Reflecting on ICA 2008

I just got back from Montreal, where I was attending the International Communication Association 2008 conference. Due to cost and scheduling issues, I wasn’t able stay for as long as I might have liked, but even in the couple days I was there, I got to see some thought-provoking presentations and meet some interesting people. Here are a few things I wanted to make note of before I forget. Find out more information about these panels in the ICA conference program (PDF link).

Games & Culture. The first panel of the weekend for me was one of those I most looked forward to, and not just because two of my Annenberg compatriots were presenting. As it turned out, though, their papers were particularly interesting to me.

Adrienne Shaw, presenting on “Putting the Gay in Games,” discussed the representation (or general lack thereof) of homo- and bisexual characters in video games. As one audience member pointed out (and as Adrienne has addressed in a recently revised version), there are of course plenty of players who will read queer relationships into games, but this really isn’t any substitute for having that built into the narrative.

Adrienne’s argument may make some roll their eyes—those who don’t fully understand systematic social and cultural marginalization may complain that video games are no place for politics, but even concerned queer gamers have countered that calls for representation for its own sake could too easily lead to tokenism. As Adrienne points out, however, there’s a real storytelling issue here that affects the market for all of us: You don’t have to be G, L, B, or T to think it’d be worth it to have the option to play some characters who are. Personally, playing Mass Effect as a female helped me realize how interesting it is to play a protagonist even slightly outside the normal archetype for science-fiction, action gaming. I’m kind of tired of playing the same heterosexual macho, male, messianic superhero again and again, aren’t you?

In the same panel, Joel Penny presented on “Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, and the Ideology of the Military.” This study provided a great example of the multiple appeals of gaming we’ve talked about on this blog, illustrating how different players approach the same games differently. Some players he interviewed reported gaining a greater appreciation of soldiers from World War II video games, and highly valued such games for their historical accuracy and narrative force. Others, on the other hand, were so much more concerned with gameplay mechanics and weaponry/toys over other elements that they dismissed WWII as boring.

I’d be quite interested to see how players understand the experience of playing Axis soldiers in games that allow you to do so. (I remember a conversation at Penny Arcade, awhile back, surrounding Gabe’s grandfather, a WWII vet, not understanding why anybody would want to do this.) Perhaps this only comes up in multiplayer situations when gameplay is at the forefront of people’s minds, and “Axis” and “Allies” are as neutral as “red” versus “blue,” with no concern for narrative implications. Still, chatting with some friends about this, I found it interesting how people noted that new World of Warcraft players tend to skew towards the “good” (“Alliance”) races instead. It’s one thing to have a hard time actually committing evil actions in a game gives you the option to do so, and subsequently recognizes your character evil or “renegade” (like Mass Effect and certain Star Wars games). But it’s an even greater testament to the narrative power of games, I think, if characteristics of the avatar and its backstory are sufficient to guide what a player feels comfortable doing with that character.

Incidentally, my youngest brother text messaged me during this 9:00 AM panel to brag that he beat “Psychobilly Freakout” on Expert level on his first try, and then “Free Bird” on his third try, in Guitar Hero 2. Clearly, “Game Studies” runs in the family.

Media Literacy and the Health and Well-Being of Children. Ever since doing a literature review on how communication researchers understand the term ‘media literacy’ for a class a few years back, I’ve had an ongoing personal interest in the topic, and I’ve been looking forward to discussing it more as I teach. One branch of media literacy researchers in communication is particularly concerned with staging “interventions”—videos, workshops, or entire curricula—designed to teach children about how media work, with the hopes of enabling children to critically assess and perhaps produce their own visual messages. Most such curricula that I’ve read about stress that television ads are designed to convince you to buy something and that food packaging is actively misleading, but stop short of telling students not to buy any particular toys or foods.

