughters. My father taught us that we could do what ever we wanted, from driving vans, steering boats and operating power tools to knitting and cooking. My mother taught us how important it was to have these skills, by exposing the ugly underbelly of expectations and limitations to us, how women were not the masters of their own bodies, their own education, their own employment, mainly through the example of her own struggles. Our father gave his daughters confidence to act, our mother gave us a strong sense of the importance of independence and the need for society to change in order to permit that independence.

With this background independence and equality wasn't an option, it was an imperative. Oh, I know the fears of every woman, and quite a bit about the harm we can expect. "#yeseverywoman" could have had my tweets right along the others. But I knew the trap of "traditional roles", of retreat into the safety of "normality" for what it is. This is why I today take such immense delight in the options I have. Living with hard-won options, in a society where I have at least a chance at employment at my level of skill, where my daughter can marry the woman she loves and my son can work in a pre-school during the summer term, and where nobody thinks it's odd when my husband cuddles our granddaughter - a society where there are nappy-changing tables in both male and female toilets - is something I am deeply grateful for.

Still, I don't initiate contact with strange men. I prefer to ride my bike, rather than walk home through empty streets. I speak to and try to support, advice and function as a reference for female scholars, nurturing their strength when I can. I grieve when I meet women who have been abused, and I know enough of fear to share their pain. I let myself be engaged in supporting the research on female health, as the research tends towards a heavy gender bias where the man is the model for the healthy human being , disregarding the very differences which are supposed to be "celebrated". I know we have come a long way, but until men can stay home with their kids if they want to, until women and men are paid the same for the same job, until girls can play video games without being shamed, and boys can wear pink and be a princess if that's what they want, I don't make the error of saying I don't need feminism. Every year makes me more of a feminist.

And it makes me want to cry to watch those girls claim they don't need feminism. They need feminists to fight for medication suited for women, they need feminists to fight for their rights when they hit their heads in the glass ceiling, they need feminists to support the shelters, they need feminists to fight for the rights of their husbands as well as their own. Feminists have, elsewhere, negotiated paid leave for new fathers, and that hated quota system? It doesn't bring the incapable into power, it ensures that the capable and educated have a chance.

I am still embarrassed by the extreme fanatics though. However, those are embarrassing no matter what you believe in. It's why I back off, quickly, when somebody talk about r-e-l-i-g-i-o-n. Or the advantages of Apple computers.

So why do I need feminism? I need feminism because I want a world where men and women have equal opportunities, without gender-based pressure or harassment. And it doesn't happen for neither women nor men without awareness and struggles.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Confessions of a research object

It wasn't an experiment. I don't know where I picked up the bug that started it all, but I had been unusually active that autumn, working out, studying hard, living in an old, cold building and eating cheaply and badly. I was a skinny, poor student in a cold rainy city, and while I considered it a good life, my body didn't have the resources needed to fight the bug when it reached me.

We were planning to go away for a few days, but we had to give up that thought, because I was throwing up and had a fever. When my boyfriend - now husband - came back from the university, I was weak, had fever fantasies and spots. I couldn't remember to have had measles, so we assumed that was it, and we settled down to wait for it to pass. At some point during the night, I got a headache that felt like it was about to kill me. I managed to make my boyfriend go call a doctor. This was before cell-phones, and even before it was common for a poor student to have a phone at home, so he walked to the nearest phone-booth and called a doctor.

The doctor was there almost before him, came in, looked at me, and immediately started banging on the neighbour's door to borrow their phone. Yes, doctors didn't have cellphones either. Three minutes later I was on a stretcher in an ambulance, on the way to the hospital. Eight minutes later they were hooking me up to just about everything. Fifteen minutes later I was in a coma.

I don't know what happened for the next two days. I am told I fought the doctors and nurses and had to be restrained, or I'd pull the needles out of my body. I am told they paraded entire classes of medical students past me to see and take note of my symptoms, threatening the students that if they ever ignored such, they could just hand in their licenses right then and there. They tapped as much blood from me as they safely could, for diagnosis and study. When I finally woke up I was in a strange room, black and blue and hurting from the amount of needles and the harsh medication that had hit my veins, and there was a nurse stationed by my side in case something happened. I was alive, but nobody really knew how alive I was yet.

I was not well. Mainly, I didn't notice what I was saying. I would think one thing and say another. To this day I have a slight case of aphasia, of not having the right word, of feeling language slip away from me. Or maybe I don't, perhaps I am just more aware of it now, after that experience. I can fake it well enough, it just means I have to double-check if I want to lecture. I overprepare, just to make sure all the words are there, and I know what they mean. They may be gone in a moment's notice, to return at odd times.

But I healed up, slowly. I was young, 22 years old, fit and strong after all. I did lose some hearing, but not enough to be a problem in everyday life. I did however get half a year worth of study wiped, which hit me hard during next term's exam. I hadn't known that it was lost, and so I hadn't known to go back and repeat it. For the first month after I was not allowed to focus. I couldn't read, watch television, listen to the radio. I went home to my parents, walked the dog, rested, learned to eat again, had involved and silly conversations with my boyfriend.

Most of all though, I was cherishing being alive. After I was out of isolation and moved to another room in the hospital, a doctor came in, sat down in the chair next to me and grinned. "You are born again," he told me. "You should be dead. But you live. This is a whole new life for you." That man was dr Alfred Halstensen, at the time working on his Ph D on meningococcal disease. For the next couple of years he kept tapping as much blood as he safely could when ever he summoned me to the hospital.

I was one of the few that autumn of 1983 who survived meningitis at Haukeland Hospital, and I was an adult who could describe carefully what had happened, and who had been strong enough to insist on medical attention before it was too late. I got a spot on his graph for his Ph. D. all to myself, as the 100% survivor of being admitted in the middle of the night, and his plan for all that blood was to use it in the effort to create a vaccine. Today there is a vaccine against some types of meningitis. It isn't one of the mandatory vaccines, but it is used to protect people in cases when epidemics are about to break out. With a disease that had, at the time, more than a 50% mortality rate, and which also tends to create mini-epidemics in otherwise healthy communities, you want that protection if there is a case at a pre-school or a military camp near you.

