Thinking About Live Streams vs. Reality Television

A couple of months ago, I took an intro to communication studies course. It was an interesting overview of the history of the field and how different theories from different fields have impacted the development of journalism. The lectures commenting on reality television really spoke to me because they resonated with my own (rather negative) perception of the genre.

What’s funny is the class itself isn’t what led to my writing this post; it was becoming more aware of just how much of my free time time I spend watching streamed role-playing games, and reading or listening to associated materials created by the cast and fans. Watching these shows is fun for me because the storytelling is imaginative and compelling…and the collaboration is delightfully unpredictable and engaging as the players improv off each other. And we often get to see glimmers of the players’ personal lives and friendships beyond the game, which adds a layer all its own.

Perhaps more importantly, they’re more in-depth, more thoughtful, less manipulative. I suspect if someone took the Critical Role transcripts and ran them through a readbility test, they would score well above any episode transcript for a “reality” show. And no one complains. Some viewers don’t follow so well, but they don’t complain about the level of the storytelling.

Compare this with reality television, where the cast are playing out scenarios with characters who have about as much depth as a perfectly flat piece of paper. I can’t understand why other people find these shows compelling any more than I understand why people find America’s Funniest Home Videos funny. I know there are people who watch these shows because it gives them an artificial sense of superiority. But then some people try to live like reality stars because that’s how people do it on television, or they at the very least expect life to be like reality television…and again, I don’t understand how the lives presented through reality television are something to aspire to.

Competition shows are also reality television, in that there are overly dramatic, completely artificial realities taking place…but somehow watching someone doing their craft seems less slimy than watching people play out completely fictionalized lives no real person would (hopefully) want to live. I can handle competition shows more often than not, if my tendency to fall asleep in front of Food Network has become any sort of indicator. (For clarification, I personally designate shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race in the first group of reality television, and shows like Dancing With the StarsProject Runway, and even American Ninja Warrior in the second group of competition shows.)

I guess it comes as little surprise that I prefer to watch people practicing their craft, and in the case of competition shows push themselves, in improv-adjacent situations.

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Which Olympics Do You Watch?

The Olympics are upon us. I know. I’ve spent a lot of my week working in between speed skating heats and figure skating programs. Good times.

But for some reason, this time around people have decided to make a loud (and completely accurate) scene about how the Olympics are political and corrupt. Yeah, we have a country whose National Olympic Committee (NOC) and rulebreakers are sitting this one out, a country known for score fixing, doping scandals, and all sorts of other underhanded tactics to win (which has always confused me, because their athletes are typically pretty skilled). Countries have called truces to keep their athletes from being banned. And countries have become very good at slapping thick layers of makeup on their human rights violation to be awarded Host City rights. (I about spit out my tea when I heard earlier this week that Beijing is hosting the Winter Games in 2022. Not bad for a country that lost the 1996 and 2000 Summer Games due to human rights violations.)

As a promoter of peace and respect, the International Olympics Committee knows that it’s a temporary situation, gone as soon as the current Games cycle is over. But there are people who enjoy focusing on this aspect of the Olympics, and hating the Olympics…or at least vocally hating them while watching them.

What I really want to know, though, is why people are choosing the game where South Korea and North Korea are putting aside years of hate to work together and to allow the North Korean athletes to participate.

Actually, that’s not true. They’re welcome to focus on the political aspect of the Games.

For me and many others, and certainly for the sports involved, watching the Olympics is about watching these athletes lay it all out there. Everything they’ve worked for over their life, that has consumed every free moment of their life, asking insane sacrifices of them…comes down to a few minutes of performance. To face their nerves, their inner critic, and past demons to show what they have been working toward. In some cases, it’s to compete against someone else who has similarly given up their whole life to pursuing this sport, this level of athletic and competitive fitness, and see who’s having the better day. Sometimes, it’s to be judged by people who most likely haven’t seen what this athlete has done coming in (unless they’re a returning Olympian, or competing in multiple events within their sport) and even more likely have never actually attempted the sport themselves.

