Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dr. Bartle goes off (with my slight addition)

I love Richard Bartle.

Not in the way that a man loves a woman, or another, less-hairy man. Or a really, really good steak. But he's very well spoken, writes very well, is a major figure in the gaming universe, and is just an all around interesting guy. He writes great posts and leaves great comments on TerraNova, and responds amiably and intelligently there... as long as you provide some measure of amiability and intelligence back.

We don't always agree. He doesn't believe in God, and I think spelling "color" with a "u" is just batty. But other than those minor quibbles, he's one of my favorite people in the infogamingmediasphere.

And he just went off on  the "smug, out-of-touch, proud-to-be-innumerate fossils" who are perennially down on video/computer games. My favorite bit?
Gamers vote. Gamers buy newspapers. They won't vote for you, or buy your newspapers, if you trash their entertainment with your ignorant ravings. Call them social inadequates if you like, but when they have more friends in World of Warcraft than you have in your entire sad little booze-oriented culture of a real life, the most you'll get from them is pity.

Like I said: love.

Thank you, Dr. Bartle. I've been playing video games since I was about eight in 1974. I play them, now (and have for years), with my 8-year-old son. More and more people are playing. Both kids and people my age... and older. And we haven't seen a major up tick in violence during the Rise of the Game. The most violent parts of the world, methinks -- Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Darfur, Chechnya, Washington D.C. -- have many fewer gamers.

We are voters. We do buy newspapers. And we are tired as fuck of people (who don't play) telling us how bad it is for us. So let me add my 2-cents to the Bartle rant. I won't get quoted in the Guardian... and that's OK. But I am glad to be in such good company.

* * * * *

What Richard said. And...

I'm so flippin' tired of people who don't play games coming at us as if we're cellar-dwelling, no-life, dweebs. Or is if there's something really wrong with that. Watch "Triumph of the Nerds." The richest man in the world? Dweeb. Suck on that.

Maybe you like to golf, which requires that you take up inordinate amounts of space in order to whack around a small little ball. You can even do it by yourself, eh? And even when you play with others, it's not really playing *with* them. You're scoring against the course. OK. That's fine. But how is that any less dweeby than playing computer games? Go buy $1,000 worth of sticks and plaid pants and a weird, visor-y hat. That's cool. Drink beer while you're doing it, if you like. Also cool.

Just shut up about *our* games.

Maybe you like to watch sports. Maybe you memorize facts about players and games and leagues. Maybe you get so personally, psychologically involved in "your" team(s) that it gives you pain when they lose. That's cool. Buy the sweat-shirts and the caps and the big, foam fingers and spend four hours waiting in traffic and three hours in the rain waiting to sit on your ass for another four hours to watch 60 minutes of actual action. It's all good.

Just shut up about *our* games.

Maybe you like to shoot guns. Maybe you think they'll help you protect yourself, of just that it's fun to shoot at targets. Good. Cool.

Just shut up about *our* games.

My whole dang life I've put up with smug, superior glances when I tell people (yes, I admit it, and always have) that I play video and computer games. I've put up with people who've never played these games equating them to childish, whimsical pastimes.  Well, there's nothing really wrong with childish whimsy, but there's actually nothing childish nor whimsical about Sid Meier's Civilization or Assassin's Creed.

Some games are whimsical, easy and simply fun. Some are incredibly complex and downright diabolical. Some are art.

If you don't want to play, that's fine. But until you understand what you're talking about... just shut up. That's what I do when people spend hours discussing golf, sports and guns. I don't know much about them. So I shut up.

For the half of you out there playing games, though... I'd love to hear from you  :-)

Birtannica gets over and gets clever

I used to really like the Encyclopedia Britannica. By "used to," I mean of course, "before Wikipedia." It's a fine reference work, and I never had anything against it until they, and others, started getting smarmissimus about how Wikipedia sucks because it's written by people who aren't on the staff of an encyclopedia. And how kids shouldn't be citing it as a resource. Etc. etc.

Now... I don't want to get into a fight about Wikipedia. I don't care if you like it or not or have issues with it. This is not an opinion piece. The fact of the matter is, Wikipedia gets waaaay more hits than Britannica. Maybe it's because Wikipedia is free. Maybe it's because it has lots more articles. Maybe it's because people like to think that anybody (themselves included) is smart enough to help somebody else out with a reference question.

