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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.

Mind Map April 6th: Neurons and Synapses

This week’s mind map began with an image choice that was — excuse me — a “no brainer” (you’re welcome, punsters; and I’m sorry, punsters). The image of the neuron — with all its accompanying transmission components — seemed well … Continue reading

MindMap #9: Affordance and Ecology

This week’s MindMap was difficult for me because I spent the week at CCCC, which means that productivity was out the window. I attempted to do work every night, but usually I was mentally and physically exhausted. So, I was thrilled to read Norman’s work on affordances. It was clear cut and straight to the […]

Ecology of the Theories of Networks Course

Welcome to the Ecosystem of Theories of Networks!

I know it may sound a little odd to call a course an ecosystem, let alone applying ecology theory to it. But, it is an ecosystem, and for me, it an ecosystem that is part-physical classroom, part-virtual existence, and part-home environment. Most of the residents of my ecosystem show themselves in messages on Facebook, as talking-moving squares on a screen on the classroom television, and as data spilling out onto Google docs. Once a week, three others share the same physical space I do, but always for a (roughly) two hour period of time. But, you ask, can this even remotely be classified as an ecosystem? Well, I turn my attention to Bateson’s Ecology of the Mind, especially with the concept of the cybernetic epistemology and the “larger Mind.” With the way technology has become such a part of our lives, our environments are both physical and virtual, and should not be separated. Welcome to the future.

 

Larger Mind? Mind as Computer? Image hosted on the website Advanced Apes.

Larger Mind? Mind as Computer? Image hosted on the website Advanced Apes.

As Gibson points out, in his chapter “The Theory of Affordances,” humans have modified our environments “to change what it affords [us]. [We have] made more available what benefits [us] and less pressing what injures [us]” (130). Gibson tells us that, “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill” (127). So what affordances are now offered to me in this hybrid ecosystem of my course? What can be afforded within a virtual environment? Many things, actually.

Take, for our first example, this blog. What does this digital space provide for me? I am the organism and this is my environment. While it does not allow me to modify everything in my space (especially as I am lacking in things like HTML know-how), but it does allow me to draw in images, videos, and text so as to express my ideas, creating a space for me. The blog then becomes my place, with the class shared folder and Facebook back channel as my habitat, from which I can interact with the other residents of my ecosystem and neighboring ecosystems. The class website is another space within the ecosystem that offers me affordances (making me accountable for the work I do) as it becomes the center of which all of my work and that of my peers revolve around. The schedule affords me deadlines and the ability to time-keep based on assignments, provides me links to external readings and reminds me of what I need to read, allows me to add quotes to the discourse of the class, and further my understanding of the coursework with the sporadic inclusion of videos throughout the schedule.

But which learning space allows for me to lay out my ideas, made connections, without feeling like I have to explain those connections as I make them? Ah, the mindmap is the part of the ecosystem (as all of our mindmaps are accessible through our blogs, which are then accessible through the course website), but the affordances of Popplet is very limited compared to that of the blog and the website. Through the software, I am afforded the creation of nodes that can be filled with text and visual objects, as well as creating multiple connections between those nodes. However, the affordances of this particular environment are limited by the capabilities of the code that underlies its structures. Once the mindmap becomes too large, it is impossible to see the entirety of the mindmap without the words  becoming blurry, but the software allows for differentiating among thoughts by having nodes color-coded (though the color choices are limited). The larger affordance of Popplet is that I can share my work, deciding whether I want to make it private, public but only to those with the link, or public to the whole of the Popplet ecosystem. I can stay in my semi-hiding place or I can be out in the midst of my habitat.

