Dimensions of Violence in Video Games

Last class we had a discussion of the increasing amount of violence and especially violence in video games. Violence in this particular medium is often highlighted as a cause for violence. It almost seems a matter of time, that, after a shooting happens, the mainstream media declare proudly that they have found the cause for this violence and that the cause is gaming. However absurd this may seem, it is still obvious that violence in video games has evolved from destroying literal pixels to killing a man in full HD with graphics that make the blood and gore really come out of the screen.
Why then, are video games still played by people who aren’t serial killers and why isn’t killing a video game character considered deeply appalling? To answer this question two different case studies of video game violence are going to be talked about and some sort of a conclusion is going to be drawn afterwards.

Our first case study is already a pretty outdated one, it’s the infamous ‘airport level’ from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Warning: the video of this level is very disturbing.


In this level the player plays a CIA agent who has gone undercover in a Russian terrorist group that is about to attack an airport. To maintain their cover, the player is expected to go along with the terrorists and kill as many people as they can. This means that not only does a terrorist shooting go down before the player’s eyes, but the player is given the opportunity to take part in it and kill the innocent, fleeing civilians. There was a lot of controversy over this level. It got brought to the attention of several British members of Parliament and in Russia the level is not even in the game. So why is this particular level so horrifying while killing civilians in, for instance, Grand Theft Auto is not this controversial?
An answer for this question lies in the context. In the Call of Duty level, the context is explicitly framed as it being an attack on civilians by terrorists. The player is forced to see themselves as a terrorist and that does not happen in Grand Theft Auto. The moral judgement that comes with the terrorist context is gone with Grand Theft Auto and the player sees his actions not as something evil, but as something that is part of the game and part of the fun. The emotional dimension that the Call of Duty level has by giving it a shocking context is very important to the ‘shock-factor’ of violence in video games.

Another argument for the emotional connection in video game violence is a scene in the recent game Infamous: second son. In the game an ally of the player’s character Delsin Rowe, lures Delsin and his brother into a trap, causing the brother to get killed. Delsin later confronts this ally about the death of his brother. The ally explains that he didn’t know Delsin’s brother was going to get killed and that he had no choice because he was blackmailed with his daughter with whom he’s trying to escape at that moment.

The player then gets a moral choice. This is quite a big part in the game, because it changes the story and the missions based on if the player decides to make the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ choice at specific moments in the game. The choice in this situation is: either kill the betraying ally as vengeance for Delsin’s brother, or spare him and let him leave with his daughter.
There is nothing extremely disturbing about the violence itself; there is no torture, no blood and there is only one person who dies, opposed to hundreds in the example mentioned before. That is why there was no controversy over this scene at all. This is an example of how emotions can play a much bigger role in how disturbing video game violence is than blood and gore. This example was chosen because this scene gives a feeling of “what have I done” after the choice is made and the scene plays out, with the betrayer reaching out and his daughter calling to him as he dies. An emotional context can be just as disturbing as gallons of blood splattered over your screen.

What does this mean for violence in video games? It means that we should look closer at why a player can do terrible things in one game and not feel anything about it and do terrible games in another game and considers it deeply disturbing. Acknowledging that the ‘shock-factor’ in video game violence isn’t just the blood and gore is a step towards that understanding. It’s possible that a new perspective on this might lead to new ways to let players know what is ethically right and wrong in video games.

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Tumblr and what the creative industries try to be

A lot has been said about the creative industries. Paragraphs upon paragraphs could be written about the term ‘creative industries’ alone. For this following post, it’s necessary to simplify all the ideas and notions about the creative industries into a series of developments. The developments are based on the conclusion of Raúl Rodriguez-Ferrándiz’s essay: Culture Industries in a Postindustrial Age: Entertainment, Leisure, Creativity, Design. 

Rodriguez-Ferrándiz writes that culture industries have moved past the Fordist means of production and are now rooted in a Post-Fordist society where the ‘old’ mediators of culture and media have fallen away and de-mediation and re-mediation is taking place. This also means that the culture industries has merged together with the leisure industries, that making and re-making cultural objects is now something people do all the time for their leisure. This has also taken steps and have moved to a more closer fusion according to Rodriguez- Ferrándiz where these recreational practices have become practices of creation. These ideas are not the easiest to grasp and to illustrate what these developments of de-mediation, re-mediation and recreational practices mean, we are going to use the case study of Tumblr as a guide to these concepts and developments.

