May 23rd, 2006

What’s “Special?”

So, I’m way behind with my reading list (by something like three months and fifty books), but I’m reading a book I find at once incredibly infuriating and very smart, so I thought I would rant about it while I’m highly motivated to do so.

I picked up Hello, I’m Special thinking that it would be an entertaining rant about modern culture a la Christopher Lasch or, if I were very lucky, Paul Fussell. Instead, I got a bizarre mix of condescension, insight into the structure of community, French and German philosophy, and calls for social activism.

The points Niedzviecki (and now, oh man, I am really hoping he’s not related to Kyle) makes are generally smart ones. For example, he starts with the notion that mass media culture relies on promising “specialness” and access, while structurally requiring an inability to deliver. Then he takes this point to some quite interesting places, like explaining why that encourages bizarre extremism as attention-getting behavior and why individuality, in our culture, has become an anxiety-provoking phenomenon. Finally, his argument about attention as a commodity is brilliant. The only other place I’ve seen work like it is in Anna Fels’ spectacular Necessary Dreams (which I just reread, so is probably getting its own post at some point), though if people can point me toward other places that address attention as a scarce social resource I would really appreciate it.

Unfortunately, he puts his good ideas into the context of the most condescending, insulting, rude argument I’ve ever come across. Nothing is good enough for Mr. N. when it comes to individuality. He’s particularly offensive and wrong when it comes to communities of choice and participatory creativity. For one thing, he hasn’t done his research; tell me one person who thinks that Magic Land is the most important MMORPG out there! But worse, he seems to have the idea that any kind of participation in creative culture is irrevocably tainted by the specter of the eeeevil media. While he thinks that caring about pop culture is a waste of time, he’s even more insulting about things like people filming backyard wrestling leagues. A typical analysis is his discussion of fan fiction, where in a paragraph he concludes that it’s a waste of time, and that the participants are just second-raters, unable to actually compete in the “specialness” market, but who want a small, meaningless way to inject their so-called personality into pop culture, which is really what they care about, anyway.

No, seriously. That’s exactly what he argues. Wanting to be recognized for your talents, or choosing a community where you are welcomed and appreciated, or participating in popular culture in any way? “Specialitis,” and to him that’s a deep insult.

I wonder if you could take the smart parts of his analysis and work them into a more clueful, less insulting argument that takes into account why participatory culture matters (even if some of it is built off pop culture) and why the communities that people form by choice are still meaningful ones. Right now, he seems to be making the argument that the only worthwhile way to be a person is to go live on an isolated rural island, and that’s bullshit, but I bet you could take the argument about people longing for recognition within communities of choice and make a smarter, more realistic argument about it.

It would help to know what he thinks a good community is, and what authentic recognition of people’s internal natures would look like. Of course, I don’t think he knows, which is a big part of the problem.

Grr. I need to go read the last chapter now, and then I really must sleep.

Warning: Kids At Play

Well, my second day of teaching is behind me, and I survived - mostly.

Actually, things went a lot better than yesterday. They had access to the arcade room for about an hour, which satisfied their “I have to play on the computer now!” jones. I ran several small design exercises of about half-an-hour each instead of one big one, and that helped them focus a lot. We started out with a discussion (begun by a student!) about “What makes a game good?” and ended up in an hour-long talk about why game designers need to have a philosophy and coherent design principles. Plus we did role-playing for about two hours, and these kids (many of whom had never even heard of D&D) were absolutely enchanted with the idea that you could pretend to be someone else having a crazy adventure.

Admittedly there were lots of fart jokes, too, and about half the kids wanted to make games about self-cutters or serial killers, but I tried to help them work through these things and look at the design principles they were illustrating, underneath. Tomorrow we’ll be talking about game ethics, and hopefully that will help too.

I’m getting a lot of really positive feedback from the group and from the administration of the program, and that’s helpful - particularly when I’m feeling wiped out! The program leader found me today and told me about how half these kids are failing out of school, and this is the first class they’ve ever taken where they go home and want to talk about all the things they’re learning. These kids are hugely driven to learn about games, and I can’t even tell which ones are the A students and which ones are the ones held back two times in the eighth grade.

I got these kids to stand up in front of the group and present their setting concepts for a game, and to talk with confidence about their ideas, when many of them haven’t participated in class for years. Half the class asked to stick around during lunch, instead of going to eat with their friends, so they could help me set up games on the computers and talk about the games we were going to play. They’ve already begged me to come back next year to teach them again, and one of them says that he’s going to apply to Columbia because he wants to study what I study. This is amazing, transformative stuff for these kids, particularly the ones who are learning-disabled or have family problems or have never succeeded in school. I watch these kids light up, whether we’re playing or designing or talking about play, and I know that I’m doing something worthwhile.

I also love it that their favorite game, of everything I’ve showed them, is Hex Hex. Despite all the fancy bells and whistles of technology, there’s really nothing like sitting around a table and trying to screw over your friends. I imagine Curt may be wondering why his game is suddenly selling remarkably well in Pensacola ….