A soft return

After quite a long hiatus, I’m tentatively back. I’ve been working on a dissertation project, and I thought it would be fun and useful and interesting to revive my old thesis blog. Regaining access was actually trickier than I expected, but that’s all sorted out (hey nerds please update your two-factor authenticators and make sure to keep backup codes in a safe place even if you’ve moved, yanno, like four times since).

Personal updates: I’m basically ABD at this point and teaching an online class, and I’ve gotten kicked in the face with various medical issues that I kinda let pile up. So now I’m kicking them in the face this year. Which makes work a bit slow. Which makes me feel bad, which makes me work slower, etc etc. It’s not a great cycle and I think having this space to talk about my research informally will help me figure out who I am as a scholar and who I want to be. Anyway. I’ll probably update my CV page sometime, and maybe link to some publications I have (who, me?).

I don’t necessarily want to commit to posting regularly…but maybe I ought to. Let’s say once a week, maybe on Wednesdays? I’ll see how I feel this week. ūüôā

On playing the big bad spider: Elise

League of Legends¬†features a champion known as¬†Elise, the spider queen. Yes, that’s her actual in-game title. I have a lot of happy memories associated with Elise, even though she has fallen out of favor lately and I’ve been playing her less. I began playing¬†League¬†on the patch in which Elise was released, and picked her up as my second champion (after Mundo, who is bae). I’ve always had a soft spot for her as a champion, and have recently been trying to build her in a relatively unorthodox way¬†(if you’re a LoL person we can talk more about this).

Elise’s schtick is that she can transform between human and spider forms, and therefore has access to a greater variety of spells than most other champions. Elise is not unique in this; I can think of Nidalee and Jayce who also transform between ranged and melee forms.

Elise has three¬†skins which allow her to appear slightly differently. In the image below, the picture on the top left is Elise’s default appearance, and the other three are the alternates. The picture on¬†the top right represents a skin that was given as a reward for achieving a high level in ranked play (Championship Elise).
All four (including the base) skins for EliseElise is also described as an archetypal femme fatale/black widow, and her basic character design supports this. From her lore:

Elise’s entrancing beauty and grace conceal the pitiless, black heart of a deadly predator. With ruthless cunning, she lures the unsuspecting with promises of favor from the spider god. Having exchanged her humanity to become something far more sinister, Elise sacrifices the innocent to maintain her power and seemingly eternal youth. No one can fathom how many have been caught in her web, slain to feed her insatiable hunger.

Biggest Pet Peeve: Despite the fact that she correctly has eight legs and that some of her skills depict this, one image for one skill depicts a spiderling with six legs. ūüė¶

Image Courtesy Riot Games

Image Courtesy Riot Games

Elise is an example of a spidery champion designed to be vaguely terrifying. If we look at an interview with some of the designers, we can see that they intended to tap into a widespread cultural arachnophobia. In fact, some of the designers suffered from this same arachnophobia:

When our animation director RiotBamDragon goes over animations for review, he looks at everything for little fixes. I found it weird that he only had suggestions for the female-form, when he’s usually more comprehensive with feedback. I quickly realized that he never looked at the spider form because he’s terrified of spiders. “The spider’s fine. Spider’s fine. Just ship it.” I asked him, “Did you even look at the spider?” “Yeah, I’m sure it’s fine,” he hastily replied.

– “Inside Design: Weaving the Spider Queen¬ís Web,” Post to Riot Forums, 19 October 2012 (Retrieved 10 June 2015)

In fact, the designers mention having to put effort into editing Elise’s design in order to make her less scary to view and play.¬†Mike “ohmikegoodness” Laygo, ¬ĖSenior Animator, says in that same interview, “I had to de-creepify her a bunch …¬†reduce a lot of the twitchiness because it was just too frightening and unnerving.” Similarly,¬†Mark “Riot G Mang” Sassenrath,¬Ė Game Analyst, remembers,¬†“She actually became too scary, so we had to tone it down.” Despite comments like these, it is clear that being terrifying is part of Elise’s character design; perhaps the real challenge was making her scary without being unplayable.

As a side note, one thing that emerged from that interview was a meditation on the challenges of cross-cultural design. Sassenrath mentions in an aside that “something that I didn’t know was that arachnophobia is pretty much a uniquely western phenomenon. In China, for instance, there isn’t the widespread association between spiders and scary that we have here.” Designing a game for a worldwide audience makes some of these culturally-specific fears apparent, waggling an eyebrow at¬†socialization as a means of intensifying a small fright.

