Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tikatok: collaborative online book creation for kids

The following passage from the conclusion to my master's thesis was written to address the need for solutions to making educational video games more responsive and better platforms for creative expression.

The possibility for a technological solution is very exciting, but not the only solution. The single player to machine paradigm, basically the reader to book model, is becoming less ubiquitous as games and game consoles exploit greater networking capabilities. Next generation systems support peer-to-peer interactivity in a way that may provide an opportunity to think beyond the hyper-competitive, mano-a-mano multi-player formula of the first fighting and shooting games. Proving that humans are infinitely better than machines at predicting what other humans will find meaningful, the most popular e-commerce companies, such as Amazon and Netflix, compare profiles of similar users to provide seemingly intelligent product recommendations. Basically, they side-step the need for complex machine AI by anonymously connecting users with similar tastes. It may therefore be more productive to think of a platform on which players “co-create” stories with other human players instead of building relationships with software... A truly player “co-created” game would allow players to fundamentally co-design the game, not just allow a collective experience of the finished product... It might be possible to imagine a game in which world-builders interact in real-time with world-explorers, where one player designs the challenges that the other player faces, and both learn and adapt based on the outcomes of play.

It is instructive and perhaps prophetic that I used the "reader to book" model to explain my point about games. I did not know at the time that I would be given the opportunity to put these theories into practice and help build a platform that would connect kids online with the purpose of creating and sharing books, but this is exactly what I have been working on for the past several months along with some entrepreneurs and folks from the MIT Media Lab.

Tikatok is an online community and a set of creative tools that allow children aged 5-12 to write and share picture books. It provides a database of interactive story prompts called StorySparks to help get the creative juices flowing, and then lets kids connect to their peers in order to share the book, get feedback, discuss it in groups, and even collaborate. Finally, the books can be printed out into real bound hardcover and paperback copies using print on demand. Basically, it imagines children as authors of their own entertainment in the most literal way: as authors. And it again proves Marshall McLuhan's contention that the content of any new medium is an old medium.

We've been testing the system at public and private events in the Boston area, including workshops at the Boston Public Library, and now the site is finally open for its public beta launch. We've worked hard to make it a site were kids can express themselves and have fun, but also learn and grow. Kids have created some pretty amazing books, and we are anxious to see the direction the wider community will take it. If you have a child in your life, I invite you to create a book.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

At Last an Update

My research and writing all paid off in the end, my master's thesis entitled "Ceaseless Becoming: Narratives of Adolescence Across Media" was completed and successfully submitted to my committee. So ends my too-short journey at MIT's Comparative Media Studies program.

Speaking of which, you can download and read the thesis in its entirety from the CMS website. Or browse other amazing theses from the department here:

Myself and my school mates were thrilled when Cory Doctorow blogged favorably on BoingBoing about the program and our humble theses here:

As always, I would love to hear your comments about the work. I recently realized that blogger's moderation was filtering a lot of your comments. Oops. That's fixed, so comment away!

Now that I've dug myself out of schoolwork and the ensuing months of paralysis, I do hope to consider posting to this blog every now and then, although perhaps in a lighter and less analytic fashion.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Fall and Rise

A few things in the news lately have inspired me to break my weeks-long silence on the blog (sorry about that, by the way). First, The O.C., a quotation from which inspired the name of this blog, was recently cancelled by Fox, in a move that surprised no one considering its poor ratings this season. It was up against two of the most popular shows now on TV, C.S.I. and Grey's Anatomy, and suffered from a creatively disappointing third season lead-in, although the episodes this season have been received quite well.

It's a shame, and just one more example of a teen show that could not quite survive its characters growing up, although series creator Josh Schwartz gave a different explanation to Entertainment Weekly in a recent issue. To paraphrase, he said that the series set a dramatic pace in its early episodes that was difficult to maintain. At the time of its debut, it was such a high-energy, film-like melodrama that it really didn't look like anything else on network television. I recall it was said by many that the show broke the runaway fervor over reality programming, and put to rest the idea that the hour-long drama was dead (the truth is probably more complicated). Consequently, or so claims Schwartz, the creative well dried up more quickly as they burned through ideas in a few episodes that other series would take whole seasons to explore.

Whatever the reason, I'll be sad to see it go, even as I recall a famous line familiar to any student of youth culture: "Hope I die before I get old."

Just as I was reeling from that news, however, I have a new reason to be excited about adolescence narratives on television: the Sci-Fi channel announced today that George Clooney is producing a mini-series for the network based on one of my favorite science fiction novels ever and perhaps the inspiration for this whole thesis project, Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. In the past this might have freaked me out a little, especially after the Sci-Fi channel's mediocre Dune mini, but given some recent quality work on the channel (Battlestar Galactica), Clooney's strong producing track record, and the fact that Stephenson himself is adapting, I'm feeling optimistic. And as a friend researching serial television put it: "stories that detailed are best suited to long-form episodic structures on television. I'm totally psyched that they're not going to butcher this by making it a movie." Couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Akeelah and the Bobby Fischer: Bring It

Finally caught Akeelah and the Bee on DVD, which I was anticipating as another in a long line of narratives equating success in a game or sport with emotional maturity, a theme powerfully manifested in the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer (although for a darker and more literal version, check out Fresh, from one year later).

