Wednesday, May 03, 2017


My dreams are exceptionally mundane. They are silly funny things, like walking out the door of the apartment in Denmark and finding myself here in Bologna, or annoying, like fear of oversleeping making me wake up once an hour, if I have set the time early to make sure I manage to get up. But once upon a time I used to have nightmares.

They lasted well into my adult age, horrible terrors, where I was chased through a maze that was my childhood home, new doors opening in strange places, while the things chasing me - animals of some kind - came ever closer, until I woke up terrified, sometimes screaming.

The last time I had this dream, our little, orange kitten came into the dream. While I was trying to hide, she grew to the size of a lion, then she got between me and the thing chasing me, and ROARED.

This happened years ago, and the kitten became a cat, aged, and died, and we missed her and grieved for her. But in my dreams she still walks in her golden lion shape, and the dreams remain silly, funny, annoying or just weird. I never tried to interpret this at any particular level, I just accepted it, but it was a gift from a kitten that would have been put to sleep if we had not adopted her, a gift I treasure every time I don't bolt out of my dreams in terror.
Watermarked pic nicked from the 'net.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The practicalities of life

When we moved to Denmark, my husband and I reduced our amount of property dramatically. Just the number of books we got rid of was overwhelming, and I still miss the almost new couch we left in Volda. One of these days I may go shopping for a new, equally comfortable one, because I am learning what comforts I really appreciate, and which are fleeting.

Another thing we wanted to leave behind was the need to constantly maintain our property. We had a large house and a difficult garden - although we let half of it return to nature - and we spent a lot more of our free time looking after all of this than we really wanted. So here I am, in a nice little city flat in Copenhagen. Two days of yard work a year, and everything else solved in the co-op, which is a common ownership structure here.

Everything, that is, except when something breaks inside the apartment. This year I have had to repair the electricity to the fridge and stove, the diswasher is broken, and lastly, the toilet is done for. I am learning about other comforts which are really important to me. My comfortable couch has suddenly moved far down on the must-have list, as I want, in falling order of importance: a toilet I can flush, a floor I am not worried about falling through, a finished book,  a modern kitchen with enough power to actually use it, and a new couch. Note how the book I am devoting most of my time to has dropped on the list of priorities? Sorry, dear co-author, but being able to flush and walk across the floor takes precedence. The book will still get more action though, as that's the only thing I can actually do something about myself, without waiting for others.

At least the toilet in the sabbatical apartment in Bologna still works. Getting back there may be even nicer than I expected.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The slow things - 2 months, 1 day.

I am two months and one day into the sabbatical, and I have produced one article and almost two chapters. It's not a bad feat. The challenge is to keep going. I have to produce one more chapter draft, and then start massaging a large text into unity. The first part should be doable, I have almost 2 months to go for that. The second part will take months still.

There is however some kind of progress, even if it does not flow smoothly and confidently. And to celebrate that I want to share my most faithful companion with you. This little creature lives in the garden I see from my windows, comes out in the sun, and is one of life's great delights to spot it or one of its companions - because there are more than one. Here you go, the heraldic animal of the academic bootcamp.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The wonder of libraries

They are the mainstay of research, the boring resource our students tend to forget about. Students keep asking me to help them find books and articles, I send them to the libraries, and they are always shocked. One student I worked particularly much with I met up in a library in order to show her how just sitting within their magical wireless aura boosts you access - at least if you are in a University Library in most of Europe with a Eduroam access, the way our students are.

In Copenhagen, I regularly use the large libraries in the city for my reading periods. Sitting in a common reading room focuses me wonderfully, my student discipline takes over and I write or read while I am there. The space is too public and too uncomfortable, but still just sufficiently safe and familiar that I stay alert, on track, but relaxed at the same time. The soft thread of careful feet trying not to disturb is endearing in it's civilised and polite concern for the work of others, and the scent of stacks of books carries the memory of more than 30 years of study and work. This is, as much as any place in the world, home.

And so it is with a familiar delight that I settle into the library at the University of Bologna. This is one of the oldest universities in the world, and it has the libraries to prove it. My main library is at the media and music department, where the tables for reading and working are scattered among the stacks. Saturday I was introduced to another library I am definitely going to be using - although I have to book a time to get the full use of it - the Renzo Renzi library and their wonderful videogame archive. Others have pointed to fantastic libraries - some so stunning that they have closed them to tourists, and I will have to prove my need in order to access them, such as the Archiginnasio library. As a visiting scholar I can probably get in there, but as a digital media scholar it may be a somewhat better use of my energy and connections to book time at the videogame archive.

What all these libraries have in common is a wonderful opportunity for access. They are, to me, the ultimate symbol of freedom and equality. They offer to all who are willing to respect the work and curiosity of others, the opportunity to learn, be entertained, discover, study, and enjoy, a vast body of literature, art, creativity and research, that covers centuries, and in some cases, millennia.

And this is the message of today. I am one month and 17 days, one article and one book chapter into my sabattical. It's spring in the world outside of these dusty rooms, and I walk to and from my beloved libraries under the beautiful porticos, sheltered by ancient, civilised laws protecting common rights and  public spaces. If anybody ever make me choose between the bicycle lanes of Copenhagen or the porticos of Bologna, I am going to have to struggle with which to vote for, but right now it is colonnades all the way - literally.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The exhaustion within.

When people talk about academics, it's as if they speak of something belonging to another, walled-off world. To many, that is probably kind of true. If you don't make academe your career, you visit it, live in a very particular type of bubble where you cram your head with knowledge and experiences that change you more or less fundamentally, and then you move on to a community where the changes wrought on you are more random, less planned, less visible and less controlled. In their lives, being at a college or university is a limited, enclosed experience. "When I was a student," they may say. "At the university, these were the experiences..."

This sense of living a life apart from every other experience makes being an academic something romantic and nostalgic, even if you walk away from it with scorn. Perhaps it is even why so many walk away with scorn. In order to be able to distance yourself from a way of living which is so different, you need to start hating it a little, to convince yourself turning away was the right things. To explain why you didn't study more, or learn something else, you sneer at academic knowledge, and call it irrelevant. It might be to cover the secret desire for a Ph D and a lifetime of learning, why you left, why you failed. The reason isn't really important, the thing that is still with you is the sense of those who become academics as people who remain in the dream, who live a life apart, who do not touch reality. They are still in the ivory tower.

Sadly, there's not a lot of ivory in that tower. Most of the resources invested in Universities you have already seen. The auditoriums, the classrooms, the libraries - they are there for the students, like you were and like your children will be. The offices are crowded and the book collections you perhaps admire during supervision are collected over decades of work, one book at the time, not through some magic privilege. Imagine the money you spend on your favourite hobby (drinking and shopping counts). Then every time you spend 25€ on your hobby, you buy a book as well. That's where the books come from. Also, the students admiring those book collections will steal your books. I lose some every year to students who "forget" to give them back, believing that there must be some secret source of books where I can just go get a new one.

And that professor you just "borrowed" a book from isn't paid particularly well. It's not bad, being a tenured professor is in most places of the world one of those pretty safe middle-class jobs. But the realities of life are as real to scholars as to anybody else. So where, in all this, are the ivory towers?

Hidden in between the intense competition for work, the throat-cutting ambition that makes you mistrust old friends and new, the non-disclosure statements, the extreme work-hours and the nights of grading - somewhere in that world, there really ought to be a silver lining. The thing is - you need to be able to see it. It's not in the relaxed work hours, because any teaching scholar who also tries to research and publish will laugh until they cry at that idea. It's not in the respect and status - at the moment education and research is apparently the place where all governments agree they can spend less and cut more (and how ironic is that - the well-educated in power pulling the ladder up behind them, and the public cheering the decision, because teaching the young to question the status quo is ridiculous. After all this is currently the best of all possible worlds... OK, I will stop there, let's just say that you don't need to be a conspiracy nut to suspect that there is an agenda to the attacks on public education.)

