Board Games, Digital Media, and Public ‘Participation’

Has digital media innovation brought about a revolution in the board gaming industry? Has the crowdfunding site Kickstartr (previously called ‘Kickstarter’ until they forgot how to spell) fundamentally changed the way in which tabletop games are designed and produced? Has the distinction between ‘designers’ or ‘producers’ and the gamers who consume and play their products been obliterated?

These are some of the questions that I’ve been grappling with in a recent research project with Dr Deb Waterhouse-Watson, another Lecturer in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. Of course, the changing relationship between designers and players is a broader issue than only something that relates to the impact of digital media culture, as episode 69 of The Game Design Round Table recently revealed in its excellent discussion of house rules, modding, and optional rules. But the seemingly ‘participatory’ nature of the online world is worth thinking through in relation to this debate too…

What follows is a conference video snapshot I put together while experimenting with iMovie for the iPad. Our presentation, ‘Playful Publics as “Game-Makers”?: Digital Media, Producers, and the (R)evolution of Board Gaming’, was delivered at the Contemporary Publics International Symposium, held at Deakin University, Melbourne, on 24 February 2014. I’ve included the abstract below, and we’re currently writing the full paper up for publication, but sadly, that’s a much slower process… so enjoy the teaser!

 

Abstract:

On first appearance, board games would seem to epitomise the ‘old’ media of yesteryear; however, the rise of digital media has seen an already substantial subculture undergo fundamental transformations. The impact of crowdfunding sites and online forums like those of boardgamegeek on the production, reception, and use of games reveals the internet to be at the very centre of the (r)evolution in board game culture. Distinctions between the categories of ‘designers’ and ‘players’ seem to be increasingly breaking down, with numerous crowdfunding projects increasingly involving direct appeals for contributions from online supporters. Significantly, game designer Justin Gary’s reflection on the initial anxiety about the future of board gaming, which many feared might dissipate with the rise of tablets and smartphones, notes that ‘the reverse has happened. Now board game sales are better than ever.’ This raises crucial questions: has gamers’ online engagement with designers resulted in a more ‘participatory’ process in which players are more deeply involved in the making of games before the products reach their table top? Has the digital arena – particularly the surge of board game projects on Kickstartr – afforded gamers the genuine power that is often implied or has it only ensured that, to use Gary’s turn of phrase, ‘sales are better than ever’? Through a close analysis of recent board game case studies, we examine the industrial logics, intertextualities, and user behaviours (re)forming through the intersection of the virtual and the non-virtual, thus contributing to ongoing debates over the relevance of the term ‘producer’ and the broader issue of digital media’s ‘democratising’ potential.

 

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Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews: Origins of a Book on the Holocaust

The evolution of my book, Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews: Holocaust Ethics, Representation and the ‘Grey Zone’, was – like most books no doubt – somewhat long and complex. To take the long-term view, the project began when I heard the moving personal stories spoken by survivor guides on a high school trip to the Jewish Holocaust Centre in 1999. ABerghahn Book Covers a non-Jewish teenager with next to no background knowledge of the event, the visit to the JHC inspired a lasting curiosity and sense of obligation to find out more. A shorter-term perspective might see the book as beginning when a friend emailed me the program for the annual Jewish Film Festival at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image some ten years ago. On that program was a film called The Grey Zone, written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson and first released in 2001. The film depicts the traumatic experiences of the twelfth Sonderkommando (‘special squad’) forced to work in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and offers a complex, unsentimental engagement with the extreme ethical dilemmas that many Holocaust victims confronted.

On the train journey to the screening, I read Primo Levi’s highly influential essay entitled ‘The Grey Zone,’ which influenced Nelson to delve into the same issues of moral ambiguity and ‘compromise’ in his film. Both of these texts, some of the few to focus explicitly and centrally on the taboo issue of ‘privilege’, have stayed with me to this day. In this context, the term ‘privileged’ Jews refers to those prisoners in the Nazi-controlled camps and ghettos who held positions that gave them access to material and other benefits beyond those available to other Jews, particularly the members of the Judenräte (Jewish councils), Ordnungsdienst (Jewish police), Kapos (chiefs) of labour squads, and other prisoner-functionaries. These victims have often been seen to have acted at the expense of fellow prisoners in various ways, for various reasons, and under varying levels of coercion. Meditating on their unprecedented circumstances, Levi provocatively argued that victims who were forced to cooperate with their Nazi persecutors in order to prolong their own or their families’ lives should not be judged for their behaviour.

