Monthly Archives: February 2011

Preliminary Marxist Critique of Superheroes

[What follows is from a class assignment for a critical theory course I took in graduate school.  It's in idea I've been mulling over for awhile.  It is not a complete idea: just the seed of something for the future.]

I’ve been mulling over this idea for a while: how to conduct a Marxist critique to understand our Western society’s relationship with the hero mythos, and in particular, the super-hero mythos.  I approach this topic because my favorite type of superhero happens to exemplify what appears to be a rather paradoxical approach we have to those figures that are supposed to inspire us to fight evil and protect the innocent.  On some level, our heroes evoke in us a desire to follow in their footsteps and live a morally righteous life, choosing good over evil, virtue over vice.  However, when we take a step back to critically reflect on them, we see their presence in our lives as a means of pacifying any activities that may be undertaken by common men and women to change the way the world works and thereby end the injustice that seems inherent in it.

images (1)imagesTo discuss this paradox, I’m going to focus on an archetype best exemplifying it as seen in Robin Hood, The Shadow, Zorro, The Batman and Iron Man: the rich man willing to self-sacrifice for the little people.  At first glance, and especially to the young readers for whom they are set as role-models, they appear to typify the best human qualities in the form of the rich — a class long thought to not exemplify these qualities, especially not towards the lower classes — sacrificing their lives and livelihoods to help those who have less than them.  Robin Hood was the son of the Earl of Nottingham, who broke a law that unfairly privileged the wealthy over the poor, fights to bring about the downfall of the treacherous lords of the land who promote such laws.  The Shadow, Zorro, The Batman and Iron Man all maintain their alternate identities (Iron Man to a lesser degree) as wealthy playboys; however, at night their real selves are known as they fight to stop the oppression of the lower classes.  The reader, perhaps a member of the oppressed (either in reality or by identification with the theme), looks up to these figures as saviors, as indications not only of what the rich could be but what I can be.

Unfortunately, the idealism that may sustain readership during childhood can disappear in the face of maturity’s reality; the Hegelian belief that this ideal heroism will somehow translate into the way I live my life is met with the material conditions I am meant to live my life in.  And where once I saw the potential within myself to right the wrongs and save the day, I no longer am certain of my capability to do anything of the sort, and fall instead into the stories of my heroes, vicariously living out their moral actions and escaping from my desires to help into theirs.

Thus is the paradox we see in our relationships with our superheroes, and potentially to all our heroes.  During childhood, the ideals of heroism may convince us that we can achieve anything, but the conditions of our lives as we mature make us realize we cannot.  As Marx and Engels said in The German Ideology: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”  As we mature from a child who loved the exploits of The Batman to an adult, our love of these exploits may still be there, as well as some need or desire or want to in some way follow his footsteps and live life by the same morals.  However, while the needs may stay the same, the conditions under which they can either thrive or be enacted have changed.

Man is directly a natural being.  As a natural being, and as a living natural being he is, on the one hand, endowed with natural powers and faculties, which exist in him as tendencies and abilities, as drives.  On the other hand, as a natural, embodied, sentient, objective being, he is a suffering, conditioned and limited being, like animals and plants. (Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General)

If the external, objective, material conditions do not allow the adult an outlet for enacting these desires implanted by the consumption of the superhero mythos, then the likelihood of the adult being able to fulfill this desire in any way is greatly reduced.

What may these discouraging conditions be?  As with many things in adult life, it begins with the alienation of the worker.  A worker alienated from the work, from the product being produced, is a worker engaged in a self-sacrificing activity that, if not under his/her control, is seen as mind-numbing at best or excruciating at worse.  Instead of engaging in an activity s/he may want to, such as his/her hero’s work to save the world, the alienating labor subsumes the worker’s being until his/her being is one of work.  “Just as alienated labour transforms free and self-directed activity into a means, so it transforms the species-life of a man into a means of physical existence.” (Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man).  The worker, being drained of the drive for living and being outside of doing his/her work to continue living/being, turns to activities not under the control of another.  “The worker, therefore, feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless.” (Marx, Manuscripts).  And in any medium in which they can be found, the exploits of superheroes that at one time provided inspiration now provide a means of escaping, a means of engaging in an activity under the control of the worker.