It is something very small, a bit of wonder, a bit of desire, a bit of mystery. If you want to do well, over a long time, working long hours in a complex, often overwhelming job, you need to be intrinsically motivated. If not, the lack of funding, the constant care you need to offer students, the consistent self-examination and push for creative questions and new knowledge will break you. It happens. Scholars burn out, or decide to follow alternative tracks on a regular basis. They become administrators, advisors, consultants, or just pull back and into themselves, getting by with as little effort as possible.

And then you sit there, like I do right now, asking yourself - how did we get here? I was planning to write about the wonders of being a travelling scholar visiting the oldest University in Europe. About going from the shiny glass building of ITU to the solemn rows of colonnades connecting the buildings of the University of Bologna, but instead what I wrote about - what my fingers needed to work through - was academic over-work, loss, and exhaustion. But then there is that little bit of mystery.

It is what I am here to be reminded of. I am going away from everything that has made me feel like I have been mentally scraped clean, to rediscover the why of being a scholar. And I have come here, to the oldest well of knowledge I could reach, to recover. One month and three days in. Tomorrow I start writing a book. Today I eat "melanzane", read a new language, and walk the endless colonnades.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Sabbatical, day 14. Or 10 if we count working days.

I am going to give up counting working days vs just dates. It will get too tricky. I will however talk about where my mind goes in this period, because that's what a sabbatical is all about. I am doing this is order to let my mind go somewhere different.

First, it got all busy finishing an article on asynchronous play. Then, muddling around in that pit and fiddling with my NintendoDS, I realised that we are in the age of asynchronicity. We think we are talking about Instant communication, because it is so easily available to us. We can, if we want, be in immediate dialogue all over the planet, but we rarely use that. Instead we permit delays, from micro-delays of seconds (do I respond to that text? Do I really want to like that picture?) to delays of hours, days, months.

These delays can be used in different manners. We use them to think. What do I really mean, what might this response lead to, how is this interpreted? This is the rational use of the delays. But we live in a time of emotion, and the question is - what can these delays do to emotion?

Emotion in itself is interesting. The last decades have been spent going away from rationalism towards emotionalism. We are at a point in history where it is more important to feel right than to be right. If this sounds like I am on the side of the edgelords yelling "be rational" at the top of their all caps keystroke voices, then trust me, the self-righteous anger of the internet rationalists is no less emotional than the outraged middle-aged woman ranting about being downgraded on their flight.

What it looks like those pauses is being used for is to up the ante - to make it harder on those around us. It hardens the resolve of the persons in the conversation, adding support for their feelings, rather than allow for a cooling down period to let saner minds prevail. The delayed mind isn't necessarily saner, it is, if anything, more set in its ways.

Of course, I am not sure if this is true. Immediacy is clearly part of the emotional response, and time to think means time to chicken out. However, time to think also means time to justify, place blame, and confirm bias.

(This is as far as I got the day I wrote this. The rest is from much later. So much for frequent bloggposts.)

Another direction is followed by Norwegian Broadcasting is currently doing an intresting experiment though. Their tech-blog NRK beta has designed a little questionnaire of three questions which need to be answered correctly in order to be allowed to comment. The questions are taken from the article, and ensure that people have some understanding of it rather than just commenting based on the headline or even other comments. An important part of their experiment is to provide a "cooling off" period, to avoid a response in immediate affect.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Sabbatical, day 3

This year I am experiencing one of those periods which make others so intensely envy scholars. I have almost a year away from what most people recognize as "work" - I am not teaching and not doing administration, two of the largest and most immediate tasks of a contemporary academic. However, at ITU we are supposed to do as much research as teaching, and more teaching and research than administration, so when I, like so many other academics, ignore research or do it on our spare time, we are actually ignoring our jobs - no matter if the jokes very often are on us when we try to create some room in our calendars.
The norwegian-language link states that the use of time has not changed in 12 years.
Which leads me to this sabbatical. Much as I am looking forwards to this year, and it will take me to exotic and wonderful places, it will be a year of intense work. To give you an idea about what kind of work a sabbatical may contain, here's my schedule for this year:

February: finishing an article for an anthology, sending one panel proposal, one paper and one extended abstract off to conference. Finishing one exam.
March, April, May: writing 4 chapters for a book. Also: two exams, one abstract for a conference, organizing one seminar, possibly going to one more conference, and making a camera-ready paper out of the work in February, if it's accepted.
June: Either writing a 70 page research proposal, or a 40 page research proposal.
July: Just kidding about the proposals. If I am doing the 70 page one, this month will not be the vacation month it is supposed to be, but instead one conference, and more work on that proposal. No way I can do that in just one month.
August: Two articles, because I really need to write out some of the stuff that has been accumulating on my to-do list.
September: Finishing one of the two proposals, and editing a special issue for a journal.
October, November: Finishing the book, and all other academic work I want to have published.
December: Rounding up, and starting to plan for the spring term, when I am back.

Looking at this, I want to go back to bed. If I manage to keep my own schedule successfully, 2018 is going to be a record production year (because none of this will actually be published in 2017), and if I just manage to do half of this, I'll still be producing more than I have in years.

Looking at this, I am sitting here with a huge grin. This is why I am a scholar. I now have a chance to do the work I am already doing in week-ends and evenings, all day and without interruptions. For this one year, I am at the far right in the figure above, while I am also in the middle figure, just with an even slimmer "teaching" part. The more than 100% research is pretty much true though.

And that is day three obligatory to-do list. Day one I went out and did something totally different, because the day before I had submitted another research proposal and my arms were hurting too much to touch a keyboard. Day two I cleaned my office of six months of intense teaching/exams/proposal writing stacked to about 130%. All in all, productive so far. Just 300+ days to go.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Unflattening privilege

I am currently reading Nick Sousanis beautiful book Unflattening, and while I am not done (the assumption that it goes beyond words really bugs me, and I will soon throw some Roland Barthes on the table next to it and write a review), I think it illustrates certain concepts beautifully. A main theme for the book is the importance of shifting your point of view, having new experiences and gaining the habit of variety.

At a very different point, redditor republicannarnia posted a link to a google document about the connection male privilege/white privilege. This is a nice composition about how a young woman realized that in order to understand her own white privilege, she needed to use lessons from feminism.

Both these points reflect the strategies of research promoted by the cultural studies tradition, called methods triangulation or multiplicity. The point there is that to understand what happens in society, you need to look at it from more than one perspective. You have to be willing to move your point of view.

What Sousanis offers which is interesting though, is a connection between specialisation and limited viewpoints. I think he may be on to something. We have tended to assume that the cause of fear of academia is caused by lack of education. However, when we find people with Ph Ds in physics systematically following and bashing pretty self-evident gender research material, it's clearly not more education that is the problem. Instead, I suspect that the problem is the endless turf wars of specialization, and the fear that comes with shifting your point of view. When we have invested 20 years of education in order to reach the point we are at, and somebody tells us we STILL don't get everything right, that is pretty terrifying. After all, each of us are balancing on the sharp edge of highly specialized knowledge, and it may feel like taking a step to the side in order to get a different perspective may just push us off.

I still don't have a solution. But I am spending what time I have between application writing these days thinking about ways to use methodologies to shift my perspective and unflatten what I am looking at. In between I read Unflattening slowly, allowing myself to be both annoyed and delighted, savouring both points of view.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Confessions of a Christmas present lover

It's the time of the year when we talk about how horrible the practice of expensive Christmas presents is, wail about the consumer society, and criticize the material pleasure of receiving a gift.  I can't agree less. I love getting and giving presents, and the fact that some of my family have explicitly said they don't want presents makes me sad, over and over again, through the year.

