Et cetera

The Cultural Background of (German) Digital Games

Over the course of the last two weeks I conducted a couple of interviews for my Ph.D. dealing with the was the perception of digital games differs in Germany and Australia. By talking to just a couple of people you can tell how the cultural history of a country also influences the way modern media is dealt with. The first person I spoke to was Malte Behrmann, attorney, secretary general of the European Games Developer Federation as well chairperson of the German developers association, GAME. Malte is also responsible for digital games getting officially accepted as Kulturby the German Kulturrat, the umbrella organization of the German cultural associations. This push always reminded me of the strategy of the early German Autorenfilm.

In an attempt to conform to bourgeois cultural norms and thus demonstrate cinemas' cultural and social relevance, the Autorenfilm (films based on the works of famous contemporary authors or written by them directly for the screen) mobilized national literary and cultural traditions against the Schundfilm ('trash film') by serving as an incentive to 'respectable' artists from the 'legitimate' stage and literature to lend their prestige to the new medium. It was basically an elevation of the medium to adhere to bourgeois tastes and therefore broaden its social basis.

Asked if he saw any parallels between these two instances, Malte Behrman answered that he wouldn't sit in his office like a spin doctor and think about how a game could be made more socially acceptable by means of "nobilitation". A statement I thought was quite remarkable as it shows how on a subconscious level Germany's long high-culture traditions and its specific socio-cultural influences still assert themselves – in a way that is decidedly different to Australia where, due to the country's different history, I never encountered a similar attitude. Here digital games – and non-hierarchical entertainment in general – never needed any form of cultural legitimation.

German ad for Commodore VC20

Moreover, Germany's cultural background allegedly influenced the way games were designed: They were regarded as overly complicated, complex and not very accessible (think complicated simulations, strategy games and management games [Parker's note: only Germans would be into "management games"]). When I was talking about this with Philipp from Yager he made the point that this might have something to do with the fact that for a very long time German developers mainly created games for the PC.

In contrast to consoles the PC was an open platform everyone could develop for without having to obtain licenses and development kids – and Germany has a very strong history of home computing. I suppose this is because the purchase of a home computer was easier to justify as it allowed its user to go beyond the mere pleasures of play. As the classical ad above puts it: "How do you land safely on Jupiter and in the next class?" With the most successful computer of the world of course! The VC20, not only does it allow you to land on Jupiter as part of a game, it also plays chess and connects people in play. Well, that but it also teaches math, physics and biology… So much for the theory, but then again this probably had more appeal to Germany's cultural history of a country defining itself in terms of Kultur and education.

This eventually also might have had an influence on the design of German games: most of them went beyond mere play but offered an 'added value' by, e.g. teaching about complex economic correlations and challenging the player accordingly. I remember people at school telling me how they refused to play Doom because they thought it was too primitive. As Jens from Ascaron put it in the interview I conducted with him: "Germans liked to play with animated Excel charts".

German Atari 400 ad - good for games AND school!

Obviously this was a competitive disadvantage: These games, on account of their design, hardly sold outside of Germany, probably another sign of their cultural specificity. Just like the (mainstream) American market did not appreciate the Autorenfilm with its intellectualized themes of broken identities, alienation and magic, history repeated itself 80 years later when it refused to play overly complex German games.

Of course this changed in the last couple of years, last not least because of a transition to console gaming. The Wii and especially the DS were godsend gifts - cheap and easy to develop for and… well cynics might point out that Nintendo isn't very strict when it comes to shovelware. Also German developers are amongst the leading ones in the field of mobile and browser games. But eventually it is quite difficult to rid oneself off one's cultural background. I suppose that's what Philipp meant when he said that even though you can have lived in the US for three years you're not quite 'there' yet in terms of an American (uncomplicated, commercially orientated) mindset.

My next interviews will be about support mechanisms. I wonder if the influences I just described also have an impact on how local game developers are supported by the state run institutions. What are the rules and regulations? And do they get applied eventually? Which games will be funded which won't? Would something violent yet potentially successful receive support? I already got a taste of what to expect when I informally talked to someone about these things on a party and was told that 'serious games' apparently play an important role when it comes to funding in Berlin. Not only because they demonstrate potential 'transfer-effects' (locally developed engines used for something… well, beyond play) but also because they function as a mental guide for the people giving out the finds: As a cultural/ technology-beyond-play token that helps to set everything in motion, the 'ox that draws the cart' so to speak.