If you never saw Searching for Bobby Fischer, I highly recommend it. It's the story, based on the life of Josh Waitzkin, about a young boy who discovers he has the potential to become a chess prodigy. He trains with a strict but caring mentor (Ben Kingsley) to develop his skills and enter the world of competitive play. But his own story is paralleled with that of the title character, the young chess champion who, after several high-profile matches against top seeded grand masters, drops out of public view (and emerges later as a raving anti-Semite). (Spoiler Alert) In the championship match that ends the movie Josh offers a draw to his nemesis when he could have easily won. By losing the game Josh preserves a quality of childhood innocence and masters something more important than the game itself: compassion.

Flash forward to 2005's Akeelah and the Bee, which follows the earlier film almost note for note. The big differences being that its hero is a poor young black girl, and the competition is the Scripps National Spelling Bee rather than a chess championship. (Spoiler Alert Again). Now, it would be unfair to expect the protagonist in this context to lose. If games in these stories are supposed to teach the adolescent something they don't already know, that would be pointless. Akeelah has already learned about losing: she lost her father to random violence, her mother works seemingly nonstop to support them, and her brother is a burgeoning gangster. What she lacks is the confidence to win.

Furthermore, protagonists in movies about minorities are often designed (for better or for worse) to stand in for their entire ethnic group. This is especially true of Akeelah, whose training in spelling is accompanied by a lesson in the history of the civil rights movement. For Akeelah to throw the game might impart a lesson that, for black communities, politeness is more important than advancement, which would seem wrong for sure. But something still felt too easy about the ending. In fact, Akeelah does attempt to throw the game, but her opponent (an Asian-American super-nerd stereotype) doesn't let her. Instead, working together they spell all of the 25 final round words and are both crowned champions. Akeelah wins, but nobody has to lose. They don't beat each other, they beat the game. Everybody's happy.

This pop cultural treatment of racial politics is also reminiscent of cheerleading flick Bring It On (2000), which pits white suburban princesses against black inner city challengers in its all-important competition. But in that film, the competition between the two groups is less central to the plot than the struggles within each group. The rich girls must learn to innovate without stealing moves from their urban counterparts. Meanwhile, the black girls struggle to be recognized by cheerleading officials, and appeal to a powerful black female celebrity (obviously meant to evoke Oprah Winfrey) to sponsor their trip to the finals. As with Akeelah, their appeal takes the form of a plea for community solidarity while subtly exploiting the rhetoric of victimization. The "lessons" the black girls must learn are political--—how to manipulate media and cultural identity for power--—and personal--to overcome resentment of their reformed white competitors. The "lessons" the white girls must learn are mostly internal: —to break the cycle of exploitation and (spoiler alert) to be happy with finishing in second place.

These films reflect and address a new American reality: in many urban areas Caucasians are or will soon be in the minority in relation to all other races. The filmmakers use seemingly innocuous high school competitions to model the real conflicts lurking within this reconfigured political landscape.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bully Reviewed in Wired

Clive Thompson, also of blog Collision Detection has an advanced review of Bully up on Wired today. He confirms that the game does indeed show its hero combating bullies and protecting the weak rather than the type of gameplay that was predicted by many reactionary legislators and parents groups. But, he claims, it's still a Rockstar game through and through: "By turning to high school, the designers have found the perfect locale for exploring the cliquishness, unfairness and brutality of everyday society."

This is, in fact, the genius of most high school narratives. Films, literature, and television shows set in high school are among the only genres that consistently exhibit an awareness that American culture is socially and economically stratified.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Bully Has an ESRB Rating

"T" for teen, according to the new trailer.

Though it seems a positive sign that Rockstar has cleaned up their act in regards to this particular title, I wouldn't be surprised if the various organizations that have criticized Rockstar now turn their attention to the ESRB.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Entertainment Weekly's Top 50 High School Movies

Entertainment Weekly, in what must be a joint effort with the AFI to fill the world with meaningless "best of" lists, took on my area of study in their latest issue: The 50 Best High School Movies. OK, so I'm actually a sucker for these lists. They're dumb but they do what they're supposed to do: make hermetic, authoritative judgments about topics so messy and subjective that readers are invariably pissed off by the results and must respond. Rather than take the bait and produce my own absurd list, I have just a few observations about their choices.

The Breakfast Club is their number one, and it's a safe and predictable one, striking the right balance between pop pleasure and "importance." Their paragraph-long evaluation of the film echoes many of the ways popular media have sought to define the appeal or function of adolescence narratives. "After the farcical fluff of Sixteen Candles, the issues Hughes explored--sex, drugs, abuse, suicide, the need to belong--were surprisingly subversive." So, the best high school films are foremost about "issues" rather than the "farcical fluff" of teen romance. There's a classic dichotomy at work here.

It's interesting that their list addresses "High School Movies" rather than using the more contemporary moniker "Teen Movies." It's possible that they were influenced by the recent success of the Disney Channel's High School Musical. But more likely their exercise in axiology, their attempt at elevating these films to a socially acceptable level of value and importance, was better served by an association with the history of films set in high school. Even for a rag like Entertainment Weekly, "Teen Movies"--which can trace their roots back to the beach party movies of the 60s--may be too frivolous a genre for a "best of" list. But "High School Movies" are another thing entirely. When you use that nomenclature, you associate these films with the social commentary films of the 50s and 60s, such as Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause (number 4 on the EW list), movies that seriously addressed the issue of teen crime and delinquincy. High school movies, like high school, see teens as problems, or as representative of the dangerous social masses, that need to be massaged and elevated to respectability. There's a way that high school, high school movies, and "best of" lists all share the same modernist agenda.

But, in the end, I gotta respect a list that puts the underrated Can't Hardly Wait at number 44.