I wasn't at the keynote at SXSW because I suspected that Zuckerman would not be a very interesting interview. He's well-known placidly toeing the Facebook company line. Apparently, I was wrong -- not about Zuckerman, who certainly didn't disappoint my expectations, but about the combination of Zuckerman and his interviewer Sarah Lacey. Many people who were at the keynote called it a "disaster" and a "train wreck."
Looking at video coverage of it, it doesn't really seem that bad, to me. But my friends say "you had to be there."
Well, I think this has to do with mob psychology, a phenomenon that tries to explain how mass movements happen, how otherwise reasonable, kind people can whip themselves up into a frenzy of ecstasy or rage.
When I was a history student at UC Berkeley, this phenomenon utterly fascinated me, and I tried to understand, form a historical perspective, how and why it happened, trying to piece together the data that set up situations like this. In both Japan and France (the two areas of enduring interest for me throughout my academic career) there were famous instances of mobs gone insane -- mobs of otherwise ordinary and decent citizens pulling people out of their homes to beat them, cut off their body parts, and parade them around the city. Outsiders (people who watched from their windows, for example) were utterly horrified; but those who participated were swept along by mob logic, if one can call it "logic" at all.
I don't believe that any of us are immune to the pressure of group action. And now I think we see from the Zuckerman keynote that technology creates its own special place where mob psychology can flourish. Those of us who have spent any time on forums already know this to be the case. But applications like Twitter can produce instant results, in real time. From Tim Leberecht's astute commentary on the incident:
Twittering (on Twitter and elsewhere) pushed people to act out; it accelerated interruption. People who did not like the way the interview was going had assurance that the crowd was with them; and it intensified those feelings. In traditional passive audience situations, for every person who acts out, the ratio of those who wanted to but didn't, is probably much higher. Instead, because people knew that not only the people sitting next to them, but also those in all four corners of the room had the same gripes--or pointed out new ones--many people acted out. As Lacy said, what we got was "Digg-style mob-rule." Essentially: Twittering lowers the threshold for lash-out.
Interesting. Tim goes on the suggest that the interview could have been saved if the interviewer had been following what was going on in the room; of course, in the olden days performers had direct feedback form the crowd's energy through other means -- body language, attention paid, in more extreme cases, applause or boos or other vocal signs of approbation/disapproval. I suppose now all those reactions are sublimated and streamed through the ether. One much tap into that to get a sense of where the mob is headed...
Stories like this make me so sad. Soldiers serve in the war when they're still so young, they experience horrible things, and then they fall apart, and fall through the cracks. This man may not even get help if he's court-martialed for desertion.
There's an interesting article by Christine Rosen in The New Atlantic pointed out to me by my old high school buddy Ben Bloch who is now an artist and teacher. Oh, the stories I could tell of 17-year-old Ben! This one time, he hosted a post-prom party at his house, and... ah, sorry, that falls under the rubric that everything done before 18 is permanently sealed in childhood.
Back to the matter at hand: Rosen cites studies and anecdotal evidence that seems to suggest that this explosion of socializing media is actually making us less social in physical incarnations:
The few studies that have emerged do not inspire confidence. Researcher Rob Nyland at Brigham Young University recently surveyed 184 users of social networking sites and found that heavy users "feel less socially involved with the community around them." He also found that "as individuals use social networking more for entertainment, their level of social involvement decreases." Another recent study conducted by communications professor Qingwen Dong and colleagues at the University of the Pacific found that "those who engaged in romantic communication over MySpace tend to have low levels of both emotional intelligence and self-esteem."
Um... being a self-described addict of Facebook and of World of Warcraft I have to wonder about this and really look inside myself. And also to wonder what Danah Boyd, who studies social networks and environments, would make of this. She's been an advocate of these spaces in the past, as places for self-expression and connection.
In this case, "childish" is not pejorative. Maybe it never should be. Mike "Gabe" Krahulik has a great post on Penny-Arcade about rediscovering the joy of gaming by entering a Pokemon tournament, and seeing his min-maxing play style through the eyes of kids who are differently emotionally invested in their pokemon. Like a Scrooge, Mike also sees a reflection of the douchebag he could have been in an overly aggressive, boastful kid.
Anyway, it's a charming vignette and I love how it ends. It's wonderful to think that Pokemon is teaching kids to be gracious winners and losers, to appreciate the journey more than the destination, and to really revel in what the best of games can do - bring joy. These kids sound like they are acting way more civilized than most people twice their age who frequent Xbox Live.
Which leads me to thinking - are there games that seem to draw out better behavior than others? Are there games which, by intrisic design principles, bring out and encourage courtesy and consideration for others without forcing it on players as just another stat to max out? How would one design a game to encourage this?
In the case of Pokemon, it seems that the behavior is linked to the values exhibited in the TV show, where Ash and friends are always good guys, even when they lose. Sure, Ash can be a bit of a whiner sometimes, and he's immature, but he's got the sense of justice and honor that one sometimes finds in kids - a simple sense of doing the right thing, not yet corrupted by the world. Something to think about, anyway.
We all complain about how bad game journalism is (and always point to to a handful of the usual suspects as exceptions) but maybe that's just because we actually know about and care about the industry. A friend of mine (who shall remain anonymous!) forwarded me this story yesterday: Japan's lonely hearts turn to dolls for sex, company.
My first thought was, how the hell can you write this story and not mention the very famous RealDoll, which is an American product?
Because either the writer didn't know about them - which indicates a lack of simple Googling - or, more likely, because the story is better if it's cast as "Look how weird/sad/lonely/perverted Japanese man are - aren't we glad we're not like that?" In which case it may have been the editor who excised the writer's sentences about RealDoll. I guess "Some Men Like Sex Dolls" is not much of a story.
Speaking of things equine, Atari is coming out with a horse-riding simulation game, My Horse and Me. The language in the official PR is carefully gender-neutral, speaking very coolly of the "Horse-enthusiast community", but you cannot convince me that in North America, at least, this game is not targeted specifically at horse-crazy girls between the ages of seven and fourteen. Which is to say, nearly all girls.
You may also have read that the PS3 has finally sold 1 million units in Japan eight months after launch. It took the Wii six weeks to reach the same milestone. Why? In part because flocks of non gamers (many of them women) bought a console, some, I've no doubt, for the first time in their lives.
I was flying home from the weekend in LA (where I didn't really go to E3, just sampled the afterparty and saw some friends) when I found myself next to Chris Hecker, whom I hadn't seen in a long time. We got to talking about why there are still very few recognizable names and faces in the videogame industry. He reminded me of the famous ad announcing the founding of EA, headlined, "Can Computers Make You Cry?"
Well, we're still struggling to answer that question, but take a look at the photo on the right - the founding members of a company that ambitiously and grandiosely called itself Electronic Arts. A name that defies the Eberts who don't see the art in computer and video games. And the photo itself says unequivocally, "Not only are computer games art, we are artists."
It looks like it could be a publicity shot for a moody rock band. The photographer has captured real personality here, individuals - dressed in dark clothes and seemingly passionately united under the aegis of a single goal.
With a few notable exceptions (you know who they are - Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto) - the industry has turned away from personalizing game development, from regarding the people who work on games as individually important. No, far better for a studio like EA to let the public see the studio behind the franchise rather than a handful of creative geniuses. The franchise is longer-lived that way, the studio system more stable.