I Play a Video Game, and I am Better for It

I’ve been playing a video game lately called BioShock Infinite. Now, I know that by doing so, it makes me just like millions of other people in my demographic. But for me, it was a difficult thing to get into. I don’t like video games for several reasons. I have seen how overpoweringly addicting they can be. I have seen people who have put so many hours of their life into video games that their brick and mortar life has been left unattended and some hefty weeds have grown around it. My wife hates video games for these same reasons, and since the only time I have to play video games must be subtracted from the time I usually spend with her, it makes a lot of sense that she balks at the thought of me having or playing video games. Plus it was $40, which in our budget is a lot.

But BioShock Infinite is different.

First of all, BioShock Infinite is one of the most intricate, thought-provoking, enrapturing (some of you will get that) narratives that I have ever come across. I spent a few of my college years studying fiction writing, and I can appreciate the sheer size of the story this video game tells, and the importance of some of the social issues it addresses. Also, because this is first-person shooter game, I am, in a very real way, asked by the game to inhabit the body of the main character and make decisions for him, and am thus propelled into and caught up in the narrative of the game in ways that I could never be when reading a book.

Ken Levine, the creative director that drove the team that created all the BioShock games, has been compared to Shakespeare in his ability to craft deeply meaningful, mind-bogglingly detailed, and incredibly entertaining experiences, and I feel that the comparison isn’t at all hyperbolic. This video game is something special, and so I have a hard time feeling like I’m just zoning out with mindless escapism when I play it.

Second of all, due to the depth of the experience, I have decided to write a seminar paper this semester. I had read a lot about BioShock just because I admired the creation of something so vast and impressive. I watched a lot of YouTube videos of interviews with the creators and even watched a four-hour walk through video of the game so I see the story. So based on all of that, I decided I would be able to write the paper without playing the game. But I knew to really “get it,” I would have to play the game myself. So I got it, and my wife has been very gracious and understanding in giving me the time I need to play through it, even though she isn’t happy about it.

The paper I am writing this semester is about the ways that BioShock Infinite can educate its players about the complexities of how public monuments and memorial spaces shape public memory. What that means, is that the world created in BioShock can teach the people who play it that the monuments and public displays that our governments create are much more complicated than just lawn decorations in parks, but rather they can have lasting effects on how people remember and talk about the past.

There are several important plot points where BioShock Infinite teaches these lessons, but it is most obvious in BioShock when the two main characters, Booker and Elizabeth, are led through the Hall of Heroes, a display created by the monomaniacal Father Comstock, who created the world of Columbia where BioShock takes place. The Hall of Heroes is a public display reminiscent of what you might see at a major theme park but scarier; think Main Street USA at Disney World, but tinged with overt racism and kitschy but frightening war imagery. In this space we explore how Father Comstock has rewritten the history of two fictionalized versions of Civil war battles, Peking and Wounded Knee, to make himself look like he was the hero, when Booker knows that he was the one that was the hero. Later we encounter General Slate, the only person in Columbia who knows the truth of Father Comstock’s revisions of history, and we see how he has been exiled from Columbia to shut him up.

Moving through the world of BioShock infinite isn’t just about running around blowing the heads off of bad guys (although this does happen), it’s a psychological experience about how the spaces that surround us can shape our perceptions of history and current politics, and how, if given enough power, the wrong person can erase history and reshape it to serve their own purposes. After experiencing these storylines, the player can then begin to look at something like the statue of some war hero on horse in her town square and start to think, “I wonder if that person really did the things that the statue makes me think he did,” or maybe even think, “Christopher Columbus was a terrible person, maybe we shouldn’t have a holiday named after him.” Which is a good thing.

So when I sit down to play BioShock, I have a much better excuse than “I’m improving my hand-eye coordination,” (although I am doing that) I am experiencing a creation so thoughtfully complex that I’m actually learning about how the real world works, why some of the ugliness in it exists, and helps me start to critically analyze things that I had previously taken for granted as I move through it.

Plus, sometimes it’s freaking cathartic to blow up a zeppelin.

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What brand of writer am I? What brand of reader am I asking you to be?

As I sat here spewing out words trying to figure out what to write today, I discovered I have at least three distinct voices that I switch among as I write. These “voices,” which really come down to subtle shifts in word choice and stylistic differences, are mutually exclusive: they don’t mix and they don’t blend. I only write in one at a time, but I can switch among them many times in a piece of writing, and sometimes even schizophrenically within sentences.