Now, the last technology/application I am going to touch on in my ecosystem, with the distributed consciousness of the other residents of my Theories of Networks ecosystem kept in mind, is that of the Google docs, where we can work alone (isolation for personal projects) or come together to work simultaneously in a shared virtual space. We may not physically share the same space, but out minds, through code, can occupy and mingle together. The affordances of this space come through in the ability to modify the visual appearance of the text, and to link among parts of the document, out to other documents, websites, images, and videos. It affords multiple organisms in the environment to work together without on a single document, presentation, drawing, and still be able to talk through chat. Google docs then affords me to save the work I have done, or export it out, as well as import in documents created outside of Google doc, allowing it all to exist within the Google Drive ecosystem in which part of the Theories of Networks ecosystem thrives, but only part. This collective consciousness I share with my peers always exists within several ecosystems that are already in play, and we can carve our own space out of the worlds founded by code, zeroes and ones represented through user interfaces.

Where to go from here: Terminator, BBC style?

What happens when technology goes too far? Nah, that'll never happen. Image hosted on Photobombs section of Likes.

What happens when technology goes too far? Nah, that’ll never happen. Image hosted on Photobombs section of Likes.

To the Victor Goes the Spoils:


The Ecology of Mindmap Gets Another Update

Mindmap: http://popplet.com/app/#/1589875

Mindmap update_March 23

Mindmap update_March 23

Ah, ecologies, cybernetic epistemologies, differences, affordances, and perceived affordances. What to add this week to my reframed mindmap?

For the mindmap, I stuck to Bateson and Gibson as a way to continually try to contain the behemoth that has become m brainstorming of connections tool. Needless to say, even color-coding the nodes may not help if the mindmap is too big to be read (at least this is slightly better than the original). This time, though, I took a slightly different route. Instead of connecting quotes to other quotes, I decided to focus on which theories I thought best connected to Ecology Theory. This took me a while because a lot of our theories have had to do with technology and ideas, whereas ecology always seems linked to the natural world (which, I learned, from reading these two authors, need not be separated from our technological bubble). My answer for the theories: Foucault and ANT.

Bateson’s idea of the ecology of the mind, the cybernetic epistemology in which the larger Mind plays a role, reminded me a lot of the archives Foucault mentions in The Archaeology of Knowledge.

“the very meaning of ‘survival’ becomes different when we stop talking about the survival of something bounded by the skin and start to think of the survival of the system of ideas in circuit. The contents of the skin are randomized at death and the pathways within the skin are randomized. But the ideas, under further transformation, may go on out in the world in books or works of art. Socrates as a bioenergetic individual is dead. But much of him still lives as a component in the contemporary ecology of ideas” (Bateson 467)

“an economics of information, of entropy, negentropy, etc…informational or entropic ecology deals with the budgeting of pathways and of probability. The resulting budgets are fractioning (not subtractive). The boundaries must enclose, not cut, the relevant pathways” (Bateson 466-467)

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)


The Ecology of the Mindmap Gets Another Update

Mindmap: http://popplet.com/app/#/1589875

Mindmap update_March 23

Mindmap update_March 23

Ah, ecologies, cybernetic epistemologies, differences, affordances, and perceived affordances. What to add this week to my reframed mindmap?

For the mindmap, I stuck to Bateson and Gibson as a way to continually try to contain the behemoth that has become m brainstorming of connections tool. Needless to say, even color-coding the nodes may not help if the mindmap is too big to be read (at least this is slightly better than the original). This time, though, I took a slightly different route. Instead of connecting quotes to other quotes, I decided to focus on which theories I thought best connected to Ecology Theory. This took me a while because a lot of our theories have had to do with technology and ideas, whereas ecology always seems linked to the natural world (which, I learned, from reading these two authors, need not be separated from our technological bubble). My answer for the theories: Foucault and ANT.