-Jens

A Liberal Democracy on Par With China and Saudi Arabia: Australia's 'Net Filter Plan

The internet: decentralised, largely unregulated, not belonging to anyone, knowledge flowing freely. Australia: Traditionally having one of the strictest censorships of a liberal democracy, banning R18+ video games and behind pretty much everyone else in terms of broadband speeds. How do these two mix? Exactly… The Australian Government under Kevin Rudd plans to impose a mandatory filter for all internet users that will block sites found on the secret Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist and blacklists held by other countries. The cost: AUS$189 million. The result:

Laboratory test results released in June by the Australian Communications and Media Authority found available filters frequently let through content that should be blocked, incorrectly block harmless content and slow network speeds by up to 87 per cent.

Where to begin… First of all there's the technical aspect: All the experts might want to read this piece on Arstechnica, which in very technical terms explains why this scheme is doomed to fail; for the rest of us there's this Register article pointing out some of the issues encountered with censorship software in other parts of the world:

Problems with "socialism" were highlighted in a piece this week in the Australian Daily Telegraph, which gleefully pointed up the link between Labour and male impotence. Apparently, filters in other countries have hit problems with their ideology for the simple reason that it also contains the word "cialis" – an anti-impotence drug frequently promoted via spam email.

They also cite a story told by former Communications Minister Helen Coonan about the time when she attempted to order some strawberry muffins online. Her department’s filter system took exception to her use of "muff" – and the order did not go through.

Similar issues have occurred over the years in the UK with home-grown filter software that is not fully thought through. In one case, an Insurance company was rather surprised to find that after implementation of its in-house filtering system, direct mail campaigns to Essex, Sussex and Middlesex ceased entirely – as did communication with the inhabitants of Scunthorpe.

A couple of years back, respondents to a Home Office Consultation in the UK were surprised to find some submissions automatically rejected by a filtering system set up in one part of that Department. The consultation was on the subject of extreme pornography – and the filter took exception to receiving emails with the word "pornography" in the title.

Secondly there's the issue of free speech. As explained here the Government has been pursuing a two-tiered scheme. The first tier would be a "clean feed" that filters porn and "illegal content," and it would be optional. The second tier would filter only "illegal content" and would be mandatory for all Australians. In short: Australians won't be able to opt out of the government's Internet filtering initiative.

AussieFilter

This of course raises the question: What defines "illegal"? Apparently only half of the - secret and unaccountable - ACMA blacklist consists of child porn while the rest is mainly X-rated porn and sexual fetish material. And of course the calls for more are coming in: A statement by Family First member Steve Fielding indicates that any material rated above R 18+ (including X 18+ and "refused classification") should fall under the mandatory blacklist and could not be accessed through any Australian ISP. Such material is currently legal for Australian adults.

And it doesn't stop at porn:

"Any group with an axe to grind and political clout will be lobbying the Government to blacklist websites which they object to," EFA spokesman Dale Clapperton said.

(…)

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam expressed similar concerns when grilling Senator Conroy in Senate Estimates last week.

He said all sorts of politically sensitive material could be added to the blacklist and otherwise legitimate sites - for example, YouTube - could be rendered inaccessible based on content published by users.

"The blacklist ... can become very grey depending on how expansive the list becomes - euthanasia material, politically related material, material about anorexia. There is a lot of distasteful stuff on the internet," Senator Ludlam said.

Will disagreeable Wikipedia articles be banned? Reports by the opposition which highlight the failures of the Government in charge? Articles denying climate change? Where do extremist views start and stop?

Then there's potential of Big Content throwing another hissy fit about piracy: Will it be ringing up the Aussie government soon to have tracker sites added to the blacklist?

As Michael Malone, managing director iiNet, puts it:

"[This] is happening in two other countries - China and Saudi Arabia, that's who he's [Communications Minister Stephen Conroy] lined himself up with."

Colin Jacobs, chair of the online users' lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia has another evil example at hand:

"I'm not exaggerating when I say that this model involves more technical interference in the internet infrastructure than what is attempted in Iran, one of the most repressive and regressive censorship regimes in the world."

In short: The scheme is expensive, won't work technically, abuses of civil liberties, impairs free speech and makes an abysmally slow internet even more slower.

No wonder that, except for some fringe groups who would like to push their moral agenda onto the rest of the Australian people, no one likes the idea.

The head of one of Australia's largest ISPs has labelled the Communications Minister the worst we've had in the past 15 years while political activists GetUp have raised over $30,000 in less than a day to support their fight against the filter.

Ed Coper, campaigns director at GetUp, said the response to the anti-censorship campaign had been "astronomical" and "quite unprecedented".

Almost 80,000 people have signed GetUp's petition and the organisation has created a widget that website owners can embed on their sites, which allows their visitors to sign the petition and obtain more information about the filtering plans.

