Archive | case study RSS feed for this section

Final Case Study: Synthesis

Noel Studio Greenhouse, Director's Office, and Artwork

Noel Studio Greenhouse, Director’s Office, and Artwork

Overview

Pedagogically based on writing center philosophies, the Noel Studio is a multiliteracy center with a unique physical space and academic/administrative structure. Occupying 10,000 sq. ft of EKU Libraries’ main building, Crabbe Library, the Noel Studio provides both public and private spaces for consultants, students, and faculty to work.

Comprised of a core administrative staff of five (director, writing coordinator, research coordinator, technology associate, and administrative assistant) and a student staff of approximately forty-five (graduate assistants, undergraduate consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows), the Noel Studio was created to support the various communication and research projects happening both in and outside of the classroom. To support that mission, the physical space of the Noel Studio contains the Greenhouse (a large, open space with a variety of computers and touch-screen monitors), the Invention Space (equipped with wall-to-wall white boards, a CopyCam, and creative materials), Breakout Spaces and Practice Rooms (small, reserveable rooms with a computer work station, large screen monitors, and recording capabilities), and a communal space that currently serves as an office for technology support.

The Noel Studio is a network of space, people, activity, ideologies, and ideologies that cannot be separated from one another. It is a complex system that impacts and is impacted by larger institutional networks. While at first glance the network-icity of the Noel Studio might appear to exist primarily in its administrative structure the complexity of the Noel Studio is reflected in many different ways.

For example, even though the Noel Studio replaced the existing writing center, it did not simply overtake the writing center’s philosophies, space, or budget. Instead, it became an interdisciplinary space in the main library, an interdisciplinary department under University Programs (UP), and an amalgamation of budget lines from UP, the English Department (graduate assistantships), SGA, and, most recently, an endowment from the initial donors, Ron and Sherry Lou Noel. The collaborative efforts to make the space a reality are seen in the artwork commissioned through LexArt and paid for through the fundraising efforts of the Friends of the Library, the physical structures and features (small and large rooms, glass walls, brightly colored walls and glass), and the upgrades that have been made over the last 3.5 years (more and larger whiteboards, more mobile furniture).

Recognizing the importance of supporting students’ composing practices, some institutions are investing in multiliteracy centers. As the first large-scale multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio has already served as a model for other universities investing in communication initiatives and support services. While many people have visited the Noel Studio for ideas and advice, it’s an often-acknowledged fact that there is no “ideal” organization or plan that fits every writing center or writing program. Instead, each situation is unique and complex in its own right, subject to a multitude of factors. The Noel Studio is not replicable, but using the Noel Studio as an object of study allows us to understand the different options we have for examining the complexity of any given writing program, answering Jackie Grutch McKinney’s (2013) call for writing centers to look beyond the traditional narrative to see and articulate the work we actually do. If we can better see and articulate this work and how our centers and programs exist as nodes within institutional and (inter)disciplinary networks, we can not only help others understand our nodual value, but we can also focus on the connections that strengthen our work and loosen connections that don’t.

Brief Literature Review

In his seminal article, The idea of a writing center, S. North (1984) defined writing centers as far more than fix-it-shops (p. 435) where faculty send their students for remediation. He cited frequent examples of faculty misunderstanding and the frustrations of framing the writing center as a remedial service. Critical of those who misunderstand and misrepresent writing center work, North challenged the field to clarify their services and work towards educating students and faculty to the real role of the writing center: “the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction” (p. 438).

Since then, writing center scholarship has taken up the charge and sought to define the writing center in terms of praxis by investigating the politics of place and space (Nelson & Everts, 2001), the role of administrators as WPAs (Murphy and Stay, 2006), and how writing centers adapt to changes (Carpenter & Lee, 2013; Pemberton, 2003). At the foreground, however, has been a focus of the work that happens in a writing center–the pedagogical approach to both working with student writers and training consultants to do so.

In her recent book, Peripheral Visions on Writing Centers, J. G. McKinney (2013) critiques the narrative of writing centers that has emerged from these examinations. Three themes, she argues, arise as the tropes of the narrative:

  1. Writing centers are cozy homes
  2. Writing centers are iconoclastic
  3. Writing centers tutor (all students)

These themes, she argues are reductive and neglect the complexity of the work that happens within writing center spaces. While Mckinnery begins to trace the complexities of writing center work, she only touches on a deeper investigation. This synthesis, then, examines the Noel Studio primarily in terms of Prior et al.’s Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), positing that the rhetorical work of writing centers occurs in a much more complex system of activity than traditional rhetorical theories acknowledge. CHAT’s approach identifies levels of rhetorical activity that can be more fully understood by also considering the Noel Studio as labor and ecosystems constituted by social networks.

The Noel Studio as a Center of Rhetorical Activity

As a multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio functions as a center for rhetorical activity. Designed to support all communication projects, the Noel Studio’s mission considered writing, research, and oral communication as the three cornerstones of its rhetorical work. In their chapter, Studio pedagogy: A model for collaboration, innovation, and space design, Carpenter, Valley, Napier, and Apostel (2012) identify six foundational criteria for the Noel Studio’s multiliteracy approach:

1)    Critical and Creative Thinking: Consultants encourage students to engage in convergent (critical) and divergent (creative) thinking regarding, audience, purpose, context, and mode.

2)    Information Fluency: Consultant encourage student to think divergently and convergently about the ways in which students gather, evaluate, interpret, and integrate information into their communication products and practices.

3)    Integrative collaboration: Consultants encourage students to see their communication from multiple perspectives through the feedback process while incorporating insights offered from interactions within the space.

4)    Interactive: Consultants encourage students to think about the dynamics in their collaborative groups and how communication is enhanced through this social process. Consultants promote interaction by allowing students to project ideas in high- and low-tech ways.

5)    Visual: Consultants encourage students to think visually, embracing a design approach that allows students to actively participate with manipulatives and interactive resources

6)    Dynamic: Consultations change with students’ needs and expectations. That is, consultants adapt their methods of consulting.

These criteria, developed by the founding administrators of the Noel Studio, reflect both disciplinary and institutional ideologies. These reflections serve as the foundation for what Prior et al. describe as an expanded theory of rhetorical activity. Laminated chronotopes reflect the underlying ideology of the Noel Studio, as they are embodied, represented, and embedded in its rhetorical activity.

Laminated Chronotopes

Writing Center Ideology: Writing center policies and practices reflect their grounding in process pedagogy. Valuing such ideals as “HoCs over LoCs” (higher order concerns over lower order concerns), “meeting the writer where he’s at,” “minimal marking,” and “making better writers not better writing,” writing centers reflect composition theories that prioritize student reflection, student ownership, and collaboration. Students become better writers through discursive processes (the one-on-one interactions—these are important to writing center peeps…include them and explain why).

Inherent in this belief is the ideal that writing centers do not offer remedial services—rather, they support the growth of all writers in employing rhetorical strategies to develop effective communication. In addition to pedagogical strategies, writing centers also focus on space design as an important component in engaging students, resulting in what McKinney identifies as one of the tropes—writing centers are cozy homes. While the Noel Studio is not designed to be a “cozy home,” the importance of space design for the critical and creative processes of composing is one of its most important elements.

Institutional Ideology: Eastern Kentucky University is a regional university that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in general and liberal arts programs, pre-professional and professional training in education and various other fields. Established as Eastern Kentucky State Normal School in 1906, EKU began as a school for teachers and that legacy is still visible in the school’s self-described identity as an institution with three primary priorities: instruction, scholarship, and service, but the institution still claims the primary function is teaching (EKU, n.d.).

Like most institutions of higher education, EKU values grades as representations of academic success and predictors of future success. For the institution, success is often defined in terms of retention and graduation rates and programs that can demonstrate direct contributions to retention and graduation through quantitative assessments are more likely to receive funding.

Functional Systems and Literate Activity

From these laminated chronotopes emerge what Prior et al. identify as functional systems. According to Prior et al., “mediated activity means that action and cognition are distributed over time and space, and among people, artifacts, and environments” (pp. 17-18)–or functional systems. These functional systems are tied together by “some array of current objectives, conscious or not” (p.19). The primary objective tying these functional systems together in the Noel Studio is to help students become more effective communicators. Other stated and unstated objectives include creating opportunities for the students who work as consultants, creating an open and creative work atmosphere, and maintaining knowledge and practices to support EKUs evolving communication climate.

And from the functional systems emerge literate activities. According to Prior et al., the “terms of the map of literate activity . . . are not intended to evoke a series of steps, but to signal a multidimensional model” (pp. 19-20). This map of literate activity includes production, representation, distribution, reception, socialization, activity, and ecology. At this level, activity is concrete and visible, encompassing the enactment of rhetorical moves—the actions that enable the work of the Noel Studio to manifest in students creating visible representations of their ideas.

While Prior et al. identify functional systems as ecologies, people, communities, artifacts, and practices, they fail to explain how these functional systems emerge and contribute to the rhetorical activity of the larger network. The ambiguity of these functional systems (and thereby, the literate activities of the functional systems), however, can be better understood by looking at how other theorists have defined these various systems.

Even though the objective of the Noel Studio situates it as a system of rhetorical activity, we cannot ignore its multiple identities. It also functions as a labor system, an ecosystem , and a social network system that operates within the larger economic and social biosphere of EKU. Examining the Noel Studio in terms of its functional systems and literate activities in terms of these other network theories allows us to understand how meaning is made and transformed, how the network grows, evolves, or dissolves, and where operations and connections breakdown (or have the potential to breakdown).

Ecologies: Spellman defines ecology as “the science that deals with the specific interactions that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environments” (p. 5). The Cary Institute expands on that definition, explaining ecology not just as interactions but as systems: “The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions, among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy.” In the case of the Noel Studio, the “transformation and flux of energy and matter” is actually the transformation of students’ ideas into the creation of texts. In this sense, the staff, students, and physical environment of the Noel Studio interact to create visible representations of ideas.

Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

This representation, or the transformation as the Cary Institute described it, is reliant on not only the affordances (Gibson) of the physical environment but also what Norman identifies as perceived affordances. The more the student and consultant are able to take advantage of the affordances of the environment, the more effective their visual representation.

For example, when a student comes in to work with a consultant, the consultant typically first chooses a spot in the Greenhouse. With no stationary technology in the Greenhouse, the student and consultant can engage in conversation with little distraction from technology. For this example, we’ll say that the student has not yet started to write the paper—she has the prompt and an idea for a topic, but she doesn’t know how to narrow it down or start to organize it. Once the student has explained this, the consultant will ask to see the prompt, the construction of which affords the direction for the student’s paper.

After coming to an agreement about what the student is supposed to do in the paper and that the consultation will focus on brainstorming, the consultant will take the student to the Invention Space. As the consultant is already familiar with the spaces and technologies, she recognizes that the Invention Space affords brainstorming activities. The large whiteboards, CopyCam, and multicolored dry erase markers allow both the student and the consultant to contribute and organize ideas as they become represented through words and images on the dry erase boards. Additionally, revision of ideas is afforded as the representations are easily erased or modified if/when they no longer signify the evolving ideas. Once the student is happy with the representation of her ideas, she and the consultant could use an outline to create an outline—a visible representation of the logical structure of the student’s intended communication. The CopyCam then affords saving, as the student can print a copy of the work, save it as a file on a jump drive, or upload it to the Noel Studio’s CopyCam website.

If time, or in follow-up consultations, the student and consultant would use other spaces and technology in the Noel Studio to proceed through the drafting and revision processes (many times students do so in the spaces without a consultant, too). Together, they might use the Media Wall to conduct research, draft, review, and revise. If it’s a presentation, the student might also use a Practice Room to rehearse the presentation, then move to another space to work through the writing process again.

In each situation, the interactions between the student, consultant, and the tools of the environment transform the student’s ideas as they become represented in the various texts she composes throughout the process. Her (and the consultant’a) ability to perceive the various affordances of the technology that she uses shapes what the final text will look like. Similarly, the constraints of the technology also force her to make decisions, shaping the final project. For instances, if the student’s project is a video that she will share with the class, her construction of the video is reliant not only on her technical skill but also on her ability to perceive what she can and cannot do with the video editing software that she chooses. She knows that she wants to lay down a music track over the images in the video—a rhetorical choice that Movie Maker, iMovie, and most other video-editing software afford—but if she can’t perceive the function of the software, she will have to revise her plan and make new rhetorical choices with the functions she can perceive.

Communities: In this ecosystem of rhetorical activity, growth and balance depend on the population diversity (Spellman) and the abundance of resources, both human and environmental. Considering different groups of students and faculty as the different populations or communities, the ecosystem of the Noel Studio only grows when there is representation from the diverse disciplines, social groups, and demographic groups that make up EKU. Before the Noel Studio opened in 2010, the EKU Writing Center operated in the basement of Case Annex—an old dorm that has been converted to office and classroom space. Isolated to one department (the English Department) in terms of staffing, funding, and use, the Writing Center did not grow. When the Writing Center Director reached out to a new population (EKU Libraries) to discuss a potential collaboration, the idea of the Noel Studio emerged. Discussions between the Writing Center Director and the then-Dean of Libraries prompted further outreach to representatives of other populations, including the Department of Communication, Information Technology, Institutional Effectiveness, and the Office of the Provost. As ideas for what the space could be expanded, these representatives realized the increasing diversity of populations and their interests would require a new physical space.

The increased diversity also increased access to resources, as the English Department would no longer be solely responsible for the full funding (it still contributes to staffing through graduate assistant lines). Working with EKU Libraries Advancement, this newly-formed group was able to secure funding from donors, EKU Libraries, the Provost’s Office, University Programs, and a state grant. Since opening in September 2010, the Noel Studio has continued to increase the population diversity, expanding the Noel Studio Advisory Committee to include representatives from additional communities, including the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Teaching and Learning Center. Additionally, there has been an increase in population diversity among student use and faculty collaborations as we now see every college, social group, and demographic group that constitute EKU represented in the Noel Studio.

The distribution of population diversity, however, is still imbalanced as many communities are under-represented. While the ecosystem does include representatives from the college of Justice and Safety, for example, they are few and far between. If we cannot increase the Justice and Safety community’s interactions with the Noel Studio, that connection may die off as students graduate. As those connections die off, the system becomes less dynamic and resources less distributed as potential sources of funding decrease. If this trend of losing involved communities grew, the Noel Studio as a system would not be able to revert to its previous system of the Writing Center, as the resources and space have already been reallocated within the English Department. As such, the continued existence of the Noel Studio is dependent on increasing and maintaining connections with EKU’s diverse communities.

People: In addition to systems of community, the Noel Studio contains multiple systems of people as well. The primary network of people is the personnel: the administrative staff (director, coordinators, administrative assistant, and technology associate), the consultants (consultants, desk consultants, writing fellows, and graduate assistants), and the students (undergraduate, graduate, and online). Institutional ideology is most predominantly reflected in this component of the functional system, as the personnel structure is hierarchical. The consultants are responsible for the work that most explicitly addresses the objective of the Noel Studio, while the coordinators are responsible for guiding and supervising that work, the AA and technology associate troubleshoot and problem-solve resources necessary for that work, and the director makes programmatic decisions that situates the work within the larger system of EKU.

A social group comprised of undergraduate consultants, research consultants, a desk consultant, and a writing fellow

A social group comprised of undergraduate consultants, research consultants, a desk consultant, and a writing fellow

Within the labor network of people, there are social networks that are formed at and between various levels. As Scott explains, “A social group . . . exists in a field: a social ‘space’ that comprises the group together with its surrounding environment” (p. 11). This surrounding environment is not necessarily the physical space of the ecosystem—rather the space of the social group is constructed by the paths between people and their attitudes. With a full staff of approximately 50 people, interpersonal relationships and social balance is important for establishing a positive working environment. It’s unreasonable to expect that all 50 members of the Noel Studio will have what Scott identifies as “positive” relationships with all other 49 members. As he explains, social subgroups tend to form among people who have aligned ways of thinking and objectives. These subgroupings are evident within the Noel Studio as consultants tend to converge into cliques along their identified roles (their niches): desk consultants, graduate assistances, research consultants, undergraduate consultants, and writing fellows. However, as Scott explains, each person has multiple relations outside of these networks.

Understanding the social networks of the Noel Studio allows us to understand how interpersonal conflicts arise and, potentially, can be resolved with and ever-increasing staff. Thus far, the Noel Studio has had little trouble with conflict which is potentially due to the aligned objectives created by pedagogical and institutional ideologies.

Artifacts:  The artifacts of the Noel Studio are the documents and tools used the employees use to assist in the daily work. The documents and tools used by the Noel Studio employees to assist in the daily work. These include the Records of Consultation, time sheets, handouts and resources, client reports, WCOnline, Google Docs, Outlook, and Facebook.

Spinuzzi explains that relationships, activity, and destabilization that occur can only be identified by examining the relationships of activity and genres (the tools of the work) at three different levels: the macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic levels.  At the macroscopic level is the entire the activity system–the Noel Studio and its makeup (director, coordinators, consultants, desk consultants, etc) and the artifacts it use (Records of Consultation, WCOnline, the furniture, the technology) to achieve the goal of improving students’ communication skills. The mesoscopic level, reveals the actions each of the workers perform in order to achieve the goal and how the instruments mediate those actions. And microscopic level actions are operationalized behaviors.

The distribution of labor within the network is visible through the tools or artifacts that we use and create. For example, a student’s consultation is not only the labor of the consultant who works with him or her. In scheduling the appointment, either the student or a desk consultant uses WCOnline to mediate the scheduling process. When the student arrives, the desk consultant again uses WCOnline to fill out the heading on the RoC (the Record of Consultation) and then mediates the introduction to the consultant with whom the student will be working. At this point, the consultant uses the training that he or she received from the administrative staff (prior labor) to engage with the student. In working towards the goal of the improving student’s communication skills, the consultant and student exchange the labor load throughout the consultation, using both the RoC and the student’s communication product to mediate the exchange. After the consultation, the consultant returns the RoC to the desk consultant who again uses WCOnline to create a digital record of the consultation (the client report). Finally, the desk consultant passes along the RoC to the appropriate coordinator who reviews it and uses it to discuss the consultant’s success within the consultation.

Networks grow and emerge as workers create and modify genres and they dissolve as contradictions, discoordinations, and breakdowns go unnoticed or unaddressed. In the previous example, for instance, we might see a breakdown as the consultant distributes the copies of the RoC. If the consultant forgets to give the student the original, then the behavior is not operationalized and the Noel Studio will be inconsistent (and perhaps perceived as unreliable) in its processes. In response, if a coordinator or consultant notices this breakdown, he or she might develop fix–a new genre–that increases and strengthens the network.

Practices: Spellman emphasizes that each organism in an ecosystem has a specific role, or a niche, to fill. As such, “in order for the ecosystem to exist, a dynamic balance must be maintained among all biotic and abiotic factors—a concept known as homeostasis” (p. 15).The concept of balance is important for all ecosystems and the Noel Studio is no different. However, it is in the functional system of practices that the tension between writing center and institutional ideologies start to emerge. Because of writing center values of process pedagogy, forming “better writers not better papers,” and collaboration and authorship, writing centers (and the Noel Studio) have developed practices that prioritize global concerns over proofreading and editing, discussion over “correction,” and minimal marking. In contrast, because institutions value grades and assessment reporting, there is often institutional pressure to transform writing center practices to focus on product, local concerns, and editing.

These tensions are evident in every aspect of the consultation. From setting goals with students, to filling out the RoC, to having meaningful conversation to meeting faculty’s expectations, consultants try to balance the values they learn in training (and by which they are evaluated in terms of job performance) with the expectations of students, faculty, and higher administration. Despite valuing process and recognizing that students likely need to visit the Noel Studio multiple times for significant improvement in skills, consultants feel obligated to help every student move their project from whatever “grade” it is at to an “A” (as subjectively defined by every instructor at the institution). As consultants face pressure from students, coordinators face criticism from faculty whose ideas of what a writing center should do have, unfortunately, evolved little since North’s 1984 article.