Bateson’s idea of the ecology of the mind, the cybernetic epistemology in which the larger Mind plays a role, reminded me a lot of the archives Foucault mentions in The Archaeology of Knowledge: “the very meaning of ‘survival’ becomes different when we stop talking about the survival of something bounded by the skin and start to think of the survival of the system of ideas in circuit. The contents of the skin are randomized at death and the pathways within the skin are randomized. But the ideas, under further transformation, may go on out in the world in books or works of art. Socrates as a bioenergetic individual is dead. But much of him still lives as a component in the contemporary ecology of ideas” (Bateson 467). This quote also makes me think of Shakespeare’s promise in one of his sonnets that the subject of the poem will live on longer after the death of the body (which then also reminds me of the promise made to Achilles, but that is for a different day and a different thought pattern). There may not be an over-arching narrative of history, but there are the ideas in circulation, slipping beneath our view and then being dragged back out again when they make more sense. This, then, also reminds me of the second quote I added to the mindmap by Bateson: “an economics of information, of entropy, negentropy, etc…informational or entropic ecology deals with the budgeting of pathways and of probability. The resulting budgets are fractioning (not subtractive). The boundaries must enclose, not cut, the relevant pathways” (466-467). I found it interesting that there were two different definitions for ecology, and that one deals with “an economics of information.” It helps to bridge the Cartesian divide we normally have set up between mind and body, and in this case, Mind and Nature.

It is, in part, this second quote along with Bateson’s whole article, that reminded me a great deal of Actor-Network-Theory, as it is the natural world that is also a network (though we call it an ecology),  and a lot of our technological network seems to play out the kinds of networks we see among animals, plants, and plants-animals. Of course, since we are also animals, we are simply mapping onto the virtual environment that which is familiar. Actors are actors regardless of the space.

The last node I put up was a definition for Affordance, cobbling pieces of my understanding together with fragmented quotes by Gibson. “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). While I couldn’t think, yet, of how to connect this to other nodes in my mindmap, I wanted to make sure that it was in there. I think the affordances, or perceived affordances mentioned by Don Norman, are the mediators and intermediaries of ANT. They are the non-human elements that help to transform or relay information to an organism, which in turn affects the ecological network.


Reading Notes #9: Ecology Systems

This week’s readings on ecologies was a bit overwhelming. Guattari’s argument is an advancement of Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind. I was delighted to find that Guattari’s The Three Ecologies was much shorter than I thought. However, this delight shifted to sadness upon realizing that Guattari’s work centered on the deterioration of human […]

Mind Map: Week 10


Mind Map #9: Ecology, Environment & Affordances

I sense the least connection between the two concepts of ecology and affordances this week, likely because I don’t feel I gave these readings justice. One issue is the reading affordance – I’m using iPad rather than print, and the readings this week were not great scans. As a result, I didn’t annotate as completely, and my collected annotations did not include full text of the original – only my notes. When I review my notes, I typically review them as annotations rather than within the text, meaning without the original text included with the comment, I get a little lost among disjointed annotations.

At any rate, the relationship I see is that an ecology may produce a distributed intelligence, and the distributed intelligence within an ecological system depends on environmental affordances. Some of these affordances may be real, but in networked computer environments of hardware, software, and especially user interfaces, the affordances may be more likely to be perceived than actual.

Popplet visualization
Mindmap: This post entirely generated from iPad (including the Popplet), and the environment was a bit restrictive.

I found ecology quite similar to the systems we’ve seen throughout our adventures in theory – activity systems in CHAT and ANT, genre systems in Spinuzzi and Bazerman. I think what differs in ecology is the organic character of the environment and the affordances of that environment. Organic in the sense of growth, development, and advancement (although I would hesitate to suggest evolutionary advancement – more advancement of understanding and intellect) rather than in the sense of organic or inorganic objects as actors in networks.

Mapping the affordances in this ecology of my classroom was enlightening. Mapping Bateson, Gibson, and Norman among other theorists was not as enlightening, in part because I’m unclear as to where they belong. Norman’s contribution is particularly difficult, as I see it applying to the (in my opinion) far more practical, operationalized realm of user interface and user experience than network theory. I think this has to do with mediation, but I’ll be looking for new ways to draw connections between user interface, perceived affordances, and network theory.

Ecology of a Conference

Description

For this post, I’ll be analyzing the 4Cs conference in terms of ecology and distributed cognition. My conference experience this year involved multiple settings, as the main conference was at the JW Marriott, the IWCA Collaborative was at the Hyatt Regency, and my hotel was the Hampton Inn at exit 103, about a twenty minute  drive each day (except on Friday when parking turned out to be a nightmare and I drove around the city for almost an hour).