But it is this very escapism that is called into question.  Whereas with children this escapism may serve the useful purpose of indoctrinating them with the moral ideals of their society, in adulthood this escapism may negate the possibility of the adult enacting the activities of his/her hero.  For not only is the worker alienated from his/her work, product, and self, but also from the rest of the human species.  “In general, the statement that man is alienated from his species-life means that each man is alienated from others, and that each of the others is likewise alienated from human life.” (Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man)  Delving into stories about saving the world without engaging in activities that may in fact do such, albeit on a small level, further serves to divide the worker from the world, and thus the worker from his/her need to save the world.

Thus alienation works in two ways to twist inspiration into vicarious fascination.  Not being able to engage in a productive activity where the outcome is under our control means we seek out activities where the outcome is, such as consuming superhero texts.  The alienation extends into how we interact with those around us, resulting in weakened social ties, and our engaging with escapism only serves to exasperate this dilemma.  Because we cannot engage with other people to help them, that alienation in turn sends us to more stories, where there are relationships to live out vicariously, including that of hero as savior.  In the end, because we cannot live out these desires for helping our fellow human, that we ascribe to our heroes those traits we are unable to act upon, and are thus alienated from, in our real life.  “It is just the same as in religion.  The more of himself man attributes to God the less he has left in himself.” (Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man).  As a child we saw in our heroes the potential to be something great in our lives – the idea was to create a physical reality.  As an adult, we see in our heroes something we are lacking in ourselves, something we attribute to them, and by doing so no longer can see in ourselves.

What once served to thrill and inspire is perverted into a means of draining this inspiration while leaving the thrill, of rendering impotent the persons’ desire to make a change, to be the hero in real-life when being the hero vicariously provides the same thrill.  Thus is the paradox of our relationship with our heroes.  In our youth we are Hegelian, believing that we can rob the rich to give to the poor, or leap tall buildings in a single bound.  But maturity makes us Marxists, realizing, consciously or unconsciously, that the pressing conditions of the “real world” do not allow such fancies to take flight: Superman comes crashing back to earth far less than uber.  We come to be alienated from our work, from the world, and from ourselves, and see no opportunity to enact the righting of wrongs that so inspired us.  Instead we see examples of people with power unlike our own — so far removed as to be described as “superpowers” — whether it be the steady aim of Robin Hood or the invulnerability of Superman.  If it takes power to save the world, what hope does the average worker have, who’s only power to produce is already under the control of those we would fight against?  What served to empower in childhood, emasculates in adulthood.

That is the paradox when fantasy meets reality.

Fear the Virtual World?

I must make a confession up front: I would never have watched The Ghost Whisperer if it was not for my involvement with the Virtual Worlds Research Project at Roskilde Unviersity.  I’m most certainly not a Jennifer Love Hewitt fan, and the idea of the series never captured me.  Especially since it was on Friday nights, and that was usually my veg out with movies night, my one night off of the work of being a graduate student.

So you can imagine my surprise when I heard that an episode of a show about a woman who talks to ghosts was to feature a virtual world.  Now, I know various other television shows, movies, books, and so forth have in some way featured stories about virtual worlds.  At the project in Roskilde, we even compiled a list of all known pop cultural representations of virtual worlds.  But in a series about ghosts?

Before seeing the show, I thought it would concern the idea of “ghost in the machine”, a term that reflects philosophical considerations on consciousness and has in computer studies come to refer to a conceptualization of “artificial intelligence”.  And, indeed, the episode featured a ghost in the machine — literally, or as literal as a fiction can get.  In the episode, a ghost haunts a virtual world to enact revenge on its killer.

For this episode, the series created their own virtual world — or at least a computer generation simulating a typical social virtual world, such as Second Life.

