COVID-19, the “Gift” that Keeps on Giving
Obviously, we’re all probably a little concerned about being in a classroom during a pandemic. I hope we can get through this semester without any instructional change after these first two weeks, but, if needed, we can go to a 100% online and asynchronous class. If the pandemic has taught us anything, online education isn’t ideal, but it’s a responsible solution. Although I have a huge online presence, please recognize that this isn’t an online course. However, you have BOTH a class website and a Canvas page.
Why both? Why a website AND a Canvas page. I promise you I’m not doing this to confuse you. You are the immediate audience, but I have colleagues elsewhere who benefit from this resource—and they should thank me more often! The class website has notes for the readings and other topics that you can access from anywhere. Only twice in 16 years has there been a situation where my class website wasn’t available. First, there was a fire in the server room, which shut down personal websites. Then, last semester, the website didn’t work for a week when they were changing the URL from uncc.edu to charlotte.edu. Canvas (and the previous class management systems) crashes more often. All your work will go through Canvas—including the Essays, Exams, and Discussion posts. The course notes are all on this website.
Today, you should review these notes and finish reading the following assigned readings (available on Canvas):
- Asimov, Isaac. “A Cult of Ignorance.” Newsweek. 21 Jan 1980: p. 19.
- Ivory, James D. Ch. 1: “A Brief History of Video Games.” Eds. Rachel Kowert & Thorsten Quandt. The Video Game Debate 1st edition, 2016.
- Toscano, Aaron. “Introduction.” Video Games and American Culture, 2020.
Don’t forget to read the entire syllabus—there’s a code for $1 Million…
- Read the course syllabus–Read the entire thing
- Technical/Professional Minor (more FYI than required)
- Review the notes, vocabulary, and discussion post requirements below
- Cultural Studies
- Vocabulary for Cultural Studies
- Isaac Asimov’s “A Cult of Ignorance”
- The Video Game Debate, Ch. 1: “A Brief History of Video Games”
- “Introduction,” Video Games and American Culture
Simply put, studying culture. Having a cultural studies lens means one looks at ideas, values, movements, and society in general as being mediated be prevailing characteristics of a group (often on a large scale). This approach attempts to find (or read) the meanings of artifacts (ideas, technologies, and texts—including literature, film, music, etc.) as products of the cultures from which they come.
I often use the example of culturally (or socially) constructed technologies and sciences. There’s a social demand for new science and technology. Of course, initial reasons for researching a science or developing a technology can change based on how consumers use the technologies in ways not intended by inventors. Normally, though, there’s a demand that gets fulfilled. For instance, humans like to communicate over long distances; therefore, the telegraph, telephone, and radio were invented. Humans want individual, instant communication; therefore, the cell phone was developed. This next one might seem too simplistic, but it follows the above pattern perfectly: people want to live, live longer, and live well, so medicine—vaccines, pain killers, fever reducers, etc.—is developed.
No artifact or idea is created in a vacuum—meaning, devoid of external influence. Scientists, engineers, authors and the materials they create are products of the characteristics of their culture, which includes the culture’s moment in time. Although we can’t identify universally essential features of each individual, we can argue (and support) what appear to be prevailing values of a culture. Unlike analysis that aims to “unlock” meaning based on an individual’s life (e.g. psychoanalysis), a cultural studies perspective interprets individual and group actions as primarily influenced by culture. People don’t like to hear this because it emphasizes that we’re really just herd animals. [Here’s what psychology tells us. Look familiar?—that’s a picture of a herd of people in line for Black Friday shopping.]
Cultural Studies is inherently interdisciplinary because it borrows methods of interpretation from a variety of disciplines: History, Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology, and others. In this class, when we focus on video games or related media, we’ll mostly consider it from historical and cultural perspectives—time period and society, respectively. One major discussion we’ll have is the place of meaning making…I’ll discuss my biases when we meet face to face.
Vocabulary for Discussing Culture
These are important terms to know when talking about culture and communication. Sometimes we (English professors) use different terms interchangeably, but the definitions below are good for our purposes in this class. They might not be the exact definitions your fields adhere to, but, knowing there are slight differences, allows you to (re)consider how a person from a certain discipline comes to knowledge.
