C3 Weekly Update

Editor's Note

Welcome to another edition of the C3 Weekly Update. First of all, apologies for this edition coming out a little later than usual. MIT celebrated Martin Luther King Day with a three-day weekend, and we spent part of that time wrapping up a major phase of research in our ongoing project looking at the most prominent content on YouTube. We hope to share continuing insight on that work throughout the spring, through the C3 blog, the Weekly Update, and the partners retreat currently being planned for May. More information will be released soon about that event through the newsletter.

We're in the middle of our Independent Activities Period here at MIT, but work at the Consortium pushes forward. In addition to our ongoing research and planning the spring retreat, we've also been planning a C3-sponsored colloquium for the Program in Comparative Media Studies this spring as well, dealing with issues surrounding viral media. We'll include more information about that event in the newsletter in the coming weeks as well. Be sure to keep CMS' Research Fair in mind as well, as that event will take place here at MIT on Feb. 28. Please contact me if you need any more information.

This week's C3 Weekly Update features the launch of two new series in the newsletter which will continue throughout the next few weeks. In the Opening Note, Henry Jenkins is providing portions of a forthcoming essay for publication, both in a volume edited by Jonathan Gray and as an additional chapter for the eventual paperback publication of Convergence Culture. This piece builds on the citizenship and democracy focus of Convergence Culture by looking at the CNN/YouTube debates as a place where old media and new media, and politics and social networks, collide. In the Closing Note, C3 Consulting Researcher Doris C. Rusch starts a series looking at metaphors and digital games.

If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at


In This Issue

Editor's Note

Opening Note: Henry Jenkins on the CNN/YouTube Debates, Part I

Glancing at the C3 Blog

Closing Note: Doris C. Rusch on Metaphors and Digital Games, Part I

Opening Note

Why Mitt Romney Won't Debate a Snowman, Part I: An Introduction

Henry Jenkins has offered to present an advanced copy of his latest work to the readers of the C3 newsletter over the next six weeks. These pieces look at the political process in the age of online video and social networking and shifts in journalism, politics, and citizenship in a "convergence culture." We look forward to any feedback you might have. This essay will be featured in a forthcoming book edited by Jonathan Gray, as well as in an additional chapter for the paperback edition of Convergence Culture.

Newscaster Anderson Cooper opened the Democractic CNN/YouTube Debate with a warning to expect the unexpected: "Tonight is really something of an experiment...What you're about to see is, well, it's untried. We are not exactly sure how this is going to work. The candidates on this stage don't know how it is going to work. …And frankly we think that's a good thing." The eight candidates would face questions selected from more than 3,000 videos "average" citizens had submitted via YouTube. Speaking on NPR's Talk of the Nation a few days before, CNN executive producer David Bohrman stressed that the new format would give the American public "a seat at the table,” reflecting a world where "everyone is one degree of separation away from a video camera."

Afterwards, most people only wanted to talk about the Snowman.

One short segment featured a claymation snowman talking about global warming, "the single most important issue to the snowmen of this country." As the video showed Junior’s frightened face, the snowman asked, "As president, what will you do to ensure that my son will live a full and happy life?" The candidates chuckled. Cooper explained, "It's a funny video; it's a serious question," before directing the query to Dennis Kucinich. The serious-minded Kucinich drew links between "global warming" and "global warring," explaining how the military defense of oil interests increased American reliance on fossil fuels and describing his own Green friendly policies: "We don't have to have our snowmen melting, and the planet shouldn't be melting, either."

CNN ended the broadcast by announcing a future debate involving the GOP candidates, but the status of this debate was far from resolved. By the end of the week, most of the GOP front-runners were refusing to participate. Mitt Romney put a face on their discomfort: “I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman." CNN's Bohrman deflected his criticism on the Talk of the Nation piece: "I think running for president is serious business...but we do want to know that the president has a sense of humor."

Many bloggers also argued that the snowman demeaned citizen participation in the debates: "By heavily moderating the questions, by deliberately choosing silly, fluffy, or offbeat videos to show the nation, CNN is reinforcing the old media idea that the Internet entertains, but does not offer real, serious discussion or insight." (See here and here.) There would be a CNN/YouTube GOP debate but behind the scenes negotiations delayed it and substantially toned down the content.

