Destructive Aesthetic

‘Error gives expression to the out of bounds of systematic control. When error communicates, it does so as noise: abject information and aberrant signal within an otherwise orderly system of communication. While often cast as a passive, yet pernicious, deviation from intended results, error can also signal a potential for a strategy of misdirection, one that invokes a logic of control to create and opening for variance, play and unintended outcomes. Error, as errant heading, suggests ways in which failure, glitch, and miscommunication provide creative openings and lines of flight that allow for reconceptualisation of what can (or cannot) be realised within existing social and cultural practices’ (Nunes, 2011, p.3)

Nunes, M (2011), ‘Error: Glitch, Noise and Jam in New Media Cultures’ (Continuum, New York)

Book Progress

With my manuscript submission deadline fast approaching, I have managed to find some time to continue working on my monograph for Palgrave Macmillan, mainly in the rare moments when both children are asleep at the same time.

One of my priorities has been to rework some of the visual content from the thesis. In some cases this just involves tweaking the formatting but in a few places I have reimagined and redrawn the pages from scratch.

One example is from chapter 4 where I use Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) concept of the ‘Body without Organs’ (BwO). I was not entirely happy with the image I drew to represent this concept in the thesis, and had managed to work on something I was a lot happier with. I have also reworked this alongside the text describing my use of the concept as a tool for thinking, rather than leaving it as a stand-alone image. In this and other cases, the use of multiple stages afforded by the comic approach helps to break down – and even slow down – the narrative in order to encourage the reader to linger on a concept or idea in a way that the author does not control using a standard paragraph.

Another single page reimagining comes in relation to another of Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts: ‘the plane of consistency’. Here, the redrawing comes because I didn’t feel that the original version of this page flowed properly. So here I have simplified, removing the ‘talking head’ version of me that felt like a bit of an unnecessary distraction, going with a different perspective on the ‘row of doors’ that puts the reader head-on, rather than at an angle to the scene. You’ll notice that the central door in frame two features an small section cut from the BwO image used above. Through the book, in the comic sections, I refer to previous and forthcoming visual motifs as a way of tying things together. Of course, it also means I have less drawing to do, which helps: I still find drawing really tricky, but also rewarding when things go right. I did try a version of this with the rhizome creeping out of the door, but it looked a bit too threatening, so I kept it in its ‘potential’ state instead!

The following two pages are reimaginings of what was previously a single page from the Soundscapes chapter. Writing this for my thesis originally I remember being really stumped for ideas for this bit. However, I needed this section to be in the comic format as a bridge between the pages before and after. Therefore, I originally settled for a simple idea that I felt didn’t really justify its own existence. Coming back to this section I had some new ideas, which worked pretty quickly and spread this section across a much more appropriate double page spread. Again, the BwO / rhizome image makes another appearance in a couple of forms and I also reuse a hand picture from chapter four, whilst also introducing some additional elements. I’m much happier with how this flows now, as it has a better pace to it and I think the visuals are much more useful in making the points. (There’s still a typo in one of the images below, which I’ve now corrected elsewhere! Sharing stuff is always useful for spotting mistakes!) And although you wouldn’t know it, the spiral started life as a doodle around reading Spinoza… Everything hangs together, in the background…

Finally, another new comic comes early on in the book where I introduce the (human and non-human) participants. In the thesis I used photographs and screenshots, obviously obscuring the images of children in the way I do in the data transcripts. However, I felt that an illustrated approach would work better, but was something I ran out of time for when it came to the thesis. I find drawing people REALLY hard, so these look very little like the children they represent. Of course, this is useful for anonymisaton purposes, and I think the spirit of the drawings is much more in keeping with the feeling of the club than a series of obscured photographs.

This post only deals with some of the changes I have made visually, but I hope it goes some way to justifying (if only to myself) some of the alterations I have made in making the transition from thesis to book. Although I have been pressed for time, I have enjoyed rethinking these comic sections in a way that I don’t think I would have done if I was dealing just with written text.

