Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Kn...
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Hard to believe but the Artificially Intelligent blog is now almost three years old.  Quite a lot of virtual ink under the bridge since then.  I thought it appropriate therefore to use the anniversary both to reflect on a piece of the past and to start something new.  This will be the first in a series of posts over the next few weeks attempting to think through what I term the “Monkeys Typing Hamlet” problem but which others refer to as “Crowd Sourcing.”

Quite some time ago I wrote about the facile reporting in a Newsweek article that described the imminent demise of crowd sourcing.  I haven’t changed my mind about the article.   It is still a perfect example of contemporary journalistic practice and therefore an indictment of everything that is wrong with the training and practice of many mainstream journalists today.  But the article struck a chord with me for an entirely different set of reasons.  Consider this portion:

There’s no shortage of theories on why Wikipedia has stalled. One holds that the site is virtually complete. Another suggests that aggressive editors and a tangle of anti-vandalism rules have scared off casual users. But such explanations overlook a far deeper and enduring truth about human nature: most people simply don’t want to work for free. They like the idea of the Web as a place where no one goes unheard and the contributions of millions of amateurs can change the world. But when they come home from a hard day at work and turn on their computer, it turns out many of them would rather watch funny videos of kittens or shop for cheap airfares than contribute to the greater good. Even the Internet is no match for sloth.

That’s why Wikipedia’s new recruiting push will not rely merely on highfalutin promises about pooled greatness and “the sum of all human knowledge.”

You can sense the authors’ delight here in being able to get a few digs in at those who have the temerity to believe in “pooled greatness” and who actually care about big ticket items like the state of human knowledge.   You can feel the satisfaction in declaring these kinds of dreams no match for the unstoppable power of LOLCATS.  There’s nothing quite as distinctive as the smell of superiority.  Then it hit me.

I could have written this piece.

Now to be fair to myself, it would have been a lot better researched and a helluva lot better written.  However, that same snarky tone used to describe the pathetic nature of the human creature is something that I’ve found myself resorting to from time to time.

The problem I’ve been struggling with recently boils down to this: When I first began to study electronic games and more particularly the kinds of communities that spring up around games I thought that I would gradually acquire a much better understanding of gamers themselves, of the people who play the games.

Unfortunately, I’m finding myself increasingly tempted to conclude that the vast majority of them are dicks.

Don’t get me wrong, the gamers that I’ve met face-to-face as people have been pretty normal.  But one of the problems with games in general, let alone studying them, is that you seldom encounter gamers as people.  (And no, Expos and Cons don’t count; at Cons gamers still aren’t people, they are fans).  Most of the time you encounter them as gamers, them safe in their anonymity and you in yours.  Things go downhill pretty quickly from there.

It is tempting to conclude that what we’re up against here is simply the humanized variant of Sturgeon’s Law.  If 90% of everything is crap, it is also probably true that 90% of people are morons.  But the dilemmas are more complicated than that.  Like all disciplines that deal with elements of popular culture, game studies is influenced to some degree by some of the underlying assumptions and analytic practices of cultural studies.  This is true even in those branches of game studies that on the surface seem to be more influenced by social science empiricism.  Even here, game studies is shaped by a powerful desire to consider games in a positive light.  Obviously, you can understand where this comes from: games have suffered (and continue to suffer) from a lot of negative stereotyping and ill informed speculation (sadly, not just by non-gaming members of the public but by gamers themselves).  It is quite natural, therefore, that people studying games would want to say that it isn’t all school shootings and people pretending to be en elf in their mom’s basement.  As is the case in other areas of popular culture research, however, this creates a powerful incentive to, in essence, make excuses for the object you are studying.

More fundamentally, there is a powerful incentive to make excuses for the people engaging with popular culture.  Anybody who works with popular culture is working against a theoretical legacy (still very active) that describes media usage largely in terms of a broadcast-reception model, where meaning is all encoded at the transmission end.  The corollary of this is that media consumers passively absorb the messages they are sent and dutifully replicate whatever ideological content is supposedly present.  There are powerful cultural reasons why so many people are still in love with this idea; equally there are many very good reasons grounded in both experimentation and experience to suggest that many people play a much more active role in the process of integrating media specifically and pop culture generally into their lives.  Game studies, like cultural studies more generally, like most disciplines dealing with popular or mass culture even more generally, therefore tend to privilege stories of people as active agents, resisting dominant messages, subverting creators’ intentions and so on.  Given that cultural studies in its early years was heavily (and, I should add, very productively) influenced by Marxist political and economic thought, there is often a political cast to this portrayal of people as inherently resistant and subversive.

The point at which revolution inevitably founders, of course, is the point where Marx comes up against Sturgeon.  There is very little room in many of our theories of popular culture anymore for an accounting of the many stupid and unreflecttive ways that many people use popular culture.  There is, for example, no room for explaining how stupid people can be even when they are being active, interactive, participatory agents.  There is, in other words, no room for explaining Twitter.

One particular problem area for game studies in this regard is the question of videogames and violence.  Many of us in the field are all too aware of the huge quantity of shonky research into the connection between violent games and behavior and the stunningly selective, narrow-minded and politically conservative motivated uses that have been made of this research.  This has led, however, many scholars to the claim that violent games in effect have no effect on players.  On the face of it this is a difficult claim to accept, and becomes even more so to the degree that many game studies scholars increasingly want to argue that in every other area except exposure to violence games do have effects.  You can’t buy into James Paul Gee’s argument about the contribution of games to identity formation and sense of self and then argue that spending all your time teabagging noobs in Halo deathmatches has no effect whatsoever.

The belief in the active abilities of people to meaningfully shape their media and cultural environment finds its apotheosis in the modern belief in the power of crowd sourcing.  This is now virtually synonymous in many quarters with a belief in the power of the cloud; even though the latter started off as a more specifically hardware oriented idea for all intents and purposes we should perhaps be combining both into one word: all hail the coming of the clowd.

Now it might seem a little ironic that these reflections have been prompted by an article that was also critical of crowd sourcing.  Perhaps I now find myself in agreement with the same Newsweek piece I so happily pissed all over?  No.  Quite apart from the fact that all my objections to the lack of any obvious research or intellectual content in the article still stand, the article was arguing that crowd sourcing was coming to an end.  In fact, the opposite seems to be happening.  Belief in the transformative power of the clowd is everywhere.

So I want to look at some ideas associated with this idea of the power of the clowd in the coming weeks.  For now, I want to close with one of those wonderful nuggets of wisdom that gamers often say to one another when faced with a particularly unproductive forum war or disastrous attempt to mediate some controversy in-game:

None of us is as dumb as all of us.