First, I love giving gifts. When I am traveling or just walking around in stores, I often see something, remember a conversation with a person I love, and get it for them. They are close to my mind and heart, and if I see something I think will make them happy, I really want to contribute to that. This is of course limited by my wallet. I don't have unlimited funds, and I don't want to give gifts that make me angry or disappointed after giving them away and getting nothing in return. It has to be a gift I can easily give. Sometimes I knit, sometimes I buy, sometimes I go through my own stuff and hand on something I know will do better service with the other person. That's the way one of my fancier winter coats just left me - I used it very rarely, the person who got it was both delighted and in need of something warm and nice. When somebody doesn't want my gift, it feels like a rejection, one I am reminded of every time I see something I know they would love. I pick up a pin, a cap, a bottle of something nice, and I know the person I would get that for just doesn't want this, and I put it back.

Second, I love getting gifts. To that end I am pretty good at making my wishes clear to the ones I expect gifts from. But it doesn't matter if I wanted it or not. My mother would reliably give me cotton panties of the most sensible type imaginable, knitted socks, or occasionally a wool undershirt. When she was too sick to do her own shopping, she'd send me out with shopping lists of socks and shirts and mittens, and I'd pack up the many different objects for her to label, so I wouldn't know what was for me. In my whole life my parents gave me two special presents, the kind that made me feel like I had received something expensive and incredible. The first was a pair of red skis, when I was perhaps 6 or 7. No pair of skis since have been that nice. The second was a washing machine, just before my first child was born. We were extremely broke students washing everything at a fairly remote laundromat. My father would have none of that, so a washing machine I got. I really needed that thing, and it survived three moves. (It was however at the end replaced by the only machine to get her own name: "Bella", spoken with reverence through the 15 years she just kept doing what had to be done.) But I am quite aware that presents like those come only a few times in a lifetime. For the rest of the time it's all about thinking of each other. And if that thought happened to come in September, while there was a sale on sensible cotton underwear, so be it.

With our kids, we got into the habit of giving them items for their hobbies, sport and school for Christmas. That's when they got the special things that supported their activities. And then there were the books and games. Having a stack of books to read through Christmas has always been the very best gift of all. We all read fast, a lot and over a wide range of topics. When we're done with our own stack, it's time to raid that of the others...

Now that we all pretty much have our own incomes, what we give each other when we want to be really fancy are experiences. One year the grown up children gave us a dinner at a very special restaurant. That was a fantastic gift; a precious memory and a wonderful experience. We exchange tickets for shows, or pay each others' fees for streaming services. But we know that every present has been picked based on what we know of each other, and what we think about at a given moment. Even when we just give them money to shop for and the promise to go with them, or look after their children while they shop, it's a gift of consideration.

This is, of course, not a magical extravaganza of gifts, where we drown in the surplus. The only ones experiencing that are the grandchildren. But it's an exchange of tokens proving we have been thinking about each other. And the occasional stack of warm socks.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

New Year's resolution 2017

The last few years I have been blogging less and less. One of the reasons is Facebook. Where this used to be the main outlet for sharing small and big things that happened in my more or less academic life, Facebook entered and changed the game. Another is time. I hardly have time to write articles and I write a lot more applications. This means that I am not writing stuff I feel I can freely share.

Next year is my sabbatical though. From February until December I will be traveling, writing and reading. While friends and family live in my apartment in Copenhagen, I will be in different places around the planet, visiting different universities, writing in new libraries, speaking to different peers. I will be writing half of a book, editing half of a special issue of a journal, and working on several old articles that have been begging to be written over the last few years. And while I do that, I will also be working on my popular academic reporting skills, which is where this blog comes in.

2017 will be the renewal year of this blog, I think. It will be about academic travels, about different cultures and structures, about being a visiting scholar, living with new languages, exploring foreign spaces. And at the end, I hope to have found or defined anew my own voice.

And yes, I am writing it here, because it is public - even if only I will ever notice that I wrote it here. It's a resolution for 2017, and I hope to be able to keep it.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Mannegruppa Ottar - a man's group for real jokes

A lot of the links in this post are in Norwegian. I am still writing in English because this event is so similar to other, international events.

The digital space is a weird place, and when it starts to become a place for identity politics, it gets weirder. In Norway a group of men who just wanted a safe space for their stupid jokes and occasionally annoying sense of humour crossed the line. Their safe space was invaded by people who thought that this was a group for aggression against women, immigrants and children, and acted on that. One of the things they did was to attack a Norwegian blogger, known as Sophie Elise. She is a fashion blogger who has spent quite a lot on her looks, she likes make-up, she poses in bathing suits and shows off her tattoos.

For some reason, some of the members of "Mannegruppa Ottar" decided that writing harassing and hateful comments about her, including threats, belonged in a "closed" group of more than 30 000 random Norwegian men. (Mannegruppa Ottar means "Men's group Ottar" and refers to an infamous radical feminist group, which I assume represents their idea of the arch enemy.) But if we go with the "boys will be boys" school of thought, responding to them to tell them to stop being so mean ought to have been fairly unproblematic. It wasn't real, you know, just joking...

One of Sophie Elise's followers, a 13 year old girl, wrote what she felt about their harassment of one of her favourite bloggers. That was not acceptable, thought the group members. The minority that felt it was OK to be mean about women in this company immediately had a new target, and started describing what they wanted to do to a 13 year old girl - and it was NOT offering her a soda and some ice cream. The language was deliberately aggressive and upsetting, like the jokes about how to kill and rape babies, also a fun topic in this group.

As this became known the other members in the group that never did any of this, and who tried to speak up against it, wanted to do something about their image. Being a member of the group had turned them into outcasts, people were unfriending them, and they expressed distress about the posts and about how other viewed them. In order to try to fix their image they did as so many big businesses have done: they wanted to give money to charity, in this case to a group working to fight children's cancer. This was, to the sorrow of some of the men who had children with cancer, rejected. This is pretty much the same as happened to GG when they tried to buy forgiveness for their sins by donating to Ablegamers. Both the benefiting organizations are worthy causes - both refused because they didn't want to be used as pawns in an ongoing conflict.

Some, however, said "good riddance, now I know who hates freedom of speech." Well, no, not really. The activities they wanted to be allowed to keep on with included harassing women into silence, and with the help of the Norwegian police, they got one of their goals, as Sophie Elise removed the blogpost where she called them out. Using the well-known tactic of making threats until women are silenced isn't really free speech. It's a criminal offense. Because by Norwegian law, social media are not private communication if you have a certain number of followers - the limit is around 50. So a closed group of more than 30 000 people is clearly public, searchable mass-communication online.

I have to admit I am not fan of the more extreme fashion bloggers, but it's their choice how much they expose of their bodies, with or without silicone and photoshop. Also, I understand that men want to be allowed their space for bad jokes. I am a member of groups that post academic memes and groups with uplifting quotes to deal with chronic illness - I am not going to judge anybody for tasteless humour. But these are not jokes. What they are being criticized for goes beyond that. And it isn't like it is hard to understand these distinctions. It's not a matter of trying to decode subtle clues for political correctness, and finally finding a place where they don't have to guess what they did wrong now. This isn't making jokes about never being able to understand what your wife means when she says "fine".

The people I really don't understand are not the few who felt that it was fun to use this opportunity to be as offensive as possible. I have seen their language, their "humour" and their online nests. What I don't understand is how the ones who were offended, who tried to speak up against the worst offenses, could just keep being members. Is it so hard to find female-free jokes online that they have to suffer through a Facebook feed full of harassment, rape-threats, racism and homophobia to get to them? And how can they consider themselves victims? At this point, if they leave the group, people will forget about the membership in a couple of days, and they can leave the stigma of somebody unfriending them behind easily. The threats against Sophie Elise and the 13 year old girl may keep popping up in their feeds forever. In other cases we have seen that speaking out against harassment just makes it worse. And the more than 30 000 non-harassers of the group are hurt because they might be mistaken for somebody else, and unfriended?