Now, a vaccine resister could use parts of my story to say that it's healthy for the body to battle disease. For years after that very close brush with death, I didn't even get a sore throath. My immune system was working overtime to keep me healthy, something dr Halstensen had said would happen. That vaccine resister can sadly not tell that to another Torill. At about the same time as I battled meningitis and kind of won, in another hospital another woman my age, with the same name, lost. The mortality rate was 50%. For once I was on the right side of those percentages.

This event changed my life in a myriad different ways, some to the better, some to the worse. I suspect quite a few health issues can be traced back to the enormous doses of antibiotics they used to save my life. They claimed to have "whitewashed" my body, killed all bacteria they could, to make sure they got the ones that were killing me. That is not only a good thing, no matter what a miracle modern antibiotics are. The alternative is much worse though. On the up side, I lost the fear of death. I am on my second life. How many people get a second chance? I walk through life with that as a backdrop: Every moment I have here is a miracle - a miracle of modern science. When things get dark and dreary, I consider the alternative, and enjoy the fact that I am actually here, feeling angry, frustrated or depressed. When things are bright they are twice as bright, just because I am here to experience it.

The people who resist vaccines can never have been on that side of life - over the line to death, and then dragged back by expertice and drugs. They can never have felt the extreme pain, the pain that made me wish I was dead, if the headache would just end, the pain that made me kick and fight and finally black out into a two-day coma. I don't ever want another person to feel that, to experience that. I would have given dr Halstensen and the research crew at the hospital all the blood he asked for, without much thought of personal safety, to make certain that no child would ever need to feel the pain I felt that night. Luckily he was a responsible professional, an ethical researcher, and I was protected, informed and educated through the process.

I am writing this story because of the anti-vaccination movement. They are using emotional arguments against rational arguments, using fear and pictures of babies to reach hearts, while the rational arguments of scientists aim for the heads. But where do the vaccines come from? From people like me, the blood of survivors of bitter battles, living despite the odds to become a lover, a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a scholar, a researcher. I am both heart and head, and both parts of me appreciate being alive, thanks to the doctors that work to develop vaccines to save the world from the pain I went through, the pain that made it possible for me to be of some, tiny little bit of help.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Dark Play in a book!

Finally two years after the Nordic Digra conference where the idea was conceived, our book project has come to the point where we have a publisher and a date for finalising it. I am talking about the project which up to this point was "Dark Play: Problematic Content in Playful Environments", and now is The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments, Editors Torill Elvira Mortensen, Jonas Linderoth and Ashley M. L. Brown, and to be published at Routledge, most likely in 2015.

After a painful wait and a few adjustments, we are putting the physical signatures on actual paper next week, and from then on it's just a lot of work.

My first job as an editor for a book, although not my first realised book idea, it feels incredibly nice to have been able to bring it this far, and I am looking forwards to continue working with Jonas and Ashley until it's all in the box. Fun, fun, and then some fun!

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

A small lesson in the growth of bureaucracy

I have just ended my course for this term, and my darling students had as usual a wealth of questions. Several of those were to the formalia of the course: How to submit, how to write references, how many words and pages etc etc.

This is a fairly well developed course, but it's developed for paper submissions, which means there are certain things we take fairly easy on, and I thought the students would be happy about that. But no, this year the Q&A turned into a lesson in how bureaucracy grows.

First, we had a fairly soft limit: 8-11 pages, which increased at a fairly relaxed rate with the number of students. There's a formula for text type, size, margins etc, so the pages would get fairly standardised. Then the students needed a word count. OK, we gave them from 3400 - 4200 words. Still a generous range. Then they needed to know the precise word count if they were more than one. We set some more counts, still at a range. Then they needed to know exactly what to do with images. We tried again to explain that they needed to keep images at a very "need to use" basis, so please don't give us 20 pages filled with pictures. Then they needed to know exactly how many percent they could exceed the word-count range. What happens if they have 10 pages, but 4273 words? What if they have 3789 words, but 12 pages? What happens if...? They really, really wanted us to be absolute, to give them a strict and non-negotionable limit, something we would be forced to enforce. Flexibility, common sense and a generous interpretation were not words they wanted us to work by.

Year by year, as the technology allows for increased precision, this becomes more and more prevalent. In my days, we would count 10 lines, then the words in these 10 lines, find the approximate number of words on a line, add that up to a page, then add that up to the whole paper. Then we knew how much 4200 words was - approximately. And nobody would count every word.

Today they and we can count every keystroke, and with more options for precision there is also a much larger perceived potential for error. This means the insecurity increases, and answers that address a range or an approximation is no longer good enough. There is a point where the potential of the machine makes us forget about common sense, about the brilliant turn of phrase, the seductive writing of a good argument.

What I really want to tell my students is this: Write well, seduce us, lead us through the labyrinth of your argument, and we can forgive you the length of the text or the shape of the print. Make us laugh with joy as we explore the intricacies of your understandings and your thoughts, and remind us why teaching is such a beautiful thing. And please, don't make us formalize your work down to the last keystroke. We want you to have a range within which to work, some room, some flexibility. Each question we have to answer hems us in, more and more. Please - take a risk on the word-count, because we are reading, not counting.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Writing in bits and pieces

I am currently trying out the writing software Scrivener, to see if it is a better system for a type of writing which might fit how I think. It has a lot of very seductive aspects, such as several good ways to visualise chapters, a lot of ways to introduce meta-data which can also be used to outline or summarize the work, different tags and connections. But after years of handling text as massive monumental pieces, like a scroll growing mainly in one direction, it is very hard to wrap my head around another writing paradigm.

This is of course why I am doing it.

I have always felt that  my thinking happens in leaps and bounds, that my thinking is like a puzzle where nothing fits at first. I have a piece here and a piece there, but not really the whole picture. Then I start seeing how it needs to be organised, and I keep moving it around - a piece of sky there, a bit of fence here, until I have it more or less filled into a whole picture. Using Scrivener I realised that while this may be the metaphor for my thought process, it is not the metaphor of my writing process.

When I write, I visualise not a puzzle, but a river. Everything flows into the force of the direction I am moving in. Little thoughts and ideas flow into the writing and get caught up and carried along, until it's grown wide and heavy, powerful and overwhelming. Sometimes it falls into the ocean in a dramatic waterfall, splendid and catching rainbows, sometimes it works its way painfully through a muddy delta, but on it struggles until its conclusion.

