News: I’m a contributor to Motivate. Play.!

Hey faithful readers — I have some news that I am belatedly sharing with readers of my blog, most of whom know about this already. I’ve been added to the staff of regular contributors at Motivate. Play., where I’ll be writing about games, game design, and motivation from an ethnographer’s standpoint.

I’m really excited about this blog and this opportunity to work with these writers from different disciplines than myself. Go on over and check out the blog, and if you’re interested in my contributions so far, you can read my short primer on ethnography and gaming, or my most recent post on game design features of World of Warcraft that help players cope with repetitive failure. 

Upcoming posts will include such fascinating topics as “what was the purpose of mailbox dancers anyway?” and “why do I keep playing the Dragon Age games over and over again?” Stay tuned!

did I really…?

I just submitted my last “content” chapter of my dissertation — Chapter 8: Deception and Multimodality. I have a feeling this is the chapter I’ll get the most mileage out of, since everybody loves a good story about deception on the Internet.

Now I just have to write a conclusion. How do you conclude an 8-chapter manifesto about the beauties and nuances of multimodality? Can I just write “Hope you liked it, goodbye!”? Or how about “I hope this gets you all nervous about using voice chat in online games”?

And where, oh where, do I put the “giving back” part of the ethnography? Usually this is the section where one talks about what they’ve given back to their community in return for the data that allowed them to write this document. Mine is, pretty much, “my love, and a safe space to play”. So where does it go? In the conclusion? As a post-script? Nowhere?

Eight months ago, I was worried about how to begin this thing. Now I’m worried about how to end it. It’s true what they say, that the writing is really the easiest part; the start and the finish are the hardest.

writing into being

I read a phrase in an article today, cited to Sunden cited to boyd 2007, that in digital networks, with the absence of a body, users are required to “write themselves into being”. I’m not sure of the applicability of this in avatar-based worlds, where one can “be” with just an avatar (even if it’s kind of weird if you never interact), but in non-avatar settings, absolutely.

Whether it’s commenting on YouTube videos, blogging, authoring fanfiction, tweeting, or any other of the infinite ways to write online, most of our expression of “self” involves writing. I think about this primarily in relation to fandom – by writing essays, reviews, fiction, guides, or whatever, a fan creates their presence online in the assemblage of other fans.

We do this in academia too, though. In fact, graduate school is arguably about writing ourselves into being. I’m writing my dissertation now so that I have a manuscript out there in the world that begins the definition of who I am in the academic world. (I am lucky in that I have a few other published pieces already out there that have preceded my dissertation, so I’m already on the way of writing myself into existence.)

Is this an outdated model? We always hear “publish or perish”, but we do other things as academics – we record lectures, we have interviews, we create Powerpoints and Prezis, we display posters. We are not just writing ourselves into being, we are teaching, we are designing, we are creating – we are a multimodal society of scholars. I heard a story from Professor Sara Kajder, one of my dissertation committee members, about a graduate student that submitted a YouTube video of his journey learning to dance as one of his writing samples. She reported that many members of the admissions committee did not know what to do with such a submission – they recognized its value but weren’t sure if it counted as writing.

It’s the same thing in fandom. If you are a fanartist, surely you are part of fandom, but that community existed separately from the writing community for a long time. (Interestingly, many challenges in fan communities now pair up a fanartist with a fanauthor, connecting the two in interesting ways.) Many fans make videos of their subjects, or manipulate image stills from movies or games into attractive desktop wallpapers or user icons. Fandom is an assemblage of all of these people who all contribute to the fan culture by “existing” through different mediums – by posting their fanart, fanartists are creating their presence in an online community.

Hopefully, academia is following more and more in the footsteps of fandom in this way. I have a feeling that the new generation of academics (following many members of the current generation, too!) is going to be much more inclined to embrace this multimodal existence, and include things like video biographies as samples of work.

“If you don’t allow yourself the possibility of writing something very, very bad, it would be hard to write something very good.” -Steven Galloway

How did I learn to write?

I can attribute most of my writing ability to fanfiction.

Yes. Fanfiction. There, I said it. There is some kind of strange taboo about writing fanfiction, like it’s not “real” writing, or that authors are “stealing” ideas from the creators of the original source. There has been a lot of scholarly writing about fanfiction, notably Henry Jenkins.

I have been a writer of fanfiction probably since I could write. The earliest stuff I remember writing was something about the characters in the fighting game Killer Instinctand I still have some of the Sonic the Hedgehog 3 fanfiction I wrote. Note that I was ten years old when these games came out.

I wrote in a number of fandoms, mostly keeping it to myself (before I discovered that fandom was actually a thing and there were other people in it). My most prolific fandom years were  2003-2006, which was when my greatest output was and my greatest involvement in the community. I wrote some really terrible things in that time, but I also wrote some things that I still consider to be pretty good. My whole time in fandom was about experimenting — giving myself the opportunity to try writing, to find my style, to write something really terrible and learn from it. It was a safe space, essentially, where even the most terrible thing would be received with some kind of joy from someone, and where an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer could be found. I met some amazing fanfiction writers and fandom roleplayers in that time, from whom I learned the craft of writing and the value of critique. I count these folks among the greatest influences on my writing style, and moreso on my enjoyment of the writing process.

The point of this is that writing fanfiction was an enjoyable exercise, through which I learned a lot about the craft of writing. Mostly, it taught me that writing is fun if you’re doing it right. Even now, when I’m writing my dissertation, I can see ghosts of my fanfiction writing past. The introduction to my dissertation is an arrival story, taking the form of a narrative about how I arrived as a researcher in World of Warcraft. This is, essentially, a fanfic about myself; is it still fanfic if you’re writing it about yourself?

So there you have it, my admission of my past. How did you learn to write?

writing triggers

One of the important things about setting a writing schedule is to have a writing trigger.

What I mean by this is something that you do, or something that happens, that signals the start of your writing time. I thought of this when I was having breakfast and watching The Daily Show a few mornings ago — as soon as I was finished with my food, I put the plate down on the floor. My one cat, Isosceles, immediately went for the plate, as though me putting it on the floor is her signal that she can have whatever’s left. My other cat, Tangent, takes that same signal as her cue to get on my lap for her morning cuddles.

Maybe you might be astounded that I seem to have trained my cats. (I think it’s the other way around – they trained me.) But really, that single act of moving the plate to the floor is a trigger for them to behave in their particular ways. And so it is with writing.

A trigger can’t be “opening Microsoft Word”. How many times have you opened Word and then let it sit there while you looked at Facebook? I know I have.

A trigger should be something simple, though. For me, it’s a combination of two things: Turning on the Pittsburgh Jazz Channel and making a cup of  tea. This was a deliberate choice that I made as a way to get me into the mood to write. The music and the scent of the tea help me get into a writing groove; what’s really cool is that now, when I get inspired to write, I sometimes find myself craving ginger tea.

One person I know uses making her morning coffee as a trigger for writing. She writes very early in the morning, so she gets out of bed, makes coffee, and then writes. That works well for her, although it doesn’t work for me since my early morning writing is generally pretty awful and lacks logical consistency.

Do you have a writing trigger? Did you make it on purpose, or did it just happen that way?

writing begets writing

Writing has been compared to a muscle — the more you write, the easier it is to write. By exercising the writing muscle, a person may find it easier to write in the future.

A lot of writing advice says to write at the same time each day, make a habit of it, write consistently for an hour, don’t write when inspiration hits you but write regardless of inspiration or not. I’ve found that it has to go both ways – I must write daily, but also write when inspiration hits.

These days, I’ve been working on my dissertation almost constantly, and I’ve been working a lot from home. I build two hours into my day for solid writing, and two hours for editing. However, I find that more and more, I spend time in the lunch hour or the reading hour or even after hours writing. Not necessarily on my dissertation at all those times, but on other things, like blog posts or even personal writing projects. That is, the more I force myself to write, the more comfortable I feel with writing, and the more my brain gets attuned to writing things. Writing has become a pleasure again.

Outside of the two hours built into my schedule, I find that it’s really important to write when you are inspired. For me, if I don’t write something when I think of it, I will inevitably lose it. Since I am able to work from home a lot of days, I am always near a computer; when I am on campus or otherwise, I always have a notebook with me just in case.  I have found that I can’t afford to think “I’ll just remember this for later, when I’m doing my daily writing tomorrow” — the inspiration for whatever it was will be gone. Perhaps professional writers, who have more of a polished mind for these things, can operate like that; I can’t, and perhaps because my writing muscle is not as toned as theirs. So I write whenever I can, however I can, and about anything I can.

in which the e-linguist fails at pseudonyms

This is a tale from the field.

One of the conditions of my ethnographic work on World of Warcraft is that I preserve the anonymity of my informants. I usually don’t use (or interact much) with the “real names” of my participants. I have a few as friends on Facebook and have even met a few in “real life”, but mostly, I never use the names of my participants in my work. I do, however, use avatar names — but to use these, even though they’re already sort of pseudonyms, I have to create pseudonyms for the pseudonyms.

Leaving aside the interesting layers of names and anonymity, picking pseudonyms is a really annoying job. Some participants have pseudonyms that they want to use (which is awesome, because then I don’t have to do anything). Sometimes I use a fantasy name generator that I’ve been using since the days when I wrote fiction for fun. Sometimes, my participants have names that reference a certain fandom or real person or even object names that I can anonymize by using related figures. And even fewer times, I try to be witty with my pseudonyms. This almost never works out the way I want it to.

Let’s talk about a person I’ll call J for right now. J is a participant in my ethnography, and one of those who has migrated from the realm of “participant” to “WoW friend” to “friend”. I love J in many ways, most of them related to his smart jokes and his amusing turns of phrase. J is also the unfortunate recipient of my most epic pseudonym failure yet.

J, an art student, once told me that he enjoys naming his characters after historical artists. When I was coming up with his pseudonym for the first time (for a class paper in 2009), I felt like his name was one of those that I could anonymize by using a related figure. J’s main character’s name was Greek, and (being a Greek nerd, as some of you may know), I have some knowledge of Ancient Greek people. I decided to name J’s character after a famed Greek rhetorician who wrote about style and oratory, Aelius Theon, who shares his name with Theon of Alexandria who wrote a humorous dictionary of Greek comedies, as well as a bunch of mathematicians named Theon. So I called J “Theon” as an homage to his turns of phrase which always amused me.

(Some of you may see where this is going.)

A year later, I began reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (this is the series that is being made into HBO’s Game of Thrones series), and encountered Theon Greyjoy. I’m not going to spoil anything about Theon’s story from the book, except to say he is a rather unfortunate and unlikable character who makes some bad decisions. At first, it wasn’t so bad — I didn’t figure that most people would encounter ASoIaF, so Theon Greyjoy’s name wouldn’t be widely known. Then they made the TV show, and it became a hit, and Theon is portrayed in the show as even less likable than he is in the books (I wasn’t sure that was even possible). So I worry that Theon’s name would be associated with Theon Greyjoy rather than to nobody (or to Aelius Theon, who was probably lesser known than Theon Greyjoy even before GoT the show came out), and the concern about that is that the use of this name will color the ways that my readers understand J in my work.

So now, to avoid this trouble, I am going to find another pseudonym for J, one that doesn’t have such connotations. Maybe I’ll just stick with the name generator and avoid being clever from now on.