“Alt world – 2″ is a dark, neon-filled, landscape of bars, goth-style clothing, and violence: a representation of a virtual world that may come easily to mind to a general public that is not well acquainted with the range of worlds that exist.  The world is futuristic in appearance, and allows people to explore their alternate identities — both characteristics are common in the public discourse about what are these media products.

This representation is the first indicator of how virtual worlds in general would be discursively cast in this episode.  The story follows a standard theme of encouraging wariness about this new technology and the people who engage with it.  Indeed, in looking at a number of pop cultural representations of virtual worlds, especially in film, the common theme in representation is to consider the technology more as a potential harm to humanity than a benefit.

While this is not always the case, there does appear to be a trend, especially when the media product is intended for a larger audience than those who are most likely to already be engaging with the worlds, the gamers.  But, then again, even in media products directed to gamers, or science fiction and fantasy fans in general, there will sometimes still be indications of thematic concern over the role of these technologies in our lives.  Consider the webseries The Guild, which propagates the conceptualization of gamers as socially inept or awkward.  Or the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which introduced the idea of a “holodeck” (which, incidentally, has inspired computer scientists now to actually create the technology due to advances in holography) — even in that series, generally positive towards technology, had episodes in which the holodeck threatened the safety of the Enterprise.

Fear Moriarty, Made to Defeat Data

Why all this fear about virtual worlds?

Well, first, it appears to stem from a fear of losing oneself to a computer.  The fears appear to go back to the introduction of the computer in modern society, igniting discussions in culture about how the computer would usurp humanity’s position in dominance on the planet.  Such is the fear of robot revolutions and computer overlords subjugating humans.  Virtual reality, the technological precursor to today’s virtual worlds, plugs into this same fear: a plugged in person, who’s senses and perceptions are commandeered by computer generated stimuli, is feared to be a person who will lose him/herself in the computer generated virtual world, unable to discern between “the real”, or the physical, and the virtual.  When a person can no longer tell the real from the virtual, then, the argument would go, the computer has taken over control of how the person knows reality.  And once the computer has that control, the computer (or whomever controls the computer) can dictate how the person will think, feel, and act.

Second, more particular to virtual worlds, there is the fear that stems from engaging with other media products, and more specifically television and video games.  This is the fear of addiction: of spending too much time and money on a virtual experience that is considered to be superficial in comparison to other experiences, such as being with physical people in a physical space doing physical activities (ex. sports).  The fear of addiction has been consistently reified by journalistic stories on how people would play with a virtual world for days on end, without eating, without moving from their computer.  Virtual worlds have even had their names discursively changed to reflect this fear (ex. EverQuest becomes EverCrack).

Third, there is the fear that stems from the Internet itself, and the fear of cyber-predators.  One of the long-standing concerns with the Internet is the anonymity it provides people — anonymity that can be used to experiment with one’s identity, for good or for ill.  For ill would include individuals who, in going online, act as if they are someone they are not in the physical world, potentially to entrap children into situations those children should not be in — such as engaging in sexual discussions and acts, online and offline.  This fear, naturally, has become of a larger concern with parents: but as many of the game virtual worlds target children and teenagers, it is a concern they take seriously.

Fourth, there is just the general fear of new technologies that happens cyclically in human history.  It seems that every time a new technology is introduced into the a society and culture, it undergoes a period of flux within which the society/culture attempts to understand what role the technology will play, for good or for ill.  As this flux is occurring, there are many tensions that are discursively played out in the news and popular culture as the people try to make sense of what this “thing” is.  And those early adopters, who are engaging with the technology during this period, are scrutinized for why they are doing so, what doing so is doing to them, and so forth.  These early adopters are the testing ground for how the rest of society/culture will engage with the technology.  And those who fear the technology for how it could change the traditions they are accustomed to may shift this fear and see the early adopters as their objects of worry.