If you happen to feel offended by such stigma, think really hard the next time you laugh at a joke about women, immigrants or homosexuals, and remember what it feels like to be included in a group others criticize, attack and make snap judgements about without checking if you are really one of those. Because not every woman who wears make-up is a fuckdoll, not every gay man is constantly cruising for anal sex, just like not every member of Mannegruppa Ottar agreed on the harassment and threats. If you want the respect to go both ways... then it has to go both ways.

PS: I have no idea if I know any members of this group, and I do not plan to find out. It's their business. But I monitor my comment field like always.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Nuance, culture, society and Facebook

September 9th 2016 the Aftenposten editor Espen Egil Hansen published a video addressing Mark Zuckerberg. In this video he explained why you can't treat all images the same. The picture he was talking about is the famous picture that quite possibly turned the flow of the coverage of the Vietnam war, the famous picture of a nine-year old girl running naked down a road, flanked by armed soldiers and with her back burned in a napalm attack. Author Tom Egeland had been publishing this image in connection to discussions on strong and shocking press photography. Facebook deleted his posts. Others posted it. It got deleted. Egeland posted it over and over again, and got denied from Facebook. A Norwegian expert on freedom of speech, Anine Kierulf, made a long post with several different nude images, some from art, some from pictures, and asked Facebook what was acceptable. The whole thing got deleted. The editor of Nettavisen, an online newspaper, wrote about the case on Facebook, and got denied. Why? It's a nude picture of a child, and as we know, Facebook really has problems with nudity. Ask any woman who has posted a picture of her own breasts, whether it is with a slightly erotic overtone, or if it is while breastfeeding or to discuss scars after breast surgery. Even the chest area of women with no breasts, where both have been removed in surgery, is too daring for Facebook.

Hansen's rant against Facebook caught the attention of several large newspapers. The Guardian wrote about it, Time Magazine wrote a piece and made a video about it, The Washington Post let us all know Facebook had changed their mind. It didn't hurt the cause that Facebook also deleted the post of Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg when she posted the picture.

This case is very interesting from several different angles. Questions kept popping up in my Facebook feed (very meta that). Is Facebook just a platform, or also a news provider, and as such, what kind of editorial responsibility does it have? At what point does a private platform turn into a public platform? Is Facebook now so big that Governments should look into how it practices freedom of speech, and should it be subject to the same kind of scrutiny and discussions about censorship and freedom of speech that nation states and national media are subject to? This example is a very good starting point for these discussions, and they will be revisited in media research for years to come.

Today's take on it from my side is however concerned with the importance of education: Cultural, historical, social. So far we have no algorithm that can recognize the kind of nuance needed to distinguish the picture of a woman bravely sharing her post-op scars from pornographic titillation. To a human being with the least sensitivity to images, context, stance and position, the difference will be very, very clear. And unless we accept that there is a difference, and this difference is important, we will never be able to develop better tools, nor to educate the humans who sit in key positions to do that kind of evaluations. The technology will keep being stupid, and our application of it will be even more so, to the point of being dangerously oppressive. Because oppression is what we get in a society that refuses to acknowledge nuance, context and shifting circumstances.

In short: this is why we need humanists and social scientists in tech-related work places, schools, education and research. Somebody needs to understand the difference between a revolutionary war photo and kiddie porn. It is, clearly, much harder than we thought.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Transmedial Storytelling at ITU 2016

Transmedial storytelling is the art of telling stories across multiple platforms. Henry Jenkins underlines how in order for this to be transmedial and not just a matter of remediation of a story, different parts of the story needs to be told in different media. This makes transmedial storytelling a kind of serial storytelling, but over several different platforms or modalities: print, film, games, voice, photo, painting, etc.

But transmedial storytelling is unlike serial storytelling in that it is not produced in a linear fashion. This means that we are not looking at a series where we see the story develop over time or with a simple causality. Transmediality often means that stories are linked into unity through perception rather than reseption. This means that logic and structure depends on the perceptions of the user/reader/viewer/ or what we prefer to call the people who enjoy making sense of often disjointed storylines. This links transmedial storytelling to non-linear or hypertextual storytelling. In the Wired article I linked to there, the author claims that hypertext fiction never took off. When we look at transmedial storytelling, we will see that this is spectacularly and increasingly wrong. The difference is that what we see today is not something as simple as a collection of links in a digital "choose your own adventure" book, but grand, complex and intricate stories developed over time and through the effort of a large amount of people.

In the course at ITU, we will look at how the computer offers us affordances that allows for a transmedial storytelling where we can all be part, in the role of our choice. We can be consumers and creators, critics, fans and helpers. We can play a vital role or create a derivative universe: but we can always choose how we want to be involved.

The main genre where we find transmedial storytelling actively used today is in Fantasy and Science Fiction. There may be many reasons for this, but I tend towards looking at the readers of these genres. They are often enthusiastic about technology, they are ready to be very engaged in the fictional worlds they follow, they form strong, tight fan networks, and they follow the fictional worlds they enjoy in any medium possible. And if they can't find anything new to feed their enthusiasm and interest, they create their own, through role-play, fan writing and other fan-based activities. This means that students of this topic at ITU may have to familiarise themselves with this genre. While it would be helpful to read some Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings or watch Star Wars, googling the different universes we will be talking about goes a long way. We will be looking at the Marvel Universe, at Game of Thrones, World of Warcraft and Lego, to mention some that will come up. If you want to understand, reading comics and watching animated series is great. However, you can easily follow this course without a deep understanding of this culture, as the Internet is a fantastic source of knowledge about both the formal productions and the fan practice in the many different cases that will be used.

But why do we spend so much time on these universes? Are they important? What is important in this case is the structure, the techniques and the forms, not necessarily the content. We see that journalists are increasingly under demand to produce transmedially, and there is no real model in place to help journalists remain critical and structured when print media fail. And while we may be nostalgic about print media, this situation will not be magically reversed. Instead we need to understand how the emerging structures of storytelling are built and maintained, what they do and how we can analyse and criticize them. The same goes for advertising that becomes integrated in the lives of the audience, using the audience to contruct their own parts of the advertising, such as with Intel and Toshiba's "The Beauty Inside" advertising (That blog has several other examples and interesting resources).

We want to be able to recognize and understand these structures, appreciate the labour put into their construction, and question constructively and critically the choices made by creators and participants. That is what the fall term will be about, and why we will be creating our own transmedial stories.

Link to 2015 course description.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Media-ludic approaches: Critical reflections on games and research practice

Emma Witkowski at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and I will be editors of an upcoming special issue on "Media-ludic approaches: Critical reflections on games and research practice."

The deadline is September 1st 2017, the journal is the Danish mixed-language (English, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish) journal MedieKultur, with Kjetil Sandvik as main editor and Claus Toft-Nielsen as issue editor, and I can't wait to start the labour of love it will be to edit these articles. (and I wrote that with a straight face. I am discovering that I like editing.)

MedieKultur is open access, which in these times of insane pay-walls and publishing fees means you don't pay to publish and you don't pay to read! Media, Culture and Communication studies are also very strong and well developed in Denmark, which means that the articles will find a good audience and be treated by solid editors (beyond me and Emma). So since you are now almost convinced, here are the submission guidelines for authors.