Maybe it's all about elves and pixies. Repeat: I don't care. From a marketing and sales perspective, yelping about how your customers are dumb because they choose a competitor is, well... dumb.  Britannica could hop about, get red in the face, and produce volumes of statistics about how it's better. If users don't have a compelling reason to go there, they'll go somewhere else.

What Britannica *should* have been doing is figuring out a way to get more people into their space. Which they now have, with a very clever little program called Britannica WebShare. Basically, if you write a blog or publish on the Web in any way, you can apply for a free year of access to the entire online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and link to the full articles there.

That's clever. Very clever. My readers now have an ancillary benefit from my blogging relationship with EB. If you're a regular ol' person with no subscription to EB (it costs $70/year normally), and you look up "Wikipedia," you get this:
Wikipedia:  free, Internet-based encyclopaedia operating under an open-source management style. It is overseen by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia uses a collaborative software known as wiki that facilitates the creation and development of articles. The English-language version of Wikipedia began in 2001. It had more than one million articles by March 2006 and more…

Wikipedia... (75 of 754 words)

But if you go to that same article from a link on my blog, even if you don't have a subscription, you can see the whole thing.

Yep. All 754 words. You're welcome.

Very, very smart. They have turned chunks of their content into advertising for the whole, and enlisted the help of people who build the Web to engage in that advertising. They get links and good marketing, I (and my readers) get full text articles.

This is a good thing to think about in a general way -- how can other content owners release some subset of what they create/own in ways that promote an economic model that makes sense for them?

PS: If you're interested in the full text of any particular Britannica article, let me know and I'll work it into a blog post   ;-)

Sunday, April 27, 2008


At work, I get to do some research about the information industry and related technology because, well, libraries are deeply involved in the mediasphere. So that's cool. And last week I was reading up on teens (god, I hate the terms "tweens" and "screenagers") and tech. And there's a neat, very recent report from Pew on teens and writing, and another, older study from Fox about "Never Ending Friending" and a NYT article that asks, "Can Cellphones End Global Poverty," another good report from Pew on the demographics of mobile data use, and on and on. Stuff about social networking, teens, mobile phones, games and media literacy. So that's all in my head.

Then, this morning, I read Clay Shirky's blog post, "Gin, Television and Social Surplus." It's good. Go read it and come back.

Clay is talking about what we do, as a society, to deal with radical shifts in culture. He gives the example of people going on a generation-long gin bender when the industrial age brought millions of people into cities. In order to deal, they got plastered.

Years ago, I read a similar theory about the pyramids. You had this ancient, Egyptian agrarian population that, like most of such, spent almost all their collective time farming and starving. Then some clever dudes figure out some basic math, engineering and astronomy, and put the knowledge to use to create an irrigation system that is N% more productive and reliable than the old methods. Whatever that "N" is, it provided a bunch of time that nobody new what to do with. So they built the pyramids. Partly as a program of public works... but mostly because they had a bunch of people with time on their hands and no idea how to spend it. They already knew how to build stuff... so why not build really big stuff!
Clay makes the point that TV has been sucking up brjillions of hours of our free time, and that we now have more choices about what to do with that time, many of which are creative, and that people like being creative, and so they are choosing things that are at least interactive as opposed to truly passive. Best quote of the post, imo:
However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it's worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

That's just so true it makes my teeth hurt [note, I actually enjoy both of the above, but the comparison is valid as hell].

OK. So we've got new media literacy. We've got participatory media and massive social applications. We've got mobile phones that are increasingly used as tools for digital participation, and are less expensive (than desktop PC's with Web access) and thus more readily available to folks in lower economic strata, and that includes kids. That's all in my head. Don't worry... it's a really big head.

Some people have said that participatory media is a move back to a time when people made their own fun and entertainment. Up until the printing press, if you wanted a story, you pretty much had to *hear* a story. News and history were participatory media. Until radio, there were no mass, single-source, culture-wide stations. Then TV came along. And we had tens of millions of people watching "Leave it to Beaver" and "Dallas" and and and and. I grew up in the middle of that. I joke that I had three parents: Mommy, Daddy and Teevy.

It was, and is, a cross between beauty and horror. I love, for example, that there are now hundreds of channels of TV. We watch all kinds of history, science, engineering, etc. programs with my 8-year-old son (Hooray for Myth Busters!). But he also watches Sponge Bob and  Avatar and other stuff (so do I, btw). Big budget media can produce some neat stuff.

