Monday, February 04, 2019

Relevance and morals as a modern researcher

When we submit applications, we are always told to tell the world why our research is important. How is it relevant? And I am always at loss of words. Not because I think what I do is irrelevant, but because I think it is all extremely relevant, and not seeing that is really not a problem I can solve. So, let's take a step back and look at the problem from another angle.

First, I need to simplify, which means picking one of the 500 reasons why I think what I do is incredibly interesting and important. So instead of listing all the ways in which studying games, play and cyberculture is important, I have to find one. My current most important reason for studying this is: it plays with our emotions.  That is just standard rhetorics though. Aristotle was talking about how rhetoric plays with our emotions, so why is it still important? Well, rhetoric never stopped playing with our emotions, and we have not become smarter about it, quite the opposite. Our emotions are now being played with at a rate we have never before experienced. Our heart-strings are constantly being tugged, our anger stoked, our sense of humour tickled, and somebody are making that their main business. The contemporary currency of mass media is not just our eyeballs, which have been sold regularly for generations, but our reactions, connections, networks, and emotional impact.

So next, I need to figure out which agency might care about this. If what I wanted to do was to sell a business idea about how to do all of this better, then I would probably have had a long range of businesses to work with - and I would have made a lot more money than I do as a lowly scholar. But I have this thing about not just having my fun - I also care about how I have my fun. So I want to use this knowledge about how emotion is currently bought and sold in a way that lets the society in general benefit, and not just, for instance, Google or Facebook (who have become super-rich off our emotions already).

That is where it all stops. Because I have this tiny little thing that I know a lot about, there is a sea of businesses who want to make it into a better business plan, and I want to give it away for just the price of developing it into a working model together with somebody who will use it to counter all of those commercial players. I am sure the persons I could talk to exist. I am also certain they are looking for somebody like me. But instead of matching up us, application processes are basically working by the garbage bin principle.

In organisational theory, a generation ago now, we learned that in any organisation there are a stack of problems, and a stack of solutions. They all get thrown into the same bin, then they get shook up a bit. Afterwards we go through, and start trying to match them up. It doesn't matter if the problems and the solutions match perfectly as long as they kind of match. And that is the problem with any research application process. I am at any given point trying to guess the problems in the bin, and then I try to write an application that matches the problems I think have been thrown into the bin. A lot of other people do the same, of course, and it's all matched up by a bunch of people who never asked the questions, nor wrote the answers.

Here is another answer I don't have: I don't know what a perfect application process would be. I do think it is a pretty impossible task to ask me to guess how to be relevant to every possible funding source out there. And to be honest - I don't even want to. But if you are interested in a person who knows a bit about how our emotions are being manipulated through digital media, well, if you have a good question, let's see if I can make a plan to come up with a good answer. Who knows, we might be able to avoid the garbage bin altogether.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Should we teach every buzzword? The example of growth hacking.

When you try to develop an education that is attentive to the potential job market of students, one of the things you will face are buzzwords. Every employer will have a new buzzword that they would like you to use when educating the students. The current term is "growth hacking."

There is nothing wrong with wanting our students to know about growth hacking. If you research the term online, it is mainly a way of thinking, a strategy for understanding how everything in a business can be optimised in order to gain and retain customers. Patel and Bryson have "A Definite Guide to Growth Hacking", and they are quite enthusiastic about it, even if they feel like they have heard the term a million times.

So why does growth hacking show up when we plan a tiny course of just a few ects at a University in Denmark, what is smart about it, and what is a problem. First, we are doing a course on networked user practices. That is pretty much the bread and butter of growth hackers. They want to know how to study users, in order keep them around for as long as possible. Sound strategy. It is what we have public relations and marketing departments for: to understand the people who keeps the business running: The consumers/users/clients. And growth hacking mainly means that the knowledge of these departments need to be drawn in closer to the production and innovation, in order to inform every step of the chain from concept to product more closely. For those of us who have been reading something on the development of PR as a profession, this is pretty much the Grunig and Hunt excellence model on steroids: The business is in continuous conversation with the surroundings.

But why is this then a problem? Because when they call it growth hacking, they think we are not already doing it. A solid, updated education teaching strategic communication will already teach the students what they need to know in order to support growth hacking in an organisation. The term isn't really needed for the university to understand the importance of constant user testing and feedback to an organisation that wants to develop quickly. The terms is needed for the businesses in order to understand that the thing they want to have our students doing is exactly what we want to teach them.

