Saturday, December 22, 2012

Inequality: The Game

Over 14 million Americans are unemployed. Now your one of them. Your savings are gone. You've lost your house. You're a single parent and your down to your last $1,000. Can you make it through the month? “ - Introduction to

     The McKinney ad agency has taken a unique approach to discuss and try to solve inequality by delivering the Urban Ministries of Durham's mission statement and donation system through a chose-your-adventure-style game based on market data called SPENT. This web-browser based game has the user attempt to survive homelessness and poverty through a series of dialogue trees and mini games in an attempt to both educate the user on poverty in the U.S. and too offer a way to donate to charities involved with poverty relief. This essay aims to analyze the success of SPENT by considering the level of poverty in the United States through market data, examine solutions to inequality, and then compare this to SPENT itself and it's use of converging media.
     From mainstream to the blogosphere economic stratification in the world is a growing problem as inequality hits it's “highest point in 20 years” (Lennard). The scales of economy have been tipped so far in the favor of a few percent of the population that relatively rich nations, such as the United States, struggle to feed their own citizens. Forty nine million Americans, 14.5 percent of U.S. Households, are not able to provide full meals for themselves (Bread for the World) and food share programs continue to reduce coverage by thousands of people each month (We Are Wisconsin). The problem of poverty is global, with austerity cuts over-saturating news worldwide despite economists urging governments that such cuts hurt economic recovery (Tores).
     There are both short and long term solutions to this inequality: short term is the supply of food, shelter and assistance while a long term fix is changing the balance of economy. SPENT offers users a chance to participate in both of these solution. Short term solutions are offered by direct $5 donations to the Urban Ministries of Dunham which will “feed one person a day” (Urban Ministries of Dunham). This option to donate, via Paypal, is offered in two ways on the site: the “end” screen or by clicking “exit” when entering the site. If the user clicks “exit” they are greeted to a screen that reads “THIS IS TOO HARD ISN'T IT?” with links to donate. Alternatively this screen is shown when the user reaches the “end” screen. This creates a commentary that seems to suggest that giving is effective, but not as effective as getting involved. It also shows that the creator is from a leftist side of ideology, promoting welfare and common good.
     Long term solutions are offered by directing the user to get involved with their communities directly. There is a universal reasoning that when someone can actively participate in their local economy and set standards for others it creates a precedent for a generation. Consider the end of segregation in the south; President Dwight Eisenhower, famous for enforcing desegregation in 1957 by deploying federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, did not enforce the Brown vs. Board of Education law until public opinion changed from the action of civil rights activists such as the Little Rock Nine. SPENT seeks to offer it's long term solution by calling for action for common sense good the same way many revolutionaries have not so long ago (Lang). Of course none of this would matter much if SPENT did not function well as a game because it wouldn't be able to reach such a large audience.
     After the user starts the game they are made to choose from three different jobs. Each job offers variation on the games cyberdrama, the “enactment of the story in the particular fiction space of the computer” (Murray). If the user selects to work as a “temp” they will be taken to a typing test (where, in a clever fashion, the user is tested by typing out the mission statement for Urban Ministries of Dunham). If they pick warehouse worker there is no test but a bigger risk for health problems. Finally the user can pick Waiter/Waitress which comes with random pay and health problems. The game plays out with days passing by on a calendar starting from the first to the 30th. The user has three strikes for employment with things like “talking to a union boss” causing the user to get fired from their job, costing a strike. The game offers explanations for this with each choice backed up by real data. For example, one day the user could be charged $150 for a broken window which their landlord must pay. If the user selects “get legal advice” instead of “pay $150” they go to a free legal clinic, lose a day of work and find out that they need to wait for a consultation for three months. The best option turns out to be “put plastic over window $5.” If the user opts to ask a friend to store their items rather than pay the $45 rental fee the game will make a Facebook posts asking if some friends will help move their furniture. This intertextual reference, to Facebook, Twitter, the charity and those in poverty, has a large breadth that is not easily noticeable when the site is first loaded. This helps make it's message a success as the text is concise.
SPENT is a contemporary platform based on economic convergence, the “horizontal integration of the entertainment industry” (Jenkins 1). While it delivers a consistent message and aesthetic the game itself is a pro bono project from ad agency McKinney who has worked with companies like Audi. Normally a high profile ad agency would never take on a project that is tailored for an interactive game of cult (Marshall) but media convergence has made this happen. There are also aspects of intellectuality, texts that “implies or calls forth other texts (Marshall, p70). SPENT feels genuine because it's based on real market data and the presentation is minimalistic.
     SPENT works on many levels because it's a fully functional game, it's topical, converging and offers short and long-term solutions to the problem of poverty. It also addresses old media in an interesting way; by clicking on the tab “get involved” the user is taken to the Urban Ministries website which looks surprisingly antiquated. Despite the poor design of the Ministries actual site the web game by McKinney has been a success as shown with over 1.7 million users logging in to play (Roth). Those users are given conflicts such as hire a math tutor for their child or actually do a math problem. If you fail the problem SPENT informs you that “over 50% of households cannot help their children with their math and science.” brings conflict up through dialogue that is hard to discount. The data is readily available and the game also shows the user facts that back up its ideology that poor people are suffering at a level of inequality we have not seen in years. It doesn't offer change in the game itself having little participation in the environment but it asks the user to be a participator in their own environment. Much different than ARG (Alternate Reality Games) which place a UI over life to make it feel like a game, SPENT creates a mental conflict based on real life to turn it into a game. If more charities can create media that turns learning about inequality as close to home, interesting and informative as SPENT, they would have more success.

Works cited

"U.S. Hunger." Bread for the World. N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

"The Truth About Wisconsin Foodshare." We Are Wisconsin. N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

Tores, Raymond. "Unemployment in the age of austerity." Al Jazeera. N.p., 01 2012. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

Lennard, Natasha. "Global inequality highest in 20 years."Salon. N.p., 01 2012. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

Lang, Charmaine. "Solutions." D2L, Africology. N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012.

"Urban Ministries of Durham About Page." Urban Ministries of Durham. N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>

"SPENT." SPENT. McKinney Ad Agency. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

Roth, Zachary. "Spent, an online game, forces players to confront the challenges of poverty.." Yahoo! News. N.p., 07 2011. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

Jenkins, Henry. "Convergence? I Diverge.." Digital Renaissance. 2001: 1. Web. 21 Dec. 2012.

Marshall, David. The New Intertextual Commodity. N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012.

Murray, Janet. "From game-story to cyberdrama.." . N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Brief Look at Intertextual Commodity in Slender: the 8 Pages

Slender is a first person survival horror game by Parsec Productions that follows the Interactive Game of the Cult Film form titled Slender: The Eight Pages. I chose Slender because it offers an opportunity to incorporate text from Murray and Marshall and because it's development is unique; it's a indie-free-game based on forum posts.

Slender is a free game that sets the player in a dark forest in the middle of the night. The player can sprint for a brief amount of time and has a flash light to illuminate the surroundings that they can turn on and off. There are no more controls than this which makes the game easily accessible The flash light has a battery that cannot be recharged or replaced and the player does not know this until the first time the flashlight goes out. At this point they are stuck in the dark. The puzzle aspect of Slender is to find the eight pages that are placed on the games forest map. This is difficult because the pages could be in one of many spots and are randomly placed in one of many set locations each time a new game is started. This adds to fear in the game as the player is never sure where the pages are.

In a comical/parodic way Slender plays with the contest element that Murray talks about. In this way it's quite progressive; when you collect all pages you gain nothing. There are some extra options unlocked from the main menu but the narrative is linked with this presentation; the player dies no matter what. Therein lies some of the collaborative improvisation between the player and the creator of the game; there is no escape from the Slender. But what is the Slender?

Slender is a creature who hides in the woods. He can stretch his arms out to a length of about fifty feet and eats small children. He is afraid of the light and when struck with the players flashlight Slender will sit still. However if the player looks at Slender the screen will begin to fill with static, blinding the player. At this point they must run away or they will be stunned from viewing Slender and then killed by him. This creates a strong feeling of fear and a desire to win the contest: don't die by Slender. In the end, the contest cannot be won, as the player dies no matter what, an interesting commentary between creator and player/user.

Intertexual commodity is here in a unique way; Slender is based off of a forum post on the online website Something Awful. The post gained popularity when the idea of a "Slender Man" surfaced. Soon the story line and characters became based off of aggregated posts. In a way it was created much like a wiki which shows another element of intertextual commodity. Slender itself references it's roots through its design/imagery but it also references it directly in it's ReadMe (manual for PC games), letting the user/player know that this is based off posts from Something Awful. The game/story/mythos has become so popular there is now another version in the works unrelated to The 8 Pages called Slender: Source based off the Source engine (Half-Life series). These elements make the game procedural and participatory, as it is updated regularly based on player/user input. Slender's biggest success is it's ability to show a narrative rather than tell it with the various landmarks that the player visits which visually tell an abstract story with no limitations or boundaries beyond the confines of the game's one map.

Game Links:

Friday, November 30, 2012

Multiculturalism in Context - Summary and Reaction to Marcus Garvey's Madison Garden Speech

SUMMARY: Marcus Garvey's speech at Madison Garden begins as a preamble, drawing attention to the vast African population of "six million people" who must unite as a nation in Africa. Garvey gives the movement meaning by placing it in cultural context: he mentions that through the world "we hear the cry of Ireland for the Irish  Palestine for the Jew, Egypt for the Egyptian, Asia for the Asiatic, and thus we Negroes raise the cry of Africa for the Africans, those at home and those abroad." His speech reverberates what he feels is true, that all men should be free, "free to work out their own salvation. Free to create their own destinies." Garvey also lays out the limits of his vision and qualm fears of whites telling the audience that "We are not asking the white man to turn Europe and America over to us" and stating that he seeks a "peaceful, prosperous and progressive" race for all people. From here Garvey talks about distinct racial group idealism; that no man is good enough to govern another man, of any race. Garvey also invokes religious rhetoric by quoting biblical such as "though shalt not kill" taking a contextually common sense approach to the audience. Garvey attacks race superiority both at an intellectual level and with philosophical and moral argument of no exclusivity; to Garvey the world is a place created by "our Heavenly Father" for "our common disposal", a "property of all mankind" (p 120). From here Garvey talks about the degradation of culture upon people that are enslaved  "We cannot sing, we cannot play on our harps, for our hearts are sad." (p121) This is a setup for him to introduce his project the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a "friendly co-operation with all honest movements seeking intelligently to solve the race problem." From here Garvey moves to the rhetoric behind moving to Africa by saying "it will be our only hope of permanent existence." He also believed that this would allow "white and black" to "learn to respect each other when they cease to be active competitors in the same country" creating an "atmosphere of our own". Garvey calls for "fair play" through this speech and finishes with a warning; that "colored intellectuals" can be use his training to be "A seeker after the easiest and best by following the line of least resistance."

RESPONSE: Garvey's speech reveals much about his rhetoric and about the cultural context of the time. When Garvey says those famous words of "cry of Africa for the Africans, those at home and abroad" some people did not understand what he meant, DuBois being one of them, who said "America stopped, America listened, and America laughed." (Marcus Garvey video) After his speech his views could not be clearer: Garvey was seeking an African nation for Africans because none exist. When considering the Berlin Conference and placing Africans in historical context I began to see more clearly; there are no modern African armies, governments or societies (that are not steeped in poverty). Besides this he had other progressive ideas that are revealed through his speech.
          Garvey believed not only in freedom of religion but freedom from religion when he says "all men should be free-free to work out their own salvation. Free to create their own destinies." (p118, Garvey Handout). Another example of religious progression is found in the Garvey video that shows transgressive ideas such as a black baby Jesus (which is also more historically accurate, even compared to the text of the Judea-Christian Bible), hinting at Garvey's acceptance of faith (or lack of it).
          Some of Garvey's more transgressive views stem from his reluctance to embrace multiculturalism which can be noted in his speech. There is a sense that he feels certain races belong to certain cultures and he believed in pan-Africanism and black nationalism, that cultures are different among races (Garvey Video). It's interesting to compare the actions of someone like Garvey and Anders Breivik, who killed almost 100 unarmed people in his fight against multiculturalism while Garvey setup newspapers and aid. It's clear that even when compared to modern figures that Garvey was not a violent threat, even though he wanted an army. The army, the business economy and the speech all attempt to bring a "permanent existence  for Africans. One thing feels for sure, that Garvey had the charisma to be a leader in such an existence.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Murdering Mystery: An Analysis of Twin Peaks