Discussion

This synthesis feels woefully incomplete. I’m not sure if my reasons for choosing my different theories are obvious, so I’ll try to make them explicit here.

I chose CHAT as the overall framework because it explains how activity emerges from rhetorical motivations that are situated in cultural and institutional ideologies. It explains how meaning is embedded in systems that then represent the meaning through the resulting activities. Additionally, it accounts for various types of representation and how context influences rhetorical activity.

Using Prior et al. as a framework, however, was problematic for a few reasons that I tried to address with the other theories. First, it didn’t offer any ways of establishing boundaries for analysis of rhetorical activity. Even though my OoS itself helped set boundaries, much of the action that impacts students’ communication skills occurs outside of the Noel Studio on an individual basis, but examining those influences wouldn’t help us understand the Noel Studio as a network better.

Using Spinuzzi, Scott, and Spellman to define the types of functional systems in terms of a labor network, a social network, and an ecosystem help set useful boundaries and address ways in which the system grows, evolves, and could, potentially dissolve. Finally, they helped explain how the literate activity manifests from the functional systems and laminated chronotopes and how individuals and groups both form complex networks. Additionally, while CHAT accounts for the impact of environment on the rhetorical activity, theories of distributed cognition (Gibson and Norman) explain how that impact happens. In short, each of the supplemental theories attempt to explain the how that Prior et al. neglect.

References

Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, & Napier. (2013). Studio Pedagogy: A Model for Collaboration, Innovation, and Space Design, (pp. 313-329) In Cases on higher education spaces: innovation, collaboration, and technology, (R. Carpenter, Ed.). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Carpenter, R. & Lee, S. (2013). Introduction: Navigating literacies in multimodal spaces. The Routlege reader on writing centers and new media, (xiv-xxvi). New York: Routlege.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McKinney, J. G. (2103). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University P.

Murphy, C. & Stay, B.L. (2006). The writing center director’s resource guide. New York: Routlege.

Nelson, J. & Everts, K. (2001). The Politics of Writing Centers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzIskzHsjKsRN0NRRktncjBGb1U/edit

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-436. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/377047

Pemberton, M. (2003). The center will hold. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Prior et al. (). Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/topoi/prior-et-al/core/core.pdf

Spellman, F. R. (2008). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes.

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from Kindle.

 

 

 

Frankentheory, Your Time is Now_Final Case Study

Welcome, my dear readers, to my final case study, known as Frankentheory.  Shall we begin?

You don't have to answer that question.

You don’t have to answer that.

And Away We Roll

As I have discussed in my previous case studies, World of Warcraft (WoW) is a massive, complex, global network composed of nodes functioning on different levels inside and outside of the gamespace. Attention to this Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game has been directed towards its ability to offer teachers and students a virtual environment in which to learn, while other studies have looked at MMOs in terms of what observers see as the game’s ability to fulfill player needs (social needs) and side effects (like addiction and escapism). But what are other aspects of the game and gamespace that would be of interest to someone in the field of English Studies? It is with this question that guilds and what is happening amongst their members become of interest. Since WoW’s guilds and their activities have been my focus this semester, I have been looking for a theory that would allow me to better explore guilds and their members’ positions within and outside of (though still related to) the gamespace. However, for each of the theories I have applied so far, they usually do not focus both on what is occurring in the gamespace at large as a network and what nuances are occurring on the local level within the guilds. It tends to be one or the other, especially since the players are heavily dependent on game software and hardware and on communication technology to be part of and help shape the network in which they play. So, what do we do when our theories cannot completely cover our objects of study and have blind spots? Theoretical synthesis, which is better known among my peers as Frankentheory. But how will this Frankentheory help us decide how studying WoW can be useful to English Studies?

First, let’s list my theories on the field:

Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked Individualism

Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory (ANT)

Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation Theory and Vatz’s “Myth of the Rhetorical Situation”

Networked Individualism and MMOs, But What Could Be Missing?

To begin the rise of Frankentheory, I have to start with a strand: Networked Individualism. Rainie and Wellman’s theory looks at how the three revolutions of Social, Internet, and Mobile are reshaping the fabric of social groups, what they call the “social operating system” (6). It is now normal for people to exist outside of close-knit communities and instead primarily operate within a variety of more loosely connected groups, with different groups fulfilling specialized needs that often have nothing to do with proximity. These new social groups, generally mediated by advancing communication technologies, allow people to enter into a number of networks that are more connected and have greater access not only to information but also to virtual spaces in which they can create and share media of their own. People become the nodes of the network, constantly exchanging information with one another: “When people walk down the street texting on their phones, they are obviously communicating. Yet things are different now. In incorporating gadgets into their lives, people have changed the ways they interact with each other. They have become networked as individuals, rather than embedded in groups. In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: not the family, not the work unit, not the neighborhood, and not the social group” (Rainie and Wellman 6). In the changing landscape of social relationships that Rainie and Wellman find is occurring as more people are turning towards their communication devices (cell phones, tablets, computers) to center their everyday communications, information gathering and producing, and their relationships within a group, online games have become part of the “new neighborhoods” that are popping up as the social operating system shifts gears towards networked individuals rather than physical communities of people (13).

People as nodes in the network. Image hosted on VectorStock.

For gamers, this reshaping of the social operating system allows them to craft social groups for themselves (inside and outside of the game) that fulfill needs prompted by their experiences within the gamespace and, more specifically, by being members of the same guild. There is no longer the need to play games with the people who are physically close (though that does still occur) as players can now log on to servers with others from around the country or around the world, creating communities of people who may only ever meet through text chat, in-game voice chat, discussion forums, Facebook, YouTube, and Skype. Here, we have groups of people whose main connection is their interest in a computer game, though they may have other interests, characteristics, and connections that could then bind them closer together during their interactions in the game, but this depends on how much information they are willing to provide and how closely they bond with their teammates. To be in an active member of the gamespace (as opposed to a casual gamer) and to be an active member of a guild, takes work and effort, just as it does to be part of any virtual group (Rainie and Wellman 9). There is no physical presence to say “I’m here,” so the player must renew his/her account, take time to level up, and take time to talk and quest with guild members. The gamespace and the guilds let these players from all different backgrounds come together for a few hours or so a day to engage in group raids or role-playing scenarios, to talk with others who share common interests that extend beyond their daily physical lives, and to play specialized roles in a group (which is another point Rainie and Wellman point out that is happening to networked individuals).

WoW Guild. Image hosted on PC Gamer.

PC Gamer’s WoW Guild. Image hosted on PC Gamer.

WoW brings together gamers from all walks of life and gives them common ground, with fan culture emerging. Image hosted on website Intense Gamers.

WoW brings together gamers from all walks of life around the world and gives them common ground, with fan culture emerging. Image hosted on website Intense Gamers.

Rainie and Wellman’s theory acknowledges that communication technologies and people’s desires to be continuously connected are reshaping the ways in which we interact with one another and how we (re)align with social groups. By looking at the form and function of this new social operating system, application of this theory takes a look at the fabric of guild members’ interactions with one another in-game and how they keep connected even when they are outside of the game. Questions can be raised about players’ empowerment within new social, virtual dynamics as they access a wide variety of resources: Since WoW players do have access to many more resources than those found within the gamespace (official and unofficial forums, guild websites, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, guild ranking websites, and Wiki pages for the game), how does this empower players as players in the gamespace but also as members in their guild? Players are, essentially, not alone in the challenges they face in raids, on quests, and within social guild dynamics the way they would be if communication technology was not as far along as it is, but how does a player harnessing the “information at his/her fingertips” change the dynamics of the group? If the players are nodes in various networks and WoW and their guilds are only a small part of the network that the players themselves have become, where and how do players gain their agency?

Within the scope of Networked Individualism, players gain agency by doing something with all of the information accessible through their devices and making the effort to be part of the groups they have joined. Just like within physically close-knit communities, players have to reach out and engage one another, because if they do not, they will eventually lose their places within the group, even more so than if they were dealing with their teammates in person. Let’s take an example, for a guild member, there can be several forms of the group within which to stay active and to have agency. By having an interest in WoW and signing up to play, the player is taking the first step and putting in the initial effort that will lead to guild membership. The player then has options: he/she can just play the game and either stumble upon or be recruited into a guild he/she comes into contact with over the course of gameplay, or the player can look through guild rankings, explore guild websites and forums, and talk to other players about guilds and potentially joining. There are options as to how a player chooses to operate within the gamespace network and how much agency he/she takes for him/herself. Once a player has joined a guild, a new set of social dynamics occurs that does not usually happen for a player going solo through the gamespace. Most guilds set up a mentor-mentee relationship among new and veteran players in order to ease the new players into the game, into how the guild works socially, and also to train them for the specialized they will take on during quests and raids. This new player again has options to how much agency he/she has within this guild. The player can research his/her role, profession, and class in order to better acquaint him/herself with his/her character’s potential but also to become a more effective teammate. A player who does not know how to do something like add-ons for battles has a steeper learning curve than someone who actively sought out the knowledge and used his/her place in the network to better understand the gamespace and his/her group. Information is out there, across a multitude of websites, discussion posts, and player-player interaction.

This sounds like a great theory for looking at guild members playing in World of Warcraft as we are looking at players not just as nodes, but as focal points of networks themselves. By being a node in many loosely connected networks, the players become networks in themselves and has agency in how he/she uses that connectivity. So what could be missing from this theory?

Add the Second Strand as ANT Comes Marching in

While Rainie and Wellman’s theory of Networked Individualism looks at the ways in which communication technologies are allowing people to reshape their social communities (branching away from solely functioning within local groups to take part in a variety of networks in which they often play specialized roles), Actor-Network-Theory fills in the gaps of Networked Individualism in that it allows the very non-human entities of hardware and software being used by people to have just as much agency as the people themselves. For my study, this applies to the hardware and software guild members use and interact with when playing WoW. The programming code that makes everything work is not pushed off to the side; it is allowed into the discourse, becoming a major (and acknowledged) part of the network. With ANT, the actors are the nodes, but who are the actors? Gamers, of course, are on the list of actors, but so are representations of the code through non-playable characters (NPCs), loot from raids, quests logs, monsters, characters’ pets, parts of the environment, and other objects that can be handled in the game. But our list is still incomplete. We have to step outside of the game and look at what allows gamers to actually play: keyboards, CPUs with monitors or laptops, mouse, and headphones, as well as additional technologies that can now be used to access the game (thank you, add-ons from Blizzard) like cellphones. In Networked Individualism, the emphasis is on people using these technologies, but with ANT, the technologies are just as important as mediators as other people. By linking ANT to Networked Individualism, we are broadening out the scope of who/what should be studied when looking at WoW. So, is this a more complete list? Sort of. Guild activities do not only take place in the gamespace, but outside of it as well in forums, through software like Google Hangouts and Skype, through social media like Facebook, and through unofficial game websites. There could be other actors involved, especially if the guild members know each other in person, but this will be okay for now as our list is more robust than simply just listing humans. This is what a WoW ANT network for a guild would like.

Normally, when a guild is mentioned, people imagine this:

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

When really, with our newly constructed list in mind, the mental image should include these two:

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Now that we have our larger (if not totally exhaustive list) and our handy-dandy new mental image, we must deal with a new way of conceiving how the nodes in our guild network have agency and are situated within the network. Why would I choose to list these actors? According to Latour, “If we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor– or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference?” (71). Let’s see if we can tease out how this works within an MMORPG in a way that Networked Individualism Theory cannot. What do all of these actors even do for the network? The gamers, their hardware, and the game’s software have one major collective goal. They are all working towards the creation and maintenance of the gameworld in which the guild exists. Sounds odd that gamers are part of this, doesn’t it? But, that’s how games work. The developers design the code that then puts the gameworld into existence on the chosen platform(s) players will then access through their chosen hardware. If the gamers choose not to play, eventually the designers will have to shut the game down or the game remains in its plastic casing on a shelf. In order for the gameworld to be activated and maintained, it needs someone to be playing. But if the designers do not actively work to maintain their game and add new content, players will have no incentive to spend their money and continue populating the gamespace. A great deal of effort needs to be expended on both sides if this gamespace network is to remain active and be successful.

But, we need to narrow this down further. Our target network is not the game as a whole, but individual guilds. What gamers, the software, and the hardware do for the game at large works the same way for the guild on a more microscopic level. The guild’s boundaries must be defined and redefined constantly (which aligns with Rainie and Wellman’s discussion of the effort it takes to keep in touch with the various networks people engage in), which Latour mentions when discussing the creation and maintenance of groups: “all need some people defining who they are, what they should be, what they have been. These are constantly at work, justifying the group’s existence, invoking rules and precedents and, as we shall see, measuring up one definition against all others. Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (31). In this sense, the guild is a network node inside a much larger, far more extensive network. And, the gamers, who would have been just one node among (literally) millions of other player nodes, and those are just talking about the human elements of the game. What being part of a guild does then is offer players greater agency in their own gameplay experience of WoW by making them a node in a network that is comprised of a more manageable (usually) number of human players.

However, if those guild members stop redefining the boundaries of their group, against the world, other guilds, and against players with no guilds at all, the guild itself will dissolve. The code and gamers’ hardware is not enough to maintain a guild. The guild may have an archive of some kind as having once existed, but the players are the core nodes who meet and interact in a way that makes a guild what it is. That being said, the guild would not exist without the code that is always underlining the game. There would be no reason for a guild unless the environment of the gamespace provided dungeons to conquer, raids to take on, a world to explore, cities to visit, and servers where players can face off against one another or players (PvP) face off against the environment (PvE). And, without the hardware of the computer and the headphones, players would not have access to the gamespace and to each other. All of the actors are necessary, especially with digital games.

What Ant can do that Networked Individualism cannot is allow me to follow the threads (or trace the associations) of players’ activities through the technology they are using and with one another to define what a guild is within and outside of the gamespace. What do players do with the technology of the game, their own hardware, and other communication devices, as well as resources found on the internet, to maintain the guild as a group? This complements Networked Individualism because it is adding in and granting agency to the non-human entities that help networked people to network. Actor Network Theory and Networked Individualism are similar in that they are looking at society with technology in mind: ANT as humans and non-human actants working together to create the boundaries and maintain the group (guild, in this case), and Networked Individualism as people (gamers) using technology to create diverse and yet loosely collected social groups that fulfill needs that traditional social groups (those once limited more so by proximity) cannot. For both of these theories, technology and the social are focal points in the sense that they are looking at how actors (human and non-human, though the agency is emphasized differently between the theories) are working together.

But what does Networked Individualism do/offer for ANT in regards to WoW and guilds? If the two strands are going to come together, they must each offer something to the other. Actor Network Theory takes a pretty broad view of human and non-human actors working together to define what is social (and, in this case, what is a guild). Networked Individualism narrows this focus to the needs being met for or sought by the humans within these social networks, and how these humans are using communication technology that is in turn reshaping how they interact with one another. ANT brings technology as an actant into the discourse, while Networked Individualism provides a framework for what people are doing within social groups and how they are defining the groups of which they are members. For my case study on WoW, these two theories combined will give me a macro and micro view of technology at play alongside humans, ensuring that the communication technology and game software are receiving as much attention and agency in developing and maintaining the networks within which the humans (physically, in some senses, and through their avatars) are operating.

Friends until the technological end: ANT & Networked Individualism. Image hosted on We Know Memes.

Friends until the technological end: ANT & Networked Individualism. Image hosted on We Know Memes.

Final Strand, or What is Moving through the Network

If ANT can give us a macrolevel view of how groups (in this case, guilds) are expending effort to define and redefine their boundaries in order to remain a group, and Networked Individualism is looking at how people are changing their relationships with one another by using communication technologies to have membership in different guilds that are not usually defined by physical proximity, we are still missing something.What is moving between these nodes (both human and non-human)? Rhetorical Situation Theory adds to the discourse between ANT and Networked Individualism because rhetoric is moving through the networks being defined by the human and non-human actors and shaping the kinds of experiences being had by the guild members using the technology. In a gamespace, codes in the forms of zeroes and ones are the not the only things moving within a network. In a guild, code helps to relay the rhetoric moving between players during situations (both formal, such as raid planning, and informal, such as conversations between players about the dividing up of loot). By threading Rhetorical Situation Theory in with ANT and Networked Individualism, we can explore how players in the guild are using rhetoric to define the boundaries of the group, while at the same time, the hardware, software, and players are working together simultaneously within a network defined by the relay of code and commands.

Rhetorical Situation Theory may seem to be the odd theory as it looks mainly at humans and human activity, but rhetoric is something being passed within a Networked Society (such as when networked individuals create content on the internet, read news articles, or communicate with friends and family) and may be part of the associations that ANT researchers trace through actors as defining and maintaining a group (such as the activities taking place within a labor union). All three of these theories are about the social (however each defines it) and about what happens within that social (to different degrees and outlooks). WoW may be an online game, but what is occurring between people, especially guild members, is what is happening among other networked societies. People still have to deal with one another, even if it is at a distance through technology with avatars in the place of human faces. By adding Rhetorical Situation Theory into the mixture, we are filling in the microlevel relay that is happening between the various nodes across the different servers that compose the WoW gamespace.

ANT diverges away from theories like Rhetorical Situation Theory because it complicates how we see interactions in a network, which is something we need now that people are producing rhetorical discourse in non-traditional spaces between people who are, often, only loosely connected to each other about social dynamics that are happening even during gameplay. So, what exactly can be moving through a guild network when we must take into account the software and hardware? How does it move among the different nodes? One of the major things moving through the network is code, zeroes and ones that render the visuals, relay information  about characters’ statuses, allow for environmental sounds and pre-established soundtrack selections, and initiate reactions from the environment, NPCs, and monsters in which the guild members interact. There are also the zeroes and ones that allow players to have their avatars do physical gestures towards one another and allow relay their textual conversations. But, that’s not all. The hardware players may opt to use like headphones and mics allow for verbal communications. Rhetorical discourse may be part of what is being conveyed, but, in this more inclusive list of network nodes, the code is central to all transmissions.

Who/what are the mediators and what are the intermediaries making all of this possible? “Every time a connection has to be established, a new conduit has to be laid down and some new type of entity has to be transported through it. What circulates, so to speak, ‘inside’ the conduits are the very acts of giving something a dimension. Whenever a locus wishes to act on another locus, it has to go through some medium, transporting something all the way; to go on acting, it has to maintain some sort of more or less durable connection. Conversely, every locus is now the target of many such activities, the crossroads of many such tracks, the provisional repository of many such vehicles. Sites, now transformed into actor-networks for good, are moved to the background; connectors, vehicles, and attachments are brought into the foreground” (Latour 220). We are looking to ANT to understand how guild members are using the technology but also how the technology is taking an active role in transforming actors who come into contact with the code (through visual representations) and through the rhetorical discourse that is being relayed through the code. So, let’s talk Rhetorical Situations (myth or otherwise) and the discourse initiated in those moments by guild members acting as rhetors.

Within WoW, Rhetoric is everywhere as players move as network nodes between interactions, joining and leaving guilds as well as joining and leaving raiding parties. Within guilds, players must convince one another of battle strategies as raids can often be difficult undertakings, requiring hours of planning and hours of execution, sometimes with little success; in player-player conflicts, with some players defending themselves and their potential virtual property against other players; when player-player conflicts cannot be resolved, there are ruptures within guilds, leading to the creation of separate guilds; and within the creation of new guilds, the recruitment of players into the guilds, especially when the gamer is new to the server or has been relatively isolated prior to creating a guild charter.