Hands

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‘The hand must not be thought of as simply an organ but instead as a coding… a dynamic formation‘ – Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 61)

The Coronavirus outbreak has led to a social preoccupation with hands, through the promotion of habitual hand-washing as a means of preventing the spread of disease. Hands are understood as a point of transmission and there is a now a ‘proper’, government sanctioned method of washing hands, which includes singing the words to ‘Happy Birthday’ twice to ensure the correct duration of exposure to soap and water. If you prefer, of course, you can subvert this using the words to you own (in)appropriate favourite tune:

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Pre Covid-19, however, I had already found myself frequently thinking about hands. I have recently been tattooed with an image of hands, depicting a gesture made by Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This hand obsession has also converged with my dedication to the use of 35mm film. Here are some photos of my own hands, taken with film and developed at home, in coffee.

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This resulting gif is, in part at least, a means of thinking about sensory self-regulation, through repetitive motion. It also goes nicely with music (although you’ll have to provide your own!). 😉

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So, why hands? Well, in an academic context, hands have made their way into my thinking a number of times, as a means of making meaning. In my own work, when trying untangle my ontology via Deleuze and Guattari, I  found myself (unexpectedly) drawing hands as a means of sense making, particularly in relation their ‘image of thought’ known as ‘the rhizome’. If I have shared this double page here before, that is largely because it represents what feels like a jump in my own thinking, and it is the means by which this thinking occurred that is my main focus here.

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The comic depicts my handling of a project’s data. Although the data was predominantly virtual, in trying to conceptualise my processes of data analysis, I found myself physically acting out the movement of grasping at and manipulating this invisible, intangible data with my own hands, as if it data was an object or substance that could be untangled and held. This act of embodied thinking led me to develop the metaphor of the data as an organic rhizome, imagining – and, again, embodying – the image of a hand reaching into soil to pull out organic matter. Thinking with this specific metaphor, in this way, helped me to understand and explain my relationship with the data. However, when I came to convey this idea using writing it felt frustratingly distant from the original embodied performance; no matter how precisely chosen, the words remained a flat description of a lived, embodied process. Taussig (2011: 19) suggests that writing ‘obliterates reality, pushing it further and further out of reach’. He suggests that instead of using words, drawing can provide a way to ‘capture something invisible and auratic’ (Taussig, 2011: 13). With this in mind, creating an illustrated version of this embodied conceptualisation seemed more appropriate.

I was aware, however, of my own limitations as an artist. I have always reserved a jealous admiration for those able to represent their ideas visually, with what I perceived as my lack of talent meaning that I could not effectively use such visual(isation) techniques. The word ‘artist’ still feels like a term that applies to others, and I remain hesitant in claiming it as a description for myself. Regardless of such reservations, the will to achieve, growing from what felt like methodological necessity, helped me to overcome my long-standing fear of drawing and I began to put pen and pencil to paper. I also have aphantasia – an inability to visualise using my ‘mind’s eye’ (which I have written more about here with a comic here). My use of my own hands, therefore, and the resultant and emergent use of drawing of my hands, could be explained as my way of externalising the visualisation process. This could be understood as a kind of extended cognition (Clark & Chalmers, 1998) that helps me to develop my own understanding of complex theoretical concepts. The hands in the illustration above were not drawn (in either sense) from memory, but from direct observation. My hands, therefore, are tools that I use to help me imagine and think – both in themselves, as ‘dynamic formations’ (Deleuze and Guattari: 1987: 61) that allow me to shape and manipulate ideas. They are also as ‘dynamic formations’ that combine with pencil and pen, as means of producing visualisations on paper and screen, using what (Causey, 2017: 59) describes as ‘simple lines to communicate honestly’.

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References:

Causey, A. (2016). Drawn to see: Drawing as an ethnographic method. University of Toronto Press.

Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The extended mind. analysis, 58(1), 7-19.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Taussig, M. (2011). I swear I saw this: Drawings in fieldwork notebooks, namely my own. University of Chicago Press.

Other Media:

‘Transmission” by Joy Division

Intro Speech extract by Noam Chomsky from ‘Masses against the Classes’ by Manic Street Preachers

Still From Twin Peaks Season 2, Episode 18

Hand washing song generator: https://washyourlyrics.com

Busy Business

Been really busy recently, too much to take full account of. So just a few things that come to mind.

