Summer Reading is a Game (that sucks)

Over the last few days I reacquainted myself with the YouTube channel Extra Credits.  The folks over on that channel have spent years doing analysis of video game systems and doing 5-8 minute videos that explore why some games are amazing and some games are deeply flawed and breaking down the exact reasons why.

However, it was when I got to the video about intrinsic and extrinsic awards that a lightbulb went off in my head.  Here watch it.

Now, as intelligent people we know the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic reward systems.  But when thinking about the summer reading program a lot of times we default to making the program solely about the act of winning your prizes along the way.  Reading is a means to an end, and that end is a personal pizza (or whatever your end prize is).

As the video above demonstrates, sometimes people grind through a game (that means doing something boring and repetitive for hours on end) only to get the super fancy widget at the end of having done all that nonsense.  Then, once the player has acquired that object there is a fleeting sense of accomplishment and then “now what?”

A lot of summer reading programs are set up in exactly this way.  They are a grind quest.  “You child must read 16 hours and then you will win this prize!”  “Fill in all the bubbles on this sheet and you will win this other prize!”

While for many kids the yearn for cool prizes is certainly a motivating factor, the means to achieving that goal is not necessarily in and of itself interesting.  When we set up summer reading programs as a grind quest the message we are pushing is not that reading is fun in and of itself.  It’s that you MUST read, because this thing is super cool.  This is the real world equivalent of being tasked with slaying x number of creatures so that you can make a new set of armor from their hides.  The act of doing it is a mindless repetitive thing that you are not entirely invested in doing.

That is what we’re saying about reading.

But it doesn’t have to be.

In another video they talk about how the video game “The Secret World” has embedded in it meaningful puzzles that require the player to explore things in their environment, and in some cases in the real world.

“Missions can either be boring and routine, or a magic entry point for your world.”

Something like The Secret World encourages people to keep exploring.  Looking for clues, and looking for meaning in things.  There’s nothing that says we can’t imbue a summer reading program with the same level of exploration, discovery, and wonder.  This helps build an intrinsic desire in the player (reader) to want to read.  If the game mechanics encourage you to read so that you discover new and exciting things along the way, and gives you enough branching pathways to find things in your own time in your own way.  That makes reading itself something more valuable to the player (reader).  You’re not reading for the sake of reading to win a pizza.  You’re reading because there is a mystery to solve, or a puzzle to break.

I think we can redevelop the summer reading program to be less about cranking through a specified number of books or hours of reading to win a prize, and more about reading as a joy in and of itself.  By shifting focus to developing an intrinsically rewarding experience (with occasional prizes, because people still love prizes) and making the act of reading more meaningful experience in the game I think we can help build a love of reading as a personal interest.

There are a TON more videos over on Extra Credits, and I would strongly encourage you all to go take a look over there. I would also love to hear from you all about ways that you’ve explored creating meaningful gameplay in your summer reading programs.

Mainstream Pornography

ImageFor the last few months everyone has been talking about Fifty Shades of Grey.  Opinions on it have varied widely; from those who love it, hate it, think that it’s derivative, and even applying the derisive term of “mommy porn.”  But perhaps its most spirited defense comes from Laurie Penny at the New Statesman.

Fifty Shades of Grey is porn, and porn can be quite fun. With the publishing industry in such choppy waters, I fail to understand why this record-pounding paperback has come in for extra-special derision all over the world, other than the fact that some people are appalled at the idea that somewhere out there, well over ten million women might be – whisper it – masturbating.

Women reading erotic novels is nothing new.  My mother and her circle of friends would read those traditional “bodice-ripper” romance novels by the grocery bag.  The local library in my hometown didn’t even bother to have them check out those books.  It was always on an honor system in a giant bin.  Bring in a bag, take a bag.  Perhaps the only salient difference between Fifty Shades and its predecessors is the percentage of sex scenes to plot advancement.

And Penny is right.  There is nothing wrong with women reading porn, it is everyone’s God given right.  On the other hand this argument overlooks a very huge fact; the breathtaking rate at which this particular pornographic novel has taken over the cultural conversation.  Not in my memory has there been a work of erotic fiction so prevalent in public discourse, especially not a book.  Perhaps the only thing anyone could compare it to in recent memory was the ubiquity of the film Deep Throat

So, for me, the question is not whether Fifty Shades of Grey is good or not, but why has it taken such root in mainstream readership?  How did an erotic novel go from obscure adult literature to a New York Times bestseller?

