C3 Weekly Update

Editor's Note

Welcome to another edition of the C3 Weekly Update.

The schedule is busy as usual here at MIT. C3 Research Manager Joshua Green and Consulting Researcher Grant McCracken are wrapping up their class on qualitative research this week during MIT's Independent Activities Period (IAP), while I am preparing to launch my course on soap operas next Wednesday. C3 research into YouTube continues, while students are making progress on research regarding viral marketing. Our graduate students are returning to the blog this week as well. Meanwhile, we are preparing for the C3 partners retreat in May, as well as the special colloquium dealing with issues surrounding viral media mentioned last week. The Program in Comparative Media Studies colloquia series calendar for the spring should be available shortly. As mentioned in previous weeks, we are also participating in a Research Fair here at MIT on Feb. 28, alongside CMS' five other research groups. Please contact me directly if you have any questions regarding that event.

This week's C3 Weekly Update features the second of Henry Jenkins' six-part series presenting the work from a forthcoming essay in the Opening Note. This piece will appear in its entirety in an upcoming book from Jonathan Gray (who spoke at Futures of Entertainment 2), as well as in the eventual paperback publication of Convergence Culture. Meanwhile, the Closing Note is the second part of a three-part series from C3 Consulting Researcher Doris C. Rusch, who looks 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 II

Glancing at the C3 Blog

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

Opening Note

Why Mitt Romney Won't Debate a Snowman, Part II: The Birth of a Snowman

Henry Jenkins has given C3 Weekly Update readers the opportunity to see an advanced version of one of his latest essays in a six-part series here through our weekly newsletter. This week, we look at the second piece, looking at the impact of YouTube videos on the presidential election process. 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.

Writing in The Wealth of Networks, Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler suggests, "What institutions and decisions are considered 'legitimate' and worthy of compliance or participation; what courses of action are attractive; what forms of interaction with others are considered appropriate -- these are all understandings negotiated from within a set of shared frames of meaning" (pp. 274-275). As average citizens acquire the ability to meaningfully impact the flow of ideas, these new forms of participatory culture change how we see ourselves ("through new eyes -- the eyes of someone who could actually interject a thought, a criticism, or a concern into the public debate" p. 275) and how we see our society (as subject to change as a consequence of our deliberations) Some participants were making their first videos but many more had acquired their skills as media producers through more mundane and everyday practices, through their production of home movies or their participation in various fan communities or through media sharing sites. As such practices become more normalized, as we come to see ourselves as capable of expressing ourselves through the emerging media network, how will this impact citizenly discourse? The reliance on parody as a mode of political discourse might be understood as part of this transition process by which we move from participatory culture to participatory democracy.

The strange history of the Snowman illustrates this process at work. The Snowman video was produced by Nathan and Greg Hamel, two brothers from Minneapolis. (See Snowman vs. Romney--CNN Reports for more.) Their debate video repurposed animations from an earlier, less politically oriented video showing a Samurai attacking Billiam the Snowman while his young child watched in horror. The name of the snowman, his high pitched voice, and the video’s aggressive slapstick paid homage to the Mr. Bill videos originally produced by Walter Williams for Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. The Mr. Bill segments represented an earlier chapter in the history of the networks’ relationship to user-generated content: Williams had submitted a Super-8 reel in response to Saturday Night Live's request for home movies during its first season. The impressed producers hired Williams as a full time writer resulting in more than 20 subsequent Mr. Bill segments, all maintaining the low-tech look and feel of his original amateur productions. Williams' subsequent career might have provided the Hamel brothers with a model for their next step -- from broad slapstick towards political satire. Starting in 2004, Williams deployed Mr. Bill as a spokesperson in a series of public service announcements about environmental issues (specifically, the threat to Louisiana wetlands--see Cain Burdeau's Associated Press report here.)

Empowered by the media attention, the Hamels produced a series of other videos confronting Romney, the man who refused to debate a snowman. While these subsequent videos were not incorporated into the GOP debate, they did attract other media attention. When interviewed by CNN about a video in which Billiam tells Romney to “lighten up slightly,” the Brothers used their explanation to direct attention at a growing controversy within the blogosphere. During a campaign appearance in New Hampshire, Romney had been photographed holding a supporter's sign, which read "No to Obama, Osama, and Chelsea's Mama" (part of a larger effort to play on xenophobic concerns about Barrack’s “foreign sounding” name). Another amateur video-maker had captured a confrontation at an Iowa campaign appearance where Romney told a critic of the sign to "lighten up slightly," insisting that he has little control over what his supporters might bring to an event. (For more, see here and here.) Bloggers were circulating the video of what they saw as a disingenuous response. This Romney video fits into a larger history of footage captured by amateur videomakers that reached greater public visibility via YouTube and sometimes found its way into mainstream coverage. For example, one popular video showed John McCain joking with supporters, singing "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran" in imitation of a classic rock and roll tune The Hamel brothers were using their five minutes of fame to help direct the media’s attention onto a brewing controversy that might further undermine Romney’s credibility.

Over just a few weeks, the Hamel Brothers progressed from sophomoric skit comedy to progressively more saavy interventions into media politics, demonstrating a growing understanding of how media travels through YouTube and how YouTube intersects broadcast media. As they did so, they formed an informal alliance with other “citizen journalists” and they inspired a range of other amateur producers to create their own snowman videos, including those which included a man wearing a snowman mask or which recycled footage from old Christmas specials, in hopes that they might get caught up in Billiam’s media coverage.