On playing the big, bad spider: Overview

This post is a follow-up to an earlier post where I outlined the problem of spider representation in popular culture. Here, I will give an overview of all of the (digital, mostly) games where you can play as a spider, or that feature spider protagonists. There will be a few examples where I stretch the concept of protagonist to include what I see as meaningful representation. List presented in no particular order (release dates in parentheses, but note that many of these games have regular updates):

  • League of Legends¬†(2009), a popular online multiplayer game, where you can play as Elise, the Spider Queen. Elise has a human form and a spider form. In¬†League of Legends, you control a single champion¬†from a third-person view (Elise is one of many champions).
  • In both DOTA (2003)¬†and DOTA 2¬†(2013), you have the opportunity to play as Black Arachnia, the¬†Broodmother. Like¬†League of Legends (the original¬†DOTA¬†mod was the inspiration for many MOBAs), you control your character from a third-person perspective. Unlike¬†League of Legends, you can control multiple units at once. The Broodmother spawns spiderlings out of the corpses of her enemies; these spiderlings are also controllable.
  • In Don’t Starve¬†(2013), which has single-player and multiplayer capability (as of June 2015 with the release of¬†Don’t Starve Together), you can choose to play as Webber. Webber is a boy who was eaten by a spider‚ÄĒit’s complicated, but Webber is effectively a spider-human hybrid with an affinity for spiders.¬†Don’t Starve also has the player control one character from a third-person perspective.
  • In¬†Arachnophilia¬†(2008), a free online flash game hosted on a variety of sites, you control a spider trying to build an effective web. Insects fly through your web, and depending on the insect, are either caught or break your web. Different insects provide you with extra stats or do more damage. It’s a cute flash game about web-building, although the interface could be smoother.
  • The card game¬†Hearthstone¬†(2014) features a few spider cards, although it’s debatable whether they count for this. In¬†Hearthstone¬†you play as a hero and then play minions (cards), and there isn’t really a spider hero. I’m arguing that since they’re your minions they count as protagonists for the purposes of this post‚ÄĒalthough it’s definitely possible that I’m just swayed by the cute spider tank. Look at it!
  • That’s all I can think of, although I’m sure there are some oversights here. I’m pretty confident that there are a number of board or card games with spiders (Betrayal at House on the Hill seems particularly suited to this), but I haven’t played them or played those scenarios so I can’t say. Feel free to comment and point me towards additions to the list!

On meeting the big bad spider

From a discussion on twitter (see this link for an anchor to the discussion), I am inspired to¬†make a post about a subject I’ve thought about for a long time: spiders in games (and other cultural artifacts).

Part of why I’m writing this post is to interrogate why exactly spiders are featured as monsters and villains so often. Western popular culture is full of mythic villain spider figures, and some of these are detailed in Michalski and Michalski (2010)¬†if you’d like to explore this archetype. Other cultures include vampire-like spiders, like the JorŇćgumo (ÁĶ°śĖįŚ©¶) of Japanese legend who seduce and kill men (not coincidentally, this word colloquially refers to several species in¬†Argiope and Nephilia, known for their striking webs and coloring). The trickster Anansi, whose stories were first told among¬†the Ashanti, usually appears as a spider. It is important to note that like many trickster figures, Anansi is not quite good and not quite bad‚ÄĒbut always clever. A very different sense of spiders comes out of a story I grew up hearing, although infrequently, details the spider responsible for saving Muhammed’s life when he was hiding in a cave: she spun a web over the mouth of the cave and the searchers passed it by (spiders have a small measure of respect because of this myth). This list is by no means exhaustive.

Here, we must first take a short detour and think about Tolkien (as perhaps the originator of much of what passes for fantasy these days). In Middle-Earth, giant spiders (including Shelob, so don’t nerd out at me and say she doesn’t count) are evil, horrific aberrations, who want only to kill and eat what they find. Shelob happily exists on the border of Mordor, and she is never shown as having interiority or a sense of self. She is just a big bad. It’s not surprising that most high fantasy treats spiders the same way. Anything vaguely arachnid is bad, especially if it’s also magic and also giant. I’m not going to veer into literature too much, but I will list a few examples:

  • R.A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels (based on a Dungeons and Dragons setting and inspiration for some of the Bioware Forgotten Realms games!) depict the drow living in service to their goddess Lloth, the spider queen. For all intents and purposes, the drow are evil, spiders are also evil, and the morality imposed by living according to spider rules is bad. (Yes, it’s kind of reductive…luckily there’s a lot to work with within these extremes and thus role-playing can be entertaining.)
  • Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels (featuring feminist heroes like Alanna, Kel, and Daine!) include an immortal race known as spidren, giant furry spiders with human faces (I’ve never quite understood how exactly this is supposed to work…magic?). Most other immortal races are given the benefit of ambiguous morality, or even of members¬†who exemplify goodness‚ÄĒanyone else remember Rikash Moonsword, the stormwing? No spidrens are ever named (unless things have changed since 2005 or so), and none of them are shown to speak. They are violent: according to the wikia, which I visited to get that link for Rikash, they are “intractably vicious.”
  • Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series, in the second book, features a race of Weavers who hate giant bugs almost as much as the mammals¬†hate giant bugs (n.b., this series is incredibly bizarre). This example is a bit of a switch-and-bait, because it’s actually one of the relatively positive depictions of spiders; giant spider warriors are terrifying and led by a queen (who resembles a black widow and wants to mate with and eat the protagonist??), but they also end up allying themselves with the mammals to save the world.¬†Soooooo….
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Aragog‚ÄĒI mean, Chamber of Secrets. Need I say more? OK OK, giant talking spider with hundreds of spawn who want to eat Harry and his best pal Ron. He helps out, first, though, which I guess makes it okay. (I’m not even going to start nitpicking about how Aragog is long-lived and stuff but is male…)

Some of these¬†examples, and many more, can be found on the exhaustive TV Tropes page for “Giant Spider,”¬†which I found as a result of googling the Weavers from Spellsinger. This page also has a subcategory for “Tabletop Games” and one for “Video Games.” (So my work here is done, right? Right?)

Naw,¬†my work is¬†not done, and let me tell you exactly why. These lists are great (no seriously, I learned a lot just by glancing at it), but they don’t do two things: 1) they don’t tell us why this convention keeps propagating, and 2) they don’t feature games where you can play as a spider. Even with some beneficial giant spiders, we still don’t have a sense of the interiority of spiders. As the TV Tropes page for “Giant Spider” says, “[t]hey usually have little personality, beyond vague malevolence.” That said, I’m in no way arguing that spiders have demonstrated a sense of self or anything, but some species¬†have been shown to exhibit personality traits (Jackson et al., 2002 ($); Holbrook et al., 2014 ($)).¬†And creators throughout history have endowed all sorts of things and creatures with personalities‚ÄĒhow many candelabras do you personally know that can talk? Why is it that this creative license seems to falter in the face of an overwhelming, learned, social stigma against spiders?

I could speculate about this, and I have. But I don’t want to leave you with answers, I want to leave you with that one question, and hopefully, if you make something in the future, you’ll consider the spiders.

(They’re way cool, really.)

Part 2 of this post might involve me actually listing or critiquing some games where you play as spiders, and no, Spiderman doesn’t count…stay tuned!

On counting the uncountable

For many game scholars, archival material means either old game platforms, old games, or occasionally, old game ephemera such as magazines or fan sites. For many digital archivists, archival material means technical data and metadata about software. What about when the two collide? Do game logs‚ÄĒnot even replays or recordings but the barely readable logs‚ÄĒhave archival value?

I ask this because for the past two days I’ve been working on a small python program to extract information from the League of Legends¬†logs on my computer. The reason I started this in the first place was because it bothered me that I didn’t have a way to know how many total games I’ve played with a given champion. There are several good web tools out there for grabbing gameplay data like champions played, win-rate, items built, etc. These tools allow players to look back at their games¬†and to correlate performance with choices of champion, item, team, or role. For example, most of these tools include a “most played champions” visualization with win and loss statistics (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Screenshot from OP.GG's landing page for myself. Search performed on 19 December 2014.

Figure 1: Screenshot from OP.GG‘s landing page for myself. Search performed on 19 December 2014.

In May¬†2014, Riot Games introduced their new Match History site¬†(link goes to my own match history) for recording much of this information, and it’s extremely comprehensive. The history stored only goes back to the introduction of this tool, however, and prior history has been lost. In addition, Riot has not decided how long this information will live on their servers. According to a blog post introducing the new Match History site,¬†Riot planned to store games for a year (FAQ, “How long will games be saved?”). This match history, like many of the other web tools, is not supposed to be a time capsule of gameplay. Rather, it serves the purposes of current players, by visualizing their games and presenting statistics conducive to improvement.