The IWCA Collaborative at the Hyatt is a mini conference on the Wednesday of 4Cs. In addition to concurrent sessions, the collaborative also offered an opening breakfast, a luncheon, and a reception for attendees. Spaces of the conference included the large ballroom for meals, meeting rooms for sessions, a boardroom for a “quiet space,” a meeting room for space planning, and (attempted) gender-neutral bathrooms–in addition to all of the non-conference spaces surrounding the designated spaces: a food atrium downstairs, other meeting rooms being used by a STEM conference, hotel rooms, and the  offices for those working in the PNC Convention Center that is connected to the Hyatt.

4Cs at the JW Marriott was a much larger conference, encompassing a substantial portion of the hotel’s meeting spaces. Like the Collaborative, 4Cs used meeting rooms for concurrent sessions as well as the ballrooms for featured sessions and speakers. The ballrooms also served for reception spaces, registration, and book exhibits. The large halls offered spaces for digital and non-digital poster sessions and socializing. Additionally, non-designated conference spaces became part of the conference as attendees took advantage of them: Starbucks, the Velocity sports bar, and the lobby (additional spaces also served for those who stayed at the JW Marriott, such as the rooms and the fitness center).

Mapping the Distributed Cognition

Because there were so many spaces and activities, I’m going to narrow my discussion down to a simply one: attending a session. As Bateson explains, a behavior is a complete circuit that includes both the person and the environment, so I’ll begin with specific behaviors and analyze how the environment is a component of them.

By “attending” a session, I mean not only being present in the session but also all of the complexities that define someone as attendant to the events and dialogue occurring in the session. Attendees who are attendant to the sessions are engaged and gaining something as a result of being in attendance (learning something, questioning existing ideas, offering ideas that help shape the session for everyone). Session boundaries are drawn in several ways: arbitrarily by conference organizers according to the presentation titles and descriptions and physically by the walls and doors of the designated rooms for these spaces.

Conference Program: Conference attendees perceive the arbitrary boundaries through the physical (or digital) copy of the program and decide which sessions to attend based on titles and speakers. In this way, the conference program serves as what Norman labels a perceived affordance–the design of the program and descriptions allow attendees to perceive that they can attend a session. Disciplinary jargon and session titles follow cultural conventions, acting as primary indicators for the perceived affordance of attendance–that is, session attendees perceive the level to which they can be engaged in the session based on the jargon and organization of each session as described in the program. If presenters’ presentations do not match the attendees’ expectations, then their level of engagement or attendance could be reduced.

Physical Spaces: While seemingly straightforward with its traditional structure (again, cultural conventions) of chairs for attendees, chairs and tables for presenters, and technology for presenting, the session environment allows for a complex series of understanding and interaction.  Beyond the affordances of sitting, standing, and demonstrating offered by the chairs, floors, and technology in the room, the arrangement allows attendees to perceive social roles and adhere to social expectations (or not). Upon walking into a room, attendees are able to distinguish between presenters and other attendees based on their choice of seating. The facing of presenters’ seats to attendees’ seats affords conversation while distinguishing presenters as the leaders of the discussions. In this way, the structure of the room also creates perceived constraints (Norman) for attendees: the ability to engage only when allowed by presenters.

Technology: There are multiple technologies in each session room that afford the displaying and receiving of information that either engages or disengages both presenters and attendees. Laptops for both groups afford the offloading of information. For presenters, they can use their laptops to display information in such a way that they don’t forget their points or to illustrate concepts to the audience. Attendees can use their laptops (or other devices such as tablets or notepads) to take notes rather than trying to remember all of the points of the presentations and ideas they have during.
The full affordances of the technology are dependent on the users’ familiarity and comfort in using the devices. While they are likely (but not necessarily) familiar with their own devices, the technology of the room often creates constraints. For instances, if the room’s projector doesn’t connect with the presentation device, the presentation is constrained to verbal delivery. Additionally, lack of access to the Internet proved to be a constraint for many of the presenters whose presentations had been designed with Internet access in mind. Finally, the layout of the room in relation to the technology provided both affordances and constraints for full attendance. While the lights were dimmable to enable better viewing for attendees, the placement of the display screen next to the presenters’ table made it difficult for both the presenter and his or her copresenters to see the visual components.