Even children's welfare groups and NSW Young Labor has criticised the Government's filtering plans. Young Labor passed a motion rejecting the mandatory scheme and calling on Senator Conroy to adopt a voluntary opt-in system whereas Holly Doel-Mackaway, adviser with Save the Children, the largest independent children's rights agency in the world, said educating kids and parents was the way to empower young people to be safe internet users.

She said the filter scheme was "fundamentally flawed" because it failed to tackle the problem at the source and would inadvertently block legitimate resources.

So what does the Government do? Right, it tries to bully critics into silence, accuses them of supporting child pornography, and its pressing ahead with trials but doesn't give any information about the conditions surrounding them…

-Jens

National Cinemas/ National Game Cultures pt.1

This is the first part of a two part post musing about national cinemas compared to national game cultures. Today I give you some thoughts on a(n Australian) national cinema, the game part follows tomorrow. I spent a good part of last week reading Tom O'Regan's excellent "Australian National Cinema. O'Regan explains that Australia's national cinema – or any national cinema for that matter – can be evaluated through a limited number of conceptual means. These include a relation with a dominant Hollywood cinema in which the national cinema is situated under the sign of culture and Hollywood under the sign of the profane economy; a division within the national cinema between its mainstream and its peripheral or independent cinemas; and a positive evaluation of Hollywood and its legacy in local markets. This simultaneously values and devalues the local national cinema (O'Regan, 1996: 6).

Like all national cinemas, the Australian cinema contends with Hollywood dominance, it is simultaneously a local and international form, it's a producer of festival cinema, it has a significant relation with the nation and the state, and it is constitutionally fuzzy. National cinemas are simultaneously an aesthetic and production movement, a critical technology, a civic project of state, an industrial strategy and international project formed in response to the dominant international cinemas (ibid.: 100).

When the Australian state decided to revive the Australian movie industry (which in terms of indigenous production had been pretty much dead since the 1920s) its rationale followed a logic of cultural nationalism in the face of the domination of Hollywood product. It wanted an industry that situated Australians in their own history, a vehicle for a common culture and a civic ideology, a set of common understandings and aspirations, sentiments and ideas that bound the population in their homeland (ibid.: 18-19). Film-making here is crafted from a focus on specifically Australian themes and national specifities: producing an international art cinema vehicle that is associated with cultural values – aesthetically in an art or quality cinema and culturally in the sense of the all too mundane national culture and its archive of myths and symbols (ibid.: 100).

Mad Max

Not too long after these support mechanisms became effective one can assess the emerging of another industrial and critical strategy opposed to this logic: It wanted to craft Australian cinema as close as possible to the American, becoming to an extent interchangeable with it producing, or rather trying to produce, dominant international cinema. It stresses what is universal, not Australian singularity (ibid.). (As O'Regan points out under reference to Mad Max director/ producer George Miller these strategies don't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive though. It's a long story…)

The official adoption of multiculturalism and the high rate of migration of course complicated the idea of film as a vehicle for common culture. Cultural policy and cultural nationalism could no longer be so easily equated as it shifted from positions concerned with managing the external relations of a sovereign national culture towards facilitating and problematising fractured and divided internal relations – a change that was incorporated into new policy guidelines regarding the "Australianess" of a movie; and a change that could still be connected to the logic of a national project in the sense that it furthers the production of films reflecting Australia's distinctiveness as a constantly emerging culture by foregrounding of cultural diversity.

But then there's the problem that in a globalized audio-visual trade the idea of distinctive Australian content (however defined) becomes discredited as this is a political economy which favors exports; a policy which runs counter to any nation building projects respectively of problematisations of Australia a diverse nation in the sense that this creates a cinema that is not of global market appeal. The idea that a national cinema is irrelevant to contemporary circumstances became especially influential in Australia through its enthusiastic adoption of economic rationalism.

O'Regan explains that what is exciting about Australian film-making since its renaissance is an overall picture marked by this double problematisation –the one which promises a film-making ecology separate from or to the side of the market, and the one which promises the utility of the market itself as the conferrer of value – and how it works in these spaces; something that makes it "fuzzy", or "messy" (ibid.: 143).

-Jens

Australia's R-Rating for Videogames (or Lack Thereof) – It could be worse

Australia is the only Western democracy without a 18+ rating for videogames (the highest rating is 15MA+). Despite talks about changing this, it looks like this is not going to remain the same – one of the main reasons being South Australian Attorney-General, Michael Atkinson. The problem is that all votes concerning a change in the rating system have to be decided unanimously. Unfortunately Atkinson's Christian beliefs keep him from supporting such a change as this would inevitably bring foul and decadent evil to Australian shores and into clean, sane Australian homes – even though 88% of Australians support the R-rating. So much for democracy. Also: Even if there was a consensus to change legislation, it might still take years to come into effect.