Last week I presented at the 8th ESRC Research Methods Festival in Bath, as part of a symposium on Comics. This was organised by the brilliant Lydia Wysocki and also featured Jorge Catala-Carrasco, Lucy Tiplady and Sarah McNicol.

My slides are here:

I went straight from Bath to Cardiff for the UK Literacy Association International Conference where I presented, again, on comics.

In this more expansive presentation I drew on both my own doctoral study and also the comics used in the Gaming Horizons project as part of our scenarios deliverable. I considered the role of drawing in our lives from childhood and beyond, and questioned the concept of the ‘iconic’ image in representing cultural diversity.

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Also at UKLA I was honoured to receive the Student Research Award for my thesis. I got another fancy glass object to go with my one from last year...

I was also invited to present on my thesis to give an overview of the work to anyone who hasn’t already been subjected to me talking about the thing. My presentation from that is here.

 

The Banterbury Tales: An ethnographic approach to studying video game play

This post was originally written for the Gaming Horizon’s project blog. Gaming Horizons is the Horizon 2020 funded EU research project that I am currently working on at the University of Leeds. More information on the project can be found here.

This post is about my own research and how it relates to the issues being raised and explored by the Gaming Horizons project. As such, it reflects my personal perspective and recent thinking, rather than that of the project as a whole. Nevertheless, I hope that by sharing this overview I can make my own small contribution to the ongoing dialogue that this project aims to open up between a diverse range of stakeholders. Here, I consider in particular how a researcher’s choice of methodology directly influences what we ‘find out’ and ultimately shapes how we see and understand gameplay.

My doctoral thesis explores the ‘lived experience’ of a group of ten and eleven year old children playing in and around the popular multiplayer, world-building video game Minecraft, during a year-long after-school club in the UK. In this work I focus on the nature of the children’s play, which spanned the club’s multiple on and off screen spaces. Participants were tasked with creating a ‘virtual community’, interpreting this prompt in a range of different (often unpredictable) ways. To explore the players’ lived experience of the club I used participatory and visual methods to generate data to help illuminate the socio-cultural experience of this group. I developed an approach that I called ‘rhizomic ethnography’, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) ‘image of thought’ as a way of taking account of the multiple factors that make up something as complex as ‘lived experience’. In this way, I was able to make connections between diverse aspects and dimensions of the club, in order to acknowledge and make present the club’s multiple ideas, objects, actions, interactions, people and places in my analysis of data.

The Gaming Horizon project’s ‘State of the Art’ literature review emphasises the predominance of quantitative and experimental methodologies in the work around video game play. Clearly, such methods can help to develop our understanding of particular aspects of video game play. However, I suggest that the privileging of quantitative methods also potentially results in the underrepresentation of other important aspects of player experience. This could mean that we end up looking at the practice of video game play in a way that potentially misunderstands or misrepresents aspects of the games’ potential, or their appeal. This helps to explain why I chose ethnography as a research approach, and why I was interested in looking at ‘lived experience’ in my study rather than, more explicitly, ‘learning’. Ethnography is concerned with investigation the lives of a group of people, describing what participants do and the meanings they ascribe to their actions (Wolcott, 2008), whilst locating a site within the wider social, cultural and historical contexts (Flewitt, 2011). It assumes that the researcher can gain some insight of the lives of participants by spending time observing and discussing their actions.

Qualitative Studies of Video Game Play

There have, of course, been a number of studies that take an ethnographic approach to video game play, although these have tended to focus on adult play rather than that of young people. Notable example include  Dibbel’s (1999) book ‘My Tiny Life’, an ethnographic account of the social life of the online, text-based virtual world LambdaMOO. Nardi’s (2010) anthropological account of World of Warcraft also examines group experience, with a focus on different groups that form within the game. Boellstorff (2008) ethnographic work in Second Life shows how virtual worlds can change players’ ideas about identity and society. Pearce’s (2011) ethnography of a ‘community of play’ examines the ‘social emergence’ (p.42) in massive multiplayer online worlds (MMOW). Apperley (2009) explores the experience of gamers in an internet cafe whilst Walkerdine’s (2007) study of videogame play in afterschool clubs takes a gendered perspective to examine the impact of videogames on players.