- Ideology: prevailing cultural/institutional attitudes, beliefs, norms, attributes, practices, and myths that are said to drive a society. Members of a culture (or subculture) aren’t devoid of ideology. Take a look at the OED Online’s 1st and 4th definitions.
- Hegemony: the ways or results of a dominant group’s (the hegemon) influence over other groups in a society or region. The dominant group dictates, consciously or unconsciously, how society must be structured and how other groups must “buy into” the structure. For example, the former Soviet Union was the hegemonic power influencing the communist countries of Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
- Systemic:* (adjective) pertaining to an entire system, institution, or object; something ‘systemic’ cannot be removed from the system.
- Rhetoric: the ability to perceive the available means of persuasion (Aristotle), or the ways in which meanings are conveyed.
- Epistemology: “a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.”
- Genre: literary or other textual products “with certain conventions and patterns that, through repetition, have become so familiar that [audiences] expect similar elements in the works of the same type” (Dick, p. 112).
- Illusion: “false or misleading representation of reality.”
- Privilege: (as a verb) to grant something a special right or status; to value something over another. An economist privileges a worldview that believes individuals make decisions based on maximizing self interest.
- Ambiguity: “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention.”
The last word, ambiguity, is extremely important for this type of class. Unlike assumptions of other disciplines, we’re not searching for material to plug into an equation. Most answers will be contextual–they will depend on the situation. Not all ideas are black and white, but we often absorb information from speakers that, rhetorically, present ideas as black and white. You should be ready to leave class with more questions than answers. That doesn’t mean you leave saying, “what was that all about?” Instead, you leave being able to ask smarter questions. A more informed person and one able to deal with ambiguity, will be able to ask smarter questions. Remember what Voltaire said:
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd. (Voltaire)
*Systemic–This term has been used quite a bit to explain the causes of the recent social unrest. Racism (as well as sexism) is said to be “systemic” because it’s part of the system. The United States was founded on white male supremacist ideals: slavery, misogyny, etc. If that sentence above disturbs you, good. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand and pretend the legacy of slavery and disenfranchisement (of many groups) hasn’t affected the United States today. I think we’d agree that things are “better,” but the lies that we’ve reached full equality or a “color blind” society still persist. Unlearn.
Isaac Asimov’s “A Cult of Ignorance”
The great Isaac Asimov is a major figure in science fiction. He wrote more than science fiction (he was quite prolific), including popular press articles of which “A Cult of Ignorance” is one. Unfortunately, when doing cultural studies analyses, we often uncover bad or unsettling aspects of our culture. Many people deride cultural studies for this, but it’s important to understand that not everything about our system has benefited everyone else equally (or at all in some cases). Fortunately, because American culture is based (in part) on freedom of speech, we’re free to critique the system without fear of repercussions…that’s a system I’m glad to live under!
Overall, Asimov doesn’t think Americans think critically enough. In fact, in 1980, he told us we didn’t read enough, so we couldn’t possibly have a right to know because we put no effort into knowing.
Consider the following themes of Asimov’s short article:
- What might be contemporary examples of this? Consider the anti-vaccination and COVID-19 quarantine protester crowds.
- For further information, beyond the scope of this class, check out evidence that the public trust in higher education has fallen.
- Who are the elites? What’s the difference between economic and intellectual elites?
- Right to know
- With great rights come even greater responsibility…
- What’s Asimov’s point about the public’s assumption they have the right to know?
- Credibility and trust
- What are credible sources? Who are credible people?
- How might you rank the following people in terms of credibility?
- Uber/Lyft Driver
- Hedge Fund Manager
- Asimov claims reading scores have dropped, but he doesn’t provide any evidence
- The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been tracking reading (and math) scores since 1971.
- This NAEP graph (pdf) shows some improvement for particular age groups, but is it significant improvement, or does it look pretty much the same since 1971?
- Drop in magazine readership
- Consider Asimov writing in 1980…the internet wasn’t in anyone’s home, so newspapers, magazines, and network (not cable) news was how people got their information.
- Although debatable, one could get news information from more media these days (although not necessarily in-depth reporting) because there are a good portion of Americans who don’t read books.
- Ignorance vs willful ignorance
- Consider “ignorance” in the non-pejorative sense to mean “not knowing.” We are all ignorant in that we don’t know everything. I’m extremely ignorant on nuclear physics, organic chemistry, fishing, childcare, among other things.
- The problem is willful ignorance or celebrating one’s ignorance as a badge of honor. Willfully ignoring the facts because they don’t fit one’s worldview is beyond ignorant; it’s allowing conviction to lead you to conclusions.
- “true concept of democracy”
- He probably means that citizens need to be informed to participate in democratic institutions.
- Honestly, the United States isn’t really a democracy; it’s a republic where people vote for (the best and brightest…) representatives to pass laws and govern. However, this is a better discussion for your political science and history classes.
- Asimov is claiming at the end of his article that, without striving to learn, without having an educated citizenry who don’t celebrate their ignorance, we don’t have a true democracy or rule by the people.
- Oh well, what does he know. He’s just a sci-fi writer.* It’s not like he can predict the future…
*For those of you who don’t know me, this bullet point needs to be read in a sarcastic tone. I absolutely love Asimov’s work.
Possible final thought that has no real resolution: Why not trust the experts? Are there contemporary examples you can think of where the masses (or a large portion of the masses) don’t believe scientists—including health care experts?
The Video Game Debate, Ch. 1: “A Brief History of Video Games”
The author of the chapter, James D. Ivory, makes the point that there’s no single point in time from where video games begin. His analogy of “convergent evolution” makes sense, but we could also say video games were a polygenesis–they had multiple beginnings. Consider his reference to Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Morse.
- The first video games simulated what? pp. 6-7
- p. 7: Fantasy inspiration!
- Text-based games from the late-1970s. Check out Zork
- Here’s a screen shot of the beginning of the game (thanks Rob Lammle)
- p. 17: “[E]stimates of the total revenue of the worldwide video game market are in the neighborhood of $81.5 billion to $93 billion USD [check source]….As much as a quarter of this is generated by the industry in the United States.”
- Gender breakdown p. 15
“action and sport titles are most popular among males and puzzle and quiz games more popular among females.”
“the MMORPG genre…is much more male dominated, with males comprising as much as 80-85 percent.”
- p. 16: “[V]ideo games can best be understood as a combination of different media with different conceptual traditions, cultural contributions, and social impact.”
For some current statistics on video games and gamers, check out the Entertainment Software Association “2021 Essential Facts” report.
Video Games and American Culture (Toscano)
Although this book didn’t get the attention I (and my editor) expected, it’s actually more about American culture than video games. I wrote it for an audience, ironically, not interested in gaming. I’m not assigning the entire book this semester, and all the required readings are on Canvas. The “Introduction” is a good roadmap for the course.
Every week, you’ll have prompts that should inspire you to respond (in at least 250 words) to the reading from that week. All of these will be on Canvas and due Fridays by 11:00 pm—not midnight…11:00 pm. You are responsible for doing these prompts AND making sure your response made it to Canvas, so, after submitting, check to make sure it’s there. Again, that is your responsibility. To ensure you don’t suffer from a Canvas glitch, type these responses up in a word processor (MS Word, Google Docs, etc.) and then copy + paste the response into the Canvas text box, which also provides a word count.
What you should do right now is set a weekly reminder for Thursday—giving yourself a day ahead—that alerts you a weekly reflection is due. Yes, they’re due Friday at 11:00 pm, but set the reminder for Thursday. I will not allow make ups.
Your first prompt is to provide some information about yourself. Because of drop-add still being open, I’m giving you until 1/20 to finish this first one. You’ll still have week #2’s prompt due on 1/20. These will be due weekly and are worth 30% of your grade. Not doing them will hurt your grade. Set that reminder now.
For Next “Class” (asynchronous–1/20)
Make sure you can access the readings on Canvas and do the Weekly Discussion Post #1, which is to post a little bit about yourself–this is a requirement. For next week, you are to read Understanding Video Games “Introduction,” Ch. 1, and Ch. 2. The syllabus and our Canvas page has a list of links for the readings.
If all goes according to plan, we’ll meet face to face the following week on 1/27 at 6:00 pm in Fretwell 210.