Considering that the average Australian game player is 28 one should think that they should be able to make their own informed choices about what they're playing. If they really want to play games they can get them anyway, either through imports or piracy. I'm sure Mr Atkinson is aware that stealing isn't very Christian but this is something his policies eventually encourage. Also if games want to be taken seriously they should incorporate adult content, not only violence but also sexual content matter. Would the gaming equivalent to "The Last Tango in Paris" (whatever that might look like. Certainly not like Mass Effect. And that already drove conservatives crazy) be possible under these circumstances? Banning these things would basically amount to ignoring human nature.

If on the other hand one looks at the issue the other way round and considers which games Australia deems suitable for 15 year-olds the picture isn't actually that bleak. Compared to my hysterical home country Germany, Australia actually seems very relaxed about violent digital games: Between mid-1996 and mid-2007 only 20 out of 7334 games released in Australia were deemed unsuitable for 15 year olds, a meagre 0,272 per cent*. Out of these 20 games, only four were banned for violence while ten were refused classification due to sexual content matter (= sexual violence, nudity, simulated sex/ sexual activity)(editors note: where can we buy these games?).

Games deemed suitable for fifteen year olds in Australia include the uncut versions of Mortal Kombat II and Dead Rising both of which were confiscated by the German public prosecution due to the depiction of excessive acts of violence. They also include Gears of War, Medal of Honour Heroes 2, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, Clive Barker's Jericho and Crackdown, games which were refused a classification by German censorship authority USK, upon which their publishers decided not to release the titles. This moreover compares to 492 titles which were classified as not being acceptable for under 18 year olds by the USK between 1 April 2003 and the end of 2007 alone.

So while I can certainly understand the frustration of Australian gamers, things could always be worse. They could live in Germany.

*These numbers were obtained from all OFLC annual reports between 1996-1997 and 2006-2007. They do not account for withdrawn titles nor games that underwent modifications, e.g. the removal of certain violent scenes and game modes, to be released on the Australian market.

-Jens

Learning From The Past: How DRM Failed in Australia

While doing research for my Ph.D. I came across the history of how radio was introduced in Australia – and how it initially failed due to some ancient DRM suggested by the industry heavyweights.

Official radio transmission in Australia commenced in 1923. In May that year the Postmaster-General convened a conference of all interested parties to consider the introduction of systematic broadcasting. At this conference E.T. Fisk, head of Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA), the company that held the Australian rights to the most crucial wireless patents, proposed a scheme "which provided for competitive broadcasting by stations each having exclusive use of a particular wavelength in a given area and getting its income from subscriptions paid by listeners whose receivers were sealed to its wavelength alone" (Barnard, 1992: 6) – basically some old-school DRM (or should I say Analog Rights Management?).

The regulations were approved in July, the first licence was applied for in August and by the end of the year six had been issued. By March 1924 it was widely held that the sealed set system had failed: Less than 1400 listeners bothered to (officially) apply for a subscription.

The scheme was not only unenforceable but it also was not supported by the wireless dealers, therefore the main responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the scheme was placed in the hands of those most likely to undermine it (Counihan, 1992: 14): Of course the dealers weren't enthusiastic about selling some crippled technology that potentially could receive dozens of stations – and neither were the customers who resorted to 'piracy'. In short: "It was obvious that the sealed set scheme was doomed from the start" (Harte, 2002: 56).

In July 1924, after another conference, the sealed set was replaced by new regulations and a dual system, involving stations funded by advertising revenue, the so-called "B" stations, as well as stations financed out of listeners' licence fees, the "A" stations, began operating. Already by the end of 1924 some 38,000 Australians held "A" station licences.

–Jens

The voter-conversation

Steven Noble had an interesting post over at the Hill & Knowlton site, Elbow Grease, a couple of days ago. Under the headline: The digital election is about what voters say to each other, Nobel argues that we spend too much time focusing on the wrong questions when we discuss the concept of "the digital election".

"The concept of "the digital election" has been attracting a lot of attention in Australia, but too much time has been spent answering the wrong question: how will social media affect the political parties and their campaigns?" Noble writes.

His point is that with a focus like that "the answer probably won't be that exciting".

"Sure, some candidates are obtaining small donations from more contributors, thanks to the internet. Certainly, others are reaching voters in new ways using new tools. However, the shift is evolutionary not revolutionary," Noble argues.

