Being Objectionable

So this week (I nearly forgot to mention!) I traded emails with Kotaku Australia’s Mark Serrells. We talked about whether videogame reviews have any relevance in a post-Metacritic et al., world. My position was that, ehhhh, not really – most reviews now work as an exercise in getting to know your reviewer/critic personally, and that doesn’t have to be completely pejorative.

Nevertheless, I can’t envisage a future in which the videogame “reviewer” ever has the place of prominence, in magazines or online, that it has enjoyed in the past. That said, the critic as individual is only going to become more important, I think. To save me repeating myself, go have a read of the post and maybe leave a comment. Or not. You guys and gals know my policy on comments by now, right? I’m quite happy to take ’em or leave em, and it’s been interesting clashing with some people who can’t seem to get their head around that. Hopefully I’ll share some more thoughts on the matter elsewhere, as there’s a Crit-Dist podcast planned on the subject. If not, I guess you’ll just have to trust me on it.

To return to the subject of reviews/criticism and the critic, I wanted to point towards the two articles I mentioned in the ‘Objection’ post – two must read “reviews” for any current or aspiring reviewer (and highly recommended for critics too). First: Kieron Gillen’s review of Boiling Point, in which he scores the game thrice. The second: Kieron Gillen’s last ever review (except for the odd-one at RPS anyway) for the MMO Darkfall Online. Deals with: the developer/journo relationship; the difficulty in reviewing MMO’s; aspects of online gaming communities; and is just generally an insightful read. These two pieces, just these, I would like to force-feed to everyone who writes reviews. I can’t stress enough how very readable they are (I’ve never played either game, yet still stick with me).

Finally, before I disappear into my PhD research-containing-spreadsheet again, I want to point to a piece that Kieron Gillen wrote in 2008 for Rock Paper Shotgun that says just about all there is to say about the subject of game reviewing and criticism. “Towards an Elitist Critic Future“.

One of the things about the internet that makes me almost weep for joy is that great pieces of thinking, writing and communication like this are preserved (or can be! they just as easily get lost) so long as you can find a link for them, spot a trace they leave somewhere, or just plain old remember them.

None of these pieces deserves to be forgotten.

The Gizzard of Darkness – by Hunter S Thompson

We drove north in the darkness toward Ignacio – just the three of us, huddled nervously in the cab of the old BMW 3.0 coupe. There was a light fog hovering around the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, along with some stains of fresh blood on the deck. . . there had been a massive collision a few days earlier.

Driving the bridge has never been safe, but in recent years – ever since it became a sort of low-tech Rube Goldberg experiment for traffic-flow specialists – it has become a maze of ever-changing uncertain lanes and a truly fearful experience to drive. At least half the lanes are always blocked off by flashing lights, fireballs and huge generator trucks full of boiling asphalt and crews of wild-eyed men wearing hard hats and carrying picks and shovels.

They are never gone, and the few lanes they leave open for what they call “civilian traffic” are often littered with huge red Lane Markers that look like heavy iron spittoons and cause terror in the heart of any unwitting driver who doesn’t know they are rubber. . . Nobody wants to run over one of those things, except on purpose, and in that case you want to take out a whole stretch of them, maybe 15 or 18 in a single crazed pass at top speed with the door hanging open.

We were not brooding on these things, however, as out little car sped through the light midnight traffic toward our strange destination in Ignacio. . . It was Saturday night and we were running late; our appointment with the Clairvoyant had been for 11 P.M., but a bizarre call from Washington had held us up.

The story, this time, was that CIA Chief William Casey – a key figure in the mushrooming Iran/Nicaragua scandal – had long since been “disappeared” by his CIA cohorts, and that the elderly gent now sequestered behind a screen of CIA bodyguards in a penthouse suite at Georgetown University Hospital is not Casey at all, but some cleverly crafted impostor.

“It’s only a dummy,” said my source. “They’re going to shoot him full of cancer or some kind of animal poison just as soon as they can get him alone – and then they’ll call a presidential press conference to announce that Casey lived and died as a true American Hero – who unfortunately went to his death with all the secrets of the Iranian Weapons Transactions and Oliver North and the criminal guilt of President Reagan still locked in his crippled brain.

“That will kill the whole case,” he explained. “They will blame it all on Casey, and them bury that poor old wino in a closed casket and call for a New Beginning.”

My informant is rarely wrong on these twisted, top-secret stories from the dark side. But they tend to be hard to confirm, and this one was no different.

I finally gave up and decided to lay off the political stories for a few days. My old friend Heest, a disbarred attorney, suggested another option. He was on his way “up the road,” he said, to visit his personal psychic in Ignacio, to get some legal advice. He was facing charges of felony assault in Oakland for stabbing a stranger in the buttocks with a fork in a waterfront tavern, and his lawyer had quit for reasons he refused to discuss.