Guild social dynamics are essentially playing out in a microcosm of social and political (usually within the guild, not in the gamespace at large) tensions, mediated through character avatars over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and textual messages. But rhetorical situations do not only occur in-game for guilds, but also outside of games: in forums (official and unofficial), on guild websites, through YouTube videos, and in personal communications. Much of this discourse is written by guild members for guild members, creating a circular audience, though gamers outside of the guild and even non-players (depending on the medium) can have access to out-of-game texts about in-game activities. So, through Networked Individualism, if players gain agency by accessing information and creating media in order to make their presence known in the networked social groups they have joined, rhetorical discourse is what those players are creating and using the technology (ANT) to relay.

Rhetorical discourse always has a human agent, what Bitzer calls “mediators of change”: “Rhetorical  discourse produces changes by influencing the decision and action of persons who function as mediators of change” (7). Biesecker mentions that, for Bitzer and his Rhetorical Situation, rhetoric is the name given to “those utterances which serve as instruments for adjusting thè environment in accordance to thè interests of its inhabitants,” which occur in response to some event that “invites utterance” (113). Agency is taken by those who are willing to take charge and produce rhetorical discourse as a situation arises, and then agency is taken by others who hear this rhetorical discourse and do something with it, whether it is to add to what they have heard or in resistance to it as new situations arise and call for rhetorical discourse. This raises the questions of who would constitute the rhetors, the mediators of change, and the audience of those moments of discourse? The answer to these questions will always be guild members, but there are different kinds of guild members. There are differences between guild officers, raid leaders, guild leader, power players versus non-power players, and veteran players versus rookie players. The differences in-game are not based on outside elements like age, profession, race, financial status, or social class, but are based on experience and skill in-game. While the ideal is that every member of the group be given fair and equal treatment within the guild, there are often moments where players’ agency depends on their perceived level of commitment to the group and what level of guild hierarchy they have reached. It all depends on the rules established by the guild for how the guild operates in gameplay. And, by thinking about rhetoric as a way for speakers and potential mediators of change to adjust their environments to better align with their interests, this would (ideally) allow guild leaders to work within rhetorical situations (such as raid strategizing, conflicts between players over loot, other leadership roles) as they emerge to strengthen the group’s cohesiveness. Members who are active within the group’s activities are the mediators of change who will take what the guild leader says and apply it to the communal experiences within the game. If a guild leader is not successful at managing the rhetorical discourse happening within the group, then members of the group tend to splinter off to create new guilds in the hopes that someone else as guild leader may provide better group environments. The guild leader is not alone in managing the quality of the group’s interactions (as this is based on voluntary membership), but the guild leader is the rhetor in the group, one whose opinions hold the most weight in taking charge and offering solutions to problems. A guild leader who cannot successfully navigate situations that call for rhetorical discourse cause players to lose faith and find or found a new group.

Oftentimes, a guild’s success at continuing to exist is based on the quality of guild management and how much agency each member (as a node in the network) has in the relationships formed through rhetorical discourse. The conversations that arise during the whole process of raids (from the pre-planning, the decisions as to who will play what role, the instructions and conversations that crop up as the raid is taking place, and the distribution of loot after the raid has been successfully completed) reflect the quality of leadership and companionship of the guild to its members, even if to no one else. If there is a break down in communication, if the leader (or rhetor) has no responsibility placed upon him/her for the rhetorical situation he/she has decided to take advantage of or ignore, the group may become fragmented as the members (who are more than “mere hearers and readers”) become mediators of change in a way that can ultimately dissolve the guild. Players may leave the guild (alone or with others) if they feel they are being treated unfairly (such as them feeling cheated if they are not allowed loot they have requested, if they feel the loot is being hoarded by guild officers, and so on), if they feel they have outgrown what the guild can offer their character, or if the guild is not operating efficiently enough (too many members missing raid meeting times). If the rhetorical discourse require for a situation is ineffective or absent when most needed, the guild as a whole may be left at a severe disadvantage if the best players leave. Even a player who feels he/she has no agency in the group, still has enough agency to leave the group and find a new guild.

Vatz complicates Bitzer’s idea of agency for rhetors, putting more responsibility on the speaker and the moments in which the speaker decides to speak. The speaker, essentially, privileges the moments and subjects within, and chooses to discard or ignore others: “This very choice of what facts or events are relevant is a matter of pure arbitration. Once the choice is communicated, the event is imbued with salience, or what Haim Perelman calls ‘presence,’ when describing this phenomenon from the framework of argumentation” (Vatz 157). For Vatz, it is not solely that situations call for rhetoric, but that rhetoric can shape and define the character of a situation when the speaker chooses to give meaning to that situation and the rhetorical discourse happening within it. This is where the author/speaker of the rhetor gains agency, by being the person who takes the information selected for the situation and gives it meaning, especially since audience members only see an event as “meaningful only through their linguistic depictions” (Vatz 157). In this theory, agency is granted to the guild leader when he or she chooses moments in which he or she deems suitable or necessary for rhetorical discourse. This would be a guild leader finding “the right moment” to address something like player-player conflicts so as to manage the problem before it gets out of control, rather than just waiting for problems to arise and then speaking about it. There are dangers to this for the guild leader who is not at least semi-conscious about what he or she is privileging, what moments are deemed best (or better timed) and what rhetorical discourse is produced (what information is given meaning). This sense of agency for the guild leader allows him or her to establish the level of quality of the team’s work and play during raids and just as a cohesive (or otherwise) group.

From the angle of rhetorical discourse, what is moving through the network are the rules and guidelines that the members are continually establishing and putting into effect (or neglecting) for the experience they are seeking as a collective. Vatz states, “To the audience, events become meaningful only through their linguistic depiction” (157). Guild members could play the game alone (whether that gameplay would be successful or not would be another story), but it is the rhetorical exchange that underlies the guild activities that gives the events meaning for the players. A raid would be just hack-and-slash and magic-casting except that the players are using language to persuade themselves and each other that this raid, this dungeon, this boss fight means something for all of them. The raid leader may need to persuade others that a certain strategy is the correct one, but that explanation and the resulting discourse makes it a lived experience. Even a breakdown in communication or a consistent lack of quality guild management is a rhetorical discourse that can lead players to become mediators of change through guild dissolution. Rhetorical discourse is necessary for the networked individuals to stay together as a group, but they are the ones who must harness the technology and that which it affords them and actively work to maintain their boundaries. Rhetorical Situation Theory and the discourse that happens within those moments also draw attention to the networked individuals and their places within groups, drawing attention to the changes in the social landscape (social operating system) because players are aware that are meeting in non-traditional spaces and forming groups with people they would never have interacted with had the game not provided such a social space. For gamers, though, this rhetorical discourse also (often) acknowledges the technology that they are using, makings its agency and effect upon them part of their discourse.

So, why is studying World of Warcraft useful to English Studies?

Outside of pedagogy and player habits, MMOs like World of Warcraft are useful to the field of English Studies because it is, as Rainie and Wellman would say, a “new neighborhood” in the social operating system that is emerging through advancements in communication technologies and people’s reliance and implementation of those technologies. Within the gamespace and outside of it, guild members are employing rhetorical discourse to define their roles within their groups but also to define the boundaries of those groups. By studying WoW and games like it, and by studying how gamers are using the space and interactions with one another to fulfill social needs that had been filled (and are still being filled) by traditional groups, we can understand how the reshaping of our society around our virtual presences is granting us new avenues to gain agency. We are not just members of groups now, but nodes in a variety of networks, and we rely on technology to make ourselves present within those groups, reach out to new groups, and how to access and create media that engage us in the world at large. By crafting a Frankentheory from Actor-Network-Theory, Networked Individualism, and Rhetorical Situation Theory, we can start to understand how online gamespaces afford their players with spaces in which a microcosm of social dynamics can play out, but can be more inclusive in the study by understanding how technology acts upon us and changes our discourse as much as we act upon it and can change its code. For these networked societies and as networked individuals, we need the technology in order to have agency in the new landscape, and English Studies can benefit from taking the time to explore how rhetoric and interactions among people are adapting to the needs and demands being placed upon us by one another as start to navigate a more virtual society.

So long and thanks for all the network. Image hosted on tumblr, #whatshouldwecallgradschool

So long and thanks for all the networks. Image hosted on the tumblr #whatshouldwecallgradschool

References

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25 (Selections from Volume 1) (1992): 1-14. PDF.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Raine, Lee and Barry Wellman. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. PDF.

Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6.3 (1973): 154-161. PDF.

And Now I Bow Out

Bowing out or sinking down? Dean from Supernatural does it best.

Bowing out or sinking down? Dean from Supernatural does it best.

 


Coded Chaos, Decoded Fun: the Rhetorical Ontology of Live Action Role-Playing Games

Coded Chaos, Decoded Fun: the Rhetorical Ontology of Live Action Role-Playing Games

Scholars have studied and theorized role-playing games in terms of information systems (Harviainen, 2012, 2009, 2007; Hakkarainen and Stenros, 2003), organizational structures and social processes (Montola, 2003, 2004, 2009), archetypal psychological forms and shared fantasies (Bowman 2010, 2012; Fine, 2002; Mackay, 2001), narrative immersions (Kim, 2004; Harding, 2005; Larsson, 2005; Torner and White, 2012) and as, well, games that are fun to play (Edwards, 2001; Bøckman, 2003; Huizinga, 1955; Salen and Zimmerman, 2003; Zimmerman, 2013; Stenros, 2012). Though some of these studies consider role-playing in its various forms — tabletop, live, and online — the primary focus of this theoretical paper is the experience of role-playing as a performed embodied character, within a physical environment, in interaction with others: Live Action Role-Playing, or larp (aka LARP). This particular type of RPG’s relevance as an object of study to English Studies is three-fold: larps are important sites of cultural production that both challenge and replicate social constructions; they are also an increasingly popular form of participatory media that can be seen as a space of interactive narratology and rhetorical activity. Furthermore, they function as an information system marked by enculturated networked individualism. This paper will explore existing theories of larp as a chaotic system that attempts to aggregate individual narratives into a cohesive whole by looking at larp activity as discourse within a rhetorical situation. I complicate this idea by bringing in Hall’s notion of encoding-decoding, which helps explain the interpretive and action-based agency afforded individual players in the game and the culturally dominant semiotic system that causes players to enforce or prefer certain interpretations, thus affecting game play and its outcomes. Ultimately I posit that using rhetorical theory to analyze larps helps us to understand how information in a larp travels, is interpreted, mapped, and enacted, thus creating the game itself. My goal is not merely to describe the experience of a larp, as other theorists have done, but to begin to think about why and how larps are experienced in this way.

Hansen (2003) claims that role-play is an emergent phenomenon that arises from individual players’ interaction with each other. Montola (2003) claims that larps consist of players who “construct diegeses in interaction,” and that these in-game truths are subjective to each individual player, but developed collaboratively over the course of the game. It should be noted that in a larp, as opposed to a table-top game, for example, the physical reality of the game-space is used as a basis for in-game (diegetic) reality. Unlike computer-based games, which have an interface of binary decision-making that forces players to make choices from among scripted opportunities created by game designers, larps have simply a starting point and the “vectors of the characters” (Hansen, 2003, Montola, 2004). The game emerges from the starting situation and is the result of improvisation and interaction among the players, who can draw from their imaginations, creating a wider range of play possibilities. Montola applies Aula’s (1996) chaos theory of human communications to the unpredictable but non-random system of larp. Montola notes that Aula’s three characteristics of chaotic systems — nonlinearity, recursivity, and dynamism — apply to larp game play.

Nonlinearity, or the absence of linear dependency on changes made during play, is similar to Latour’s concept of the mediator, rather than an intermediary. Messages or energy expended to cause change in the game are not merely transferred along a network of players. The message or action is changed as it travels, if it travels at all, as a player may choose to keep information secret. Inputs into the game do not equal outputs; there is a sense of randomness that is an integral part of the game experience.

Recursivity indicates that the “end result of the first situation is used as the beginning of the next one” (Montola, 2004). What is constructed by one player or gamemaster is used as the basis for what other players can and do construct as a result. This refers to both within a single instance of a larp (e.g. during game play), and over the course of a campaign game, played over many sessions. Recursivity is another way of stating that the game is co-constructed, woven together as Deleuze & Guattari’s assemblage or Levi-Strauss’ bricolage, from the available materials, over time, with each addition building on the next. A co-player’s contribution cannot be discarded, removed, or ignored. It must be incorporated. This, like nonlinearity, can cause the outputs to little resemble the inputs, as game play must veer into the new direction after the contribution of any player.

The third principle, dynamism, refers to the plasticity of the game situation, of the entire system’s ability to morph, in real-time, as a result of changes to the system. A change in the character changes the way the character behaves, and a change in the character’s behavior changes the system  s/he participates in and co-creates. The interaction of these three principles accumulate over time in a game, causing a seemingly insignificant utterance at the starting point to have potentially enormous consequences later.

Hansen (2003) notes that communication changes social relationships, and since a larp is fundamentally about a network of social relationships being role-played, these relationships change constantly as a result of communication. However, that is the extent to which Montola and Hansen consider communication as the “change agent” in a larp. They identify the larp  as an unpredictable, though not random, system best characterized as an emergent phenomenon and demonstrate that it follows the chaos system principles of nonlinearity, recursivity and dynamism. They do not look at what drives these principles, what causes them to be observable in the larp.

While these scholars have looked at describing what components comprise a larp, what players experience during a larp, or how to design larps that afford fun and authentic experiences, few, if any, scholars have considered what actually occurs during a larp, what creates or enacts the experience of the larp. They have looked at the “what” of a larp and not the “how” a larp happens. Larps are performed through speech, they are spoken into existence. Game play occurs as description, narration, and conversation among participants. Larps are discursive scenarios, and larps are fundamentally rhetorical acts.

According to Lloyd Bitzer (1968), rhetorical discourse “comes into existence as a response to a situation, in the same sense that an answer comes into existence in response to a question, or a solution in response to a problem” (p. 5).  Bitzer refers to a situation that requires a discursive response as the “rhetorical situation”, which he defines as “a complex of persons, events, objects, and relationship presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence” (p. 6). In other words, a situation is rhetorical if it can be resolved or changed through the introduction of discourse, or speech.

It’s not quite that simple, because Bitzer further defines exigence as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be … an exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse” (p.6). Conversely, an exigence is not rhetorical if it cannot be changed, or it can be changed without discourse, by the use of a tool or one’s own action, not in conversation with another. Furthermore, Bitzer notes that a rhetorical situation requires an audience that is comprised of not merely “hearers or readers” but those who can be influenced through the discourse to become “mediators of change” (p. 7). Lastly, Bitzer lays out the idea of constraints, or “persons, events, objects, and relations” which have the “power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” (p. 8). An orator who enters the situation harnesses these “beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives, and the like” and uses them to create change via the audience members.

Using Bitzer to look at the rhetorical nature of a larp, we can find some parallels. Certainly larps contain the basic elements of a rhetorical situation by Bitzer’s definition. The basic triangle of an exigence, audience, and constraints exist in the form of the game to be played and the central premise or conflict, the other players, and the mechanics and rules and setting of the game itself. The rhetor, or individual player, enters this situation, and through diegetic discourse, changes what happens in the game. Individual actions by a player would not be rhetorical under Bitzer’s definition, but speech by a player — the primary method to enact a larp — would constitute rhetorical action, especially as that speech evokes a response from other players, who in turn create change in the original exigence. As you can see, however, an immediate problem arises in trying to apply Bitzer to a larp. Bitzer’s model assumes a single rhetor (or a rhetor on behalf of a corporate entity) and a passive audience, neither of which exist in a larp. Larps consist of a multitude of rhetors, each discoursing in response to the perceived exigence, which, in another contradiction to Bitzer, may not be “the” exigence, as characters may have different goals and information about the situation they are engaging with. The only audience in a larp are the other players, who are not there merely to be acted upon by a rhetor and a mediator of the change s/he wishes to effect. They are there as their own agents of change.

Furthermore, for Bitzer, the situation is paramount: “rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation; the situation which the rhetor perceives amounts to an invitation to create and present discourse” (p. 8). The situation itself drives the resulting speech and governs what is appropriate, or “fitting” speech that can be said matches the situation and resolve the exigence. Other responses that are not designed to cause audience members to change the situation are not considered fitting; each rhetorical situation invites, and often requires or demands, a particular and proper structured response (pp. 9-10). In fact, Bitzer notes that, “the situation controls the rhetorical response in the same sense that the question controls the answer and the problem controls the solution. Not the rhetor and not persuasive intent, but the situation is the source and ground of rhetorical activity” (p. 6, emphasis mine). Thus, Bitzer’s sense of discourse and the rhetorical situation is prescriptive, leaving very little — if any — agency for the speaker/rhetor. In fact, Bitzer seems to be advocating a linear pattern of communication; if I say this, I expect that, my outputs can be predicted by my inputs.

The primacy of the situation and lack of agency for the rhetor under Bitzer’s model makes it unsuitable for explaining a larp fully. While the genre of the game and the basic premise — the situation that requires a response — certainly constrain what is fitting for in-game discourse, the purpose of a larp is to create the game as an active agent, and to interact with others who also have that discursive power. Larps are unscripted, and also have outcomes that are restricted only by the players’ imagination and the constraints of the game’s runtime. As Hansen noted, the gameframe is only the starting point of the larp, and the character descriptions are seen as “vectors” that provide direction for the players. A larp that is too scripted or controlled cannot be played; a larp does not consist of a single question or a single problem to be solved by a single rhetor. The multiplicity of agency and situation through plot arcs, conflicts, and players, might create a network of Bitzer’s rhetorical situations, occurring simultaneously, and then recursively, one resolution leading to the next, but even then the structured approach of his argument fails to describe the dynamism of a larp’s continuously changing situation and the nonlinearity that belies Bitzer’s notions of predictable desired outcomes as a result of the “proper discourse” to the “proper audience.”

Unlike Bitzer, who believes rhetorical situations are discrete, discernible, objective, and thus “real” or “genuine,” Richard Vatz, in a direct response to Bitzer, contends that the speaker perceives a situation, and often does so as a result of communication created through the interpretation of another rhetor (1973, pp. 155-156).  Vatz says that the characterization of a situation and the discourse used to describe or “respond” to it are not “according to a situation’s reality” (as Bitzer would have it), but according to the “rhetor’s arbitrary choice of characterization” (157). Vatz implies that we can manufacture exigence, and indeed situations themselves, out of language. Thus, Vatz flips Bitzer’s position to argue that rhetoric itself creates the exigence. Vatz contends that “meaning is not discovered in situations, but created by rhetors” (p. 158). Agency is placed within the subjective rhetor and not in a supposedly objective situation.

Vatz’s interpretation of a rhetorical situation comes closer to making sense for a larp, as it privileges the discourse itself and acknowledges the rtheorical choices made by the players as ones that not only are “fitting” or “dictated by the situation” (Bitzer) but also as ones that themselves create the salience of the situation (Vatz, p. 158). Vatz allows for the rhetor, or the player in a larp, to create reality through language, not merely communicate with an audience in response to a situation. Vatz acknowledges the primacy of the perception of the rhetor, and the choices s/he makes as constructing what becomes the “situation” or what discourse is put into play. The primacy of perception and the constructive nature of the reality that is acted upon with language liberates the player-rhetor from the prescriptiveness of an observable situation and makes more sense applied to the discursive activity of a larp, which takes place as Vatz would allow, in relationship to the rhetors who have come before, whose perceptions and interpretations through language have informed the current rhetor. This aligns with Montola’s explanation of the recursivity property of a larp, that one statement informs the next.

