Friday, April 25, 2008

"Let's fix this"

Going to Sweden for a year, I expected cultural differences, subtle, but I was certain they would be there. It was just a matter of recognizing them. But even so I wasn't always prepared. It wasn't in me to lean back, look detached at every instance and say "Oh, interesting, so this is how Swedes deal with this." I just got unhappy and angry, reacting like what I was: A foreign worker, "fremmedarbeider", feeling insulted by what I encountered.

It took half a year and some intense reading of the local newspaper to realise that what I faced wasn't a personal affront, but a cultural difference.

Sweden is a throughly regulated country. So is Norway, so what's new, hmm? The point is - Sweden is even more so, and they take a lot more pride in their organisation and their ability to make and follow their sensible rules. There are signs everywhere, reminding all of how to organise life simpler and better for all - bikes to the left, walking to the right, don't park your bike here, smoke over there, don't walk in the ski-tracks and don't run against the common direction. Being a good little Norwegian who understands that rules are there to make life easier for all, I didn't get annoyed by their existence. What got me was when the regulations started to make things really difficult. When the nurses didn't want to let me get in line for a doctor's appointment because I had a different kind of personal number - a temporary number and not a permanent one - when I couldn't get my computer hooked up to the printer because I had no precise affiliation at the University - when I couldn't pay my rent automatically because I couldn't get the right kind of account, because I didn't...

Not that I am a stranger to bureaucracy. Far from it, Norway has its part of it, and I am kicking angrily at quite a few regulations which are going to make me hurt when I come home after this. What I am a stranger to is how I get received when I try to understand it. Even so, it took a Swede to help me understand what troubled me.

In one of the local newspapers, they had a series of interviews with local people who chose to work in Norway for a while. At the moment Swedes are in the position Norwegians were in some years ago: It's economically a good deal to work in the neighbouring country for a while. The Scandinavian countries have always had this kind of common movable workforce - I come from a long line of migrating workers. But back to the interviews. There were the normal issues - Norwegians were like this, Norwegians were like that, and yes, I could see how that would be annoying to somebody who didn't grow up in Norway and Norway really isn't perfect. And then it hit me, the comment that made me understand that what I was facing was a cultural trait, not something that happened to me, personally. "I had this problem with my identity, so I couldn't get paid, but they said 'we'll fix that.' And so it all worked out, Norwegians are good at that."

I realised, suddenly, that what I had been missing was somebody saying "we'll fix that." Or perhaps "let's see what we can do" or "call me in 10 minutes and I'll get back to you on how to deal with this". Now this may sound like common politeness, but no, it doesn't mean that Swedes are rude or unfriendly, because they are in general a lot more polite, correct and friendly than Norwegians. We are a grumpy and far too direct bunch. It's more a matter of individual expectations of agency. Norwegians believe that they can fix something if they just figure out how things connect. Swedes believe that things can be fixed by following the correct steps.

It doesn't mean that things can always be fixed by some friendly person who knows how to manipulate the rules. Sometimes you get back 10 minutes later and what you get told is "sorry, but you really need to get A, B and C first". I find that what I miss is the belief that it's possible to do something, to be sourrounded by people who expect to be able to negotiate with their environment. Or perhaps I am just homesick.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tweet, tweet

I am far behind the curve, and slacking, obviously... Still, I am starting to see how it can be fun. What am I up to? Twittering, of course, the not-so-new craze of long-distance gossiping.

With my back protesting any posts that take more than 5 minutes, Twitter is perfect: I get 140 keystrokes to play with, to let the world know what I do, and I don't have to sit around reading long blogposts. Restrictions give freedom, and all that.

But already I am starting to wonder if there are "Twitter stories" out there, like the-phone-book, where all stories had to fit the sms format.

If there are none, we could make them. Collaborative twitter collections, each message an individual story, but each story connected to what happened before, somehow.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Stones and art

Those of you who read Norwegian, here's news about one of my talented sisters. Solfrid Olette Mortensen is an artist who started out working in textiles, but now weaves her patterns with whatever comes to hand. Currently one of her projects is being realised in stone, as she has drawn the pattern for the pavement in Farsund.

Next time you are out walking, look down, not up, and enjoy the mosaics upon which you walk. One of them is drawn by my sister.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The day I got Second Life spam

It had to happen, of course. It was cleverly camouflaged as an offer to publish an article on Second Life, but it was not addressed to any journal, it was addressed to a sender. But because of past involvement with journals, I opened it.

