snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes

Because the work I have to do is stressful  — it’s a dogs biting (not really) bees stinging (not really) feeling sad (not really either) type of time

Tom and Lorenzo’s analysis of the costumes on Mad Men (the season premiere of which I finally got to see late last night) –

It became quickly obvious to us that there was no way we could examine the female fashion on Mad Men without looking at ALL the females. Costume Designer Janie Bryant deserves every bit of acclaim and applause that has come her way since she started work on the show. Think of this series of posts as a mini-retrospective. We’ll work our way up to Joan and Betty by looking at each of the other characters first.

Here’s the thing – I love the posts for the big 3 characters – Joan, Betty, and Peggy – but in some ways, I love the posts about the secondary characters more.  In the first group, the conversation is very character-driven, what different costuming choices say about different characters, which is fun and interesting.  In the second group, though, there’s just as much about what the costumes AND characters say about the time and place in which they’re set – which is right in my analytical sweet spot.

This digital history project at StanfordThe Republic of Letters.

Using social networking visualization tools to visualize the letters that scholars wrote to each other way back in the early days of scholarly communication.

Forged in the humanist culture of learning that promoted the ancient ideal of the republic as the place for free and continuous exchange of knowledge, the Republic of Letters was simultaneously an imagined community (a scholar’s utopia where differences, in theory, would not matter), an information network, and a dynamic platform from which a wide variety of intellectual projects – many of them with important ramifications for society, politics, and religion – were proposed, vetted, and executed.

You can check out their case studies, or do a little bit of playing with their tools.

Cryptogram for iPad.

This game is very easy (if you let it tell you when you guess a letter wrong) or less easy (when you don’t), and so, so pretty.

New blog to follow

And last, but only because I can’t believe anyone who reads this blog doesn’t already know this - Barbara Fister is blogging at Inside Higher Ed.

ARGs in academia, or, gaming for health

via ARGnet – researchers at Indiana got a big ($185K) grant from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation to study how digital, interactive games can improve students’ health.  They’re studying this by creating a Lee Sheldon-designed alternate reality game called Skeleton Chase, “to help college freshmen develop healthy habits for life.”

While the game will contain the same kinds of mysterious, creepy elements found in lots of ARGs, there’s not much secrecy about the game’s existence.  Given the legal and ethical restrictions involved when a college does research on, or provides services to, its own students it’s not too surprising that TINAG would be one of the first things to go.

In any event, new Hoosiers will find announcements about the grant and game (and associated research) on the webpage describing faculty research projects, on the Department of Telecommunications webpage, and in the local media.

It also looks like the traditional “rabbit hole” mechanism for allowing players to come across and ARG won’t be in play here.  The designers are, obviously, not disclosing a lot of plot points, but in an early press release about the grant they explained some of the game’s structure:

Sheldon is designing The Skeleton Chase, which for eight weeks will pit 30 teams of three students each against each other as they solve an “undisclosed” mystery and learn about nutrition, stress management, physical activity and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle along the way…

…Students participating in the study live in the Fitness and Wellness Living Learning Center, one of seven specially themed environments in IU Bloomington residence halls. Johnston said Residential Programs and Services is supporting a pilot project designed to examine the impact of participation in the Fitness and Wellness Living Learning Center on health and well-being within the college student population.

One of the things that is interesting about this to me is that research and assessment about the learning impact of this game is built into the project.  The researchers in this case, like principal investigator Jeanne Johnston, are focusing on whether participants’ health and wellness related habits change by looking at physical activity, health and wellness outcomes at the start and the finish of the school year in question.

They also plan to look a little more deeply at the gaming experience and what people like about it.  Researcher Anne Massey (Lilly Faculty Fellow for Information Systems) developed a “a psychological attractiveness metric and procedure to assess not only the strengths and weaknesses of design elements embedded in The Skeleton Chase, but assess other games as well.”

I hope this research also parses out some of the experiential aspects of this kind of “alternate learning environment” – something a little different, or at least not pretending to be, an alternate reality.