However, Vatz’s notions do not explain the synchronous and multiplicitous nature of simultaneous perceptions and utterances in a given larp. Indeed in a larp, there is no clear singular conversation (even though there often is a main story arc), but a multitude of them. Vatz does allows us to see that none of these competing discourses represent an “objective” or “correct” perception of the overall rhetorical situation of the larp; indeed, Vatz’s view of the primacy of the rhetor’s perception corroborates Montola’s (2003) view of that “every participant constructs his or her diegesis when playing” (p. 83).  Vatz’s model acknowledges that interpreted language creates the perceptions that constitute the reality, recognizing that the discursive activity is indeed a representation not an actuality, further corroborating Montola’s theory that the larp consists of personal, subjective diegeses that coexist and are related through communication (2003, 2012). But his model also does not allow us to take into account the physical reality of the larp, an important component that distinguishes it from other forms of role-playing games. Additionally, neither Bitzer’s nor Vatz’s model allows us to think about the movement between the competing yet combined realities of the fictional game (diegetic) and the brute reality of the world it is played in (non-diegetic).

As mentioned, a larp has a multiplicity of rhetors speaking simultaneously, a variety of exigences that are both in game and out of game, and no true audience, since all who participate have agency to speak and create. Furthermore, in a larp, speech is more than an epistemological construct or a heuristic device. Speech is actually a creative activity; through discourse, the game, the character, the shared experience is made. This is quite literal in a larp. If you speak something, it becomes true in the world of the game, the game diegesis. Other players must accept what you have said or described as true or real, and they must adjust their views and play accordingly. Gamemasters may have to intervene to connect the new generative speech act to the game’s narrative or canon, but it cannot be undone. In addition, some actions in larp are not performed, but described, so as not to put the physical bodies of the players in danger or discomfort (for example, a player may say, “I’m stabbing you with my dagger” or “We are having sex.”). In a larp, rhetorical speech acts are ontological. Discourse is not only the way of knowing, but is the way of being, of bringing into existence, of making reality. This is, to a degree, what Vatz was saying when he noted that the interpretation of a situation constitutes it, calls it into being, but Vatz’s purpose is to negate the universality or unity of situation, thus allowing for his premise of the speaker’s rhetorical agency.

Speech in a larp is more than the mere interpretation of communicated ideas, and more than the rhetorical requirement of having to be persuaded before taking action or creating change. Another player-character in a larp could disagree completely with the rhetorical turn a player just enacted, not wish to follow that thread or engage that discourse, and even actively attempt to thwart the intentions of the rhetor. But what he or she cannot do is ignore or invalidate the spoken truth. It cannot be argued, only complicated or twisted through additional, recursive speech acts. Thus, speech in a larp actually does create a kind of unity and universality that must be accepted by the other players. However, unlike Bitzer’s notion, this unity is not pre-existing and waiting to be discovered, but instead is created together through the interactive dynamism of the game. Bitzer and Vatz allow us to see that rhetoric is a plausible way to look at larps, but they do not account for the interactivity of the discourse, the fact that other players talk back and interact, that there is no primary rhetor, no distinction between rhetor and audience, and no stable message or narrative — only the nonlinear, recursive dynamism that unfolds rhetorically.

Stuart Hall (1993) agrees that the traditional communication model of a circuit or loop, as advocated by Bitzer, Vatz, and others, is too linear and too focused only the moment of message exchange, failing to take into account moments that precede and follow that discursive moment. Instead, he posits that discourse is a process of linked articulations in five distinct moments: production, circulation, distribution, consumption, reproduction (p. 478). Communication must be translated and transformed from one articulation to the next; at any one of these border-crossing moments, there is the opportunity for miscommunication or misinterpretation. At these gaps, the message is decoded, transformed, mediated or interpellated, and what was encoded by the rhetor is not guaranteed to be if-i-cant-hear-you-its-not-truedecoded by the recipient. Hall notes that “no one moment can fully guarantee the next moment with which it is articulated” (p. 478). In other words, the inputs do not equal the outputs, capturing the nonlinearity inherent in communication and in a larp. The idea of seamless transfer from speaker to hearer is a fiction that rhetoricians such as Bitzer, Vatz and others pretend to believe as it gives credibility, and perhaps validity to the necessity of intervening in a situation with discourse, and of the importance of rhetorical training to effect these supposed seamless transfers of information and causation.

Hall notes that the audience does not play a passive role in his model, indeed if the audience does not take any meaning from the discursive form, then it cannot be said to have been “consumed” or to have the desired effect (478). Indeed, any one of these moments of encoding and decoding are “determinate moments” where meaning has the possibility of being communicated, and then acted upon. Furthermore, Hall notes that communication isn’t as simple as person to person, even if we acknowledge what may be implicit in the message being spoken or the ability to understand and receive that message on the part of the hearer. Communication does not take place in a vacuum; what is both encoded and decoded is a result of social norms and practices, and the action that an audience member takes in response to discourse must enter this structure. It does not do so strictly in behavioral or positivistic terms, Hall notes, but through a complex network of “social and economic relations, which shape their ‘realisation’ at the reception end of the chain and which permit the meanings signified  in the discourse to be transposed into practice or consciousness (to acquire social use value or political effectivity)” (p. 480).

Hall helps us see that what is said is not the same as what is meant  or what is heard. And what is heard is not the same as what is understood or done as a result. Hall calls these equivalences or symmetries between the “encoder-producer and the decoder-receiver” which “interrupt or systematically distort what has been transmitted” (p. 480). As meaning crosses these gaps, especially if it must cross unequal relationships of social, political, ideological or discursive power, there is opportunity for intervention from an outside (or internalized) force that causes the meaning to be changed or transmuted. Montola (2004) agrees with Hall that “communication is never perfect; no meaning is ever perfectly translated to symbols, and no symbol is ever understood perfectly” (84). As a result, Montola argues there cannot be “an objective diegesis shared by all participants” because such an “objective diegesis” cannot be shared via discourse. The opportunities for the communications misfires are at least doubled in a larp, as one negotiates between the brute and gameworld realities; it can be argued that they are exponentialized due to the sheer number of rhetors and the conflation of rhetor and audience. Thus, the chaotic system of the larp comes from the nature of the performative, and discursive medium.

In a larp, where the discourse quite literally creates not only the perceived reality but the actuality of the game, communication misfires change the outcome of the game itself; they are the cause of the non-linearity and dynamism that are crucial to the larp medium. Furthermore, these encoder-producer ←→ decoder-receiver determinate moments (Montola’s (2004) bifurcation points) can come from either within the game (diegetic) or outside of it (non-diegetic). They can also be discursive or ambient. For example, a player could actually mishear another player, perhaps as a result of other conversations or action going on simultaneously. To stay immersed, the player-character may choose to react based on what was heard and interpreted, rather than interrupt action flow with a request for clarification. The physical positioning of players at the start of a larp, as Montola (2004) notes, affects the order in which a character meets other characters, potentially affecting every subsequent interaction, relationship, and interpretation of discourse, and thus, the outcome of the game. Other possibilities for interruption in this discursive action are from non-diegetic sources: a player’s hunger, the reminder that his car needs an oil change, or some other thought not related to the diegetic conversation at hand. In addition, a psychological trigger that comes up unexpectedly as a result of a spoken or ambient rhetorical choices can create an interruption in the transfer of information that might otherwise occur in a more predictable or structured or anticipated way. When one of these interruptions occurs, or when a player says something in the larp that is a “game-changer”, Hall notes that such “new problematic or troubling events, which breach our expectancies and run counter to our ‘commonsense constructs’, to our ‘taken-for-granted’ knowledge of social structures, must be assigned to their discursive domains before they can be said to ‘make sense’ (p. 483). More often than not, these unexpected statements get default-mapped to what Hall calls “preferred meanings” that have “the whole social order embedded in them as a set of meanings, practices, and beliefs” (483).

Indeed, as we know from rhetorical theory, a speaker’s effectiveness is based in part on how something is stated, and who states it. A speaker’s ethos is important in allocating him or her rhetorical powers and creating what Bitzer and Vatz desire: the ability to persuade and cause change as a result of the communication. Ethos is certainly something that can be calculated and advanced rhetorically, via both discursive and ambient elements such as

Prof. Xavier of X-Men

Patrick Stewart as Prof. Xavier in the X-Men embodies these qualities that create attractors.

grooming and dress/costuming, but ethos is also something that is interpreted by the receiver and may be connoted through social constructs that the rhetor may or may not be endowed with and powerless to change, such timbre of voice, height, squareness of jaw, or race, gender or sexual orientation. Hall discusses assigning these rhetorical choices and enactments to a set of “performative rules” or prearranged codes that “seek actively to enforce or prefer one semantic domain over another” (p. 484). Hall’s explanation of these default, or naturalized interpretative meanings, according to dominant social mores can help explain why, as Montola (2004) notes, “chaotic systems tend to follow attractors,” or “dynamic pattern[s] of behaviour the chaotic system tries to follow “ (p.158).

The only attractor that can be scripted in a larp is an initial one, such as a quest or a task, given by the gamemaster at the player briefing. After that, the players themselves choose whether to follow the given attractors or create new

Captain Kirk is awesome

Hmmm. We just do what the captain says.

ones (Montola, 2004). When the system attempts to decide whether to follow one or another attractor, mathematicians call these bifurcation points; we might call them determinate moments of rhetorical activity. Montola or Aula do not attempt to

Dr. Who David Tennant is awesome.

Hmmm…. I’m beginning to see a pattern here.

discover how or why players might choose one attractor over another; they only report that such bifurcation points exists and additional attractors arise. We can discover, however, that players are drawn to one attractor or another based on their rhetorical choices and the interpretation of those encoded discursive and ambient rhetorical acts. A character who speaks loudly, or with authority, who presents as strong or as having qualities of a leader, or who happens to have the hegemonic attributes of the dominant code will draw more attention and credibility from the other players, even if he (and it usually is a he, though not always) and thus become one of these attractors that has additional agency in the larp through other players’ interpretation at the determinate moments and willingness to follow at the bifurcation point.Furthermore, Montola (2003, 2012) notes that although meanings are encoded in the “building blocks of role-play” and these are interpreted by the players, that the actual meanings arise “from the diegesis constructed [by individual players] using the interpretations” (p. 88). Though he does not say so explicitly, Montola’s explanation corroborates Hall’s notion that meaning is not assigned until it is made part of a system, which, according to Hall, will, in all likelihood, be uncritically adopted from the dominant hegemonic codes. Yet, Hall notes that “there is no necessary correspondence between encoding and decoding” and that we must recognized that “‘correspondence’ is not given, but constructed” (p. 485). The equivalence between a rhetor and his or her interpretive audience can thus be altered or engineered. By understanding how a player-character, aka rhetor, aka encoder-decoder makes rhetorical choices about what is said and what is interpreted (and thus what is possible and what is played in a larp) one can make more accurate predictions of the probable game play and outcome and make some order in the chaos. These can be useful in terms of designing and enacting game scenarios that might work toward Hall’s negotiated code and against the dominant codes.

Rhetorical theory is also useful in helping us understand how information travels, is taken up and interpreted, is mapped to existing systems of meaning, both diegetic and non-diegetic, and creates the game play from the realm of possible articulations. Montola (2003) argues that “in role-play the amount of diegeses equals the number of participants and telling a story by larp requires successfully communicating the story into every diegesis in game” (p. 88). Approaching the larp as a rhetorical situation, or, better yet, as Barbara Biesecker’s deconstruction-based rhetorical transaction, whereby discourse equals “radical possibilit[ies]” of symbolic action (p. 127), gives us the tools to understand what seems to be a chaotic system governed by unknowable bifurcation moments and unpredictable attractors that drive action. Though we cannot predict a larp outcome because of the multiplicity of interpretations, the imperfect nature of communication, and the encoded power structures contained within, we can understand that discourse creates the actuality of the larp, it’s nonlinear, dynamic recursivity and its playability.Thus, it’s not mere chaos, or even “organized chaos.”  It is instead a rhetorical network of actors with the agency to speak the game into existence, to co-create, using diegetic and non-diegetic means, the flow and fun. Through this rhetorical transaction, meaning is interpreted, constructed, and enacted; the game is articulated and enacted, and the player-characters’ identities continually shift within the dynamic, nonlinear, and recursive contexts.

References

Biesecker, B. A. (1989). Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of “Différance.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, 22(2), 110–130.

Bitzer, L. F. (1992). The Rhetorical Situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 25, 1–14.

Bowman, S. L. (2010). The functions of role-playing games how participants create community, solve problems and explore identity. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Bowman, S. L. (2012). Jungian Theory and Immersion in Role-Playing Games. In E. Torner & W. J. White (Eds.), Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Participatory Media and Role-Playing (pp. 31–51). Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Fine, G. A. (2002). Shared fantasy: role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hakkarainen, H. & Stenros, J. (2003): “The Meilahti School: Thoughts on Role-playing”. In Gade, Morten, Thorup, Line & Sander, Mikkel (Eds.): When Larp Grows Up. Theory and Methods in Larp. Projektgruppen KP03, Copanhagen.

Hall, S. (1993). Encoding, Decoding. In S. During (Ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader (3rd ed., pp. 477–487). London; New York: Routledge.

Hansen, R. (2003). Relation Theory. In Gade, Morten, Thorup, Line & Sander, Mikkel (eds.). As Larp Grows Up — Theory and Methods in Larp (pp. 70-73). Knudepunkt 2003, Copenhagen. www.laivforum.dk/kp03_book.

Harding, T. (2007). Immersion revisited: role-playing as interpretation and narrative. In Lifelike (pp. 25–33). Dansk Ungdoms F\a ellesr\a ad. Retrieved from http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:213070

Kim, J. H. (2004): “Immersive Story. A View of Role-Played Drama” in Montola & Stenros (eds.): Beyond Role and Play. Solmukohta 2004. Retrieved from www.ropecon.fi/brap/ch2.pdf.

Larsson, E. (2005): “Larping as Real Magic” in Bøckman & Hutchison (eds.): Dissecting Larp. Knutepunkt 2005. Retrieved from knutepunkt.laiv.org.

Mackay, D. (2001). The fantasy role-playing game: a new performing art. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Montola, M. (2004). Chaotic Role-Playing. Beyond Role and Play Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination Ed. Montola, Markus and Stenros, Jaakko. Solmukohta. Retrieved from http://web.science.mq.edu.au/~isvr/Documents/pdf%20files/game-master/ch14.pdf

Montola, M. (2003). Role-Playing as Interactive Construction of Subjective Diegeses. In M. Gade, L. Thorup, & M. Sander (Eds.), As Larp Grows Up – Theory and Methods in Larp (pp. 82–89). Frederiksberg: Projektgruppen kp 03.

Montola, M. (2009). The invisible rules of role-playing: the social framework of role-playing process. International Journal of Role-Playing, 1(1), 22–36.

Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2003). Rules of play: game design fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Stenros, J. (2012). In defence of a magic circle: The social and mental boundaries of play. In DiGRA Nordic 2012 Conference (pp. 1–18). Retrieved from http://www.digra.org/dl/db/12168.43543.pdf

Torner, E., and White, W. J., 2012. Introduction. In: E. Torner and W. J. White, eds. Immersive gameplay: Essay on Participatory Media and Role-Playing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc.

Vatz, R. E. (1973). The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 6(3), 154–161.

Zimmerman, E. (2012, February 7). Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later. Retrieved March 11, 2014, from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6696/jerked_around_by_the_magic_circle_.php

Pictures:

http://www.troll.me/images/incompetent-boy-child/if-i-cant-hear-you-its-not-true.jpg

http://collider.com/wp-content/uploads/patrick-stewart-x-men.jpg

http://i3.kym-cdn.com/entries/icons/original/000/001/569/insp_captkirk_5_.jpg

http://faeronwheeler.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Allons-y-Alonso-Word-of-the-Week-Dr-Who-David-Tennant-Awesome.jpeg

Scaffolding Synthesis: The Cypher as Network

Scaffolding Synthesis: The Cypher as Network Rhetorical Situation Theory, Genre Theory, and CHAT Theories Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why? For the Synthesis project, my object of study is the hip hop cypher. This project will address the question “Why is studying my OoS useful to English Studies?” To do this, […]

It’s All in the Way You Scaffold Your Theory_Assignment for Case Study #4

As my classmates and I head towards the final case study (in which the Frankentheories begin to emerge from the colossal stitching together from the breadth of theories we have read this semester), we were asked to do a scaffolding assignment (an outline in the best sense of the word) to begin thinking about how we would answer the question, “Why is studying my Object of Study useful to English Studies?” So, deep breath, and away we go.

1) Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why? 

For this upcoming Case Study/Frankentheory, I am considering meshing together Rhetorical Activity Theory, Actor Network Theory, and Networked Individualism.

Rhetorical Situation Theory

-Looking at the ways in which rhetorical situations can occur within the gamespace of World of Warcraft. This theory helps me to look at the types of situations that produce rhetorical discourse for those within guilds, such as raid planning, player-player conflicts, and decisions regarding role-playing quests.

-With the application of this theory, I can look at how the quality of the rhetorical discourse within the guild can either mollify members (depending on the situation) or lead to ruptures within the group that may cause the guild to divide or fall apart completely. Vatz’s notion that rhetors must be held responsible for claiming the moment as a rhetorical situation as well as for what was done within the situation may be useful when going down this rabbit hole.

Actor Network Theory (ANT)

-This theory allows for me to explore technology as an actor (mediator as well as intermediary) alongside human actors to define and redefine the boundaries and existence of a group. It raises questions: What counts as an actor when looking specifically at a guild rather than at the gamespace at large? Are the actors the same despite narrowing of focus? And how do these actors work together, even though some are non-human?

-This theory also allows me to follow the threads (or trace the associations) of players’ activities through the technology and with one another to define what a guild is within and outside of the gamespace. What do players do with the technology of the game, their own hardware, and other communication devices, as well as resources found on the internet, do to maintain the guild as a group?

Networked Individualism

-I want to use this theory to explore how the social groups that are being created through the three revolutions (Social, Internet, and Mobile) are allowing gamers to craft social groups for themselves (in the game and outside of the game) fulfill needs prompted by their experiences within the gamespace and, more specifically, by being members of the same guild.

-Since WoW players do have access to many more resources than those found within the gamespace (official and unofficial forums, guild websites, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, guild ranking websites, and Wiki pages for the game), how does this empower players as players in the gamespace but also as members in their guild? Players are, essentially, not alone in the challenges they face in raids, on quests, and within social guild dynamics the way they would be if communication technology was not as far along as it is, but how does a player harnessing the “information at his/her fingertips” change the dynamics of the group?

How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together?

Actor Network Theory and Networked Individualism are similar in that they are looking at society with technology in mind: ANT as humans and non-human actants working together to create the boundaries and maintain the group (guild, in this case), and Networked Individualism as people (gamers) using technology to create diverse and yet loosely collected social groups that fulfill needs that traditional social groups (those once limited more so by proximity) cannot. For both of these theories, technology and the social are focal points in the sense that they are looking at how actors (human and non-human, though the agency is emphasized differently between the theories) are working together. Rhetorical Situation Theory may seem to be the odd theory as it looks mainly at humans and human activity, but rhetoric is something being passed within a Networked Society (such as when networked individuals create content on the internet, read news articles, or communicate with friends and family) and may be part of the associations that ANT researchers trace through actors as defining and maintaining a group (such as the activities taking place within a labor union). All three of these theories are about the social (however each defines it) and about what happens within that social (to different degrees and outlooks, of course).

How do they fill each other’s gaps?

Actor Network Theory takes a pretty broad view of human and non-human actors working together to define what is social (and, in this case, what is a guild). Networked Individualism narrows this focus to the needs being met for or sought by the humans within these social networks, and how these humans are using communication technology that is in turn reshaping how they interact with one another. ANT brings technology as an actant into the discourse, while Networked Individualism provides a framework for what people are doing within social groups and how they are defining the groups of which they are members. For my case study on WoW, these two theories combined will give me a macro and micro view of technology at play alongside humans, ensuring that the communication technology and game software are receiving as much attention and agency in developing and maintaining the networks within which the humans (physically, in some senses, and through their avatars) are operating.