These are four theories — perhaps not the only ones, and most likely interconnected with one another.  They do appear to all inform the typical outcome of making sense of new technologies: that the only way to overcome the fear is for the technology to become ubiquitous in people’s everyday lives.

Virtual worlds have not yet reached that point; but perhaps the rise of social games on Facebook and as mobile apps will help with this acceptance.  Only time will tell.  And it will probably tell us first in how the representation of virtual worlds changes in pop culture.

Learning to Slash

Ever hear of slash?

When I went to graduate school, I was not aware of slash.  But I came to learn about it, be fascinated by it, and even did my own.

Slash is a genre of fiction written by fans of a particular media product (i.e. television show, movie, comic book, religious text, etc.): in order for the fiction to be considered slash, two characters who are heterosexual in the canon, or original text, must engage in a romantic, and even sexual, relationship.

Slash is traditionally consisting of male characters partnering up, with the roots of the genre usually traced back to fans writing fiction pairing Kirk and Spock from Star Trek. The term “slash” goes back to “K/S“, which was used to signal such Star Trek fan fiction.  Slash that involves female characters tends to be called femslash.  In Japanese anime and manga, such stories tend to be labeled as yaoi.

K-S-spirk-17039724-554-380

I learned all this by reading slash, by talking to slashers, and by writing my own slash.

This was a time when the Star Wars prequels were being released.  After the release of the third in the trilogy, I, and other fans, noticed something interesting in the relationship between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker.  Much slash was written because of those observations.  Including my own, which you can read at a seminal website collecting fan fiction of all genres, FanFiction.net.  The story is called Down the Wrong Path.

I also engaged in a dialogue with other slashers, initiating a conversation via a series of questions about how they define slash, themselves as slashers, and the role of the Internet in their slashing activities.  You can find the report on this dialogue here: Online Slash and Identity Construction

I still look into slash every now and then, but I would never qualify myself as a true slasher.  I remain an interested outsider, seeking to learn as much as I can about this phenomenon and the people who’s practices construct it and themselves.  Thus is the essence of a stranger in a familiar land: I know of what you do; while I am not one of you, I wish to learn more.

I think that is a good position for a researcher, scholar, explorer, or just a student of human nature to take on any subject.

Clinical Therapy with Buster Keaton

Well, no, not really. I never met the man, the genius, the one of four comedians who can be considered the founding fathers of American comedy films. But I did write an intake report for him as if I was his therapist.

Buster Keaton was born October 4, 1895 as Joseph Frank Keaton, Jr. He was born into entertainment to a family of vaudeville actors. At the age 3 he joined them on stage, and by all accounts he never really left the stage until the ultimate curtain call. At the age of 21, he met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and that encounter would ultimately result in giving the world a first rate filmmaker and slapstick comedian, who would inspire and inform generations to come.

If you have never seen anything Buster Keaton has done, here are a couple good places to start to learn why he is considered a genius. Roger Ebert wrote a wonderful article on the history and importance of Keaton. For a complete, detailed listing of his filmography, you can visit this devoted website. Many websites, including YouTube, currently host his various films: such as The General, perhaps his most famous silent comedy.

Buster died in 1966, years before I was born; so, naturally, I never met him, and I was never his therapist. But, as I said, I did clinically diagnose him.

In college, for my psychology degree, I had a class on clinical psychology. A brilliant class, with an innovative teacher — who even encouraged me to playact as an angry patient after I threw a desk across the room in an therapy exercise — she had us complete a very interesting assignment. We were assigned to choose a famous person from history and complete an intake report on that person based on biographical and autobiographical information.

An intake report is a preliminary report a clinical psychologist will complete, detailing the information about a person’s life history and how it relates to potential diagnostics as informed by the DSM-IV. Thus, its a preliminary diagnosis of the patient’s problems, with possibly some initial consideration for how to proceed with therapy.

I choose Buster Keaton: I was concurrently a film/television studies major, and those courses had introduced me to Keaton. I found the man fascinating, his willingness to put his body in danger as he did, and I wanted to delve more into his life. To complete this assignment, I tracked down biographical information on him, which required looking at several books to try to reach a fuller understanding of his life.