Tumblr is a ‘micro-blogging’ website/social medium. Like, for example, twitter, it allows you to follow people whose posts appear in your central feed. You can then reblog or create posts, therefore who follows you gets to see that post, etc. The type of user and the type of material on tumblr varies from artistic, focused on photography or fashion, to humorous and focused on fandoms. Tumblr is also often a platform for social justice issues, with strong voices that are pro-choice in the abortion debate, feminist and for gay rights.

The concept of de-mediation can be illustrated perfectly by what happened on Tumblr during the events surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown, the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and the riots that followed. What happened on Tumblr was that there were hardly any news reports on there. What happened in Ferguson was communicated to Tumblr via tweets and blog-posts from the people that were actually protesting there. This is an example of de-mediation because it removes the mediator like the news companies from the equation and just brings the news to the consumer through nothing more than the accounts of people who are actually there. There’s far less “editing” so to speak.

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The practice/development that is the most visible on Tumblr is the practice or re-mediation. In the original text of Rodriguez-Ferrándiz he does not expand much on that particular concept but from his examples of remixing and remaking media into something new with a meaning that is put there by the consumer, it is implied that re-mediation means exactly that: Taking the media and shaping it into something new, changing the meaning of it.

A good example of this is ‘racebending’. Racebending means changing the race of characters in fiction. A very popular character that is often racebent is Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books/movies. A quote from a tumblr user explains the feelings that people have towards a black Hermione Granger:

but can we talk about how much sense it makes for hermione to be Black?

(aside from the hair cos like forreal tho and she had to straighten it to suddenly be considered beautiful like shoooot do I need to go on)

more like her disgust that a house elf that wants to be free is considered defective (this one is forreal because the same was thought of enslaved people when they expressed a desire to be free)

more like her advocating for oppressed groups, both magical beings and muggleborns, and not accepting that your heritage should not be the thing that makes people decide you are inferior

((also jokingly, no one but a Black mother could have come up with that beautiful beautiful name lol))
From: http://afrokhaleesi.tumblr.com/post/101127256157/but-can-we-talk-about-how-much-sense-it-makes-for

This a way of re-mediating: The original meaning of the movies that Hermione was white is cast aside and instead, Hermione is made a black girl, and suddenly her backstory changes because of this different way of framing. The source remains the same; the information from the books does not describe her race, but the way it is mediated is completely different. This also implies that de-mediation is part of this re-mediating process, because for Black Hermione to exist, White Hermione has to be forgotten first.

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Finally, Tumblr is and remains a site where people go for their entertainment and in their leisure time. This puts everything that was said before about Ferguson and Black Hermione in a context that connects with what Rodriguez – Ferrandiz describes as “a magma in which culture industries coexist in close synergy with the leisure and entertainment industries, on the one hand, and with creative industries, on the other”. This inter-activism of connecting to ferguson through eye-witness accounts only and this remediating practice of making Hermione Black is connected to the entertainment-centered site that Tumblr is supposed to be. Tumblr has become this melting pot of creativity, activism and mediation and is therefore a very good example of how the cultural industries are developing.

Active agents in the digital realm

In the questionably dystopian novel Massa (2012) by the Flemish writer Joost Vandecasteele the protagonist Margot is dragged along in the boys story of ‘Blurred Inc.’, specialized in the ‘left-overs of multinationals’ and trading of (sensitive) information. She is not exactly sure about what she is doing, but she is good at it and soon gets a high position in the company. When having stolen one of the most important pieces of information, she is even put in a protection program. In the world Vandecasteele created, the person who can sell fiction as truth is the master of the world. Creating information forms the social cohesion between people – and makes sure this consciously constructed world does not collapse. The clue: information is worth a lot more than any tangible object. Data have become the main importance on which we build our everyday lives, social world and construct the overarching systems (capitalism).

Cover of ‘Massa’ (2012)

We are not at this stage – at least as yet – but the possibilities and acts of ‘prosumers’, particular creators of information, are emerging undeniably. In this short reflection on the role of human resources in the creative industries, we would like to refer to several projects and link them to the mandatory literature. We will talk about the Dutch initiative ‘yournalism’, photographic contests for pictures taken by mobile phones and a critique recently released by the Arnhem based theater group Oostpool: The Immortals (2014).