As Levi highlighted while writing in the 1980s, judgements of ‘privileged’ Jews are frequently problematic, and such judgements continue to permeate society and culture to this day. Yet whether or not moral evaluations are appropriate, they are also inevitable (the very nature of language makes them so), and Levi himself could not suspend judgement of those he argued should not be judged. Taking Levi’s ‘grey zone’ as a point of departure, Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews explores the portrayal of the Sonderkommandos and other categories of so-called ‘privileged’ prisoners in survivor testimony, historical writing, and documentary and fiction films. More specifically, I analyse the ways in which moral judgements are passed in various representations, from Raul Hilberg’s influential writings to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993).

The book does not claim to provide a comprehensive picture of this subject – far from it, as many new writings and films depicting ‘privileged’ prisoners have been and continue to be released. But I hope it serves as one first step of many in addressing issues that have been left unexamined for too long; issues both fundamental to present-day attempts to understand the Holocaust and deeply relevant to reflections on human nature more generally. Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews was the product of several years of research as part of my PhD undertaken at Deakin University, though it has also been invaluably informed by my close contact with local Holocaust survivors, particularly my dear friend Phillip Maisel OAM, to whom the book is dedicated. My work in general also owes a great deal to the many conversations I have had with friends, family, and volunteers and visitors at the Jewish Holocaust Centre, particularly at the Centre’s public film screenings, which continue to reiterate the crucial importance of viewing and discussing films about the Holocaust. One film started it all for me (or nearly, anyway)…

Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews will be launched from 2pm at the Jewish Holocaust Centre on Sunday, 16 March 2014.

Please contact me if you would like to know more about the JHC Film Club screenings.

(This blog post was originally written for the Berghahn Books Blog).

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Research Profile Video of Me (with Tiffany)

This video was made for a presentation at Deakin University’s School of Communication and Creative Arts Research Forum on 25 October 2013. I was supposed to talk for 10 minutes…

Pressing ‘Play’ is easier.

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Welcome Video for Students of Contemporary Communication

A short welcome video for students of ALC101 Contemporary Communication: Making Sense of Text, Imagine and Meaning, offered as an online unit in Trimester 3 at Deakin University… fo shizzle.

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Where to Next in the Brave (New) Digital World?

Well, it’s time to wrap things up for ALC201 Exploring New Media: Users, Settings, Implications for 2013. The experiences of the unit’s very first outing, and the student feedback that has generously been provided, have already had me thinking for some weeks about what form(s) the unit will take next year. Lots of questions remain lingering: What is the future of on-campus lectures? (Do they have a future?) Should the unit have an ‘official’ Facebook presence that is moderated by staff and allows more convenient updates to be communicated to students? Does this ‘interfere’ with the separation of ‘life’ and ‘work’ still desired by many students? What other forms of digital media creation might assessment take on? Does any of the subject matter need to be adjusted? Can I afford my dog’s exorbitant acting fees for another round of videos? Will any parts of the unit be redundant even after ‘only’ twelve months?

Things move quickly, but not too quickly. The themes of virtual identity construction and surveillance, online dating and e-pornography, sexting and trial by social media, e-democracy and digital heritage, will maintain their relevance for some time yet. And all of these issues will continue to be played out in the expansive realm of popular (and not-so-popular) culture, reinforcing and challenging ideas about digital media and the stereotypes of those who use them. Drawing on the Media Studies 2.0 approach, the crucial importance of grasping what this unit has been about all along – the intersection between critical thinking and creative practice – will remain fundamental. But some things will change. They have to.

For now, I’d like to thank all those people who participated in the unit – from the students who enrolled in it to the friends and colleagues who allowed me to exploit them in the meLectures. This last video is designed in part to provide some ‘closure’ on what has been an often confronting, sometimes depressing, always eclectic unit, but it is also to express my appreciation to those who have come along for the ride.

Thank you. And, as Dolph Lundgren continues to say in my head, if no one else’s…

Good Journey.

PS – By the way, if you don’t get my antics at the start of the video, you should watch Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. Shame on you.

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Looking into Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror: Some Reflections

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‘Who do you think is powering that spotlight?!’

Some reflections compiled during a screening of ‘Fifty Million Merits’

(episode 2 of Black Mirror, season 1)

There’s something remarkable in the moment when the last frame of a film fades to black, the credits begin to roll, and the audience is dead silent in the stillness; when there’s no immediate movement for the door as everyone sits still in their seats, half stunned and half pondering the world… Not many films achieve this. Mostly, the herd of viewers rustle toward the door, crunching popcorn underfoot that’s soon to be swept up by anonymous and ignored cleaners. The crowd then dissipates, heading for the car or the boutique coffee shop or the nearby store to buy a new hat… maybe a real one, maybe not.