The answer as far as anyone can tell is fan fiction and word of mouth, which is still quite astonishing.

E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades, began sharing this trilogy as a series of Twilight fan fiction.  Anyone who reads the opening chapters of Twilight and the first hundred pages of Fifty Shades will undoubtedly see the similarities leaping right out at you.  Fan fiction is a prolific genre, and a good bit of it explores much of the erotic scenery that general popular fiction shies away from.  The millions and millions of Twi-Hard fans don’t want to let their beloved characters end.  And so they write more and more fantasies between Edward and Bella, or for Trekkers Kirk and Spock, or for Potterheads Harry and Snape…  Fan fiction communities are a continually growing underground, and the success of an E.L. James signals a shift in the literary landscape. 

Fan Fiction is coming out of the closet.  While James couldn’t use the trademarked characters from Stephanie Meyers’ series, she could change the names and details and bring along a devoted following from the fan fiction community.  Having built a rep, she capitalized on it.  And from there, the word of mouth engine spread the tale of Christian Grey.  Because readers of trashy novels love nothing more than telling their friends about their latest find, especially the racier ones. And from the backlash against this book, the attempts to ban it, to deride it, to stamp it out like a plague, comes more fervent interest in touching the taboo.  Headlines lead to more sales, curiosity fueling new readers to know what the big deal is.

Fifty Shades of Grey has become a meme, a sexually transmitted one, and my guess is that it will recur and flare up occasionally like Lady Chatterly’s Lover, The Story of O, or Delta of Venus.  Though to place this work in the company of such esteemed erotica seems so utterly wrong.

And like all memes, it has to take its turn on the merry go round of mockery.  This one is still my favorite.

Stop SOPA

Friends. Do you like knowing that the search results you get are not scrubbed out by the American Government? Do you think that the Motion Picture Association of America should have the authority to force the government’s hand to start blocking websites around the world? Do you think it’s fair for a company to have their funding cut off by credit card companies for something that one of their users may have done, allegedly…

If not, then you need to go to http://house.gov/, type in your zip code and write to your representative RIGHT NOW and tell them that you DON’T support HR 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act. It’s overreaching, unconstitutional, unamerican, and a threat to freedom of speech on the Internet.

Still Alive

Just so you all know, I’m still alive and kicking around here. I’ve been sucked into annual performance review time and it’s an incredibly time consuming process, which has left me feeling somewhat drained professionally. Not to mention that I’ve been stewing up a major piece for my personal blog, as well as working a NaNoWriMo novel now. So, I’ll have some intriguing things to say eventually, but probably not at least until next week. Cheers!

We Are All Weird

Over the last couple of days I read Seth Godin’s new manifesto We Are All Weird.  While I don’t believe it contains a tremendous amount of insight, or even answers really, it makes up for it in passion.

Godin’s premise is that the internet has led to an explosion of niche communities, that up until fairly recently would have probably lingered in obscurity.  Now the fringe of the fringe can find each other and become superfringey together by resonating and amplifying their weirdness.  This leads to a flattening of the “normal distribution” that statistics loves and that marketers have used over the years to develop middle-of-the-road products.  Consumers no longer are looking for the normal thing, they’re looking for the thing that speaks to their individual needs.

He uses the example of Wonder Bread, which perfectly illustrates this.  Wonder Bread is the most mainstream American product that you can probably think of.  But if you walk down a bread aisle in a grocery store, chances are you’ll see that there are dozens and dozens of more options than Wonder Bread, and beyond that the grocery probably also has a bakery of its own that does unique loaves of its own kind of bread to fill the niche of people who want fresh-baked, non-sandwich types of bread.  I know that in my house I have to buy bread that is not only vegan, but does not contain corn or corn-syrup either because my husband is a vegan who is allergic to corn.  That drastically reduces the number of choices, but the fact that I have the option to buy that exacting specification of bread is why I can still keep shopping at that particular store.

People want what is unique to their lives and their experiences, and the common ground is being ceded to the artisan every day.

Godin is coming at this from a marketer’s perspective. How does one advertise to plug the right product into the right place so that these small clusters of people find it?  There are no hard and fast answers, but rather a rallying cry to understand that people are unique, not numbers.  In order to envision the advertising of the future you have to understand that people don’t want to be “the average American,” nor do they want to be seen as such.  They want to be recognized for all the wonderfully weird things that they are.