Mark Deuze writes in his text ‘Creative Industries, Convergence Culture and Media Work’ (2007) that consumers have become more literate in ‘reading’ cultural commodities. Our days of leaning back as ‘couch potatoes’ are over; it is time to participate in the emergence of culture and to read – semiotically – along and participate in the creation of meaning. The commodification of culture has also led to a shift in the organization of companies.
In this context, we would like to talk about the ‘yournalism’ initiative. Instead of a topdown approach of journalism, a group of young writers tries to support good research journalism based on questions its audience wants to know. The editors turn the questions into a research proposal and measured by crowd funding, the project will start as soon as enough money has been made. Money will literally mean a ‘vote’ for the proposal of the journalist. With enough (financial) support, there will be a month’s time to investigate and write the article. Instead of writing about what we already know, they claim, we should together find out about questions that have not been answered yet.

In a sense, as audience being part at least of initiating these projects, there influences upon existing journalism change. What they actually claim is that money and time should not be the biggest problems to keep doing ‘good’ research journalism.

In this participatory way of dealing with culture, Deuze remarks further on in his paper, might however be a thread for professionals well. Democratizing skills also means that some skills have less value than they used to have. In his article Deuze for instance refers to journalism photographers who are put behind be accidental standers-by with a mobile phone. If you cannot even see the difference between the pictures taken by a standersby (who probably has a better shot, since he is there at the moment of the action), and the professional photographer, what is the point in taking the picture of the professional?
Deuze however remarks in the end that we should not see it too depressed. We could also see these labor circumstances as an enormous amount of freedom, which would be very fit for the fluid times we live in. An example of tapping into this new phenomenen is a photography competition called the Mobile Photo Awards. In this competition, only pictures taken with a mobile phone are allowed to compete for the price. The audience does not even necessarily have to have a good camera; it is enough to take a good shot at the right moment and simply ‘press the button’.

Vicki Mayer emphasizes production in the field of media industries in her text ‘Making media production visible’ (2013) and especially wants to show the people working there. Modern capitalism is a human construction, which consists out of human quality and social processes. We should not forget, she claims, that these social structures on their turn exist out of individual agents. The structures have been extending beyond national boundaries.
Within the cultural field, social hierarchy is however still very present. The flexibility with workers have to (not: have the opportunity to) deal, could according to Mayer be interpreted as both a negative and a positive influence on the creative industries.

One of the latter parts of her book will deal with the relation between individual agents and self-expression in the digital age, between the routine and the normative. We have reached an age in which we are able to share everything, even the things that were used to be considered the most private in your life (a birth, a depression). The way of self-expression has radically changed; ‘vloggers’ on YouTube, pictures on Facebook and your personal blogs.

The common feauture in these two arguments, are a commodification of the self. Therefore, we would like to end our blog with a short analysis of the Dutch theatre play The Immortals (2014). ‘Toneelgroep Oostpool’ brought this play on stage, being inspired by the philosophical work of De Vermoeide Samenleving (trans. 2014) by Korean thinker Byung-Chul Han. In the play, they commented upon our sharing, the way of having social relations. Four actors spend more than half of the show in four cabins; as audience you can only see them via their cameras, and sometimes their feet. We can see men showing of their exercising, a woman wrapping a dubious powder form and a man wrestling himself into a leather costume. The audience starts feeling more and more uncomfortable as the shown images get more intimate. We see faces hardly ever.

In the last part of the show, the four actors start staring into the camera, finally a close-up of painted and covered faces: so close, but with a mask. This is also the moment the large box in the middle of the audience starts opening itself up and we can see the real people who have been talking to us all the time.
While watching this, as an audience gets uneasy about what the subjects of the play want to share with you. At some points you want to look away, you laugh (either because it is funny, because of malicious delight, or shame) or just feel pitty for the obvious solitude speaking out of these little movies. The show is dynamic, somewhere in-between theatre and visual art and makes you think about today’s society in a broader perspective. What are we sharing and with whom?