Unfortunately, most of these tools were created to help players with their ranked gameplay. Thus, the gameplay data collected have to do mainly with ranked games, and secondarily with other modes¬†such as normal (Summoner’s Rift). While this is great for most players, it normalizes a form¬†of play to the exclusion of others. I do not play ranked, and rarely play normal (Summoner’s Rift) games. The vast majority of my games are ARAM (All Random All Mid, a “fun” game mode on Howling Abyss) and bot games (Co-op vs. AI, not PvP). We can get into the reasons for this another time, but suffice it to say that when I use these tools to examine my own performance, I get misleading or even just plain wrong results (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The same module on Elophant, another web tool for performance stats. Note the lack of champions due to lack of data.

Figure 2: The same module on Elophant, another web tool for performance stats. Note the lack of champions due to lack of data. Search performed on 19 December 2014.

So how could I fix this problem?

How can I count the games that don’t count?

Part of the answer lay in a web tool that I have used to great success, Logs of Lag¬†(“a League of Legends netlog analyzer”). This tool allows you to drag and drop a single network log file into your browser, and outputs a graph visualizing your ping and your packet loss during the game. It also evaluates your average ping and packet loss and identifies whether your connection is good or bad. It’s clean, simple to use, well-designed (it even tells you exactly how to find these network logs) and useful. Logs of Lag pays homage to another, now defunct tool, called LoL Parse (Internet Archive link due to the whole defunct thing). Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have used LoL Parse exactly once, many months ago when it was announced, and I loved it. For the first time, this was a performance analyzer that took my performance seriously. It was fascinating to see how many times I played certain champions, and whether there were any patterns that I could unlock. I understood why people gravitated to web tools like the aforementioned OP.GG and Lolking. I wish I had saved the results of the analysis.

I didn’t articulate these feelings at the time, but the fact that I’ve thought about this tool multiple times in the intervening months should say a lot. Perhaps it was only through writing my program and digging through this material and getting inspiration from extant tools that I was able to understand why it meant something to me. Clearly, it did. I wouldn’t have taken a day of coding (and I’m not the most experienced coder, especially in Python…) if it wasn’t important. So then the question becomes, why is it meaningful to count the games that don’t count?

Part of that answer lies in a term that I discovered due to a proposed workshop at the iConference next March: “trace ethnography.” The organizers of this workshop describe it as analyzing “trace data” as evidence of engagement with information systems. In my case, it would mean analyzing these highly technical game logs as evidence of my engagement with¬†League of Legends as a player. Hopefully, I’ll know much more about “trace ethnography” in March. I think it has a lot to add to current methods for new media studies, although I personally have a big question. How is trace ethnography any different from archival research? If the researchers who embrace and develop this method believe in a fundamental difference between “automatic” traces generated by information systems, and “hand-drawn” (lol manuscript) traces created in the context of an institution, then I don’t think I can get behind it.

First of all, canonical archives are in many ways equivalent to the data archives containing this trace data. According to foundational archival theorists like Schellenberg or Jenkinson, archival material is necessarily evidence of the functioning of a process. Archival material consists of the log files of governments, schools, corporations, and other organizations. Second of all, the creation of trace data is never¬†removed from social and historical context. For example, my folder containing these log files is massive. My friends, who play¬†League on Windows (I play on Mac), have much smaller log files. This isn’t due to some automatic thing where the Mac client just logs more information than the Windows client, absent any human involvement. Instead, we must understand that the Mac client is newer and less-well-developed, that the Mac client is in fact still in beta, that the Mac client crashes more often due to this, and that the developers introduced more error checking into the logs because they were aware of the nature of the software. In all cases, the reason for the file size difference is that people decided to record more information about a system in order to better understand it. Trace data are never neutral.

That aside, I’m super excited for this workshop (which I suppose means I should apply for real and include some of this). I think the concept of “trace ethnography” could benefit from conversation with archival theory and practice, and I would like to see that conversation happen and maybe even be part of it. Moreover, my work with this stupid little parser forced me to crystallize my own understanding of what trace ethnography could be.

So far, the parser’s functionality is limited to identifying names of champions that the summoner whose computer it is has played. The logs, however, contain a crapton of information beyond this. They list the summoner names (equivalent to usernames) of all players on the team. They list the champions used by said summoners. They identify the skin used, and the team. All that, in one line! (See code tag below for an example of this line from one of my many log files.)

Spawning champion (Ahri) with skinID 0 on team 200 for clientID 9 and summonername (morbidflight) (is HUMAN PLAYER)

The log files also contain information about in-game events like player character deaths. Finally, the log files contain information about events that are invisible to the player, like errors in loading certain assets.

Figure 3: Image of part of the game logs. In this game, the client apparently failed to load an asset for Yasuo's wind wall skill.

Figure 3: Image of part of the game logs. In this game, the client apparently failed to load an asset for Yasuo’s wind wall skill.

If we attempt to take these log files seriously as evidence of play, we have to acknowledge that these log files can represent the course of a game in a way that runs orthogonal to most players’ experience. We don’t see the matrix, but we play in it. The log files, however, record traces of events that act as engagement points for the player. A log file might record a series of disconnect-reconnect cycles, and the player instantly remembers how frustrating that experience was, even if they don’t recall the particular event. Log files present information intended for use by developers, but usable by archivists and scholars of games. As far as I know, no one working in game preservation has argued for storing log files instead of game recordings or game platforms, although I’ll continue with my provocative trend and say that if I can have a 3 gb folder with over 1,400 logs in it corresponding to 1351 games played, that’s more useful than massive video files for each game. After all, digital games are interactions with code. If the log files store some of the subjective experience of that interaction, or even store anchors to that subjective experience, then might that not be enough?

By the way, according to my own parser, I’ve played 87 games as Dr. Mundo on this computer (which I’ve had since around February/March). I think it’s safe to say I like the champion. What was surprising, however, was that I had 82 games played as Nami. I hadn’t realized that I played the two nearly the same number of times (again, only within the past nine months). My parser was able to tell me something I didn’t expect, and something that I could never¬†see from using the web tools. I’d count that a success.

Home, sweet home.

This month’s Blogs of the Round Table is on homes in games, a topic I’ve thought about for years. Read other blogs on the same topic by following the links in that post.

At first, when I read the inspiration/solicitation/prompt, I thought about Minecraft. Minecraft is for building things; if you want to get a sense of what people do when given the tools and time, check out the top posts on the r/minecraft subreddit. Most of these, I can’t look at without gasping (or wondering why the hell people do this).

Since picking it up again a few months ago, I’ve made many homes, most of which I shared with other people. What can I say, I like designing and building a space for myself and for people I care about. In Minecraft, I tend towards a type of architecture best characterized as Hobbit Holes: I dig into features in the landscape, and hollow out rooms for myself. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and I don’t follow a pattern. I just carve out space to suit my fancy.

There was this one time on a server I shared with a few friends, and I basically created an underground island base by digging. The only above-ground bits were two structures, one of which was a basic shelter/harbor (because who doesn’t want a pool of water in their entrance hall?) and the other ended up becoming a giant obsidian spider (thanks creative mode). Over the course of several weeks, I just dug, and built, and dug, and built. You can see the resulting change of landscape in the three minimap images below from screenshots I took in summer 2014, and get a sense of the visible (and invisible) structures.

I am not writing this post to show off my giant obsidian spider, though. Perhaps the most important lesson from the above anecdote is one for myself: though I claim to abhor an industrialized building style in Minecraft, I still end up doing significant violence to the landscape. There’s no way that spider is natural. There’s no way that shelter is natural. But what is even natural in the world of Minecraft?

I mean, take blocks, the foundation of the game. The placement of blocks in Minecraft is procedural, except for the involvement of players or (some) hostile mobs. When I destroy a block and place it elsewhere, this feels unnatural to me, unlike the game’s block generation or the interference of mobs. Those are natural. Things created by code, and things molded by code, are natural in this cybernetic landscape.¬†Meanwhile, the rhetoric of free will allows me to claim that my adjustments to the world in Minecraft are unnatural and unrelated to code. I dig hobbit holes because I work with the space I have, I say. I dig hobbit holes because the houses I build aren’t on a grid, I claim. I dig hobbit holes because what I am doing is human, unique, flawed, and unnatural.

Cows are very natural. Cows coming through solid wood doors are also very natural.

Cows are very natural. Cows coming through solid wood doors are also very natural. Screenshot mine.

When¬†the fuck did that¬†association happen? Imperfection generated in a replicable way (procedural generation) is natural, but imperfection generated by human involvement, and generally not replicable, is unnatural. What I’m doing with this association is coding my interaction with the game space as violence, as unnatural, as artificial, as conscious creation.

But it’s been a pet peeve of mine for many years to take structures like anthills created by non-human animals, call them natural, and then turn around and call a city unnatural. Either the product of living creatures is natural, or it isn’t. There’s no reason why technology can’t be natural. I could give a repetitive lecture on the rise of the pastoral in conjunction with industrialized society (try reading anything from like 1660 to 1900), but I’ll abstain, because this isn’t college. This is me wondering what it means to make things in a generated landscape in a game created by a team of people. What it means to be a person, and have a conversation with other people, through the process of creation. What it means to find something like home in that.

Homes don’t come pre-fabricated, we have to make them into homes. And in so doing, we do violence to the environment around us. I could idealize some non-conventional life philosophy that advocates living in harmony with the environment and sleeping under trees, and sure, I know there are some people and traditions who work like that. The whole world is home, because home feels right and being in the world is right. My approach to what makes a home (something set apart from nature, created, unnatural) is heavily influenced by Western cultural traditions. It’s interesting to see these traditions continued in virtual space, though not surprising; virtual space¬†is cultural space. In Minecraft, for instance, you cannot sleep through the night without using a bed that someone has crafted. It is impossible to sleep without having changed the world around you. There are no soft patches of moss, no convenient trees, no rocks under your hip to poke into you at night. Sleep is comfort, and more importantly, sleep means no monsters to terrify you. It’s true, you don’t need to sleep to succeed in the game, and I’ve gone long periods of time in games without ever crafting a bed. But by and large, the game expects you to have a bed: sleeping in a bed makes the night pass quicker, prevents the spawning of hostile mobs, and resets your spawn point to near the bed. Beds are extremely good and cool.

Beds are good and cool and also apparently have super high pillows.

Beds are good and cool and also apparently have super high pillows. Screenshot mine.

Beds are also perfect crystallizations of an ideology at the heart of Minecraft: survival means taking things around you and making them into things that you can’t find. Survival, and gameplay.

The best part is, I wanted to get all of that out so I could talk about the Anvil house in Oblivion, which to this day feels like home even though the computer I played on is a decrepit husk and the save files are on some hard drive. The way that homes work in Elder Scrolls games is weird, and quite capitalistic. You have to buy your home after the person in charge of its town likes you enough. Returning to an earlier point, these homes do come pre-fabricated and you can even buy upgrades and DLC.

The house in Anvil (Benirus Mansion) is a bit different, though,¬†because you have to complete a quest after buying it in order to transform it into a safe place. I’d normally say spoilers here, but really? It’s a game that came out in 2006. You’ve either already played it, or you probably won’t play it. So on to the spoiler: the house is haunted, and you need to complete a quest in order to make the ghosts go away. You don’t know about the ghosts until after sleeping in the house, but they will attack you when they appear (so here’s hoping you can defeat them!). Ghosts keep spawning when you enter the house until you complete a quest and defeat Lorgren Benirus’ undead Lich, giving you a book and a staff and an awesome house.

My house, but not my house. Thanks to the user Nutter in this forum thread for posting an image of the Anvil house: http://forums.hexus.net/gaming/168356-oblivion-iv-im-stuck.html#post1747402

My house, but not my house. Thanks to the user Nutter in this forum thread for posting an image of the Anvil house: http://forums.hexus.net/gaming/168356-oblivion-iv-im-stuck.html#post1747402

For some reason, when I played Oblivion, I fell in love with this house even during the ghost incidents. It’s green, and Anvil is a harbor city on the southern coast, and the house is full of light‚ÄĒthese make sense to me as things I want in a home. To this day, thinking of the afternoon light streaming through the bedroom window in this¬†house brings me peace. I know the scale of this house intimately, know when to jump to skip up the stairs and when to turn and close a door. All that, despite the fact that it’s a house created anew with every new playthrough of the game. Despite the fact that it’s not something I made, and not something I can ever make.

All this, because for however many hours I sank into Oblivion, I lived in that house. That house was home.

AIVAS’ legacy for digital archiving

Edited to note: there’s a fun discussion happening on Twitter about this. Should clarify, I definitely believe in the point of digital preservation, I just think I’ve moved away from archaeological perspectives and more towards “inheritance” (thanks Joel).

So when I was younger, I read Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series somewhat obsessively. Some of the books, I loved to bits (Moreta), and some I was less fond of (The White Dragon). But on the whole, Pern and its world, spanning several thousand years of human history, were ingrained into my soul. It’s not always obvious how deeply this alignment lies.

More recently, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on archiving and its relationship to technology (intro archives course and a film preservation course) because I’m generally interested in this subject with respect to video and computer games. The general line of thought in these readings is that archiving is an incredibly arduous task, and only more so when the material being archived depends on technology to be accessed. So for example, keeping good quality paper in a stable environment might make it last for up to five hundred years, but that Betamax tape in your closet might not be relevant now – who even has a Betamax player anymore? Anything that gets between the content and the person is another hurdle to jump over in the future, a hurdle that might be insurmountable by the time we decide to go back to the original material.

So! Storytime with morbidflight! Huge spoilers for the Pern series will follow. Early on in the history of Pern, humans from Earth (etc.) colonize the planet and bring their technology with them. Unfortunately, the environment has a few things to say about all this colonization‚ÄĒit’s not very friendly. In the struggle for life, maintaining the old technologies (what we would consider futuristic tech, although computers feature prominently) becomes a lower priority, until eventually, the humans on Pern decide to abandon their computers and fancy machines and return to sustainable ways. We go from a high-tech and quasi-militaristic society to a heavily feudal, very militaristic society with an air force (of DRAGONS). There’s an intriguingly thought-out discussion of what it means to transfer the stores of human knowledge from computers to paper/parchment/analog records, a discussion that I glossed over when I was younger and just reading for the dragons. That’s a lie. I didn’t gloss over it, it just didn’t seem relevant to my daily life.

Until I developed a desire to be an archivist. Well, a wanna-be archivist. I’m currently in a doctoral program in a school of information, focusing on game preservation and theories of preservation in general. And then I started thinking about digital preservation, and what the point of digital preservation is, and I began thinking about examples in books I’ve read where the answer is always in the archives and somehow, miraculously, old technology just needs to be dusted off before being ready for use. In Pern, it’s true, they abandon their computers for paper/musical records, and spend most centuries propagating a narrative history that speaks volumes about real life. Educators teach children songs about the dangers of life on Pern, or about the joys.

There’s this sense of forgotten history, pre-colonization, that lurks in the background of the series. Two thousand years post-colonization, the heroes from the first several novels go digging in the forsaken shadow of a volcano and find a computer system, AIVAS, that teaches them all about humanity’s lost past. It teaches them about all the technologies that their ancestors abandoned and forgot. And it teaches them how to go to the stars and beyond, and everything changes for the people of Pern.

But computers just don’t do that. They don’t go full-on Jurassic Park and revive themselves after centuries spent under volcanic dust. They don’t work perfectly and understand a language that has undergone some serious linguistic shift in the past two thousand years. They don’t last longer than paper and animal skin¬†and myth.

I don’t believe in AIVAS. I think it’s a dangerous dream.

Those are pearls that were his eyes

Part of the reason why I’d been thinking about names and identity and the power of pseudonyms has been because for the past few months I’ve been debating registering a domain (morbidflight.com although I’ve briefly been transfixed by¬†the idea of morbidflig.ht). I finally went ahead and did it today, which means that non-lazy people now have another way of finding my real name (despite the fact that it’s on this blog in at least one instance).

It’ll take a couple days to hammer out the kinks and figure out what I want to do with this, exactly, but I’m glad I did it instead of waffling for another few months/years/decades. There’s a pair of boots I’ve been meaning to buy for the past five years and at this point I don’t even think it’s worth it. That’s the kind of waffling I wanted to avoid. Sometimes, spending money on myself is a good thing.

This is just a quick post to mention that and to suggest, however indirectly, that there might be a sea-change in my online presence. I’ve made a home, now, instead of camping out in the guest rooms of friends. It remains to be seen whether this is as momentous as I made it out to be. (I’m betting not.)

What’s in a name?

I suppose you’ll have noticed by now the quote in the header. I confess this quote was a conveniently apropos quote that I found through a google books search when launching this blog, but has no relation to the process of creating the name by which I identify myself on the internet.

No, that’s a different tale altogether, and I am not simply indulging in narcissistic nostalgia by telling (some of) it. Names have power, especially when they’re names we choose ourselves. Listen, dear reader, and you shall hear.

It should be no surprise (I mean, really, “morbid” is half of this name) that I’m a bit of a baby goth. The colorful clothes throw it off for some people, but when it comes down to it I’m definitely sullen and I’d say emo except emo developed when I was just older than its inhabitants. Back in 2003, when I was barely a teenager and starting a blog, I wrote a poem about myself that included the line “morbid flying in warped dreams.” (Protip: don’t try to google it, it won’t really work.) When I had to think of a username that wasn’t an obvious one, I took the first two words and smashed them together to get morbidflight. It worked, and I’m eternally grateful to my creativity.

So that name, “morbidflight,” comes out of a fairly dark period of my life and more embarrassingly than that, a fairly juvenile one. I don’t claim to have matured significantly in the intervening eleven years (although I hope I have). I’m still morbid(ly)¬†flying¬†through warped dreams. I’m still very much morbidflight. The old blog might not exist where it used to, but it definitely exists on the web. I need a record of my past as much as I need a record of my present.

But the story is never that simple. I’ve believed for a long time that the only reason we believe in consistency of character, of personality, is that we keep the same name. And as a member of the generation that grew up with relatively easy internet access, I understand the value of pseudonymous identities. Yes, plural, identities. I have a name that I use in meatspace with few misgivings, and I’m rather attached to it. I have morbidflight for the internet, and I’m rather attached to that as well. But I’m also someone in a position of developing a professional identity in meatspace that is tightly intertwined with what I do on the interwebs. And therein lies the rub.

What is my name? What does it matter that this group of people defined only by their real-world location calls me by one moniker, while this group of people defined only by their lack of real-world location calls me by another. Why do I care so much about keeping these names, and these identities, separate? These thoughts have been going through my head for several years now, but I think the decision to write these down is in part spurred by a friend’s recent name change (yay, friend). To throw out a spate of offhand metaphors, names are records, names are identifiers, names are choices that we make and choices made for us.

I prefer to make the choice myself, controlling the relationship between my meatspace name and my cyberspace name as best I can. This is why you might see me request to delete something that has my name in it, or fail to see me claim ownership of a thing that has my name in it. I definitely don’t do this as well as I should, or as well as others would expect, but I do it in a way that works for me. It’s not an easy distinction between professional and personal identities; in my case it really feels more like a distinction between meatspace and cyberspace. But I’m professional and personal in both of those spaces‚ÄĒask anyone who’s ever been at¬†a conference with me, or anyone who I visited after getting to know online. And to complicate this further, I go by different pronunciations of my name depending on the country in which I am located and the language I am speaking. In the past year or two, I’ve even started responding¬†to a name used only by a small group of people.

I guess it’s safe to say that I go by many names, all of which correspond to me. Even if it feels a little weird to let people call me “morbid” and leave off the “flight,” that’s a nickname. People say “morbidflight” out loud when they want my attention. Maybe it started out as a name I chose for myself, but now it’s a name that others use for me. I am accountable because I use this name consistently, and accountable because this name corresponds to a story, a telling of my life.

And that’s about what it means to be a name.

Epistemology and research methods

I almost have to post this, because I went on a rant in IRC about the breakdown of research methods across disciplines leading to reinventing the wheel. I am just going to paste the logs because oh god, why not. I changed two usernames because I’m weird and care about privacy on the internet, sometimes. I also fixed one typo, though it was in no way a meaningful typo.

12:26:59 AM <redacted1>: morbidflight: coding?
12:27:11 AM morbidflight: qualitative data, not programming
12:27:12 AM morbidflight: like
12:27:23 AM <redacted2>: night
12:27:24 AM morbidflight: creating a theoretical framework within which to analyze said messy qual data
12:27:27 AM morbidflight: night <redacted2>
12:27:38 AM morbidflight: but doing it from a bunch of reading and categorizing
12:27:46 AM morbidflight: it’s honestly a pretty similar task to classification in general
12:28:21 AM morbidflight: although, and we’ve talked about this before, qualitative researchers don’t tend to talk to the kinds of people who are trained in classification and so that task gets seen as bitch work while coding and qualitative analysis in general is seen as this high-level thing
12:28:40 AM morbidflight: anyway i have a grudge against that because any ontological construct is high-level work and should be recognized as such
12:28:59 AM morbidflight: and understanding the similarities in said work can help ethnographers et al. learn to manage their task in a different way
12:29:00 AM morbidflight: etc
12:29:31 AM morbidflight: yet another example of the segmentation of academic work leading to breakdowns in potential communication and collaboration
12:29:48 AM morbidflight: i mean imagine if you had a hardcore taxonomist on every anthropological team that worked with qual data
12:29:51 AM morbidflight: that’d be pretty swanky
12:30:05 AM morbidflight: i mean you’d have to argue with them about the fundamental principles of organizing knowledge but hey
12:30:14 AM morbidflight: epistemology amirite
12:30:40 AM morbidflight: itt: i care too much about research methods

A long-standing issue of mine is that I see a lot of great theoretical work being done in¬†libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions, and by the people who study them. This work often engages with larger topical debates, such as the entire field of digital humanities (I mean seriously, who other than an information professional are you going to talk to about creating an accessible web-based database of digitized texts?), and yet these larger debates treat this work as “infrastructure” or “the help.” NOT TO MENTION the often gendered breakdown of this labor. I didn’t use the term “bitch work” lightly, above.

On that note, have a look at this article from a few weeks ago that I tweeted on June 6. Infrastructure is what makes it all possible.