Share information, save the world? Some thoughts on The Shockwave Rider

I finally got around to reading John Brunner’s prescient The Shockwave Rider (1975), a sci-fi novel many credit for breaking ground on what would later become the cyberpunk genre. Inspired by Alvin Toffler’s highly influential book Future Shock, Brunner grapples with the consequences of an Internet-like connected society on the nature of identity, power, and most importantly, information itself. (It even contains an oblique reference to the Magnavox Odyssey videogame system of the early 1970s!)

Much like Asimov’s laws of robotics, Brunner attempts to harness technology’s humanistic potential with positivistic propositions; his novel ends with two declarations for a net-connected, utopian-like information age:

“#1: That this is a richShockwave Rider pic planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must.

#2: That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one of us can know.”

Share information, save the world: This is a very 1960s conclusion to a book that has otherwise only grown more persuasively contemporary for its pessimistic view of information control. If the computers we built to control information, in response to the industrial revolution, have perversely made society post-industrial, they have also made us personally post-control. The recent Pew survey on digital privacy suggests that we have given up on controlling personal information as a society; we trade data about ourselves for the chance to share likes on Facebook. This is not an entirely trivial trade—either in what we gain or lose—but it has led to the consolidation of incredible data about ourselves in the hands of a few.

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Cyberpunk is dead; long live cyberpunk

USC recently hosted a conference on cyberpunk (Cyberpunk: Past and Future), featuring many of the movement’s old titans (such as Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker) and new gods (Alex Rivera, John Jennings and Claire Evans). Hosted by Henry Jenkins, the conference was, among other things, a good reminder of cyberpunk’s origins and influences—and of its rapid slide into obsolescence, a fate that engulfs most literature like any other technology (especially a literature about technology).

A brief historical recap: The sunny, hippy narrative of computer lib and communal empowerment through technology in the 1970s darkei_2015_04_24_Cyberpunk_150x200ned into gothic paranoia, corporate domination, and libertarian-tinged resistance in the science fiction of 1980s and 90s. William Gibson’s Neuromancer didn’t christen the era, but it crystallized it; and while many declare cyberpunk dead by the early 1990s, I see The Matrix as an artistic, thematic, and popular endpoint, a transition into a post-cyberpunk world. When Neo morphs from underground hacker into simulation savior, cyberpunk is no longer cyber or punk.

It’s unclear if cyberpunk will ever recover from its success, so to speak, or find new relevance. Like film noir, it seems both hidebound to an historical era and ubiquitous in its influences. For younger generations, cyberpunk remains hidden in plain sight; whenever I mention William Gibson or Neal Stephenson to my new media students, I get blank stares. Younger generations probably can’t be blamed for this blind spot, for much of what cyberpunk celebrated and feared has become the new normal. The computer cowboys hacking the mega-corporations are just another part of the world—a world of digital toolsets, of applications—of endless technology and gadgetry (new device of the week: Apple Watch). There’s nothing inherently punk about tech anymore (see the bro-ification of Silicon Valley as cultural proof). Techno-culture is, essentially, just plain culture, for better and worse; it seems to have consumed cyberpunk’s subversive edge.

Claire Evans’ brief talk at the conference—and her wonderful article on cyberpunk at Motherboard—underscore the definitive death and endless, if fragmented, afterlife of a sensibility that still informs our ideas about politics, aesthetics, society and individualism, augmented consciousness/embodiment, and yes, technology. Perhaps cyberpunk as a cultural brand—and as a conference topic—is going through the standard cultural spin cycle of obsolescence, rediscovery and reification. But cyberpunk’s interrogations of technology and culture remain fertile for modding and repurposing. As cyberpunk’s leading luminary Bruce Sterling contended in his conference remarks, no one interested in writing sci-fi today should create a cyberpunk novel; they should focus on creating visions for the 22nd century. But one could do worse than crack open the case of an old Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling or Rucker literary machine, look under the hood, and contemplate to what future visions and voices those wires might lead.

Brian Sutton-Smith, Scholar of What’s Fun, Dies at 90 – NYTimes.com

Brian Sutton-Smith, Scholar of What’s Fun, Dies at 90 – NYTimes.com.