To conclude, we would like to point out the common grounds of the case studies we used. While digital technology keeps improving, we have to find out the ways in which we as humans can use them and this might need some time. Should the audience participate in the choice of a new topic for research journalism? Should there still be a studies that educates to be a photographer? How are we dividing our attention and who should know what we our selves are up to? In short: how should we make use of all these novelties and how does this fit in our carefully build society, social relations and relation between individual agents? If information, facts and fiction really become intertwined and at some time maybe even interchangeable, what is our information worth and do we really want everybody to know what we were up to? The Immortals and Massa show dystopian images of a possible near-future. They are critical, realist and keep us wondering: what is the relation between people and technology?
Unfortunately, in our dynamic world it is only the time that will tell. The slow movement, as described in our previous blog is one of many alternatives that brings back our feeling of community and goes toward a feeling of glocalization. By initiatives such as yournalism, there is more attention for the want of the reader than the money of the big news companies and the Mobile Photos Awards prove that you do not have to have the most expensive technologies to be able to compete in competitions. This could be a democratization of information and skills. On the other we have to distinct ourselves in other ways: effort, invest time and attention, and networking, especially in the media (creative) industries.

Sascha, Anouk, Sjoerd & Laurie

 

Slow, slow slow….

‘Green, slow, sustainability, biological and ecological’ are concepts that are much more present in media nowadays than a few years ago. People are becoming more aware of the way products are produced. Whereas the media industries rise attention for the ‘green issues’ surrounding (mass) production, the media industries can learn to be more sustainable theirselves as well. The slow movement is an initiative in which sustainability is very important: There is slow food, slow fashion, slow parenting, slow education and even slow media. Diverse discussions have erupted lately about how a dose of slowness could improve mediated lives. Inspired by Slow Food, many people have proposed movements for Slow Media, Slow News, Slow Journalism, Slow Books, Slow Communication, Slow Blogging, Slow Word, Slow Reading and more. In this blog we would like to elaborate on the slow movement and discuss different case studies that can be linked to this.

As said before the slow movement contains slow media as well. There even is a slow media manifest in which is stated that: ‘Like “Slow Food”, Slow Media are not about fast consumption but about choosing the ingredients mindfully and preparing them in a concentrated manner. Slow Media are welcoming and hospitable.’ They have 14 aims, of which one is: ‘Slow media are a contribution to sustainability’. Sustainability relates to the raw materials, processes and working conditions, which are the basis for media production. Exploitation and low-wage sectors as well as the unconditional commercialization of user data will not result in sustainable media. At the same time, the term refers to the sustainable consumption of Slow Media.’

Even though the slow movement is a good initiative to a more sustainable life, it is still rather small. Justin Lewis underpins in his article ‘The Dead-End of Consumerism: The Role of the Media and Cultural Industries’ that twenty-first century consumer capitalism is no longer an effective model for human progress. He argues that the media is divided into two sides. The first one focuses on the selling of commodities, while the second one is more open to the political imagination. It is important that consumers get more aware of what they are actually buying. The consumers should be more informed about new ideas that help provide a more sustainable life. Justin Parikka stressed in his article ‘Media zoology and waste management’ that there are new ideas related to the media industry:

These ideas use not only different materials but a very different set of material thinking altogether, building from biodegradable matter (for instance computer parts that are biodegradable) as well as in relations to nature in ways that are described as biomimetic. The constant back and forth co-determination is what characterizes this medianature-assemblage. It is here that media technologies are essential nodes in this epistemo ontological tie, with an important relation to questions of waste, but also to the level of design we are thinking/doing regarding the world of ecological life as well as non-organic reality.

An example related to the quote is the idea of phonebloks. This product is a more sustainable phone than ‘normal’ mobile phones, because it doesn’t have to be changed every once in two years. When one part of your phone is broken, you can replace this part, without having to buy a complete new phone. However, we live in a society wherein people are constantly triggered to buy new things. Justin Lewis also stressed this in his article. We are surrounded by advertisements, they are everywhere. Will a product like phonebloks even work in our western capitalist society?

Another example which is more likely to succeed, are the projects of Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde. His design projects do not have an immediate connection to the media industry, but they are great examples of creative initiatives which can contribute to a more sustainable world. Coming back to our positive experience with the Eindhoven design students, we would like to give some design related examples. Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde and his team of experts are using patented ion technology to make the world’s largest smog vacuum cleaner. Here the cleanest park in Beijng is created where people can experience clean air for free. As a tangible souvenir, Roosegaarde designed Smog Rings of compressed smog particles. Each high-end ring supports the cleaning 1000m3 of polluted air. Apart from this environmental friendly initiative they also have a lot of other projects. Three of those are the Smart Highways, Glowing Lines and the van Gogh path. (source)