Those are two very different processes, and while it may be due to the force of habit, it feels like Word is the river, while Scrivener is the puzzle.

At the same time, writing is a puzzle even when it feels like a river. I pause and put in references, I search for books, I write in qoutes. I use systems to organise the reference process - if I managed to figure out how to do that more efficiently in Scrivener, I might be over a big hurdle. All of this makes me feel old, tired and lazy when I can't get the different technology to work for me. Still, my understanding of well designed technology is that it makes me feel smarter, not more stupid. The technology I adore eases my everyday life, it doesn't make it harder. It fits in smoothly, without abrasions, because if I have to fiddle around every time I use it, I can do the processes quicker and easier by hand. On a piece of paper. With some scissors and glue.

So, no conclusion, just frustration. I still have a lot of other systems to mess around with - the perfect one may be out there.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Waiting for the barbarians

I am writing on European culture, and it's still early in the process. Hence I am googling random phrases, looking for the words, the articles and the books that can push me further. And there it is, suddenly, a poem that grips me, makes me think and also laugh, at this Europe in which I live, this odd, ancient, and also new and raw place. I found it in the beginning of a book that is available as a PDF: David Morley and Kevin Robbins (1995): Spaces of identity; Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries, London: Routledge.

It is a poem by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy: Waiting for the babarians. A snippet from the poem:
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

I think we are, all over Europe, still expecting the barbarians. However, we have forgotten who they are.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Non-hedonic what?

After having written a few articles on hedonism and pleasure in relation to games, I was interested when I found, in the latest issue of Journal of Communication, two articles discussing hedonism in relation to communication. While saying you are a hedonist today means saying you are focused only on indulging yourself, hedonism in the original meaning was not about indulgence, but about taking pleasure in your life. This pleasure could be had from many different sources, and one of the frequently discussed topics in antiquity, was if this pleasure was in itself a virtue to be strived for, or if it involved and possibly even was dependent on virtue. Plato, Socrates, Epicurus and Aristippus, among others, did not promote senseless indulgence, what they discussed was a life free of fear, and low on pain, and rather more filled with good things. If they came out on the less fear and pain, more peace and joy side, they argued this had been a good life. The rest was a matter of how to get there.

One of the discussions involved eudaimonia. Since this involved Aristotle and the stoics, both parties high on the virtue scale, we popularly tend to read this as the opposite of hedonism. This is also how Hofer, Allemand and Martin defines it:
From a process-based point of view, Oliver and Bartsch (2010) introduce the concept of appreciation, which is defined as "the perception of deeper meaning, the feeling of being moved, and the motivation to elaborate on thoughts and feelings inspired by the experience" (Oliver & Bartsch, 2010, p 76). This nonhedonic gratification is conceptualized... (Hofer, Martin & Allemand, 2014, p 62)
Hofer and friends here makes the leap from something being different from hedonism to something being not hedonism, and defines it by the absence of something, in this case, by defining hedonism as pleasure, as the absence of pleasure. This is not the Aristotelian nor the stoic definition of eudaimonia. Let us go to what we, for simplicity's sake, can assume is an authority, and check Encyclopædia Britannica: "eudaemonism, also spelled eudaimonism, or eudemonism,  in ethics, a self-realization theory that makes happiness or personal well-being the chief good for man." Encyclopædia Britannica's descriptions of both epicurean hedonism and utilitarian hedonism, they are obviously not such strong opponents that they exclude each other. Rather, eudaimonia is a way of experiencing pleasures that are closer to utilitarian hedonism than to epicurean hedonism, but which is still a pleasure-based ideal of the good life.

This also makes reasonable sense if we look at the definition of eudaimonic vs hedonic entertainment as used by Iliver and Raney, cited by Hofer et. al. Here eudaimonic entertainment is driven by a desire for insight and meaning, while hedonic entertainment is more purely for the pleasure. We are back to what appears to be related to the virtue-discussion of the old Greeks, where in this case insight and meaning is deemed more virtuous and hence nore in the line with the teachings of the stoics.

The error that got me started on all of this is the idea that eudaemonism and hedonism exclude each other to the point that the one becomes not hedonic. That is a leap too far. Just consider the viewing habits of those who watch so-called eudaimonic entertainment, that is entertainment that makes you think, where you learn something and understand something about yourself. There is personal growth and there is a sense of meaningfullness. Doesn't this bring pleasure? Even if the movie is sad, don't the viewers enjoy them? Personally, while I thoroughly enjoy silly movies, comedy and easy television series I can fall asleep to, I also love being challenged and forced to think and question. Actually, I will claim that when I take time to consider a very difficult concept, read a book that I need to read and reread to understand, and then perhaps even get so far as writing a scholarly article about it, I am extremely happy! I experience a very high level of pleasure, and feel like I have indulged indeed.

To me, that is a hedonistic experience. I am quite willing to claim it is also a eudaimonic experience. I am not, however, ready to say it's non-hedonic. For it to be non-hedonic, it would have to be pure pain. I occasionally do those things too, it's normally called "chores". But even those have an aspect of utilitarian hedonism, as me finishing my chores tend to lead to other good things, like the happiness of others (more hedons for the world!) and future happiness of myself. And so it goes, as a professor expressed it at a vaguely recollected lecture on philosophy more than 30 years ago: "If you ask why we do something for long enough, the final response is - because I want to be happy." And there it is.

By the way, the other article mentioning hedonism in that journal issue, the one about how narratives persuade, the suspension of disbelief and didactic vs hedonistic processing? That one made me very happy, and I will most likely be citing it in a hopefully soon to be seen article. Don't hold your breath though - academic publishing is very close to creating more dolors than hedons all around.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Facebook, grandparent generation edition

I am one of the early Facebook users, and over the years I have used it in a lot of different ways. First, to stalk the students who invited me and discuss with other scholars how to use it as teachers, later - and for a very long time - to follow those other scholars and catch their news and their links, a mix of playful and serious, like a lunch table at a huge, international university.