Other People: The final component in the session environment is the people. The levels of experience and the simultaneous similarity and diversity of knowledge amongst the group affords discussions of concepts and ideas. Presenters afford attendees points for discussion that, hopefully, engage learning and growth for all of the people present. The attendees afford the presenters an opportunity for feedback and questions that challenge or expand upon their own ideas. Time constraints, however, limit presenters’ ability to fully explain their arguments, thereby also potentially limiting the discussion or attendees’ full attendance to the presentation.

Examining a conference session takes us beyond Gibson’s description of affordances to Bateson’s ecology of Mind and Norman’s perceived affordances. Perceiving that a chair affords sitting and that a presenters’ afford information doesn’t fully encompass the cognitive activities taking place. The full experience of a session is a complex integration of human and environmental factors only briefly described above. Looking at it in this way, it’s easier to understand Bateson’s point about examining a system by including all of its pathways. To separate, or cut off, one of the pathways included above would exclude a key piece of the system.

References

Bateson, G. (1987). Form, substance, and difference. Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology (pp. 454-471). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.

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

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


Activity for 25 March: Mapping Ecologies of Cognition

http://prezi.com/tcrhy41ysbbh/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy For this week’s activity, I created a Prezi to represent my application of Bateson/Norman/Gibson. Since the contents of the Prezi are rather extensively explained in the nodes, I’ll forgo duplicating them here. The choice of a Prezi for my … Continue reading

Week 10 Reading Notes: Distributed Cognition

Summary

Each of the readings for this week focused on the organism’s (human’s) relationship to its environment and the totality of the system–what Bateson calls “organism plus environment” (p. 455). In Form, substance, and difference, Bateson investigates the overlap between formal premises and actual behavior. At the foreground of this investigation is the question of survival. He begins by examining traditional approaches to the relationship, namely Darwin’s theory of evolution that posits natural selection as the primary unit of survival (p. 456. This theory, Bateson argues, leads to the destruction of environment and thus the destruction of the organism. Rather than the strongest or most unyielding of organisms, Bateson posits, a flexible organism in the environment is the unit of survival.

Crucial for understanding this position is Bateson’s conception of Mind. Discoveries of cybernetics, systems theory, and information theory have created a shift in epistemology that no longer positions mind as the explanation–instead, it is the thing that must be explained (p. 456). At the center of this explanation is the importance of difference, which Bateson identifies as synonymous with “idea” and result in “effects” (p. 458). From this perspective, it is a difference that makes a difference that serves as the elementary unit of information. We perceive differences through both internal and external pathways that help us map the environment. While other theorists have created a dichotomy between mind and substance, Bateson’s approach considers both.

An organism adapts to the environment through a transformation resulting in behaviors of trial and error that are coded and transmitted through internal and external pathways. In this sense, then, he explains that “if you want to explain or understand anything in human behavior, you are always dealing with total circuits, completed circuits. This is the elementary cybernetic thought” (p. 465). The mental system demonstrates the characteristic of trial and error and, according to Bateson, “the way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways that leave things inexplicable” (p. 465). In this way, Mind is synonymous with cybernetic system–”the relevant total information-processing trial-and-error completing unit” (p. 466). From this perspective, Mind is part of the ecosystem and Bateson argues “the individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body” (p. 467). Human survival, then, is the result of the mind’s ability to code and transform the body’s relationship to the environment.

This relationship is further explored by Gibson‘s theory of affordances. Gibson argues that objects in the environment afford human actions. For example, a solid, flat ground affords walking and a small rock affords throwing. He points out, however, that an object’s physical properties must be measured relative to the individual animal as an affordance of support for a species.