Smart Highways are interactive and sustainable roads of tomorrow by Roosegaarde and Heijmans infrastructure. The goal is to make smart roads by using light, energy and road signs that interact with the traffic situation. Glowing Lines are lines that charge at day-time, and glow at night, as you can see in the clip below. The recent Van Gogh-Roosegaarde bicycle path is made out of thousands twinkling stones inspired by ‘Starry Night’. The path combines innovation with cultural heritage in the city of Nuenen, the place where Van Gogh lived in 1883. (source)

Roosegaarde creates designs that are both beautiful and sustainable, which is a very impressive skill. He shows us that it is possible to create environmental friendly things that bring something extra, like the ‘Starry Night’ interpretation of Van Gogh. It are examples that connect to the ideals of the slow movement, wherein we can see a system that creates lines that charge at day time and therefore provide light during the night. It is not stealing from the earth, it is working together with the earth.

the-starry-night-1889(1) Starry Night – Van Gogh

These two clips show the brilliance of how creative thinking can help to improve our environment. With the role of the media we can promote these sustainable ways of living. The media should invest more in the creative and sustainable initiatives instead of the selling of commodities. As Maxwell Miller also stressed in his article ‘Neglected Elements; Production, Labor, and the Environment’

Our aim here is to find ways for media production studies to help establish a just system of environmental accounting, which challenges the creative industries to stop stealing from the Earth and from working people in the name of growth.

Concealed Sincerity in Eindhoven

This week, we had a collaboration with the students from the course Industrial Design from the TU Eindhoven. The more practical way of working and thinking of the students in Eindhoven differs from ours and it was interesting to see to what this collaboration will lead to. The subject of the exchange programme was ‘Materiality in time and context’. During this week we reflected on the meaning of everyday objects by exploring and analysing the traces of use together. Eventually, this led to an understanding of the connection between material and (perceptual) experiences of value. In this blog, we will discuss our work process and show the benefits of this collaboration.

In ‘Objects and Infrastructures’, Palgrave Macmillan shows how different dimensions and scales might be necessary in order to generate a more complete understanding of culture as it is today. ‘Thinking in terms of objects, infrastructures and assemblages enables a material encounter with these different cultural dimensions and opens up an analysis of the intersections between popular culture and new media.’

With his text as a starting point, we all had to take pictures of traces in our daily lives. It was interesting to see how everyone had different kind of pictures and after two lectures that already showed to how there are multiple ways to look at something, we started analysing our pictures. We used the idea of ‘haptic visuality’, a concept Laura Marks introduced to change our way of looking at objects. According to her, we focus too much on concepts and she wants to move to a different way of studying objects. We started by just looking at the pictures and tried to write down our first reactions, our raw response. We noticed that it was hard to come up with firstness and writing this down already makes it complicated, because most of the time you already link it to a concept, that’s why we came with reactions as: ‘ahw’ and ‘ieeeel’ and tried to express the firstness and the affect in this way. Through secondness, which is an (unconscious) reflection on the first impression, the analysis end with thirdness, the interpretation or understanding through abstract concepts or symbols. We ended this first session by looking for concepts that we saw coming back quite often in our analysis, one of them be ‘transitoriness’ for example.

Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness on the first day of collaboration

Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness on the first day of collaboration

The next day, the girls of the TU looked at our analysis once again and we helped to came up with concepts that fitted their ideas about certain pictures. In the end, the concept ‘concealed sincerity’ became the main concept for the project, sincere meaning pureness and authenticity. It’s about private things, in this case, in relation to the body. TU Eindhoven explored this concept and came with the idea to work with breasts. Most of the time, you show them differently than how they really are (photoshop, and bra’s than conceal the real shape of your breasts). The subject is very present now, with Keira Knightley who let herself being photographed with only her jeans on and without photoshop for the September issue of Interview magazine. We see that we adapt our body to certain expectations, but at the same time, it seems that we are aware of these adaptations.

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The girls from Eindhoven worked on their project. They wanted to work with different layers and different materials and go to the sincerity step by step, their final product would be a re-designed bra. We discussed the meaning of certain materials and how they could be related to each other. From our side, we tried to contribute with different theoretical frameworks and came up with the following ideas.