Over the last year this has changed though. Facebook has seen a shift, and my personal past is suddenly also there. It started very nicely and casually: people I had missed showed up, we connected on Facebook, and it was just great. Then this group started to play games - innocent games, but surprisingly emotional. One of them was called "you know you are from XXX if..." - and then they started posting things only people from our part of the world, at a specific time, would know. It was surprising how painful that game turned out to be. Pictures of people and places once so important to me opened something I never though was so sensitive. I started to remember how deeply unhappy the girl who walked those streets was. Oh, I remember laughter and friends and fun - that was how I got into that circle of conversations in the first place. But underneath that was fear, loneliness and grief, loss and impotent anger. The Norwegian group Dum-Dum boys says it better than me:
GÅR MED EN HÅND
I HVER SIN LOMME
GATENE HER HAR VÆRT LENGRE
EN AV SVINGENE ER DEN SISTE

NABOLAGET HER ER FULLT AV SKRØMT
HAR ALDRI FLYTTA JEG HAR RØMT
NABOLAGET HER ER FULLT AV SKRØMT
HAR ALDRI FLYTTA JEG HAR RØMT
JEG VAR EN ANNEN DEN GANG DA
SLANG HEKK OG HAGELANGS
To translate: Walking with a hand/ in each pocket/ the streets here have been longer/ one of the turns is the last one. // This neighbourhood is full of ghosts/ have never moved I escaped/ this neighbourhood is full of ghosts/ have never moved I escaped/ I was another way back then/ slinking along the hedges and gardens.

And now I find myself carefully wetting each invitation. Do I want more of that? How do I deal with  those who think of me as a person they can easily approach, a friend lost to them, while to me they are part of a landscape of ghosts? Also, it's not that simple, I do long for some of those connections, to keep in touch with a past which is both slipping away and coming closer. And some of those people; I know that my presence on their feeds, that very tentative connection, is extremely important to them. While I may never be able to be what they would like me to be - a loving friend, a warm presence in their lives - I can give them this, a little sliver of closeness through digital media. Is it that much to ask?

I am starting to see how the popularity of Facebook may be its end. There is a point too close to the bone for me. The more people who connect with their ghosts, the more people reach that point. If I am suddenly absent from Facebook, that is what happened. I was eaten by the ghosts - or escaped, again.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

PhD course at ITU: Citizenship in the Digital Republic 2014 - call

Citizenship in the Digital Republic 2014:
Mundane counter publics in the digital age

March 12-14, 2014, at the IT University of Copenhagen

Lecturers: Prof. Klaus Bruhn Jensen, Copenhagen University; Prof. Peter Dahlgren, Lund University, Prof. Maria Bakardjieva, University of Calgary, Associate Prof. Bjarki Valtysson, Copenhagen University; Associate Prof. Lisbeth Klastrup, IT University of Copenhagen; Assistant Prof. Jun Liu, Copenhagen University; Christina Neumayer, Postdoctoral Fellow, IT University of Copenhagen.

Organiser(s): Christina Neumayer, Maria Bakardjieva

Date(s) of the course: March 12-14, 2014

Course description:
This course is the second edition of the ‘Citizenship in the Digital Republic’ course with a focus on ‘Mundane counter-publics in the digital age’. Citizenship, broadly defined, includes any form of democratic participation in social systems – political, technological and expert. The digital republic, for its part, is understood as a political community where the governance of the people is performed by creative utilization of communication networks. How is such governance realized and how can it advance participatory democracy? What opportunities for involvement do citizens have in a densely mediated polis? Can technological development itself be democratically steered? The goal of the course is to critically explore the new forms of democratic participation that the pervasive presence of digital media in contemporary societies affords and requires. The course aims at attracting and giving a forum to students whose interests focus on participatory forms of design, political and civic engagement, counter-publics and social movements, technological politics, regulation and education. The themes comprising the course take up the concept of citizenship and counter-publics in four distinct contexts:

first theme: counter publics in the digital age
second theme: civic activism, participation, and digital media
third theme: mundane citizenship, digital media, and everyday life
fourth theme: co-creation and participation in policy development and technology design

Counter publics in the digital age
The focus of the first theme is on counter publics in a society characterized by the thorough penetration of digital information and communication technologies (ICTs). Counter publics refer to the individuals or groups marginalized or excluded from the mainstream public sphere who contest, negotiate, and struggle against the hegemonic discourse, form spaces of political opposition, or establish alternative forms of community and identity. With the growing presence of digital technologies in all areas of social life, the internet, mobile phones, and social media are transforming the way people express themselves, interact with each other, engage or form communities, and perceive the world. How are digital communication technologies generating and facilitating opportunities that allow for the establishment of alternative political and cultural identities and communities that define themselves in opposition to established norms? What are the characteristics of the counter-publics in the digital age and how do they differ from those of the past?

Civic activism, participation, and digital media
The second theme will look at the uptake and appropriation of digital media technologies for the purposes of civic action and political participation. It will review the advances made by social movements and civic activists in rallying support and making an impact on political life and the political establishment through the creative use of digital media. The new civic cultures emerging from these processes and their relation to digital technologies and uses will be examined. This theme includes notions of media practices, media-based agency, web journalism and civic cosmopolitanism, which are according to Dahlgren essential elements of civic cultures in the digital age.

Mundane citizenship, digital media, and everyday life
The third theme will be centred on the notion of ‘mundane citizenship’ and ‘mundane counter-publics’. So far a relatively large amount of research is devoted exclusively to use of new media in particular moments of alternative or antagonistic mobilization, failing to associate these specific uses with a larger living context—the mundane, everyday experiences of new media users. In particular, current approaches largely neglect the power dynamics in the mundane use of new media technologies. Consequently, the heavy emphasis on the role of new media in specific eruptions of contentious politics overlooks the cumulative changes in civic agency associated with the mundane use of new media. Accounts narrowly focused on specific events fail to capture, reflect, and assess the political potential embedded in the new practices of civic engagement furnished by new media (e.g., "subactivism") that are submerged in everyday life.

Co-creation and participation in policy development and technology design
The fourth theme takes the notion of citizenship to the terrain of cultural and educational institutions, and cultural practices. It discusses the liberating and repressive forces at play in the way users co-produce culture online both within and outside formal cultural spheres. Co-creation and participation became buzzwords in policy development, technology design and use of digital media, in particular the so-called ‘social web’. Despite the creative potential and the possibility for engagement, a critical perspective on these developments also needs to take unintended consequences such as privacy issues, surveillance and limitations for the development of counter-publics and cultural practices into account.