Keaton was indeed a fascinating, complex man, as so many of his genius and importance in history tend to be. But the main thing I learned was that no matter how big a celebrity is, the celebrity is still a human being, struggling with all the hardships of life and foibles of human nature that anyone else has to cope with.

And if you are interested with what Keaton had to deal with, or at least my take on it, you can read my intake report here: Buster Keaton’s Intake Report. You can also check out the books I used for my report:

  • Dardis, Tom. Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1979.
  • Keaton, Buster with Charles Samuels. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. Doubleday & Company, Inc.: New York, 1960.
  • Meade, Marion. Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase. HaperCollins Publishers: New York, 1995.
  • They are all good reads for anyone interested in Keaton’s life on the stage and, well, on the stage, as a star is never able to leave the stage until death, when his or her light is finally, ultimately, extinguished.  [Unless that star is digitally resurrected by George Lucas or some other CGI-minded film-maker, but that's a blog post for another time.]

    A Night with Cinematic Titanic


    Before DVDs existed and brought us the director commentary track, this group of men and women were providing an alternative audio track to movies that perhaps didn’t even deserve to have a primary audio track — or to even exist. But, then again, if these B-movies, C-movies, and Z-movies had not existed, a pop cultural phenomenon wouldn’t either.

    Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (or MST3K to its fans) gave voice to how audiences were already engaging with films that, on some level, were fundamentally flawed. Perhaps the special effects were bad. Or the acting. Or the directing. Or the sound editing. Or the cinematography. Or the script. Or the editing. Or, perhaps all of them, in those movies whose existence alone are causes for wonderment. For many people, they are the movies they would not watch, or, if they did, they would mercilessly take them apart, pointing out all their flaws and wondering why they had justed wasted their time.

    But when Joel, or later Mike, and his bots, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, interjected into the film with their witty quips, they gave voice to observations we were making but perhaps didn’t know how to say. For 10 (plus) seasons, the boys were hounded by a Forrester and a cadre of supporting characters; trapped in the “Satellite of Love”, our three main characters were forced by a Forrester to watch a horrible movie. In ostensibly a scifi narrative, the interaction between Joel/Mike, the bots and their captors served mainly to frame and react to the horrible film of the week, termed “the experiment”. How the boys survived the experiment was to crack jokes.

    While perhaps some fans cared primarily for the framing material — and of course all fans cared for the characters — it was how the boys reacted to the movies that was the main reason for watching the show. And it proved a very powerful reason: even with pop cultural references that can feel dated, the show continues to find young audiences. And after a decade of being off the air, the men, and women, who made the show continue to provide tremendous comedy experiences with some of the worst, and best, that has ever come out of the world of movie-making.

    Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who would be the boys when the series ended, went on to create RiffTrax. Part of their output is to provide their riffing on a movie, including current Hollywood hits, as an audio track that you can download and sync to the movie. Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl (the first three being the boys when the series began) have been working together to produce Cinematic Titanic. Their products include putting out DVDs of the same types of films that were riffed on MST3K.

    However, another part of Cinematic Titanic’s output are the live productions, such as the one I attended last night at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

    The following image wasn’t from last night’s performance, where they riffed on the 1975 “horror” film Rattlers. But this image, provided by brianorndorf.typepad.com, shows the basic layout of these live shows. All five actors appear live on stage and perform, off their scripts, the quips and observations as the movie runs.

    I first started watching MST3K when I went to college, and finally got cable. The SciFi Channel was my media mecca in those days. While I didn’t get all the jokes (I still don’t, but I’ve gotten better), I became hooked. For awhile, without access to reruns on cable or DVD, I lost touch my the “Mistie” in me. Then my boyfriend, a huge Mistie, reignited my love for the series when we found episode after episode to watch online and wile away the hours in Denmark (you can find many episodes via Google Video and YouTube). Watching an MST3K with pizza became something of a Friday night special for us.

