Gaming symposium in lab: Humans, culture and computer games

Current HUMlab post-doc, Torill Mortensen has put together an impressive group for her gaming symposium, Humans, culture and computer games: methods for exploring how people use and live with their chosen online activities. Researchers from within Scandinavia, as well as the USA, Italy and England will come together over the next three days and discuss research methods and cross-disciplinary strategies. The symposium begins today at 12.45. The program can be found here. Lectures will be streamed. Check the program for lecture times and click on the link below for the stream.

HUMlab at UCS and UCLA

Today I did a talk at University of Southern California on implementing the digital humanities and HUMlab as a case implementation. I tried to frame the talk in relation to the current state of the emerging field of digital humanities and I also used some material from the articles on digital humanities I am working on – in particular I discussed humanities computing as a paradigm. I quite enjoyed doing this and there was a good discussion. I also got a much better sense of what is going on at USC. The talk was hosted by the Institute of Multimedia Literacy and the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

In the afternoon I visited UCLA and had a great time. I reconnected with two excellent people: Zoe Borovsky and Todd Presner. Both important people for the development of the digital humanities at UCLA. Zoe is a key facilitator and Todd combines his digital humanities interest with solid work within his discipline. He published two books in 2007: Mobile Modernity: Germans, Jews, Trains (Columbia Press) and Muscular Judaism: The Jewish Body and the Politics of Regeneration (Routledge Curzon). There is a great deal going at UCLA in the humanities and information technology – and there is quite some potential for scaling up I think. We talked about models for ‘digital humanities’, UCLA:s profile, possible future collaboration and more. I was also reminded about that I need to develop my notion of practioner in my work on digital humanities.

I also quite enjoyed visiting the UCLA Technology Sandbox lab. A nice and creative space. It was also great to see the Visualization Portal, and I got to talk to Pieter who does not only run a smooth operation, but is also very nice. We talked about display technology, multiplex display setups for the humanities and more.

Culture and Computer games

With the working title: Humans, culture and computer games: methods for exploring how people use and live with their chosen online activities, a group of European games researchers have put together a symposium to be held in Umeå in March 2008. As organiser and initiator of the project, I am extremely happy to be able to bring together such a diverse, colourful and enthusiastic group of researchers working cross-disciplinary on the same topic.

 As a special guest star, HUMlab is bringing in Mia Consalvo. Mia is an associate professor at Ohio University, and the author of Cheating; Gaining Advantage in Videogames. I am absolutely delighted to have Mia here, and with her being the one who wrote the book on cheating, I am going to make sure she is on my team!

This seminar is taking place in the HUMlab space. It’s open for all who are interested, and consists of lectures, seminars and workshops. The lectures are targeted at a general audience, the seminars more towards researchers as they discuss issues of games research: on different methods and approaches, and how these need to be adjusted and renewed in order to work for studying computer games. The workshops are open to all, but due to considerations of the limited resources, you need to register for them. The first two workshops are on machinima production, and you get to see how to make a movie using a computer game as your movie set. The third workshop is about web integration, and demonstrates ways to create connections between games and the internet, by making World of Warcraft information talk to other social online networks.

 World of Warcraft is a recurring topic for most of the presentations, as it is one of the world’s most popular games at the moment and clearly the world’s largest online multi-player game. It is also the topic of an anthology with articles written by several of the participants to this symposium. Digital Culture, Play, and Identity; A World of Warcraft® Reader is just about to be released, and offers further reading for any who are interested in either WoW or the research on games.

 One feature about most of the presenters at this conference is that we all play the game we study, and we play it together. The anthology on WoW, this symposium and several other joint projects have come out of having a common digital meeting space in WoW. Every Wednesday, if you look closely at the right time and the server, you may find a little group of avatars gathered in what perhaps looks like quiet contemplation, but is intense communication about past and future projects – on anything from how to make a level 19 twink to organizing international research cooperation and publishing. Digital worlds may be designed for play spaces, but like other areas of leisure and relaxation they become a place to network and to be creative together. And the 26th – 28th of March, we share the results of some of that cooperation with those who would like to join us for three days of talking about games and research.

Killer robots

Yesterday I taught a shortcourse in the HUMlab on the arduino microcontroller. Pretty basic stuff in one sense: how to set up the development environment, create simple electric circuits, write some code. That was the first part of the 3 hour course. In the second part, the participants experimented with using small vibrating motors and toothbrushes to make a controllable drivetrain connected to the arduino. We finished pretty much on time, with each group having constructed a working (more or less) robot. The results are on display in the lab.

I was really impressed by the work of the participants. They came from a variety of disciplines, from the art school, from design, and from engineering departments, all linked together by a common interest in making things that blended computational and physical resources. The outcome of each group was both functionally and aesthetically distinct and reinforced for me the importance of making as part of learning.

I was struck at the time by both the complexity of these kinds of tasks and how much more simple it is these days to experiment with physical computing. While there are a number of other microcontroller-based rapid prototyping systems, I think the arduino really hits the right balance of do-it-yourself and do-it-for-you. It doesn’t use custom connectors or plugs, just header pins that you can stick a solid core wire into, or use a pin connector and ribbon cable. It’s got an SPI bus and software libraries that make it straight-forward to interface it with all sorts of electronic components from accelerometers to eeproms to ultrasonic distance sensors. The development environment (which runs on macs, pcs, and Linux boxen) makes it easy to write and compile code and burn it to the device. Best of all its got an ever-increasing number of enthusiasts doing all sorts of things with it – and since it is open source hardware and software most of the results are available online.

But I was even more struck by how important it is for humanities and social science scholars whose work addresses aspects of the digital to engage with these technologies, to make things, to play. At the same time, I was reminded of how easy it is to become “captured” by the technological, to end up focusing on its novelty, and to let those aspects drive your work. In the end, being an artist, an engineer, or a designer is a different task from being a scholar. This is not to say that people can’t be both or that the lines between these roles are not blurry and indistinct. It’s just that there is something specific involved in studying digital technologies and society when the goal is not only to make objects (which are expected to speak for themselves) or to “improve” technologies (make them easier to use, more culturally appropriate, etc.). Personally, I think being a scholar has to do with maintaining a critical social perspective – meaning an orientation towards critique directed towards positive transformation of society rather than just understanding or explaining how things are.

I’m going to continue to work on how we can do this balancing act. Oh, and keep making things!

Second Life at UCI

Yesterday I had an interesting meeting with Tom Boellstorff, professor of Anthropology here at UC Irvine. Among other things we discussed Second Life. Tom’s book Second Life, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, will soon be published. Tom belongs the category of scholars that manage to maintain both a strong, more traditional (or maybe rather non-digital) line of research and do high-quality work in relation to the ‘digital’ (as well as taking jobs such as being the editor-in-chief of American Anthropologist). Two earlier books of his are The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia and A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia. One of the questions we discussed is to what extent his ethnographic work in Second Life is different from traditional ethnography, and Tom’s experience seems to be that it is not as different as one might expect. Partly because adapting to new contexts and ‘study objects’ is an integral part of ethnographic work. The issue of anthropology’s relation to the digital is different, and it will be interesting to follow how books such as this one are received by the community.

We also talked about useful Second Life resources and some new (or almost new) books:

New World Notes (blog)
The Making of Second Life by W. James Au
Designing Virtual Worlds by Richard Bartle
I, Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life by Mark Stephen Meadows

Mark Meadows is an old HUMlab friend, and I had a chance to briefly hold his book. It is a very nicely designed book. I look forward to reading it. In general, I am looking forward to reading critically situated books on virtual worlds with an anchoring in experience, data and history as well as theory.

Tom also told me about the upcoming Cultures of Virtual Worlds conference here at UCI.

The Space(s) of HUMlab and its People

After posting fairly regularly on the HUMlab blog I have been going through a quite patch of late. I need to change that. I spent most of today in the lab and it’s the first really extended period I have had in the space since HUMlab II has opened. It seems to be that the space is beginning to coalesce (intransitive verb 1: to grow together 2 a: to unite into a whole). There were meetings going on throughout the lab and I actually saw one person conducting a long telephone conversation (in French) while moving back and forward between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ lab space through the large opening (is it 3 meters wide maybe?) that unites the two. The reason why I was in HUMlab today for a long time was the visit by HUMlab friend Billy Marius, who was recently featured on the national television program Kulturnyheter (Culture News). Billy and French film maker Mathias Monarque are working on a film that embarks from Billy’s earlier work, much of which was conducted in association with HUMlab, creating a heritage dialogue with new media between the Sami peoples of Northern Sweden and the Pygmie peoples of Congo (Brazzaville). HUMlab is continuing to be a site of collaboration with Billy (and beginning with Mathias) for the project.
In the last few weeks I have been spending a lot of time in Second Life as the first project of the HUMlab Island now comes to a close. The Tagging Art exhibition finishes with a conference on March 11th that will take place in the National Art Museum (Statens Museum for Kunst) in Copenhagen and in Second Life. The HUMlab Island is hosting a work by Japanese/Swedish artist Sachiko Hayashi, a machinima film of which has been shown on a wall in central Copenhagen as a part of the Tagging Art exhibition. Here are some recent shots of the Island (Click to enlarge):

In about a week we are going to start with the next phase for the HUMlab Island with the building of teaching and meeting facilities. It occurred to me last week that the three themes of the Island should be Pedagogy, Research and Community. I hope we can develop according to these guiding terms.
The themes of Pedagogy, Research and Community were apparent to me today in the Real Life HUMlab as well as I moved between 3 meetings (Pygmie-Sami Dialogue, Religion in Second Life and Digital Literature) and even a few ‘Happy Birthday’ wishes expressed (yesterday marked another year along the way for me).


HUMlab friends at the VR lab at Umeå University/HPC2N/the Umevatoriet have developed an application that is very interesting and that seems to have “viral” qualities. It is called Phun and it is a physical simulation of a different kind. From the project page:

Phun is an educational, entertaining and somewhat (!) addictive piece of software for designing and exploring 2D multi-physics simulations in a cartoony fashion. It is part of our long term mission to bring visual physics based simulation to the masses. The application is developed for Umevatoriet, Umeås new science center, where it will run on a large interactive display, but you can also download it and run it on your own pc.

There is something about this that just seems right – playfulness, dynamic interface, the aesthetic qualities, sensory/kinetic “feedback” etc. This youtube video has had 373.000+ views in 2,5 weeks. And apparently there is a great deal of content being created using Phun.

It reminds of me of old-type games – Lemmings for instance. In terms of learning and technology Phun really seems to have interesting possibilities. Many physics (educational) programs I have seen have been relatively static or very limited in terms of what you can do (textbook like). This software seems to promote creative use and exploration.

The development of Phun was carried out as a MSc project by Computing Science student Emil Ernerfeldt supervised by Kenneth Bodin, HPC2N/VRlab. More information here.

Hopefully we will able to a seminar or presentation or something in the lab in May together with Kenneth and/or Emil.