Although it wasn’t screened at a cinema, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is one such production. When I screened the episode ‘Fifty Million Merits’ to a class yesterday, the students were at first (and only at first) speechless – and I dare say the present screening will have the same result. This is perhaps predictable on the one hand given the expert building of tension within the tightly wound plot, combined with the unsentimental and anti-redemptory lack of closure. Plus the film begs far more questions than it answers. But I think the silence stems from something else too. The episode hits hard, implicating its audience in a dystopian scenario that offers a sharp and wide-ranging critique of present day digital screen culture through a depiction of a not-so-distant ‘future’.

From the humiliation of people as ‘fake fodder’ on Reality TV; to the absurdity of the consumption of virtual goods for aesthetic purposes; to the bullying of people with large body sizes who have been demonised by violent computer games; to the blurred dividing line between pornography and celebrity culture; to the reliance of identity construction on ‘buying shit’; to the reinforcement of sexist, racist, and classist ideologies through both the media and the very structures of society; to the fundamental undermining of conventional conceptions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’; ‘Fifty Million Merits’ has it all, and then some.

The protagonist Bing (played so powerfully by Daniel Kaluuya, also of the 2010 drama Chatroom) tells Abi: ‘It’s all just stuff. It’s… stuff. It’s confetti… When I look around here, I just want something real to happen. For once…’ Nothing is real for Bing anymore, and even his climactic act of subversion is neatly packaged, commodified and filtered by the inescapable structures that govern his life. The ‘reality’ of the imagery in the last frame remains ambiguous, for all time. Yet when we consider aspects of ‘our world’ – the program ‘options’ in prime time slots on our television schedules, or the ethnic origin of the ‘enemies’ in the latest combat console game, or the YouTube advertisements that can only be skipped after a short time or not at all – this film is clearly very ‘real’ (whatever that means…)

We might leave Black Mirror once the credits roll, but it might also choose to stay with us. Perhaps if we earn enough merits we can set it aside and forget about it. Why not take another cup of cuppliance and stress less? That spotlight won’t power itself…

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Naturalising New Media: Cultural Representations of the Digital World

This week’s meLecture takes us into Module 3: ‘Mediating New Media’. The videos survey representations of digital media across a number of genres, but I thought film deserved some further reflection here… I’m currently typing this post while watching Aaron Eckhart have his emails, bank account, mobile phone access, and other facets of his digital identity completely erased by what seems to be some malicious organisation. Right now he’s telling his young daughter to ‘keep your head down – they can’t identify you if they can’t get a full profile’. Now he’s walking across the foyer using a small piece of paper to disguise his face amidst the surveillance devices surrounding them…

Seriously, you can’t avoid this topic – or perhaps more appropriately, you can’t hide from it. When I hired the 2012 film The Expatriate (or Erased, to use the American title), the DVD cover could/should have been enough to signal that Eckhart’s rugged looks might come into conflict with digital media, and that the (mis)uses to which technology can be put might play some role in the thriller’s plot. Nonetheless, some encounters with such representations can be considerably more unexpected…

In apparent sharp contrast to The Expatriate, last night’s movie was the children’s animation The Lorax (2012), a Dr. Seuss story about a society that is bereft of trees (and the animals who once lived in/among them) due to humans’ destructive treatment of nature. The citizens of Thneedville now live in total ignorance under the control of a tyrant, Mr O’Hare, who sells them breathable air for massive profits. After watching the film’s first few minutes – or even just from watching the trailer - we all know what the resolution of this narrative will be (not that this makes it a bad movie, it’s actually really good); nonetheless, the presence of camera surveillance part way through the story is unexpected.

O’Hare has created a veritable Surveillance Society in order to monitor the movements of all, ensuring that nobody leaves ‘his’ pristine, industrialised city to discover there are options other than buying oxygen from him. In addition to Thneedville’s pervasive CCTV cameras, the film’s young protagonist is surveyed by a robotic cat, which (in addition to fake trees having consumer fashion item status) suggests that technology has literally replaced the ‘dirty’ and ‘disorganised’ natural world. Social order and the protection of the innocent is not even an excuse – much less the reason – for the widespread invasion of privacy in The Lorax; surveillance is simply a tool of excessive, rampant, evil capitalism. Somewhat simplistic, one might say, no matter how much you hate the cameras…

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