Throughout the chapter, Gibson explains the concept of affordances, acknowledging that other animals and humans also serve as affordances–indeed, social interactions rely on an individual’s perception (or misperception) of what another individual affords him or her. He identifies existing concepts of environment, such as an ecologist’s niche and how those correlate with his theory of affordances (a “nice is a set of affordances”). Objects can have multiple affordances, so Gibson emphasizes the importance of understanding that to perceive an affordance is not to classify an object–the potential multiplicity of affordances actually complicates the ability to classify objects. Additionally, positive and negative affordances are determined by their effects (beneficial or dangerous) rather than an individual’s level of enjoyment of the experience.

In the final reading, Norman expands Gibson’s theory of affordances to graphical design, focusing on what he calls perceived affordances: the perception that a meaningful, useful action is afforded by the design. In product design, her argues, real and perceived affordances “need not be the same.” Physical affordances exist–keyboards, computer screens, etc.–but perceived affordances determine whether or not users recognize the availability of affordances.

Norman also identifies the importance of cultural constraints and cultural conventions when designing perceived affordances. Designers must operate within the cultural understandings of how results are afforded by certain actions, even though many of those actions are arbitrary (a horizontal scroll bar, for example). He concludes by offering four principles for screen interfaces:

  1. Follow conventional usage, both in the choice of images and the allowable interactions
  2. Use words to describe the desired action
  3. Use metaphor (even though he believes this can be harmful)
  4. Follow a coherent conceptual model so that once part of the interface is learned, the same principles apply to other parts

Key Terms

Affordances: what the environment offers (provides or furnishes) to an animal; implies complimentarity of the animal and the environment (Gibson)

Attached objects: items that cannot be removed from earth without breakage (Gibson)

Barriers: environmental objects that do not afford locomotion (Gibson)

Bioenergenetics: economy of energy and materials; boundaries at the cell membrane or skin measurements; additive or subtractive (Bateson, p. 466)

Creatura: Jung’s second world of exploration–effects are brought about by difference (Bateson, p. 462)

Cultural constraintslearned conventions that are shared by a cultural group that limits design/action (Norman)

Detached objects: items that can be removed from earth without breakage (Gibson)

Economics of information: budgeting of pathways and probability; budgets are fractionating rather than additive or subtractive; boundaries enclose rather than cut off pathways

External pathways: travel of information (perceived differences) by propagation of light or sound to the sensory organs that transform it to internal pathways (Bateson, p. 459)

Internal pathways: travel of information energized by the metabolic energy latent in the protoplasm which receives, recreates, or transforms it and passes it on (Bateson, p. 459)

Mental System: the unit which shows the characteristic of trial and error (Bateson, p. 465)

Niche: a set of affordances (Gibson)

Perceived affordance: the perception that an action is possible (Norman)

Plemora: Jung’s first world of exploration–events are caused by forces and impacts; there are no distinctions or differences (Bateson, p. 462)

Principle of occluding edges: law of reversible occlusion, reliant on opaque and nonopaque surfaces. Afford hiding (Gibson)

Discussion

It seems that all three of these readings focus on the idea of totality–the survival of the ecosystem is dependent on the relationships within it. Bateson and Gibson both argue that human actions that center on the survival of humans will destroy the ecosystem. As humans manipulate and adapt the environment to make it easier for them to survive, they change the ecosystem to the detriment of the organisms within it and, eventually themselves. Although Norman is talking about graphic design, there seems to be a similar idea. We must design within the cultural constraints or conventions or the product will not be used–the system will fail.

While I didn’t fully understand all of Bateson’s concepts, I found the argument about fractionality interesting. It seems that he’s saying we cannot add to or subtract from an environment. Instead, the environment exists as is and all of the elements within it are fractions of it, including how information is coded, processed, and transmitted. Behaviors are complete systems of activity and the environment is a part of that system.

Resources

Bateson Documentary:http://anecologyofmind.com/

Ecological affordances: http://youtu.be/Ekm60F4AD3Y

Ecology of Mind Revisited: http://www.earthzine.org/2010/10/21/a-re-introduction-to-ecology-of-mind/

Don Norman’s website: http://www.jnd.org/

References

Bateson, G. (1987). Form, substance, and difference. Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology (pp. 454-471). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.