By looking beyond “eye-grabbing” events (e.g., revolutionary moments), this course probes into the political implication of mundane use of new media in people’s everyday life. Addressing mundane use of new media in people’s everyday experience will help us to understand the cumulative effects of new media and their gradual evolution, but also shed light on the deeper impact of digital communication technologies on social and political changes both today and in the years to come.

How to sign up:
Sign up by sending an e-mail to Christina Neumayer (chne[at]itu.dk).
All students must submit with their application to the course a short abstract of their work as it relates to the course (not more than 500 words). Applications should be submitted by January 27, 2014. Enrolment is limited to 20 participants.

Please find more information about ECTS, etc. here: https://learnit2.itu.dk/course/view.php?id=1974436
and at the PhD school website.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Growing older

I am collecting links, quotes and references for a presentation in Leusden next week. Together with my scientific assistant I am off to the conference Games of Late Modernity, where we - or he mainly - will present a co-written presentation on play with identity. Now the games and play part - including the part about Huizinga - I am fairly confident about, but modernity isn't exactly what I have been spending the last 30 years on... I thought.

But here I am, letting myself sink into Giddens and Bauman, only to discover how familiar this is. No, I am still not an expert, and if I try to claim that the real modernity geeks will shoot me down like a sitting duck. But the more I read the more I realise how much of this development of paradigms I have lived. The seperation of space and time, disembedding and reflexivity - I have seen it happen, and the everyday reading, watching, writing, in general, living with eyes and ears open has led me to an understanding which is almost more like lived time - the argument becomes embedded in my lived experience, not disembedded and learned as mediated experience.

Or is it?

It is refreshing to sit and ponder the ambivalence of experience, and feel the contradictions like an ache in my bones, like the wrinkles of my skin. I feel both ancient (I have to be, in order to feel I have lived modernity), and surprisingly young (I feel transported back to the early eighties, as I try to figure out where I lost All that is solid melts into air. And the only reason I remember that phrase is because it is so poetic.)

Yes, I know, I write as if I am 80 years old. But the truth is that I feel like I am at a perfect age: old enough that I have decades of experience as a thinking, analysing being to draw on when I need to contextualise new knowledge, young enough to have energy, strength and an immediacy of presence needed to learn new things. At this point in life, growing older is still a good thing. At least as long as you have a really good hairdresser, and don't worry too much about having to wear glasses.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Happiness is an idle game

A while ago, I got a request from a journalist. I want to thank him, because he pointed me to something new and interesting, even if I didn't have a good answer to him. What he did was to point me to what so far is called the "Idle game" movement, represented mainly by Cookie Clicker, A Dark Room and Candy Box.

So much for that day - it turned out jet-lag and what I rather want to call "slow reveal" games are a perfect combination. I spent the day clicking back and forth between A Dark Room which soon became a firelit room, Cookie Clicker and Candy Box, revelling in a play experience I didn't know I had missed.

My favourite was A Dark Room, which is probably the reason why I prefer "slow reveal" to "idle". A Dark Room doesn't really let you idle. I have to open that pane regularly to click to gather wood and meat, check if my villagers are sick, build stuff and later go on quests. It has a certain "idle" quality in that once I have clicked a few boxes, I have to wait until resources fill up again, and if I die while questing, I have to wait until I can quest again. But it is not idle in the manner of Cookie Clicker and Candy Box. Right now I am waiting for 379,562,151,938,677 cookies, so I can buy another antimatter converter and make more cookies. I am aiming for 100 antimatter condensers (for now), and the main work I have to do is to wait. To give you an example, while writing the paragraph above, I built a house, three traps and a workshop in A Dark Room, I ate 647 candies in Candy Box (in one click), and waited through another few billions of cookies in Cookie Clicker.

So what are these games? My first immediate thought was Ian Bogost's infamous Cow Clicker. Cow Clicker was designed as a casual game parody, and was quite good at it. So good actually, that people refused to give it up. When Bogost took the cows out of the game, people clicked on the empty box, and wrote about the emptiness of a life without the mooing sound of the virtual cows in the non-game. (Btw - there I hit 379 562 billion and something, and could buy another antimatter condenser.) Like Cow Clicker all the games are highly playful and ironic, and they play with genres as well as with their own progress: layers of meta on top of actual, functional game engines.

Unlike Cow Clicker, they play with much more than one genre. All games are to a certain degree resource allocation games. Cookie clicker is definitely one, where the main goal of the game is to gain resources. It is also about gamification, as what you do is wait for the resources to build up, gain achievements and register progress. There is no risk - even the wrinklers, the monsters that eat at the cookie world, don't really delay the progress that much. I can miss clicking on the occasional golden cookie, but - well - perhaps it's me, but that doesn't feel all that risky.

Candy Box has more action. The candy box part at the beginning feels like Cookie Clicker in that it just allows a very few acts, but in this case, you don't have to click. All you need to do is wait, and while you wait you gain candies. Then you eat some or throw some away or save some, and you wait some more. After a lot of waiting (we see where the "idle" comes from), it's possible to play, and slowly, as you gain more and more resources (candy and lollipops), you can start exploring. This is where the game changes to a more regular old-fashioned adventure, with action! Candies can be used to by gear and upgrades, and by and by you can start outfitting your little avatar and go on adventures all the way to hell. This game even lets you learn how to craft, and crafting is a vital part of making it through the levels.

A Dark Room is my favourite though, with it's almost poetic minimalist beginning, and the explorations into a world that is slowly revealed to the player. This too includes a lot of waiting, but now there is a risk to waiting. My first settlers were deeply troubled by raids, and their traps were constantly ruined, forcing me to rebuild over and over again, for instance. The exploration part of the game was a little slow-reveal game within, as the map was totally unexplored until I started to walk into it - and so I died and died and died again. The game had four phases, one which was just waking up and waiting, one was allocating the initial resources, one was exploring the landscape, and then there is the space flight.

Slow reveal games are perhaps the essence of adventure games, at least Candy Box and A Dark Room. At the same time they are extremely casual, as we don't have to go out and actually do that much of the resource allocation work. No killing of chickens to gather enough feathers for the arrows, no emptying the secret hiding places of every inhabitant in the village for coins. All you need to do is wait, let it run, chck once in a while, when you need to pause anyway, to see how the game progresses. If you're smart, you make a little routine out of it - stretch, check game, back to work. Unlike smoking, it's a casual habit that lets you get out of a rut, take two minutes to reset, without giving you and your environments lung cancer.