And this is the way of the future.  The internet is not going anywhere, subcultures are growing exponentially, and services that cater to a middling demographic will go the way of the dodo bird.  What we will see is the ever growing cacophony of choices, allowing us to go anywhere and buy or build any kind of unique product that we wish.

This makes me think of two things in my life.

When I went to Japan I was bombarded with choice.  At the 7-11 they had about 30 different kinds of Onigiri in the refrigerator.  It was always kind of a random selection for me because I could barely read Japanese.  At the hot bar they had make your own Oden soup with a variety of different mix-in things.  When we went to Akihabara there were so many things that you could never even begin to imagine.  The vending machines alone were the most bizarre and wonderful things you have ever seen.  A friend got a hot soup can out of the vending machine that had a quail egg in it, and this from a machine that had hot, cold and room temperature things all in one place.  When we went to Don Quijote it was like the craziest multi-floor storage unit full of tchotchkes you’ve ever seen in your life.  It makes Archie McPhee’s look like a Spencer’s Gifts.  There were racks of underwear, next to badass Hello Kitty key chains, next to sex toys, next to giant foam cowboy hats.  It was insane and wonderful. And just while we’re mentioning Hello Kitty, there are untold thousands of HK products in Japan.  Every neighborhood has a special HK product, designers line up by the droves to have their own specially designed Hello Kitty.  Sanrio is the epitome of this.  You can have any kind of Hello Kitty you can imagine, and we’ll make it for you.

And the second thing that immediately came to mind was Warren Ellis’s comic series Transmetropolitan.  Transmet takes place in the future where choice has become the most surreal chaotic dystopia you can imagine.  Why buy KFC when you can buy a bucket of moose eyes and eat them like popcorn?  Or a human leg for that matter from genetically altered, brain-dead, sci-farm raised stem-cells.  Why bother being human at all when you can alter your genome and become half-alien or half-animal, or just screw being human altogether and become a cloud of nanites with your human memories?  The media is saturated with the bizarre, and the only way to ride the wave and make your voice heard over the din is the be the most bizarre son-of-a-bitch in the world. So Gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem straddles the line between loathing contempt and embracing the madness.  Does it change society?  Does it have an impact?  Does it mean anything at all?  Sort of, but not really.  The world just doesn’t stop getting stranger, and it doesn’t necessarily get any better.

What does this mean for the future?

I have absolutely no idea.

And I love it.

Starship Libraries

Since I wrote that post about enhanced eBooks last week, something has been seriously bothering me. To put it bluntly I’m concerned about the longevity of eBooks, and what that means for civilization.

Now I know that sounds lofty, and I will right now admit that it totally is. But hear me out on this one.

We know for a fact that this planet isn’t going to last forever. And eventually we’ll have to move on to the stars. The good folks who dream up the methods of how this will work have some pretty awesome ideas including things like generational star ships and plans for colonization of other planets.

But these plans for colonization are incomplete unless the folks who leave come prepared with the vast body of knowledge created by human society. Otherwise all of the work of science, technology, literature, religion, sociology, psychology, medicine.  It will all be lost and humanity will have to start all over again, and relearn absolutely everything.

What a giant waste of time!

So, how could it be possible for our descendants to have access to the vast wealth of knowledge that we have created here on earth?  Well, they would have to store it all somehow, most likely in a digital format with redundancy systems built in so that if part of it fails you don’t lose everything in one fell swoop.  But they would also have to have the necessary software to unlock and read that data again as well.

And that’s what today’s competitive marketplace is not considering.

I know that was a leap, so let me fill in the gaps here.

When you purchase an app for the iPad, it is meant to run in the iOS environment.  Sometimes it runs in its own application environment on the iOS and sometimes it runs within an additional environment that has its own formatting issues, e.g. Kindle.  So, when you buy a Kindle book, you’re buying a version of the ebook in a .zpf format, which is Amazon’s proprietary book reader.  Other vendors operate in the world of ePub editions, which is a free and open ebook standard making it a more universally accepted format.

Similarly, those apps that are built to access multimedia works, such as the very awesome TouchPress applications, are currently only accessible via iOS.  Again, the problem is that these are operating in a closed system.  They cannot be accessed on other types of devices, and thus render themselves useless for future access. This could have been avoided had these been designed as offline web apps using HTML5, thus making them completely accessible via any type of digital device.   Of course any video or audio codecs used in the making of these would also have to be compliant and available in the hypothetical starship library.

The point is, that we can’t expect the future development of society to follow this current trajectory if we are to think about this with the long view.  Programming device specific content is irrelevant in the long run.  Devices last a few years.  However, building something that operates within accepted standards could give you a much better shot at long term stability.

The elephant in the room here is that none of this is relevant with our current copyright restrictions.  I’m sure that some kind of exception could be made for deep space adventuring, but the reality is that even digital duplication of the vast majority of the world’s knowledge is highly questionable under our patchwork global legal systems.  Google Books has been in legal limbo over things that are even in a hazy unknown area, because someone, might, maybe still hold a copyright, somewhere…  Useless.

I’m not even going to get started on how in the world you would be able to index everything that ever existed.  I haven’t wrapped my brain around it myself.

If we are thinking about the future of culture, knowledge, and wisdom, then we need to think about its longevity now.  We need to stop supporting things that are defective by design, promoting things that are available in open standards, and work toward the opening of unnecessary copyright restrictions. And we don’t need the excuse of a Starship to think about it either.  Just the simple fact that people will probably still be living on this planet for a few more thousand years at least should be a reason to plan for the future.

But I still want a Starship library.

Data Capping

Last night as I was laying in bed reading the days news that I hadn’t gotten around to on my cell phone I ran across Andre Vrignaud’s article on Kotaku about how Comcast killed his internet service for a year because he broke their data caps. This is an article that struck a little too close to home, because I have been debating leaving Verizon Wireless if they drop my unlimited data plan. I’ve got Sprint on speed dial, just waiting for the day.

But the Kotaku article raised several important points about the practice of bandwidth capping from internet service providers.

Cloud Services & Streaming

All of these companies are looking to get people more involved in cloud based services like Amazon’s and iTunes’s music storage, Dropbox, Netflix streaming, Video chats through things like Skype and Google Hangout, Streaming music like Pandora and Last.FM. All of these are bandwidth hogs, and monthly data caps mean that users will have to debate whether or not to use a service, even if they like it, because it could kill their internet usage FOREVER.

Internet as Human Right

As the UN declared recently, people are increasingly coming to the realization that the internet is a human right. From being able to criticize those in power, to organizing collectively, even to peaceful interactions with government social services. Not to mention the ubiquitous need to access the internet for employment reasons (from getting a job, to training, and actually working onlilne). The usage of the internet permeates our society as much as electricity does. Do deny someone access to the internet, as these insane three strikes laws are doing, is to cut people out of society entirely.

Net Neutrality

It’s the opinion of the Kotaku author, and I concur, that the primary reason why cable companies want to cap data rates and throttle bandwidth is because they are facing real competition from the internet as a content distribution method. Netflix makes available on demand streaming video content which directly competes, and far exceeds Comcast’s “on demand” feature in a very real way. So Comcast chooses to institute bandwidth caps, to actively harm a competing service, just because they control the pipeline. Also, some of the bizarre proposed “net neutrality” models still do much of the same thing, throttling companies your ISP doesn’t like and allowing faster access to those it does.  Especially on mobile platforms.

Internet as a Public Utility

While most public utilities are among the most hated brands in America there is something to be said for rethinking data as a utility. Have it taken over by a municipal government and distributed like water and power. You pay for what you use, just like you do with water and power. Given some cities’ municipal governments though, I would shudder to think about the hell that could happen if that were the case, but you never know. By removing the ISP from the services of other content providers (like phone services and cable television) you create a truly neutral playing field for the internet to grow and experiment as it needs to do.

ISPs are just a part of the picture though. In one of the new TEDGlobal videos Rebecca MacKinnon talks about the problems inherent in our relationship with the internet that can arise between governments and corporations who attempt to control people’s activities on the net. Our relationship to the internet is a mediated experience, mediated by governments and corporations. With Governments we at least have some measure of redress, but with corporations less so. Her call to action is to work toward a Magna Carta moment with corporations. It’s pretty radical, and desperately needed if we’re planning to actually encourage innovation and exploration of what this communications platform can actually do.