Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Growing up together with an academic field

"What do you do," somebody asked me, two decades ago in a MUD. "I am a scholar," I answered. That was immediately challenged. Apparently, that was a term that kept being misused. At the time I was an assistant professor, just finishing up my Ph D., and I was doing research right then and there. I explained this, and was grudgingly accepted as being the real thing.

I have had a few firsts in the years as a scholar. I built an education in strategic communication in the media department of a tiny college on the west coast of Norway, I studied computer games way before it was cool, together with Jill Walker Rettberg I wrote perhaps the first academic article on blogs. I created the second games research guild in an MMO - and it was the second only because when I told those pesky Americans about my plans at that conference, they went and made their own immediately - which inspired the first book on World of Warcraft, an anthology which served to open up what almost became its own branch of game studies - WoW-studies. I was part of the first group of editors for Gamestudies.org, the first academic journal for games, and a journal that will be 20 years old next year, and I was part of organising some of the first conferences specifically for the digital arts, the DAC conferences.

All of this, and a few other things, specifically the work I have done on the more problematic topics around games, the aggressive culture, the offensive and difficult content, the transgressive aesthetics, was part of why I received the acknowledgement from the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) as a distinguished scholar, this year.

You'd think I felt like I had gotten somewhere. But every time I sit down to teach or do research, it still feels like I have just gotten started. Like it's all at the beginning. The only times I feel old is when young scholars complain about the institutions that came up after I started. The lack of publishing opportunities, the problem with getting accepted to conferences, the positions in the field, the lack of relevant literature for their work, it all seems to be so difficult, and it all makes me feel so old, because I really, really want to tell them to do what we did, and create what they need. I am not here to make life harder for those who came after me, but sometimes I really feel tempted. Your reviewer was a bit harsh on you? Buhu, go create the journal where you will be accepted. You couldn't get into the conference? Too bad, go start your own. It's what we did. It's why you can stand there and complain. OK, I occasionally do say this, when I have a headache and really don't want to hold your hand while you cry over your rejections. I have rejections of my own (still) that demands tears.

But those moments of tired impatience aside, I am more worried about that day in the extremely far future when I will retire and no longer have the privilege of teaching, supervising and working alongside young scholars. Because that is still, after 28 years as a scholar, the best work I know.

Monday, September 02, 2019

The privilege of not having to worry.

In the aftermath of #MeToo, there has been a lot of "oh but now I don't know how to approach women" and "I can't talk to women because what will they think of me?" Suddenly men worry about how to approach women, and feel afraid of being misunderstood when they talk to women.

Well, here's the thing, women have been doing that for ever. Here are some examples of things women think when they encounter a guy:

Scenario 1: She likes him, thinks he is funny, and wants to hang out, but she isn't interested in sex with him.
- I need to laugh at the right things, but I can't appear to chase him.
- I can hang out in public, and with other people, but I can't go home with him.
- Oh, he wants me to come home with him. It might be innocent, or it might be a THING. If it's the first, and I refuse, I will ruin this chance to hang out with this guy I really like. If it's the second, and I go, it will definitely be ruined, because then I will either have to sleep with him, or he will be angry and hurt when I reject him.

After that she MAY be lucky and have a friend or at least a guy who just laughs and is fine with the mismatched signals, or she may be unlucky and have anything from a spurned suitor complaining about being friend-zoned to a date-rapist in her past

Scenario 2: She wants the job, and she has a male boss.
- I need to look good enough that he doesn't immediately reject me or think I am a mannish bitch, and tone it down enough that he doesn't think I am a slut or airhead.
- I need to be pleasing when he asks me to help, but sufficiently assertive that he understands I can do this on my own.
- Oh, he wants me to take responsibility of this thing, and I have to lead two other guys. How can I both be confident and assertive, while not making them think I am an angry, man-hating feminist?
- The guys are really not doing this the way it should be done, and I have the data, the experience and the examples to show everybody why. I need to do something, but how?

After that, she MAY be lucky and have earned the respect of her boss and her colleagues, or she may be stamped as a vindictive feminist bitch that is impossible to work with, be professionally side-tracked at best, or just plain fired because she can't cooperate, never to find a job in the profession of choice again.