    Last night, watching Cinematic Titanic and the original cast of the series riff on a truly horrible movie, being surrounded by hundreds of Misties — well, it didn’t matter if our laughter drowned out the movie, or even one of the actor’s quips. There is something magical about having so many fans together in such close proximity to their objects of affection, and all sharing in those perfect moments of meaning-making. It was like being with the Star Wars fans, anticipating the opening fanfare that would precede Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace — only without the deflating of those positive expectations as the event progresses. It was even better than being with my family, devout Green Bay Packers fans, when the Packers won their latest Super Bowl: that game was full of tension and drama and the great potential for heartbreak.

    Last night there was no let down from the high of positive emotions. There was no real potential for heartbreak. There was just sustained connecting — actor connecting to actor, actor connecting to audience, fan connecting to fan. It was a celebration of humor and fandom where each moment fed into the next to somehow make things funnier and funnier. And in a week in Wisconsin where friends, family members, and perfect strangers were yelling at each other over politics and a state budget, it was a night of positive emotions that the audience needed.

    Perhaps that is why the connecting between everyone was so strong. That despite our differences — and some anti-Scott Walker (governor of Wisconsin) jokes did arouse boos from several in the audience — we all shared a profound love for these actors, their comedy, and what they have brought into our lives. Last night, our fandom trumped our politics and ideologies. And all that was left was our laughter.

    The Shadow: The Place for the Crimefighter in American Life

    Back in 1997, I was a freshman in college, at the venerable University of Wisconsin at Madison. I went into college pre-med — I had even attended a surgery during high school at Oconto Falls and did not faint. I thought I was meant to be a doctor. I was going to earn my degree and work to make sure more kids did not lose their grandmothers to cancer as I just had.

    Then I had analytical chemistry my first semester. I was one of those AP kids in high school; getting out of biology, calculus and English thanks to my testing. But I still had to deal with chemistry. And dealing with chemistry taught me that I was not cut out for pre-med and medical school.

    In my second semester, I was looking for a new direction. I found it in a class on radio, film and television history. I found it by learning that the real reason I wanted to be a doctor was because I was influenced by watching the NBC series ER. Yes, I had been media affected.

    Most importantly, I found myself by writing my first pop culture analysis paper.

    I wrote about the pulp character (some say superhero) The Shadow (as first portrayed on the radio by Orson Welles), and how the character was highly integrated into the historical mindset and environment in which he arose to popularity: The Great Depression.

    For the first time ever, someone either than myself or the TA can read the paper.

    Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows! Mwuahahahahahaha!

    The Shadow: The Place for the Crimefighter in American Life

    TheShadow1

    The Story of The Dark Knight and Its Brethren

    Back in the spring of 2007, like other Batman fans who loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, I was eagerly awaiting his follow-up, The Dark Knight. When the “I Believe in Harvey Dent” website went live in May, I was there with others.

    However, not long after the original website went live, some digitally scrawled graffiti all over it, in a style highly reminiscent of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker. On this website you were invited to enter an email address, with no indication of what would happen when you did.

    So, of course, I entered my email address. I received an email with a code. In returning to the website, I was invited to enter the code. And, as many had done before me, this led to a pixel being removed from the picture…until…

    The first image, official or otherwise, of Heath Ledger as The Joker appeared.

    This series of events was important for two reasons. First, the casting of Ledger and the portrayal of The Joker had been questioned in the fan community since the knowledge of what Nolan was planning first became known. Fans, including myself, were concerned what a more realistic take on The Joker would mean for how he was represented. Having us play a game by collectively inputting codes to reveal the picture was a way to tantalize us and have us be involved in the canon of the film — two things fans really like.

    Second, this was the beginning of what would become a massive alternate reality game organized by 42 Entertainment to market the upcoming sequel. By itself, this marketing campaign was significant for its size and scope, flawlessly mixing real world students and scavenger hunts with online games and websites to promote or represent, as realistic, fictional businesses, people and organizations. However, this campaign also represents a rise in similar marketing campaigns that in some way attempt to co-opt the rise in how active fans and audiences can be due to the Internet.

