What Is Freedom of Speech?

Freedom of speech is a concept that’s easily misunderstood. As easy as it can be to extrapolate from the name that there should never be repercussions for speaking, that is not at all what freedom of speech means. It refers instead to the concept that the government does not have the right to imprison or otherwise punish its citizens for speech alone–in other words, government censorship is forbidden. This amounts not to a lack of consequences for what one says, but a lack of government control over what one says. Except where illegal activity beyond speech occurs, we have to take the government out of the equation. That’s it.

We cannot escape the fact what we say has consequences. Even if it were possible to forbid any repercussions toward the speaker, we would still see repercussions towards those who hear. The old adage, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is a lie, as words can and do cause harm, and at times leave deep emotional scarring.

At the same time, even without government censorship, for any individual or non-governmental organization to respond or react to what one says is never a violation of freedom of speech. If others call someone out for saying hateful, vitriolic, racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic comments, they are well within their rights to do so. We need to be able to communicate with one another, to call out anyone who’s being a problem, and to foster greater understanding and community.

When it comes to YouTube, freedom of speech is no excuse to let hate speech and vitriolic comments to go unchecked. We all have the right to a voice. But beyond that, we have a responsibility to whatever kind of a community and society we wish to foster.

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Journal Report: Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology

Ada is a web-only academic journal centered around feminist issues within the digital humanities. It covers a variety of topics under the heading of feminism and digital humanities, introducing a new focus with each issue.

The website for this journal has a simple layout. The clean, open background space and the toolbar at the top keeps it from feeling very cluttered. The search option could potentially be slightly less hidden, as it appears in the form of a button that unfolds into a search bar, rather than as an immediately visible search bar. The search option itself unfortunately cannot be used to search based on the names of writers, and instead only searches for terms in the title and body of the articles themselves.

The journal is relatively young; it started in 2012 and has published biannually, their most recent issue being the eighth. The issues and the articles are very easy to find, being listed right there on the main page. Once you navigate inside an issue or individual article, the left-hand sidebar makes it easy to identify both the number and general topic of the issue you’re in. The information will follow you as you scroll, eliminating the need to scroll back to the top to check the information or link to the previous or next article. The only downside to these sidebars is that the background images they contain tend to be low-resolution and blurry. They adapt the formatting of their article pages naturally and organically to the digital format, including both a comment system and options for sharing to various social media platforms.

The website is well-integrated with social media, also providing links at the top of every page to find them on multiple different platforms, as well as an XML view of the page you’re on. The social media links lead to pages not for the journal itself, but for the Fembot Collective, the group organizing the journal.

The journal and website is made for their writers as much as their readers. Their submission guidelines and review process are easily accessible from the toolbar at the top of every page. Information for writers is also found under the “issues” tab, which is slightly counter-intuitive, as the Call for Papers is the only thing missing from the main page which this tab adds. Writers have to go through here to find the email address to which they should send their submissions, which may not be entirely clear from the layout of the site.

The content of the journal is very accessible; despite the journal’s peer-reviewed status, it remains free to access, rather than being hidden behind a paywall. The greatest barrier to accessing the journal in the first place is that the journal is web-only. I find the writing style of the articles themselves to be very easy to process, contrary to my usual experience with peer-reviewed writing.

The discourse of the journal is greatly diverse; a quick glance at the titles of each issue reveals a clear effort at a diverse discourse. These issue titles point to an emphasis on intersectionality, which is an essential part of feminist discourse. They do, however, focus primarily on intersectionality with race and appear to focus less on intersectionality with other marginalized identities. Disappointingly, despite their focus on gender, the journal contains almost nothing about nonbinary genders; the only article that alludes to nonbinary genders at all is found, as expected, in Issue 5, “Queer Feminist Media Praxis.”

On the whole, however, Ada is a wonderful journal containing a variety of interesting discussion around social justice conversations that need to be had within the digital humanities community.