And they are not trying to make you spend a lot of money on them. Unlike games like Candy Crush (which I have been playing for a few months now, hardcore mode, which for me means not buying any help), you can just play. The game isn't trying to trick you into anything. It is incredibly liberating after all those casual games on Facebook, where the genius of a small horde of graphic designers is dedicated to making you lust for those micro-transactions.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Work or Play?

Yesterday I caught fractions of an ignite talk here at IR 14.0 in Denver. I say fractions, because ignite talks in English are too quick for me. No matter how much I read, write, speak and listen in English, it is still a second language. Now, give it to me in Norwegian, and I'll be fine, I might even try the genre myself, but...

Anyway, that was a digression. Back to the topic. The talk was given by Jaime Banks (University of Toronto), and was called "Pixel-assassination: Protecting work and play in internet research". So, what did I catch of the stream of words with pictures? She was concerned with how, studying games, her fun became work, and she mixed the two. Mainly, she felt her fun was suffering because she was studying it, and it became work. So she claimed we need to think about how to protect our fun. Then, this morning, colleague Jonas Linderoth's Facebook stream contained a picture of 7 different digital games, with the comment "work or play? That's the question."

Game scholars are not the first with this problem. It has been an issue for literature studies for instance, for ever. Who ruined the humanities, writer Lee Siegel asks in the Wall Street Journal:

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.
And still, there are literature professors who love their jobs, and still love literature. Probably even the very professors who did not manage to make the study of it come alive for Lee Siegel. Loving the study doesn't automatically mean you're a great teacher. But it is obviously a problem that by studying your passion can kill your passion.

I don't know how to fix that though, and I don't think my method will work.

After almost 20 years of studying games, I have to admit this problem stumps me, mainly because I love my job as much as I love playing games. Possibly more. Several of my game adventures are just work, and the most fun part of them is the work part. Now that isn't as horrible as it sounds, because that moment when I start seeing how things connect, how a game unravels or a social platform function, how a text is put together and theory unfolds and connects the dots - it feels better than almost anything. I have ignored family, food, health, kittens and sunsets for that sense of being in the flow, in the rush of analysing and understanding. Sadly it's a rush I have to work very, very hard to reach. I have play, to read, to interview, to observe, to discuss and then read a bit more to reach it, to touch that point within when it feels like my brain is using all available capacity on this one thing.

So - ehh - no, I don't find it a problem that my fun suffers for my work. As a matter of fact, my challenge is to find a past-time that is as fun as my work, something which is sufficiently challenging that I don't get depressed from not working. Television puts me to sleep. I have no musical talent. Crafts like knitting works if I can do other things at the same time, so knitting, watching television, chatting with family and analysing the plot of what ever we are watching in a jam of textual analysis (yeah, we do that in our family, media critique is social literacy when we have a cozy evening watching television. And don't ever watch the news with us. You'll hear more about politics, local and global, than you might want to know.). I guess I am the wife and mother of hopeless nerds.

(Now that I read the previous passage again, it looks like I am bragging about our brains. I do want to point out though, that the analysis and the discussions aren't always particularly good. They are often banal and common-place, and loaded with assumptions only a certain methodological rigour and easy access to Google can save us from.)

This way I can take the work-mode into everything. It may make me a horribly boring person for non-digital-media-researchers. But it makes me feel alive. I can sit on top of a mountain, exhausted by the climb, admiring the view, and there I can think about the connectedness of modern man. And no, it doesn't keep me from experiencing the moment, it doesn't disconnect me from the present. Quite the opposite, it connects me to all that I am, body and mind, social and professional. Studying what I love, and loving the study, I feel alive.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Life as a female academic

I just found this list, directed at male academics who want to promote equality in the workplace: Don't be that dude. It's a blogpost on Tenure, she wrote, written by Acclimatrix.

I agree that there's a lot men can do in order to make environments more welcoming for women. I spent 19 years in a male-dominated workplace, and came away from it with very few friends and not a lot of self-respect. I loved a lot of the guys there, but the general environment needed some serious tweaking to make men and women just humans together, rather than humans and women. And I think that is what lists like the one in "Don't be that dude" are supposed to achieve.

I would however feel a lot less human in a culture that followed that list slavishly. Also, the list is extremely culture-biased in what it asks for and what it doesn't ask for. Let's read it from my point of view, a female associate professor in a male-dominated field in Scandinavia:

1: Titles - we don't use them much. It's useful when we need the ethos in particular contexts, but otherwise it's not a done thing. Equality is more important than hierarchy in everyday situations. This also means that mrs, miss, ma'm and all those other little titles are absent too. I like that a lot better than suddenly being "professor Mortensen" or "Dr. Mortensen". I am simply Torill Mortensen, or Torill, and that is enough.

2: If nobody commented on my appearance when I put in an effort, I'd be really unhappy about it! And yes, we comment on it when the guys dress up too, and I get compliments from other women, and give them to women and men. It's recognition for an effort, and I think it's perfectly appropriate.

3, 4 and 5 are important in this culture too. I do appreciate how difficult 4 can be though, when cracking jokes and not watching every word, so in certain settings it's not such a bad thing. It's all about timing though, as manners and humour so often is.

6, 7, 8, 9 - this is where being Scandinavian kicks in. I will happily let men open doors for me, partly because a lot of doors are bloody heavy (getting into and out of the IT department is a struggle, every time!), and partly because I just like a little bit of role-playing with my everyday life. I will also gladly let fit young men carry crates, or macho men who rebuild cars in their spare time have a go at that tire. But the men I hang out with are good at thinking of gifts for occasions, they take their own notes, and they run off to fetch their kids, so they have to run from meetings. I think the last of that particular brand of everyday inequality in Scandinavian Academia is there because there are still more single mothers than single fathers. This means that no matter how hard the guys work at equality, there will always be more women in Academia who are tied to the routines of families than men.

10, see 3 and 5.