“The beginning of a revolution in thought:” Remembering Ralph Baer, father of the videogame

Ralph H. Baer, inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home videogame system, died December 6. Although Baer didn’t create the first videogame, he invented something more important: videogaming as a mainstream medium. BaerPerhaps this would have happened anyway, with the personal computer bringing games and other amusements from the research lab into the home office and living room by the 1980s, but Baer intuited that screens and interfaces didn’t have to wait for integrated circuits or software. Television technology was sufficient to give people screen-based agency in the service of play–but it would take Baer’s insight to blend play and technological know-how into a new cultural object and activity. Recall that, in 1972, most people had no concept of what a videogame was –the name “videogame” hadn’t even been coined yet. Most people at the time still saw the TV set as a fragile, impenetrable device–an appliance that could only receive airwaves from afar, not generate self-controlled images. To remediate TV into a playable device, Magnavox took the unusual step of demonstrating the Odyssey within television’s own ludic context–the game show–as poof of concept. Here’s Rod Serling(!) playing Odyssey Tennis before a befuddled group of panelists on “I’ve Got a Secret” in fall 1972 (go to about 15:40 for the Serling/Odyssey segment):

For various technical and industrial reasons, Baer’s vision for the Odyssey was never fully realized–the system would prove more intriguing than entertaining–but history shows that the Odyssey triumphed as a “demo” of the medium’s potential. The New York Times obituary for Baer quotes videogame historian Keith Feinstein, who called the Odyssey “the beginning of a revolution in thought.” This is no hyperbole; Baer changed the way we relate to media forever. Baer foresaw that we could enter the screen and take control within its spatiotemporal frame. The screen no longer was just for “reading” representations; we could make (and destroy) our own worlds in there. We’ve been turning knobs and pushing buttons in the name of play ever since. Baer’s gift to culture–like many gifts–has been both celebrated and abused over the last five decades. Let’s hope that the future of videogaming–as a medium, as an industry, as an art form–embraces the inclusivity, diversity, and creativity that Baer had in mind when he and two other engineers decided to mock-up a hare-brained idea: a TV paddle game that most anyone could play.

Play is a subversive act: UCLA Game Lab featured in Mediascape

VIETNAM_ROMANCE_CARD_SPAZZThe UCLA Game Lab (where I work as a researcher) is profiled by yours truly in the latest issue of Mediascape, UCLA’s Journal of Cinema and Media Studies. My article contemplates how the concept of adaptation—as a biological and cultural imperative—informs game design and play. A number of game lab designers and their games appear in the article, including Vietnam RomanceClassroom AquaticPerfect WomanObjectif, and many others. Check out the complete article at Mediascape.

Simulation from the neck up: A few early thoughts about Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift, a head-mounted, virtual reality interface conceived for mass production and everyday use, is tentatively scheduled for wide release in the next year. But the hype is already here: more than 50,000 developer OR units have been released, and new interactive games and other media designed specifically for OR are emerging. Media culture high and low has also taken notice: OR won a best-in-show award at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, and it’s already inspired (if that’s the right word) several NSFW parodies of the pornographic possibilities for VR (an idea depicted long ago in the under-appreciated 1983 film Brainstorm.)

While early iterations of OR are capturing popular imagination, how well does OR capture virtual reality? I’ve had a chance to play with the device in both videogame and art experience installations, and below I describe a few early observations.

crystal_cove1 (1)

OR persuasively addresses one of the nagging embodiment issues of navigation in simulated environments: the loss of the neck. Anyone who has played first-person videogames knows the powerful, isomorphic relation between the body as an apparatus of mobile perception and the body as a subjective camera position in screenic environments. But there are limits to this immersive quality; one generally can’t “look” in one direction while “moving” in the other (the strafing mechanic perhaps being one exception). Given the loss of proprioception in non-motion-control videogames—all movement and spatial awareness is grafted to the visual plane and translated to the hand controller—it makes sense to lock head and body into the same vertical axis and “become the gun.”

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Does the NSA have its own guild? And other questions we thought we’d never ask

For this week’s new media theory class I had put the subject of privacy on the syllabus—and the universe certainly did respond with a lot of topical material. First, a gaggle of Internet-based media companies released an open letter December 9 calling for privacy reform. The “Reform Government Surveillance” declaration, signed by companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, encourages establishing clear limits to and conditions for government data-gathering efforts. The open letter likely comes in response to public outrage in recent months about the collusion between the government and digital media and telecommunication providers to tap the information pipelines running through our computers and phones.

But in a more funny-scary vein, news reports confirmed this week that NSA overreach has gone beyond this world to ensnare the fictional plane of Azeroth: government agents are now disguising themselves as elves and dwarves to infiltrate MMORPGs. The New York Times released a video on the subject:

Perhaps the feds have been reading too much Neal Stephenson—or maybe employees just want to play videogames at work. But putting aside the ridiculousness, inefficiency, and creepiness of using game worlds to catch or commit terrorism, there is something Cold-War quaint—even poignant—about the idea of counter-espionage as personal, clandestine actions simulated by avatars in digital spaces. If online gaming is conducive to so many kinds of cultural re-creation (built environment, political and social structures, arts and crafts, interpersonal communication, and so on), then perhaps a more romanticized, 1950s notion of espionage and counter-espionage is also being played out in such fantasy worlds. For many NSA employees, real-world spy games probably involve little more than crunching data. But donning a cloak of invisibility to infiltrate a suspicious party of elves—perhaps that is when a counter-terrorism analyst feels closest to his calling.