Little and Big Extinctions in Video Games

Bethany Nowviskie makes the criticism of much of Digital Humanities practice in asking, “What is a digital humanities practice that grapples constantly with little extinctions and can look clear-eyed on a Big One?” How video games specifically grapple with the concept of extinction mirrors the trend on many issues where video games seem to be behind but have a tremendous amount of potential.

Setting the aforementioned “Big One” aside for a moment, video game communities have largely done more poorly than other areas of the Digital Humanities even in “grappl[ing]…with little extinctions.” A large part of what makes video games unique as a form of humanistic expression is their complex relationship with the technology the work with and the constant evolution of that technology.

As a result, video games do not enjoy the same relative ease of reproducibility, and thus preservation, as other media. While any book or any film could hypothetically be formatted to be viewable on your computer, your phone, or your tablet, the same is not so easily true of any video game. Formatting a game so that it runs properly on Windows, for example, when it was originally programmed for another platform, will be an entirely different process from game to game, depending on how each individual game is programmed.

That’s not to say there haven’t been efforts to preserve games or make them more widely playable. Whenever a new piece of video game hardware is released, backwards compatibility is part of the conversation. Efforts such as Nintendo’s Virtual Console and, hypothetically, Sony’s PlayStation Now, expand the library of games whose playability is preserved on modern hardware.

But it’s not enough. More obscure games tend to be forgotten and lost to time; we may be failing to predict the potential relevance of certain works in their anthropological context. Massively multiplayer online games can only continue to exist as long as their servers continue to be active. And with mobile and tablet platforms, exclusive games can be pulled from the online stores never to be heard from again. There is a need for a greater preservation of the corpus of gaming history, but this need also presents with it unique challenges.

The Big Extinction is a different story, but video games do not tend to differ from most media in this regard. It’s fairly common, and problematic, for video games to depict the wildlife of the areas a player explores as there for the slaughter. Similar mentalities towards real-world wildlife have allowed the many species extinctions that constitute the anthropocene.

But as far as thematic approach to the question of the anthropocene, video games have started to make a little bit of leeway. Undertale is well known for allowing the player to complete the game killing either no one at all or absolutely everyone (or somewhere in between). And without spoiling what exactly it looks like, the game will judge you for what you choose to do. It is a highly effective commentary on games’ and players’ murderous attitude towards fictional monsters. Games are, however, characterized by possibility space. To varying degrees in any game, players may choose to forgo the killing; playing through the game in such a way is commonly known as a pacifist run.

Born-Digital Content after the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin’s criticism of mechanical reproduction centers around the fact that individual copies of a work are not the original. The aura he refers to is the sense of authenticity behind the experience of having or viewing an original item rather than a copy of an item. Because of the historical context in which he was writing, he makes the assumption that there always is an original out there somewhere. We make the same assumption when we refer to “copies” of a work (but that’s just an example of how our language lags behind the understandings we reach of things).

The concept of born-digital content, which Walter Benjamin may not have been able to conceptualize, throws a little bit of a wrench into his argument. We could say that born-digital content has no original by definition; thus, by Walter Benjamin’s argument, these works are devoid of any aura to be found anywhere. Finding tragedy in the existence of permanently inauthentic content is the logical conclusion of his ideas.

But let’s try framing born-digital content another way. If a work belongs to the digital space, it’s not unreasonable to say that the original exists within digital space rather than any physical space. By this logic, a space remains which one can access in order to perceive the aura of born-digital artifacts. Walter Benjamin does, after all, define the particular space, the “place where it happens to be”, as a defining aspect of the aura.

The idea of real authenticity of experience in digital content may contradict Walter Benjamin’s proclamation that the “sphere of authenticity is outside the technical.” Behind this proclamation, however, is the equation of technology with reproduction. It’s undeniable that reproduction plays an enormous role within the digital space. A great many items in the digital space can be copied and posted elsewhere with relative ease, an ease far greater than the mass production of works that existed in Walter Benjamin’s lifetime.