Ever since I wrote that media literacy lit review, I’ve had one lingering concern: Media literacy interventions test for learning, but not for effects. I think it should not surprise us that if you teach one class some stuff about media, and then test them later on the course material, they’ll do better at the test than the control group who doesn’t get a class. What I want to know, though, is what skills this translates to outside of a test-taking, classroom setting. Seeing as how such curricula seem to get government funding at least in part due to claims that they provide children with psychological resistance to misleading ad messages—a public health concern, as the panel of this title indicates—I’ve been dying to see a study that actually tests whether these curricula actually have that effect.

This panel provided just that study, and the result was even more cleverly and robustly designed than I’d imagined. Ariel Chernin, a recent Annenberg graduate, presented a paper co-written with her advisor, Bob Hornik, which tested two things: Can an instructional video teach kids that commercials are meant to persuade you, and if so, does being taught about persuasive intent make kids less susceptible to persuasion?

The previous presentation on the panel, by Cynthia Scheibe, offered some evidence that young children can be taught about persuasive intent, contrary to the claims of some developmental psychologists and anti-advertising advocates. Ariel’s presentation offered additional evidence for this, showing a bit of the video that kids watched, which explained rather plainly that ads are trying to make you buy stuff. (The control group got a video with Bill Nye talking about plants.) Two weeks later, the kids came back to watch a cartoon with a commercial break, and answered a number of questions so they wouldn’t be aware they were specifically being questioned about ad content. And, contrary to the assumptions of media literacy researchers and instructors, the group that saw the video was actually more persuaded by the advertising than the group that didn’t.

This may have just been an effect of priming (or some related psychological phenomenon), whereby the kids who saw the video had been thinking more about advertising already (even after two weeks!), and so ended up paying more attention to ads. It wasn’t the result I was expecting, though, and certainly wasn’t the result most media literacy researchers expect, so it was all rather exciting for me.

Respondent Renee Hobbs, a well-known media literacy researcher, noted that this panel shows that media literacy is now out of its “infancy” and into its “toddlerhood,” and remarked that it’s important for media literacy curricula to be more wide-ranging in its messages—not just telling kids “commercials make you want to buy stuff,” but also teaching production skills, for example. I wonder, though, if the effects of an entire curriculum might just be deeper and longer-term than the effects of a single video, like the one Ariel showed. And, of course, we need to ask whether resistance to persuasion should be the prioritized goal of media literacy education, or whether the potential of increased susceptibility to ad messages is a small price to pay for learning other skills and information. It would be interesting to see whether a (relatively) short-term effect of increased susceptibility to mediated persuasion during childhood actually translates into (variously positive or negative) ongoing effects down the line. What if the kids getting media literacy education are a little more easily persuaded now, but much more media-savvy and critical as adults, thanks to the head start? All in all, I see a lot of interesting possibilities for additional research in this area.

The Impact of Visual Communication: Networking the Power of the Visual and Visual Communication Studies Division Business Meeting and Game Studies Special Interest Group Business Meeting. The first of these meetings was a roundtable session that sought to question and best understand the points of commonality and complements between the various disciplines implied in “visual communication studies.” The second was a discussion about that division’s past, present, and (projected) future membership. The third was about an entirely different division, discussing at times what its own membership could agree upon. For me, the resulting discussions were interesting not only for what they set out to discuss, but just as much for what they got me thinking about: namely, how academic communities of knowledge arrange themselves.

Conferences like ICA are organized into divisions (e.g., Mass Communication) and special interest groups (SIGs, e.g., Game Studies). Divisions, by virtue of having more members, are allowed to host more panels, and get more funding from the association. The upshot of this system is that SIGs are generally trying to get approved as divisions, and divisions are trying to maintain membership so they don’t get bumped back to SIGs. Meanwhile, there’s a debate surrounding whether it should be more difficult to start up new SIGs, perhaps because the existing divisions are concerned that having so many new SIGs dilutes membership among existing divisions. Those in favor of allowing relatively easy SIG startup, on the other hand, contend that new SIGs are often the hotbeds for the creative thinking and new ideas in the field at large.