There is also some qualitative research which is influenced by work on ‘new literacy studies’ (Street, 1993), exploring the socio-cultural impact of video gameplay, often with children. These studies frequently use the term ‘virtual world’ to describe the game being played, and therefore end up evading literature searches that are looking explicitly for ‘video games’. Examples here include Marsh (2011), who identifies the potential for further exploration into how virtual worlds ‘shape the literacy practices in which the children engage’ (p.114). Beavis et al. (2009) suggest that ‘computer games are texts in the broadest sense… cultural objects which both reflect and produce the meanings and ideologies of the settings in which they are produced and received’ (p.169). Merchant (2009) explores children’s interactions in a virtual world video game called Barnsborough whilst Maine (2017) examines children’s interactions around the mobile puzzle game Monument Valley

Back to Minecraft Club

So, what did this project’s rhizomic, ethnographic methodology reveal about the club and the children’s play? Well, during the club I observed how the children engaged in lively and imaginative play, communicating whilst using laptop computers to play Minecraft. They often sang, danced, did impressions, told jokes, laughed and acted out roles – both in and out of the game. They frequently described their behaviour during the club as ‘banter’, a word which also partially formed the name they chose to give their virtual world: ‘Banterbury’. Play was messy, inconsistent, exuberant, problematic and, sometimes, mundane. My research focussed on a number of ‘episodes’ or events that unfolded during the club, exemplifying what I called ‘the emergent dimension of play’. For instance, the children built a virtual library  populated with their own (often transgressive) texts, which they composed collaboratively and often acted out in the physical space. They spontaneously sang a song about freeing a virtual sheep, based on an on-screen gameplay event and an adaptation of the charity song ‘Feed the World’. The play in and around Minecraft was so lively and visual, on and off screen, that I developed a similarly playful way of representing these experiences, using comic strips to represent these ‘episodes’ from the club, as in the following example where they performed a funeral for a virtual horse…

Of course, not all gameplay is like this; Minecraft Club was one particular manifestation, involving one particular group of children, using one particular game. However, I suggest that studies that take this kind of qualitative, ethnographic approach to gameplay are valuable as they demonstrate some of the ways in which video game play can be engaging, enjoyable, complicated, problematic and even social. A focus on specific game mechanics, how games can stimulate particular types of brain activity or lead to a defined learning outcome can, of course, lead to important innovations in how we use, think about and develop video games. However, it is also important to remember that methodologies shape outcomes, and the way in which we examine the world dictates what we see. I suggest, therefore, that qualitative, ethnographic work plays an important role in emphasising the valuable place that video games have, as socio-cultural experiences, in the lives of players.

References

Apperley, T. (2009). Gaming rhythms: Play and counterplay from the situated to the global (Vol. 6). Lulu.

Bailey, C. (2016). Free the Sheep: Improvised song and performance in and around a minecraft community. Literacy, 50(2), 62-71.

Beavis, C., Apperley, T., Bradford, C., O’Mara, J. and Walsh, C. (2009). Literacy in the Digital Age: Learning from Computer Games. English in Education, 43 (2), 162-175.

Boellstorff, T. (2008). Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores The Virtually Human. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Dibbell, J. (1999). My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. London: Fourth Estate.

Flewitt, R. (2011). Bringing Ethnography to a Multimodal Investigation of Early Literacy in a Digital Age. Qualitative Research, 11 (3), 293-310.

Marsh, J. (2011). Young Children’s Literacy Practices in A Virtual World: Establishing an Online Interaction Order. Reading Research Quarterly, 46 (2), 101-118.

Merchant, G. (2009). Literacy in Virtual Worlds. Journal of Research in Reading, 32 (1), 38-56.

Nardi, B. (2010). My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. USA: University of Michigan Press.

Street, B. V. (1993). Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walkerdine, V. (2007). Children, Gender, Video Games: Towards A Relational Approach to Multimedia. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wolcott, H. F. (2008). Ethnography: A Way of Seeing. Plymouth: Altamira Press.