Sunday, February 27, 2011


Just a pair of notes this weekend!

LITERATURE AND THE POLITICAL IMAGINATION: A 2005 essay by Christopher Lehmann from the Washington Monthly looks at "Why Americans can't write political fiction." (I don't share the author's pessimism; while I'm hard-pressed to identify many successful novels about the ambiguities of politics, narrowly defined, there is no shortage of nuanced literature about difficult moral questions, which themselves are political. A work of fiction doesn't have to be about politics in order to inform our political lives.) In any case, Lehmann discusses Walt Whitman's cry for a literature that would animate our politics. "Walt Whitman--a former clerk for the U.S. Department of the Interior--recognized that the true frontier of America was not, in fact, geographic, but political. With the most deadly political failure fresh in the nation's memory, Whitman, in 1871, issued his famous call for a distinctive, politically minded American literature in this essay 'Democratic Vistas.' A new national literature, Whitman argued, was the only force adequate to heal a newly sutured American nation. The country's 'most fundamental want,' Whitman wrote, was 'the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decision, affecting politics far more than the popular superficial suffrage, with results inside and underneath the elections of Presidents or Congresses--radiating, begetting appropriate teachers, schools, manners, and, as its grandest result, accomplishing, (what neither the schools nor the churches and their clergy have hitherto accomplish'd, and without which this nation will no more stand, permanently, soundly, than a house will stand without a substratum,) a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the States.'"
ARTISTS AND NARRATIVE: The PBS series Art:21 has an episode on "Stories." Anybody despairing of a supposed dearth of artists (if not writers) who are dealing with social problems in contemporary life will find a pick-me-up in this provocative and -- perhaps more importantly -- entertaining episode! As per the episode description on the website: "How do artists tell stories in their work? How does contemporary art reflect and reveal narrative traditions? How does the art of today record and describe the world around us. The Art in the Twenty-First Century documentary 'Stories' explores these questions through the work of Charles Atlas, Kara Walker, Kiki Smith, Do-Ho Suh, and Trenton Doyle Hancock." Filmmaker John Waters introduces the episode in this way: "I'm John Waters, and I love collecting art--because it makes other people insane!" Find out more about what he means in the episode.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


A few things I've taken note of the past week.

GLT Animation Demo from GoogleLitTrips on Vimeo.

GOOGLE LIT-TRIPS: This is a website that uses Google maps and Google Earth to create and host "virtual tours" of the settings for books. In the video above, the site's creator, Jerome Burg, uses "The Kite Runner" as an example of how Google Lit-Trips can complement your enjoyment of a book by virtually "flying" you to the novel's actual locales, and providing historical information pertaining to the plot. Google Lit-Trips is used primarily as an educational tool for schools, but anyone can dig it! People can also use the site to share "Google Lit-Trips" they create themselves.

3 GENERATIONS: Here's an organization I just heard about -- and they're having a Brooklyn, New York fundraiser on February 28, 2011. "3 Generations works to end injustice and fulfill humanity's potential through storytelling," says their website. "We partner with the organizations doing the most effective direct service or advocacy work on a given issue -- we tell their stories and our content and campaigns compel people to support their work." Their latest campaign is against child sex slavery in the United States. "Slavery" is a word they use advisedly -- rather than "prostitution" -- on the logic that a minor cannot choose to be a prostitute, and that any sex-for-pay by a minor is necessarily coercive.

A LOOK BACK AT "CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE" BOOKS: On this week, Grady Hendrix has a smart, fun article and slide show that takes a look back at the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series, and how they "taught us to love interactive entertainment." Makes sense, right? These books were a precursor to interactive digital storytelling. Hendrix writes that the idea for interactive fiction was laid out by Jorge Luís Borges in his 1941 story, "The Garden of Forking Paths," in which is described a labyrinthine book whose plot is determined by the reader's choices. Though not modeled on that story, the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series does that very thing. At the end of each chapter, the reader is presented with different choices -- like whether or not to investigate a haunted house -- and each choice points to a different chapter to read next. At the end of that chapter, more choices, and so on. Each book has 20, 30, even 40 possible endings. The series' creators (who had, um, artistic differences and split off years ago), are each pursuing their own updates on the series. I don't know that they're planning anything like this, but an online version of the series could invite anyone to contribute new chapters and choices to a given story -- thereby presenting a nearly limitless "garden of forking paths."

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Here are a few samples of "Five-Second Films." These comic shorts take a few seconds' worth of scenes from feature films, kind of like an abbreviated film trailer, which itself is an abbreviation. They're just for laughs, but I think they're also a good prompt to think about what's essential in a story. It's a question that's well known to obituary writers, for example, or anyone on Twitter. Having limited space forces you to distill a story or other form of expression to its essence. The first two videos here are by "That Guy With the Glasses" (who has a whole bunch of these five-second films on his website), and the third is by a fan of his, whose YouTube name is Scaraco. They are, in order, "Fargo," "Titanic," and "Mommie Dearest."  

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I don't know about you, but I can't read and do other stuff at the same time. Except maybe the usual autonomous functions like breathing or letting my heart beat. But I was in the Barnes & Noble (yes, sorry, B&N) store a few months ago, and couldn't help but be a little curious when I saw a CD on the counter called "Living Well: Read" -- "a collection of music from around the world to enhance your reading experience." The very idea of enhancing the experience of reading by any means other than focusing one's attention -- through silence, rather than sound -- struck me as improbable at best, but I figured I'd give it a try. Feeling embarrassed at the purchase, I asked the cashiers if they judged people for what they bought. They said, "mostly no." The one exception they cited was anyone who bought "The Game," Neil Strauss's book about how to pick up women (or men?). Feeling that I was spared their judgment, I made the purchase and went home.