From where I sit, it comes from the same space as American Ninja Warrior and pretty much every single performing art out there. People working, often on their own (with the aid of coaches and other crew as needed), to do better than they did the day before. Challenging themselves. Having to take failures as moments to learn and make adjustments. We can sit here for two weeks and attack what goes on behind the scenes (sometimes not so behind the scenes)…or we can take a page from these athletes’ example and find ways to push ourselves to be better every day, to learn from the inevitable mistake, and to reach what might seem like impossible goals.

That’s how things get done.

Revisiting Meaningful Glyphs: Emoji

A few years ago, I wrote a surprisingly popular post on language as a series of meaningful glyphs, citing a cartoon that employed this in a subtle way. At the time, I compared it to learning any language with an alphabet different from yours, because alphabets are a set of glyphs that really only hold meaning or significance to those familiar with the alphabet.

I’ve also written about the more visual (less text-based) language more and more companies are starting to use on their websites and apps that often force the user to determine what the company meant with a particular image. (My favorite to this day is the Archive button in Gmail, which didn’t read as “archive” at all until a mouseover tool tip was added.)

These days, we have the ability to speak entirely in images (if your phone supports it. Mine doesn’t, which may be a good thing.) Once nothing more than a few keystrokes cleverly strung together to look like something (@-,-‘—), emoticons have now graduated to a growing series of little images. Emoticons are still in use and have their place, but they’re often rendered into little graphical faces. It’s now all about the emoji.

As I mentioned, my phone doesn’t natively support emojis, and that’s probably for the best. Because for all my love of staring at foreign alphabets, emoji often don’t translate for me. A friend posts a row of images containing a car, a tree, and a wine glass, and I have no idea if she’s off on a wine-tasting trip in a nearby town in the woods, or if she is trying to relax with a glass of wine after wrapping her car around a tree.

Emoji aren’t just an alphabet; they’re a graphical language. It becomes more difficult to understand what the person leaving the message wanted people to know, because an emoji may mean one thing to one person and something else to a different person, or a person may use the emoji to mean one thing in one context and another in a different context.

It’s a whole new level of language that opens itself to more creative expression while at the same time failing to simplify communication between speakers. And it’s a bit too much for this girl. Sorry. But it is interesting to watch it it play out.

Storytelling Through Artifacts

When I was in grad school, we had an assignment where we had to create a lesson plan around an artifact. I had been teaching in museums for several years at that point, so I had experience teaching with and through artifacts. But we also had the Summer Solstice party coming up.

That spring, I had gotten into a bit of a mythology fact-checking fight for a show introduction I was writing for the planetarium attached to the museum. So, the education curator, who happened to be the professor who assigned the artifact lesson plan, asked me to put together a little storytelling program for the party. I asked if the stories I gathered and presented counted as artifacts, and she said, “Absolutely.”

I was the only student in that class who had to present their artifact lesson plan to a public audience.

My classmates couldn’t wrap their mind around the idea of stories as artifacts. But I wrapped each story in its context, with a bit here and there on the science of solstices, and the audience and professor loved it.

I’ve been thinking about that assignment a lot over the last few weeks while I’ve been working on my object for the Sherlock Holmes MOOC. We’ve picked an object to develop into a smart clue for a live, collaborative crime scene, but we’ve also been working on the object’s story and weaving that into a wider story with other students’ objects. It’s been this collaborative storytelling project, in a very odd way.

But it’s made me think about what I knew as a museum educator, what I know as an amateur cultural anthropologist: Artifacts tell a story about their time and place. Something doesn’t have to be old to be an artifact. The device you’re reading this on is technically an artifact. Scary, huh? What story does it tell? Is that scarier?

Oh, the random things you think about while working on storytelling projects.