11 - benevolent sexism. This explains why the author feels that 2 is a problem. I am still not quite there though. I find that the problem with benevolent sexism isn't that we talk about women like that (great cook AND great scientist), but that we don't talk about men like that. Women are rewarded for having a good life/work balance, men are not. We don't see it as a quality for men to be considerate of their families while also maintaining healthy careers. Yes, women have to work twice as hard as men for the same recognition, partly because we are expected to have this life/work balance, or else! But men who have it may be complimented on doing dishes (what a good guy you are...), but it's not very acceptable when they consistently leave meetings early, avoid overtime or scale back to 80% workweeks because they need to spend more time with the family. It may harm female careers, but I suspect it hurts men more. So rather than less benevolent sexism, I am in favour of more benevolence all around. Give credit where credit is due, and I know several guys who should have "great cook and great dad" in their obituaries.

I am editing point 11 to put in the "top five regrets" from Bronnie Ware's book on the regrets of the dying. It's cold comfort to know that in the end, what people regret not doing are the things women are supposed to do, but it may teach us to read obituaries differently. At the point in life when they become relevant, the good obituary will talk of a person who did not worry about what people expected of them, worked less, spent more time with their friends, expressed their feelings and allowed themselves to be happy.

12 - mansplaining. In Norway we just call those "hersketeknikker" and cite the scholar Berit Ås, who studied the master supression techniques of Ingjald Nissen and popularised them. Read up on it. It's brilliant, and you don't need to use that silly and imprecise word again. 13 and 14 falls under this.

15 to 18 are mainly calls to action, and not a problem. It's also important. Now that gender equality is less about survival and more about quality of life, it may be a good idea to consider that there's more to life than a career. Perhaps that "more" isn't the same "more" for you as for your female colleague, but working towards a system that gives everybody more liberty in how they live their lives is not a bad thing.

19, see 12.

20 - a cookie? But of course you'll have a cookie at the end of this! You may even know how to bake it yourself! How does the saying go - "give a man a cookie, and he has something with his coffee, teach a man to bake, and he will redesign the kitchen to do it more, better and faster." So in the end, you can have all the cookies you like, and you can offer cookies to others. And that's what this is all about. More cookies to go around, for all of us.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pull the plug

Recently, there's a rash of books giving advice on how to achieve the good life. The authors regularly appear on radio, talking about their books. I am still not reading them, but since I have spent a lot of this summer driving around in Scandinavia, I can't avoid hearing all about it.

They all talk about how the key to the good life is to unplug. Turn off the smart-phone, stop logging on to Facebook, keep from immersing yourself in technology, leave the lap-top at home and let the Ipad battery run low. Listening to them, the worst thing you can do is to use modern technology.

This is all very up-to-date, and in a way, it feels right. Going offline to most of us means putting away the day-to-day demands of the regular routine. Avoiding routine is a way to discover new things about ourselves, it helps us gain new experiences, and even think some new thoughts. It looks like there is a strong causal relationship between unplugging and new experiences.

I claim this is a very superficial connection, and that what connection there is relies on routine, not on technology. This kind of self-help books are much older than technology. It's all about paying attention to the moment, rather than acting from habit. There are whole religions built around this:
  • Zen is more of an attitude than a belief.
  • Zen is the peace that comes from being one with an entity other than yourself.
  • Zen means being aware of your oneness with the world and everything in it.
  • Zen means living in the present and experiencing reality fully.
  • Zen means being free of the distractions and illusory conflicts
We have always known that in order to relax and be at peace, we need to let go of the day-to-day concerns that keep nagging us, all the little things we don't master, all the demands we can't meet and desires we can't satisfy. That didn't enter into human lives with Facebook. This means that unplugging won't make us instantly happy, either. I do however believe that in order to achieve some kind of happiness, we need to cherish moments of no intrusion from routine demands, and yes, sometimes that is easier if you don't check Facebook.

Personally, I find a lot of those free moments of no other intrusion when I am very engaged with technology, and I achieve a sense of being free of distractions and illusory conflict that way. But I don't think anybody will buy a book that says: "Stop worrying about how to achieve inner balance, and start enjoying the moments when you do." First, it's a very short book. Next, it doesn't give people an easy, physical way to feel they are doing it right. Third, your Facebook status won't show that you haven't posted in a week. You will just have to blog about it if you want people to know how happily unconcerned you are.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

D or F?

Some time ago, I assessed a master's thesis at a Norwegian university (I do so regularly, at different universities). It was a half-assed piece of work, and I gave it a low mark, as I should. This didn't happen without discussion or resistance; the other assessor disagreed initially. We went through the thesis very thoroughly, and also read the descriptions of the use of the different grades in the Norwegian system. At the end we agreed that the grade was the only possible one, from the content and the descriptions. The internal assessor had hoped for a better grade for the student, but that's why we use external assessors in this system: in order to have qualified, unbiased readings.

In this process, the other assessor said something that stuck with me. "But when they apply abroad, they look at this grade, and our students don't have a chance, because in the US, the grades are used differently." The implication was that this paper would have gotten a much better grade in the US. Now, I can't grade according to a hypothetical standard in another country, so the argument didn't change anything. But it triggered a curiosity about the performance of American students vs Norwegian, because one of my impressions is that in the US, there is a much higher general failure rate. In Norway, if you start an education, you may not always excel, but you have a very high chance of finishing. My impression was that in the higher education in the US, the drop-out rate is much higher.

Today I read about the failure rate in MOOC - Massive Online Open Courses - in California, or more precisely, San José. Now, comparing regular teaching with MOOCs is unfair. Any teacher with a tad of experience knows the difference between seeing the students face to face and writing them. However, a sentence in the article caught my attention:
Gov. Jerry Brown had lauded the goals of the program to allow students to graduate faster and reduce their debt loads at a time when only 16 percent of California State students graduate in four years.
 16%

Almost all Norwegian students are state students. The education is free. How many graduate in four years? From SSB, the state-owned statistics bureau (which, by the way, has been noted as being more critical of the educational system than the private agency paid to assess it.):
Av de om lag 30 600 studentene som startet på bachelorutdanning for første gang i 2006, fullførte 45 prosent innen tre år. Etter ytterligere to år hadde 62 prosent fullført. Sammenlignet med studentene som startet i 2005, har andelen som fullførte innen fem år økt med 4 prosentpoeng. I løpet av denne femårsperioden var det 23 prosent som avbrøt studiet. 9 prosent av disse avbrøt etter første året. Bachelorutdanningen i økonomiske og administrative fag hadde høyest andel av studenter som avbrøt i løpet av fem år, hele 33 prosent.