Rhetorical Situation Theory adds to this discourse because rhetoric is moving through the networks being defined by the human and non-human actors and shaping the kinds of experiences being had by the guild members using the technology. In a gamespace, codes in the forms of zeroes and ones are the not the only things moving within a network. In a guild, code helps to relay the rhetoric moving between players during situations (both formal, such as raid planning, and informal, such as conversations between players about the dividing up of loot). By threading Rhetorical Situation Theory in with ANT and Networked Individualism, I can explore how players in the guild are using rhetoric to define the boundaries of the group, while at the same time, the hardware, software, and players are working together simultaneously within a network defined by the relay of code and commands.

How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?

This question took me a little while to consider and I am still not completely sure about how all three of the theories align with my own position as a scholar (or what that position is or will, ultimately, be). While I do not consider myself a rhetorician, Rhetorical Theory meshed together with the more technologically-laden theories of Actor Network Theory and Networked Individualism seem to be inherently linked to Cultural Studies, which I am hoping to work with as I continue making my way through the PhD program. Both ANT and Networked Individualism include or revolve around, respectively, technology as working alongside the humans who are using them, which offers interesting insight into how players and software and hardware mingle together to create or disrupt the experiences that video games offer for a single player, limited groups of players, and millions of players across different servers.

How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?

I chose guilds in Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) Games, narrowing down to World of Warcraft while working on my first case study, as my Object of Study because of my interest in Video Game Studies from an English Studies point of view. At first, I thought of looking at how narratives bind members of guilds and how such interactions could be used for college students, especially those in Composition courses. This emphasis switched, without me recognizing it until we were asked to rewrite our Object of Study Proposals, to how rhetorical activity can take place in a virtual environment and be influenced by the technology players have access to.

While Rhetorical Activity Theory was outside of my range as a scholar (I had never taken a class on Rhetoric, and had only worked with concepts from Classical Rhetoric with my Composition students for lessons on argumentation), the idea presented in Latour’s Actor Network Theory of technology as something more than just hardware and software that we manipulate really drew me in. Technology as a mediator (rather than as just an intermediary, though it can also be that too) connected with what I want to study for Role Playing Games (RPGs) on consoles (primarily PlayStation and XBox). As for Rainie and Wellman’s Networked Individualism Theory, I was familiar with how communications between people in society has been altered through advancements with the technology they use, but I am curious now to see how that Networked Individualism can play out for players in guilds whose sole communication can occur because they are networked in this way. As video game console developers continue to harness and enhance players’ abilities to communicate nationally as well as internationally with one another through the developers’ networks (PlayStation Network and XBox Live), this idea of a networked individual becomes increasingly relevant.

Though I am relatively new to the direct (conscious?) exploration of rhetorical activity in video games (I was most likely doing it without realizing it), I could say that one of my biases that came with me as I approached this project (series of case studies) was the idea that technology has a greater influence on players than just being what the players use. Game Studies scholar recognize that the limitations of technology and the constructs/boundaries of the gamespace can push players in certain directions for how they behave, how they communicate with one another, and what kinds of work-arounds they often look for or create in reaction to the limitations of the gamespace (such as the use of forums, Skype if the in-game communication system is lack or non-existent, creation of YoutTube videos).

Rise, Frankentheory, Rise!


Scaffolding (Non)Synthesis

  • Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why?
    • Ecosystems/Ecologies (Bateson, Spellman, Gibson, Norman)– Looking at larp as a system that is organic, makes more sense to me than as an organization (such as what activity system theory would allow). Larps are, by design, interactive, with individuals being given a particular role within the system to enact. Ecosystems allows me to look at the relationships between the nodes in the network, and to look at how the environment affords and constrains gameplay and fun for the members.
    • Three Ecologies / Ecosophy — Guattari  — Guattari looks at layers of ecologies combining to create a rich reality that operates on the physical, mental, and social levels. Looking at the larp as a multi-layered system allows me to explore the dual-consciousness of player-character, the interiority of the game experience through personal diegesis, and the interactivity within the limitations of physical bodies in physical spaces (which have both diegetic and non-diegetic meanings, contexts and affordances.
    • Role playing as diegetic construction of worlds — Montola → this Finnish larp theorist discusses how the individual interacts with the environment and his/her individual perspective constitutes the reality of what the “game” is. I can use this to show how perception influences what the affordances and constraints of an environment are, and how this can differ from designed affordances by the GM; also how this duality of player and character, who may have different abilities yet coexist int he same body.
    • Three Aspects of Larp — Stenros → the mapping of pre-, during- and post- play for larp as creating an ecosystem (and recognizing that larp is more than the playtime; the playtime is afforded by the pre-work and meaning is made of it from the post-work)
    • Possible: Castells: His concept of the elision of self into the network, timeless time, and the space of places and space of flows will allow me to look at the particular continguity of a larp that takes place in a particular physical reality (brute world) and in a network of imagined personal diegeses (“the game world”).
    • Possible: rhetorical situation, Bitzer/Vatz: in that larps are spoken, they are enacted primarily through discourse and resultant action. They are in response to a rhetorical situation. The exigence may be from in the game (diegetic) or outside the game (non-diegetic) or both.
    • Possible: Rainie Wellerman and networked individualism, which can demonstrate how the larp ecosystem provides benefits for the players (non-diegetic) by affording opportunities for learning, problem solving, decision making, personal interaction and EMPATHY.
  • How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together? How do they fill each other’s gaps?
    • Ecosystems theory allows me to look at how the larp works as a system, that co-creates, using living and non-living things. It also allows me to look at the individual nature of the role played
    • Guattari allows me to bring in multiple layers of a larp into simultaneous ecosystems; layers of play between a brute and diegetic ecosystem.
    • Rainie, Wellerman let me talk about benefits of such a networked system (both for play and for the player) and get at the individual within the system
    • Castells lets me talk about how the network of the larp moves in and out of the spaces and flows, with power changing hands and new networks forming as capital (in or out of game) is exchanged; this can help get at perceived affordances and constraints (vs. designed ones)
  • How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?
    • I see myself as a social-constructivist and larp helps me explain the co-creation of worlds, narrative, composition, behavior, and as a microcosm of society that can be more safely explored in terms of its norms, roles and boundaries.
    • I am a writer and a teacher, and believe English studies affords a means to know oneself and find one’s place and power in the world through narrative, alternative points of view, control of language and expression of thoughts and feelings.
    • Pedagogically, understanding larp design and experience allows one to design for experiential learning, especially learning to create empathy.  In many ways a teacher in a flattened classroom that fosters learner-to-learner interaction functions as a GM in a larp, with the bulk of the work done “pre-larp/lesson” then monitoring the instance of play/learning, then debriefing from it.  A larp and a lesson are both designed to achieve goals. I will not focus on “gamification” or levels or points as motivational tools; instead I will focus on game design (with both content and affective goals) as lesson design. The power and information exchanges of larps allow players and GMs to alternate between “guide-on-the-side” and a “sage-on-the-stage” roles, which is more indicative of the microcosm of a classroom and the macrocosm of society, rather than a false binary of one or the other.
  • How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?
    • I came to this project because of my belief that larp offers something beneficial for both individuals and society → a way to help us understand:
      • The roles we play everyday
      • The norms we uphold, consciously or unconsciously
      • The beliefs we have about ourselves
      • The relationships we form, rules we follow, power we express and give
    • By creating the safespace of the larp, we can be freed from our mundane world and explore other points of view (but we carry those beliefs and physical limitations with us) (individual level)
    • Larps are interactive and require people to collaborate → this is a pedagogical lesson important for democratic society
    • Rhetorically, larps are sites of cultural production and fuse elements of composition, performativity, and play — all of which are areas of English Studies.
    • Larps are embodied and culturally situated, and thus are a site of analysis of norms related to play, story, gender, mores, etc. while bringing the body back into the reality of experience (rather than attempting to transcend it through a digital avatar).

Order:

  • Explain larp as an ecosystem
  • Introduce Stenros’s three aspects; map larp to pre-, during, post → how that functions as ecosystem
  • Introduce Montola
  • Benefits of looking at larp this way

Case Study Synthesis: Outline of a Frankentheory

Frankentheory Outline

 

Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why?

Ecology

  • Allows me to look at the OoS’s role within the larger network (EKU) (ecosystem and biospheres)
  • Explains how the network grows, evolves, dissolves (population diversity)
  • Explains the interrelatedness of groups and environment

Distributed Cognition

  • Acknowledges the importance of the environment for human action
  • Distinguishes between affordances and perceived affordances

CHAT

  • Acknowledges the complexity of rhetorical activity (multiple layers)
  • Considers the ideological foundations and results of rhetorical activity
  • Whereas ecology posits succession, CHAT allows that activity is intentional and rhetorical rather than natural

Actor Network Theory

  • Considers the specific connections at the individual level
  • Allows for non-human agency

How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together? How do they fill each other’s gaps?

Similarities

  • They all acknowledge the difficulty in defining boundaries
  • All consider multiple influences in shaping the network

Gaps

  • Ecology, distributed cognition, and CHAT (activity theory) all center on organisms as actors. Actor Network Theory allows for the agency of non-living actors. It seems that ANT, then, fills in the gap of connecting distributed cognition and CHAT. If non-living objects can serve as mediators rather than simple tools of action, then rhetorical action is transformed by human and non-human interaction.
  • ANT’s focus on the individual makes it difficult to understand any network that is larger than the individual. By combining it with ecology and CHAT, we are able to get a more holistic understanding of the OoS while also acknowledging the importance of the individual’s network. For example, we can look at how the OoS’s approach to improving writing (CHAT) is juxtaposed with an individual’s relationship to writing (ANT).
  • Distributed cognition (what we read of it, anyway) has a very narrow focus—human interactions with the environment that focus on the environment as tools for human action. CHAT and ecology broaden that perspective to understand how those interactions operate within a larger context and their implications.

How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?

WPA scholar

 

  • Ecology: aligns with my belief that it is important to acknowledge that writing programs operate within the larger network of a university and explains the importance of having diverse groups invested in the program. It also reaffirms that changes to a program are long-lasting and, potentially, irreversible
  • CHAT: recognizes the importance of understanding how ideologies and foundational beliefs (laminated chronotopes) impact the visible structures and literate activity within a program
  • ANT: Focus on the individual’s connections aligns with the idea of writing as a process that is both personal and collaborative. Writing is shaped by the individual’s experiences, which are influenced by other individuals

Digital Media Scholar

  • CHAT: Recognizes that the traditional rhetorical canons are insufficient for mapping digital rhetorical activity (Prior et al. say that they’re insufficient—and always have been—for all rhetorical activity, but the gap seems to be revealed by digital composing)
  • ANT: Acknowledging the agency of non-human actors aligns with digital media scholarship. Changes in available media allow for remediation, influencing and shaping the design choices that people make
  • Distributed cognition: Specifically, affordances and perceived affordances help explain both the designer’s choices AND the user’s uses.

How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?

  • My background in writing centers and teaching English has taught me to see the writing process as both a personal and a collaborative endeavor. The methods that we use to teach writing are based on a history of praxis that has evolved.
  • I took Louise’s WPA course as part of SDI last summer. While I’ve always perceived that writing programs operate within the larger system of a university, the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate offices, departments, and programs was a big focus of the class. As a result, I chose this OoS partly as a way to better understand that interconnectedness.
  • As the first multiliteracy center of its kind, the Noel Studio presents an interesting case study for examining the numerous external and internal influences on communication processes. As the Coordinator of Writing (the first one, responsible for shaping the position), I feel the pressure of trying to recognize, understand, and account for all of these influences when it comes to training consultants and dealing with student composers.
  • I’ve seen first-hand how non-useful it is to disregard the agency of communication technology when working with students on their communication projects. As Jenny Rice has explained, understanding the affordances of different media impact the invention process and disregarding those affordances limits the potential effectiveness of a text.
  • In terms of design, thinking about how others can perceive and use the affordances of a text is just as important for a student composing a digital text as it is for a student using the technology to compose.
  • I recognize that the Noel Studio is the result of the ideologies, epistemologies, and politics of diverse groups, both institutionally and disciplinary. I also believe that understanding how the Noel Studio operates in terms of networks will inform not only my work but also the work of others at EKU and others in writing, communication, and multiliteracy centers.
  • I acknowledge that each theory has become another thread/connection in my own development as a WPA and Digital Media scholar and that each connection influences my daily approach to working in the Noel Studio.
  • As a doctoral student with an emphasis in Technology and New Media studies, I’ve been examining arguments for a digital rhetorical theory to expand or replace the traditional rhetorical canons. As such, I agree with Prior et al. that the traditional canons are insufficient for mapping rhetorical activity

 

Virtual Ecosystems of World of Warcraft_Case Study #3

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion. Image hosted on Blizzard's official website for WoW.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion. Image hosted on Blizzard’s official website for WoW.

Literature Review

Much of the scholarship surrounding World of Warcraft (WoW) focuses on social dynamics, such as whether or not people are isolated or more connected, gold farming in China, and how Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games can be used in classrooms (the game specifically or skills learned and honed in-game by players. For Steven L. Thorne, Ingrid Fischer, and Xiaofei Lu, in their article “The Semiotic Ecology and Linguistic Complexity of an Online Game World,” explore the affordances and environment of what they term the semiotic ecology of the gamespace, though they conclude that “external websites function as keystone species within WoW’s broader semiotic ecology” as players in their sample admit to constantly seeking advice and information from these external websites in regards to quests, armor, and lore. They also found that, while in-game text chat functions can help gamers internationally come together and learn each other’s languages, “The analysis of the text samples from the external websites revealed a high degree of lexical sophistication, lexical diversity, syntactic complexity, and based on the D-level scores, a significant proportion of structurally complex sentences…the most popular WoW-related external websites are relatively rich in lexical sophistication and diversity, include multiple genres – from informational and expository prose to interactive ‘I-you’ and conversational text types, and illustrate a high proportion of both complex syntactic structures as well as interactive and interpersonally engaged discourse. It also bears noting that related research focusing on the cognitive content of strategy and game-play websites shows that these texts are rhetorically and logically complex.” MMOs like WoW may be games and research may fluctuate between considering such games as having positive and negative effects on players, but researchers are finding that these games and the literature that was created outside of the gamespace do provide players with environments in which learning can take place, especially that of the semiotic.

Other ecological theories, beyond that of semiotics have been applied to the MMO. In their article, “Social Mediating Technologies: Social Affordances and Functionalities,” A. G. Sutcliffe, V. Gonzalez, J. Binder, and G. Nevarez place WoW into discourse with other social media technologies, like Facebook, Wikipedia, and Blacksburg Electronic Villagein order to understand the affordances that the technologies provide to their users. They draw upon theorists like Gibson, Norman, and Ackerman, as well as “Clark’s common ground theory,” when giving a broader overview of computer-mediated communication (CMC). The authors found that, when looking at communication modalities, “The game provides visual and audio interaction, which meets most of the modalities criteria, with partial support for reviewability as long as the feedback from previous actions persists; the game does not meet the criterion of revisability unless editing settings and skills levels are considered.” The authors then drew upon other scholarship, and their own, in order to understand how the goals for players in WoW matched up with people who were using other forms of social media: “Sherlock (2007) explored the role of groups in WoW and compared the game with social networking websites, arguing that WoW ties the formation of groups to shared objectives and motives (i.e., guilds). When forming or joining a group for quests, the members need a good balance of skills and abilities and a shared goal. This contrasts with SNS, where interest matching, shared background, or other social factors shape group formation. WoW shares social affordances with Wikipedia and BEV, the other community based SMTs.” They conclude that WoW provides players with a variety of social affordances that allow them to keep in touch, exchange information in-game as well as out of game, and participate in multiplayer activities.

Let’s Begin

While World of Warcraft is an online game, the code underlying the game allows for virtual representations of ecosystems, but ones that truly alter only when an expansion set or a patch rework the code. The gamespace across the servers can be seen as a virtual ecosystem, separate yet not from the rest of the online world, and each server, in turn, becomes a smaller ecosystem. The same occurs for cities within each server. These cities, populated permanently by non-playable characters (NPCs) and temporarily by players, are surrounded by pixelated flora and fauna. What is interesting is that the cities do not really bleed over into the wilderness, and monsters from the wild cannot approach the city without NPC guards rushing forward to kill the monsters. In this sense, the programmed ecosystem of the gamespace can never fully emulate or imitate a natural ecosystem, as the software only allows for activity within the parameters of its code. Everything has its particular place, except the players, who are free to move as they will, looking for boss battles, dungeons, side quests, and one another.

A city center in WoW. Image hosted on the blog, World of Games&Fixes.

A city center in WoW. Image hosted on the blog, World of Games&Fixes.

For players, the programmed cityscapes and landscapes are the environments in which their avatars as beings-in-the-virtual-world maneuver, offering their avatars social affordances as well as virtual but purposeless representations of real world affordances. Each player lives in the “meat space,” operating within the ecosystem of his or her house, neighborhood, city, and so on, but, when they log onto the internet and a game, players allow their attention and activity to also blend over into an informational ecosystem, composed of digital content created by zeroes and ones. Their bodies tap keyboards, adjust screens, and shift in chairs, but their minds extend beyond the skin (as Bateson would put it) into a gamespace where they act as nodes in a series of ever-larger networks composed of millions of players whose physical proximity is not necessary. Players’ avatars can inhabit, interact, and move through the virtual gamespaces, with players’ physical presence only filtering in as voices and text across chat systems, as well as second-hand through avatars’ actions.

In order to apply Ecology Theory to a virtual world, we must acknowledge that a virtual world only functions within the parameters which had been established before and reestablished over the course of the game’s lifespan. Beasts (recognizable and fictitious) populate the gamespace, but only because they have been programmed into being visually represented as pixelated images. As well, the various ecosystems represented in the game, and the NPCs and beasts within them, behave in a certain way because of the code underlying them. It is not a natural ecosystem where surprising phenomena can take place and ecosystems can blend together, rupture one another, or disappear quietly, unless new codes are implemented into the software. The software does not age NPCs or monsters; no matter the length of time a player has an active account, most of the virtual inhabitants of the game will be moving through the same cycle of selling wares, wandering through streets or forests or deserts, and guarding or attacking those passing by. The only thing that can occur organically within the virtual gamespace are the relationships among the players-avatars. Even these relationships cannot totally escape moderation, but they do exist and function more naturally. For WoW, like other MMOs, it is a virtual world in which the outside world is constantly in contact. In this sense, guilds and guild members in WoW can be considered ecosystems and as parts of larger ecosystems, but such ecosystems are artificial. Ecology Theory looks as guilds as wholes, but also at guild members as beings in an artificial environment.

Throughout the gamespace, there are different kinds of terrains, each sporting different types of monsters and dungeons. Cities are scattered throughout the servers, offering players transportation (in the form of flight paths, teleportation, zeppelins, or trams), banks, inns, and auction houses (for Faction cities). Though these are virtual spaces, the different terrains in Azeroth (name of the game world) have a variety of affordances for players’ avatars. The code creates a landscape upon which avatars can walk, climb, run, swim, and ride, but if there are bugs in the system, the landscape has moments where that affordance disappears (such as when a character falls through a wall or drops through a floor into virtual nothingness. There are also virtual solid substances in the game, such as weapons, armor, clothing, food, oils, stones, with the list extending outwards. Some of these items come pre-crafted, but others can be, in a sense, “fabricated by hand,” though the concept of manual labor in a game is never an accurate description of what occurs in-game (Gibson 131). Each of these affords players, through their avatars, something that will, hopefully, aid them in the game, but the gamespace does not change because of them, so players, even working within guilds, have limited agency within the scope of the artificial ecosystem.