Not even the public defender would touch it, he said bitterly, so he had decided to turn his case over to the psychic, who had never let him down. “She is harder than cheap nails,” he said, “and she draws all of her wisdom from Michael, who is very sharp about politics – maybe she can help you out on this Casey thing.”

“Who is this Michael?” I asked him. “Does he have any links to The Agency?”

Heest laughed distractedly, but I could see he was getting frantic. He had suffered a broken wrist and loss of vision in one eye, as a result of the stabbing incident, and he was helpless to drive his own car. “Please help me!” he screamed.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I’ll drive.”

It was long after midnight when we finally got to Ignacio, where the psychic was waiting impatiently. She was a nice-looking woman of 39 or so, wearing a stylish white dress and no shoes. There was nothing about her home to suggest a lifetime of witchcraft.

Heest had gone to pieces. It was not his first offense and he was well-known in Oakland as a savage drunkard and wife beater. “What does Michael say?” he whimpered. “He’s the only one who can help me now.”

The woman stared at him for a moment, then she uttered a long sigh and fell back in her Spanish-leather chair. Her eyes rolled up in her skull until only the whites showed, and her lips moved soundlessly, as if talking to birds in her sleep.

Then she came slowly awake and gazed around the room with a faraway look in her eyes. “Michael says he cannot help you now,” she said in a low voice to Heest. “He says you will spend the next two years in an extremely confined environment – probably at Folsom prison.”

“What?” Heest screamed. “Oh God, NO!” He leaped up fro his chair and staggered out of the room. We heard him retching outside on the lawn. I dragged Heest into the car and left him sucking feverishly on a bottle of green chartreuse. . . I went back inside but there was still no sign of Michael, and I demanded to know where he was.

“He speaks to us from the astral plane,” she said. “But tonight he is here in the room.”

Suddenly, the whole thing became clear to me. These people were on a different frequency – like Mr. Kenneth from Park Avenue – and this creature called Michael that Heest had tried to pass off as some kind of hermit political guru was in fact not a person at all.

He was, according to one of the occult handbooks she had on the floor among a pile of stones, “composed of 1,050 individual essences, ex-humans so to speak, who have lived on the land part of earth.”

Well. . . I thought, why not give the bugger a shot? Maybe he knows something. “Where is William Casey tonight?” I asked her. “Is there any truth to the rumours that he is not where he seems to be?”

She seemed puzzled, so I gave her some of the details and she passed them along to Michael wherever he was – and his answer came back like a rocket.

“You must be crazy,” she said. “This man is the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Of course he is where he seems to be! What are you trying to do – get me arrested?” She stood up and waved a fat silver stone at me. “Get out of my house!” she yelled. “I’ve seen your kind before!”

Heest died in the back seat somewhere along the way back to town, so I dropped him off with Capt. Hanssen at the harbour master’s shack on Scott Street, where his body was burned with rubbish.

–          January 12, 1987

This exactly-24-year-old piece was written by Hunter S. Thompson. I know it’s exactly 24 years old because it was published on the day of my birth.

Thinking about my Methodology

According to Latour’s descriptions in Reassembling the Social, being a good Actor-Network theorist means working with 4 different logbooks/notebooks/etc. These don’t have to be literal books, he notes, but instead need to just do a few specific things.

The First Notebook

One of the great things about researching and working with the internet and computers is that nearly everything you do leaves traces. What I’m going to suggest here is that the requirements of Latour’s “first notebook” are almost entirely met by merely researching in a digital environment. Here’s how he describes this first ‘Notebook’:

“The first notebook should be reserved as a log of the enquiry itself. This is the only way to document the transformations one undergoes by doing travel. Appointments, reactions to the study by others, surprises to the strangeness of the field, and so on, should be documented as regularly as possible. Without it, the artificial experiments of going into the field, of encountering a new state of affairs, will be quickly lost. Even years after, it should remain possible to know how the study was conceived, which person was met, what source was accessed, and so on, at a precise date and time.” (Reassembling the Social, p.134)

All the emails I send and receive are stored on the mail server (unless you delete them – but the near limitless space available to even free email accounts means precious few emails actually get deleted these days); Twitter chisels a copy of every tweet into a database somewhere; Facebook stores all your posts, likes, comments and everything else in it’s own massive server somewhere; and my blog (barring any catastrophic data failures) keeps everything I’ve ever written on it ready-to-hand and accessible at a moments notice.

When I tweet my surprise at a new and interesting thought or revelation about the study, twitter itself attaches a date and timestamp to it, and as long as I can retrieve the tweet later (or I’ve saved a link to the tweet) these reactions are recorded.