I’m still too new to ICA to comment on this very intelligently, but from what I have seen so far, it’s important to make a distinction between starting new SIGs for the purpose of fostering new ideas, and starting new SIGs that replicate the function of existing divisions. There is a lot of the latter going on in some other academic organizations, surrounded by gossipy tales about political rifts between administrators. I haven’t really noticed this at ICA, though. New SIGs include groups like Game Studies, which often studies media in ways completely ignored by other communication researchers and theorists. (Outside this division, the only papers about games tend to stick to studying whether they make kids violent or whether they can be used to teach lessons about health.) I think it will be a great day when modes of thinking circulating in Game Studies have percolated into the field at large enough that a separate group for just this medium won’t be needed anymore—but for now, it is serving an important purpose.

It can be tricky for some divisions and SIGs to feel like they’re competing for members. I think one short-term solution, at least, would be to host more poster presentations at conferences like ICA. This year’s acceptance rate was a bit low for a conference of this type, I think, at about 43% overall. Visual Communication Studies could particularly benefit from an increased number of poster sessions, given the nature of what folks are presenting. I might have preferred one myself to a high-density session, though there could be a note when people submit about whether one’s presentation is likely to include moving images that would work better projected from a computer. I do applaud ICA for attempting to make poster sessions feel less like the conference ghetto, with such efforts like the cash prize for best poster.

That’s just my two cents for now, anyway. I imagine I’ll mull on this further as I get more deeply involved with certain divisions and attend more conferences.

Digital Mediations of Personal Narratives. This panel discussed “digital storytelling” insofar as online scrapbooking, Facebook, MySpace, and other such services constitute the construction of “personal narrative” online. It should be no surprise, perhaps, that I have more to say now about what I read between the lines than about the original papers themselves (though I do recommend downloading the original papers if you are an ICA member).

During audience Q&A, someone raised a question about what “storytelling” really means. As I’ve alluded to elsewhere on this blog, storytelling and narrative are hotly contested terms in certain disciplines, and referring to a Facebook page as a “narrative” is bound to raise some hackles. I’m comfortable enough, though, with the idea of a “personal narrative” as distinct from an “authorial narrative” (or whatever you call those stories actually intentionally structured as stories), so I’ll leave that debate aside.

What really interested me was the implied follow-up question: What’s so “digital” about “digital storytelling”? I plan to revisit the broader question behind this—what we mean in communication research and theory when we discuss “digital” media—in a paper for next year’s ICA (if not sooner), which will be be investigating the theme of “keywords in communication.” For now, though, I’d just like to throw out a couple quick thoughts.

When we discuss “digital storytelling” with regard to Facebook—or even other web applications that more readily lend themselves to traditional narrative, such as Blogger and WordPress—the “digital” part refers largely to advances in ease of production and transmission. Because digital messages are easily and quickly transmitted over long distances, and simultaneously accessible and copyable from multiple points, it’s relatively quick and cheap for producers to create media and share it widely. For some media forms that actually do seek audiences, such developments do, of course, lead to advances for the consumer as well. Notably, this includes potentially less expensive products (thanks to the lower overhead for producers), and a broader array of consumables to choose from (thanks to the enlarged market of newly-enabled producers).

Contrast this with how we might understand “digital storytelling” in a medium like video games. Here, “digital” does not necessarily invoke images of democratization among producers and the related broadening of markets with countless niches to choose from. We can see this somewhat at work with Flash games and “casual games,” perhaps, but, for the most part, this kind of digital storytelling has yet to be as fully automated; interaction with the code of programs is still at the forefront of considerations for content creators. The “stories” told by amateurs in digital form are still pretty easily distinguishable from the stories told by professionals backed by giant studios, despite how well text-based websites may have blurred this line for books, and online video may have blurred it for film. And, while the internet does indeed broaden access to downloadable and web-based games, these are not necessarily the best representations of “digital storytelling”—computer and console games that are still locked down with DRM and sold via retail do not really match our other understanding of “digital” as connected to the speed and ease of use of the internet.