The problem arises when we can't find literature on the term to put on the reading list, because when the solid research that exists is on dull and well known topics like market demography, data scraping and netnography, that doesn't read like the sexy terms consultants throw at their clients. But here it is. Instead of hiring a horribly expensive firm to give your business a growth hack spin, look for somebody with a solid education in communication. Give them the attention and resources you would give the self-proclaimed growth hacker, and make certain all the different levels of the organisation is available to them - and they are available to all in the organisation. Then you can get on with the growth hacking, but buzz free. And we can get back to teaching things like the methods that facilitate the development so often disguised behind the buzzword.

When that's said: I will have growth hacking as part of my lectures. I have now read up on it, and my book shelf is already full of the communication literature I need to ground it in a solid organisational communication history. I don't think I will publish on it though. Before it's out, the term will be out, too.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

2018 books I remember

I tend to devour fantasy and science fiction, and I do it for the escape. I read and write constantly, and when I don't, I play, all for work, so when I want to get out of that kind of headspace, I end up mindlessly devouring popular fiction. Aside from Netflix and HBO binging, I have been buying Saga, Monstress and Paper Girls comics, and I definitely recommend either one of those. But today I want to mention some books.

The thing with me and fantasy/sci-fi is that I rarely remember what I read afterwards. That's not what they are for. But sometimes I am left with a bit more than just the normal odd sense of having had a different experience, and I actually remember something from them. These are the books I have read on my Kindle in 2018, and remembered something of.

The Newsflesh series by Mira Grant. This is a little bit like cheating, because I read the first, Feed, some time ago, then picked up the second in 2017, reread the first, read the second, and then bought and read the rest in 2018. That means I read one of the books twice, and have a bit more of a chance to remember it. But it also means I cared. This is a weird and interesting zombie novel, where the main characters are journalists who end up in a zombie-infested conspiracy. The different endings are not all that happy, because this is a post-zombie-apocalypse dystopia, but at the same time I love the struggle to keep going and maintain some kind of coherence in a world that is all broken.

The Clocktaur War, by T. Kingfisher, a pen name for Ursula Vernon. I am trying to remember why I loved this. One part is the clockwork constructs that inhabit this world in the best steampunk style, but also the sense of flawed characters wielding even more flawed magic, and the stupidity and arrogance of humans starkly revealed in the face of other intelligences.

Then there is Uprooted, by Naomo Novik. I have loved Novik since the Temeraire books - who can resist a society reforming, social democratic dragon? And Uprooted is also a book of dragons, but a very different kind of dragon. This is about the evil we do not speak and do not fight until it is almost too late. Then we need to go into the heart of its darkness to reveal the rotten core of betrayal. And no, the dragon isn't evil in this book either.

The next book, City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, is special because I still can't remember it. I know I loved it. I reread the beginning today before writing this, to see if I could recall it, and all I am left with are odd glimpses like a kaleidoscope of beautiful imagery. Sometimes, this is all I remember of a book that while reading gripped me firmly, and sometimes it's because it was disjointed. I can't, for all it's worth, recall which it is with this book. I am still including it because the fragments are still very appealing.

A series/type of books I had a lot of fun with this year, was a series of superheroes. Wearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon has carried me through many flights this year. It's about a world in which superpowered individuals pop up at odd intervals, either at puberty or triggered by trauma, and about how they deal with that. Lots of humour, not particularly complex, but sweet, light reading for those of us what have always wanted to have Atlas Type powers because that means we will be able to fly.

And then there are the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. This made enough of an impression on me that I modelled the main story for Transmedial Storytelling this year after the idea of artificial intelligences with human traits. Sadly, my students hadn't read it + they are IT students and know that there are humans behind the most invasive of software dystopias, so they didn't even care to spin a rogue AI fantasy. But I loved the idea of a self-aware and, by mistake, quite empathic military grade robot out there, saving humanity from itself.

I have read a lot more. My kindle content list is so long it may be a sign of an addiction. But these are the ones that, skimming through the list today for the sake of summing up some of what I did in 2018, stood out.

DiGRA 2019 Call for Papers






It is our great pleasure to announce the Digital Games Research Association's 2019 Conference call for papers. Papers are invited under the theme 'Game, Play and the Emerging Ludo Mix', where 'media mix' serves as a starting point for considering games' convergence, transformation, replication, and expansion from platform, technology, and context to another. For more information and updates, please see http://www.digra2019.org/.

DiGRA 2019 Conference will be held at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan from August 6 to 10, 2019.

Submission deadlines: 
Full Papers, Abstracts, Panels, and Doctoral Consortium: February 5, 2019
Workshops: April 8, 2019

Please share this call with any potentially interested parties. 

Best wishes,
Program Chairs Hanna Wirman, Masakazu Furuichi and Torill Mortensen