Wonks vs. Nerds

Inside Higher Ed directs us to a couple sites describing American University‘s new branding campaign around the word ‘wonk.’ American has a website offers a description of what the term means, suggests that there are many different kinds of wonks (policy wonks, science wonks, theater wonks…), and draws a connection between the word ‘know’ (which does happen to be ‘wonk’ backwards).

I find the campaign interesting because it’s very much like MIT’s “Nerd Pride” slogan, but even more official and widespread. The various ways that American has tried to lay claim to ‘wonk’ strongly resemble the ways that people have tried to define reclaim ‘geek’ and ‘nerd,’ down to claiming that there are many “types” of geeks, and explaining meaning through backronyms like “general electrical engineering knowledge” or “knurd” (for “drunk” backwards). Given that American University is based out of Washington D.C. and attracting many students who are quite interested in being described as “policy wonks” someday, the new campaign is a kind of way to signal that it’s producing a particular local flavor of geek.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. the Cultural Critique

For a movie that hasn’t made much of a splash in box office take, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World certainly seems to have people talking. The movie opened 5th in the box office last weekend. It was beaten out by two new movies, The Expendables and Eat Pray Love, and by two movies who’d fallen about 40-50% in sales (one being Inception, arguable another nerd-bait feature).

Cinema Blend offers “5 Reasons Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Failed to Find an Audience,” but its reasoning is somewhat suspect at times, and even the title seems like a misnomer to me. “Scott Pilgrim” is currently the top Trending Topic on Twitter. My friends have been talking about it for weeks; a bunch of us saw a free advance screening, and a bunch more saw it on opening weekend. The blogs I follow regularly have been generally gushing praise. The issue doesn’t really seem to be that it “failed to find an audience,” but that the audience it found wasn’t really big enough to promise the kind of box office take that you’d expect with a $60 million budget. The whole phenomenon feels strangely reminiscent of Snakes on a Plane: Everyone was expecting the hype to equal success, when in fact it might have been only enough to make sure the movie makes a modest profit in the long run.

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The “Lost” Appeals of Gaming

Back in February, I presented a paper at the Popular Culture Association conference in St. Louis on what I’ve been referring to around here as the multiple appeals of gaming. I’ve been coming back to the paper on and off ever since, poking and prodding it in an attempt to yield something I’d be proud to publish.

The basic point of the paper is to offer a rough typology of elements that players find “appealing” about games, providing an analytical vocabulary that critics, scholars, and developers can use in describing what “works” (and what doesn’t) in game, and why, without assuming that it’s the players themselves who exist in types. The appeals I’ve been looking at are those that I’ve heard or read players themselves describe, even if indirectly, when discussing how they engage with games. I’ve been describing these appeals lately mastery, story, sociality, and foolery (not too unlike what I called them in my early musings on this subject). Some other kinds of appeals have occurred to me as potentially worth discussing, though I haven’t heard other players specifically describe them as much—e.g., do the Wii and Dance Dance Revolution offer an appeal of physicality distinct from other kinds of appeals?

It’s occurred to me recently, though, that I’m leaving out a couple other kinds of “appeals” almost willfully, and maybe that’s just a bit too convenient for me. You don’t hear players describing these as things they like about games, but you might hear players note them as reasons why they play games.

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What Alpha Protocol Got Right

I recently picked up a discounted copy of Alpha Protocol, an “Espionage RPG” by Obsidian. I waited for it to go on discount because it generally got moderate-to-terrible reviews. (I saw a fan in an Alpha Protocol forum defending the game by exclaiming, “Alpha Protocol isn’t BAD, it’s MEDIOCRE!”) Apparently enough other players also waited for the discount to kick in before buying, as sales have been so low that Obsidian isn’t even planning to make a sequel. This disappoints me terribly, as Alpha Protocol had the potential to be one of the most important RPG series in the development of narrative gaming.

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The Epidemics Epidemic

I’d like to quote something from a recent article on the “narcissism epidemic” or “Generation Me” at the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The social sciences have too often jumped in feet first, raising unnecessary panics over video games, “fad” mental illnesses, and “crises” of sexual assault. I’ll acknowledge that it’s probably difficult to sell a book or get a government grant arguing that something isn’t a big problem, yet it is time for the social sciences to carefully consider the chasm that too often exists between the data that they produce and the claims they make to the scientific community and general public. Words such as “epidemic” should only ever be preceded by words like “smallpox,” and should henceforth be stricken from the social scientist’s lingo. (…)

The evidence just isn’t there for an epidemic of narcissism or anything else. Social scientists would do well to exercise a degree of caution when interpreting data. Just like with the little boy who cries wolf, people are bound to notice too many phantom epidemics. The price to be paid is the credibility of social science itself.

Of course I was thinking “video games” (and “comic books”) before I even got to the part of the article where the author mentions this. (Little did I know while reading this that the author, an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M, has already written about his take on game “violence” in particular.) I recommend the article for all academics who will wring their hands over the next big cultural boogeyman, and to all professors who lament the moral fiber of “kids today.”

(And as an added side note: As someone who was bullied and played dodgeball as a kid, I’m a little offended by the commenter who calls dodgeball a “particularly horrific game (in which authority figures actually encourage normal kids to act like bullies).” Maybe the bullies were different in this person’s neighborhood, but where I grew up, bullies beat you up, up-close and personal, and did not invite you to play a game of dodgeball with them.)