From the CFP (Do go read the whole thing, it's not all that long and there's useful information):
The goals of this volume are in part to:
  • Explore questions on games and media studies methods, collaborations and productions, and to ignite critical considerations of existing and imaginable alternative instruments of study.
  • Examine the gaps and precarious methods in games research methods, for example covert ethnographic research, big data, socio-phenomenographical research, approaches to mixed methods (qualitative-quantitative) research, and small or single case studies.
  • Question how research concepts from the study of games have travelled and how they are exportable to media and communications and other game/play fields.
  • Expand on how the study of games raises new practical and ethical questions of established user/audience methods and theories.

By focusing on the question of methods in games research and media studies, this edition of MedieKultur presents a collection of innovative research perspectives, which can reach beyond the growing field of game studies and engage with interrelated subject areas such as audience studies, media sport studies, digital broadcasting, political economy, and leisure cultures research.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Life in Copenhagen: The great outdoors!

When I moved here I can from perhaps one of the most beautiful places imaginable. Walking among the fjords and mountains on the west coast of Norway, there is always something breathtaking to look at. The landscape challenges you physically by making every road a climb or descent, and emotionally by the endless shocks of breathtaking natural splendour. Even in the middle of the city, nature forces itself on you.
Ålesund: photo from Sunnmørsposten

Moving to Copenhagen, I expected to spend a lot more time inside. Museums, galleries, plays, movies, libraries, cafés, restaurants - I expected to never see sunlight again. That was until I discovered how easy it is to be outside when the nature isn't constantly forcing itself on you. Rather than slogging through sleet, slipping on ice or trotting through rain up steep hills and then going "screw this, let's just all leave at the same time and grab the car", I now roll easily along every morning and afternoon on my bike. When I go shopping I get on the bike or just walk along well kept sidewalks and past beautiful parks and buildings. In the summer half of the year I go for longer rides, taking the 45 minutes to visit friends outside the city center or to reach a nice beach or a larger park. The bike or my feet is how I get around when I am not getting on a plane. Even then I walk to the metro rather than call a cab, because the metro is just so much quicker to the airport.

Random balcony, random cat.

And then there's the aspect of doing things outside that I'd otherwise do inside. In Volda I had a large garden and terrace and a fantastic view. However, I also had a very short summer season with lots of rain and low temperatures, heavy winds even on really warm and sunny days (particularly then, due to the temperature differences land/sea causing strong winds), making it a rare occasion when I could sit outside. Here, once the temperature moves above 15 degrees, I can wrap up and move outside. The balcony offers a new room for entertainment and relaxation, but also for work. I invite friends for drinks and tapas, I spend the evenings wrapped in a blanket watching movies or series or just playing games, and have working days at home when I grade papers and write articles among the herbs and flowers on the balcony. All in all, through a year, I am pretty certain I spend a lot more time outside here than I did living in all of that spectacular nature. This is a cultivated landscape, designed for humans to move around in, to use fully.

But then I go back north, and I wonder...
Hjørundfjorden: Photo from Vikabladet

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


We imagine the edges of civilization as incredibly uncivilized, as if there is a core somewhere, far from the heart of civilized society, and then we work inwards towards some heart where we are all incredibly polite and mannered. And before I went on my quick visit to Svalbard, most of my ideas about life there came from what brief research I had done in the 80ies, while reading up on the King's Bay Affair while studying public administration. So, I imaged guys on Svalbard would all look like this:
This is Arne Kristoffersen, owner of one of the hostels in Longyear, working in the mine in the -80ies.

I also expected to be taken on a boat ride by these guys:
If they ever invite you to go, just say no. Instead, you can watch the movie from 1985, where the picture comes from: Orion's Belt. Or you can book one of the much more boring, but considerably safer, trips by boat to Bahrensburg.

You can see glaciers and seals, and feel the boat break the ice (literally), but without the added adventure of scamming tourists out of their guns or discovering illegal radio installations. The Russians sell vodka rather than try kill you for discovering their secrets. Definitely an improvement.

I also did not see any polar bears, for which I am both sad and grateful. While I was there a Finnish group of tourists shot and killed a bear they claimed had been acting threatening. With more tourists there, all wanting to see a bear and take home a photo, this is increasingly likely to happen.

All in all, what I found, was a place of intense beauty, a landscape as cold and unfriendly as you can imagine, but with a thriving, active community of people that wanted to cooperate and care for each other. As clearly a tourist, I was just another person to deal with quickly. But together with my son, who studies there this term, I got to see how the locals changed the moment they met somebody who cared enough to come and stay for more than a brief sight-seeing. And then I was included, and they would start telling me their stories. In the few days I was there I got countless stories about the love of Svalbard. They came spilling out randomly - the waitress filling in for a friend, the driver there to see what the winter was like - but all of them were in love with the place. Not everybody, of course. One woman I talked to very ready to go home. "It's like you never get down from the mountains", she said, and talked about her garden in the south of Norway. There are no lush gardens on Svalbard.

Longyearbyen has all you'd expect of a city, though. Shops - they giggle when they point out the "shopping centre" - preschools, schools, a hospital, a culture house, pubs and a high-end gourmet restaurant. Unlike in most cities most of the traffic is on scooters. Like in most places, the youth growing up there want the freedom of transportation, which means they are riding scooters rather indiscriminately from a young age. But most of all it has people who care about people. The museum dedicated to the history of Svalbard is also a history of people helping or failing to help, falling prey to this fierce nature in the attempt. As one of them put it: you need to be prepared to look out for and care about the others here, or it will be unbearable.

To me, the best of being human is exactly this: to stand together to make life better for all. And of course there are the stories of individuals who would rather sleep in a tiny shack in the mountains for the entire winter than actually relating to human beings, but mostly it is about communal effort and immense work by human hands. It is about creating a tiny little island of an environment where humans can live, against the vast nature outside. Yes, I did fall a little bit in love with it in this short visit, even if it's no longer the miners' town it still was in the eighties.

It's still one of the outer edges of our civilization, and if you want to learn about being human in the face of ruthless nature, you may just consider a winter in Longyear.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Reading one book on international women's day?

My suggestion for the day is Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. The two books tell the story of a young woman growing up in Teheran during the Islamic revolution, and her development into a young woman. It is as funny, painful and embarrassing as all stories of teen-age girls, but it is also a powerful reminder of where the events so extremely relevant to the current discussions start, and how important it is to be concerned about how a nation treats its women.

Bonus: Lovely drawings and an introduction to a part of history most don't discuss when talking about Iran of today.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Life in Copenhagen: Stress resilience

How do I deal with stress? Stress has suddenly come into focus in Academia, and the media write about it and its ugly relatives; mental health problems and alcohol abuse.

Today we were sent off to a mandatory stress resilience workshop here at ITU, and while I can say a lot about that, I am going to keep it for the evaluation form. It did however make me think about what I do about stress. Before that, a big disclaimer: Stress in Academia in Denmark is mainly caused by systematic imbalances which the management needs to address. All I can do, with no particular position or responsibility, is to deal with it personally and socially. I am not going to claim that I know the beginning and the end of it, but I do try to handle stress for myself and for the sake of my colleagues. Here are the strategies I have found to work:
  • I try not to let my temper get away with me. This is a big one. While a lifetime of repressing immediate responses makes me appear quiet, that is surface only. My anger and frustration is an orca just below the surface, ready to explode in the face of some innocent victim. But that would be horribly unfair, and would just make things worse for us all. My killer whale of a temper is my problem, not that of everybody around me. I suspect it occasionally breaches the surface though. Sorry about that.
  • I practice ways of letting go. For me, that means gaming. When I play a game, I engage fully in solving a problem for fun, whether it’s how to crush candy or how to kill a boss.
  • I practice ways of thinking things through constructively. This is not meditating on something. I avoid meditating. Meditation makes me angry (see the above killer whale). I need to be distracted enough to not focus too hard on the the situation at hand, but relaxed enough that I can actually think about it. I do that by doing chores, drawing or knitting. If it’s really hard, I sit down and write, long-hand. Preferably as beautifully as possible, to keep my mind just to the side of the problem. It’s like those images where you have to focus elsewhere in order to see what is going on.
  • For my colleagues I try to make sure we occasionally do something fun. The last couple of terms, I have been too tired to take responsibility for parties and common activities, but I do try to engage and participate, and in that process be both goofy and welcoming. This isn’t because I think I can cure stress by throwing a party, but I do believe that by making people meet informally, I can help them meet others who might be able to say something interesting, important or useful. This, by the way, is one of ITU's great strengths. The parties are wonderful.
  • For my colleagues I also try to listen and participate, even if I feel like I am dragging myself there by the neck. It’s not their fault that I have too few hours in the day. That is the system we are all trapped within.
Because stress is rarely an individual problem. It’s a problem that comes from the system within which we work. No degree of mindful thinking or playful engagement will change a system where employees feel unappreciated or where we are not given the chance to work at the things we excel at. Being held back and under-appreciated in a thousand micro-encounters is what will make most of us collapse. The problem is the systematic neglect of the variety and individuality of the staff, the different skills, expertizes and abilities in a very highly trained and specialised group of strong individuals. Treating any group of humans as if they are a uniform mass of somewhat specialised robots will break us all.