Players only truly have control over how their avatars move through the various ecosystems represented throughout the game. An example of this would be a guild moving through a city. The city does not change because of their presence, their money does not alter how a vendor operates, and the city guards do not react when a large group moves through the space. Instead, players’ behaviors change due to the new environment in which they are playing (some players use the safety afforded by cities and towns to let their characters idle while they attend to responsibilities in the “meat space” or search online for advice and guides for in-game activities). They are not engaging bystanders in battle, they may be using a guild bank, and gathering supplies in the form of potions and armor. Once they leave the city, the behavior of the guild alters to adapt and meet the challenges of dungeons, random battles, and quests.

Where guilds and guild members have the greatest agency in-game is though the social affordances of the game, with pathways like text chats, voice chats, message boards, and guild banks. Through these social affordances, it is information (strategies, character details, object details, quest advice, social facts about the guild and the gamespace at large, roles of the sub-groups) moving within the microscopic level of the guild and between the members, not flowing down in a hierarchical fashion, but like a spider web of information to all members. Because the guilds are part of the ecosystem and do not quite compose an ecosystem onto themselves, guild members as nodes can do little to affect the programmed ecosystem around them. Instead, they leave their marks through reputation, activities, and guild rankings outside of the game, and the existence of their guild for other players. The guild as a node is only as important as the draw and interest in produces in other players throughout the gamespace. Guild officers have more power, in a sense, than non-power and new gamers because they have greater access and (usually) more experience with what can be accomplished through the social affordances provided by the gamespace, but even they do not have much agency in the ecosystem of the server or the ecosystem of WoW. The social affordances allow these nodes to have access to one another, sharing similar experiences with their avatars as beings-in-the-virtual-world, and carving out a communication and informational space that they can use to craft spaces outside of the gamespace as their own, causing the activities in the artificial ecosystem of the game to bleed over into the informational network of the internet.

However, affordances in the gamespace are not only directed at avatars or as social affordances for player communication. Some perceived affordances, Don Norman’s concept, are equally useful for players, especially for advanced players, and their navigation and success in the gamespace. Players can access addons in order to modify and enhance the user interface, such as damage meters, performance measurements, and raid cooldowns as well as communications. These perceived affordances, which can be created officially by Blizzard or unofficially by players, can help give players greater agency in-game, especially during group raids where information can be crucial for the team to perform cohesively (with each player successfully fulfilling his or her role) but also to look back and judge places where performance could be tweaked or failed completely, as a way to enhance group performance for the next raid or the next completion of the same raid.

World of Warcraft Usability. Image hosted on the website, elsabartley .co.uk

World of Warcraft Usability. Image hosted on the website, elsabartley.co.uk

Because gamers are dealing with a virtual ecosystem, what they can physically do to interact with the gameworld is afforded to them by the keyboard and the mouse, and how they can interact with their fellow guild members is afforded to them through the keyboard and/or a headset. While only certain keys afford certain actions in-game, running, cast spells, healing, attacking, making gestures, and so on, not all keys will afford players actions. The software of most MMOs also sketchy when it comes to touch-screen affordances, as touching such screens will cause movement of the player or the camera angle, but do so sloppily because the software is not truly programmed for such technology.

The perceived affordances of the gamespace are based on cultural constraints and convictions, but they also help to redefine those same constraints and convictions internationally. The layout, however, was constructed by Blizzard, a company that is located in the United States, so the cultural conventions and constraints are heavily influenced by US cultural norms. But, since the game has been around for almost a decade or more, the visual layout for things like the menus, the action boxes, and help guides are now familiar to players, regardless the country from which they are playing. These players may not be from a single culture, but they do constitute a group. They are WoW gamers, which becomes an aspect of their identity tying them together. These are perceived affordances players expect to be there when they log on to the game, and their familiarity is useful for new or returning players because it is a system where they can seek advice in-game and out of game.

Like any group of organisms functioning within a much larger ecosystem, guilds do emerge and disintegrate, mutating into smaller and larger versions of themselves as people begin and quit the game, separate into separate guilds due to in-fighting or stagnation, and vanish altogether. These guilds use the various kinds of affordances offered to them within the gamespace (as well as those external but related) to enhance their performance as individuals and groups, to stay in contact and relay information (though that information can sometimes become misinformation), and to share experiences that bind them as a unit (though such experiences and players’ interactions with and reactions against each other may also be what destroys a group). The guilds as groups and players as individuals are the organic reactions within a highly artificial set of ecosystems.

Where to Go From Here?

While Ecology Theory is very interesting in looking at what an MMO gamespace can afford players (as visual imitations of real world affordances—houses, banks, transportation—, social affordances in the way information can be relayed throughout the virtual environment, and perceived affordances granted to players from the creators and through player-innovation), from the theorists we read, it is hard to talk about the ecosystems of the gamespace. I was surprised by how hard it is to reconcile conversations about organic ecosystems with virtual ecosystems that have players’ avatars moving through different terrains, because the artificial ecosystem is programmed to run on a cycle and be the same for everyone. Players of MMOs have very little agency in the workings of the gamespace, finding only small alterations that respond to their actions, generally with certain NPCs making comments about a quest being completed.  Players are operating their avatars within a sandbox world, and yet there is very little they can do to affect the world at large.

Instead, it is the interactions of the players and the information moving between them where they have the greatest agency in WoW’s different levels of ecosystem. As well, players have greater agency in how they can tap into the information output of the game and their (and their fellow guild members’) activities by using addons. It is the perceived affordances of the gamespace that allow players to move more successfully through the gamespace as individuals and as groups. It was also intriguing to realize that the artificial ecosystems being depicted in-game are so strictly divided: wilderness does not intrude upon civilization, or at least not for long as city guards are programmed to fight and defeat any monsters who leave their territory. If I were to try discussing the ecosystems of WoW on a scale beyond the theorists we have read, I would definitely look more into virtual environments and how the perceived affordances of the gamespace make up for the meaningless imitations scattered throughout. The gamespace is an ecosystem, one that could still continue existing (for a while, at least) without people connecting to it, but the people, especially through guilds, are where the most interesting analyses of WoW come into play as their avatars moving through the virtual space are the “organisms plus environment.”

References

Bateson, Gregory. “Form, Substance, and Difference.” Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1987. [PDF].

Gibson, James J. “Theory of Affordances.” The Information for Visual Perceptions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986. [PDF].

Norman, Don. “Affordances and Design.” JND.org. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Sutcliffe, A. G., V. Gonzalez, J. Binder, and G. Nevarez. “Social Mediating Technologies: Social Affordances and Functionalities.” International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction 27 .11 (2011): 1037-1065. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Thorne, Steven L., Ingrid Fischer, and Xiaofei Lu. “The Semiotic Ecology and Linguistic Complexity of an Online Game World.” ReCALL 24.3 (September 2012): 279-301. Cambridge Journals. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.

Just Because I Can

 


Case Study #3: The Ecosophy of Larp

Note: This case study is building towards a larger theory, as proposed in my Topic Proposal Redux. In that theory, I will use Guattari, Gibson, Bateson, Norman, and other theorists related to the affordances and constraints of an ecosystem and ecologies. I will also bring in multiple levels of play (as written, as played, as remembered) and the types of play displayed by various members of the ecosystem (Forge Theory, Edwards, Bøckman). I will relate that to the larp as a rhetorical situation with multiple rhetors (who are simultaneously the audience) and to the movement between diegetic and non-diegetic worlds (a system within a system) as expressed by Montola and others. The graphic below is a chart that delineates some of the connections I am making among the various theories. Though this is too complex to entertain in the short space of 2,500 words here, I am giving a taste of what is to come. In this space, I will discuss how I arrived at the idea of larp as an ecosystem, discuss how it behaves as one as well as how its phases correspond to Guattari’s ecologies. I will also discuss a pedagogical tool that can be used as a theoretical lens to analyze the designed affordances and constraints of a given larp. I will not yet discuss the tension between these designed or inherent affordances and constraints and those perceived by the players or characters – that will be developed in the final theory.

Literature Review
Finnish larp theorist Jaako Stenros delineates what he calls three “aspects” of larp in his Aesthetics of Action conference presentation. He lists the “framework” as designed by the larpwrights as the first or primary aspect, consisting of background material, the sketch of the roles and their social network, game mechanics, and sometimes character outlines. The second aspect is the larp runtime, during which the larp’s first level is turned over to the influence of the players, who create the experience. Stenros notes that this larp aspect is ephemeral and dynamic: “the players can run away with it” and “it is lost the moment the larp [allotted gametime] ends.”  His third aspect is the larp “as remembered, interpreted, and documented” during which the players come together to share their individual experiences of the larp as played, and to co-create a kind of communal meaning of the experience. Markus Montola (2009) notes that larps use the principle of equifinality, or multiple paths to the same end state. This agreed-upon end state is co-constructed during the third aspect of larp, which follows the actual game.  However, as Stenros reiterates, this is not to be considered a finite resolution that is simply decided upon once and codified. Rather, “as the piece [the particular instantiation of a larp] is debated later, discussed and critiqued, its meaning continues to shift” (Aesthetics).

I will summarize Stenros’s three aspects as 1. Larp As Written; 2. Larp As Played and 3. Larp As Remembered or Narrated, noting that the three levels take place before, during, and after the runtime of a particular iteration or instantiation of a larp. Stenros goes on to discuss the activity of the three aspects as framing, building/enriching and negotiating. The table below summarizes these simultaneous concepts:

Phase or Aspect Timeframe Primary Activity
As written Prior to game-play Framing
As played During game-play Building, enriching, interpreting
As remembered After game-play Negotiating and narrativizing

Here is a brainstorm of the activity that takes place pre-larp, during-larp, and post-larp:

Larp Wall Charts Brainstorm three phases

These three phases of larp seem to create an ecosystem of larp, where any given larp is an interactive system moving within and between these three aspects — as the network or system is created, enacted, and dissolved. Ecosystems are ways to explain things that are dynamic, in a state of flux, and whose outcomes/outputs cannot be fully predicted mechanically or even computationally or logarithmically. An ecosystem is concerned with movement, distribution, exchange, and transformation enacted by invested, adaptable members who together co-create the system through production and consumption in relationship with one another.

Layers of rainforestEcologies are fundamentally dynamic networks in that they exist only in the relationships, in the movement among the nodes, which operates according to protocols unique to each member, but translated into a working, mutually beneficial partnership. Of course, a larp is a constructed ecosystem, a world made by intelligent design – at least the geometry and geography or framework of it, as discussed above. In a larp, people are portraying roles within the constructed game-space ecosystem that is nested inside the outer ecosystem of the mundane world. This system is an ecosystem because it is dynamic, teeming, and alive, with each player occupying a particular niche and behaving according to his/her own perceptions and interpreting his/her own diegesis. Indeed, as Stenros notes, “Role-play is pretend play with a social context and shared rules” (Aesthetics, emphasis added).

In an ecosystem, every entity has a role, according to his/her affordances and constraints, in order to keep the system moving toward its goal of homeostasis, during which an individual population or an entire ecosystem regulates itself against negative factors and maintains an overall stable condition (Spellman 20). Spellman identifies roles into two categories: living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) (15). He further divides the abiotic components into three categories: inorganic substances, organic compounds, and climate regime. I will return to these three levels as depicted in a larp later, when I discuss artifacts and The Mixing Desk.  Defining an ecosystem as “a cyclic mechanism in which biotic and abiotic materials are constantly exchanged”, Spellman delineates levels of production and consumption of these materials (15-16). I have added this column to my larp grid below to demonstrate how these roles and levels of production/consumption fit into the ecosystem of a larp:

Level or Aspect Timeframe Primary Activity Ecosystem Role
As written Prior to game-play Framing Primary producer
As played During game-play Building, enrichingInterpreting Primary Consumer
As remembered After game-play Negotiating and narrativizing Secondary consumer &Decomposer

We can then add the actual larp roles:

Level or Aspect Timeframe Primary Activity Ecosystem Role Larp role
As written Prior to game-play Framing Primary producer GameMaster/ Larpwright
As played During game-play Building, enrichingInterpreting Primary Consumer Individual players
As remembered After game-play Negotiating and narrativizing Secondary consumer &Decomposer Community of playersGameMaster/ Larpwright

So the larp ecosystem continuous cycle would look like this, with the green level being before a larp runtime begins, the blue level being during larp runtime, and the red and orange being post-larp runtime:

Demonstrates the dynamics of play among the roles of production and consumption. Upon completing one cycle, another instantiation of the larp as played is ready to begin.

Demonstrates the dynamics of play among the roles of production and consumption. Upon completing one cycle, another instantiation of the larp as played is ready to begin.

Indeed, both players in a larp and members of an ecosystem appear to continually assess its affordances and constraints, with their own survival and needs as paramount. A player-character in a larp also functions this way, following a path and plan in the game ecosystem that is based on two types of survival/needs assessment: in-game and out-of-game. In game elements: skills, relationships, goals, revealed secrets, mechanics are designed by the GameMasters or co-created against constraints given by GMs, the genre, or the world of the game. Out-of-game elements may refer to the player’s preferred play style, as a Gamist, Dramatist, or Immersionist, to use Bøckman’s “Three-Way Model” (2003). This dominant play style for each player helps determine the approach they take to the ecosystem, and how they perceive their niche within it.  Dramatists, called Narrativists in Edwards’ Forge Theory Model (2001) are concerned with in-game action and plot, with the primary goal to create a satisfying story (Bøckman 14; Edwards Ch. 2). Dramatists perceive the game as affording opportunities for a cohesive and believable narrative, and choose to use or conserve resources with that goal in mind. Gamists are problem-solvers who use strategy to advance their in-game (and, often, out-of-game) social or material capital. Their goal is to survive and thrive, and will make calculations about resources in the game (or mundane) ecosystem(s) to ensure their own longevity and comfort (Bøckman, Edwards). Lastly, Immersionists (known as Simulationists in Edwards’ model) want to be fully engaged in the game ecosystem without any bleed from the outside mundane ecosystem that constructed it. As Bøckman explains, “a fully immersionist player will not fudge rules to save its role’s neck or the plot” (13). If the character is meant to, must, or otherwise cannot avoid harm in the constraints of the game’s ecosystem, an Immersionist will allow that to happen and focus on fulfilling that given role.

So, we may further break down the ecosystem roles into the three role-playing models of Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist as three types of protocols governing the design and play of the larp in the three phases of writing, playing, and remembering. It is important to remember that these are neither static nor fixed roles: a player may be predominantly Gamist but also enjoy a good story, or may consciously seek an Immersionist experience but become more Gamist when a character’s survival is threatened. These typologies are also not necessarily fully inclusive; some theorists suggest a fourth level: the social. Under that paradigm, I would agree that the larp ecosystem itself is the social level, providing the space of enactment for players and Gamemasters to interact and enact their fluid play styles. This notion of role perception, which is how I see this theory as being valuable, is both a design element and a play element.  A good GM should design games with elements of all three types of interaction with the game: an ecosystem that affords activity and enjoyment for all members.

The three play models of Gamist, Dramatist/Narrativist, and Immersionist/ Simulationist cannot be easily added to the matrix we have been building. They exist within each of the ecologies, not strictly within a single phase or role. Players make choices both during the game and in the post-game debrief that are based on their preferences, but, I am arguing, more on their perceptions. These include perceptions of their role, themselves, the Gamemaster, other players, other characters, their abilities, their character skills, the physical environment, the game environment, their likelihood of success, their energy level, gametime remaining, and a host of other ecological factors – both in the ecosystem of the game and the larger mundane ecosystem surrounding and influencing it. GMs design games with more of one interaction than another, and steer characters and game development toward that preferred end during a game.  In short, both GMs and players design, steer, and enact role-playing games based on the affordances they perceive at a given moment in time, what Syverson refers to as a spatio-temporal reality.

J.J. Gibson (1977, 1979) introduced the concept of affordances, which he defined as “an action possibility available in the environment to an individual” (127).  According to Gibson, these “actionable properties” are objectively measurable, independent of an individual’s ability to recognize them. To Gibson an affordance exists in relationship with an individual; it is intended to offer an action to another; however, the affordance exists regardless of whether any actor perceives it.

Gibson Ambient Optic Array

From Gibson, 1979

Gibson puts forward the Law of Ambient Optic Array as a theory of optics that attempts to demonstrate what and how individuals see in a given environment. He notes that perception is determined by the individual from information accessed in the environment and then assessed in terms of its possibilities and usefulness to create the aforementioned affordances.  Gibson notes the importance of the position of the observer to what is perceived, since “at any fixed point of observation some parts of the environment are revealed and the remaining parts are concealed” (136). This idea of the personal position of experience in an ecosystem is hugely important in larp. As Stenros reminds us, when role-playing, “You will only see what your character sees. You will only be able to witness those parts of the larp where your character is present, where you, bodily, are present. You are the lens or the camera through which you see the work unfold around you” (Aesthetics).

As an individual player, you create an individual perception and experience of the larp; the game exists for you, in your mind, in relation to the environment. Montola (2003) states that, “every participant constructs he or her diegesis when playing” and “the crucial process of role-playing [is] the interaction of these diegeses” (83). This takes place in the second phase of larp, or larp as played, as well as, to a lesser extent, in the third phase of larp, larp as remembered.  A  single player’s diegesis is their view of the world, which they interpret as a series of affordances and constraints based on abiotic and biotic factors from the diegetic and non-diegetic world, such as (but not limited to) character sheets, skills, experience, knowledge of plot, knowledge of game world, information from other players/characters, etc. In Actor-Network Theory, this information would be the connected nodes flowing into an actor; here, these are affordances of an ecosystem perceived and interpreted by agents who make decisions based on this information, within the constraints of the physical or brute world and the in-game world.  In larp, as a constructed ecosystem, this relationship between agent and his/her environment is complicated, because the character/player exists in a layered double consciousness and simultaneity, even though s/he intends to interact in the diegetic world via immersion and will attempt to make decisions based primarily on that environment.  As Stenros points out, “[l]arp is embodied participatory drama. As a participant, you are experiencing the events as a character, but also shape the drama as it unfolds as a player (Aesthetics). However, as Montola, Saitta and Stenros (2014) note, a player/character will often “steer,” or use information and impetus from the non-diegetic world with the purpose of affecting the diegetic world for individual or community goals. Gibson noted this duality of position as he remarked about the law of ambient optic array, whereby “the observer himself, his body considered as part of the environment, is revealed at some fixed points of observation and concealed at the remaining points” (Gibson 136). There are times in an ecosystem, and certainly in a role-playing game, when the individual is aware of him or herself. In the case of a larp, I propose, these are moments where immersion breaks, and a player makes an in-game decision based on out-of-game knowledge or preferences, the definition of “steering” put forth by Montola, Saitta and Stenros (2014).

According to ecologies theorists, ecosystems can be measured in terms of their abundances and their efficiencies, what resources are plentiful and how they are distributed, used, and used up within the system. These are the kinds of settings that are engineered, or designed, in a constructed ecosystem, such as a larp.  Don Norman (1988) revised Gibson’s idea of affordance to create the concept of “perceived affordances” which amount to what a user/actor believes to be possible (or not possible), and are independent of the real affordances an object or environment may have. Thus, for a Gibsonian affordance to be actualized or enacted, it is dependent on the individual actor’s ability to both perceive it and his or her capability to use it. Norman cares about perceived affordances because that is what the designer has control over in terms of a user’s experience.  And designing, interpreting, and analyzing a larp’s affordances and constraints is where we now turn.

As we attempt to determine what a larp affords, and what makes a good larp, I will turn to a recent development out of the Nordic community, “The Mixing Desk of Larp” (2012), which uses the analogy of the audio-visual technician creating a live experience to create a series of “sliders” or “faders” that can be manipulated to produce a desired type of play. The Mixing Desk is a visualization of the inputs that go into an ecosystem to determine outputs, and it helps to describe the protocols and territories in play in a particular game ecosystem. One of the primary creators of the system, Martin Andresen said, The Mixing Desk “allows us to visualize the opportunities in larp design” and functions to “make larpwriters/designers aware of their default positions” (Andresen).