Games, systems and a LOTW shout-out

I have definitely hit that “what am I forgetting before ALA” mode where it is not a matter of if I forget anything, but rather how important the thing I forget will turn out to be. I am deep in the throes of preparing to present this pre-conference workshop with these awesome people while at the same time I try to make sure all loose ends are tied up here before I go.

So! I blog! Because I really want to just say a few words about one of the presentations I saw at LOEX of the West. Late, I know, but it’s sparked a really fascinating email conversation between several of my colleagues here at OSU and I want to write a few things about it before I forget them.

So the presentation was this one – A Portal to Student Learning, in which Nicholas Schiller of WSU-Vancouver argued that perhaps video games and gaming are not interesting to instruction librarians because we can make games that are more fun and engaging than traditional instruction sessions.  Instead, they should be interesting to us because the people who design games put their considerable skills, talent, time and resources to work to, essentially, teach a group of players how a system works, how to navigate that system and how to get what they need to solve problems and achieve goals within that system.

Apologies to Nicholas for that very brief and rough paraphrase but even brief and rough — it sounds a lot like what research is?

One of the overarching points here, and one that came up as well when Rachel and I talked about Alternate Reality Games at the last Online NW, is that good games and good game environments are really, really hard to do.  There are people who spend all of their professional time, every day, creating these games and environments and sometimes even they fail.  Librarians have other jobs being librarians and do we really have time to create the types of games that will be engaging, that will contain within them whatever it is that makes success within the game environment an end in itself to players?

One of my co-workers pointed out that it is hard to design a game to teach people how to research effectively because everyone’s research process is different, everyone’s goals are different, and people’s goals shift and change even as they engage in their own research process.  And that’s certainly true -if we expect their motivation to play and do well at a game to be external to the game – I want to do well at a game because of what it will get me outside the game — then I think that’s probably not the way to get engaged in a game.  But a game about information literacy skills that has within it enough motivation that people want to succeed at it for the game’s sake alone – I might be a little too cynical to be able to picture that.

But what I liked so much about Nicholas’ presentation was that he showed a way to think about this that doesn’t require us to design games that meet our users’ idiosyncratic and deeply individual needs.  It doesn’t require us to have the technical skills to develop games that will be engaging and effective.  It requires us to understand that when people are playing games they are learning, about systems and environments.  In effect, the game gives them what they need to teach themselves the rules of the game, including where those rules can be bent or broken.

And I think that’s a really exciting way to think about our interfaces, our tools and our systems.  Because they have rules too.  The ways that game designers use feedback, scaffolding, and other techniques to help the user teach themselves by doing — that seems to have direct applicability to how we can think about our systems and the tools that give our users access to those systems.  This might be a deeper and better way of thinking about visual search than I’ve been doing here for a while now.  I suspect that it is.

Because where I’m not cynical at all, I’m probably downright Pollyanna-ish, is in the idea that research brings with it its own rewards.  One reason I’m so resistant to the idea that we need to staple another motivation (winning a game) on top of learning research skills is that research itself is fun, adventurous, creative, surprising — and even competitive.  Haven’t we all felt like we won, somehow, when we made that breakthrough, found that thing that showed us where our project was going to go so that all of a sudden we could see it all the way through to the end?

I’m not sure I can describe it better than Caleb did here – talking about games and research and the fun.  I think he’s right – that libraries are very well suited to that kind of learning.  But our systems don’t always keep up.  So thanks Nick, for suggesting some ways that maybe they can.

ARGH – Joss Whedon-related ARG – & me with no time

On Monday, a new thread appeared on the unfiction forums pointing out a trailhead for a new game that seems to be linked to the Fox series Dollhouse. Given the percentage of librarians who are big damn fans of Joss Whedon + my obvious fascination with Alternate Reality Games the odds were very good that I would find this very fascinating – but …. I will have no time to catch up on it until after next week.

So quick – if you fall into the above categories and are not presenting in a week:

Rabbit hole – one of the characters on Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse sends an email to this person (described as a “prominent Whedon fan” on unfiction. Not a librarian, but yes, an Oregonian). The email leads, though not directly, to this website — http://www.adelledewitt.com/

That site is then referenced at an official Fox blog, suggesting this isn’t a fan-created site, but an “official” ARG.