I deal with that through analysis. Through knowledge. By worrying and picking at it, and occasionally that just makes it worse. If I have no agency, worrying leaves a wound. Understanding without power is perhaps the most painful problem if being in Academia. We know very well what we can’t deal with, and we may even know how to change it, but the majority have absolutely no influence. This is when I find a friend and spend a drunken evening wining and whining. Which, quite likely, may explain some of the alcohol abuse statistics. One more thing I try to do? Stay out of those statistics.

Bonus article: New Public Management and stress in Academia.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Students don't know what is good for them

I have written about the problems with students evaluating classes previously, and about how it leads to a standard of pleasing students rather than challenging them. Today I found an article from last year that underlines the necessity of challenging students rather than pleasing them.

From the article:
Students are also not very good at recognising what helps them to learn. Instead, world-leading educational psychologist Robert Bjork from UCLA reports that students assess whether they have learnt something based on the ease with which they complete a related task.
That is why many students assume that reading or highlighting passages in their text-book, or merely listening to a lecture, is enough to produce learning. They mistake the ease of the task with greater knowledge. Time-consuming and effortful tasks, like self-testing their knowledge, are consequently seen by students as less efficient for their learning, despite the fact that the more difficult tasks produce the most learning.
This is a classic problem. If you challenge students into performing tasks they don't feel secure doing, they will blame the teacher if they don't perform well. Their struggles, which are actually signs of a potential learning process, become the teacher's failure when it's translated to the evaluation form. Best evaluation? Don't challenge them, and give them good grades:
As it happens, students who rated their current teacher most highly got better marks in their current course but did much worse in later courses. This confirms the fears of educators: students’ evaluations are linked with current grades, but also with students’ failure to learn things they need for the future. So, a student who is happy with their grade and teacher should worry — they may not have learnt that much.
This is a real problem, a trap that can ruin universities as educational institutions. While I think it is important to talk to students in order to identify some problems: too large or too small, old or irrelevant reading lists, teaching that goes well beyond the course, or does not happen at all (at one point it turned out the teacher had cancelled all classes, and nobody but the students knew), harassment, impropriety, confusion - the students are the ones who will notice it. But when that is covered and you have a decent teacher, the students may actually become destructive of their own learning process:
For students, it means it is important to discover what actually helps your learning and focus on that, and live with the fact that real learning takes effort. Poor marks probably do not mean you are stupid or the teacher is bad. It is more likely to mean you need to raise and/or redirect your effort.
Students should also pay less attention to student evaluations when choosing a university course — happy students may not be learning.
 And that is before we look at the teachers. Once we look at gender and ethnicity, other biases strike.

(Edited the last quote, thanks to comments!)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Public displays of sympathy in the age of social media

We constantly dress to signal our relationship to the world around us. We dress up  for respect, we dress down for solidarity. We check the dress code before going to an event, and we try to aim for the point that hits just right, or at least in the ball-park without being embarassing. To signal beyond this we wear pins, buttons, badges, ribbons and all kind of more or less subtle symbols for others to recognize. Sometimes this is done just to avoid embarassment, or to show some kind of conventional connection. At other times it's done out of deep sympathy and respect. You wear your best to your friend's wedding. You wear black for the funeral. Don't mix those up unless you really want to send an oppositional signal.

So why are we so critical of people dressing up their avatars for this kind of signal? The reactions to the tricolor used after the attacks in Paris November 13th are harsh. They attack the people who change their profile picture for a while, then move on. Some are angry that nobody wore the Lebanese flag after the tragedy in Beirut.  Some claim it is to show support to a nationalist system that just increases the tension and maintains the terror. Some just rage against the fashion of wearing random symbols, only to forget the cause the next week.

True, all true. But what is the right dress code when you are grieving the horror of such a brutal attack on a place that is close to your heart? If I was to go to a funeral, I'd wear black, offer my condolences and walk home to change, and nobody would complain. The people at the wedding in the church 30 minutes later, already gathering in their dresses and finery wouldn't complain that we aren't celebrating their happiness. And I would certainly not demand that they dress in black. They are dressing for their life, I am dressing for mine.

So why does Facebook avatars affect us so strongly that it's necessary to write about how false the expression is, or be jealous about the lack of sympathy for others? Is it a kind of selfish grief, a stage of anger and self-absorption that insists that there is only one important feeling, only one right way to feel it, only your struggle is true? Other attacks on expressions of sympathy indicate this may be so, the anger of seeing a ribbon supporting the sufferers of an illness that is crippling you and your family, the signs of awareness from the unaffected and healthy apparently mocking you with their presence - I am not linking because I don't want to point to any one personal cause, I am sure you have seen this yourself. They are the blogposts or tweets accusing others of being false, not knowing, not understanding, because you own pain is so deep, your own burden so heavy.

So what should we do? Wear jeans to both the funeral and the wedding? Never change the profile picture at any one time? Buy no ribbons, have no feelings but those approved by the blogosphere, the twitterati and the Facebook sharers? I don't think you mean that. Not if we are face to face. Who ever you are, who have been so annoyed with all those avatars suddenly changing that you need to lash out in your own grief, you don't really mean that I should not be permitted to express mine. You just want to hurt somebody, because you are hurting too. You just want to cry with somebody, because you are crying too. And we don't get the right dress code. It's ok. Even if we didn't get it right, we are still here, trying to express something. Some pain. Some joy. Some sympathy. Some support. Some love. Take it, or don't take it. But please accept that the emotions are real at this end too, even if for an afternoon, a week, a lifetime. And we use our avatars like we use our clothes, in an attempt to express something we may be too clumsy to get just right.

Feedback to the good students - the dilemma

Feedback is one of those really difficult things, and sometimes we screw up. I have a model for feedback: Start with something nice. Address the real problems. Suggest a few changes. End with something nice. It normally works. Then suddenly it doesn't.

I think one of the most difficult things we do is to give feedback on good work. I know I tend to ignore it, except from pointing out it's good, then moving on to what needs to be changed to make it ever better. This, of course, leads to an over-emphasis on the bad stuff, but that's what we want to change, right? So I spend time sorting out the aspects that are acceptable, struggling to find the potential for growth, and highlighting the kind of material I want to see more of. And that's why sometimes my feedback on weak work may look better than feedback on the good work.