These are just a couple preliminary thoughts for a more in-depth project, of course, inspired by works like Krippendorff’s metaphors of communication, Downes and McMillan’s article on defining interactivity, and Sterne’s book chapter questioning what’s “digital” in digital music. I’m pretty excited about next year’s ICA theme; leave it to incoming president Barbie Zelizer (Annenberg’s “Raymond Williams Professor of Communication”) to encourage researchers and theorists to collaboratively compile an updated Keywords for the field.

Visuals From an Artistic Perspective. As for my own session at this conference, I presented a paper on experimental comics and visual language alongside presentations about architecture, ethonographic/art films, the photography of Jacob Riis, and electronic color techniques from years past. It was an interesting mix, but I didn’t really get a chance to mull over the conceptual bridges between these because there is no Q&A following such “high density” sessions.

For my own part, at least, I wish I hadn’t lost the last two pages of my notes immediately before my presentation, but I think I recovered gracefully enough. (Hopefully nobody minded me announcing, “And now we reach the uncharted territory of me presenting without my notes,” as a means of gathering my wits and my nerve for the final stretch.) One very pared down version of the paper has already been submitted for journal review, but if you’re interested, you can download the presentation slides and the notes (including the last two pages!) here.

One thing I never really had time to get into in either the presentation or the paper is the contrast between the development of the conventions of comic books and video games. In this paper, you see, I argue that feelings of cultural marginalization have led alternative comic artists to experiment with the basic formal conventions of the medium, rallied behind a common notion of comics as a “visual language,” or, similarly, as “sequential art.” This is a particularly ahistorical understanding of the medium, actively discounting single-panel works traditionally known as comics (like Family Circus and The Far Side) in favor of a formal definition that still leaves lots of possibilities for diverse work. Some comic artists have gone even further, trying to actively cut themselves off from other traditional comics material like superhero stuff, happy to call their work by other terms entirely to suggest different artistic pretensions (e.g., graphic novels).

Video game theorists, so far as I can tell, have attempted no similar feat of rallying behind a common definition that cuts out any “unwanted” crowd. This is interesting to me, as there’s a great deal more formal disparity within this medium than within comics. The line between your average alternative comic and your average superhero comic is significantly less blurry than the line between your average puzzle game and your average video RPG, but at least one journalist still boldly proclaimed at one point that “Maus is not a comic book.” How hard (or even desirable) would it be, I wonder, for some like-minded groups of game designers to suddenly proclaim that they’re working on “progressional art”? Games without a player-guided narrative progression simply wouldn’t count as part of their artistic movement anymore, and the stated goal of this movement would be to explore all the different things one could do with “progression” as the one formal constant to experiment around.

Would we see something like we’ve seen with comics in recent years? The break between these sides of the medium hasn’t been permanent, or even very long-lived. Superhero comics have been welcomed back into the fold of the “graphic novel” shelf eventually, of course, but the break in between arguably gave alternative and art comics the space they needed to get mainstream magazines, book stores, and libraries thinking of the medium as worthy of adult attention. It’s possible that video games would benefit similarly from such a movement, but it’s hard to imagine such a move happening. As my paper presented at ICA argues, after all, this was largely able to happen in comics because of the influence of a few, particularly high-profile creators who were pretty much able to do the work to prove their point, relatively free of the pressures upon more profitable media. There are some influential game designers, of course, but games are much more collaborative products, and the market is much more demanding of blockbusters.

This is the argument I wanted to make in a paper, but it requires so much background knowledge that to get into the nuances of it, I’d need to write one to two other papers first. Such are the minor annoyances of academic brevity, I suppose. And brevity, as this post surely indicates, is a condition from which I have clearly never suffered.

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on ICA 2008

  1. I think the only way to teach media awareness to kids is to teach them how to manipulate it themselves. “How to Lie with Media,” or something similar. However, I doubt that the media ‘interventionists’ would want to do that.

  2. Actually, you’ll be pleased to know that some of them already do that. (And, though it was grad school level work, one of my own first film projects was basically an exercise in intentionally deceptive sound editing.)

Comments are closed.