As a rhetorician, I know that these constant shifts in voice mostly happen because I am constantly changing who I envision my audience to be. I don’t know who is going to read this (if anyone), and I don’t know what you the reader (if you are there) wants most from me. So instead of sending out surveys and holding focus groups about my writing, I have to do some guess work about who you are. Are you at home in your underpants reading this while your wife plays WoW in the other room? Are you adjusting your $400 glasses as you read this on your macbook pro in a dust free room? I don’t know, and I’ll never really know. So I have to just make some choices and then write in a way that asks you to be a certain kind of reader. In other words, I have to make some choices about who you are and treat you like I want you to want yourself to be treated. (Did you follow that?)

Anyway, here are the three voices I found that I write in based on who I think you are: my journaling voice, my academic voice, and my blog voice.

My journaling voice is the voice I mainly use to write on 750words.com. It’s a private voice that I really only use when I am writing to myself, and/or perhaps to some reader who cares about who I am deep inside, like maybe my wife. But even then, I don’t share all the I write in my journal voice to her. I use this voice mainly to self-evaluate and reflect (most of the time to beat myself up and call myself a failure. TMI?). I include a lot of personal information with this voice, and it tends to get melodramatic and maudlin. This journaling voice that a lot of us write in is so hilariously inappropriate in public that these people have created in international fervor for people sharing it openly. My journaling voice is what I use to write nonsense or warmup, or sometimes even to write a draft. But I make sure to leave only a small trace of it in my finished product.

Next I have my academic voice. This voice usually comes out when I am overly aware, even self-conscious, of an audience, and so I emphasize (or even feign) my authority in the subject I am writing about. I purposefully leave out almost all personal stuff because I imagine an audience who wants only to be informed and not bogged down by my emotional carry-on items. I imagine an audience that “privileges reason over emotion,” or something like a college professor that I didn’t get along with. In this voice I use really big words and dense sentences. In my last post, when I used the word asynchronous, I was writing in my academic voice.

The saddest thing is, I have grown so comfortable in this voice (which most people hear as terribly starched and cold) that it comes out naturally in my daily speech, to the detriment of my ability to carry on a normal conversation. I can’t make chitchat at parties unless I am talking to other academics who have a similar ailment. Being in college for eight years has hurt my ability to just talk normally to people. And I know that when I write that way, I turn people off.

When I write a blog, I try to stay away from my journaling voice and my academic voice as much as possible because both have a way of making people feel uncomfortable. That’s what my blog voice is for. I imagine that the audience reading this (you, good sir or madam) wants good information; they want it fast and easy, and while they are reading/learning, they want to be entertained with wordplay and jokes. That’s who I imagine you are and I am making my best effort to give you what I think you think you want. When I am writing in this voice, I am aware of consonance, assonance, puns, and humor. I am asking myself things like “how do I spice this up?” or “what pop culture references can I make here?” Once I know I have a foundation of good thought, I need to appeal to (what I think are) a certain audience’s sensibilities.

These voices come both as I write and as I revise. I usually draft in my journaling voice, and then over-correct into my academic voice, and then (hopefully) revise into my blogging voice. But it’s almost never that clear-cut, and I almost never am as aware of these voices as I am pretending to be right now.

On top of all of that, I also have to ask myself what brand of writer I think that I am and which parts of which voice are going to portray me in that way. Am I polished and perfected? witty or dry? Am I professional and sophisticated, or am I messy and sincere and vulnerable? As I switch among these voices it’s like I am trying on different costumes, looking in the mirror, and evaluating if it feels right.

Answering these questions for myself, I start to come up with my writing brand. I am vulnerable, messy, (hopefully) thoughtful, and (hopefully) kinda funny. In order to present myself as the kind of writer I want you to think I am, I have to find the balance among these three voices to sound that way.

What’s your writing brand?

Thoughts are like Armpits, Everybody Has Them, and Unless You Write Them Down, They Aren’t Worth Anything

I’ve been thinking a lot about success lately and trying to figure out what success looks like in my life. I came to the conclusion that the most (and probably the only) successful things I’ve done in this life are maintain a healthy marriage, procreate three times and keep those children alive and learning, I have earned a Master’s degree, created hundreds of successful daily lesson plans and taught them, made quite a few YouTube videos that I feel capture the feeling of the moment I tried to capture, and (maybe) written some papers that have some good thoughts.

The world (especially meaning the people who sign checks) don’t see the things that I consider to be successes in my life to be successes, or at least they don’t see them worthy of giving me money for them. I am starting to get the feeling that, aside from the YouTube videos and the papers I’ve written, my successes don’t involve the creation of something that can be enjoyed asynchronously outside of my presence, which seems to be a defining characteristic of a successful creation. 

I was blessed with a brain that does a lot of thinking. And every once in a while, like how a virus or cancer can mutate out of sheer volume of reproductions, I think a pretty good thought. But the only people I have that I can share my thoughts with are my family, my coworkers, and my students, none of whom are cutting me any checks for them. So if I want my thoughts to have a wider audience, and if I want other people to benefit from the thoughts I have, or if I want my thoughts to turn into something tangible (i.e. $) and asynchronous to me, I have to write them down, and put them in a public place.