Just released: The Game Culture Reader

Though it’s a bit hard to find at the moment (Amazon is really treating this book a little too exclusively), The Game Culture Reader is now available!  I’m delighted my essay, “Movies in the Gameworld: Revisiting the Video Game Cutscene and its Temporal Implications,” appears in its pages among such an august collection of video game scholarship. A special thanks to editors Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette, who braved the vagaries of publishing like polar explorers to bring us this little gem of a book. It can be ordered directly from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

9781443840941

My chapter grapples with the problem of time in video games, especially as the various (and often incompatible) timeframes found in games become further perturbed by cinematic cutscenes–a “film time” that can steal temporal and interactive coherence from the game in favor of narrative drive, cinematic spectacle, and other potent but problematic “benefits.” However, as I find in analyzing combat cutscenes during Fallout 3–insights occasioned by the game’s frequent glitches during those very cutscences–the movies we find in the gameworld can actually serve a salutary function, restoring temporal order and reinforcing player-world coherence. This doesn’t make me a fan of the current trend in big-budget games to indulge in gratuitous cinema envy, but if nothing else my analysis reminds me that even bad tendencies have good applications.

Up in the clouds and down in the streets of GTA V

I’ve been endlessly driving through the streets of Los Santos née Los Angeles, trying to complete the main storyline of Grand Theft Auto V, the latest title in the “let’s print money” franchise by Rockstar Games (to the tune of a billion Washingtons in just three days after release). Players, too, can make it rain (virtually) at the Vanilla Unicorn, a strip club one eventually acquires. But in my experience of game play thus far (both stand-alone and online), the most vexing return on my investment has not been financial but existential.

GTA-V-Box-Art

Whether toggling among one of three playable personas in the stand-alone version—or waiting for glitches to resolve in the online game—players will spend a disconcerting amount of time disembodied, floating in the clouds above Los Santos (a visually stunning vantage point giving credence to the cliché that Los Angeles is most beautiful at a far remove). Eventually, the player falls back to Earth and into the waiting arms of a camera position behind one of three playable characters. Once re-embodied, beauty surrenders to the franchise’s beloved, street-level brutalities and a sandbox of crimes just begging to be committed. But glitches in the first two weeks of online play—and the fragmented nature of trying to control three different characters—makes playing-at-being in the world of Los Santos a spasmodic existence.

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UCLA Game Art Festival to present a “lightning-round” showcase of cutting-edge videogames

One night only! 7-10:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 8 @ The Hammer Museum Courtyard

Festival to feature more than 35 playable games, tournaments, machinima screenings, and other game art installations

Two giant projection screens, multiple game cabinets and live music will contribute to the festival’s cacophonous, carnival-like atmosphere

skull2013Now in its third year, the 2013 UCLA Game Art Festival is taking a lightning-round, everything-at-once approach to showcasing a curated, international collection of the year’s most cutting-edge videogames and other interactive arts. The festival returns to the Hammer Museum Courtyard from 7-10:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 8.

Sponsored by the UCLA Game Lab in conjunction with the Hammer Student Association, the UCLA Game Art Festival will feature more than 35 playable games, tournaments, machinima screenings, and more. Surrounded by game art, attendees will enjoy a cacophonous, carnival-like atmosphere: two large-screen projections flanking the Courtyard will simultaneously showcase many of the festival’s exhibits, while individual games can be played on arcade cabinets stationed throughout the area.

As with last year’s festival, which attracted more than 1,000 attendees, the focus remains on sharing an eclectic mix of cutting-edge, independent, student and professional projects that may not otherwise reach the public. Eddo Stern, UCLA Design Media Arts professor, artist, and lead curator of the festival, said many of the games selected for this year’s event will encourage attendees to think about the interplay between games and other media. “One of our curatorial goals for the festival is to examine independent games and game art within a multidisciplinary context,” Stern said. “Games and gaming culture are intertwined with other media arts—performance, sculpture, theater, music, design, film, and so on—and many of the games selected for the festival play with the relationship between media forms.”

Though still in its infancy, the UCLA Game Art Festival is already earning a reputation for supporting games that often go on to win accolades from entertainment media and other game conferences. For example, the retail-simulation gameCart Life, one of several standout games from last year’s festival, received best-game honors at the Independent Games Festival in March. The game’s creator, Richard Hofmeier, is back again this year as the event’s emcee.

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