When I talk to someone about my research (frequently it’s Brendan Keogh or Adrian Forest or Daniel Golding) across twitter our conversation is saved, and keeping a log becomes the less important task. Being able to retrieve and reconstruct the conversation – even to be able to remember that it happened later to know to go back and look for it – becomes the more important aspect.

When I write up some early ideas on my blog BenAbraham.Net I am again recording some of the ‘artificial experiments’ of going into the field (as well as performing some of the things that L asks for in the third notebook).

My mobile phone becomes my diary of meetings, and is a record of all the times I’ve met up with other academics and bloggers.

Even after assembling all these distributed logs there will be things missing, but Latour is asking for diligence from his actor-network theorists, not neurosis.

The Second Notebook

Let’s take a look at what Latour says about the second ‘notebook’:

“A second notebook should be kept for gathering information in such a way that it is possible simultaneously to keep all the items in a chronological order and to dispatch them into categories which will evolve later into more and more refined files and subfiles. …This is the only way to become as pliable and articulate as the subject matter to be tackled.” (p.134)

This sounds to me like Latour is asking for the flexibility of digital information. Cut/Copy/Paste/Delete/Sort/Find/etc. All these things are possible with data in a digital format. And the point of it is to be as flexible as the subjects – if I’m using the same tools as the subjects, aren’t I being at least as flexible as them?

The Third Notebook

Latour describes the third notebook thusly:

“A third notebook should be always at hand for as libitum writing trials. The unique adequacy one should strive for in deploying complex imbroglios cannot be obtained without continuous sketches and drafts.” (p.134)

So this one is a place for random writing, notes and scraps, and in other words is about bringing the editing and revision process forward so it becomes part of the research process. This is what I’m doing with my blogging at BenAbraham.Net – I describe the blog in an info box on the side by saying the blog is ‘a diary of sorts for the things Ben writes that don’t have a home elsewhere’, and I frequently use it for self-contained ideas and pieces of writing.

The emphasis Latour places on the importance of the writing process is hard to overstate. His approach is one that does not see the generation of the ‘report’ as a response to the research, rather it is just as much a part of it:

“It is impossible to imagine that one would gather the data for a period of time and only then begin to write it down. Writing a report is too risky to fall into this divide between enquiring and reporting.” (p.134)

He also emphasises the difficulty of escaping the habits and routines of typical reporting:

“…many efforts have to be made to break the automatic writing up; it’s not easier to write textual accounts as it is in a laboratory to discover the right experimental design. But ideas, paragraphs, metaphors, and tropes might come haphazardly during the course of the study. If they are not allowed a place to find a place and an outlet, they will either be lost or, worse yet, will spoil the hard work of data collecting by mixing the meta-language of the actors with that of the analysts.” P.134-5

The Fourth Notebook

This one, I’m not so sure about:

“A fourth type of notebook should be carefully kept to register the effects of the written word account on the actors whose world has been either deployed or unified. The second experiment, added to the fieldwork itself, is essential to check how an account plays its role of assembling the social.” p.135

For this one… I didn’t seem to have a digital do-it-yourself. Or at least, I didn’t. So I started a new blog to help fill in some of the gaps of what I’m recording with twitter and Facebook and my blog and my phone and with emails, and everything else. That blog will become a daily progress diary where I’ll diligently attempt to record the work I’ve done that day as well as any reactions to my work. Some reactions have already happened: Roger Travis commented on Facebook when he posted a link to a piece I wrote a few months back that my project ‘looked interesting’ or something along those lines. So those kinds of reactions need to be recorded there (if possible).

I’d considered also using a hashtag for tweets that are PhD relevant, but that idea is kind of problematic and not entirely useful. How do I know when a tweet is going to be relevant to my PhD or not? I can’t always know in advance.

Trend spotting in 2011

In the year 2011…

…Internet hipsters will begin to use obsolete web browsers (i.e. Netscape 4.0) in an attempt to recapture early 00’s nostalgia coupled with an increase in apathy for net security.

…Social Media will continue to consolidate into an every decreasing number of powerplayers. Angel investments in tech startups will evaporate as they decamp to funding a new rash of start-up DIY food production companies. A global wheatgrass glut decimates juice bars’ profitability.

…’Gamification’ will continue. You will gain points for purchasing tampons, and a generation of score-obsessed boyfriends will overcome their fear of women’s sanitation.

…The issue of personal privacy and the right to own data will not resurface.

…The honey bee will become extinct in the wild as colony collapse disorder continues unabated. A select number of zoos manage to keep some colonies alive in hermetically sealed environments as honey becomes a new status symbol, with Kanye West it’s new poster boy via a set of crystalised honey teeth.

…The W3C introduces the new "meme" tag into HTML5, for obvious reasons. The firefox extension “MemeHide” becomes a viral hit and by December no one remembers what it was like when the internet was mostly videos of cats.