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.
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:
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.
Ecologies 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:
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 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).
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|
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
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.
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.
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?
To the Victor Goes the Spoils:
Questions of ecology inspired by the Bateson, Gibson, and Norman readings:
What technologies and applications are used to create the learning environment of my first year composition class? What are the affordances of these technologies? How are these affordances perceived by the students, the university, and me? How can the users be visible or invisible to other users? Which affordances belong to more than one application? What patterns emerge? What responsibility do the users have to one another through these connections?
Technologies and Applications:
- The university dictates that instructors use Blackboard at least minimally as an online location for a syllabi, a place to submit assignments to SafeAssign, and a convenient way for students to contact the instructor. These three affordances are just a few of the available tools though. It affords sending of emails to the entire class or just selected users, participating in discussion boards, recording of grades, posting content (web links, videos, assignment descriptions, rubrics), creating a tasks calendar that reminds students of due dates, posting announcements, dividing content into folders, copying content from one course to another, and giving feedback to students on submitted assignments.
- There are certainly other affordances available, but these are the ones I use regularly. Norman argues that there are real affordances and perceived affordances. This is the idea that just because an action is allowed, does not mean it is perceived to be meaningful. In BB, the grade book is difficult to manipulate, weight categories, or add scores for assignments not submitted online (like an in-class activity). It is an affordance, but not one I perceive as useful. I use the free online grade book Engrade. It is a much more user-friendly system with affordances I need such as weighting assignments and placing multiple assignments in each category. It also allows for the sending or printing of different reports, like missing assignments. The storage and accessibility of content, like assignments or calendars, is an affordance I find especially helpful in that I no longer need to print out hundreds of copies every week; however, this may be an affordance that the students do not perceive as meaningful. I think there is a privileging of hard copy handouts because the students seem to be less likely to go online, open Blackboard, find the folder, and open the document than they would be to just grab the sheet of paper from their notebook. For all the talk of the digital age, students still seem to find the hard copy easier and more significant. Perhaps the often ephemeral nature of the digital world has trained them into seeing that content as somehow less important - anything can go online, but the handout... I think the university would see certain affordances as helpful, like the Blackboard tool of "Performance Dashboard" as a helpful tool in retention. This allows instructors to see how many students have submitted an assignment or participated in discussion boards. If we notice students failing to complete, work, we could theoretically reach out to them and intervene. However, I do not need a digital diagnostic to know who is in jeopardy in my course. I do not perceive its value as a real affordance; it is just clutter on the screen.
- In a connected space, there are places we are seen and unseen (Gibson - ambient optic array). In BB, students can read discussion board posts or view content. I would not see this activity unless I ran a usage report. This is in area of relative invisibility since I do not run these kinds of reports, and the reports would tell me the number of times a student accessed content but not which content was viewed. In the discussion board posts though, they are highly visible. I am mostly invisible in this application unless I give feedback. The students do not know when or if I have read their posts or submitted one of their papers to the plagiarism checker. This kind of anonymity helps me keep tabs on students without them having them feeling overly scrutinized as they participate with one another in discussion.
- I think the responsibility in connecting to one another through Blackboard is civility. As we engage with one another's ideas, we must do so in a thoughtful and respectful way. I must also respect student work and respond in a timely fashion. It is a general responsibility to recognize each other's participation in the shared space.
- My classroom has a computer at each student's seat, one at the lectern, and two screens that come down to project from my computer screen or overhead. This affords collaboration in several ways: students can work together on a Google Doc, class discussion can be recorded and projected for the class to see, or students can work together at one computer before sending their work to me for projection to the larger class. Sharing is a significant affordance, whether that be what I am typing, presentations, web content, or even handwriting/drawing with the overhead. It affords digital recording such as typing notes and real time editing into the document during peer review.
- Students, the university, and I all feel that these technologies in the classroom enhance the learning environment. The perceived meaning is these affordances is there for all, and the university in particular is heavily investing in these kinds of classrooms. The nature of composition is today both increasingly collaborative and digital, and these affordances work well to allow for that approach. There is however the real affordance of accessing the web, which students may perceive to be meaningful as more interesting than whatever the instructor is presenting while my perception is that this is distracting. I have heard there is some sort of master switch that affords the instructor control over when the student computers can be online, but I have yet to discover it and do not think it would really curb the problem when computers are turned on for learning tasks. I also perceive there to be a non-affordance of this space for the classic (and personal favorite) of sitting in a circle. The circle arrangement always breeds quality exchanges, but it is not feasible in the room taken up by rows of computer stations. there is no room for the chairs to be arranged this way unencumbered by the screens.
- Hiding in the class is enhanced by the screens. It is difficult sometimes for me to see the students' faces or gauge what they are doing. It also puts me often behind the screen where I would have previously stood at the board. I see shades of Turkle's Alone Together here with visibility and interaction decreased.
- We have a responsibility to focus more on the work at hand. If one of the students is watching something on his screen. it tends to pull the attention of those sitting next to and behind him. I also feel like I have the responsibility to be more active in how I interact with the students. I could easily just stay at my screen, but I know the pedagogical benefit of being in and among the students while they work. I have to work harder to engage, and so do they.
- Word affords typing and arrangement (font, spacing, format) of text, saving composition, creating documents for printing or digital sharing, editing text, and recording feedback. It affords spelling/thesaurus and grammar checks and the ability to search the internet for selected text.
- These affordances are certainly real for me, but I sometimes wonder if students' perceptions aren't something entirely different. I notice a serious lack of editing. I will open a document and Word has flagged errors in spelling with squiggly red lines. Why didn't the student run the spell check? Do they not know this is an affordance? Or do they not perceive it to be valuable? In questioning students, I think it is a bit of both. They sometimes admit that when they finish writing, they just simply want to be done with it. The kind of polishing and (seemingly basic) checking is for them more than they want to invest in their work. The affordance of adding comments and tracking changes is one I think they and I find especially helpful. If I can insert comments, highlight, and point to certain words, paragraphs, or sentences, the students can really connect much more with what I am pointing out. I can highlight ideas in different colors, so they can more easily see how to improve organization. These affordances enhance individualized learning (which is probably an affordance in and of itself).
- There is a certain amount of hiding that can occur in Word. A student can submit text that he or she possibly did not write. There are no markers for me to know if a friend helped out as part of the software. I can sometimes tell if the voice or quality is suddenly quite different, but that is an affordance of my experience and not the technology. They could also use the spelling checker or synonyms to hide their original composition. I am visible whenever I leave comments, but I can read their text or cut and copy it to a different document (for class instruction) without them being aware.
- Because there is a level of invisibility in Word, I think students have a responsibility to their own learning to be truthful in producing their own work. Word has the affordance of being saved, sent, and edited. Students could easily use these affordances to have others work on the text dishonestly (I have heard students say they sent their paper to a friend at another college and get "help"). We have a responsibility for our own learning, and taking advantage of the affordances will not accomplish that goal. I am responsible for also not manipulating their work or using it without permission since text can be so easily copied. I have students sign a permission to use their work. While it may be tempting too to take some of the more poorly written texts and share online to commiserate with fellow instructors, this is probably a breach of the trust between student and teacher, and one I could probably be more sensitive to.
- It is easy to forget that books were at one time new technology. Although not technology in the sense we use in class, the common reader is an essential part of our course. All students across the university use this reader for both ENC1101 and 1102. It becomes significant part of their shared learning experience. It affords a shared knowledge base between all students, a foray into academic reading, marking the text, allows for quotes to be taken for support in an essay, and has a code for access to electronic supporting materials.
- I see the ability to mark text as an affordance, but students often think they will eventually "sell back" their text and wish therefore to keep it free of notes. They would also perceive the non-affordance of copying and pasting text. They have to type out the quotes they want to use because the text is in print and not in a digital form. They probably also do not see the digital content as a perceived affordance because unless I explicitly assign it, I have yet to meet a student who explores that of their own volition. It appeals to the university which is always looking to give students something digital, thinking that alone will appeal to the millennials. However, unless there is some more tangible reason - like a test or grade - students rarely take advantage of something designed simply to enhance their learning for the sake of learning. I also see the affordance of scannable pages to be useful. If I want to highlight a portion of the text, I can scan the page and save it for use on the projector. Albeit, if the articles were accessible digitally, this would save a step, but the affordance is there.
- We remain invisible in a text when we read it unless we insert ourselves through note-taking. However, students are required to use the readings as evidence for their essays. In that way, their participation with the text becomes visible by their selection and inclusion of quotes.
- I am responsible for using the text extensively because my students will be expected to participate in future classes based on the shared knowledge built by the selected essays. I will leave them unprepared for future studies if I fail to incorporate the text and help them work through the ideas. The students bear the same responsibility for reading and future preparations. If they fail to consider the articles carefully, they will let the community down by being unable to participate in that common knowledge building.
JJ Gibson’s “Theory of Affordances” set off waves of thought for me in terms of my object of study, Live-Action Role-Playing games. In 1977, Gibson revolutionized the field of evolutionary psychology and systems theory by making up the word “affordance” to explain what something (an object, an environment) offers to an individual. (127). It is a theory that situates itself not in the physical properties of an object, but in the perception of it. Affordances are measured in relationship to the subject doing the perception. The more complex the object and the subject, the more complex the set of affordances, which, Gibson notes, are perceived primarily through optical and sensory information (128). Gibson further defines a niche as a set of such affordances, and he problematizes the subjective-objective dichotomy of thought prevalent in the social sciences vs. the sciences. Affordances, he states, cut across this constructed border and demonstrate its limitations. Affordances exist in the relationship between the object and the user doing the perceiving.
This then relates to Bateson, whose theory is about the reality of perception, and how what one perceives becomes what is true, real, possible. This, in turn, leads to Norman, who states that Gibson’s affordance really is a “perceived affordance”; if a user perceives something is possible, then it is possible, if s/he perceives it is not possible, then it is not possible. This is regardless to whether it actually is possible with the object at hand. An affordance isn’t an affordance unless it is perceived by the would-be user.
When reading Gibson, I had some ideas about the dangers of perceiving objects solely in terms of WIIFM, “what can be done with it, what it is good for, its utility” (129). This narrow perception can lead to a Benthamite fetishization of utility, and a late-capitalist concern about commodification.
Bateson says that what we perceive is difference (differance?), patterns and ways one thing is not like another. To me that means that our perception creates discourse; discourse is created as a result of perceived difference, of some sort of chasm to cross or something to bridge via language. Perception then, creates the exigence for the rhetorical situation. A rhetor perceives, and interprets, and as Bateson notes, his perception is real and personal, and not absolute. As Gibson notes, what the rhetor perceives are affordances, ways to obtain something from the object or situation, which speaks to Bitzer’s goal-oriented communication, and even to Bazerman’s genres. This perception of “Certain facts” distilled from an object (Bateson 459) is what Bateson calls the extrapolation of information. A rhetorical situation then, affords information. What information is extrapolated and acted upon, then depends on what the rhetor perceives. The discourse that is created then travels along pathways and is “energized at every step by the metabolic energy latent in the protoplasm which receives the difference, recreates or transforms it, and passes it on” (Bateson 459). This relates to the rhetorical situation in that we are measuring the effect on the audience. Furthermore, the perceiver/rhetor, in Bateson’s analogy, adds energy to the object and recreates it into the map of it, into something other than its physical properties. In this way, it resembles the idea of a mediator (rather than an intermediary) from Actor Network Theory.
Bateson quotes Jung, who says that “as a difference is transformed and propagated along its pathway, the embodiment of the difference before the step is a “territory” of which the embodiment after the step is a “map.” The map-territory relation obtains at every step” (461). To me, this is demonstrating the iterative nature of the interpretation; as the information is mediated along the pathway from physical object to perceived object, it ceases to be the object itself, but a representation of it, colored by the available information and perceived affordances of the person doing the perceiving. Remembering the object then is an image of the represented image, and further removed from the original object. Any “phenomena” is “appearance”, Bateson says. In other words, all of the world is rhetorically constructed by the seer, who perceives it.
Bateson’s comments about “immanence and transcendence” (467) are making me think about whether they can be used to express the dual consciousness of the player-character during a role-playing game. The player is, simultaneously, him/herself, and the character. The player is the immanence, physically in the world with the other players and symbolic objects, but the player becomes transcendence by being more than
themselves, by entering the imaginative space of the game. If I am Thor, I am myself playing Thor, the character Thor, all Thors before me – representations that are both there and not there, here and beyond, all working together to recreate, remediate and present “Thor.” When Bateson discusses the “false reifications of the ‘self’ and separations between the ‘self’ and experience’ I am transported to the notion that live-action role-playing is unmediated space; that the self and the experience are one. The play exists in a co-created imaginative space that is experienced through the body; the mind/body split is reconstituted as player.
“it is the attempt to separate intellect from emotion that is monstrous, and I suggest that it is equally monstrous – and dangerous—to attempt to separate the external mind from the internal. Or to separate the mind from body” (470).
This fetishization of “pure mind” is the idealistic focus of Enlightenment thinking and cybernetic theory, commonly embodied in the person of a digital avatar. Yet in larp, which is face-to-face interaction unmediated by technology, people are liberated by the concept of imagination – of the alibi of portraying a character — that lets them have emotional and embodied experiences in interaction with others in a shared relational ecosystem. There is not difference in perception between character and player in these scenarios. If it is happening to the character, it is happening to the player, whose body is at risk, and whose bodily reactions perceive no intellectual distance between the constructed character and the player portraying. We constitute the reality of the game by “information processing, i.e. by thought” (Bateson 471). As Gibson says, what we perceive is an “ambient optic array” that “at any fixed point of observation some parts of the environment are revealed and the remaining parts are concealed” (136). A larp is only constructed by the person playing it, and one person’s diegesis will be unlike another’s. No one, not even the Game Master or Story Teller ever has all of the information; thus all reality is based on what the player perceives and interprets. Information may exist, a secret may lie latent, but it does not “mean” or “matter” or “exist” in the sense of being perceived as something that can be acted upon until it is seen or heard, and thus brought into the mind of the player and the diegesis of the game.
Gibson’s use of the biological term proprioception is fruitful in looking at larp. The notion that “to perceive the world is to coperceive oneself” is a theory of how interactive role play and world building happens, dynamically in the larp. The character is iteratively constructed in relation to his/her environment and to other characters. Gibson goes on to say something that I think can be very useful in studying larps: “Only when a child perceives the values of things for others as well as for herself does she begin to be socialized” (139). This seems to refer to a kind of shared empathy, that is fundamental to the kind of collaborative interactive play that is a larp. Call it the “empathy bump” or “alteric escalation”, if you will. When you realize, as a player, that your experience will be all the richer if you play in such a way as to enrich the experiences of others, then you have a social realm. A network is created by this sort of social contract that recognizes (perceives) the self in relation to others and the affordances of the game as being collaborative and shared. The game exists as a set of affordances in the relationship of the players to the environment and the information. A kind of discursive community, a rhetorical triangle (player – environment – information) is created, and through the act of speaking, the reality is created and perceived.
I’m also tossing around this idea that the more divergent the thinking of the perceiver, the greater the number of affordances will be perceived. Thus, the boundaries of possibility – in short, the reality – of something who thinks divergently is much richer than that of someone who thinks convergently. This has implications for the discourse produced. In the case of larps, this affects the outcome of the game, which is only confined to what the player believes is possible for his character within the constraints of the game world and its mechanics.
Bateson, Gregory. “Form, Substance, and Difference” Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. 454-471. Print.
Gibson, James J. “A Theory of Affordances. An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1979. 127-139. Print.
Avengers 2 Thor. http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20111215055347/marvelmovies/images/b/b2/Thor_Avengers2.png
Classic Cartoon Thor. http://static.comicvine.com/uploads/original/11111/111111405/3008667-classic_thor_by_lostonwallace-d4xn712%5B1%5D.jpg
Female Thor. http://hqwallpapersplus.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Thor-Wallpapers-13.jpg
Little Thor. http://0.tqn.com/d/paranormal/1/0/q/I/2/little-thor.jpg
"We create the world that we perceive...because we select and edit the reality we see to conform to our beliefs about what sort of world we live in" (Engel qtd. in Bateson vii).Mark Engel wrote the quote above in the introduction to Bateson's book and identified this as the "central theme" of the text. This question of perception is seemingly central to all of the readings this week about affordances and manifests in several ways: understanding differences (Bateson), understanding usefulness (Norman), and understanding behavior (Gibson).
First though, I want to make a connection to something I have been using in the classroom this semester. My first year composition students are working with the theme of identity, and we are exploring ways in which identity is formed and influenced. One component of our class is the interaction between media and identity. Each week I post some digital content to add to our class discussions; the TED Talk below is something we have used. Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble and developer of the web aggregate Upworthy, speaks here about the restricted connections we make online despite the vast array of possible connections. He argues that even though the web would theoretically allow us to interact with people from across the globe, we tend to only build connections to those we are already geographically close to and to those with whom we share common interests or characteristics. Basically, we interact with people we already know and who are a lot like us. Our networks exist inherently in a bubble and we actively filter out the unknown or dissimilar; we "edit the reality we see to conform to our beliefs." The quote above and the way the different authors speak about perception reminds me of Pariser's observation. Our reality, our connections, is individually determined and is based on how we perceive and see the world. For networks, this suggests that our connections are highly mediated by our choices, and we have far greater control over our relationships than previously assumed.
Bateson argues in his chapter "Form, Substance, and Difference" that perception is necessary to understand how one thing is fundamentally different from another. He explains that difference exists in the "fancy piece of computing machinery" in his head (459). There can be physical differences between wood and paper, he argues, but we can only understand these physical differences through perception. Difference is an "abstract matter" (459). The concept requires the application of mental processes in order to be given the meaning of different, not the same as the other. This idea seems especially relevant to my understanding of network theory as being the studying of objects situated in a space with various connections among them. Again, like Pariser, this highlights the role of the observer in studying a particular network. The differences between nodes and the different types of connections is reliant upon the observer's perception and his or her ability to conceptualize things as different. Rather than the meaning of a network being inherently a part of the object, the meaning is in the processes of our minds. This shift in the location of meaning seems important.
Gibson also broaches the topic of perception with similar results. He writes, "The behavior of observers depends on their perception of the environment" (128). Here, rather than constructing a sense of difference, Gibson argues that perception influences behavior. Between the two, perception is a key element in both thoughts and deed, theory and praxis. We behave according to how we understand the environment. If we perceive our environment to have scarce resources, we conserve them and vice-versa. It is interesting because as I continue to engage with critical making in the digital humanities, I find myself driven by the perception that the ability to create digital content will become an increasingly more important area of our discipline. I perceive there to be a dearth of scholarship on alternative media publications, so I am driven to preserve and propagate examples from it. Does a network also grow or shrink based on perceptions? Are network action driven by the perceived environment? Whose perceptions shape a network? (These questions could be interesting to explore in a future case study...)
Lastly, Norman also manages to arrive at a conclusion about perception. He explores the idea that there are both "real" and "perceived" affordances. This is the idea that an object will have certain affordances - actions it allows to be performed based on its characteristics - but that the user may or not perceive them to be meaningful. He uses the example of the touch screen. He points out that all screens have the affordance of touch; we can physically touch a screen surface. However, we only perceive screen touching to be meaningful if that touch produces an action like opening an app or typing a message. Although coming at perception through the lens of usability, Norman also arrives at this conclusion - perhaps only implied - that meaning requires perception. If we do not perceive something it contains no validity or purpose. I think this notion that the theory of affordances continually requires perception in order to have meaning, action, or usefulness makes a critical assumption that all knowledge is user-constructed. The effects of this are that knowledge then is highly mutable from person to person (like Reader-Response) and is highly relative. Objects themselves have no force; they are only as significant as we perceive them to be. A network is only as meaningful, actionable, or useful as we understand it to be.
Affordances and Boundaries:
Gibson addresses how thinking in terms of affordances frees us into seeing objects in a multitude of ways, which reminds me of Popham in Genre Theory with her discussion of boundary objects. Gibson explains that thinking in terms of an object's affordances allows for greater fluidity in understanding it. Rather than thinking of something rigidly in terms of a classification system, we can understand how an object is used or could possibly be used. He notes that classification systems ( like giving Latin names to biological objects) often make no reference to what the objects can do or how they can be used; the names are arbitrary (134). Then these labels force us into thinking about that object as only belonging to that one place in the system. However, if we think in terms of affordances, the object can belong to many different categories of thought. For example, as I sit here in my living room, I see a small stool. It has the affordance of being something to stand on to reach a height, to be sat on, or to be used as a place to set a bowl of smashed avocados for a six month old baby girl. I use it for all these things regularly; it has the same affordances as a ladder, chair, and table respectively. This seems to be something akin to boundary objects. It is the idea that there are objects that can exist in more than one sphere and be used in more than one way.
|Affordances allow objects to cross rigid boundaries based on how they can be used.|
Stool image posted by Pixabay, Step ladder image posted by Wikipedia Commons, Table image posted by Wikipedia Commons
Networks and Ethics:
This section of the reading notes has been weighing heavily on my mind since finishing the readings. It begins with Bateson's explorations of what he terms "immanence," or the idea that everything is interconnected and intertwined. There is no separation between objects; we are all one (467). Now, for me, from a perspective of having studied the counterculture movement, these realizations of universal oneness are not unfamiliar. Written in 1971, Bateson admits that these sentiments occurred to him while "under LSD", not an uncommon practice among academics in this time (467). It is also not uncommon that there are strong similarities between these ideas and Eastern philosophy, with many thinkers and artists finding spiritual guidance from Buddhist gurus as a result of their experiences. The similarities between Bateson and Buddhist philosophy are evident whether he studied the religion or not. It can be argued that among academics involved with experimentation, these ideas were part of the zeitgeist and would have been familiar.
What has me thinking though is that Bateson is arguing for an ethical perspective: take care on the Earth and one another because we are all one. We survive or die together. I do not think that prior to this I had thought about the ethical ramifications of a network. We have talked about action and activism, but this is the idea that there is a moral imperative to care for the nodes to which we are linked in this great field of dispersion.
What ethical questions are inherent in networks? I am thinking of the digital divide, net neutrality, and privacy immediately. I think it would be a place where my scholarly interests would be most piqued. It a systems of connections, what responsibility do objects have to one another? How closely linked must nodes be before the demise of one would mean the demise of the other? For a network to become sustainable, do its participants have to reduce their individualistic goals for the greater good?
Affordances and Patterns:
Bateson and Gibson suggest the importance of patterns rather than individual objects. Bateson argues that we need "inquiry into pattern rather inquiry into substance" (455). Gibson discusses the "niche", or how something lives and uniquely occupies space, as a "set of affordances" (128). It suggests that the individual object is not as important as how it fits into a pattern of use or behavior. This reminds me of Bazerman and his systems of activity. The emphasis is on a collection of social facts, utterances, genres, genre sets, and so on. Foucault also argues that we should examine the rules of formation, the structures that govern how an object is brought into being, its restrictions and common traits. All together, the network discussion is continually brought upward toward a macroscopic view of how objects are situated in the field and how they relate to other objects.
|Studying any individual design, like the bird or heart in the above curtain fabric, would not reveal its full significance as a part of the overall pattern. Examining the object is less important than examining the pattern.|
Image by Karl-Ludwig G. Poggemann posted on Flickr
Privacy and Connection:
The other day while driving, we passed a car with the words "Obama Lies, Snowden is a Hero" painted on its windshield. My seven year old son knows Obama is the President, but asked me who Snowden is. I did my best to explain the situation to him in a way he would understand and wound up saying that some people thought that the secrets he knew should not be told and other people thought he should have told them. Johnnie asked me what I thought, and I had a very hard time answering.
All of this is to say that issues of privacy are now and will continue to be significant in our ever-more connected world. Gibson alludes to the difficulty of maintaining privacy and anonymity in a network with his discussion of "ambient optic array", which is the idea that an observer is revealed at some points and concealed in others. It suggests that in a network, participants can only ever be partially hidden. There is no place from which we are completely hidden; there will always be some vantage point that reveals our presence. To be connected is to be at least partially exposed. The current data and privacy concerns represented by the Snowden case are impossible to eradicate according to Gibson. If we want to walk through the forest of digital connectivity, somebody, somewhere will be able to see us.
Survival and Change:
Bateson argues that heterogeneity is necessary for survival, and that "potentiality and readiness for change is already built into the survival unit" (457). He continues, "The artificially homogenized populations...are scarcely fit for survival" (457). In other words, in a world where everything is the same, survival is unlikely. Diversity is necessary for life. We must welcome change if we wish to maintain our continuance. Aside from everything about that being wonderfully in tune with my general Kumbaya approach to the world, it also seems to have significance to our understanding of networks.
Networks tend to grow in new directions when a change is made, when some new functionality is needed or a group adapts the technology for a different purpose than originally intended.
In a way it reminds me of Foucault. He writes about how linear and chronological studies of history provide "privileged shelter" for the mind, but that in this view "revolutions are never more than moments of consciousness" (12). And he does not advocate this mindset that restricts a revolutionary change a a mere moment. Rather, we should be looking exactly toward these irruptions as opening new and exciting directions and connections for exploration. Bateson's argument here about diversity necessary for ecological survival is just as relevant for any network. Foucault encourages us to seek the revolutionary moments and not ignore them as temporary anomalies. Survival and moments of the new are inextricable and crucial to networks.
Norman and Resistance to Change:
Given my conclusion above, I found it interesting that Norman seemed to suggest otherwise. He argues that we strongly attach affordances to design elements based on conventions; therefore, if we want a design to have ease of use, we need to follow these conventions (like a scroll bar on the right hand side of the screen). His discussion of the design principles would suggest that change is not necessary for survival, but actually the opposite. If a design is so new and unfamiliar, users will not respond to it and the site will die from lack of use.
So which is it? Do we need change and revolution to open our minds to new and exciting possibilities for growth? Or does change create confusion that leads to disuse and irrelevancy? Can it be both?
Perhaps, as with all things, it is a question of balance. We need change to move us toward new and better technologies, but if it is too sudden, we risk collapse.
Ironically, the Buddha taught the wisdom of the middle way, which brings us back to Bateson's philosophy lesson and perhaps a lovely place to close these notes.
Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987. Print.
Gibson, James. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1986. Print.
Norman, Donald A.. "Affordances and Design." Don Norman: Designing for People. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.