This series will use the snowman controversy as a point of entry for a broader investigation into the role of Internet parody during the pre-Primary Season in the 2008 presidential campaign. This debate about debates raises questions about the redistribution of media power, the authenticity of grassroots media, and the appropriateness of parody as a mode of political rhetoric. Parody videos, both produced by the public and by the campaigns, played an unprecedented role in shaping public perceptions of this unusually crowded field of candidates.

This essay picks up where my recent book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collides, left off – with a call for us to rethink the cultural underpinnings of democracy in response to an era of profound and prolonged media change. The rise of networking computing, and the social and cultural practices which have grown up around it, has expanded the ability of average citizens to express our ideas, circulate them before a larger public, and pool information with each other in the hopes of transforming our society. A closer look at the role parody videos played in American politics in 2007 may help us understand how we are or are not realizing the potentials of this new communication environment. Such videos give us an alternative perspective on what democracy might look like, though we have a long way to go before we can achieve anything like a new public sphere in the online world. As Anderson Cooper suggests, none of us know where this will take us – and for the moment, at least, that’s a good thing.

Debates about digital democracy have long been shaped by the fantasy of a “digital revolution” with its assumptions that old media (or, in this case, the old political establishment) would be displaced by the rise of new participants, whether new media startups confronting old media conglomerates, bloggers displacing journalists, or cybercandidates overcoming political machines. This depiction of media change as a zero-sum battle between old powerbrokers and insurgents distracts us from the real changes occurring in our media ecology. Rather than displacing old media, what I call convergence culture is shaped by increased contact and collaboration between established and emerging media institutions, expansion of the number of players producing and circulating media, and the flow of content across multiple platforms and networks. The collaboration between CNN (an icon of old media power) and YouTube (an icon of new media power) might be understood as one such attempt to work through the still unstable and “untried” relations between these different media systems.

CNN’s Bohrman dismissed new media platforms as "immature" and questioned whether the user-moderated practices of YouTube would have been adequate to the task of determining what questions candidates should address, given how easily such processes could be "gamed.” Bohrman often cited what he saw as the public’s fascination with “inappropriate” questions: "If you would have taken the most-viewed questions last time, the top question would have been whether Arnold Schwarzenegger was a cyborg sent to save the planet Earth.The second-most-viewed video question was: Will you convene a national meeting on UFOs?" However, this stance ignores a participatory culture's power to negate. Tongue-in-check questions about cyborgs and aliens allowed many to thumb their noses at the official gatekeepers and what they view as old media's dismay at being “forced” to put such content in their programming. Such gestures reflect a growing public skepticism about old media power as well as uncertainty about how far to trust emerging (though still limited and often trivial) efforts to solicit our participation.

Some such material made it into the final broadcast but only as part of an opening segment in which a smirking Cooper lectured the public about the kinds of videos that did not belong on national television: "Dressing up in costume was probably not the best way to get taken seriously." Here, participatory culture's power to negate ran up against old media's power to marginalize. Old media still defines which forms of cultural expression are mainstream through its ability to amplify the impact of some user-generated content while labeling other submissions out of bounds.

Because the public openly submitted their videos through a participatory media channel like YouTube, the selection process leaves traces. Even if we can't know what happened within the closed door meetings of the CNN producers, we can see which submitted questions got left out, which issues did not get addressed, and which groups did not get represented. Afterward, some who felt excluded or marginalized deployed YouTube as a platform to criticize the news network.

anonymousAmerican, a rotund man in a Mexican wrestling mask who speaks with a working class accent, posted a video labeled "Fuck You, CNN". He describes his anger over the fact that CNN deployed his masked face but not his words: "This could lead the public to imagine that my question was insulting or irrelevant. We all know that CNN would never air anything insulting such as a host asking the only Muslim member of Congress if he's a terrorist or irrelevant like a very old man spending his show interviewing people like Paris Hilton." Links lead to the question he submitted (calling for the immediate withdrawl from Iraq) and other political videos concerning the Bush administration’s crack down on civil liberties. His mask allows him both to speak as an everyman figure and to represent visually the process of political repression; it also links his videos to the Lucha Libra tradition where Mexican wrestlers often used their masked personas to speak out against social injustice. (For more on this topic, see Heather Levi's essay "The Mask of the Luchador: Wrestling, Politics, and Identity in Mexico," in Nicholas Sammond's Steel Chair to the Head.