What was in there was plainly an attempt to sell the business idea of Second Life:
Edm AB--- Greetings fellow Earth dwellers... My name is Anand Goberdhan and I’m here to share with you the possibilities that are available

Within the metaverse called secondlife. Http// is where you can find the system requirements and software to interact with the world... system specs aren’t really that out of the ordinary! I am running a pc that is two yrs old...half of its ram has went dead...and the video card i use was merely 80 dollars Canadian (a year ago to boot). It seems that a lot of people joined the revolution...shortly after a name I’m surprised i remember..a lady by the name of Anshe Chung officially became a millionaire off of a ten dollar investment in the metaverse.

I actually spoke with a woman who says she knew her... and she was a VERY GOOD BUSINESS WOMAN. I guess you could call her the Michael Jordan of the metaverse. As it stands she is officially the first online game PLAYER to ever earn a million online. I know, you’re wondering ‘why is he telling me this?,’ and the answer is very simple...

The first game player to make a million dollars MADE IT OFF SECONDLIFE. She accomplished this 2 yrs ago...they must have signed up 15 million new people since then. But (and i kid you not) this world is an entrepreneurs PARADISE. You 50 shops... and have the money split up equally between multiple partners...

I am sure that Linden Labs will claim to have nothing to do with this spam, and say it's some over-eager entrepeneur who wants to draw more people into their game and business. To me, it looks like a classic pyramide scam. Linden Labs may not have anything to do with it, but operators within SL are certainly not strangers to the fact that money can be made of selling the hope of more money.

It is a quite interesting little example of how the patterns of the flesh world repeats themselves in the digital world, and when we start talking about virtual worlds, scammers definitely belong. This is their arena after all, the dreams, the unreal, the potential and the possibly possible - that is what they sell to us, their tricks, and where better to do so than in an arena of possibilities?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Don't you hate epiphanies?

Sometimes, as my sister says, "the coin falls down." You know the feeling, it's when you get the joke and you see how something works. But that's where the image ends, because you can't really talk about coins falling slowly or coins falling quickly - gravity is gravity and me being slow to realise something does not keep a coin suspended in free fall for ever.

Sometimes though, the image of coins falling is spot on, and today the coins were falling too many at the time. It was like I pulled a handle and they all came rushing - sadly not to stream into my hands and leave me rich and happy, but to cram themselves into the same little slot before I had a chance to appreciate any of them.

I had an epiphany. I have started to hate those, but it's how my research brain works. I sit around, looking at a stack of books, then I read them, randomly, looking for - something - then I write a little something totally unrelated, and I play a game and I surf online and I get involved with finding a pair of purple pants for my rogue (she really needs a pair of pretty epics, you know), and then I go listen to some lectures and before I know it time is running out. Do you think that's the stressfull part? Nooo, the stressfull part is what comes next. Because I start doing all kinds of stuff so I won't feel I have wasted my time, taking on work and booking trips and such, and THAT is when all the coins drop at the same time. Suddenly I see what I am looking for, and it's right in front of my eyes and I have to write it down NOW, but I have said yes to so many other things and I can't...

I hate it. But I live for it. Ambivalence and contradition. They feed me.

The Cute Cat Theory

Finally, somebody has taken the time to show in a systematic fashion why having tools available can be a way to support democracy, even if the tools in question most of the time is used to show pictures of cute cats. The Cute Cat Theory (thank you Fabio for mentioning it) by Ethan Zuckerman shows that if people are able to post pictures of their cute cats online, they can also post pictures of crimes against humanity and political unrest and activism.

Baghdad Girl's blog is a good example of that, most of her posts are about cute cats. But in the last post on her blog so far, written 27th of August 2007, she writes:

My memories are fading away...
"I wish there is some thing I can do". This sentence I have been repeating a lot these days. Every time I ask about the situation in Iraq I become angry and sad because there is nothing I can do. I wish some one can tell me what can I do to save what is left in Iraq.

I have left my house, my room and my cats that I know nothing about any more. When we left we didn't take every thing in the house with us because it is impossible, that house and every thing in it is a treasure, It was built 35 years ago, and now It is going to be looted just because it is empty and there is no one to protect it.