    Along with The Dark Knight, I followed several other campaigns: Leverage, Cloverfield, Heroes, Lost, and still more. I’ve been collecting information and screenshots of the activities whenever I can. You can find the collection of screenshots here:

    Examples of Gameplay Marketing

    I’ve written several papers on this topic, with one being published by the International Journal of Communication.

    For me, the researcher, these new gameplay marketing campaigns are interesting for the innovation in advertising they are, as well as changes in how Hollywood is conceptualizing the position of the fan and the audience in the production and marketing of television shows and motion pictures.

    For me, the fan, these campaigns give me the chance to engage with the material I love in all new ways, and to feel, if fleetingly and wrongly, that I in some way matter to bring what I love to air or to keep it circulating.

    The big question is: do these marketing campaigns work?

    Hybrid virtual worlds

    When I started with the Virtual Worlds Research Group at Roskilde University in Denmark back in the fall of 2008, the project had just begun producing its public blog on all things relating to virtual worlds.  Being somewhat new to what virtual worlds are, and could be, I started familiarizing myself with the varieties that are out there, and how people — designers and researchers — were defining them.

    This initial foray into understanding virtual worlds has become a research trajectory I have been on since.  I have written about the idea of how researchers make sense of this new media product through the jargon, typologies, labels, definitions, categorizations, and so forth applied to it.

    But it all starts back here, with my musings on what are hybrid worlds compared to gaming worlds and social worlds.  This conceptualization of hybrid worlds was later used to understand the virtual world Singapore created for promoting their position as the hosts of the first Youth Olympic Games: Singapore Odyssey 2010.

    Singapore Odyssey 2010 is a virtual world created by the Singapore government, via their special department the Info-Communications Development Authority, to both market the country as the site of the upcoming Youth Olympics, as well as experiment with how to create a virtual world to do just that.

    I have gone into the world briefly, and encourages others to do so, as it is an interesting hybrid world: it is a social world on par with Second Life and Twinity, but it also has a gaming aspect to it that rivals sports games for console systems.  As these series of screenshots will show, the world is designed for at least three functions that I have experienced: social interaction with other users, museum-like information displays, and games simulating the sports of the Olympics.

    For the most part, the controls are similar to other social worlds, as the arrow keys control movement and the mouselook is utilized to move the camera.  For the gaming sessions, the keys are similar to other MMORPGs in the use of AWSD and SPACE bar — although the arrow keys work just as well.  The movement is a bit too quick, in that it can be hard to not overdo a movement when walking, and there does not appear to be any type of tutorial like Second Life, making this world more akin with Twinity (who also has a mirror Singapore in their world).

    Overall, it is an interesting world, created for a particular purpose by a government, and perhaps indicates future such collaborations between designers, government, and special interests.  If anyone knows of other instances of governments being involved in the design of virtual worlds, then please let us know.

    Superheroes Around the World

    Last fall, I was invited to talk at a science fiction convention in Copenhagen, Denmark, called Fantasticon.  My friend helped to organize the convention, and he knew I had spoken at other conventions in the United States.  When he asked what I wanted to talk about, I decided to go with a topic I had started discussing at an anime convention years before — and a topic I had conducted an online survey on when I arrived in Denmark.

    I talked about superheroes around the world.

    The point of the talk was to discuss what defines a superhero, how people around the world understand what superheroes are, and the extent to which characters from cultures other than the USA could qualify as being superheroes.

    slide-13-1024

    It was a great conversation, looking at the survey results and examples I found from around the world.  Indeed, if you do not know about Italian Spider-Man, go to YouTube video and learn more.

    Along with the chart above, here is the PowerPoint from my talk, with my survey results and the examples from around the world.  I also outline my definition of a superhero, based on what others have theorized and looking around at what fans have said.

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