Soon he'll start typing in earnest. And then, I assume, will enter the mediasphere as a participant; commenter, responder, linker, writer, poster, photographer, videographer, blogger, cartoonist, podcaster, IMer... something. Many things. Some interesting, some meaningful, some trivial. Just like life.

And that, I think, is the major difference between the old, top-down media (TV being god there) and what we're getting into now -- it's more like life.

I've taken to saying that my motto for the new, participatory mediasphere is "verbs over nouns." Whenever you want to bet on a new trend or idea or technology, ask yourself... is it improving (or growing) something "noun-y" (stuff), or something "verb-y" (activities). The line that many of my (older) friends use about much of the new content on the Web (YouTube and journal-style blogs seem to be the favorite targets), is that, "It's a bunch of crap."

Well, yeah. But for the people who created it, it's their own personal crap as opposed to a small piece of a giant load of crap dropped on them from 30,000 feet up that also hits a couple million other people.

It's also useful to keep in mind that the pyramids, when looked at a certain way, are crap, too. Engineering marvels? Sure. Wonders of the world? Of course. But what have they ever done for you? Would your life be any different if the pyramids were suddenly not there? Or if they'd never been? The Colossus of  Rhodes went away in 226 BC. Do you miss it? I mean, sure... it would be cool to see. But I've never, once, in my life, said, "Thank God for the pyramids!" (as opposed to penicillin, steam power, the printing press, blues, chocolate, etc.)

How will we spend what Clay calls our "social surplus?" Will we make more friends in more places? Spread knowledge? Create great works?

I don't know. I feel that it's inherently better to do things that are creative and connected. That time spent creating even the "least of these" in terms of blogs and YouTube movies is better than time spent watching a rerun of (shudder) "Welcome Back Kotter." But I also wonder if partly all we're doing is creating many, smaller pyramids.

The nice thing, with the new media, is that we get to decide what's important. It doesn't have to be a centralized project like the pyramids or TV. And, just like with the printing press, I bet (as does Clay) that many smaller voices will add up to something more important than one, big voice.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

24 x 6: Now I can stop

I never watched the TV show "24" when it was on. I'd heard the name "Jack Bauer" of course. Upon looking him up in the Wikipedia just now I was a bit surprised at the length of the entry (around 6,400 words)... The entry on George Washington has around 6,200 words, for the sake of comparative irony.

My brother, John, usually has similar taste to mine in media, and so, last year, when he highly recommended watching "24," I thought I'd give it a go. Being that we were in the "Put something on your Christmas list or else!" timeframe, I added the DVD of the first season to my wish list. My lovely wife got me the first two seasons for under the tree.

After a couple weeks, we were both referring to my "24"-watching experiences as, "Andy's TV crack." The show is addictive, bad for you and messes with your head.

Today, I just finished watching the last episode of season 6, the last season shot/available. That means (math alert!) that I've watch around 115 hours (144 episodes x 80%) of  one show in about 4 months. Roughly one episode a day.

Now, of course, I didn't watch one episode a day. Some days (like today) I watched four. I think the most I ever watched in one 24 hour period (ha ha) was six. I had oral surgery back in January, and it was very nice to just crash on pain meds and do nothing but eat mooshy food and watch Jack Bauer save the universe for large blocks of time.

I have mixed feelings about the show:

  • I really like watching Kiefer. I have for years. I thought he was great in "The Lost Boys" back in the 80's. I've always liked his dad, and some of that bleeds over, I suppose. He's easy to watch. I find his style/look to be a kind of "corn fed danger boy" thing. The kid next door who owns guns. Lots of guns. My only problem with him in "24" is that most of the lines are delivered in an anxious, urgent whisper. That gets old. He got a bit more pink-noise in the vocals in season six, which was nice to see (er... hear). I think he was a good choice for the role of Jack Bauer. If you've watched the show, try to imagine Charlie Sheen, for example, in the lead. Giggling ensues."