(Note, the login information for the adelledewitt site is provided in the comments to the Fox blog post.  Not typical ARG practice, but there it is.  And it is interesting how even on the unfiction forum there are clearly some ARG newbies being pulled in by the Joss connection)

Trailhead thread at the unfiction forums — 7 pages and 93 posts as of this moment. They really start to get into the unfolding narrative on page 2.

Game thread at the official Dollhouse forums

Game thread at the Dollverse forums – a fan-created Dollhouse portal

What does social networking overload really look like?

Last year, Rachel and I reported on a survey we did the year before that looked at how librarians feel about different social software applications like blogs, wikis and the like (is that right? I think so – it’s a really long time ago now). We mainly found out that we should have asked some different questions, which is what always happens when I do surveys.

But there was one thing that was really, really striking – most people reported not doing a ton of social networking (and I’m talking about things like blogs and wikis, not Facebook. And this was 2 years ago so things have probably changed). But in terms of how often people have edited a wiki, for example, I bet things haven’t changed that much.

Anyway, most librarians weren’t doing a ton of social networking. AND YET –

Almost everyone (97%) reported that they liked exploring new technologies.

Almost everyone (85%) reported that they were encouraged at work to explore new technologies.

And this is the big one – almost everyone (70%) reported that they had enough time to explore new technologies.

And yet. They weren’t doing it. So we theorized that the reason for this was a time issue, but it wasn’t the time issue that people usually talked about. Setting up accounts, figuring out how tools work — librarians have time to do that. That part is easy. The hard part for most of us is the time it takes to actually engage with a new group of people (or put together enough of the old group of people to make it worthwhile).

And I’ve certainly found that to be the case.

Which is a long way of saying – I actually looked at my Twitter account today. I know, right? I have said in multiple presentations that I don’t use Twitter, and I don’t. But as is the case with many other things that require accounts – I have one. So the second Pengrin story launched today and there’s a Twitter component. That was apparently all it took. Just like this whole experiment means I can choose to just read stories and not really play the ARG, this story means I can just read stories and not really have to do all of that work that it would take to make Twitter fun.
I enjoyed the first story quite a bit but I’m expecting to really have fun reading this one. It’s blog-based (young character = LJ, parental characters = wordpress), the emo teen-ish character makes an Emily the Strange reference in her first paragraph and a Twin Peaks reference in the third — and as an extra added bonus for me there’s a slowly evolving meta conversation in the comments.

I don’t know the classic book it’s connected to – The Haunted Doll’s House, but Slice does have a creepy doll picture representing it on the main site, which is awesome.

So this is apparently what it takes to get me to invest some energy in Twitter, at least for today. It will be interesting to see if I feel like I “get” Twitter any better at the end of this week than I do right now. It usually takes real engagement with a social tool like this for me to understand its cool factor. That usually happens right about the time I start to notice that the tool is changing something about how I think about something on the web – whether that something is information, other people, or whatever. I suspect this won’t be enough to do it, but I’ve been wrong before.

It was this post today on Unit Structures that really got me thinking about all of these connections. Because this isn’t all to say that I don’t get why lots of people do like Twitter – I actually do. But I think there’s some truth in the guess Rachel and I made about our survey data — that sometimes even when the social or informational or educational or other payoff is there for the taking, developing new social networks takes work, and energy — and sometimes we have to pick and choose where to spend it.

digital stories/ digital study spaces, following-up

The word “follow” suddenly looks really strange to me.

A few quick follow-ups from last week’s posts:

The Ryerson student who was threatened with expulsion for administering a study group in Facebook will not be expelled.  There will be some fallout from this episode that sticks with him, but he was not found guilty of 147 counts of academic dishonesty.  There’s been a lot of talk around my corners of the web about this, with probably more people than not coming down on the side that the kid was cheating.  But nothing I’ve seen has really pushed me off my original position.

I agree that the invitation to the group (which, I believe, this particular student did not write) was badly worded.  But until someone can show me that the students were actually getting grades for work and learning they did not do – I don’t see the cheating.  And I still think that because this study group was virtual, if cheating had happened, the evidence would be there to collect and display.