Some members of what is known as national guards are checking every house in Hay Al-Jamia, where my house is, these days. Do you know what will they do if they find an empty one?? They close the roads leading to it, bring a lorry and loot every thing in that house. That is what about to happen to my house and it's 35 years of memories.This is the army that the American government and the Iraqi government are helping to build, they brought every criminal, thief, and looser gave him a gun and send him to the streets, the new army together with the armed militias with the help of Iran, are destroying the country.

If the people who suppose to protect the country, are the ones who are destroying it. What future does Iraq still have???


She has been giving her readers a little glimpse of the life of a girl and a young woman growing up in a Baghdad in war, exams, scores, cats and all, and then the story ends with flight, loss and looting. Personally, I think the stury of Baghdad Girl is as important as any documentary of warzones. And her cats are really, really cute.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Henry Jenkins on why academics should blog

It only took him 6 years to come to that conclusion.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Women in Games 2008

Just putting it here, so I know where to find it, and you can find it too!

Women in Games is a very good series of conferences discussing exactly that - Women in Games, in research, in the industry, in the games themselves. This year it is at the University of Warwick; September 10th - 12th 2008.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Worlds apart

I have recently been reading two books which have made an impression on me - for wildly different reasons. One is a Swedish book on their recent debate around pornography and prostitution, Petra Östergren's Porr, Horor och Feminister, the other is Edward Castronova's Exodus to the Virtual World.

Reading these books simultaneously has been a truly weird experience. I came a little late to Östergren's book, as it is written mainly for the Swedish debate. It is a highly political book where Östergren reports her own research on pornography and prostitution, how this has been received by feminist activists in Sweden, and how pornography and prostitution is discussed in the Swedish public sphere. It is fascinating reading, not the least because of the feeling that Östergren is fighting what she sincerely believes to be the good fight: she has come around from being highly suspicious of the sex industry to becoming equally suspicious of the public image being painted of this industry. She introduces us to the results of her own research; hundreds of hours watching porn of all types, years of contacting, getting to know and interviewing prostitutes.

Östergren's conclusion is clear all the way through the book. She is very much against the recent law which made prostitution illegal in Sweden, and she shows how the process towards having this law accepted has totally ignored any sceptical voices among the sex-workers. The only permitted "voice" has been that of the generic tired, worn-down prostitute saying "yes, what I do is horrible and should be outlawed." She demonstrates how this is an example of hegemonic violence, and writes with a passion on behalf of the women she has learned to know in the course of her research. It is a emotionally raw piece of writing, which still manages to stay within the world of documented facts. Yes, she excludes the traditional image of the abused whore from the book, her examples are the ones who deal well with their jobs. But she is honest about that, and she is also right: that story has been told, and it's been told frequently.

It is a fascinating book both for the alternative take on a familiar topic, but also for the clear and elegant argument all the way through. She fights for a better world, and she uses her skill and her knowledge to do so, honestly and in a well-researched manner.

This has been my breakfast treat this week, before I have immersed myself again in game writing. Parts of the time focusing on games has been spent going through Castronova's more recent book. Being another political document throwing an alternative view out there, it is comparable to the Östergren book in the passionate and highly alternative views it presents. The similarities end there.

I have to admit I hope Exodus to the Virtual World is an ironic statement about the state of games scholarship, development and commercialism, and that I am just not getting the joke. Alternatively that he did it for the money, in which case he succeeded, I did buy the book after all. To accept that a scholar who is otherwise so sane and clear in his arguments in the field where he knows what he is doing has suddenly decided to write this book and means it seriously, is really a far stretch. Yes, we can all write not-so-good books, but this is a political statement promoting such a totalitarian system in the name of "fun", that it goes from being not-so-brilliant to being scary. It actually made me reconsider the dangers of studying games.

Östergren writes about how the Swedish critics of films are only allowed to work with pornography for a limited time, because after that they are supposedly emotionally stunted, and blind to what might offend others. Exodus to the Virtual World made me wonder if there should be a similar rule for game research: That after 5 years with games we have to work with something else, say - news reporting from Palestine or the economy of alternative energy - for two years before touching game studies again.

This doesn't keep me from taking advantage of the book though. There are enough clichés used that it's turning out to be very useful when refering to common misconceptions. I guess this shows that I am just becoming an emotionally stunted game scholar.