  • I am well aware of the whole torture issue. Jack's character embodies the current administration's idea that, under some circumstances, it's OK to torture people because, well, you really, really need to stop the nuke from going off. To be fair, it runs both ways in "24," as Jack and other good guys get tortured both by the bad guys, and by earnest good guys who think that Jack and/or others might be hiding info. To be more fair, torturing works sometimes and not others. Sometimes all Jack has to do is shoot a guy in the leg, and he gives over. Sometimes they do the whole pharma-torture thing, and get nothing. After awhile, I became used to torture as a minor plot development action that simply moved the plot one way or another. And (again, after awhile), I got used to Jack cutting people's fingers off, electrocuting them and threatening to put out their eyeballs. I'm not comfortable with that situation -- that I got used to seeing it -- but there it is. After something becomes almost as much of a trope as the "there's a mole on the inside" thing (see below), it just doesn't have the same power to horrify.

  • Apparently, there's always a mole. Every season features some kind of situation where an American is aiding the bad guys. And, frankly, I can tell you why -- the people who run CTU (the Counter Terrorist Unit where Jack works... kind) are idiots when it comes to their own security. There are all kinds of scenes where a person they bring in as a witness or friend or family member is allowed to wander around the facility. People who work there slip away to make phone calls in a little stone corridor off to one side. Sometimes these calls are overheard. Mostly not. But you think they'd learn to bug that little hallway. I don't mind "Big Stupid" stuff like the whole idea of an international conspiracy to start a Middle East war and drive up the price of oil. That's fine. But a counter terrorism department shouldn't let people have their own, private cell phones in the office, and should be more careful about civilians wandering around. I'm just sayin'.

  • The stakes are too f'ing high. You can have a fantastic, scary, tense movie where the whole thing that's "at stake" is one person's life, or even their career or morality. You don't need to threaten the West Coast with bio-plague or nukes every damned time. Now, I understand, this is Tom Clancy-esque anti-terrorist stuff. But, seriously, there were seasons where Jack rescuing a friend was better drama than Jack saving 6-10 U.S. cities from imminent destruction. The other problem with "high stakes" is that the math ends up being really bad. [Spoiler alert] In season six, one of the briefcase nukes that Jack is chasing goes off in an L.A. suburb killing around 12,000 people + whoever dies later from radiation poisoning. And while further Jacksonian efforts to avert WW3 are in line with that scale, the rescue of one or two people just seems... trite... when you put it on the table with 12k dead. Jack saved the day for these two nice people? That's swell. What about the whole town of Valencia that just when ker-poof?

  • The cinematography and direction are really nice. Multiple shots at one time, the whole "real time" schtick... Nice work, team. In many ways, the direction and pacing are what makes the show so addictive. The acting is OK, and some of the writing isn't bad... but it's not very deep or, really, very different from season to season. Like candy, sex, cigarettes, crack, booze and Abba, it's not really about the quality, but the intrinsic fun.

I'm glad it's over, frankly. For me. For now. Maybe I can finally start blogging regularly again or read some more books or... wait... there's a new season of Battlestar Gallactica.   Mmmmm....

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Trends: neither heads nor tails

Fascinating post titled, "Is the Tipping Point Toast?" at Fast Company. In it, author Clive Thompson focuses on work done by Duncan Watts (a Columbia U. network-theory scientist on sabbatical to do work for Yahoo!) that shows how trends move through society. Contrary to the work of Malcom Gladwell, who wrote "The Tipping Point," and who posits the importance of "Influentials" in establishing trends, Thompson's research suggests that anybody can be the "spark" that ignites a conflagration of popularity. In fact, one of his research projects points to the almost random nature of hits:
Watts wanted to find out whether the success of a hot trend was reproducible. For example, we know that Madonna became a breakout star in 1983. But if you rewound the world back to 1982, would Madonna break out again? To find out, Watts built a world populated with real live music fans picking real music, then hit rewind, over and over again. Working with two colleagues, Watts designed an online music-downloading service. They filled it with 48 songs by new, unknown, and unsigned bands. Then they recruited roughly 14,000 people to log in. Some were asked to rank the songs based on their own personal preference, without regard to what other people thought. They were picking songs purely on each song's merit. But the other participants were put into eight groups that had "social influence": Each could see how other members of the group were ranking the songs.

Watts predicted that word of mouth would take over. And sure enough, that's what happened. In the merit group, the songs were ranked mostly equitably, with a small handful of songs drifting slightly lower or higher in popularity. But in the social worlds, as participants reacted to one another's opinions, huge waves took shape. A small, elite bunch of songs became enormously popular, rising above the pack, while another cluster fell into relative obscurity.