Mixing Desk of Larp

While primarily developed as a tool to help take something complicated, such as larp theory and design, and turn it into a pedagogical aid that visualizes important concepts and organizes around a simple metaphor in order to help inexperienced larpers and larpwrights to design playable games, The Mixing Desk of Larp is an excellent tool to use to analyze the affordances and constraints of a particular larp, both as it is written and as it is played. The faders each represent a design element of the larp, or a construction of the relationship between players, players and GM, the outputs of the game. The faders are the INPUTS and the game is the OUTPUT, at least on the first level of being written. The first level “Larp as Written” is the wireframe that becomes the larp. Using The Mixing Desk of Larp to consciously construct the first level of larp: “As written” is an excellent way to afford “The Larp”, which is “as played”, the level of interaction within the ecosystem created using the faders on the mixing desk (controlling the inputs into the system). However, as the larp is played, a Gamemaster, or in some cases, a player or group of players, can change the levels of the mixing desk dynamically during play, either as a result of individual or collective action that required intervention by the GM to keep the levels at their desired positions, or as a result of “steering” or conscious behavior that uses non-diegetic knowledge to affect the dramatic experience and/or outcome of the larp as played. The Mixing Desk of larp can be used as a Mobius strip to continually test and tweak the desired inputs and outputs of the larp to achieve homeostasis – the desired characteristic of the ecosystem.

Where this is going (undeveloped thoughts, not part of the “complete” Case Study #3)

(I’m including this in case you wish to offer feedback re: the direction and conclusions)

  • More about the mixing desk and the affordances listed there
  • These are notes and quotes re: relationship of player/character to environment
  • Perceived vs. designed affordances
  • Outcome of play phases 2 and 3
  • Relationship of self to world — dual world consciousness
  • Steering & Metagaming

What happens when, as Bateson outlines in his  chapter “Form, Substance, and Difference,” we see ourselves as separate and above the natural world– “If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables” (468)?

Steering – Metagaming:  But, what happens when a species consciously decides to adapt the environment to its own desires rather than adapting to the environment?

“We may have modified, as put by Gibson, our surroundings in order to escape from this cycle by making “more available what benefits [us] and less pressing what injures [us]” (130).

Fictional world as an ecosystem (within a larger non-diegetic ecosystem)

The way one interacts with the ecosystem depends on one’s perspective

  • single player diegesis, yes, but also how one perceives one’s ability to interact and make change within the ecosystem; what one’s role is; whether one sees self as part of something bigger (diegetic or non-diegetic, as in a community experience, a game that has responsibility for the fun and custody of self AND of others)
  • if consider self PART of the game or ABOVE the game; Montola would say that no one has an uber-view of the game, not even gamemaster. This is true. But some players act as if they have a greater knowledge or calling or purpose OR do not care about communal but engineer to “win”  — God-Trick
  • “Play to lose” in a sense, means to allow oneself to more fully embed in the diegetic world

Abiotic Items in the ecosystem

Affordance - is part of the relationship between the environment and animal that can be found through “the terrain, shelters, water, fire, objects, tools, other animals, and human displays,” but  it “must be measured relative to the animal” as it is what the environment “offers the animal, what it provides, or furnishes, either for good or ill” (Gibson, “Theory of Affordances” 127).

Objects  (attached and detached) can also offer animals (humans included) affordances, but what they offer is often “extremely various;” “detached objects must be comparable in size to the animal under consideration if they are to afford behavior. But those that are comparable afford an astonishing variety of behaviors, especially to animals with hands. Objects can be manufactured and manipulated” (Gibson, “Theory of Affordances” 133).

Cybernetic Epistemology - “The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system” (Bateson 467).

Guattari defines three ecologies: the environment (or nature), social relations and human subjectivity (mental) and posits that they make up an ecosophy, or an interconnected network. Only by looking at all three, can we have any effect on the environment proper or enact a holistic methodology (24).

So we may add a fifth column, corresponding to Guattari’s layers or ecologies that together make up an ecosophy:

Level or Aspect Timeframe Primary Activity Ecosystem Role Ecology (Ecosophy layer)
As written Prior to game-play Framing Primary producer Physical
As played During game-play Building, enrichingInterpreting Primary Consumer Mental
As remembered After game-play Negotiating and narrativizing Secondary consumer Social
This chart attempts to map the three phases of game play, to roles in an ecosystem, Guattari's Three Ecologies, and roles and levels in a Larp.
This chart attempts to map the three phases of game play, to roles in an ecosystem, Guattari’s Three Ecologies, and roles and levels in a Larp.

Works Cited

Andresen, Martin Eckhoff. The Mixing Desk of Larp – Martin Eckhoff Andresen. Knutpunkt: Nordic Larp Talks, 2013. Film.

Bateson, Gregory. Steps To An Ecology Of Mind: Collected Essays In Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, And Epistemology. Northvale, N.J.: Aronson, 1987. Print.

Bøckman, Petter. “The Three Way Model.” As Larp Grows Up. Knutpunkt, 2003. 12–16. Print.

Edwards, Ron. “GNS and Other Matters of Role-Playing Theory.” The Forge: The Internet Home for Independent Role-Playing Games. Adept Press, Oct. 2001. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Gibson, James Jerome. “The Theory of Affordances.” The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Psychology Press, 1986. Print.
Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. London: Continuum, 2008. Print.

Montola, Markus, Eleanor Saitta, and Jaakko Stenros. “Steering for Fun and Profit.” Knutpunkt 2014. http://dymaxion.org/talks/KP14-Steering-Final.pdf

Montola, Markus. “Role-Playing as Interactive Construction of Subjective Diegeses.” As Larp Grows Up – Theory and Methods in Larp. Ed. Morten Gade, Line Thorup, and Mikkel Sander. Frederiksberg: Projektgruppen kp 03, 2003. 82–89. Print.
Montola, Markus. “The Invisible Rules of Role-Playing: The Social Framework of Role-Playing Process.” International Journal of Role-Playing 1.1 (2009): 22–36. Print.

Norman, Don. “Affordances and Design.” jnd.org. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

Spellman, Frank. R. Ecology for Non-ecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes, 2008. Print.

Stenros, Jaako. “Aesthetics of Action.” Jaakko Stenros: researcher, player, writer. 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

“The Mixing Desk of Larp.” Nordic Larp Wiki. N. p., 22 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.

Case Study #3

Big Ass Fans and Noel Studio Skylights

Big Ass Fans and Noel Studio Skylights

The Noel Studio is typically identified as a multiliteracy center and discussed in terms of writing center structure, theory, and pedagogy. Because not much has been written on the Noel Studio specifically, it’s helpful to look to writing center studies.

In his seminal article, The idea of a writing center, S. North (1984) defined writing centers as far more than fix-it-shops (p. 435) where faculty send their students for remediation. He cited frequent examples of faculty misunderstanding and the frustrations of framing the writing center as a remedial service. Critical of those who misunderstand and misrepresent writing center work, North challenged the field to clarify their services and work towards educating students and faculty to the real role of the writing center: “the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction” (p. 438).

Since then, writing center scholarship has taken up the charge and sought to define the writing center in terms of praxis by investigating the politics of place and space (Nelson & Everts, 2001), the role of administrators as WPAs (Murphy and Stay, 2006), and how writing centers adapt to changes (Carpenter & Lee, 2013; Pemberton, 2003). At the foreground, however, has been a focus of the work that happens in a writing center–the pedagogical approach to both working with student writers and training consultants to do so.

In her recent book, Peripheral Visions on Writing Centers, J. G. McKinney (2013) critiques the narrative of writing centers that has emerged from these examinations. Three themes, she argues, arise as the tropes of the narrative:

  1. Writing centers are cozy homes
  2. Writing centers are iconoclastic
  3. Writing centers tutor (all students)

These themes, she argues are reductive and neglect the complexity of the work that happens within writing center spaces. Similarly, in their chapter in Cases in higher education spaces,  Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, and Napier (2013) challenge the typical narrative of writing center work by examining approaches to working with multimodal and digital compositions. More specifically, they examine what they call “a studio pedagogy,” arguing for the importance of space design in writing center work. They propose five criteria for a Studio pedagogy:

1)    Critical and Creative Thinking: Consultants encourage students to engage in convergent (critical) and divergent (creative) thinking regarding audience, purpose, context, and mode.

2)    Information Fluency: Consultants encourage students to think divergently and convergently about the ways in which students gather, evaluate, interpret, and integrate information into their communication products and practices.

3)    Integrative Collaboration: Consultants encourage students to see their communication from multiple perspectives through the feedback process while incorporating insights offered from interactions within the space.

4)    Interactive: Consultants encourage students to think about the dynamics in their collaborative groups and how communication is enhanced through this social process. Consultants promote interaction by allowing students to project ideas in high-and-low tech ways.

5)    Visual: Consultants encourage students to think visually, embracing a design approach that allows students to actively participate with manipulatives and interactive resources.

6)    Dynamic: Consultations change with students’ needs and expectations. That is, consultants adapt their methods of consulting.

These six criteria are directly connected to the physical environment in which students collaborate and compose. As such, it seems appropriate to apply ecology and distributed cognition to the Noel Studio as an object of study to better understand how the individuals interact with their environment to enhance the collaboration and composing processes.

 

Ecology of the Noel Studio

Spellman’s definition of ecology as “the science that deals with the specific interactions that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environments” (p. 5) offers the foundational lens for understanding how the Noel Studio operates as an ecosystem. The physical space of the Noel Studio was designed to afford the collaboration and the composing process and includes

  • The Greenhouse: the primary, large open space, equipped with large green tables on wheels that, combined with the tuffets for seats, force individuals to face each other when they talk.
Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

Madison Middle visits the Media Wall in the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

  • The Medial Wall: 3 stations, each with a large, touch-screen monitor attached to a PC, a dual screen monitor, and another screen with cables to attach additional devices. Each station also offers chairs on wheels and mushroom tables with integrated power sources. Individuals or groups can use these stations to work with potentially three documents at once. For example, students could be constructing a Prezi on the large, touch-screen monitor, looking at the outline on the dual screen monitor, and researching on the laptop attached to the third monitor.
  • Breakout Spaces and Practice Rooms: Intended for small-group (the Breakout Spaces) or one-on-one (the Practice Rooms) interactions, each of these rooms is equipped with a large-screen monitor attached to a computer work station, video and audio-recording technology, whiteboards, and mobile chairs and half-round tables. In these rooms, students can plan and rehearse presentations.
  • The Invention Space: Equipped with wall-to-wall whiteboards, a CopyCam, rocking chairs and stationary seating, and manipulatives (Playdoh, Legos, Jenga, crayons, etc.), the Invention Space affords play and creativity for brainstorming and visualization activities.
  • The Discovery Classroom: a large, informal classroom with 3 projectors and drop-down screens, a massive whiteboard, comfortable and mobile chairs, 24 laptops, a lectern, and a media center (VHS and DVD player) with a control panel.

Additionally, the Noel Studio also contains 5 offices for administrators and consultants, public computer work stations, mobile whiteboards, and a break room. Throughout the space, there are floor outlets and Ethernet ports that allow individuals to charge and connect mobile devices necessary for new media composing.

Spellman explains that ecology is typically categorized according to complexity (p. 5), which results in levels of organization (p.14):

Organs–>Organism–>Population–>Communities–>Ecosystem–>Biosphere

As organisms are living things, the organisms existing in the Noel Studio are all humans. Having distinguished that, we can define the resulting levels of organization:

Biosphere: The biosphere that encompasses the Noel Studio is Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), which is comprised of many other ecosystems (colleges, departments, offices, and organizations)

Ecosystem: The Noel Studio is an ecosystem–it is a complete system on its own but is also a component of biosphere. Complex systems, Syverson explains, are simultaneously spontaneous, self-organizing, adaptive, dynamic, unpredictable, disordered, and structured, coherent, and purposeful (p. 6). The components of the Noel Studio work together with the purpose of developing effective communication skills.

Communities: The communities within the Noel Studio are administrators, consultants, consultees, collaborators, and donors.

Populations: Even though all of the organisms in the Noel Studio are human, they constitute different populations: students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members. These populations create communities. Although all of the organisms in the biosphere have the option of being a component of the Noel Studio, only a small percentage of those populations choose to be.

Spellman emphasizes that each organism in an ecosystem has a specific role, or niche, to fill. As such “in order for the ecosystem to exist, a dynamic balance must be maintained among all biotic and abiotic factors–a concept known as homeostasis” (p. 15). As such, organisms and the environmental components all serve as nodes within the system, though the organisms have agency whereas the non-living environmental components do not. Rather, nonliving environmental factors serve as affordances or constraints for the activities of the organisms. Thus, homeostasis, or balance, is dependent on each organism’s ability to perceive the positive and negative affordances of the physical environment.

Relationships and Movement

To understand what moves in the ecosystem of the Noel Studio, let’s turn to the Cary Institute’s expanded definition of ecology: “The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy and matter.” In the case of the Noel Studio, the “transformation and flux of energy and matter” is actually the transformation of student’s ideas into texts. Consultants and students interact with the physical environment to create visible representations of ideas.

This movement, then is reliant on not only the affordances (Gibson) of the physical environment but also what Norman identifies as perceived affordances. The more the student and consultant are able to take advantage of the affordances of the physical environment, the more effective their textual representation.

For example, when a student comes in to work with a consultant, the consultant typically first chooses a spot in the Greenhouse–with no permanent technology in the open space of the Greenhouse, the student and consultant can engage in conversation with little technological distraction. For this example, we’ll say that the student has not yet started writing the paper–she has a prompt and an idea of a topic, but she doesn’t know how to narrow it down or start to organize it. Once the student has explained this, the consultant will ask to see the prompt–the construction of which affords direction for the student’s paper.

20100920noel-studio-scenes0042After coming to an agreement about what the student is supposed to do in the paper and that their consultation will focus on brainstorming, the consultant will take the student to the Invention Space. As the consultant is already familiar with the spaces and technology, she recognizes that the Invention Space affords brainstorming activities. The large whiteboards, CopyCam, and multicolored dry erase markers allow both the student and consultant to contribute and organize ideas as they become represented on the dry erase board. Additionally, the revision of ideas is afforded as the representations are easily erased as they no longer signify the evolving ideas. Once the student is happy with the ideas that are represented, she and the consultant would use the CopyCam to create an outline–a visible representation of the logical structure of the student’s intended communication.

If time or in follow-up consultations, the student and consultant would use the spaces and technology to proceed through the revision process (sometimes students will do so in the space without a consultant, too). Together, they might use the Media Wall to conduct research, draft, review, and revise. If it’s a presentation, the student might also use a Practice Room to practice the presentation, then move to another space to work through the writing process again.

In each situation, the interactions between the student, consultant, and the tools of the environment transform the student’s ideas as they become represented in the various texts she composes throughout the process. Her (and the consultant’s) ability to perceive the various affordances of the technology that she uses shapes what the final text will look like. Similarly, the constraints of the technology also force her to make decisions, shaping the final product. For instance, if the student’s final project is a video that she will share with the class, her video is reliant not only on her technical skill but also on her ability to perceive what she can and cannot do with the video editing software that she chooses. She knows that she wants to lay a music track over the video–a choice that Movie Maker, iMovie, and most other video editing software afford–but if she can’t perceive the function of the software that affords that design choice, she will have to revise her plan. In this ecosystem, then, the ideas are transformed as the move throughout the nodes (both organisms and environment) of the network.

How the Network Grows and Dissolves

In an ecosystem, growth and balance depend on population diversity (Spellman) and the abundance of resources. This is true of the Noel Studio as well. Considering different groups of students and faculty as the different populations in the Noel Studio, the ecosystem only grows when there is representation from the different disciplines, social groups, and demographic groups. Before the Noel Studio opened in 2010, the EKU Writing Center operated in a basement in Case Annex–a dorm that has been converted to office and classroom space. Isolated to one department (the English Department) in terms of staffing, funding, and use, the Writing Center did not grow. When the Writing Center Director reached out to a new population (EKU Libraries) to discuss collaboration, the idea of the Noel Studio formed. Discussions between the Writing Center Director and the then-Dean of Libraries prompted further outreach to representatives from various populations–the Department of Communication, Information Technology, Institutional Effectiveness, and the Office of the Provost. As ideas for what the space could be expanded, these representatives realized the increasing diversity of the populations and their interests would require a new physical space.

The increased diversity also increased access to resources as the English Department would no longer be responsible for the full funding (although it does still contribute to staffing). Working with the Library Advancement office, this newly formed group was able to secure funding from donors, EKU Libraries, the Provost’s office, and University Programs. Since opening in September 2010, the Noel Studio has continued to increase the population diversity–expanding the Noel Studio Advisory Committee to include representatives from additional offices, such as the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Teaching and Learning Center. Additionally, there has been an increase in population diversity among student use and faculty collaborations as we now see every college, social group, and demographic group that constitute the EKU biosphere represented in the Noel Studio ecosystem.

The distribution of population diversity, however, is still imbalanced as many groups are under-represented. While the ecosystem does include representatives from the College of Justice and Safety, for instance, they are few and far between. If we cannot increase the Justice and Safety student population in the Noel Studio, that population may die out as students graduate. As populations die out, the distribution of resources becomes less spread out and decrease the potential sources of funding. As funding decreases, the ability to support diverse populations also decreases. In this case, the ecosystem would not be able to revert to the previous situation of the Writing Center, as the resources and space have already been reallocated within the English Department. As such, the continued existence of the Noel Studio is reliant on increasing and maintaining population diversity.

Affordances and Constraints of Ecology as a Theory

More so than previous theories, ecology helped me think through the consequences of having a homogenous population of student and faculty participants in the Noel Studio. While diversity of students is typically something we think about at the staffing level and do, to a degree, look at population diversity in end-of-semester reporting, thinking about how that diversity potentially affects the growth, decline, and future of the Noel Studio forces me to re-evaluate the amount of outreach we currently do. We offer services for distance students, but we could definitely do more marketing. The colleges “across the bypass” (there is a bypass that literally divides campus) house the disciplines that we contain the Noel Studio’s lowest population of users, indicating a need for more outreach which could lead to more resources. Too often, I think, we consider the resources we have before trying to increase our population diversity rather than the resources that we can gain.

In terms of constraints, one of the frustrations of this theory was trying to think about the environment and technology as only tools that afford action. Thinking about agency as limited to the living organisms made it difficult to talk about the affordances of the technology without assigning agency to the environment. As a result, agency in this theory relies on the organism’s ability to perceive its agency. This is a gap I plan to consider in my final synthesis as it seems important to consider whether the technology can help shape the representation of ideas (as a mediator) or if it really is just reliant on what humans can perceive as capable wherein technology continues to be only a tool.

References

Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, & Napier. (2013). Studio Pedagogy: A Model for Collaboration, Innovation, and Space Design, (pp. 313-329) In Cases on higher education spaces: innovation, collaboration, and technology, (R. Carpenter, Ed.). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Carpenter, R. & Lee, S. (2013). Introduction: Navigating literacies in multimodal spaces. The Routlege reader on writing centers and new media, (xiv-xxvi). New York: Routlege.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McKinney, J. G. (2103). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University P.

Murphy, C. & Stay, B.L. (2006). The writing center director’s resource guide. New York: Routlege.

Nelson, J. & Everts, K. (2001). The Politics of Writing Centers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzIskzHsjKsRN0NRRktncjBGb1U/edit

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-436. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/377047

Pemberton, M. (2003). The center will hold. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Spellman, F. R. (2008). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes.

Syverston, M. A. (1999). Introduction: What is an ecology of composition? The wealth of reality: An ecology of composition. Carbondale: S Illinois University Press.

Case Study 3: LLLI in the Network Society

Image of packaged, labeled breast milk from Mediaglobal.org.

Packaged donated breast milk. According to Boyer, donated breast milk is sold to hospitals for $35 an ounce by Prolacta.