In Noble's opinion we should therefore spend less time discussing the effects of social media and instead spend more time viewing how voters are interacting - or speaking, as he puts it - with each other in the social media scene.

"Until recently, voters held their political conversations in private spaces, from the bus stop to the kitchen table. These conversations were separate from the public realm that's occupied by politicians, journalists, PR practitioners and other members of the political class. They sometimes changed how individuals voted, but they almost never became part of the public record. Today, any voter can hold a conversation in public. Every blog post can be found through a Google search. Every statement is part of public debate. Increasingly, these conversations will affect how our nation makes up its mind on election day," Noble writes.

Noble is certainly making a relevant point in his post. We should spend more time reflecting on how the voter-conversation has moved into the public sphere. However, I still believe we need to study how this impacts on the political agenda discussed by the political parties in a campaign.

Noble also led me to some interesting Australian websites where voters can discuss the election.

Check out these related links:

H&K's Election Predictor, Election Tracker and iVote Australia

- Espen

No Tax Rebate For Australian Videogame Industry

When the Australian Government decided to introduce a new media funding scheme this year. For some reason videogames weren't included and it seems the Liberals are determined to keep it that way. As Helen Coonan, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (now that's quite a portfolio there) explains:

The Screen Media Support Package announced in the Budget has the potential to benefit screen content producers of all kinds. While games will not be eligible for the tax offsets announced as part of the Package, the introduction of a Location Offset is expected to have positive indirect flow-on effects for screen businesses, as digital and visual companies develop larger and more skilled workforces.

Now this issue shouldn't be seen as life or death for the Australian videogame industry (on a side note, the movie industry has established business models – which is also due to the nature of movie production – something the game industry still has to achieve). Considering the potential for Australian game industry (taxes! Employment!) it's quite hard to understand why it wasn't included. As one commentator on Sumea put it:

Interestingly enough, both Firemint and Torus picked up a Commendation at the Governor of Victoria Export Awards on Tuesday night, which is an official recognition that games companies contribute to the export economy. Didn't see any film makers get a mention.

One could of course argue that this is exactly the reason why the movie industry needs help and the digital games industry doesn't. But this view would of course neglect the political economy of the games industry and the long term perspective (= higher production values) respectively the fact that other governments, such as Canada, highly involved in funding games (which created more than 10,000 new jobs). As I already pointed out what the Australian developers need to get over their work-for-hire status is original IP. And this is where investment gets crucial. When I asked Kevin McIntosh of Torus Games if he supported the claim of the games industry to be eligible for Federal government funding he explained:

I believe so. I mean I think… it's not… I don't want to say that it's necessary to move forward because, you know, other studios are saying "We go out of business without it". I don't think that it's the case that the government is coming and save us like a white knight. But it will… it will take us to the next level. Because right now we're work for hire companies and we're hired to do other people's work you know. But what this other money needs to do is help us create our own IP. And take it to the world. Because that's when you can really start to, you know,  generate some, you know, proper attention, proper income. And it let's you bring some revenue into Australia from that. Right now all the money is going out of Australia. You know, we get enough in to do the games; but the most… most return on the games is going to the Americans… and, you know, to the French…

The Game Developers Association of Australia (GDAA) naturally holds a similar view

We have advised government that based on our current industry standing and projected earnings, we conservatively estimate that if they were to extend a 40% rebate to the game development industry in Australia it would lead to an additional $25 million in new investment into original Australian titles each year.

THey even started a petition. And it seems to work with the movie industry (it actually already did back in the 80s with the 10BA tax concession which led to the golden era of the Australian movie business and the emergence of the mini series). As Greg Coote, the Los Angeles-based former head of Channel Ten and Village Roadshow Pictures puts it:

... I think it will cause a production explosion down there.

Bioshock and the Australian Videogame Industry

Internet! Finally! But then again the opportunities of me contributing more to this blog remain marginally slim because I'm playing Bioshock, "the ultimate rarity: not only does it live up to its lofty promise, but exceeds it through simple, old fashioned talent and imagination - not to mention verve, style,class, wit, and sheer bloody-minded ambition. It takes the tired, worn-out FPS genre by the scruff of the neck, reinvents and bend it out of shape in such a breathtaking fashion that it's going to take something very special to top this in the months and years ahead" (Eurogamer). Well that – and it skillfully disguises its linearity. It's not only one of the best games of the year, or the last years for that matter, but also exactly what the Australian videogame industry needs. For the uninitiated: The studio responsible for the game, Irrational, is based in Boston and Canberra where the core technology team resides. One of the problems of Australia's games industry is that it's mainly a work for hire industry. While this reduces the risk for the developers and can help to build infrastructure, respectively to enhance the skills base it goes together with a smaller revenue stream for the studios – and most of the profits are going abroad – the consequence being that this procedure doesn't build value onto the business. Furthermore the question remains if this model is viable under a long term perspective. Regions in Eastern Europe skill-wise rapidly catch up but are able to deliver their work at much cheaper rates. Then there're India and Asia which already provide reliable outsourcing services albeit still suffer from a cultural barrier that make their games not too appealing to the Western markets. But maybe it's just a matter of time until this problem is overcome (which I doubt). Also: If you as a publisher are looking for a studio to work on your IP why not choose a country like Canada; it offers generous state incentives and, not matter where you're operations are based, it's closer than Australia.

