| At the Corner of Technology and Culture

More on Games from Spark

Further to Thursday’s post, this week’s episode of Spark is a repeat from last season. It’s a special theme issue on games, and it was one of our favourites from last year. You can listen online here, or subscribe to the podcast. Thanks!

Games People Play

Image Referring to the Use of Games in Everyday Life
Gamification” is a huge buzz term these days. It refers to the use of games and game mechanics to all sorts of tasks, including those we don’t normally think of as fun, such as chores or public policy outcomes. The popularity of video games shows us that people will engage in focused activity – even if it isn’t in itself ‘fun’ – if it’s structured around principles such as challenge and reward, tension and release, levelling up, and effective feedback. It not only helps people achieve goals, but can also lead to deeper understanding, thanks to the immersive power of games.

Technology Review points to an intriguing example of this immersive power in action with Spent, a game designed to show players what it’s like to live in poverty. Personally, I’ve experienced the emotional power of this sort of immersion in a game called Loneliness. It’s a simple, minimalist game that takes you through what it feels like to be socially isolated – shunned. It actually brought tears to my eyes. Its emotional power is especially intriguing because it’s so simple…abstract, even. It suggests that we don’t need sophisticated graphics or ‘realistic’ games to tap into their immersive potential. These games have tremendous power to teach empathy.

Games are powerful tools. Gamification does leave me with some questions, though. Where is the line between making the most out of the human response to games on one hand, and manipulating people on the other? If we are in some sense hard wired to respond to games, does this mean that using games to ‘get’ people to eat their veggies, say, amounts to a sort of denial of individual choice? Traditionally, art is the way that we develop and refine our sense of empathy. Literature and theatre can put us in someone else’s shoes. Is there something about the subtlety of other arts that we miss in the abstracted world of games? Finally, I know that whenever we talk about gamification to achieve goals like education on Spark, I hear from people who are disturbed by the idea, primarily in a moral sense. The objection is generally that life isn’t always fun, and kids ought to learn to accomplish goals for reasons other than the rewards of successful game play. So, what if we are able to make virtually any task game-like? After all, game designer, Jane McGonigal has even made recovering from a head injury into a game. Is there something else that we are sacrificing in gamification, and what is that something?

The Sniffer, Oct. 7th, 2011: Trends in Publishing and Niche Subscriptions

The latest episode of The Sniffer, my podcast with Cathi Bond, is up. This time we talk about the hard questions any author interested in self-publishing needs to ask, and I look at a couple of examples of niche subscription services as a way of selling scarce goods in a digital economy. You can listen below, or hop over to The Sniffer to find links to stories and more.
Sni-2011-10-07 by nora3000

First Spark of the New Season

Today, we launch season five(!) of Spark, my CBC radio broadcast/podcast. You can listen to it online here, or subscribe to the podcast.

The Sniffer Launches!

My podcasting pal, Cathi Bond, and I have launched the new season of our trendwatching podcast, The Sniffer. We began way back in 2005, and we’re still enjoying it. We’ve also pegged quite a few long range trends in our time. You can listen below, or at The Sniffer website, where you’ll also find links to the stories we talk about.
Sni-2011-09-09 by nora3000

Network Analysis and Privacy

There’s a great article in The Economist’s latest Technology Quarterly, called Untangling the Social Web.  It’s about how the field of network analysis looks at the behaviour of people in terms of the trails of data exhaust they leave behind, but not as individuals.  Rather, it considers the behaviour of people within their social context.  For example, by studying the pattern of phone calls made by telco customers, network analysis can determine who is an ‘influencer’, and hence more likely to get friends and relatives to change telcos when they do.  If you can tell who the influencers are among your customers, you can offer them better deals, thus ensuring fewer lost customers.

Leaving aside the question of how we non-influential misanthropes might feel about formalizing this two-tiered structure of clients, what I find fascinating is the way it refocuses how we need to think about the boundaries of privacy.  Often, we think about privacy in terms of the content of our information.  In this case, though, it’s not that companies are tracking who amongst their clients is saying things like “hey I think you should by stock in company x,y,z” or searching their client base to find out who have important jobs; rather they’re tracking the pattern of calls:  calls made late at night, length of calls, etc, and making inferences about the social relations that underlie those patterns.

Nothing To Do With Anything

This has nothing really to do with technology and culture, just an image I love from my recent trip to Sicily.  It’s the duomo in the Ortygia island part of the city of Siracuse.  It was built in the 7th century, on top of, and incorporating, the much earlier Temple of Athena (5th c BCE).  Such a meditative, spare, space, after all the fabulosity of the Sicilian baroque architecture throughout the south of the island.

Yes, That’s Right, It’s a New Post

A while back, I visited experimental architect, Philip Beesley, in his studio in Toronto’s west end.  I went to talk to him about the enormous, beautiful, installation piece he’s taking to the Venice Biennale of Architecture, representing Canada.  It’s a remarkable work, called Hylozoic Ground.  You can see some images here.  Hylozoism was the concept that everything contained some sort of life force, and this is reflected in Philip’s work metaphorically.  He’s working in the area of ‘responsive architecture,’ where structures can change or move in response to external, environmental conditions, or in response to the way the people within the space are using it.

What I love about Philip’s work is the way he’s breaking down the hard line between the built and the natural environment, creating spaces that are permeable, changeable, and, well, responsive.  As we humans start to generate more data about where we are, and how we are using the space around us (for example, with our GPS-enabled phones, we ‘check in’ at locations) will we be able to provide buildings with more information about us, and how we want to use the space?  You can imagine a future in which architecture, the environment, and us, are all in a loop of information and response to that information.

Anyhoo, if you’re curious about Beesley’s thoughts, my interview with him on Spark is here

How Soon Is Now?

Sending a note to yourself in the future is nothing new.  We’ve long called a voicemail message to home, or made use of some of the many ‘send me a message in the future’ online services, such as Future Me.  Consider, though, (via Crunchbase).  The premise is that you can message yourself, or others in your social network, at a specific time, up to 50 years in the future.  Your mother (provided she’s in your social network) could message you five years from now with updated reminders to make sure you’re getting enough protein.   The project imagines such uses as a parent sending messages to a child in the future, when that child is the same age as the sender is now.  Another feature lets you sort of future blog, where you write things that will be read in the future. (Don’t we always write things that will be read in the future?) Or you can use the post-mortem feature, to send messages after you’re dead.

I actually had to spend a fair bit of time looking at it to figure out whether it was ironic, an art project, or a serious social networking cum messaging service.  Such is the nature of our time-shifting existence that I find it increasingly difficult, really and truly, to tell whether something is A/completely absurd or B/ a great idea.  Is this of a piece, say, leaving a letter with a lawyer to be read after you’re dead? Or is a difference in kind….a sort of proto-time travel?

Everyone Loves a Zombie

Fox News (yes, I know) is reporting that a digital road sign in Austin, Texas was hacked recently. The impish hackers changed the sign to read “Zombies Ahead”. Heh, zombies. says that:

“According to the blog, some commercial road signs, including those manufactured by IMAGO’s ADDCO division, can be easily altered because their instrument panels are frequently left unlocked and their default passwords are not changed.”

The speculation is that it was the work of university students, which is the digital equivalent of drunkenly stealing a street sign for the dorm room.

In addition to reminding me to watch L.A. Story and Land of the Dead again, it made me think about what happens when digital information is more widely dispersed among our real, physical environment. Will it take the ‘true-for-now’ tendency of the web out into the wild?




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