Scenario 3: She dresses up to look as beautiful as possible, because we all need the boost of looking lovely once in a while, hiding her blues behind a smile and some very careful make-up, and goes with her friends to a party. At the party there are both men and women.
- I need to smile and be polite and make sure everybody have a great time, because I might meet some interesting people.
- Oh, this was a fun group of interesting people who want to talk to me, now if I am funny and sweet, we will all have fun!
- Ooops, I was a bit too sweet. Nice hug, but now I am ready to end that.
- No really. I need to get out of this situation right now.
- Is there a friend I can signal to, and go talk to, to get out of this without making a scene?
- Right, there's Anne, going to the bathroom - hi Anne, I am coming to the bathroom with you!
- Thanks all powers, I got out of that without making it too awkward, I can talk to them some other time and nobody will be offended...

After that she may find more people to chat to, have fun and get home still riding the sweet rush of having met some great new people, spent time with friends and had great fun, or she may be desperately avoiding the attentions of the guy who decided he wanted to come home with her and took no hints, and who she needed to negotiate her way around the rest of the night (or more, if he is really determined), more or less successfully.

Of course, sometimes we just contact guys we like, even stalk them, sometimes women are bitches and sometimes sluts who just want to pick up a guy for the night. But trust me, we have all at some point thought very carefully about how we approach the men around us, in order to not be misunderstood, even if we sometimes fail at sending the right signals. Not all women are good at this, even if we know we need to be careful.

What I am getting at is: the idea that men only need to start thinking like this after #MeToo just confirms what it is all about. Men having to think about how they are perceived before they talk to women? Welcome to not having all the privilege, all the time.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

So you don't like the conference?

Conferences are difficult for academics. We need them for publications and for networking, but nobody really likes them. The fun part is always the stuff that goes on at the same time, the conversations, the parties, the walks, the runs, the more-or-less planned meals, the trips back and forth - that's what feels like it makes it all worth the trip. We still go, because no matter how much we may dislike it, the next time we need a reference we remember that we heard something on that conference there... and then we have a way to track the argument down, and avoid repeating other people's work, or to go a step further ourselves.

However, since we all need them, but don't really love them, everybody have an opinion about them. So did I, many years ago, when I first started attending. Then I started organising them, and now I just thank every conference organiser as long as they are not obviously scamming. So for all of you who are unhappy about your current conferences, aside from perhaps looking around to check if there's something fun going on elsewhere, these are my recommendations.

Start organising seminars with colleagues. Just small stuff. One day, everybody cordially invited, a relevant topic for the group, but no call or reviews.

This lets you practice how to book rooms, how to make a schedule, find funding or a space for lunch, if everybody pays for themselves, how to keep time, and how to keep track of who are there and who are not able to come.

Next step is inviting a speaker. Same learning outcomes as above, but with the added complexity of inviting somebody from outside, somebody as many of your mates find interesting as possible. Done that? Good, next step.

Now you send out a call for your one day seminar, which means you need to practice writing a CFP (call for papers), find reviewers, create a double blind review process, follow up the reviews, send responses to the people who sent their papers in, including both acceptances and rejections. Once people arrive this time, they may not be from your little circle of friends and colleagues, so they need directions, a website with the program on and their paper on the program to prove for their institution that they need travel funding, preferably also a proceedings for use in their further struggle to be hired in academia, they have special dietary needs, they have disabilities, they need help to find a place to live - in general, you have suddenly upped the game seriously. But you are still within a one-day, one-track conferences. It's fine, it's still real, but it's still manageable out of your own computer on your own time.

But then this catches on, and you think "huh, we had to reject so many great papers, why don't we increase this to a two day conference with multiple tracks." Now you start having so many submissions that you no longer manage to keep track of every author and every reviewer, and you need to find a good system for managing the papers. There are several out there, and they all do the same thing: help you set up a place to submit the papers, register presenters, register reviewers, send out reviews, collect them, compare, make decisions and send out the decisions. Then you need to get the papers de-anonymised, the abstracts updated, and you need to put papers into sessions and find chairs for the sessions, create an even more elaborate program, deal with all the people who needs changes, handle the complaints about the reviews, etc etc. And you need to create a set of proceedings, that needs to be published, probably at this stage by your institution, and you need a stable website for it, because you are now doing something that impacts all those other people.

And then you start getting feedback. This is when either swear never to do this again, or you just swallow all the acid the feedback generates, and decide to learn from it and go on. Because at this point your work had made a jump from being fun and interesting for a small group, to being important enough that others care about what you do. And that means they also care about how you do it, whether you invite the right speakers, serve the right kind of food, think about the environment, about gender issues and identity, ethnicity, accessibility for people from low-income countries, opportunities for early-career scholars - all of this and a lot more is now placed on your shoulders, and you have to respond to it as the you who knew everything about how a conference SHOULD be run would have liked to see it.