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

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

 


The Map May Not Be the Territory, But Differences and Affordances Have More Fun

James Gibson and Gunnar Johansson

James Gibson and Gunnar Johansson. Image hosted on Spoonfiles, through Thomas Hard af Segerstad from Uppsala University

Gregory Bateson. Image hosted on Square One Explorations.

Gregory Bateson. Image hosted on Square One Explorations.

Some Key Terms to Remember:

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). This is Gibson word from the kinds of support that the environment (artificial or natural, though the two should not be considered separate from one another) offers for each species.

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).

Difference -**side note: This may be a little more difficult to describe, but I’ll do my best.  –”when you enter the world of communication, organization, etc., you leave behind that whole world in which effects are brought by forces and impacts and energy exchange. You enter a world in which ‘effects’…are brought about by differences. That is, they are brought about by the sort of ‘thing’ that gets unto the map from the territory. This is difference” (Bateson 458).

I guess I should stop and explain here the comment about territory. Bateson draws upon a quote from Alfred Korzybski, “the map is not the territory” (455). When he says that the differences are what gets unto the map is when there is “a difference in altitude, a difference in vegetation, a difference in population structure, difference in surface, or whatever,” for if everything was the same, there would be nothing to distinguish from (Bateson 457). As strange as it may seem, this concept reminds me of Frankenstein with the Monster. How can a being distinguish what it is if there is nothing to be distinguished from? Difference is what makes the boundaries clearer (if not absolutely clear-cut).

Ecology - 1) for bioenergetics, it is the “economics of energy and materials within a coral reef, a redwood forest, or a city…it is natural and appropriate to think of units bounded at the cell membrane; or of units composed of sets of conspecific individuals. These boundaries are then the frontiers at which measurements can be made to deter the additive-subtractive budget of energy for the given unit,” and 2) “an economics of information, of entropy, negentropy, etc…informational or entropic ecology deals with the budgeting of pathways and of probability. The resulting budgets are fractioning (not subtractive). The boundaries must enclose, not cut, the relevant pathways” (Bateson 466-467).

Bioenergetics - Well, I could try, or I could just give you the video I watched.

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).

Law of Ambient Optic Array (I mostly added this one because it’s fun) – “at any fixed point of observation some parts of the environment are revealed and the remaining parts are concealed. The reciprocal of this law is that 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).

And So We Begin…

Ecology is the wonderful key word for this week’s reading notes, and I quite enjoyed this week’s readings (even though I was startled by the turnaround in theory style). While reading both Bateson’s and Gibson’s texts, the material reminded me a great deal of my last university, Florida Gulf Coast University, whose key foundations are based on creating a sustainable relationship with the environment. Every student is required to take a University Colloquium course (students in the Arts and Sciences are also required to take a Civic Engagement course) as part of the goal of creating a student body who recognizes and respects their place within the ecology of South Florida (rippling outwards towards other areas). How successful the FGCU will be in this goal has yet to be seen, but it’s a start, right? 

So, how does this tangent on my former school tie into the readings from Theories of Networks? Well, they all seem to lead towards the same path: a network made of more than just people. Nodes, connections, groups, sub-systems, networks. It is hard, sometimes, to remember that those words extend beyond the virtual, the cybernetics, and actual exist within the natural world (the very world we seem to want to shut out because we cannot tame it as much as we would like). Nature may seem like some chaotic thing, breathing as it does in ways we’re usually uncomfortable with, but ecosystems are the very essence of a network.

Rainforest Ecosystem. Image hosted on blog, Welcome to Geography at Grangefield School.

Rainforest Ecosystem. Image hosted on blog, Welcome to Geography at Grangefield School.

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). But, what happens when a species consciously decides to adapt the environment to its own desires rather than adapting to the environment? 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)?

What do you think would happen?

Again, I turn to Bateson (mostly because his answer made me smile and also feel a little depressed): “If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of over-population and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite” (468).

Dean and Sam from Supernatural know how to show us Bateson's bleak future.

Dean and Sam from Supernatural show us Bateson’s bleak future.

Toxic by-product of hate, anyone?

Toxic by-product of hate, anyone?

