Enabling Play

The new issue of Wired has a couple articles I found interesting, covering the Rock Band video game and Robot Chicken on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. To me, both of these cases represent new ways of making old media more accessible, so to speak. In the case of Rock Band, Alex Rigopulos, the CEO of Harmonix, compares the product to early MTV:

“Sitting down and watching music was a new thing — it changed the mass market’s notion of what music entertainment was,” he says. As we sit in his office, he describes how Rock Band could be the next stage of evolution for the music industry, as well as the game industry. […] “In five years, this is how people are going to consume the music they love.”

And in the case of Robot Chicken, we go from playing with toys to watching other people play with their toys:

“The show looks like what nearly every kid did: You got out your cars and G.I. Joes and smashed them together,” says Chicken fan Mike Johnson, codirector of the 2005 stop-mo blockbuster Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. “The show works because it captures the joy of playing with your toys.”

In both cases, these products are about enabling us to do things we weren’t otherwise able to do as adults. “Playing music is one of the most blissful feelings life has to offer,” Rigopulos says, “But it’s too fucking hard to learn how. Almost everyone quits after six months.”

The barrier to playing with our toys, however, is one of social acceptability rather than difficulty level. We’re able to play with our toys, but perhaps we don’t feel we’re allowed to—unless it can be done through appropriately adult media. This means television in the case of Robot Chicken, or even video games in the case of Lego Star Wars, thanks to gaming’s new status as an adult pursuit. (Something tells me you’ll be hearing me describe a paper about this in a couple months.)

Girls <3 Geeks (for Payment or Services Rendered)

Nothing seems quite as amusing to non-geeks as seeing a bookish misfit paired with a beautiful woman. And, outside of sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and movies like 40-Year-Old Virgin, some seem to think best way to arrange that scenario is to put some money on the table. Let’s check out today’s two examples.

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Geekifying the “Vast Wasteland”

In an article titled “Sci-Fi, Freaks and Supergeeks Take Over TV Screens,” Wired notes:

A memo saying “geek chic is going mainstream” must have circulated among network TV execs as they concocted this fall’s prime-time lineup.

Hoping to woo coveted geek eyeballs, they’ve put their money on nine new shows focusing on — or catering to — nerds, freaks and outsiders of every type.

“Geeks are the new cool,” said Teri Weinberg, NBC Entertainment’s executive vice president. “We are all gravitating towards the underdog.”

Geek TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, The Sarah Connor Chronicles and a retooled Bionic Woman make up roughly 20 percent of the major networks’ new prime-time programming for the 2007-08 season. They join returning geek favorites that include ABC’s Ugly Betty, NBC’s Heroes and the SciFi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica, which blasts back with a two-hour made-for-TV movie later in the year and a fourth season beginning in ’08.

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Checking in After San Diego

I’m finally home after three weeks of travels, having just returned from Comic Con International in San Diego. I’d like to blog about the con a bit more soon, though I suspect I’ll be playing catch-up and contacting potential interviewees for awhile. Here are three items of particular note, at least:

First, this year’s theme seemed to be “waiting in line.” I know that you’ve had to schedule line-waiting time into things for awhile now, but this year was particularly ridiculous, especially because the big events of 2007 were TV-related but the absolute biggest ballroom tends to go to movie-related panels and showings (neither of which, you’ll note, necessarily have anything to do with “comics”). I arrived over an hour early to wait in line for the first event of the day Saturday, a screening of the new Bionic Woman pilot, and I was roughly 5,000th in a line that snaked outside the convention center.

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Some Notes About Transformers

I just saw the new Transformers movie a couple nights ago. I think it was the first time I ever saw a movie admit at the opening that is was based on a series of action figures, rather than trying to claim the other way around. I’ve been stumbling upon a bunch of Transformers links that seemed worth sharing, too, so here you go:

John Swansburg has an article at Slate comparing the new movie to the 1980s animated Transformers: The Movie. He notes that the creators of that movie sheepishly admit in the DVD commentary track that characters were killed off to make room for more action figures (remember: commentary tracks are underutilized resources for research!), but this actually makes for a more thoughtful and affecting story.

Wired has a gallery of “Best Transformers Fan Photos,” and Gizmodo links to its “Fav Transformers Fan Videos,” largely from BotCon 2007.

Colbert’s Comic

Stephen Colbert is apparently involved in the production of a satirical sci-fi action comic. Read about how this came together, and see seven pages here.

Says [co-writer John] Layman, ”We’d get notes, like ‘Oh, you know, I was rereading this on my porch Saturday…’ I’ve had editors who don’t pay that close attention. There’s quite a bit of back-and-forth because I think Stephen Colbert is a geek.”

Though the serious Report fan admits that he and Peyer initially went in the wrong direction — ”We wrote it as if it was Stephen Colbert in space, so he had a robot eagle sidekick and he was going after alien bears” — they ultimately found the sweet spot. ”Tek’s got a radioactive robotic monkey sidekick,” Layman says. ”He’s got an evil pet named Meangarr, this giant energy void, that has vowed to kill him if he ever escapes. And then he has girlfriend after girlfriend after girlfriend.”

I’m not sure how to follow that up, but it seemed worth noting.

Geeks in the News

Today, at the recommendation of Penn library staff member Andrea, I searched through the recent archive of New York Times articles for any references to “geek” or “nerd.” I was looking for an article she saw about “making geeks hip” with regard to TV and movies. Not only did I find a few articles worth blogging about in greater detail, I also found that these terms have found their way into common use even more than I expected.

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Transforming Play

Chris Suellentrop writes an article about the history of the Transformers franchise for Wired. It’s got some interesting tidbits I was surprised I hadn’t heard before, as well as an interesting take on how the action figures changed play as we know it. And, for what it’s worth, this article aligns itself somewhat with Geek Monthly in placing the birth of geekdom (here, “the dawn of the modern Nerd Era”) squarely in the rise of sci-fi media merchandising.

Geeks Now Officially Acceptably Manly

Fellow Annenberg student Moira alerts me that Spike TV’s Guys Choice awards include a category for “Coolest Geek.” The category comes alongside other arguably geeky categories, such as “Naughtiest Cybervixen” and “Most Viral Video,” and of course more expected results such as “Most Unstoppable Jock,” “Biggest Ass Kicker,” and “Cockiest Crew.”

Incidentally, I first tried to access Spike TV’s site using Camino (my default web browser), and got greeted by one of the scantily-clad cybervixens alluded to above. (My friends tell me that this is not really a cybervixen, but just a very airbrushed photo of a woman. This has instilled me with self-doubt. Either way, vixen-like.)

I wonder if the title above should have actually read “Men Now Officially Acceptably Geeky.” I’ll get back to you on that one.

Update: Kotaku alerts me that Heroes star Masi Oka won the “coolest geek” award. I’m impressed that they did pick a pretty genuine geek: according to a recent Wired interview, Oka is constantly trying to sneak comic book and anime references into his lines, and he also programmed visual effects software for Industrial Light and Magic.

Tellingly, though, “Game With the Most Game” went to Madden NFL ’07. As Kotaku points out, “The only other contender was World of Warcraft (which, don’t get me wrong, is a popular game, but most of the award categories were geared towards the FHM genre, so I’m not sure it had a fighting chance).”

For the social and cultural researchers out there, also feel free to check out what Kotaku readers have to say about Spike TV and the encroachment of “jocks” in their arena.