Social media involves a great deal of copying–or does it? While the copying and re-posting of items certainly occurs on social media, what more often occurs is sharing; the links that we reproduce tend to lead back to the location the image, video, article, etc. was originally posted. Even embedding a YouTube video leads back to the location the video is hosted on YouTube’s servers.

But would Walter Benjamin still consider any digital-born content to be authentically original? We may not be able to know, and to a certain extent it does not matter. The practical point of his argument is his criticism of capitalism, specifically that the reproduction of art feeds the capitalist machine despite reproduction adding accessibility. The question, then, becomes whether content being born digital can create that accessibility without contributing to capitalist enterprise. The answer to that will vary from content to content, but it’s also worth asking whether (and how) the internet is becoming more or less capitalist and unequal.

Game Maps and Conventional Maps

Games and game narrative have more to do with maps than some might realize. In the development of game worlds, each distinct area is referred to as a map. The usage of the term is interesting, as the game may or may not provide the player with a viewable map. Calling these areas maps seems to have more to do with the way the developers view them as they create them. In this sense, maps, in the game development process, are not a source of information, but a tool for creation. They achieve a certain means rather than being a means in themselves.

The manner in which games separate areas into multiple distinct maps flies in the face of the logic behind how we use real-world maps. With the exception of world maps, the maps in games don’t inform our understanding of the relationship between different locations. Quite the opposite, game maps focus on the experience of a game world on a more discrete level. Games may even include multiple slightly different maps seemingly of the same area in order to facilitate large changes in the area at different points in time (this is by no means required for smaller things to change). These game maps, rather than providing information from a broader perspective, instead create a sense of being in a place unique to this form of storytelling.

It’s probably fair to say that maps in the conventional sense are something different, as conventional maps zoom out beyond the perspective on the ground rather than in. But, of course, it is far from rare for these types of maps to be incorporated into games as well. Despite being “conventional” maps, however, these maps in games do not tend to function in the same way. The closest corollary outside games would be GPS navigation, but even that can lack the same variation in scale.

In class, some of us mentioned the maps included in fantasy novels such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia. This use of maps in storytelling is fascinating in how they attempt to do much the same thing that games do in incorporating maps. The key word, however, is attempt. Flapping back in forth between the map at the front and your place in the text is not necessarily intuitive. This setup also make the reader as responsible for their current place on the map as their current place in the text.

That games can remember both these things for the player is only the tip of the iceberg. Novels miss one of the fundamental characteristics of maps: nonlinearity. Linearity is an aspect of time and very much the assumption behind timelines. Maps, in their focus on space, do away with timelines’ focus on time, and vice-versa. Games make tremendous use of that focus on space, even in the most linear games that exist. Interactive storytelling is, by definition, nonlinear regardless of how small the possible diversions become.

The way games build up a sense of space likewise opens up possibilities to convey a fractured sense of space, more clearly than any other form of storytelling, for specific narrative purposes. This has been done in different degrees and different ways with interesting results. Where maps provide additive possibilities for this form of storytelling, they likewise provide subtractive possibilities.

A Need for Linearity

The main way in which I personally took an interest in timelines growing up was through the timeline of fictional events in The Legend of Zelda series, and by extension, similar such timelines of other fictional universes. The thing about the Zelda timeline specifically, however, is that there was no official timeline for the series until the end of 2011 with the release of the book The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia. Prior to that, an ongoing conversation and debate within the fandom was how exactly these games’ stories related to one another chronologically. That need for a timeline where none was provided played an enormous role in how I personally engaged with this fictional universe. My thinking and theorizing about the timeline led me to focus on what in the story was important. It was not, however, until the official timeline was released such that I could take it for granted that I could see more of the complexity of the stories given that context.

The phenomenon of the perceived lack of information through timelines and graphs has interesting implications for how we relate to this kind of presentation of information. On some level, we have a need to take information for granted to a certain extent. It can be easy to look at a timeline an unbiased and non-problematic in a large part because we want things to be that easy. We want to be able to simply have the information without having to constantly adjust our thinking for the bias behind how the information is (and can be) presented. I tend to view the Zelda timeline specifically through the lens of what it says being the intention of the writers, though others have criticized it supposing that Nintendo threw the timeline together at the last minute without the games themselves having any consideration for it.

One of the most confounding aspects of the Zelda timeline is the fact that it splits into three at one point in the series, representing alternate possible events based on how one specific game plays out. In this way, the series problematizes the linearity of timelines specifically with regards to hypotheticals. When the timeline was still unknown, a split timeline was a possibility some people explored because such a split best reconciled certain games’ stories. Only a double, rather than triple, split ever seemed to be speculated upon, however.

I typically found myself opposed to the idea of a split timeline, trying to reconcile the stories into one linear chronology. My intention was to replay the series at some point in event order based on the timeline. One of the realities of nonlinear media is that it must always be experienced in a linear fashion; I wanted the Zelda timeline to dictate that line for the series, which didn’t work with a timeline split.

With the official timeline, I had to accept the now triple split and the impossibility of playing the series in event order. This led me to the general standpoint that game/book/film/etc. series are best experienced in the order they were written, not in the order the events take place. The latter lends too much credence to timelines; while they can aid in understanding, a chronological presentation of events is not always the most useful framework. When working with nonfictional data, strict chronological presentation can block us from seeing the full significance of things.

Games Are Not about Choice

It can be easy to think about video games as being all about choice, but that’s not exactly the case. One might contend that other forms of storytelling lack the element of choice found in games, and that is certainly true. Conversations about the medium do, however, tend to inflate the significance of player choice. While player choice is certainly huge and important, it’s not the end-all-be-all of what this medium provides to storytelling.

The way Ian Bogost’s lesson last Monday about the game Chipotle Scarecrow ended up being framed should have raised some red flags. This game was a propaganda game, pushing a particular message with the ultimate aim of advertising Chipotle. That is quite contrary to the idea of player choice. The game was described as manipulative; it gives you particular goals towards a particular end, allowing you to succeed, fail, or do anything in between except choose to object to the scarecrow’s actions. If we think the game is letting us choose to sympathize with, support, and participate in his cause, we’re fooling ourselves and completely buying in.

One way to look at choice in games is to say that some games are more about choice than others. Many of BioWare’s games such a the Mass Effect series, for example, fit that mold. Even these games, however, do not give the player choice in the way we like to think. Because of time, budget, and other such restrictions, what these stories give the player is the illusion of choice. And as Extra Credits argues in their episode about the illusion of choice, that’s not necessarily a problem; they argue that the brilliance behind creating choice in games is creating an effective illusion. The goal is literally to trick the player into thinking they made a choice when they either didn’t or the change in outcome is less than what is perceived.

Are games inherently manipulative, then? No, not at all. While what games do can be geared towards manipulation, the same can be said of any medium. But if Chipotle Scarecrow is not using player choice to manipulate, that calls into question what it is using.

The answer: the role the player assumes.

What ultimately sets games apart from any other medium is the fact that games put the player in the shoes of a particular character or characters. The point is not to give the player control over how the story plays out, but for the player to experience the story playing out from the standpoint of a particular role. The import of player choice–or the illusion of choice–is subsidiary to that of role assumption: the illusion of choice, well-disguised as actual choice, contributes to the experience of whatever role the player fills.

What happens, then, when we do want to make a game all about actual player choices? Extra Credits raises the concern of volume of content. The recent Fire Emblem Fates gives the player a huge choice towards the beginning of the game, and the result is quite literally three different games. Undertale, without giving any spoilers, allegedly provides an entirely different game should the player choose to kill every enemy. When player choice is taken to a certain extreme, the result is games like Minecraft, which has no identifiable story. As degree of choice approaches infinity, story starts to disappear, because choice never was the central purpose of game storytelling.