Week 1 Lecture Notes – Introduction

  • Class structure: Not too many lectures, lots of discussion.
  • There are no stupid questions. School often encourages people to look down on one another for not knowing something, people are ranked according to the number of questions they get “right,” but this actually makes it a lot harder to learn.
  • Learning isn’t about providing answers, it’s about asking interesting questions.
  • Don’t worry if you don’t have previous experience with games, can actually be an advantage to approach games from a fresh perspective, not taking for granted a lot of the conventions and assumptions that are built into games
  • Major emphasis of this class is critical analysis. What does that mean? Questioning our assumptions, including taken-for-granted, common-sense notions of how the world works, and stories that we learn and repeat to one another, often without even being aware that we’re doing so.
  • That also means paying close attention to things like historical context and the material conditions of production, meaning what gets produced, how, and under what sort of conditions. Is it made in a factory using the most advanced technology available, or is it produced by an individual working in their basement? Is it created for profit, or is it being made for a wealthy patron, or is it being produced for the fun of it by a hobbyist? Shat resources were available to the creators, how and why did they gain access to those resources?
  • Media NEVER operates in isolation, always has a material basis, and interacts with all the other elements of our society. Repetition is a very important factor, as well as reach, and the authority that lies behind a narrative (i.e. who is telling the story and with what institutional backing), all of which influence the likelihood that a narrative will be accepted and multiply its effects. A story told by an “expert” on national TV will have a much different impact than a story told on an anonymous blog with a tiny audience. It’s not just what story you tell, but HOW you tell it, that matters. And if you start thinking long and hard enough about how and why certain stories get spread far and wide while others are restricted to more marginal channels, then you start getting into questions of political economy, the distribution of money and resources, who has access to which platforms, etc.
  • How we create, identify, interpret, analyze and share stories is a political act. It might not seem that way, since we’re used to thinking of politics in this constrained way where it only has to do with politicians, governments, and public policy, but I use politics in the broad sense, to mean anything that both impacts and reflects relations of power, i.e. who has power over who and in what circumstances. I’ll give an obvious example of why narratives, and culture more generally, are political, but hopefully we can also talk about much less obvious examples.
  • (Using story and narrative interchangeably here, but there are more technical definitions that distinguish between the two. Will get into those definitions later since it’s a bit of a confusing mess.)
  • love_trumps_hate_comic
  • Summary: bully tries to beat up boy, boy is nice to bully, bully starts crying, violence is averted
  • Moral of this story is that love trumps hate, meaning you can avoid or eliminate violence simply by being nice to people who try to use violence against you
  • Comic is advocating for a particular strategy, while discouraging or dismissing others
  • In the current context, this tends to be interpreted in relationship to the election of Donald Trump and a surge in recorded incidents of hate crimes
  • Context, meaning what is going on in the world, affects how we interpret media, context may shift or change but is always present, always has an effect
  • Problem with making a jump from a hypothetical situation, to a real-life context, is that key pieces of information are missing
  • What led to this encounter? Why is the bully attacking the kid? Does this happen on a regular basis, or is this a one-off encounter? Is there actual evidence indicating that this is how the situation would play out in real life?
  • Lots of assumptions are being made by the people who interpret this comic to mean that marginalized people should not fight back when someone attacks them. Historical accounts of violence and genocide are completely missing from the picture, and this tends to skew our interpretation of current events.
  • This narrative also subtly encourages victim blaming, suggesting that if you’ve experienced violence in the past, it’s only because you failed to appease the bully. You chose the wrong strategy, and so the violence is, in some ways, your fault.
  • If you think about this story critically, it’s easy enough to come up with alternatives. For example, what if instead of being nice to the bully, all the kids in the school banded together to protect each other against the bully, until eventually the bully realized that he couldn’t possibly win against so many kids, even if they were all individually weaker than he was.
  • What’s important about this second story is that it reveals the first story for what it is, a story.
  • Important to be aware that these are narratives, and that multiple other narratives are possible. When we only know one story it’s tempting to interpret all evidence according to that one story, and dismiss anything that doesn’t fit. Being aware that there are alternative narratives puts you in a better position to assess which of these narratives, if any, best describes the reality, or at least to be aware of what the consequences are of describing and explaining things in those terms.
  • Narratives create meaning, they help us establish relations of cause and effect, which shapes the kinds of decisions we make and the way we act in the world. The most important questions to ask yourself when interpreting narratives are these: where does this narrative come from, what’s it’s history? And whose interests does it serve?
  • Remember that history itself is a narrative, since it involves recording and arranging events in ways that encourage some interpretations over others. History is always written by people, who have interests, and constraints, that influence what they record, and how they record it.
  • g. court historian in a feudal kingdom will be careful not to record events that might reflect badly on their king or queen, otherwise they risk being punished
  • Over time narratives tend to become widely accepted and “naturalized,” so that people are no longer even aware that they ARE narrative—they stop seeing it as something our society constructed, and start seeing it as pure reflection of reality, as something which has and needs no context. They stop questioning it. Combating this naturalization is one of the fundamental roles of critical thinking
  • Watch: PBS – Gender Ex Machina
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5UVuZmxOvE
  • By learning game design, we can also learn to uncover the systemic effects that operate in games and shape the outcome, while also thinking about how those interactions and outcomes reflect or speak to “real world” systems and histories
  • Two of the key concepts in the study and design of games are affordances and constraints, which are closely interrelated. Constraints are fairly straight-forward, they are the things that limit or constrain action, so I’m going to talk about affordances first, which is a concept that comes out of psychology and was later applied to the fields of human-machine interaction and game design
  • You can think of an affordance as a relation between an environment, object, or group of objects, and an organism, which both allows for but also invites particular actions or behaviours on the part of that organism. To use a classic example, water affords breathing for a fish, but not for a human.
  • Humans are especially adept at tweaking their environment in order to change its affordances. Since affordances are all about relations between environments and organisms, however, different organisms will experience different affordances, even within the same environment.