I finally got around to listening to the CD the other night, while reading. In spite of the fact that the composers of the dozen songs come from various countries, it's hard to call this "music from around the world," because it's all flattened out into a new-age register. The CD started off inoffensively enough, with a soft piano tune, and I started reading: "Christianity is the white man's religion. The Holy Bible in the white man's hands and his interpretation of it have been the greatest single ideological weapon for enslaving millions of non-white human beings. Every country the white man has conquered with his guns, he has always paved the way, and salved his conscience, by carrying the Bible and interpreting it to call the people 'heathens' and 'pagans'; then he sends his guns, then his missionaries behind the guns to mop up--"

It was "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," not the book most in tune with the pleasant tones of "Resonance," "Ode to Simplicity," "Meditation," "Daisy," "Quiet Mind," or other such titles. As I continued reading, I was gently distracted by a synthesizer. And then a ribbon of cello twisted its way into my ear. It had been easy enough to ignore the piano, or even the synthesizer, which was more like white noise (no pun intended, given the reading material!), but the strings were too intrusive. They only pointed up what the rest of the music was making me do: expend energy trying to ignore it. Far from enhancing the experience of reading, the CD was only diminishing it. For me, anyway, the best music to read by is still none at all.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Games for Change on ABC News from Games for Change on Vimeo.

When I was a kid, the most socially redeeming video game I played was perhaps Missile Command, because at least I was saving whole cities -- however abstract they were -- from an unseen enemy that relentlessly sent nuclear missiles to destroy them. In the end, of course, I could only stave off the bombs for so long, the cities would all get annihilated, and the game would end. But we all die anyway; at least my 25-cent heroics kept a whole lot of imaginary people alive for another few minutes. And maybe if I ever found myself at the helm of an actual anti-missile defense system, I would be that much better prepared to deflect an attack. That's about as far as it went. Maybe if I had gotten into role-playing video games -- rather than just the aim-and-fire variety -- I'd be an arms control negotiator by now. Or not.

Ah, my wasted youth. Not to mention all those quarters! Well, an organization called Games for Change (G4C) seeks to reverse the equation for a new generation. Instead of shelling out all kinds of pocket change for game-play, G4C promotes (mostly free) games that they hope will promote social change -- mostly for kids to play, but adults might enjoy them as well. Whereas the first-person games I played as a kind usually put a gun or cannon or some other such weapon in my hand, these games put the player in situations -- often in the first-person -- that challenge them to make choices. Here's my informal rundown on a few of the more story-based games.

A game from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees -- yes! the UNHCR has a video game! -- called "Against All Odds" allows the player to "experience what it is like to be a refugee." You are put in the position of someone in danger in her own country: you are arrested and interrogated. From there, you face a series of choices about how to answer the interrogation questions, what form of transportation to take if you flee, whom to leave behind on your escape, whom to trust to ask for help, and so on. It's a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure kind of game, just that some of your choices may result in the torture or death of you or people you love. For all that, it's entertaining -- or rather, engrossing, in a way that a successful game must be -- even when you're learning something. The educational aspect of the games has less to do with facts and figures (though there are pop-up options for more information), and more to do with grasping some of the difficult, even impossible choices that refugees may have to face.

A game called "At-Risk" puts you in the chair of a college professor who is concerned about a handful of his students who seem to be depressed or failing. A "file" on each student gives you their grades, attendance records, and other notes from the academic year. Your goal, when each of the students come to your office to talk, is to get them into counseling or other kinds of support. You are presented with a series of options about what to say, and the student's response is unique to each question. Your choices for how to pursue the conversation change depending on what you've said before. Say the wrong thing, and the student might get defensive. You get three chances to undo things you've said.  Although I made a couple remarks that prompted sarcastic responses from one student, Alberto -- in fact, I thought he was kind of a jerk! -- I was proud to have helped him step back from the brink of suicide, and get into counseling. I saved a life!

Engaging as it was to spend a half-hour on each of these games, their limitations prevented me from going much further: the player's options (and the games' responses) are relatively few in number, so the story or conversation can only go so far. How to lift such limitations? One way would be to provide more options for action, though this would quickly become increasingly more complex to program. Two other games, however, solve this problem by continually adding new content, and/or by allowing you to play not just with a computer but with other people. "Play the News" takes actual news stories and enables players to assume roles of the people involved and decide how they would act. "Imagine fantasy sports meets the evening news," says the website, and the result "changes the paradigm of news consumption from passive reading to active engagement." And the social-network game "EVOKE" is a "10-week crash course in changing the world." People who sign up play a whole "season," and generate ideas to real-world problems like food security, disaster relief, and human rights abuses. Every Wednesday night during the season, players receive a "mission," which they must then learn about, act on in the real world, and imagine "a story about the future they would like to make." The first and most recent season took place last spring, but people can still form groups to play the game, or wait for the second season.

I played only about 3 hours of these and other "Games for Change," so I'm no expert, but the most successful educational and political games would seem to be fun, attractive (such as in the case of the artful graphics in the UNHCR game), and full of routes, narrative or otherwise, down which to travel -- whether that be through the complexity of the game, the infusion of new source material, or the inclusion of other people to play with/against. If a game can be anywhere near as addictive as "Missile Command" was for me, and still fire the political imagination rather than just quicken the trigger finger, then maybe players will actually become informed and activated enough to go out and help save a few real lives.