From the Floor of CES

Yesterday I was walking through the exhibitors’ booths in the Sands hotel in Las Vegas, carrying a colorful box with large, plastic toys inside. The toys—a giveaway by Cartoon Network to promote a new show—had been distributed at a panel I attended in the morning on “new frontiers of play.” The charmingly bizarre design aesthetic prompted me to take one, unsure of what I would do with it later, so I had to lug it around for a few hours.

Somewhere near the life-size toy Halo guns and the “Air Guitar Hero” booth, a woman gasped with delight upon seeing the box under my arm. “Where did you get this?” she asked. She seemed East Asian, somewhere between her late 20s and mid 30s.

I explained which room the toys were at, and said there were probably many left, based on how fast they were being taken. “Are you a collector?” I asked.

“No,” she said, still smiling, “I have a three-year-old who would love this, though.”

Though they are both comparably large conventions that look pretty similar from the show floor, the Consumer Electronics Show is very different from Comic Con International. This was my favorite example illustrating this point, but it’s certainly not the most extreme example. I’ll be writing about this (and some other recent research excursions) once I get back home to Philadelphia this week. In the meantime, go check out the still ongoing conversation about geek music which I blogged about the other day. I just realized there’s a whole second page (and maybe more) of posts which I completely missed, so I need to return to that soon, too.

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.)

Checking in from Paris

I arrived in Paris yesterday, after about two weeks in Lisbon. I will miss Lisbon’s tile and cobblestone, hilly streets that challenge those of San Fracisco, humble strangers who speak more English than they think they do, and especially our hosts from Universidade Católica Portuguesa. For more info and for images of our visit to the Presidential Palace, see the page for the Annenberg Scholars Program and the official page of the President of Portugal (photos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Photo #6 features the whole group, and photo #4 has a closer shot of me and Mike (my roommate here in Paris) with the First lady.

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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.

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.

What Sparked the Birth of Geek Culture?

The question posed in this post’s title has been at the center of a debate I’ve been having lately. This person, whose opinion I generally value greatly, suggests that “geek culture” as a concept didn’t exist prior to the 1980s; it was born, he suggests, out of the credibility accorded to geeks through their mastery of digital media. Therefore, digital media should be considered at the heart of geek culture as a whole. From my perspective, I do think that digital media have been key in transforming what we know as geek culture, but I have some reservations about the line of reasoning that places such media as the initiator of this culture in the first place.

Continue reading “What Sparked the Birth of Geek Culture?”