Feel like the end of the world is nigh because we keep jacking up our network (even on purpose sometimes)? Oh good, you can join my party. I promise I’ll bring cookies and coffee. But why bring all this up in my reading notes? Why discuss environmental destruction in a class where the digital is dominating how society even views what a network is? Well, that’s it exactly. Many of us (myself included) get bogged with the social and keeping it separate from the natural, as we have “gone astray into all sorts of false reifications of the ‘self’ and separations between the ‘self’ and ‘experience’” (Bateson 469). The Cartesian split of mind/body when they are ultimately connected, one needing the other until the technologies of Robocop and other science fiction become reality. *Side note: Personally, I don’t want to be a brain and lungs in a mechanical suit, thank you very much.

But, I digress, again. And, now it’s time to get to the good stuff. That which is made of affordances, differences, substances, mediums, design, ecologies, ideas, lives. It sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? All the fun concepts usually do.

Round 2 should always begin with an ecology of the mind.  I admit to being confused by this idea when I first read it. Were we talking about the formation of ideas in the brain? Were we talking about connections of ideas the way that occurs in academic settings?

Ecology of the Mind? Image hosted on blog, Collective ThinkTank.

Ecology of the Mind? Image hosted on blog, Collective ThinkTank.

To figure it out, I turned to one of my favorite quotes: “the very meaning of ‘survival’ becomes different when we stop talking about the survival of something bounded by the skin and start to think of the survival of the system of ideas in circuit. The contents of the skin are randomized at death and the pathways within the skin are randomized. But the ideas, under further transformation, may go on out in the world in books or works of art. Socrates as a bioenergetic individual is dead. But much of him still lives as a component in the contemporary ecology of ideas” (Bateson 467). I love that the ecology of the mind refers to “the system of ideas in circuit,”  that even Socrates (long since turned to dust) “still lives as a component in the contemporary ecology of ideas.” This system of ideas through books, paintings, sculptures, philosophical pamphlets, political pamphlets, and other texts that add to the global discourse. The introduction of the internet helped this dispersion of ideas, giving them virtual spaces where they can be collected, stored, and accessed. Socrates can now live on in digital format, spreading the wisdom Plato wrote down years before. 

Even though the virtual world of ideas is not a tangible world, where I cannot reach out my fingers at touch the items I see on the screen (even though my touch screen allows me to manipulate that which I see, to an extent) and is not one that can offer physical affordances the way the objects in my apartment can. But, this network makes more sense to me than the natural ecology I would see if I ever walked into the Rainforest. I can see the links between webpages, the connections made through email or Facebook or Twitter, how the ideas ripple outwards and then reverberate back towards the source. As Don Norman points out, “affordances are relationship” between an individual of any species and the environment within which they live, but he also points out that “perceived affordances” exist. From what I understood of his discussion, a perceived affordance is something a designer can create in the virtual world (through user interface, etc), but one that is (most often) constrained by cultural conventions and constraints (which is what makes the non-physical world of data familiar to us). Users do not see the ones and zeroes that are the core of our internet usage; instead, we see the interfaces that allow us to maneuver through vast layers of visual and auditory information. The internet then becomes the “larger Mind” Bateson describes in his “cybernetic epistemology.” Our minds are networks, our environments are networks, and the sprawling labyrinth of information of the interwebs are networks.

However, as Bateson and Gibson point out, the worlds modified by human beings, the world we try to reshape to allow us greater affordances without the struggle of truly being in the natural world, are not separate from everything else. The ripple effects between animals (which we are, regardless of what anyone thinks) are felt the way a spider feels a touch on the threads of a web.

References:

Bateson, Gregory. “Form, Substance, and Difference.” Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc, 1987: 454-471. PDF.

Bateson, Gregory. “Comment on Part V.” Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc, 1987: 472-473 PDF. 15 Mar 2014.

Gibson, James J. “The Theory of Affordances.” The Information for Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986: 127-143. PDF.

Norman, Dan. “Affordances and Design.” JND.org. JND, n.d. Web.

It’s Just a Little Alteration: