Toronto's Mesh Conference: 3 Highlights

The annual Mesh Conference in Toronto is always a big highlight of the year for me (despite the fact that I missed it last year). It's one of the places where, after moving to Toronto, I first realized that there were other people interested in this social media stuff and that the web had more potential than I even thought. How Adult Entertainment is Shaping The Web

Also often referred to as "The Porn Session," this panel discussion with Allison Vivas, Peter Nowak and Patchen Barrs was probably one of the best of the conference. While it didn't exactly get into the details of how adult entertainment was shaping the web, the panelists did talk about how the adult industry was either sinking or swimming as the web becomes the dominate communications platform. As these companies are early adopters and on the fringes, any big technology changes impact them. I won't go into the part of the conversation that was about the potentially booming industry of teledildonics and sex robots.

I will say that the whole thing got also got me super stoked to be working in advertising, as it reminded me of how much traditional media organizations are struggling to come up with ways to monetize their content.

Advertisers are uniquely positioned to create amazing content for free on behalf of our clients. We want people to share it is, pass it along. To us, consumer copying truly is the sincerest form of flattery, not representative of lost revenue.

For your reference, I've included the notes that my friend Brad Buset took during this presentation:

Brad Buset Mesh

Lessons on Gamification: Myths & Misunderstandings Dispelled

I want to preface anything I say about this presentation with the fact that I think the presenter, Brian Wong, is an incredibly smart guy who was a fantastic speaker and that I'm hoping I can catch up with him sometime in the future to hear more about his company, Kiip. Brian clearly understands the concepts of gamification, and has worked them nicely into Kiip. However, his whole presentation got me thinking:

In general, the problem I have with most people talking about 'gamification' is that they only reference other types of gamification, rather than actual games. I see this as a huge miss on the part of the web/app/social media industry. The further away we get from the types of games that spawned this trend, the worse off everyone is going to be. I mean, if the next generation of 'gamified' apps or marketing ideas are just copies of the current crop, where will we be?

Seriously - when was the last time you saw someone speak/write about gamification who you felt actually played some serious games? Modern Warfare is one of the best selling entertainment franchises EVER, and it did so because it is a game that took it self seriously. Let's start talking a look at how games like this treats rewards and badges and, this part is important, the ACTUAL GAME, not how other examples of gamification also use game-like aspects.

Digital Ethnography

I won't go into a ton of detail about this session except to say that BlogCampaign's own Heather Morrison and her colleagues did a fantastic job presenting some of the methodology their agency, Sequentia-Environics, does when researching online communities. She'll be following up with another post soon about this, as well as with some of the results from an in-depth research piece she worked on that was released the same day as her presentation.

Were you at Mesh this year? What were some of the highlights for you?


Can Video Games Be Art?

Roger Ebert did it again: after watching a recorded lecture about games' artistic potential by game designer Kellee Santiago, he once more stated how he remained "convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art.” The overwhelming reaction: Ebert is passing these judgments because he knows games. Surely he based his criticism—and his vision of the future of an entire medium—on an intimate understanding of the subject matter. Right.

Ebert has never played any games. He isn't familiar with the medium. He doesn't like it, play it, understand it. He has merely watched videos of different titles. As the Globe and Mail points out:

That’s akin to judging a movie’s artistic worth based on stills and trailers. … For him to weigh in on the artistic value of interactive entertainment is like someone who believes the work of Jackson Pollock has no merit or meaning talking about the lack of artistry in splatter painting.

What I find fascinating about Ebert's standpoint is that it also seems to be closely related to a generational conflict. He belongs to a generation which simply lacks the instruments to make sense of a new mass medium. He doesn't even attempt to acquire them.

If someone as knowledgeable and outspoken and competent in terms of (more established) mass media such as Ebert is already affected by this generational gap, you can't really be surprised at the resistance games have to face from parts of mainstream society and media.

While they paint video games as an unwholesome leisure pursuit and idle waste of time ("Murder simulators! Violence! Deviance!"), Ebert is just able to express his misgivings more eloquently.

-Jens Schroeder

Game Developers are Just Like Musicians

Right now, everyone's attention is focused mainly on music piracy. That's because people have figured out how to get music for free (or download it easily for a small price) for a long time. This is due to the fact that the average size of a song is only a few MBs, and an album is generally less than 100MB. Downloads are quick, and "piracy" so easy that it has become commonplace. The reason that downloading isn't as widespread for movies and television shows is because the files are so much bigger, and often greater knowledge of which media player to use is needed. Pretty much every audio track you are likely to download will play on your mp3 player, as well as on your computer somehow. It seems that few video files will play on a basic install of Quicktime or Windows Media Player, and that often additional plugins are needed (and yes, I'm sure that if you are reading this blog you know how to download and play movies easily on your computer - you aren't the people I'm talking about).

However, I think that this will rapidly change. People will quickly realize how much media they can get via the computers and lawsuits like those initiated against file sharers by the major music labels might be directed at those sharing movies and television shows.

And that is why it is so refreshing to see the stance that some indie game developers are taking. Like the independent musicians before them that have managed to be successful while giving away their music for free, these developers can do the same.

"We're all here because we love making games first and foremost," said independent games developer Steve Swink, echoing similar statements from independent musicians that just want people to hear their music.

The quote is from an article on Techradar called Is Free Really The Future of Gaming? that looks at these issues from both the perspective of the smaller, independent developers like Wink as well as larger studios like Sony and EA.

The article also raises the question about whether or not advertising is really the solution to creating free medium. This applies to media besides games, and I'm inclined to think that advertising isn't really the solution.

Rather, I think that companies will work more in tandem with game developers. The obvious example is of a car company working with a game company to create the virtual experience of driving the car. To move beyond this will be more difficult, but nobody said that business is easy. Similarly, I've been seeing more and more examples of corporations teaming up with musicians to essentially sponsor a song or album, and offer downloads of it for free as a way of promoting their product.

Games have also been using the add-on content model, in which the initial game experience is free but you can buy upgrades or customization for a price. With this model, they once again have something in common with musicians that have discovered they can give their basic music away for free and charge for scarcer goods like vinyl LPs or t-shirts. The game developers will just have to create demand for in-game goods in a similar way.


Videogames Are Our Future

If you've been a BlogCampaigning reader for more than a few weeks you'll know that Jens and I are both quite interested in ludology, the study of video games. I'm fairly convinced that video games are the future of both entertainment and communications. I don't mind that they aren't being taken as seriously as I think they should be - it just means that there will be greater opportunity for people like Jens and I further down the line.

Like many of our activities, games are becoming increasingly social. According to a recent Pew Report, for teens "gaming is a social activity and a major component of their overall social experience."

The report finds that 65% of game-playing teens play with other people who are in the room with them, while only 27% play games with people who they connect with through the internet. I think that those numbers are going to change rapidly, that the teens who are most easily able to connect via the internet to interact with their peers to play games and solve online puzzles will be the ones who are most succesful later in life.

This might be explained by an article in Wired finds that gamers are using the scientific method to complete missions and raids. In one example from the article, a game academic notes that the teenage boys she studied (I'm hesitating to use the phrase "played with" here) "were building Excel spreadhseets into which they'd dump all the information they'd gathered about how each boss behaved" and that they would use these spreadsheets to "develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked -- and to predict how to beat it."

And if you're worried about becoming the out-of-shape, pale stereotype of the gaming nerd like Jens, don't fret. According to a recent study gamers are more physically fit than the average American (Jens is just lazy). If that wasn't enought o get you feeling good about video games, a recent article in The National Post reports that a number of retirement centers in Ontario are using the Nintendo Wii to stage a series of competitions.

"It's hand-eye co-ordination, visual stimulation and works as various forms of therapy. If they are in their wheelchair, it gets them excited, gets them enthralled into something that maybe they didn't do before. They are not just sitting there watching something; they are actually engaged," said Chris Brockington, senior marketing consultant for the group of retirement homes.  One of the residents added that the games were "both a wonderful social activity and a great way to exercise."

I've also posted previously about my thoughts on the importance of video games here, and you can read all posts about video games by Jens and myself here.

-Parker Mason

(thanks also to Techdirt for first pointing out some of the links mentioned above)

Digital Games as Social Commentary on Migration

Gamepolitics brought my attention to this interesting PBS website maintaining a collection of games dealing with immigration. I think games are the perfect medium to explore this issue due to the similarities between playing a game and negotiating one's way in a new, alien society: In both cases it's about trying to figure out the rules and stick to them in order to succeed. If you fail you won't be able to finish or enjoy the game respectively slip into the role of a social outcast – with the difference that games will in most cases give you another chance. An arcade game in this connection can even serve as a metaphor for bribery or the fact that money helps to gain social acceptance: As long as you feed the machine with quarters you're allowed to stay.

Due to their simulational nature and their reliance on rules as their core mechanic and defining criterion, games offer fascinating possibilities for cross cultural training and they can also serve to highlight the prejudices migrants or minorities feel in a new environment. Let's say statistics found that the chances of dark skinned emigrants finding a job are 40% lower compared to white people despite them having the same qualifications. This result now could be included as a arbitrary rule in a game dealing with finding a job in their new environment. Arbitrary because not only because it would reflect the different real-life attitudes of people living in this society (prejudiced/ not prejudiced/ not too sure etc.) but also because it can help to built up the frustration a migrant might feel while on the job hunt.

Also it made me think about the assumption that we won't play a game differently just because the tokens changed. Take chess for example, you can play it with the figurines of king and queens but you might as well just play it with different piles of mud. Will this change your overall goal or your style of play? Probably not. But imagine a game of Space Invaders where you as some border patrol officer have to shoot illegal immigrants instead of aliens. Due to the meta-text and intertextuality of the game and the representations in it you might more consciously think about your style of playing (meta-text and intertetuality = the marketing, box art, references to other media, the way the player's character and NPCs are presented and what that entitles etc. – it basically it means games don't exist in a vacuum but within discursive formations of the society they're played in). This of course always depends on your political beliefs and attitudes. Do you see these migrants as intruders who just want your piece of the cake or poor, disadvantaged people who contribute valuable services to society by doing the jobs no one wants to?