Theology, cuneiform, blogs, and games: Impressions from the Digital Genres Conference

Exit the Digital Genres conference in Chicago: An amazingly diverse set of perspectives that fit together in strange ways.
The game perspective was obviously the most important one:
Greg Costikyan gave a slightly pessimistic talk about the future of the games industry – production costs rocketing, lack of an “indie” game format, risk-averse publishers, end of innovation, some potential lights at the end of the tunnel in the form of online distribution, shareware, mobile games – but it seemed that Greg didn’t have too much faith in those. A version of the discussion can be found at Greg’s blog with replies by Warren Spector and others.
Edward Castronova presented some of his well-known work on EverQuest. In case you don’t know, he has done an interesting economical analysis of EverQuest based on the price at which characters and items are sold on EBay. This gives the famous statistic of EverQuest being the 72nd largest economy in the world with characters working for an hourly wage of $3.50. I had always assumed that this evaluation was slightly problematic, but it turns out that it follows the standard economical idea of subjective pricing – the value of something is what people are willing to pay for it. My feeling was that the evaluation was way too high since there would be no way that all characters and things in EverQuest could be sold at the current EBay price. But in fact this is just like stock markets, antiques, and original James Joyce manuscripts – if all stocks in a company were sold at the same time, the price would fall radically, so the pricing of anything is based on the relation between, yes, supply and demand. EverQuest is no different. Castronova presented new research on the pricing of characters based on their traits including gender. Of a comparable male and female character, which sells at the highest price? My guess was female, based on the assumption that they are rarer and the fact that female characters get more free stuff and help from other characters. But no, females are generally 10% cheaper.
My presentation was basically a presentation of a game definition (which I’ll post another day). The core argument is that there is something I call the classical [transmedial] game model which has been surprisingly stable from perhaps 5000 bc to somewhere in the 1960’s, having only really been challenged with the advent of pen and paper role-playing games and computer games. The promised thing about GTA3 became rather brief. Probably a lot of stuff in 15 minutes, but I think it went well enough.

It hadn’t dawned on me that contemporary theologists would be thinking about spirituality online, but obviously they do. Some experience of being dumped into a discussion that had been going on for some time – do blessings require a physical component or are they pure signs? And another reason to be happy about researching computer games – glad not to be a monotheistic theologist worried about using binary distinctions. (Not to offend anyone, but this seems like a philosophical take on the Tom Lehrer joke about feeling like a Christian scientist with appendicitis.)

For no apparent reason I managed to become the grumpy conference guy who always doubted that there was really anything new about all this digital stuff: The alfabet is basically digital. Non-physical communities and identities, writing under pseudonyms etc. were all there in the theological community in medieval Europe, writing being their internet and (cheesily) Latin being their equivalent of blogs. And road signs and name tags are augmented reality.

I can’t really do the conference justice in this space, but there were also inspiring presentations on clay tablets, on phonetic vs. pictorial writing, the emergence of alphabetization as a way of structuring information, on blogs, “real” vs. “virtual” identities, Slash, IRC compared to Puerto Rican street talk. Since this is my first blog conference report, I am suddenly acutely aware of the kind of social importance that we attach to being mentioned in other people’s conference reports. Hmm.

David Weinberger gave a talk on the importance of blogs – the draft-like quality of the posts helps building networks because you let other people into your less edited thinking. Likewise, the power of the web often hinges on the fact that you get to hear other people’s unedited voices. The linking obviously builds social networks, and the “blogs” of big corporations give themself away by not linking off the company site.
Discussed the unfeasibility of the Semantic Web project with him. And the amazing thing that Tim Berners-Lee who designed the World Wide Web which really has changed the world and really works because it isn’t structured or categorized is now engaged in an unworkable project that aims to do all the things wrong that were right in the first place.

The violence of categories: This post should also be in the “meta” category of my blog.

This was the first time I’d met Edward Castronova, with whom I discussed the possibility of making money on blogs – I offered to do his blog (he doesn’t have one) and online networking for a modest fee, but he declined.

Chicago is a surprisingly pleasant city, lake, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and all. Have failed to find that cool (deck?) caf? hangout with wireless and a dj playing minimal house all day though.

3 thoughts on “Theology, cuneiform, blogs, and games: Impressions from the Digital Genres Conference”

  1. Welcome to the world of blogging! (says the one without a blog) I am too scared of the overwork of having to write more or less daily things that intelligent people will read. I have the impression that I wouldn’t do anything else, and worse yet, it would turn out to be rather banal and people would think I am stupid. But will you keep up the long journalistic posts or go to short telegram like ones as so many blogs do? (by journalistic I mean a positive thing, actually, that there is a bit more meat and analysis and clever remarks)

  2. I think I’m going for the long journalistic posts – but time will tell. I will try to stay on topic, and only include the personal stuff when it really makes sense.

  3. You didn’t get our best late May, early June weather, but I’m glad you liked it anyway. As a native, I am partial to Chicago, and I’m very happy when visitors enjoy their stay.

    I’ve also just started a blog of sorts, although in true minimalist techie tradition, I’m just putting up pages written directly in html with vi, and letting the webserver generate the index. I also have no plans to add stuff daily, but I’m all for a longer journalistic style. One of the more significant things in David’s closing speech was something he barely even talked about: a blog is a real opportunity for many more people to begin the “find their voice”, and really connect with other people on the level of ideas. To Susana, you have to suspend you judgements and just do it, the worst that can happen is no one will read it.

    Not just being mentioned in their blogs, but getting comments or email that let you know people are reading and interacting with your words. We have heard “attention is the currency of the web”, which sounds pretty banal, but it really is true. People also talk about ego and recognition being what drives people to contribute to open source projects, but a paper I read recently suggested that the important thing here is that it is recognition in a community. In other words, it is much less the larger user community and associated accolades, but the direct interaction and feedback withing the smaller working community. Like the street culture Biella discussed, it’s the instant feedback that both gratifies and helps us quickly develope our chops.

    I thought it was Kurzweil who he was taking to task? Really, it is anyone who thinks strong AI is possible. There is a little bit more about this on my pages if you are interested. It is a very old debate that I have been taking a middle road on all the way back to USENET groups back in the 80s. Sort of a hobby of mine.

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