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Working with different materials to make Concealed Sincerity visible

Working with different materials to make Concealed Sincerity visible

Obviously, gender is very present in this work and the discussion of our bodies being presented in a way that influences the view on what is perfect and what isn’t, is still very huge these days. In such a culture, the vulnerability of a real, authentic body is maybe even stronger. We tried to relate this idea to the way the product was created: namely out of different layers.

This idea of layers is very present in multiple theories. For example the theory of palimpsest, which Andreas Huyssen describes in his text ‘Present Pastst: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory’. The roots of palimpsest lay within the literature studies. It’s about how literature, a book or a story, can have different layers. One layer makes room for, or opens up, another layer, which results in new meanings. A narrative or a structure of a book can have all these different layers, but still every layer is as important as another one. This theory has been transported to other disciplines, for example the analysis of cities. Concealed sincerity is already showing all these layers in the concept and makes it visible in the final product.

Huyssen has also written a lot about ruins. We have a desire to the past, and ruins are a materialized form of this. Due to ruins, this past is still present in our everyday live. We see the traces of something that happened, but at the same time, the past keeps being inaccessible.  In the text ‘Nostalgia for ruins’, Huyssen is talking about ‘the imagined present of a past that can now only be grasped in its decay’. The ruins are a representation of nostalgia: a desire for the past or somewhere else. Ruins of different kinds functions as projective screens for modernity’s articulation of temporalities and for its fear and obsessions with the passing of time.

Due to this (as one of the causes), we create a kind of simulacrum, where our constructed ideas became more real than the actual reality (if you can say there is one). Enlarged breasts filled with silicones have almost become more real to us than, for example, the breasts of Keira Knightley. We want to keep up with this new standards, and not only when it comes to women’s breasts. We think this work and concept of ‘concealed sincerity’ combines all these ideas in a really interesting way. It shows this struggle we have with our bodies and it shows the traces this struggle can cause.

Here you can see two movies the students from Eindhoven made about the final product. The first one is to present the final project, the second one is a movie that shows the process.

By combining our techniques and ways of thinking, we can come up with new, and better, ideas. We noticed in our own group, but also in other groups, that we were really impressed of each others way of working. We both could see another approach for once, which was very enlightening and brought new insights for both of us. To us, it was a really interesting and successful collaboration.

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Sjoerd, Laurie, Anouk & Sascha

Aging Gloss

This post is made separately by Sjoerd because he had been working together with a different group than the others who run this (quite brilliant) blog. Here he briefly describes the process that the group went through and this post concludes with a reflection on the final object made by the Industrial Design students from Eindhoven.

After we explored the ideas of affect, firstness, secondness and thirdness, at the end of Monday’s workshop the group decided on selection of photographs to examine more closely to get to a concept that would be the core idea of the final object.

Through a closer examination of the photos with the notions of affect, notion and concept in mind; the term ‘Aging Gloss’ came up in one of the group’s examination of a photo of an old bicycle seat. The seat was weathered in a way that it looked used, but instead of it looking ugly, it looked more authentic because of the weathering.

This concept of authenticity through age and use was what the Eindhoven students used as a basis for their design of their final object. The object that they made was made out of candle wax cast in the shape of an electric shaving razor. They poured the wax in different layers so you could see different colours stacked on each other in the form of the razor. They made four different ones, all representing a different stage in the ‘life-cycle’ of the object. The first stage was untouched and there were not many layers really visible. In the second one, the top layer began to come off a little bit and the other underlying layers were visible. The top layer wore off in the places where it was held, so you could see where the person put their hand. In the last stage, there were indents in it, were the user had gripped it for a long time. You could really see the different coloured layers and the shape of the razor had changed a lot because of the obvious grips that were created by just using it.

It showed not only that an object that ages because of use looks really beautiful but also that object and user really can have this intense connection with each other and that it can show in the traces of the object. Especially the last notion was really interesting to me because it seems almost like a symbol of how consumers want to have a closer relation to their objects and that they now are no longer a passive group of people who just take objects and use them, but use them in different ways and attach their own meanings to (cultural) objects. I think the agency of the consumer and of the audience, which to me seems like a relatively recent development, is manifested really well in this object.

Fandoms: The (un)dead Audiences

It’s always fascinating to see new, strange ways to tell age-old stories. For instance, most recently one of us found a version of Hamlet that was a ‘choose your own adventure’ book (To Be or Not to Be  by Ryan North) . The reader can choose to go through the story in the ‘same way that William Shakespeare plagiarized it himself’ (the book explains in the introduction that Shakespeare basically stole the whole story from another story) or the reader can choose another way to read Hamlet. This book interested us not only because it is absolutely hilarious, but also because it illustrates the kind of attitude that a modern audience now has regarding to media.