But here's the thing: In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs--and the bottom ones--were completely different. For example, the song "Lockdown," by 52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song's success seemed to be due to merit. "In general, the 'best' songs never do very badly, and the 'worst' songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible," he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.

Yikes. The reaction of older music industry executives, in Watt's words, was, "They were all like, 'I think it's bullshit. I'm still going to go with my gut,'" he recalls. "And I'm like, Okay, good luck to you. You're going to need it."

This reminds me, a bit, of the reaction of old-school baseball scouts in Michael Lewis', "Moneyball: the art of winning an unfair game." From the New Yorker editorial review:
The Oakland Athletics have reached the post-season playoffs three years in a row, even though they spend just one dollar for every three that the New York Yankees spend. Their secret, as Lewis's lively account demonstrates, is not on the field but in the front office, in the shape of the general manager, Billy Beane. Unable to afford the star hires of his big-spending rivals, Beane disdains the received wisdom about what makes a player valuable, and has a passion for neglected statistics that reveal how runs are really scored.

Lewis wrote about how old-school scouts woud go out and pick players based on some basic, observed phenomenon -- batting skills, running ability, etc. -- and then go with, essentially, a hunch based on which ones looked "the best." This is, to my mind, akin to looking for these Influencers that Gladwell and others insist are important to the hit making (ha ha) process. What Billy Beane found, though, was that all kinds of other stats were a better indicator of how well a player would perform as part of a team and contribute to scoring and, thus, wins.

I'm in a funny place, here. Because, on the one hand, I believe in the power of powerful ideas, influences and influencers. We've seen how trends can catch on based on support from a powerful patron like Oprah. But...

I'm also an old-school ad man. When I read about WoMM and how important it is to generate buzz... I can agree that, yes... it *seems* sensible. Let's try to get people who have influence to be excited about your product. But I also know, from having managed hundreds of marketing campaigns, that when you do the same, smart, old, right stuff... it just works. All other things being equal, for example, I've found that frequency beats size in print advertising. If you have the choice of placing 20 half-page ads vs. 10 full-page ads... take the 20 smaller ones. Why? The stopping power of an ad isn't important if nobody sees it, and people have to see your ad multiple times in order to even register the dang thing. Breakthrough creative is great... but you can't budget for it. Make your ad solid, get the basics right, and flog it like mad.

There's another post in here somewhere too... something about how the Wisdom of Crowds is more like the Random Influence of Crowds.

My title for this post reflects the possibility that while the Long Tail is great for finding interesting, niche stuff... the head of that curve is governed less by quality and influence than by... chance. If that's the case, then chance favors the prepared, I believe. And being prepared seems to have more to do, if Watt's is right, with playing to the bleachers as opposed to the box seats.

God, I love mixing metaphors.

Books and articles by Duncan Watts:

Watts, Duncan J. "A Twenty-First Century Science." Nature. 445. 7127 (2007): 489.

Watts, Duncan J. Small Worlds: The Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness. Princeton studies in complexity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Adamic, L. "Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, Duncan J Watts." NATURE -LONDON-. 6929 (2003): 265.

Watts, Duncan J. Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. New York: Norton, 2003.

Watts, Duncan J. "Networks, Dynamics, and the Small-World Phenomenon." The American Journal of Sociology. 105. 2 (1999): 493.

Kossinets, Gueorgi, and Duncan J Watts. "Empirical Analysis of an Evolving Social Network." Science. 311. 5757 (2006): 88.

Citation HTML generated by WorldCat Lists. 


Revelations 8:11 (KJV) -- And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.

I'm not a scholar of Revelations. But I'm pretty sure this (link may be NSFW depending on WYW) counts as evidence of the end times*. Quotes from the review:
The play mechanics are simple. Prepare yourself by strapping on the included belt harness and jacking in your Wiimote. A series of toilets are presented on screen and the challenge is to tilt your body to control a never-ending stream of pee. Get as much pee in the toilets as you can while spilling as little on the floor as possible. Sounds easy eh? Well the toilets open and close whack-a-mole style and occasionally the stray cat or other cute critter pops up. Spray a cat for extra points...

According to the Japanese text on the box "Super Pii Pii Brothers promotes good bathroom skills and allows women to experience for the first time the pleasure of urinating while standing." What we say is that virtual peeing is damn fun!

Up to two players can compete with dueling pee streams.

Wow. Just... wow.

*Note to readers with no sense of humor nor of irony: I don't actually think this.