The answer: Own creative IP. As Mark Fludder from Queensland Government explained to me in an interview: "We're going to need to see local IP developed and again […] Otherwise: why not move it to the Czech Republic?... We need to be saying, well, you know… Pandemic's Destroy All Humans is a really good example, it's their own make and was all developed and scripted here. It was a big hit, so when whoever owns Pandemic at any given moment on the continuum is going to say: 'Do we continue to invest in Australia? Well, hey... they're making good games'. And I think that's important, I think Australia is going to have to do that".

Tom Crago of the GDAA holds a similar view (from the gamenews.com.au newsletter): "“To have such a high profile title come out of a local studio not only shows the world what our talent here is capable of, it also draws attention to the broader Australian industry, which is an extremely positive thing… [It] shows Government and the media that we really are on the cusp of becoming a global hub for game development” adding that “Australian-made games are mixing it with the very best in the world.”

So the potential is there – and with more incentives from federal government (which until now, for some reasons solely known to Peter Costello, only generously supports the indigenous movie industry) it indeed might elevate Australia into the first league of game development.

-Jens

Trolls, John Howard and the Over-Manipulation of Reality

I wanted to write about this for ages but packing my stuff, filling out fascist custom forms and trying to read every book I can get a hold on before I leave Australia next week kept me quite busy.The article Espen points out, It's not the blogs I hate, it's their fans, reminded me of a piece I read on the Age website the other day: Cyberspace: It's the new toilet wall. What both pieces eventually come down to is the issue of trolling: a problem that persists since my German forefathers used their steam powered internets to order the weekly sausage supply. A claim isn't necessarily false if it get's repeated on a regular basis for decades and indeed trolling is a problem – without mutual respect there's no debate – but what makes the Age's piece interesting is linking the seedy orcus of the net with John Howard's Youtube speech on global warming. As Andrew Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Sydney points out in the Age piece:

"Whoever advised the Prime Minister to do it was probably ill-informed on the sort of responses he'd get. I don't think … whoever put that video together realised that forum is extraordinarily public and uncensored.. I think politically it was a huge mistake. Especially at this stage, in the lead-up to an election, this is not the medium you use for the first time without knowing the consequences and the demographic."

On the one hand John Howard's image is quite a conservative one, so maybe his advisors thought that by using the technology of the day he could appeal to a younger demographic who just knew him as the dude with the eyebrows. Fair enough. But then again: John Howard rightfully earned the image of a conservative, especially when it comes to the cause of advancing technology. It was his government after all that didn't do anything about the catastrophic broadband conditions. Also the troubles the Liberals had in utilizing Myspace are representative for the incoherent handling of these platforms (e.g. the Youtube video didn't appear on Howard's Myspace profile). All this would probably have worked better if Howard showed his affection for new forms of communications (new for him anyways) by starting his own blog. Through careful moderation he could have set the standards for conversations; it would have offered him a platform in which he could have embedded his Youtube videos which then could have been debated in a calmer tone. Or his campaigners could at least have employed some supporters to counter the nasty attacks (albeit in a subtle manner; letting people sign up a day before his video appeared without having posted a video or at least some comments elsewhere would probably have caused too much suspicion) – although another, bigger problem might lie in here. As “the doctor of spin” Steve Stockwell points out in his book “Political Campaign Strategy” the Liberal's spin over the years caused a over-manipulation of reality that comes with it's costs. For a while the government was no longer comfortable talking to its constituents who were all spun out: "This is the danger of too much spin. There comes a time when it is too easy for your opponents to put out the spin that all your pronouncements are spin. There will never be a return to a time without spin because because politics is always about spin, but as the public become more media savvy the observation of spin and criticism, not only of its techniques but also its contents will become a media staple as journalists and citizens learn to create democracy from within the information flow” It seems that the media-savvy demographic “spins” back, respectively expresses its anger over the spin it had to endure over the years – in a crass language that was born out of a medium with a short attention span.