Of course, it's a problem if we never say anything about why a good work is good. Just a general gold star isn't enough, but there is perhaps not all that much to say when a student has done exactly what I have tried to make them do for a few months. And then some good student takes his "yeah, great, perhaps work a bit more on this. By the way, great work." feedback and compares it with a lesser student's "this part here is really useful, and I like how you have emphasised this, and you probably can work more on this, and the connection here is very useful." and don't realise that the other feedback is on a very different type of work. It's on something weaker, something that needs a lot more effort and attention from me, something that needs to develop. Because yeah, your work is good. Go ahead like this. Do what you have been doing. I don't have to turn over every phrase of your work to find the good parts.

So, here's my message to the good students.

Do you get good grades or short comments of praise, but feel under-appreciated? Do you feel that your efforts never take you anywhere? Do you feel like the teacher never sees you, and moves on to the next student to encourage them, leaving you hanging? Here is what the teacher is really thinking.

"Oh, this is great. I don't really have anything to add. This person got it, and is on their way to where I want them to go and beyond. They are learning. They are developing. I love seeing this. Not a lot to say here, beyond telling them it's good. I wish they could all be this good. OK, a beauty-spot here. Let's just try to fix that. Otherwise, I love this. Now, next paper. Oh shit. OK, time to get creative and try to help this poor person. I really wish they could all be like that previous student. What can I offer that can help this student to be like the previous one?"

So yeah, good students, we love you. We sincerely love you. Sorry that the reward for being loved is to also be trusted. I trust you know where you are going. I don't think I should try to derail you when you're on your way. Getting out of the way of students who have their shit together is important. And, good student, you have places to go and things to do. Go do them. Without my approval, because you don't need it, you just need to keep doing this.

The truth is though: I do approve. I smile when I read the good papers. I take a deep breath. My teaching gains meaning when previous feedback leads to a good effort. But I want them all to be at your level, so forgive me, now that you're safe, I am off to try and haul that other one to safe ground.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Where is the tipping point?

The simultaneously funny and bleak Twitter account Shit Academics Say or @academicssay also have a blog. Here they use a bit more than 140 characters. The blog post I want to write about today is about academic publishing, and how academic journals have become one of the most profitable businesses out there. Or as they say: The most profitable obsolete technology in history.

Academic publishing is an increasing problem to academic production. Positioned in a small university with a small library budget, I am totally dependent on the large library next door, or the wonderful Danish Royal Library. I spend a few days a month in their spaces, downloading articles from their access, in order to be able to do the basics of lit. reviews. The universities spend enormous sums to keep us all in articles, and I try to do my best to make sure it's worth while, but at the same time I think this money is spent very, very badly.

The main point about academic journals is that they are peer reviewed. And we all know that the peer reviewing is the burden of our peers, which is you and me. What academic publishers provide is proofreading (minimal), setting and editing, printing, distribution, and managing the money. We all know that if all the content of the journals were freely available online, from everywhere, we would be quite happy to forego the whole printed part of that process. That takes care of distribution too. We already do both the writing and the reviewing, and often we also do the editing. So what's left is some practical administration, some proofreading and copy-editing, publishing online and managing the money.

I don't know how much labour goes into running a prestigious journal, but let's say all the universities that really need those specialised mathematics journals sat down and discussed what kind of editors they would need in order to create their own journals. Then they just stopped buying them, and spent the money paying for editors and online publishing. Since there's no need to buy anything, a whole layer of administration is gone. The costs to paper and distribution is gone. There's no need to control access, as all access would be free. There are of course a few snags here. Universities would like to promote their own scholars. This could be remedied for instance by making certain that the reviewers are from different universities, and by putting in a board of editors from related journals run by other universities. Working out these details in order to make sure there's not even more playing of the reviewing process with this system than with the old one would take a while, but it would be worth it. The whole process needs to be shook up a bit anyway.

In this process, academic journals would get actual competition. They would have to review what is developing into a vicious, predatory practice. And knowledge would be free to all, not just those with a prestigious, exclusive library card. The ones who would really benefit from this would be students from all over the world! Having one or several active academic editors working in-house in the fields a university is specialising on would also be a tremendous boost to the centers and communities. It would bring the editors in closer contact with the actual development of research, and into direct discourse with the scholars they are supposed to support. Today's system, with the peer review, does not really ensure an outside perspective, so it would be better to acknowledge this and enter into discourse directly. Several existing university presses are among the best in their fields, so that isn't really a particularly good argument either.

If European universities managed to get behind the Pisa agreement to create a uniform system of degrees and grades, it should absolutely be doable to start in Europe and do this for the academic publishing. Until then, I'll do my best to keep supporting the less predatory journals out there., come here, have a hug.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Behind "The Dark Side of Gameplay"

In June, the long awaited anthology The Dark Side of Gameplay: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments was published at Routledge. It contains 14 articles by 15 different authors, and an introduction by Jonas Linderoth and I. Editors are me, Jonas and Ashley ML Brown, and it's been a wonderful cooperation that has, I hope, brought you all a great book.

This, however, is not going to be a pre-review by somebody with stakes in the sale. I am not expecting huge sales at all, these Routledge books mainly go to libraries, and there's a limited amount of libraries at University with game/play scholarship. However, if you happen to be at one, do recommend this to your librarian! No, I wanted to tell you about this book, where it started and why it appeared to be so important that we went to all this work to see it written.

At Nordic DiGRA 2012, five game researchers I have liked for a very long time, were gathered for a panel: Ashley Brown, René Glas, Kristine Jørgensen, Jonas Linderoth, Torill Elvira Mortensen: Waking up at the Dark Side: Difficult Content in Playful Environments. We wanted to talk about the fact that it is possible to enjoy being the antagonist, the bad guy, without being a bad guy yourself. We wanted to write about the pleasure of sometimes feeling really bad, of losing and struggling. The topic was fear, sadism, aggression. After years of talking about the "the magic circle" as if it was some safe bubble, we wanted to address the fact that games sometimes contain really horrible things, it makes us play with topics, with emotions, with sensations and practices we are all perfectly aware would not be acceptable in real life, and we wanted to point out that this didn't necessarily mean that the persons doing so had to be morally corrupted.

The panel went really well, we were delighted with the reception and the discussion, and we decided to make it into a book. And so what for a long time was called "the dark play book" was born. Kristine and René were advisors, Jonas and I originally the editors, and Ashley the secretary. With the support of Gothenburg University and the IT University of Copenhagen, we got money for a workshop for the authors, and to pay Ashley (at the time still a Ph D student) as editorial secretary. At the end Ashley turned out to be such a force of organisational energy and such a committed partner, that we included her as editor to acknowledge her vital contribution.

But at this point, we were still looking for others to work with. Over the next months we wrote a call for articles which was sent out to select authors and had a meeting with an editor for a respected publisher to discuss if it was a viable topic, while Jonas and I scrounged for the funding mentioned above. The enthusiasm we were received with from other scholars was stunning, and in 2013 there was a great symposium in Gothenburg to discuss the first drafts of the articles. Almost all the authors managed to make their way there, and I think the book reflects the work done over the two days it lasted. The topics were discussed enthusiastically, the questions we needed to explore were clarified, and everybody present learned how their own work fit into that of the others. We all came away from it with a fantastic energy, and some of the participants have written letters of thanks to us, the editors, just for letting them be present, pointing out how vital it is to an academic career to learn the basics of constructive criticism and cooperation from peers. At this point, I was really in love with the project.

The work continued both when we were engaging with the book, and when we were doing other things. Now, 2012 was a year when it was tough to be a game scholar in Scandinavia. The year before gaming, particularly in World of Warcraft, had been viewed as a breeding ground for terrorists and killers. Faltin Karlsen, Kristine Jørgensen and I were all involved in the media discussions of that topic in Norwegian newspapers. Faltin ended up using a lot of the work he did in order to discuss games in public in the book A World of Excesses, where he discusses the effects of heavy gaming. I started edited this book on dark play, as a response to and exploration of the idea that provocative content in games only functions as an outlet for desires that will be acted upon in the future, and Kristine built on this work (and her own brilliant book Gameworld Interfaces) to secure funding for a four year research project on Games and Transgressive Aesthetics. (Yes, I get to hang out with these wonderfully smart people. It's the main upside of being in academia!) None of us studied the actual event in July 2011, but all of us felt the impact and the need to revise our view on games. Personally I needed to question my own love of games through research. And by editing this book, I managed to get a lot of other people to join me in that process!