In other words, I have to write, and I have to make that writing public. 

In other other words, if I want to be successful, I must write. I must make writing my life.

So here goes. 

What students have to do to write a rhetorical analysis

For their first major project next semester we are supposed to have our students perform a rhetorical analysis; so my version of that is doing what I call “Facebook in slow motion.”  What I want the students to do is to take a facebook conversation and take it slow motion the way sherlock holmes does in the new movies. What we see on facebook is the last part of this clip where we see the fight play out in real time, and the slow motion breakdown before hand is the rhetorical analysis students are supposed to produce after the fact.

The idea behind it is that in order to slow things down like that, you have to understand the rhetorical situation. You have to make assumptions about what people are trying to accomplish when they say what they do. I am hoping that each student is going to be able to find an exchange on Facebook and slow it down the way sherlock holmes does.

I have two examples that we are going to look at, both are heated exchanges I participated in on Facebook. My hope is that we can use these two examples and move step by step through each comment and flesh out the subtext. By doing this we can start to understand what kinds of arguments people are using and why the are working or aren’t working persuasively.

So my plan is to do this: Spend a class period looking at the first example of mine in class and watching the Sherlock Holmes clip as inspiration. Then have them to do the same thing by themselves for homework with another example that I will provide. Then they have to find their own example and do the same thing with that. This will be their rough draft. (I need to do something to get out of the rough draft/final draft paradigm, maybe I’ll call it the working draft.)

During the revision stage will try help them to push the analysis further. There are a few chapters in our text book that do a pretty good job of explaining how to identify certain types of arguments. I am going to use that during the revision stages of the essay writing process. My thinking is that the students need to get their initials thoughts about the exchange down on the page and through their heads before they’ll even begin to be able to identify that argument is happening, let alone identify types of arguments, let alone evaluate the arguments on their capacity for persuasion. So what I am thinking of doing is getting them into what I will call “Information Extraction Groups.” Their job will be to get as much out of the textbook as possible that will be of benefit for the other students in the class, make something other students can use (a website, a handout, a video, whatever), and present it to the class. (This will be especially cool because I will let the students from both sections have access to the materials. This will motivate them to produce something of higher quality because they have an unknown/unseen/not immediately present audience that will be able to give them immediate feedback.)

I will have to work with them to use the materials presented in the Info Extraction groups to improve their working drafts.

At the end, we will have one final class to talk about final polish, which mostly consists of taking about audience awareness. I have an activity I’ve created that teaches about the importance of responding to particular rhetorical situations that I will use for that class. (Maybe if enough people request it, some day I’ll write up how to do that activity.)

Then the final draft will be due and we will begin the next unit.

Digital Stuff and the LDS Scriptures

Today in institute we watched a video called “That Promised Day” about the establishment of the current LDS canon of scriptures established in the 1970s, and I just wanted to take a minute and point out the connections I see to digital stuff. I don’t know in what categories these things I’ll talk about fit into (I don’t think many people do), but I know that it has something to do with the way we use language and information. So perhaps these things aren’t even worth pointing out, but I think they are interesting, so here goes.

The motivations for the project were based in the effort to improve scriptural literacy across the church in an effort to fulfill the prophecy in D&C 1:20 “that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world.” If men (and women) were going to speak in the name of God, they would have to know the scriptures. In other words, the literate practices of being Mormon, especially in the sense of being a proselyting member, require the member to have at ready reference connections between all of the standard works of scriptures. The church made an enormous effort to facilitate the development of these literate practices in the members. Although the members are not given the means to create and incorporate their own cross references in a way that will effect all other members, allowing all members the ability to develop these literate practices gives more power to the members and takes power away from the leadership by placing the onus of interpretation on all members and not just the select few at the top. This taps into some of the notions of participatory culture put forth by Henry Jenkins.

The Cross references were crowd-sourced: the committees involved used hoards of returned missionaries to test established cross references, and suggest new ones. Those who had already had a lot of practice in the literate practices the church wanted all the members to have gave out their skills for free to allow others to borrow from their literate practices as they develop their own.

The verse-centric footnote system creates a information consumption experience much “surfing” the internet by clicking from link to link. The individual experience of “reading” the scriptures using cross references can be infinitely complicated and individualized in much the same way we experience information on the internet today. In fact the experience of reading the LDS scriptures on the internet is almost equal to the experience of reading it in book form. Maybe God knew there would be old technophobes and wanted to make their transition from the book scriptures to the online scriptures more seamless. There sure are a lot of old folks on iPads at church. (This sound like a “Just sayin'” argument. And I guess in the end it is.)