The first experiment in digital storytelling from Penguin is up at wetellstories.co.uk.  The story, The 21 Steps, is a thriller by Charles Cumming, and the platform for the telling is Google Maps.  I’m only partway through -but I’m having fun so far.  If you didn’t see Adrian Hon’s comment on my previous post about this project (ooh! alliteration) — he’s written a post about this kind of storytelling that gets into some really interesting stuff about how the medium affected the creative process.

(I believe you might find a rabbit hole on the main project page as well)

This is not turning into an ARG blog

I almost wrote about something else today, but I found out in time that something I thought was true was in fact false and therefore not worth writing about.

But there’s some really cool stuff going on in this Find the Lost Ring ARG that has my brain back at the question of what these storytelling/ chaotic fiction/ media experiences might mean for teaching and learning.  In our presentation, Rachel pulled out Sean Stewart’s phrase “search operas,” which gets at some of the connections between these games and information literacy.

Caleb connects ARG’s to learning really well – connecting the way that the narrative is discovered and synthesized and created in an ARG with the way meaning is discovered and synthesized and created in the research process.

And then there’s the social aspect – the idea that you put a whole bunch of brains with different knowledge and skills and experiences on a problem and you can get something richer and deeper (and certainly faster) than anything individuals could accomplish alone — put all of these things togehter and what do you see?  Well, I’m not sure that everyone sees learning theory but I bet I’m not the only one that does.

You’ve got the meaning-making of constructivism, and the social meaning making of Vygotsky.  It’s not only learning theory, but it’s learning theory that’s had a huge impact on our understanding of information literacy and the connections between information literacy, problemsolving and learning.

So check out what’s going on on this McDonald’s/ Olympics thing.  Trust me, you don’t need to read all of the blogs or forum posts to see the cool factor here.  It looks like the players right now have located six people around the world with a strange form of amnesia.  The first one, introduced via the rabbit hole is Adriane.  Since then, they’ve found Markus, Noriko, MeiHui, Diego and Lucie.  And there’s some stuff going on in Brazil as well.

The characters are all over the world, and so far they’ve been communicating with the players frequently and at length, by email, IM, and in a variety of social networking sites and blogs — but with a twist.  Some of them want to communicate in their native languages (so far – Japanese, Mandarin, French, Spanish, German and English).

(And in a nice T.I.N.A.G. moment – which highlights the potential legal complexity Michael mentioned yesterday — Lucie’s blog is on Skyrock)

Watching what the players are doing to try and deal with this is really fascinating and really cool.  They’re not just using online translators — they’re pulling in people with language skills, they’ve got a wiki page tracking the languages players have expertise in, they’re brushing up on languages they know and sharing the good online courses with each other, they’re learning Esperanto and encouraging the game characters to do so as well!

It gets at the multiple levels of learning going on when we explore to learn — specific knowledge/skills/concepts (here, the language skills) and the deeper inquiry those specific skills enable.  And it highlights the need for that deeper inquiry — something to give the acquisition of specific skills meaning and relevance.  I mean, these people are jumping to learn Esperanto!  Would this happen – ever – without a larger context?

It looks like the game will develop in Esperanto and English (the amnesiac characters all have a tattoo that says “find the lost ring” in Esperanto), so that this truly multi-lingual phase might not extend throughout – but it’s fun to watch.

Yes an ARG – and over there, and over there too

All of a sudden ARG’s are everywhere – it’s like when you learn a new word and suddenly it’s everywhere? It feels like Rachel and I presented on this topic ten minutes before the Internets done exploded with it!

Michael dropped me some great links in my del.icio.us about this — game designer Elan Lee presented about ARG’s at the O’Reilly ETech conference just yesterday. Most interesting to me was Cory Doctrow’s liveblogged notes on the talk – but his summary at Boing Boing is worth looking at – and there are comments! Three short things about this talk -

1. I love the magnet metaphor. I think that idea that magnets “push, pull and charge” resonated – I can’t wait to see more of the actual talk. But the “charge” idea seems to get at that essential thing about the ARG experience – that it is something co-created.