CNN had urged the public to find "creative" new ways to express their concerns, yet the producers clearly saw many of the more colorful videos as the civic equivalent of Let's Make a Deal--as so many people in colorful costumes huckstering to get on television. Some certainly were hungry for personal fame but others were using parody to dramatize legitimate policy concerns. In the case of the snowman, his question about global warming was not outside the frames of the current political debate but the use of the animated snowman as a spokesperson broke with the rationalist discourse that typically characterizes Green politics. The Snowman Parody spoofed two of American politics’ most cherished rhetorical moves. Snowmen are represented here as one more identity politics group; snowmen are made to “embody” larger societal concerns.

We might compare Billiam's attempt to speak about the environment on behalf of snowmen with the oft-cited image of Iron Eyes Cody weeping as a native American over the littering of the American landscape during the Keep America Beautiful campaign produced for the 1971 Earth Day Celebration or, for that matter, the ways that Al Gore deployed drowning polar bears to dramatize the threat of global warming in An Inconvenient Truth. The video also spoofs the ways both conservative and progressive groups make policy appeals in the name of protecting innocent children from some perceived threat. (For more on this, see my essay "Childhood Innocence and Other Modern Myths," from The Children's Culture Reader, 1998, pp. 1-40.) We might link Billiam's frightened off-spring back to the famous LBJ spot depicting a little girl plucking the petals from a daisy over the soundtrack of a countdown to a nuclear bomb blast.

Presidential candidates have long deployed animations as part of the rhetoric of their advertising campaigns, so why should voters be prohibited from using such images in addressing candidates? What’s different, perhaps, is the way such videos appropriate popular culture contents (Mr. Bill) as vehicles for their message. As Benkler notes, mass media has so dominated American culture for the past century that people are necessarily going to draw on it as a shared vocabulary as they learn how to use participatory media towards their own ends: "One cannot make new culture ex nihilo. We are, as we are today, as cultural beings, occupying a set of common symbols and stories that are heavily based on the outputs of the industrial period. If we are to make this culture our own, render it legible, and make it into a new platform for our needs and conversations today, we must find a way to cut, paste, and remix present culture" (200). Television commercials, for example, often provide simple, easily recognized templates for representing ideological concerns.

Consider Bill Hope’s parody of the Romney campaign, which juxtaposes the voice-over from a recent Jaquar commercial, with news footage of the candidate: "Gorgeous deserves your immediate attention. Gorgeous makes effort look effortless...Gorgeous has no love for logic. Gorgeous gets away with it. Everyone cares what gorgeous says. Gorgeous gets in everywhere…Gorgeous was born that way. Gorgeous trumps everything." Each phrase evokes and reinforces the public perception of Romney's privileged background, slippery political stances, and matinee idol appearance, while the juxtaposition of advertising slogans and news footage mocks the repackaging of candidates for mass consumption. Similarly, a group called SmallMediaXL produced a series of spoofs on the differences between Republicans and Democrats modeled on a popular Mac/PC campaign -- depicting Republicans as "very good at looking after the interests of big business" and the Democrats as "being better at the people stuff." No doubt, both producers were hoping to tap public familiarity with Madison Avenue iconography to expand the reach of their messages.

Next week, in the Opening Note, Jenkins looks at how parody is being used in official campaign videos in the 2008 election on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle.

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

Looking at the National PCA/ACA Conference: Interesting Presentations (2 of 2). Sam Ford provides further notes about the upcoming PCA/ACA national conference, including interesting presentations at the conference on March 20 and March 21 and information about the soap opera area he is participating in.

Looking at the National PCA/ACA Conference: Interesting Presentations (1 of 2). Sam Ford writes about interesting presentations for the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association's national conference in March on March 19 and March 20.

Interesting Presentations at SCMS Conference. Sam Ford follows up on his previous piece on the March 2008 SCMS conference by highlighting other interesting presentations at the four-day event.

C3-Related Presentations at SCMS Conference. Sam Ford looks ahead to the March 2008 conference for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and provides information on when members of the C3 community will be presenting at the event.

The Balance between Chains and Local Shops. Sam Ford provides a piece he wrote in The Ohio County Times-News regarding franchises and local shops in his hometown.

Authenticity and Linda's Donuts. Sam Ford writes about recent experiences at a local eatery and the passion behind creating an "authentic" experience or product.


One Year Ago on the Consortium Blog... At the beginning of 2006, C3's writing centered on Web 2.0, fan communities, and complex television.

Two Years Ago on the Consortium Blog... C3 blog entries at the beginning of 2006, when the Consortium was first launching, centered on two main topics: participatory culture and cross-platform distribution.

Field Notes from Shanghai: China's Digital Mavens. C3 Director Henry Jenkins provides further notes from his recent trip to Shanghai, starting with a study from IAC and JWT on the importance of digital media forms in the lives of teens in China and the U.S.

Soap Fans and Veteran Actors: Jessie & Angie, Scott Bryce. Sam Ford writes about promotions around the return of a 1980s supercouple to All My Children and fan reaction to the departure of a popular actor from As the World Turns.

Around the Consortium: Qualitative Research, Commercial Avoidance, Games, and TV. Grant McCracken shares more resources from his class with Joshua Green at MIT, while Ilya Vedrashko writes about a study on commercial avoidance, David Edery writes about improving trials for games, and Jason Mittell provides a piece on the rise of time-shifting technologies from his forthcoming textbook.

WWE in HD. Sam Ford looks back at the process behind World Wrestling Entertainment's finally moving to high-definition, including the launch of its programming on pay-per-view, USA, Sci Fi, and the CW Network.

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 II

C3 Consulting Researcher Doris Rusch continues her look at metaphors and digital games in the second part of this three-part series. The final part will run in next week's 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 series will be concluded 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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