Watch: Extra Credit – “Affordances – How Design Teaches us Without Words” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCSXEKHL6fc

  • This is a pretty good explanation of affordances, but I take issue with the word natural in this video. Doors with handles afford pulling for people with hands, but not so much for people without, or people in a wheelchair, or people that are too short or too tall.
  • When we say something is “natural,” we often have particular people or situations in mind, but aren’t acknowledging that this is the case. Similarly, a lot of the things we think of as being part of “human nature” are actually things that shift and change over time, and from one society to the next.
  • The main point here is that design is never neutral. It structures how we relate to objects, and also how we relate to one another. This relationship determines what is possible, and what’s not, what’s easy, and what’s hard.
  • Right now this lecture hall is set up to produce a particular relationship between you and I. The desks and chairs are set up so that all of you can see and hear me, and I can see and hear all of you, but you can’t easily see and hear one another. This is an asymmetrical relationship, and its one that provides me with a certain amount of authority and control over the situation.
  • What would happen if we rearranged the desks into a circle or square? What if we stuck one person in the middle? What if we got rid of the desks entirely, and all had to stand or sit on the floor?
  • This would change the relationship between us, but only to a degree, because there are other affordances and constraints at work here. For example, the education system gives me the power to assign you a grade that could potentially affect your future.
  • Those kinds of power relations are very important, and that’s something we’re going to keep coming back to, it’s a core concept in this course
  • Power can be described as a relationship between two or more entities where one exerts control over the other and is able to shape their actions
  • It sounds simple, but because power is a relationship and everything in our society is interconnected, the way power relations play out in practice is often extremely complex
  • Power usually requires some form of leverage, whether that’s the capacity to deprive someone of the wages they need to live (which is the power that bosses have over their employees), or the power to let someone enter a country or not (e.g. the power that border agents have in relation to the people crossing the border)
  • Most forms of power that are systemic, meaning they apply in a general manner and are reproduced over time, are backed by institutions
  • To use the example of the boss, they derive their power from a whole host of institutions, including the criminal justice system that protects the institution of private property, the financial and state institutions that control the flow of money and grant it legitimacy, the educational and political institutions that legitimize the social system as a whole, and so on
  • Games can help us to understand these power relations by modeling the affordances and constraints of a given system, and letting us play around within that system, without the fears or consequences that apply in real life
  • This is, I think, one of the reasons why games are so enjoyable, because they allow for a form of learning and experimentation that is often absent in real life
  • They also offer the promise of an even playing field, something that generally does not exist in the real world, where our relationship to one another is marked by power and inequality
  • Whether and to what extent that “even playing field” actually exists, even in games, is something we’ll discuss more in future classes
Week 1 Lecture Notes – Introduction

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