Two Sides to a Story

We all know history is invariably written by those who gained and held the power for any period of time, and we tend to tell our stories from that same place – focused on the side that won. Any social scientist will tell you that approach is problematic, though, because it removes the other side of the story and in the process potentially eliminates critical historical information.

Good news for conquerors. Bad news for the conquered.

As an avid reader and a lifelong hobbyist anthropologist, I used to think about this a lot – the story from the antagonist’s point of view. And then I read Dragons of Summer Flame, which tells a section of the Dragonlance history from the side perceived as the enemy through Dragonlance Chronicles. The main character is the child of two of the Chronicles characters, fighting on his mother’s side (the enemy) for what he was raised believing is right while coming to his own understanding of his knightly father’s oppositional beliefs.

The Avatar: The Last Airbender episode “Ember Island Players” centers around the Avatar and his friends secretly attending a show in the Fire Nation, generally perceived by the entire Avatar-verse as the enemy. The performers have put together a show recounting the Avatar’s journey from the iceberg he was found in through the Earth Kingdom and into the Fire Nation, generally portraying the group and the Fire Nation prince who has joined as buffoons. The play ends with a fight between the Avatar and the Fire Nation princess, where she overpowers and defeats him for the glory of the Fire Nation. While viewers know what’s really happened, and what will most likely happen in the upcoming fight between the Avatar and the Firelord, the play is Fire Nation propaganda, pure and simple.

The story doesn’t have to be anything so complicated or grand. It could be the scientist willing to to do whatever it takes to accomplish a goal she believes will benefit mankind. It could be the friend trying to mediate a fight between other friends without stopping to find out why both sides are fighting to begin with. (Felicia Day once pointed out that many stories and real-life conflicts wouldn’t exist if the parties involved had just sat down together and talked, and she’s not wrong.)

I think the reason we’re starting to see so many projects interested in trying to collect and preserve the voices of a minority group or a defeated group is because we’re starting to recognize the value of having a more complete story. The more complete story allows us to better identify the biases and alterations that have crept in to the narrative as a whole, and can potentially give us a better idea of how a situation blew up so that future people can identify the warning signs and try to make better choices.

It really makes you think, doesn’t it?

Friday Five: Pet Peeves Edition

This week’s Friday Five is going to be of a different nature. Instead of links, I’m going to address some of my pet peeves…mainly because they’ve all come up one time too many this week.

1. This one has actually come up one time too many over the last few months, but that may be because I’m starting to hang out around more writers who are either convinced they’re revolutionizing the writing world by serializing their stories, or who hate those who are jumping on this newfangled serialization bandwagon. (I’ve seen some polarized discussions in my time, but this one… Whoa.) Serial writing in not new. Not by a long shot. This shouldn’t seem like such a revelation, given the long-time existence of literary magazines, but apparently it is.

2. We live in a world where marketers are trying to make everything “go viral”. I guess they all missed the part where our society tends to react to viruses by trying to eradicate them with antibiotics and such. But this need to make sure everyone sees everything leads to people being exposed to the same ideas, the same news, the same everything. Many of us have our own mix of interests that we pursue, which helps us differentiate our own experiences and knowledge from others, but at the end of the day, being exposed to that much sameness can lead to an apparent hive mindset. Among writers, this can look like someone has stolen your work, when really they’ve just drawn similar inspirations from the same source material and produced their own take on it. And honestly, everything’s a remix anyway.

This is not to say there aren’t legitimate cases of plagiarism, but it’s not quite as rampant as some would have you believe. This is part of why I’m writing the Copyright Primer. The more you know, the better you can respond appropriately to things.

3. In that same vein of trying to produce same experiences, your way onto a path is not necessarily the One True Path. This is especially true in creative endeavors. And again, it comes back to that whole “we each have our own interests which leads to a differentiation in experience and knowledge” thing. And it’s good. It’s how we get a diversity of perspectives on a set of ideas, knowledge, and experiences. It’s fine to offer your origin story or advice based on your own experiences, but to behave as if your way is the only way says a lot about you as a person and as a creator.

4. Fairy tales were never meant to entertain children. In fact, they were never meant for young children. They developed as part of the oral tradition, providing education through warnings to older children preparing to face adulthood. So, the originals can be a bit…scary…and definitely inappropriate for your average seven year old. However, one of the signposts that a child is shifting into their next phase of development (known to educators and psychologists as their second sensitive period) is the child seeking out stories that scare them. Children in this phase are realizing that there’s a big world beyond their front yard, and they’re scared of what that might mean. So stories that show other people, especially kids closer to them in age, meeting something scary and moving past it brings them a bit of comfort as they level up.

There isn’t a fifth point this week, but I will offer this advice. Consume what you want in terms of entertainment. Create what makes you happy. Develop your own goals, and your own steps, and your own learning path. Consult everyone from beginners to masters, and then take what resonates with you and use that to strengthen your own path. Don’t worry about what someone else is doing unless you’re collaborating and trying to make sure your parts intersect well. And don’t worry too much about being “original” because it’s all been done before. Find your own voice, and don’t hurt others in the process.

See you next week!

Find Five Friday – Girly Geek Edition

I don’t know how things have gone for y’all, but for me it’s been a week. Actually, it’s been a long couple of weeks, and next week will be pretty crazy, too. You may have noticed the blog’s been a little quiet this week. So has the social media. I’m not even sure I’ve done the bare minimum. What I do know is that this week’s Find Five Friday only has four links because things have just been that crazy.

Soooo…on with the show!

1. I have designed jewelry off and on my entire life. I’ve just re-opened an Etsy shop, and was strong-armed last week into a craft show that my work was not a good fit for. But because I have been designing jewelry my whole life, I tend to be fascinated when someone does something interesting with jewelry design, like creating a wearable light show. You can tell from the pictures it’s still a work in progress, but it’s an interesting idea.

2. I’ve also grown up interacting with music. I danced for a long time. I’ve done choirs off and on. In school and at LARP, I even played a couple of instruments. I frequently joke that music runs through my veins, and I can’t imagine not being able to read or interpret sheet music. So, finding out that people with dyslexia can find sheet music daunting was a bit of a surprise. A product designer who has experience trying to get dyslexia and a desire to play music to cooperate has designed a way to create and play music in a way that doesn’t trigger a war with her dyslexia. The Dyssonance looks like Colorforms on steroids, but the idea and implementation are pretty cool.

3. This has been a stressful month for STEM women. In 2013, Mattel released a 2-in-1 Barbie book where one half was called I Can Be…A Computer Engineer. The Barbie line has a mission of trying to show girls all the doors that are open to them, and has come under a lot of heat over the years for the limited number of hard science/STEM professions represented in the line. I suspect this book was part of an attempt to address that. A pair of blogs discovered and shared the book this week, pointing out that while Barbie does design the game featured in the book (girl game designer = good), she then hides behind guy friends to code the game and clean up her virused computer. She then takes credit for both the game and saving the infected computer. Needless to say, women coders and their friends and supporters shredded Mattel, who has now offered a very half-hearted apology for the mess.

The book’s discovery comes only a week after STEM toy developer GoldieBlox announced their Barbie-like action figures. GoldieBlox still leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths after the whole Beastie Boys incident, but their CEO was recently the keynote speaker at a Texas women’s conference where the themes included responsibility and presenting positive role models for up-and-coming STEM women. (I just about spit out my chai when I read that.)

4. While many made memes of the more troubling statements in the Barbie book and some mocked the pink tech and the flash drive necklace, one woman coder created a mock-up of the book (PDF) rewritten to reflect the message Mattel should have put out if they truly want girls to see what they could experience as a coder. The book is heavy-handed, but the message is much more positive.

Also, my inner jewelry designer couldn’t understand those upset about the flash drive necklace. It was completely appropriate to Barbie. But what do I know? I spent part of a season of Pretty Little Liars wanting Jenna’s owl flash drive necklace.

 

All right, there you go. Four links, but I tried to make up for it in the commentary. Hopefully, I’ll collect five links next week, but we’ll have to see what free time my workload gives me.

Tomboy Feminist

I am, by birth, a Southern Belle and a Texas cowgirl. So, I grew up with lectures on etiquette and how a girl was supposed to behave, but I couldn’t stop being an assertive, climb-everything-in-sight girl.

And I couldn’t understand why outdated etiquette rules superseded simplicity. I didn’t think there was anything offensive about getting grades that were as high or higher than the guys in my class. I didn’t mind carrying my own things, regardless of whether there was a guy around. If I opened a door when other people were coming, I saw no point in handing it off to a guy while I passed through. It was faster to just hold the door, get everyone through, and then close the door behind me. It earned me a reputation as a stubborn girl who wouldn’t ask for help, or worse (to a Southern/Texan mind) a feminist. Between my assertiveness and my determination to do well in my classes, everyone was worried that I just wasn’t going to catch a guy (the worst thing that could happen to a Southern/Texan girl).

It turns out they were right, but I was far more afraid of being a feminist than I was of being single.

I grew up thinking feminists hated men, and that wasn’t me because most of my friends were guys and I was busy trying to prove that a girl was just as capable of a guy at doing “guy” things, and supporting guy friends wanted to do “girl” things. I wanted equal treatment, and I was positive that didn’t make me a feminist.  I think I was in grad school when a feminist friend sat me down and said, “Sweetie, you’re fighting for equal opportunities for both genders. You’re a modern feminist. Embrace it.”

And I tried. But that fear of being a feminist was so strong, that it took years for me to understand what she was trying to tell me and to accept that I am in fact a feminist. In fact, it took working at a girls camp to finally set me straight. A girl in my cabin wanted to be a stay-at-home mom because she saw everything her mom got to do as a stay-at-home mom and she wanted that kind of space to be able to explore her interests, too. One of the counselors told her she was aiming too low, and I just about lost it. In that moment, I realized that what I’m really fighting for is for people to be able to make their own choices based on their needs and interests.

So, I am a feminist. I don’t hate men, but I do think you should be able to decide for yourself what you want to do.

World Lore in Cartoons and Games

While I do play a fair number of games that have little or no story wrapped around them (otherwise known as “casual” games. My current obsession is Angry Birds Go.), I am a storyteller and a cultural anthropologist at my core. I like a game with a story to it. I like game worlds where a writer or a narrative designer took the time to create an actual world, with a present, and a past, and a future. A world with quirks, with a conflict I can make myself care about.

What’s really funny is that my favorite game set in a game world, The Legend of Zelda, actually doesn’t have a connected story. Each iteration is a new glimpse into the life of Hyrule hero Link. It’s episodic…sort of. Final Fantasy, which I’ve had more fun watching than playing, has a similar issue. What’s even funnier is that the games I decided to look at in this post…are games I have little or no experience with. I’m just fascinated with how world lore and story came together to form each game’s world.

Twenty years ago, when a friend pulled out decks of odd-looking cards and tried to get us to play this hot new game, I glanced at it and went back to chatting. It looked like nothing more than a card game with five suits and funky art. Okay…so it was really cool art in a lot of cases. But still, it was just a deck of cards where you chose what suits you personally played with. The guys got into it; I just stole cards to look at the art. Eventually, I noticed the cards had text on them, beyond just explaining what that card did, and a passing interest with Magic: The Gathering was born. Through the flavor texts, I learned that the game was actually players re-enacting a duel between Urza and Mishra. (I always forget about Mishra when I try to explain this to people.) The flavor texts not only flesh out the world Urza and Mishra are dueling in, but sometimes highlight aspects of that legendary duel. Tie-in novels have actually arisen out of the game’s flavor texts and world design. I lost touch with the game years ago, but I understand Urza has gone on to duel a wizard named Gix.