The church used Computers, which in 1972 was a very new thing, to compile this big data. I don’t know how that fits in, but it’s cool.

 

Update: A friend Jon Stone passed along a reference to this article http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2011/02/a-review-of-notable-changes/ where a few of the cross references have been updated to more closely reflect current thinking on specific things, especially how race and skin color are portrayed in the footnotes.

Seeing Grammar

I like the idea of seeing error as seeing the text (and the writer) through a very specific cultural lens and interpreting it as error, even thought there really is nothing physically erroneous about it. Grammar “errors” are really just a culturally specific way of interpreting specific textual features. The same text can be interpreted or read, many different ways and seeing “errors” is a choice that could be made differently.

The example that popped into my head comes from the first episode of the new season of Modern Family. In it, a couple has just found out they won’t be able to adopt a new baby, and as consolation to their adopted daughter, obtain a very large stuffed gorilla and stuffed elephant. When they decide to get rid of the elephant and the gorilla, their car is too small and they must tie the stuffed animals to the roof. It gets pointed out later that the animals have been attached to the roof in a sexually suggestive position. When Cam, who tied the animals to the roof, placed them there, he wasn’t trying to be sexually suggestive. He saw the animals as cargo to be put somewhere to be disposed of. Only later does someone point out to him that the animals’ position could be interpreted that way. But the thing is, there was nothing inherently sexual about it. The view of the animals in this perspective was imposed on the animals outside of themselves. This of course is great for comedic events in the show, but in a very real ways shows what happens with students when they commit “ errors.” We say, “well they obviously didn’t proofread their paper because they would have seen these errors if they had.” These “ errors” are so obvious to us only because we have been trained to see them that way. If someone would have said to Cam, “If Cam would have just looked at the animals on his roof, he would have seen his error and corrected it.” But the thing is, I am one hundred percent sure Cam stood back and looked at the animals on the roof and, looking through his perspective of cargo on the roof, would have assessed that he had done a fine job of placing them there. In much the same way, our students are proud to have gotten words on the page, and arranged them into an essay. However, they don’t see it through the same lens as we do, because they haven’t had the same past experiences with the grammar as we have. In much the same way, the people that looked at the gorilla and elephant as being sexually suggestive have had past experiences seeing real animals (or themselves) in similar sexual positions, and these experiences inform their perception of the situation. However, a child, for instance, who has not had any experiences that would lead them to connect the positions of the animals with sexual intercourse, would never see the animals that way. They have to be taught that perspective. It’s not naturally occurring.

So how do we teach students that perspective? Well, just like what is required to see the stuffed animals as humping rather than simply as cargo on top of a car, they have to have had experiences in the past in which the connect misspellings, poor subject-verb agreement, cliches, etc. with error. Their innocence about words has to be lost. They have to learn that words on a page will never be seen as simply words on a page, but that the reader is going to bring with it all kinds of assumptions and biases, and these experiences have to be meaningful and salient. For me, I didn’ t really start to understand grammar until my junior year of college, after I had already taken all my other required English courses and had already decided to become a fiction writer and been through work shops where I had allowed others to interpret my writing and seen the limitations of my ability to translate my thoughts to the page and then into the minds of my readers. In other words, it wasn’t until I had been “primed” to see words on the page as something other than self-evident physical objects. Learning grammar is going to happen when a student wants it to happen and when she wants it to happen. Once she has lost her innocence about the straightforward nature of writing, then she’ll be able to see the gorilla humping the elephant.

My Speculations on the Use of the Word “Dialed” in the Fixed Gear Cycling Community

The first uses of the word “dial” start around 1430 as the name of a device used to tell the time of day and come from Latin for day and represented the circular path the sun makes around the earth in one day, or the device used to measure that path.
sundial

Around 1911, anything circular with one point of reference along its circumference used to precisely tune or measure something begins to be called a dial, like the knobs on a radio.
Don't touch that dial

Soon, the idiomatic expressions “dialed in” comes to be used to describe something that has been adjusted to a very precise setting. This is in reference to the need to turn knobs in order to make the adjustment. For example, in the world of photography, this person uses “dialed” as an adjective to describe a setting on a camera that is perfect for the situation at hand (The word “in” has recently been dropped from the phrasal adjective); “a dialed exposure,” then, is one that has been set to properly expose the film.

In the cycling community, a bike that is “dialed in” or “dialed” has been adjusted to properly fit the rider and perform optimally. Thus, the word “dialed” is used to describe a bike that is visually appealing for its ability to perform at a high level.

However, “dialed” has recently been used in many conversations in the fixed gear community to refer to a general visual appeal of anything related in some way to cycling, but not necessarily in reference to the proper fit or performance. In some ways it has become exclusive community parlance, and the use of the word represents identification with the fixed gear cycling community.