2. This from the Boing Boing comments got me thinking – “The only problem with ARG’s is once you’ve played one and know how they work it ruins the rest of them.” At first that kind of sounds true. Rachel and I spoke at length about how hard it was to try and go back and describe games that have already been played. As much as we could retell the narrative and show the websites, it was clear that we were missing something about the experience of having played the game. And those kinds of things are often best the first time you do them.

But I wonder if maybe this statement isn’t more interesting in that what it really does is show the importance of the narrative to the experience, as well as the social act of creating the experience with others similarly immersed. It might be hard to recreate one’s first transformative experience with a novel or a movie, but that doesn’t usually ruin the act of reading for the rest of time.

3. I need to think more about the scalability aspect at the end – and by that I mean “I need to see more of the actual talk.” This idea from Doctrow’s notes – “It can’t just be “let me use all the elements of your life to tell you a story. It has to be, ‘Let me look at all your channels (browser, phone IM, etc.) and find a way to turn that channel on specifically for you.’” I want to hear more about how this preserves the social aspect of ARG’s.

And then Wired yesterday speculates that this is part of the rabbit hole to an Olympian-sized ARG – with the Olympics and McDonald’s behind it. And asks – if McDonald’s is involved are ARG’s totally part of the mainstream? There is something simultaneously disturbing and fitting about the idea that McDonald’s couldn’t manage to keep their involvement quiet because they had to cover themselves with the law talk on the website. Some things are just more important than T.I.N.A.G, I guess.

Not an ARG – college coursework as immersive marketing?

I’ve been thinking about this story in Inside Higher Ed all morning — at first because of the academic freedom ideas discussed explicitly, but then the more I thought about the project that the students in this class put together, the more I started focusing on that aspect of the tale –

To recap quickly, about a year ago Hunter College offered a course sponsored by an advocacy group focused on stopping low-cost ripoffs of designer products – the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition.

According to the complaints filed with the Faculty Senate, Hunter agreed to let the IACC sponsor a course for which students would create a campaign against counterfeiting in which they would create a fake Web site to tell the story of a fictional student experiencing trauma because of fake consumer goods. One goal of the effort was to mislead students not in the course into thinking that they were reading about someone real.

There are real academic freedom issues – the course was apparently created outside of regular procedures of curricular review, and the professor involved (as well as others who reviewed the case) maintain that what was taught in the class was also defined by the sponsoring agency. On some level, the problems with this are so obvious I don’t know what more to say about them – but I do have some things I’m thinking about that have to do with the other part of the story – the what the students in this class actually DID part. Just be aware that this stuff I’m going to be saying about ARG’s is not the only thing that matters here.

(When I originally hit “publish” that said “is the only thing” — not what I meant. Probably obviously)

A couple of weeks ago, Rachel Bridgewater and I gave a presentation at Online Northwest called Lonelygirl and the Beast: Alternate Reality Games as Immersive Marketing, Art and Information. And the student project described here goes beyond the creation of a “fake web site.” It has a lot in common with an ARG. But at the end of the day, this is a bad attempt at immersive marketing, and not an ARG. The more I think about it the clearer it seems that the very issues with how this class was conceived and created mean that it could never have accomplished the real immersive alternate reality that an ARG can. At the same time, I think the ways in which this was much less than an ARG can illustrate why a different kind of ARG experience has really interesting potential for teaching and learning.

Alternate Reality Games lure players in with a whisper – they don’t say “hey! cool game here!” Instead, they put information designed to pique curiosity where potential players are likely to run across it – that the normal desire to know more, to find out what happened, to solve mysteries will push these players down the rabbit holes the game designers provide. At Hunter, students saw leaflets scattered around campus. Fictional student Heidi Cee was desperate for the return of her expensive handbag.

Heidi’s blog further builds up this alternate world. She talks about the handbag here, but also mentions her friends at other schools (though she doesn’t provide links to them), links to videos and silly things — she does what you’d expect a normal blogger to do.