Next week, in the Opening Note, Jenkins looks at the history of the production of the snowman video at the center of this discussion about the CNN/YouTube debate.

Henry Jenkins is the chief faculty investigator for the Convergence Culture Consortium and is Director of the Comparative Media Studies program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at MIT. His blog is available here.

Glancing at the C3 Blog

Meeting Scheduled to Discuss Digital Deadline for TV. Discussion about the Feb. 1, 2009, deadline for transitioning broadcast television from analog to digital moves forward, as a new hearing is scheduled for Feb. 13 for the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

C3 in the News: Soulja Boy, Soaps, and Friday Night Lights. Xiaochang Li's blog posts on Soulja Boy continue to get attention, while friend of the Consortium Jean Burgess is interviewed for CBC Radio's Spark, Sam Ford is featured in CBS Soaps in Depth, and Diana Kimball references C3's writing about Friday Night Lights.

Field Notes from Shanghai: Fansubbing in China. C3's Henry Jenkins provides notes from his recent trip to China about Prison Break's distribution amongst Chinese fan communities and the fansubbing process.

McCracken and Green's Qualitative Research Course at MIT. C3's Research Manager and one of C3's Consulting Researchers are offering a course at the Institute during the Independent Activities Period here on qualitative research methods. The class overview is provided here.

Around the Consortium: Web 1.0, 2007 in Review, and The Playboy Professor. Ilya Vedrashko writes about Web 2.0, while The Extratextuals review 2007 and Rob Kozinets writes about being "The Playboy Professor."

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part VIII: Soap Operas as Brands and Conclusion. In this concluding piece of the eight-part review of Sam Ford's thesis work, Ford makes some concluding observations about how soap operas should be viewed as brands and how those shows can better understand their transgenerational fan base.


As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part VII: Quick Fixes and Fan Proselytizers. Sam Ford looks at the current problems plaguing soaps and takes a more long-term view as to what might have led to the current plight of the soap opera industry, particularly regarding the danger of a short-term view of these shows and not valuing the social processes through which these programs are viewed.

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part VI: Product Placement and Transmedia Storytelling. Sam Ford looks at the history and current state of two pivotal components of what we call "convergence culture," product placement and transmedia storytelling, and how both are impacting one of America's longest-standing television genres.

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part V: Utilizing Soap Opera Archives in a Long Tail Economy. In the fifth part of this series, Sam Ford looks at how soap operas might be able to utilize their vast archives in an age that many have called the "Long Tail" of online distribution.

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part IV: Understanding Online Fan Communities. In the fourth part of this ongoing series on the C3 blog, Sam Ford makes a variety of observations about contemporary fan discussion groups online about American soap operas.

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part III: The History of Fan Discussion. In the third part of this review of Sam Ford's Master's thesis work at MIT, Ford looks at the history of fan discussion and fan organization for American soap operas.

Follow the Blog

Don't forget – you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog.

Closing Note

Shooting Is Shooting Is Shooting Is Shooting…? How Tackling Metaphors Can Help Us Expand the Meaning Potential of Digital Games, Part I

C3 Consulting Researcher Doris Rusch looks at metaphors and digital games in the first of this three-part series. The other two parts will run in the next two weeks' Closing Note.

I want games that make me see the world in a different light; that allow me deep insights into the human condition; that stay with me long after I have put down the controller and make me think about the complexity of life, its absurdities and wonders, injustices and grandness. I want games that tackle big and small themes in a way that enriches my understanding of the world. And I know that they can do that.

So far, most fictional games are about physical action, meaning that physical action is an end in itself. In these games, running, grabbing, shooting, fighting does not stand for anything else but running, grabbing, shooting fighting. There is a limit to the insightfulness physical action per se can generate. For games to mature as a form of expression, they need to expand their thematic range and dare to deal with more abstract topics. In this article I want to suggest some first idea on a systematic approach of how we could get from games being solely about physical action to games that express more complex and thought-provoking ideas and concepts. Regarding the design of fictional games as a metaphorical process seems to be a good starting point for a structured approach to the task. Please note that this is still a work in progress.

In fictional games, many game rules are statements about the quality of world objects, phenomena and experiences. They make claims about the essential characteristics and behaviors of fictional elements and about how these elements interrelate. They express a point of view, a game designer’s (more or less) subjective interpretation of the world. E.g. in the Beowulf game, rhythm has been identified as the crucial characteristic of orchestrated action. Rowing, rolling heavy objects and other sorts of joint efforts thus have been translated into a rhythm game, meaning that the player has to push the right buttons at the right time. This expresses the idea that efforts must be coordinated to be effective. Other metaphors might have been possible to convey that idea.

Teasing out the essential qualities and characteristics of fictional elements and translating them into rules has the potential to make the player see the world in a different way, just like more traditional forms of artistic expression, such as literature or film can foster Aha!-experiences.

I have had quite a few Aha!-experiences during game-play, but mainly in regard to the way physical processes were integrated in the rule-system. Seldom did I go away from a game thinking, “so, this is how the designer sees the mechanics of loyalty.”

I see a main problem for the thematic limitation of fictional games in their effort to create verisimilitude, meaning a coherent, believable and seemingly immediate interaction with the gameworld and its characters and objects. The development of computer graphics and artificial intelligence technology has not necessarily made life easier for game designers. Great power leads to high expectations (both on the producers’ and the consumers’ side) and rather big challenges.

The possibility to create detailled environments as well as (halfway) intelligently behaving characters suggests itself to be used to enhance the fictional aspects of computer games, although we know that the relationship between rules and fiction is not a straightforward one. Still there is an increasing number of games that not only aim at providing rewarding game-play experiences, but that also try to create the illusion of the player walking in the shoes of the heroe / heroine.

There is an emotional as well as a cognitive gratification to playing games that create verisimilitude. On the one hand they facilitate psychological as well as physical immersion in a fictional world, on the other hand they stimulate what Ed Tan calls “artefact emotions”, the cognitive pleasure of deciphering how the logic of the gameworld was applied to explain game conventions or to compensate for the deficiencies of digital games as mediated experiences.

The cognitive pleasures evoked by verisimilitude already hint at the two main challenges game designers have to deal with in order to achieve it in the first place:

“Gameness”: beneath the dazzling graphics, digital games are still rule-based systems that clearly define the specific behaviors and attributes of objects and characters. But the restrictions in interactability with and responsiveness of fictional elements deriving from the rule system potentially disrupt the illusion of a believable and coherent world. It is disturbing if the game allows the player to blast through concrete walls but then forces her to find a key to open a simple wooden door.

In non-digital games, rules are simply accepted because one agrees to play a game. We do not question regulations of movement on the game board in Parcheesee, because that is what the game is all about. We voluntarily submit to these limitations and stick to the rule, although we could practically just take the little figurine and place it anywhere we liked. But then again, these games never pretend to be anything else then games. They do not aim to put the player into a blievable world.

“Mediacy”: restrictions in interactability with and responsiveness of fictional elements are not only due to a game’s “gameness”, but also to the fact that digital games are mediated by nature. For one, there is a technical limitation to the degree to which a gameworld can be simulated. Interaction with the gameworld is indirect. The player cannot reach into the screen to manipulate objects directly. This problem of mediacy and technical limitation becomes very apparent whenever NPC interaction is involved. It is simply not possible to have sensible, rewarding conversations with NPCs by drawing on real world communication skills. Last bust not least, there is a gap between the player and her avatar. The player might feel like she is in the world, but who is she? E.g. the assumed emotions and motives of an avatar are in most cases probably very different from the actual emotions and motives of the player. Trying to convincingly bridge the gap between player and avatar and to thus foster a sense of “being there” is a big game design challenge.

This piece will be continued in the Closing Note of next week's C3 Weekly Update.

Doris C. Rusch is a postdoctoral researcher with the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab in the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. Prior to joining CMS, Rusch did postdoctoral work for the Institute for Design and Assessment of Technology at the Vienna University of Technology.

The Fine Print

Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford ( for the Convergence Culture Consortium.


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