Subject: Greetings from New Zealand

From: Jens SchroederSubject: Greetings from New Zealand To: Espen, Parker

Hi guys,greetings from New Zealand. I'm having an awesome time here – despite freezing my a** off. Coming from Germany I should actually be able to withstand minus five degrees but I guess living in tropical conditions for the last two years kind of affected my ability to adapt to cold weather. Also: when I moved to Australia I never thought that I was going to be confronted with anything resembling ice or snow, accordingly I only possess light clothing and three token sweaters. My answer to that problem lay in the “onion principle” aka layering – when I went jet-boating in Queenstown I was wearing two t-shirts, two sweaters and two jackets. I found a bit hard to breathe, but I'd choose health over dignity any time.

Today I arrived in Christchurch again after a wonderful trip through the breathtaking scenery of the South Island: Snow covered mountains, rainforests, fjords, glaciers, all of almost incomprehensible beauty. Check the photos on Facebook: Pt1 & Pt2!

Since I didn't want to carry it around all the time and was moving a lot I didn't want to take my laptop with me. So after a long day of sightseeing instead of seeking entertainment and news from the internets I, rather extensively, watched TV. Something which I haven't done for ages. The result: I feel about 20% more stupid than before. I feel like a victim of CNN's agenda setting, since I have to passively absorb their programs without being able to countercheck their reports or consult a variety of opinions with the help of the extensive resources the internet has to offer. In short: I just don't feel empowered.I retain some empowerment respectively the ability to avoid Nicole Ritchie related news through my iPod. I loaded some documentaries on there before I left, one of them being “God's Next Army”, which deals with the Patrick Henry College, the supposed Harvard for the Christian Right. Watching this made me think that one of the reasons American conservatives have issues utilizing blogs for the purposes is the influence of these people – the main problem being that the bible is taken literally by Evangelical powers as if enlightenment never happened: basically not much of a difference to Islamic dogmatism with strong undertones of theocratic fascism. Now, the underlying principle of blogs is (ideally!) the concept of exchange and negotiation in a public sphere, a spirit of debate that leads to better outcomes, Espen's thesis being a case in point. However, if you're on a divine mission and take a dogmatic stand that doesn't allow for any negotiation and use debates to impress your view on your opponents instead of reaching for a greater good, this principle gets disrupted (yeah, yeah, I know... sounds pretty idealistic and unworldly, but I think you get the point. And since not all Republicans are adherents of this kind of Christianity but good old conservatives there are probably other issues, such as demographics, that complicate the adaptation to new technology).

Well, it seems that American conservatives aren't the only ones having trouble utilizing new ways of reaching the electorate. Even though John Howard released a speech on global warming on Youtube, the Liberal's Myspace presence still seems to have some issues – the main reason being John Howard refusing to create his own profile page because he doesn't want to lend his identity to a commercial organisation (which is, quite frankly, pretty ironic since the privatization of public services his party supported he lend much of Australia's identity to commercial organisations). Writes The Age:

Mr Howard's office today added a video on climate change to YouTube, but at the time of writing it had not been added to the party's MySpace page."They [the Liberal party] are not using their profile as effectively as they should be," said MySpace spokesman Darain Faraz."If you go on their profile it still says they've got 8 friends, and we know that they've had a lot more requests than that. It would be great if they started using it in the same way that other political parties have."The office of the Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, has been busily adding friends to Mr Rudd's profile since Thursday. It listed 6058 friends as of this morning.The leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, has also embraced Impact, and his profile lists 182 friends.Labor politicians outnumber Liberals by more than two-to-one on Impact.The Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the Workplace Relations Minister, Joe Hockey, are the only Liberal profiles being regularly updated with approved friends and comments.   

Espen, maybe you should come back to Australia and become a consultant for the Liberal's internet matters. Anyways, I gotta go, I already spend ages in this internet café. At least all this typing kept my fingers warm.

Talk to you soon! Jens

Espen's Thesis

As many of you may or may not know, BlogCampaigning was originally created almost a year ago as part of Espen Skoland's thesis on politics and blogging for his Master of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communications (Honours) at Griffith University, Australia. This site has served as a way for Espen to interact with the online community as he developed his thoughts on the topic of blogs and political campaigning. While it has since grown to include my view points on the PR industry, Web 2.0, and other miscellany as well as the video game theory of Jens, and the work of a few other contributors, the essential goal of the site has remained the same.

Espen is currently putting the finishing touches on the thesis, and he will be making it available online both as a pdf and as a series of posts her on BlogCampaigning.

We are planning on posting the thesis in reverse order (with the last part of the paper posted chronologically first, the first section of the paper published chronologically last). This will, it will show up in the right order when read online and via a feed reader. If anyone has a better suggestion, we are very open to hearing it (please leave a comment, or e-mail me).