The conclusion of The Dark Side of Gameplay isn't that games are a safe space, or necessarily always such a good and fun thing to do. It takes seriously and looks at scams, cheats, half-way criminal activities such as breaking game locks of commercial titles, violent and outrageous content, accusations of sadism and the meaning of in-game death. But I got to read a lot of wonderful articles about how this takes the step towards creating a mature medium, how it provokes thought and challenges ideas, the way art is supposed to do. And all through the comments, the proofing, the millions of checks of citations and quotes, the seemingly endless hours of adjusting type setting and writing authors with questions to details, I kept loving the work.

I don't know any more if this is a good book, I have invested too much in getting it out, and I am profoundly relieved. I think it's a book that needed to be written. Dark play, problematic topics, transgressive playfulness, it is currently one of the big buzzwords of game studies, and despite the long process of academic publishing it does feel as if it's on time. And I know I still love the book, three years after it all started.

Now it is your turn to enjoy how others think about games, the parts of games that is so often addressed negatively, when it's addressed at all. Hopefully, it will send you on a small version of the journey it has sent me on.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Four year old tears

Four years minus a day ago, I sat at the back of a conference room and cried, as I read about the bomb in Oslo and the shootings at Utøya, as I had logged on to a changed reality. Those bullets hit close to the heart of every Norwegian.

The following is Frode Grytten's poem about that Friday, about pain and grief and being Norwegian, about love and hate and politics and hope and defiance. Today is a day of grief and pain, a day to cry. Then it's time to wake up to love, to the future, to the hope of a better world.

etter 22. juli

etter at vi blei sprengt i filler
etter at fredagen fall ut av hendene på oss
etter at vi måtte lære oss norsk på ny
etter at sorga strekte seg heilt opp til håret
etter at dagane tok til å regne ned over oss

orda overlever ein 9mm glock
kjærleiken er kraftigare enn ei 500 kilos bombe
å halde hender er mektigare enn ladegrepet
eit lite kyss er viktigare enn 1500 sider med hat
eit vi er så mykje meir enn eit eg

det kjem eit nytt 22. juli, det må jo det
ferja skal frakte fleire bankande hjarte over
telta skal bli slått opp på grønt gras
morgonsola skal kysse øya vaken
hei, hei, på tide å stå opp og endre verda

Av Frode Grytten

Friday, May 22, 2015

There's a difference between asking new questions and hating players

Dear new readers and commenters. This post will have a slow response rate to comments and the usual strict moderation. I will try to respond, but if it becomes repetitive or overwhelms me, I will close the comments.

tl, dr: Researchers shouldn't believe all games are designed to make people be nice to each other. 

Let us look at the sentences that people dislike so strongly in my previous post.
Perhaps it is time, after years of thinking of games as an almost universally good thing and a medium to be defended, to question that truth. Perhaps games, design and gamers aren't so special after all, and need to be studied more as hostile objects resulting from a hostile culture, than as the labour of love it has been to so many of us.
I have to admit, those were hard lines to write. I love games and I love gamers. Over the years, this love has been viewed by peers as a lack of critical distance to research. I have, however, deliberately chosen to err on the side of the positive because I have had so many good experiences with gamers since I first published on games 19 years ago. Also, when people resisted this understanding of games as a positive thing, it made me want to ask the questions that were criticized for almost 20 years: Do games give people valuable experiences? Is there something to be said in favour of MMORPGs? Are players really just lazy and nasty, as people said at the time, or can they also be funny, smart, interesting and deeply engaged with a challenging pastime? Those were controversial questions when I started, and I have been asking them in different variations since. Most of the time, the answers I have found have confirmed my original hypothesis that there has to be something good, fun and interesting about games, but I came to that conclusion only by asking the - at the time - unpopular questions.

However, the last months have emphasized a side of gamers that I didn't expect to see. There is a group of gamers where the individuals are hostile, and who like to take this hostility to a wider audience through social media. Several of these use the #Gamergate tag when they do so. I know the arguments about this being third party trolls, but it is very hard to see the difference, particularly as #Gamergate finds anonymity to be more of a virtue than excluding said trolls. On that discussion: #Gamergate has made a decision about anonymity and no leadership, which I respect. But that means I and others have to accept that all who claim to be #Gamergate are #Gamergate.

Most of the time I have claimed that the most aggressive expressions are a matter of individuals with other problems, such as the recent example of the young man who was exposed as a "serial swatter". But as the evidence of hostile acts from gamers towards other gamers and others involved in the game community mounts, I have had to ask the questions I kept resisting. Is there something about games that encourages this, or is it society that is changing? My opinion leans towards the society changing, recognized in other game-related aggression, such as for instance hooliganism, but this is still a hypothesis, and if I want to find out, I have to ask a lot of questions.

To follow up on the hooligan hypothesis. As a game researcher, I realise that I have seen the equivalent of hooligans in games before. They are the griefers, the corpse-campers, the ninja-looters, the spammers on the different channels, the pick-up groups that keeps trashing the other players until they are too intimidated to participate, the players who go outside of games to attack the game companies and individuals in them with exaggerated aggression. I have just not focused on them. My question is whether I should study this hostility. Perhaps it's time to stop being so in love with the object we research and the people involved, and look at it differently. And that is what those last sentences say. A hostile object is an object that invites aggression and hostility. There are a lot of games out there whose design favour players with a hostile play style.

A not particularly original example, but hopefully one that illustrates the meaning of games as hostile objects: Let's look at instancing in World of Warcraft. When the game changed to include a cross-realm mechanism for inviting players into instances, the aggression in instance runs rose. The trash-talk and the unfriendliness increased.Why was that? Was it because gamers were hostile people, or because something in the game encouraged this behaviour? Now if you were grinding for materials, reputations or currency, there was a set number of instances you could run each day. Several players would run these instances every day on several characters. The last thing you wanted to do was to run it with a crew that slowed you down. If you were in a quick group, you encouraged this group to stay together, if you were in a slow group, you tried to speed them up or just break them up, so you could get into a group with players more to your liking. Language is one way to do this, and so the impatient player would act as unpleasant as possible without making themselves the jerk everybody would agree to kick. My question to this would then be: Is this hostility a result of the player being a jerk, or the game being designed to reward hostility? I'd say a bit of both. There are great players who manage to make their group move quicker simply through being kind, friendly and good. But that particular mechanism invites aggression, and since groups are formed cross-realm, there are no repercussions for being unpleasant. Next time, you start all over again with strangers, and perhaps another character.

A hostile gamer is a gamer that acts aggressively towards others. I conflated that with objects because I still think people are good, and being aggressive is not a deliberate choice of "Now I am going to screw these idiots over!" When they act hostile towards others it's because the structure of the game invites hostility. Researchers study this structure as procedurality, and it is an example of how games restrict and lead gamers to certain actions. I understand if some people read that as objectifying gamers. To return to the World of Warcraft example: the game offers many ways to play, but some are more rewarding than others, and these then become the accepted or standard way of playing. The game gives the player just a few options, and the player tries to do the best within these frames, hence being to a greater or lesser extent controlled by the game, made into an object of the game mechanics.

Do I want to change games? No, I, personally, want to understand games. If a journalist, developer or modder want to use what I learn about games and play, that is up to them. My job is to keep asking questions, preferably the difficult ones that others want to silence.