45% have finished in three years. In five years, 62% have finished. 23% have quit, and didn't finish over five years. We don't know if they resumed/will resume their education later. Now, discussing which universities and colleges we should compare our universities with is a bit useless. Norway doesn't have the private Ivy-league schools, but we have a pretty solid state-run educational system. We can't really compare either way, but we do tend to compare our system with the Ivy-league schools, as these are the goal for many of our students who go abroad. But who are the Ivy-league students? They are the children of the educated and well-off, and what does statistics tell us about academic success and social background?

If we look at the figure in the article from SSB, it's pretty clear. Children of parents with higher education finish more higher education. Children of parents with no education finish less. (Considering that none of my parents finished high-school, I am an anomaly according to this statistic: a person from my background should not have a doctorate. Yes, I thank the Norwegian welfare state and the miracle of our educational system regularly.) We compare a system which encompasses students from all backgrounds, with a system which exclusively caters to those with the best chances. We expect our students to compete with the very top of the heap of an extremely competitive system, where failure and dropping out is more common than completing an education.

There's no real conclusion to this. I am not saying which of these two systems is the better (although, see above, I know where my loyalty lies.) What I am saying is: They can't really be compared. The Norwegian educational system needs some serious tweaking, I agree. But I don't feel bad about giving a low grade to a student who doesn't perform well. They are still miles ahead of the large numbers of US students who do not get a grade at all. If we are to compare our students with the American ones, we need to compare both ends. And when it comes to making sure the population is educated, we perform very well indeed.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Grandmother in the age of the internet

I have been a grandmother for more than 6 months. The girl in question is very much the child of a modern family: the daughter of my daughter's wife, legally my daughter's daughter, emotionally, socially and in every possible way a child of this family. She smiles like my daughter, looks like my daughter-in-law, and explores the world like her unique self.

Sadly, she's in Bergen and I am in Copenhagen. That's however nothing new. My kids were born and lived in Bergen, while their grandparents lived in Ålesund and Oslo, a similar distance and a much longer travel time. I fly to Bergen for 400,- nkk and in 90 minutes. We used to pay what felt like a lot more while we had a lot less, to spend a night either on a train or on the coastal steamer, to get from Bergen in the days when we travelled with kids.

The real difference is in the day to day communication. My daughter keeps skyping us when she wants company - and we keep insisting that she skypes us. Or use google hang-out, or what ever other technology we have available. Sometimes it's my husband from one place, my daughter with her family, and me. And occasionally the uncle, our son, looking in from a fourth location. And then we chat, wave at each other, admire recent tricks and I sing, very badly, to the admiring audience who is my daughter's daughter. Internet, be happy you don't have to be part of those hang-outs.

The closest thing in the eighties was long and expensive phone-calls. The cost was a constant drain on a student economy, and the grandparents weren't all that interested in paying their end of it, so it would happen perhaps once a month. Then there would be the occasional letter. These were mainly in order to send pictures back and forth, and those were really expensive: film, process and copied, so there would be enough pictures for both set of grandparents, and then a hand-written letter in there. Yes, so much more exclusive and so much more labour-intensive, if you want to feel that communication matters. But also so rare, and so formal.

Now, I can watch that darling baby, as she listens to out-of-tune scales sung to her, and she tries to respond. It's almost enough to make me go pick up a little flute, to see her face when I play to her. It's a little marvel, and I get to enjoy it instantly. But it doesn't end there. My daughter and daughter-in-law got themselves a pretty good digital camera, and they use it frequently for little movies and a lot of pictures, posted to their pass-word protected weblog. I check my email only slightly more often. I get to see her grow, sometimes day to day, always once or twice a week, and I can comment, and then I get comments on the comments. All my colleagues know this, because it offers another benefit: I am ruthlessing making them admire the day-to-day development of this miracle of normal extraordinarity which is a grand-child.

I am still not sure if she actually responds to the person on the screen as a human being, or just odd sounds and images, but when I visit, she isn't afraid. It may be because I sound so much like my daughter, or she may actually get it - I am something familiar and non-threatening. It certainly makes me feel very close to them, to my children, their friends and loved ones, and now this little miracle of a girl. Not to mention the cat. It isn't the internet without a cat.

Of course, a lot of other things have changed too, from our parents' time to us. We are generally healthier and more fit. We have more education, and expect to be able to keep learning new things all the time. Education never ends these days, and communication technology changes so quickly, a constant stream of something new is the stable normality. Not all of the changes are necessarily to the better. It's important to learn to protect ourselves from the anxiety born of potentially constant connection. But when I log on to the little darling's blog and see a new picture of her crawling, chasing the tail of their cat, information technology is nothing but wonderful. I am a grandmother in the age of the Internet, and I love it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

More on pink and princesses

If you have read my blog a bit, you know how I feel about hyperfeminisation, particularly when it happens to little girls. The big Lego-debate can stand in for every time I have said: Feminine is OK, but give the poor girls more than one option!

So, imagine my interest when Merida, from Brave, has become a Disney Princess. She is already part of the Disney brand, as Brave is a coproduction between Disney and Pixar. Merida is the ultimate tomboy, the girl who resists with everything she has when her mother tries to make her a copy of herself. In the fight for power between the two women, their real love for each other is revealed, and turned into mutual respect. The story is grand, funny, beautiful and contains some of the best descriptions of feminine strength that I have seen targeted at children - both female dignity, motherly love, and strong-willed passion and dedication. Loving Merida and her mother doesn't mean loving men, it means loving the strength of women. And so taking her into a Disney universe where femininity so far means such things as sleeping until the Prince wakes you up, finding love together with the right shoe or giving up your voice for love was a bold and interesting move.

However not everybody likes the make-over she had to go through in order to fit in. Not that Merida ever wanted to fit in. That was what the whole film was about, Disney! Don't take away her bow and arrow!!!

The scariest readings are the comment fields, though. It looks like asking that one princess out of eleven remains a normal teen-ager and not a hypersexualised wet dream is a frontal attack on femininity and masculinity, simultaneously. That aggression just underlines the desperate need for more Meridas, girls willing to fight for the right to not conform to restrictive norms. You go, Merida. As for me, I aim to become a skinwalker, to show off how my inner bear wakes up when somebody threaten the freedom and safety of my kids.