         Television has been called a “site of cultural representation” (Butler) that creates conflict to bring conversation. This proxy for living is often both sensational and forgettable when viewed through the soap opera genre (Mittell p241). Twin Peaks broke theses traditions through interlinking its presentational styles while remaining firmly rooted in the soap opera genre. It was quite successful, capturing a quarter million of its available television audience (Lavery). It also managed to kill off it's viewership after one season and resulted in cancellation by it's much hyped second season. While Twin Peaks succeeded in grabbing the coveted commodity audience by creating America's first night time soap opera with a serial narrative, it also murdered its own mystery by letting network executives control it's story.
         Twin Peaks relies on two major elements to create it's interest that break tradition. The first is the Midwest setting, reminiscent of daytime soap operas; usually the commodity audience relates most with shows set in an urban environment, with the Midwest being for the stay at home mothers and fathers or older audiences. By creating engaging storyline about prostitution and drug abuse in a nontraditional setting the producers of Twin Peaks were able to represent small towns in a titillating fashion. The second element that breaks tradition is the casting of Twin Peaks' victim, a pretty, white, teenage girl named Laura Palmer. This character shows the representation of hegemony; the death of a ruling class citizen, the ultimate fear, the one thing that should be protected in modern society. In this way Laura symbolizes the national identity of America at the time.
         The world of Twin Peaks is initially presented as a safe community with simple and hard working people. The burning question is revealed within minutes of the Pilot episode: who killed Laura Palmer? This question brings out stories within the show as elements of Laura Palmer's personality are revealed. In episode 1 “Traces to Nowhere” we discover that Laura is a regular cocaine user. This brings many conflicts: did her parents know? Who supplied her? Was she using the drugs, selling them or holding onto them? Adding to the stories confusion is the interlinking forms of representation.
         The storyline continue and traverse multiple episodes (Mittell p231) but Twin Peaks follows the ritual of genre cycles by always having the same style mise-en-scene: the atmosphere feels like a soap opera with repeating sets, soft and fuzzy camera filters and quick shots between characters. There's also a large emphasis of color. This is of many ways Twin Peaks breaks the soap opera style so that it becomes memorable: the show is scandal focused but presented in such a well crafted and creative manner that it's images and storyline become quite memorable but still true to the soap opera genre.
         There are other factors for the shows success: the series has a interlinked representational style in multiple aspects of the text. While the camera filters and establishing shots are like soap operas there are many static shots, no zoom and red is over saturated in post production. The strange color scheme makes the somewhat familiar unfamiliar, with a traditional soap opera representation using a different chromatic scheme. The development of the story also shows aspects of multiple presentational styles, both in how the text is presented and in how it was constructed.
         The clues throughout the series mostly make sense within the realm of a crime drama, such as finding DNA on the crime scene, developing characters, showing emotional reactions and building mystery. This is a contrast to the other side of the series which features doppelgangers, interpretations of the Native American afterlife (the White Lodge and Black Lodge), visions of giants and a continually repeating image of a white horse that has no apparent meaning. Therefore one can see how Twin Peaks is a hybrid, presenting realistic world with one or two unrealistic characters that the audience views unrealistic images through. While characters are continually quirky, they are never beyond realistic: a one armed man, a lady with an eye patch and a FBI agent hard of hearing who always screams his orders (played by Lynch himself) are all within the realm of believable characters, just not all as inhabitants of the same small town. Agent Cooper is the medium for which all the unrealistic elements of Twin Peaks manifest. This can be noted in as early as the Pilot episode.
         Agent Dale Cooper often monologues into his tape recorder to a off screen character named Diane. When first visiting Twin Peaks Cooper mentions how beautiful the trees “look and smell” and how he must find out the name of the trees. What's interesting here is how the monologues develop character, another nontraditional way of representation; Agent Cooper seems to be revealing things to Diane as if she is a family member or friend, telling quirky details along with important ones. But Diane is never revealed at all in the entire series with no character ever confirming or denying her existence. The fact that she is only referenced by Cooper adds a complex layer to the story of the character to Dale Cooper. Is he insane? Is Diane real? This also helps merge the representational styles; if Cooper is insane perhaps the visions the audience sees are just the images of an insane man and nothing more.
         The first sight of extreme supernatural storytelling is with Episode 2, Season 1, titled “Zen or the Skill to Catch a Killer”. This scene is the first of the many famous “Red Room” scenes. Dale Cooper dreams in a montage that shows Killer BOB, the victim Laura Palmer, his nemesis, gives cryptic clues (such as the often talked about poem “Fire Walk With Me”) and then is transported to a avant-garde set with a backwards talking dwarf. This scene helps show some of the similarities between the story and development; the method of production is equally as absurd as the scene itself.        
        Twin Peaks' story was often times ad-libbed, with characters being created on the spot or accidentally. In this first Red Room scene in Episode 2 the audience finally hears more from Killer BOB as he delivers some rare speaking roles. Whats interesting is that his character was introduced into the series completely on accident only to become a main villain  .Lynch revealed that the idea for Killer BOB came when Frank Silva, a grip boy, was accidentally filmed in the mirror of a shot in the pilot episode (Dunham).
         Most of the visions and supernatural representation in Twin Peaks are confusing and left to interpretation. Consider this conversation during the Red Room scene in episode 2:

“I have good news. That gum you like is coming back in style. (looks at Doppleganger, then Cooper) She's my cousin. But doesn't she look almost exactly like Laura Palmer?
Cooper: “But it is Laura Palmer. Are you Laura Palmer?
Doppelganger:” I feel like I know her, but sometimes my arms bend back.”
Dwarf: “She's filled with secrets. Where we're from, the birds play a pretty song and there's always music in the air.”

         This scene is ironic because it is very unsettling and confusing visually but a upbeat jazz song plays, making a small joke of the moment. Part of the confusion is due to what is familiar and unfamiliar to the viewer, more of the mixed forms of representation that break genre conventions. All speech is spoken backwards then played forwards giving the vocals a haunting and unsettling effect. The viewer knows Laura Palmer is both dead and underage but she kisses the apparent hero of the story. The dwarf has never made an appearance in the show and it is unsure if he is a symbol or a real person. These elements are what make Twin Peaks sensational in a memorable way but sadly it was unable to continue with its strong, but never to be revealed, series story arc. The series was quite successful because it had one large mystery with other mysteries built upon it. This gave new seriousness to the serial format; even if sensational conflicts arose or were solved over short arcs the major arc would remain unsolved indefinitely. No one was to know who killed Laura Palmer.
         The second season of Twin Peaks faced a strange cycle. Interest waned shortly after Episode 14, “Lonely Souls” which revealed the killer of Laura Palmer. Twin Peaks was continually moved from time slot to time slot in a bid to gain interest in the show. While reception of the episode was overall positive it still faced some criticism: for drawing out the death of Laura Palmer. What's ironic with this is that as soon as the killer is revealed viewership drops. Episode 15, “Drive with a Dead Girl”, showed a steep decline in ratings.         Mark Frost and David Lynch both say on the Twin Peaks special edition DVD that they never wanted to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer's killer but felt pressure to do so by network executives who claimed they were responding to fans demands (Jenson). This revelation actually ended up hurting the franchise. Other shows have used this format since, most notable AMC's The Killing, a show quite popular in its fist season. The Killing also revealed it's killer in it's second season and was then canceled.
         One wonders what would happen if the mystery that started Twin Peaks wasn't murdered through the revelation of episode 14. Despite this Twin Peaks changed traditional genre conventions by making the soap opera serial a nontraditional but successful “nipple gate” for the commodity audience of the 1990's, creating a genuine cultural representation through settings not thought possible and surprisingly realistic story's and characters mixed in a bizarre landscape. While it's hard to pinpoint a overall ideology from the shows main story arcs, their characters reveal many conflicts that are still relatable today.