Ten years ago, I fell into a cartoon that has become a bit of a guilty pleasure. Yu-Gi-Oh is a story about an alternate universe Tokyo where characters resolve their issues by playing card games. (Not even kidding. This was Takahashi’s intention. He thought it would be entertaining.) So, you have battles over souls and territories and egos…being resolved by a Magic-style game. Characters are rescued from certain death…by playing a card game. It’s really quite bizarre, and just as lame as it sounds. There’s nothing really notable about the card game itself. If your only contact with Yu-Gi-Oh was the game, you’d probably have no idea that the game has a backstory in the manga. Beyond the spirits inhabiting the Millennium objects, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, either, until much later in the cartoon. But about halfway through the first season of the cartoon, the character generally regarded as a moron (who becomes the poster child for what happens when you make unfair assumptions about people) shares the tales surrounding one of the monsters in his deck in talking through his strategy. It’s the first flash the cartoon gives (because it’s been so long since I read the manga that I don’t remember if it’s also there) that this story, and by extension the game, might actually have an interesting layer to it. It turns out later to be a rather tragic story, but still. Not bad for a world where all conflicts, small and life-threatening, are resolved through a card game.

When World of Warcraft (WoW) introduced the ability to take on lore as a profession, I briefly started paying attention to it. I still have never played it, but I was following one of the guys working on it on Twitter for a while. I didn’t realize until the announcement of the lore profession that WoW had a story aspect. Apparently, it’s had several, making WoW a far more interesting and complex massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG). If I’ve understood things correctly (and WoW players who actually play the story-related quests and activities, please feel free to chime in down in the comments), each release or expansion is a new storyline in this building exposition. And players really get into it. They will even call the narrative designers on continuity and logic issues.

Games really are pushing themselves to be a new storytelling form, through exploring telling stories in ways that make sense to the game’s narrative designers. The stories can serve just as the world background for the game, or can allow the players to help shape the world’s story through their play. As narrative designers continue to push and to work with game designers to explore different ways to deepen these worlds, games are going to become an immersive storytelling experience worth curling up with.

“Correcting” Classics

I spend part of my time narrating for a group that produces audiobooks from Public Domain novels and short stories. Being that they’re in the public domain, they aren’t recent stories. The author isn’t even alive. Despite all that, it should seem like narrating them shouldn’t be any different than narrating a recent novel by a living author, right?

Or maybe I’m just influenced by my museum and anthropology background.

Recently, another narrator in the group admitted she changes books that aren’t politically correct because they offend her, and asked how others in the group handle the same issue. Most of the narrators who responded hadn’t thought about it before. Some thought they should follow her lead. Some weren’t so all right with it. (Keep in mind: Narrators can’t change a contemporary author’s novel while narrating it. Otherwise, that’s an error that has to be fixed. It makes narrating books with substandard proofreading interesting.)

I didn’t respond. I knew I wouldn’t respond kindly. But the more I thought about what she was doing, the more I actually wanted to put distance between her and me. If she wants to sanitize a novel that reflects its time period, what else would she be willing to sanitize to make a pretty story? It’s something historians wrestle with, because you want to preserve but at the same time you want that information to be accessible to the people who will be studying it.

My inner anthropologist/museum professional rages at the thought of making a older story “politically correct” because it robs us of an opportunity to experience a point of view relevant to the time of the author’s life. My inner narrator wonders why she didn’t just say, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this book.”, which is (I’ve been told. I’ve never done it.) completely acceptable when you’re bothered by a story’s content, and move on to the next one. (Because honestly, how believable is the narration going to be when you don’t like the story?)

I can only hope that she in time recognizes these little bits of history for what they are, and stop putting her contemporary sensibilities ahead of serving the preservation of that history, regardless of how unlikable it may be.