As the BlogCampaigning site manager, I'm very excited about this, because I think that this is the first time that a major academic paper has been published in this manner. If anyone wants to prove me wrong on this point, I'll buy them a drink if they come to the Toronto area.

This won't be the end of BlogCampaigning, either. Jens, Espen, and I have discussed how much we enjoy working on the site that we want it go on.

So thank you for checking us out now and then, and we hope you continue to do so even after this online publication of Espen's thesis.

-Parker, BlogCampaigning Site Manager

Australian Polticians Utilising Myspace

The 51st state always lags behind a little bit. But now it has finally caught up. As The Age reports, various Australian Federal Government ministers and shadow ministers are to create MySpace profiles before the election in order to reach the alienated youth:

The site's director of safety and security, Rod Nockles, said the project would allow politicians to directly engage with younger voters, a "difficult to reach" but "important" age demographic. (…) Mr Nockles said an Australian version of MySpace Impact would be launched "within a couple of months", most likely via a launch party held in Canberra. He would not confirm specifically which individuals had been approached, but said only federal politicians were initially being targeted. "I can't confirm the individuals but I can confirm for you that we are planning to launch Impact in the near future and that we have quite a number of high profile ministers and shadow ministers from either side who will be participating," Mr Nockles said.

Soon to arrive: Australian politicians utilizing Facebook profiles and tools (and probably Second Life…uh...).That said, according to The Age, MySpace Australia has three million members, 50 per cent of which are over the age of 25, so definitely a huge potential there and a move into the right direction.

-Jens

A Public Broadcaster For Digital Games

Last week I met Alesandra Sainty from Krome Studios to have a chat with her about the Australian video game industry and the mechanisms the state and federal government put in place to support it. Krome is actually one of the few examples of a company which incorporates parts of Australian culture into its games, namely the TY-series. One of the problems here is that this Australian content had to be toned down to not frighten the average American player with Aussie humor or expressions. Of course, this brings the danger that you end up with the Americanized cliche version of your own culture. Games meanwhile shape the imagination of a generation, and they're becoming an increasingly popular pastime and gain more and more mainstream success – but they barely give you a sense of your own identity or your place in the world (unless you're American or Japanese, and even there it's more hyperreal culture than anything else). For the cinema, Gough Whitlam could still claim that it was able to communicate the ideas, the stories, the history and culture of Australia to international audiences. For games this is simply not the case.Of course games are a not a narrative medium (such as movies) but they are conveying powerful messages (and who knows what games will be capable of in 15 years). What one has to keep in mind though is that the Australian market is to small for noble cultural intentions and that the game industry and its political economy is tough. And it's not like this is a new problem. In fact it's almost as old as the country itself and is a defining factor of Australia's audiovisual media. Whenever a new popular medium was introduced it was, broadly speaking, quickly "colonized" by American or British content. That is unless the government stepped in and introduced a quota and established other means of support (such as giving grants etc) to benefit the local production industry. Now even though these mechanisms always kept the economic aspects of the industry in mind the main justification for them was based on cultural grounds. This started to change in the 90s (the catchword here is globalisation) and the rationalisation for these mechanisms shifted to a logic of economic rationalism. Which is fair enough considering the state of the industry and the advantages Australia has as a place to develop games at – not trying to make a buck out of that would be pretty insane. Still: Economic rationalism treats people like customers, not citizens and therefore can't justify all their needs. Which brought me to idea public broadcasting service for games. In Australia the ABC was often the driving force behind experimental, innovative formats that later served as an inspiration for the commercial stations. It didn't have to worry about market forces but could pursue its agenda of nation building (a good example Alesandra mentioned was "Kath and Kim"). And even though not many people watch the ABC the majority is glad it's there (and yes, I know, the ABC isn't as unpopular as everyone always claims, but you get the idea). Now imagine a government founded game developer counterpart to that. Not only could it break through the logic of standardization that still prevails the industry, it could also explore the role games could play in forming some sort of national identity and nation building. However to put things a bit in perspective: One can argue at this point how "damaging" influence of foreign content was on Australia as well as there are several very valid points that confute the effects of cultural imperialism. And that doesn't even take Australia's insecurity about its own identity into account, respectively the question in how far it is possible to reach such a construct in a highly derivative culture. But even so there still would be the chance of really innovative content getting developed, content that doesn't have to have the market as the main criteria – content that could also benefit the local industry and enhance its creative profile. Just like the ABC served as a ground for experimentation that later inspired the commercial stations.

-Jens