Works Cited

Mittell, Jason. Television and American Culture. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, Web.

Butler, Jeremy. Television: Critical Methods and Applications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Web.

Dunham, Duwayne (2002). Audio commentary for the pilot episode (DVD). Universal Home Entertainment.

Lynch, David, dir. Twin Peaks. Prod. Mark Frost. 1990. Television.

 Jensen, Jeff (October 26, 2007)."David Lynch: Climbing the Peaks".Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved March 10, 2010.

Lavery, David (1995). Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Wayne State University Press.

Monday, November 12, 2012

New Word Document

If you have been enjoying some of the writing here (or using them for essays or whatever) please do me a favor: check out my podcast at Riverwest Radio. We do original music, interviews, specials and more, all as a part of my collective, New Word Document. If your ever in need of a MC, DJ, slam/spoken word artist or event coordinator feel free to contact me via my personal website.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Antiquated Family - A Review of a Modern Family Episode

Modern Family inaccurately represents various audiences by focusing on three different family units. These families are introduced with pleasant establishing shots of suburbia, alternating between exterior and interior. Each family is introduced in succession with the same problem giving an easy form of identification for the viewer: the problem with the episode Snip is children and how they effect our lives. Each family is identified, usually, with explicit stereotypes. These stereotypes are best shown through the characters Mitchell and Cam and the Spanish mother, wife to Jay. It is easy to notice this when contrasted against other characters in the show and also against common sense and the cultural norm (perhaps to a more progressive/leftist audience, as this program does seem rightist, however I think many people would feel otherwise at first glance).

Mitchell and Cam are established with a shot in the kitchen that shows it sparsely decorated and lifeless, unlike Phil's home which is filled with drawings from his children, documents from work and other artifacts that suggest a more full and normal family life. Mitchell and Cam are not flamboyant when feeding their child or parenting but later in the episode when they argue over Cam's contribution to the family he shows his sentiment by squeal’s rather than crying, jumps and then crawls on the bed, cries over his “master plan” (a cat outfit) and then suddenly changes and gets a job with little resistance. Another shot that shows antiquated stereotypes is what I call the “water goblet” scene.

In the water goblet scene (starting at 7:25) Mitchell is seen in a department store, looking at clothes. Everything looks normal in the establishing shot but then Mitchell turns around revealing a large wine goblet filled with water. Why is the water in a goblet? Does the clothing store also carry goblets? Does Mitchell walk around with goblets to clothing stores? The explicitly over the top representation of gay characters goes further as characters are introduced with more over the top persona's, loud clothing is stolen and general cartoon antics happen. This is quite different than what Phil experiences when he goes with Jay to get a vasectomy. In general the establishment is respected (as seen with the doctors office) and white people, suburban people are viewed as successful and happy. White characters even occupy space in the background, with pictures of Phil's face visible on benches.

By the end of this episode the traditional white family represented by Phil decides they want to have children because they have enough time for them. The traditional gay couple is looked at as childish and dysfunctional but still happy. The Spanish/Jay family is generally used as the tension breaker and Spanish/Mexican people are shown as being cartoon characters. Jay, the husband to the Spanish character, is shown as an authority white figure. This is found when one notes that Jay is the narrator of the episode, offering “common sense” to the viewer at the end (which brings some resolution to the episode).

In general white people are portrayed positively, as being full of common sense. That common sense is that we need more first world children in white suburban households, gay adults are basically grown children without jobs and Spanish women need to be taught basic things by their children (who speak no Spanish). Even Mitchell, the other gay character, is shown as child like despite being more responsible. When he is at work he is shown goofing off and not at all engaged in anything productive. The message here is apparently that gay couples need children because they can't do anything besides wear loud clothing and slack off at work.

While this program would normally be viewed as a refracted representation of the world I would find this to be a escapist form of programming, merely putting a facade on antiquated cultural issues. The only way it could be more backwards in it's ideology and identification of national character is if there were a black family called the “Johnsons” and a handicapped family called the “Hawkings” added to the cast.