Now, the thing is – as immersive marketing, or as an ARG, this really isn’t very good. The world-building isn’t very compelling. I won’t claim that I read the whole blog, but it doesn’t feel very real. She talks about her friends and events, but doesn’t link out to them. So the blog doesn’t reveal more parts of the alternate reality like it should. The blog doesn’t connect you to her Facebook and her Facebook doesn’t seem to be on the Hunter network? And really, this girl would even create a Blogger blog to complain about this? Of course not – she’d use her Facebook. And if she did create a blog, she’d only use it to complain about counterfeiting — she wouldn’t be talking about that other stuff.

Even more, Heidi herself is seriously annoying. I don’t really see people reading this and getting all worked up about her OMG trauma with counterfeiters. At the very least – the world’s puppy lovers are going to wash their hands of her after this:

Anyway, I’m still gonna continue posting up reward money for my bag. I dipped into my savings (sorry mom) for more reward money, because as I said before, this bag is invaluable to me. If I had a puppy, I would give him up for this bag. Really!

Now do you all understand the PAIN I’m going through? It’s making me CRRRRRAZZZYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!

And it’s not surprising that it doesn’t look like it worked very well. I couldn’t find many comments that looked like they came from anyone not in on the hoax.

So – why do I think that the way the class was conceived and executed meant it was doomed to fail? Because it just couldn’t do some of the things that a real ARG needs — even though a real ARG might be trying to get you to see a movie you don’t want to see or play a game you don’t want to play — as a player in an ARG you have some agency. Players and puppetmasters are partners creating the experience of the game. The narrative itself in an ARG is at least somewhat co-created.

In a nutshell – when you create an ARG, you don’t expect to control everything that happens in the alternate reality you’ve created or in the game. You can’t. In this situation, there were no players, just observers. They had no agency, no ability to co-create the narrative, no control over the narrative itself. Beyond leaving comments and friending on Facebook – was there even anything for the observers to do beyond consuming the message?

And the truly disturbing thing, if the descriptions of this class are accurate, is that even the students responsible for creating the game were expected to consume and repackage the narrative. The power of ARG’s as learning exercises in many ways is in how they create a space that encourages creative problem-solving. There’s no indication that the “problem” in this case was ever treated as something that the students were supposed to solve. Instead, it was an exercise in how do we trick people into hearing a message we had no control over constructing.

And honestly, I think this is one of the reasons Heidi’s so annoying. She doesn’t sound real, but like someone mouthing a party line. And one that’s not all that compelling.

A primary characteristic of the ARG is the idea that the players discover the narrative for themelves; it’s never presented to them as a cohesive whole. It’s spread over a variety of websites and media and the players must find, discover, interpret, synthesize and create something out of what’s there for them to find. That means a couple of things. One is that the narrative doesn’t exist in just one place – part of it will only exist in the memories and minds of the players who engaged with the experience. The other is that no puppet master will ever be able to fully control the narrative. And this is one of the things that makes ARG’s so interesting both as learning environments and also as marketing schemes.

The idea of a marketing scheme where the marketers can’t fully control the message goes against much of what we think of when we think of “marketing.” As learning experiences go – look at the list of what ARG’s ask the players to do above, and then look at the cognitive outcomes listed in Bloom’s Taxonomy — that’s some pretty higher order thinking those players can be doing, no? In this class, it sounds like they never intended to give up any control of the narrative — not to the students outside the class who encountered the story. But also not to the students in the class who were acting as puppetmasters. As a learning exercise, this fact alone cut this experiment off at the knees on both levels.

In an ARG, the partnership between players and puppetmasters is not exactly equal, but it’s not exactly unequal either. The players in an ARG are, in a sense, in on the game while they pretend that they’re not. They engage with the scenarios and situations of the game as if they were real, but they expect a certain amount of good faith from those behind the game. These ideas are sometimes referred to as the “this is not a game” or “this is not a hoax” aesthetics. The Hunter community wasn’t in on anything. To them, this was a hoax and it played out as such. Which is the final reason why I think this project failed as a game and as a learning exercise for the campus.

Just to reiterate, I’m not saying this class produced an ARG, or even that it was trying to. I’m saying that it was trying to tap into the same things that an ARG taps into. And I’m saying that it failed. And finally I’m saying that the reasons why it failed as an ARG are also some of the same reasons why it failed as a learning exercise at all.