In previous case studies, I looked at the enunciative formation of LLLI, rhetorical situation surrounding the development of LLLI, the genres that are employed by the organization, but in the previous case studies, I have not explored how the organization itself is a node within a larger societal network. Therefore, I began looking for articles that address the way in which the work and focus of LLLI is shaped and is a reaction to the context of the larger network of which it is a part. This network includes those with an interest in infant feeding, including medicine, science, and manufacturing industries. While “Medicalizing to Demedicalize: Lactation Consultants and the (De) Medicalization of Breastfeeding,” by Jennifer M.C. Torres, does not specifically examine LLLI, it does shed some light on work that LLLI does. Torres explains in the article that lactation consultants “provide a unique lens for the complexity of medicalization because they are positioned at the crossroads of medicalization and demedicalization. The IBCLC certification originated from a combination of breastfeeding advocacy groups that resisted medicalization of breastfeeding and the contemporary medicalization of breastfeeding that emphasizes the nutritional properties and health benefits of breast milk” (165). Some lactation consultants create or lead breastfeeding peer-to-peer support groups (such as LLLI groups) in which medical control is challenged “by providing a setting that values breastfeeding women’s experiential knowledge” (163). Lactation consultants, in order to demedicalize breastfeeding, must also medicalize it since they operate within the realm of medicine, often working at hospitals. Much of LLLI’s work seems to be focused on developing mothers’ autonomy and challenging the medicalization of breastfeeding, which has resulted in views of breast milk as a product (163), the technological management of breastfeeding (164), and frequent dissemination of misinformation of breastfeeding by medical professionals (164). The concept of breast milk as a product is so pervasive in medicine and science that Kate Boyer was able to use it to “propose a new framework for how geographers might conceptualize mobile biosubstances” in the article “Of Care and Commodities: Breast Milk and the New Politics of Mobile Bisosubstances Unlike lactation consultants, LLLI does not have to walk a fine line between demedicalizing and medicalizing breastfeeding. In “Rhetorical Agency, Resistance, and the Disciplinary Rhetorics of Breastfeeding,” Amy Koerber explains that, “In the words of one La Leche League leader, to breastfeed a baby in U.S. society a woman has to ‘buck the system’”(93). According to Koerber, “By consulting La Leche League, which resists mainstream medical discourse as well as broadly accepted social and cultural norms, a woman is empowered to resist the cultural norm that forbids public breastfeeding” (97). So, it is clear that what LLLI offers to breastfeeding mothers is the ability to resist the way in which medical discourse and the focus on breast milk as product has framed the nursing mother and the breastfeeding relationship.

Manuel Castell’s The Rise of the Network Society allows us to view LLLI as a network within a network. While most of the theories that I have examined so far have looked at the inner workings of LLLI and the way in which nodes within the network of the organization affect the organization and are affected by the organization, Castells’ concept of the network society allows us to critically examine the work that LLLI does within society more broadly. While interpersonal relationships within the organization are not as easy to explore through the lens of the network society (except that it does allow us to explore the simultaneous vertical and horizontal structure of the organization), it is very useful in examining how the rhetoric of LLLI resists the concept of breast milk as a product, resists attempts to technologize breastfeeding to facilitate the timeless time of the networked society, and explore the relationship of breastfeeding to concepts of space.

According to Castells’ exploration of the network society, there is an endless possibility to incorporate nodes within the network of which LLLI is a part. Castells says that “Networks are open structures, able to expand without limits, integrating new nodes as long as they are able to communicate within the network, namely as long as they share the same communication codes” (501). What constitutes a node, he says, “depends on the kind of concrete networks of which we speak” (501). When we consider the system that impacts or is impacted by La Leche League, we must include the scientific field of immunology, the medical field of pediatrics, institutions such as the Association of American Pediatricians, industries that capitalize on the concept of breast milk as a product (such as the manufacturing of breast pumps and related products as well of the sale of donated breast milk), alternative medical practitioners, parenting practices and philosophies such as attachment parenting, lactation consultants, LLLI itself, LLLI leaders, nursing mothers, babies, and members of the public. However, according to Castells, these subjects and organizations make up “the basic unit of economic organization.” Possible types of nodes in a network include: commanders, who make decisions; researchers, who are the innovators; designers, who adapt, package, or target audience for the innovation; integrators, who manage relationships; operators who execute tasks under their own initiative; and the operated, who execute preprogrammed tasks and do not make decisions.

While each node in the network has agency, the perception of the nodes’ agency seems to depend upon the situation of the nodes within the network and their relationship to one another. Castells says that the network is “made of many cultures, many values, many projects, which cross through minds and inform the strategies of various participants in the networks, changing at the same pace as the networks’ members, and following the organizational and cultural transformation of the units of the network” (214). Two modes or organization of a network that significantly impact the agency held by the nodes, and thus the strategies that they employ, are horizontal and vertical networks as well as the role that they play in networks. In the labor force, there are networkers, who create the network (they seem to correspond to deciders); the networked, who are on-line but do not decide when, where, how, why (involved in decision-making, but not the ultimate deciders); and the switched-off workers, who merely follow instructions (executants).

In a vertical organization of the network surrounding breastfeeding, the roles that each member of the network plays impacts the way that the meaning of information and values surrounding breastfeeding, the primary concepts that move between nodes in the network, are interpreted and presented. In a vertical, top down network, the deciders have the authority to make decisions. In the network within LLLI operates, commanders might include prominent voices and institutions in medicine and science as well as the LLLI leadership. Researchers working in breastfeeding science and medicine, or perhaps even social research, who contribute to the body of knowledge from which commanders draw to make decisions. Designers, who adapt and present materials to pass on research about breastfeeding to those lower in the network (individual doctors, LLLI leaders/authors). Operators may be doctors, lactation consultants, LLLI leaders, and breastfeeding mothers (if they feel confident enough about their breastfeeding knowledge to make their own decisions). Finally, mothers who follow strict feeding schedules/practices and do not question advice provided to authoritative figures, may be the operated.

Castells claims that the information technology revolution has led to an increasing interaction between horizontal and vertical networks (xxx). Mainstream media, which is a top-down organization, has historically intended simply to pass on information without receiving feedback, while interactive technologies such as blogs and Twitter make it possible for the audience or consumer to provide feedback, which in turn may affect what the media outlet reports. According to Castells, horizontal networks often are focused on “communication built around people’s initiatives, interests, and desires” and they may involve cooperative projects (xxviii). In contrast to the top-down organization that I explored in the previous paragraph, this simultaneous vertical and horizontal organization the way in which LLLI is organized. The organization prefers to promote the horizontal aspect of the organization offered by the mother-to-mother support groups, which require a shared interest in breastfeeding and cooperation of mothers who are core to the organization. According to Nancy Mohrbacher and Sharon Knorr, mother-to-mother support groups provide informal support through vicarious experience, which increases a mother’s self-efficacy, while formal authoritative organizations make mothers lose self-confidence. Because LLLI leaders provide advice based on the organization’s core philosophy, and because LLLI manuals not only provide breastfeeding support but also strongly recommend an attachment parenting lifestyle that some mothers simply cannot live because they must work to provide for their families, some mothers may lose self-confidence as a parent because they are not capable of leading the lifestyle that the organization dictates. While mother-to-mother support groups operate on cooperative knowledge making, there is still a top-down element to the organization, as commanders (such as the organization leaders), pass down information to local leaders and mothers, the horizontal organization of the peer top peer group is meant to underscore mother’s autonomy and make them at least operators instead of operated, if not playing the roles of researcher, designer, and integrators. By giving mothers more autonomy, emphasizing the physical relationship of breastfeeding and the emotional connection between mothers and babies, LLLI contributes to the demedicalization of breastfeeding for which the strict vertical organization of the network does not allow.

Other important element of the situatedness of nodes in the LLLI network is space and time. Castells says that, “Spatial forms and processes are formed by the dynamics of the overall social structure. This includes contradictory trends derived from conflicts and strategies between social actors playing out their opposing interests and values” (441).The medicalization of breastfeeding and the demedicalization of breastfeeding seem to be functions of varying values for space and time. According to Castells, there is “an increasing dissociation between spatial proximity and the performance of everyday life functions” (424). He also says that, “The space of flows is the material organization of time-sharing practices that work through flows” (442). Medical associations, researchers, scientists, organizations, lactation consultants, and breastfeeding product manufacturers all operate within the space of flows to disseminate knowledge and information about breastfeeding, including the concept as breast milk as a product. Technologies of breastfeeding, such as the breast pump, and the concept as breast milk as a product, serve to help women operate in a society that values timeless time. According to Castells, “Capital’s freedom from time and culture’s escape from the clock are decisively facilitated by new forms of technologies, and embedded in the structure of the network society” (464). The actors operating within the space of flows of breastfeeding (doctors, manufacturers, researchers, etc…) make breastfeeding knowledge a commodity (as is milk) that must come from authorities, and they also seem to suggest that breastfeeding, facilitated by technology, can be a function of timeless time. On the other hand, the space of breastfeeding in a local mom-to-mom peer support group us a local space. A core part of LLLI’s philosophy is that the embodied experience of breastfeeding is very important. Thus, LLLI values the space of place for breastfeeding mothers as well as biological time. LLLI values time spent with children, and encourages mothers to place other demands on time lower on the list of priorities.

In the vertical organization of the breastfeeding network, the space of flows, the meaning of information traveling through the network is interpreted by others. The organization, commanders, researchers, designers, etc… passes down information and presents it to the audience, who is expected to be passive and operate according to the information passed down. In contrast, LLLI meetings occurring at the local level operate similarly to the counterculture in the information technology revolution. The computer counterculture, Castells tells us, developed the modem. The modem allows for files to be transmitted between two computers without a host system, and the counterculture movement spread innovations at no cost. This is very similar to the organization of the LLLI mother-to-mother meeting (though there is a top-down element to the organization as well). There is a potential at the peer meetings for information based on real experience to be exchanged between mothers without them having to be transmitted via a host. In the process of information and knowledge transition, breastfeeding is demedicalized and is constructed as something that mothers can understand and explore without the intervention of medical professionals.

Image of breastfeeding mother and chils outdoors.

Breastfeeding outside of the space of flows? Bamboo magazine claims that breastfeeding is the greenest choice because it leave no manufacturing or distribution by products.

Castells explains that network structure, such as the network that involves those with an interest in breastfeeding, “is a highly dynamic, open system, susceptible to innovating without threatening its balance” (501-502). He also says that “the network morphology is also a source of dramatic reorganization of power relationships” (502). In the case of LLLI, the introduction of new members into the organization has shifted organizational rhetoric about working outside of the home and patriarchy. The organization once catered primarily to heterosexual, married, white, middle-class women who stay at home, but as more women work, and as breastfeeding rates increase, more women have come to LLLI for assistance. LLLI has had to shift it’s rhetoric to be more inclusive, while still maintaining its core philosophy. By being flexible and allowing for innovation, the organization has grown rather than dissolved.

There is a great deal that Castells’ theory of the network society allows us to see when examining LLLI. Through the theory of networks, we can examine the role that understandings of space and time influence the organization and the way the organizational structure exhibits these values. It also made it easy to see the role of vertical and horizontal organization in the network. What it does not allow for, as much as past theories I have explored, is the way in which the organization employs rhetoric and genres to present its values. The network society theory seems more appropriate for examining the links between nodes in the network of which LLLI is a part, rather than examining the nuances of the relationships within the organization.

Viral breasting in the zombie apocalypse meme.

I couldn’t resist including this image. It seems to me that the Zombie trope could represent resistance to the space of flows and a need for self-reliance and self-containment, so this meme really speaks to the idea of separating breastfeeding from the space of flows of the medical establishment and infant-feeing industries.

Works Cited

Boyer, Kate. “Of care and commodities: breast milk and the new politics of mobile biosubstances.” Progress in human geography 34.1 (2010): 5-20.

Koerber, Amy. “Rhetorical agency, resistance, and the disciplinary rhetorics of breastfeeding.” Technical Communication Quarterly 15.1 (2006): 87-101.

Torres, Jennifer. “Medicalizing to demedicalize: Lactation consultants and the (de) medicalization of breastfeeding.” Social Science & Medicine 100 (2014): 159-166.


Case Study #3: Snapchat and Theory of Affordances

Introduction Snapchat’s impact on social media networks has been a hot topic for several months now.  It and other ephemeral data applications are being championed as the next wave in communication. The application’s creators have positioned Snapchat in opposition to traditional social media applications, such as MySpace and Facebook, which focus on creating a profile […]

Reproposing the Case Study: Noel Studio for Academic Creativity

Noel Studio Greenhouse, Director's Office, and Artwork

Noel Studio Greenhouse, Director’s Office, and Artwork

I considered analyzing an entirely new Object of Study, but I decided to hold onto the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity for my own understanding and consistency. If I tried to switch now, I might struggle to think about how the affordances and limitations of the next theories I apply weigh against those I’ve already used.

Defining the Noel Studio

Pedagogically based on writing center practices, the Noel Studio is a multiliteracy center with a unique physical space and academic/administrative structure. Occupying 10,000 sq. ft of EKU Libraries’ main building, Crabbe Library, the Noel Studio provides both public and private spaces for consultants, students, and faculty to work.

Comprised of a core administrative staff of five (director, writing coordinator, research coordinator, technology associate, and administrative assistant) and a student staff of approximately forty-five (graduate assistants, undergraduate consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows), the Noel Studio was created to support the various communication and research projects happening both in and outside of the classroom. To support that mission, the physical space of the Noel Studio contains the Greenhouse (a large, open space with a variety of computers and touch-screen monitors), the Invention Space (equipped with wall-to-wall white boards, a CopyCam, and creative materials), Breakout Spaces and Practice Rooms (small, reserveable rooms with a computer work station, large screen monitors, and recording capabilities), and a communal space that currently serves as an office for technology support.

Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

The Noel Studio as a Network

Having formally applied three theories to the Noel Studio thus far, I’m beginning to realize how important it is to approach it as a network of space, people, activity, ideologies, and epistemologies that cannot be separated from one another. It is a complex ecosystem that impacts and is impacted by larger institutional networks. While at first glance the network-icity of the Noel Studio might appear to exist primarily in its administrative structure (as I focused on in my initial proposal), the complexity of the Noel Studio is reflected in many different ways.

For example, even though the Noel Studio replaced the existing writing center, it did not simply overtake the writing center’s philosophies, space, or budget. Instead, it became an interdisciplinary space in the main library, an interdisciplinary department under University Programs (UP), and an amalgamation of budget lines from UP, the English Department (graduate assistantships), SGA, and, most recently, an endowment from the initial donors, Ron and Sherry Lou Noel. The collaborative efforts to make the space a reality are seen in the artwork commissioned through LexArt and paid for through the fundraising efforts of the Friends of the Library, the physical structures and features (small and large rooms, glass walls, brightly colored walls and glass), and the upgrades that have been made over the last 3.5 years (more and larger whiteboards, more mobile furniture).

Importance to English Studies

As the first large-scale multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio has already served as a model for other universities investing in communication initiatives and support services. While many people have visited the Noel Studio for ideas and advice, it’s an often-acknowledged fact that there is no “ideal” organization or plan that fits every writing center or writing program. Instead, each situation is unique and complex in its own right, subject to a multitude of factors. The Noel Studio is not replicable. However, using the Noel Studio as an object of study allows us to understand the different options we have for examining the complexity of any given writing program, answering Jackie Grutch McKinney’s (2013) call for writing centers to look beyond the traditional narrative to see and articulate the work we actually do. If we can better see and articulate this work and how our centers and programs exist as nodes within institutional and (inter)disciplinary networks, we can not only help others understand our nodual value, but we can also focus on the connections that strengthen our work and loosen connections that don’t.

Reference

McKinney, J. G. (2103). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University P.


Rewriting the Object of Study_Round 2

 

World of Warcraft. Image hosted on IGN.

Guilds of World of Warcraft. Image hosted on IGN.

As the semester advances, steadily gaining on the last month of Spring 2014, my peers and I have been asked to rewrite our Object of Study Proposals. My original proposal stated that I was going to look at guilds in MMORPGS like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2. However, I found that all of my case studies have revolved around WoW, so this is part of how I wish to narrow down my object of study version 2.0 here.

From my original proposal, I am keeping my description of the guilds: Guilds essentially allow players to form small to large groups, with smaller questing and dungeon parties being formed either on a need-basis or more permanently. Unlike more traditional Role Playing Games (RPGs) on video game consoles where a player usually ventures into the virtual world alone as a single character (like Assassin’s Creed) or as a group of controllable companions (like Final Fantasy games), MMOs create environments that encourage player-player interaction within the game as certain activities like raids and dungeon boss battles are easier to navigate when players take on different roles (the healer, the tank who draws enemy attention, and the character classes that do damage-per-second are some of these roles) in order to enhance the effectiveness of the group. Guilds are not only for questing and raiding, but are also ways for new players to be mentored by veteran players and come with a number of perks and opportunities that a lone player would not have access to, such as item trading. Though MMOs do have an underlying storyline driving the game world and creating overarching goals for players, it is the interaction between players that comes to embody the bulk of their experiences within the games, transforming individual gameplay from a solitary experience to one with a seemingly infinite number of connections. One of the biggest draws of guilds is the communication nexus that exists between members, as players find not only companions within the game worlds, but also connections outside of the games, through general discussion forums on official game websites, guild forums, in-game channel chats, social media like Facebook, and personal emails and phone calls.

The further I work through applying network theories to WoW guilds, the more I understand them as ecosystems, as social dynamics playing out on a microcosm space, but I have not (as I originally intended) sought to understand the social dynamics for how students in classrooms could work more cohesively or for how the application of narrative elements by players enriches the group’s overall experience (beyond the occasional comment about role-playing guilds). Instead, I have found myself looking at the social facts and speech acts that gather together to create genre sets used by players, granting them greater agency as a group and as individual nodes within those groups; the rhetorical situations and discourses that emerge through player-player interaction, leading to the creation, maintenance, and dissolution of those groups; and how taking technologies into account as “objects with agency” changes the shape and angle of scholarship looking into the rhetoric playing out within the guilds. Looking back at my original proposal, I was not expecting to tackle rhetorical activity, but scholarship rarely takes the pathways I expect of it.

With rhetorical activity being what emerges through my case studies, guild members are still that which I believe to be the framework and nodes of the network. However, how that framework appears to be structured seems to depend on the theory being applied. For Rhetorical Situation theory, there is the idea that certain veteran players taking officer-style positions within the group creates a fluid hierarchy of speakers and mediators of change who can take that rhetoric and improve the group’s experiences. In that hierarchy, each player who is invested then becomes a link (rather than a “mere hearer or listener”) to other players, taking on battle and questing roles and keeping in communication within their parties. In other theories, the hierarchy is flattened, requiring a more collective agreement among players on activities, or there is a demand for the increased understanding of how technology allows for that guild, that hierarchy, and those activities to exist. Code and rhetoric become twin elements moving among and through the nodes of the network, something that will become even more important in English Studies as our discipline adapts to changes in technology and continues to implement those technologies for our work.

For the rest of the semester, my new proposal for WoW guilds as my object of study is to continue exploring how that virtual environment allows for the guild to become an ecosystem that extends even beyond its programmed borders. The players’ abilities to harness the technology of the game and use it parallel to other software and technological devices shapes new boundaries for a human-constructed ecosystem of minds, rather than physical proximity of bodies. I am curious to see how rhetoric molds and is molded in return by gamers who voluntarily enter into a community and struggle to maintain and redefine the group(s) they have chosen for themselves.

Just One of Those Nights:


Revisiting the Proposal: March 30

Donna Haraway has been credited as one of the first to use the term “cyborg” to describe our relationship with the Digital, as we become “hybrids of machine and organism” (151). The field of English Studies, and in particular Composition … Continue reading