Depending on the size of the conference, this will get harder, the feedback and expectations tougher, and rewards for everybody else involved higher, and so the stakes will increase too, and there you are, elbow deep in the stuff you were complaining about before that first seminar.

I still think you should do it. Organise that first seminar. Start learning about how to facilitate the academic growth and development of an academic community. Care enough to act, not just talk. Make the conference you want to see.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Dedicated to tourists in Copenhagen: biking

After almost 9 years using my bike as the main transportation for everything, I am starting to feel confident. Not native, mind you, women my age around here have more than 50 years in the saddle, honing their thigh muscles, but no longer a tourist. And so I would like to offer some advice from somebody who still remembers how confusing this was.

Copenhagen has a wonderful network of bicycle tracks, and it's easy to rent bikes, manual and electric. I strongly recommend that you try this out at least for one day. However, Copenhagen traffic is complex, due to the mix of pedestrians, cars and bikes, and all the natives know the rules and get really upset when you don't follow them. So please remember:

1) You are operating a vehicle. A bike is heavy, and moves at reasonable speed, and that's why it is really important to follow the traffic rules for vehicles. Follow the driving direction. Don't drive on sidewalks. Don't drive on foot-paths. Don't drive on pedestrian crossings. Follow the direction of the other bikes, don't drive against the driving direction. Signal when you turn or stop. Vehicle, remember?

2) Your vehicle is small, slow and vulnerable. Don't try to be smart and outwit the cars. Busses and trucks turning right cause the most serious bike accidents in Denmark. Make sure they see you, make sure you follow the rules for bikes, don't confuse the drivers.

3) If you decide to behave like a pedestrian (this is the great thing with bikes, you can, easily), get off the bike. Either you are on it, and driving a vehicle, or you are off it, walking, and a pedestrian. And if that is what you choose to do, get out of the way, off the bike path, and preferably aside so you don't block the sidewalk.

That is basically it, but I have some extra hints:

The city center is a bad place to ride your bike. Getting past places like Nyhavn, Tivoli and Christiania is hard enough for the natives who know what to expect, with pedestrian tourists who forget that the extra sidewalks are actually bike lanes. If you try to do it, you don't know what to expect, and will end up crashing with some French lady too cool for rules.

Further, the city center has some of the most traffic heavy bike lanes in Copenhagen, and during rush hour people just want to get to the other side of the city, now. And if you, like the British dad I just almost forcibly met on the bike lane this morning, decide it is a brilliant idea to guide your little family against the driving direction of the lane, you are asking for trouble. The least will be a symphony of angry bells, the worst will be a multi-bike pile-up when the rush hits you head on.

Instead, anything that takes you out of the center is great. Take the bike to Refsehaleøen, it's a lovely trip across the canals and along some beautiful old roads, and keep going to hit the artificial beach at Amager Strand. Follow the canal south to the Royal Library and the Architecture center, and then turn back to find the Parliament at Christiansborg, or Tivoli. Go east, and circle Castellet, to reach the little Mermaid from the other side, rolling smoothly up like a native, instead of mingling with the less informed tourists. Or keep going north along the water, to the lovely, posh neighbourhoods to the north-east past Østerport, or to the beaches of Charlottenlund. Push out beyond Nørreport and towards Nørrebro, to visit H. C. Andersen's grave in one of the loveliest combined graveyards and public parks you may find (at least around here). This is when the bike is your friend, and will happily carry you out of trouble, well beyond the anger of annoyed Danish bikers and pedestrians, and the crush of all the other tourists who are not as smart and well informed as you.

Anyway - I don't expect tourists to be reading this. But perhaps you accidentally get a hit on google for this, and read all the way down here. If so: please, be safe, be patient, read up on rules, and check the map carefully. Knowing where you want to go will get you there much easier. Also: Pay attention to the traffic lights. I am probably that woman behind you, swearing because you were chatting and didn't catch the 7 seconds of green light for bikers in that specific lane. You just made me wait five more minutes, because yes, the traffic lights in Copenhagen are sometimes a bit impatient with error. If you do hear me muttering angrily under my breath as I am pushing past with my groceries, it's not personal. And I do know that not that many years ago, that was me, hesitating, and somebody else, grumpily muttering. Embrace the Copenhagen experience and learn the rules, and we will soon enough have you too being annoyed and using your bell to angrily scatter tourists.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Relevance and morals as a modern researcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

2018 books I remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DiGRA 2019 Call for Papers

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

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

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

Please share this call with any potentially interested parties. 

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