This is because media consumption has become a ‘choose your own adventure’ story as well. As Jack Z. Bratich describes in his article From Audiences to Media Subjectivities: Mutants in the Interregnum(2013), the notion and the role of the audience has changed radically over the years and Bratich even goes as far as to say that this evolution has now reached a point that it’s appropriate to call it the ‘end of the audience’ or the end of audience studies. This has to do with how the audience is playing a role as a receiver of the message that media is sending out.

Bratich sums up a number of ways the audience has functioned in the past. The thing they have in common is that all of them are playing a part of passive receivers. In some cases, like the ‘consumers’ or ‘the public’ they exist to be influenced. It is often heard that for a political campaign to win or lose, the public needs to be persuaded. And of course it is all down to the consumer to be influenced by the many marketing strategies that want the consumer to buy things. To summarize: the audience has always existed as a passive receiver that has to be influenced by strategies and campaigns.

The ‘death’ of the audience, as Bratich calls it, has come because the audience doesn’t fulfill the role of passive receiver anymore. Because of new ways of participation, reaction, and interactivity, the audience gets a big say in how the message is being received. The audience is no longer sitting quietly while watching a television show, the audience is defining for themselves what the message is and how it is received. With new possibilities and communities arising because of the internet, audiences can more easily share their views on media, and make reactions on media that can be seen as media productions on their own. This is where the notion of the fandom comes in: in a fandom the audience is not passively consuming media, they are reacting to it in ways that shape the meaning of the media. In a fandom, how other fans see media is more important than what the suggested reading is.

In the next section, I’m going to talk more about a specific example of how a Fandom assigns its own meaning to media, make clear exactly how this happens and how the media producers react to this.
The first example is from 2012, when the superhero movie The Avengers  came out. The movie puts together heroes from previous movies such as Iron Man, Thor  and Captain America. Another character that has been in those movies is Agent Phil Coulson (played by actor Clark Gregg). Phil Coulson works for the boss of the organisation known as SHIELD (acronym for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division). The organisation brings the superheroes together and Phil Coulson is tasked with keeping it all organized. He is perhaps the most ordinary character and therefore serves as a sort of translator of all these supernatural things towards an everyday audience. He is also quite a fan of Captain America of whom he even collects trading cards. This is why, when he died unexpectedly and brutally in Avengers, the fans were not exactly pleased with that.

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One of the most notable forms that this took was the hashtag #Coulsonlives. It was written in public spaces, put on t-shirts and it became a sort of ‘meme’ in the fandom that it wanted to vehemently deny that Coulson had breathed his last breath in The Avengers. Four months went by after the movie came out in which the fans spread the #Coulsonlives message all around. Then, a new TV-show was announced about SHIELD, tying in with the rest of the Avengers universe. It also marked a victory for the fans, because the first actor to be announced to be in the series was Clark Gregg, the actor who plays Agent Coulson. It was clear that the fans had gotten what they wanted. Of course it seems questionable that the fans played a role in this and more reasonable to think that it was set from the start that Coulson was going to come back. But, according to Clark Gregg, the fans really did influence the decision to bring Coulson back:

“It’s fun for me to go to Comic-Con. Because Agent Phil Coulson – now Director Phil Coulson – is a bit of a nerd. He had an awkward man-crush on Captain America. When he died, the nerds brought him back to life with a hastag, #CoulsonLives. The nerds, my people, as a nerd, they have a real connection with Phil Coulson. So when I go there, it’s real fun.” (source

“And even though my friends at Marvel said, “You know, we spent a lot of time talking about how Coulson lives, and we know that there’s a movement out there, and there are t-shirts and people paint on bridges ‘Coulson Lives’, we’re going to bring you back”, and it’s one of the many things people tell you that never ever happens. And then I get this call from Joss (Whedon, co-creator of Agents of SHIELD) saying, “Well…there’s a script. And here’s what we’re thinking, and it’s after The Avengers, and here’s the concept.” By the time Joss finished telling me, I was in.” (source

Here is a very clear example of how a fandom can function as an audience that does not just accept the message of the media, but as an audience that constructs its own meaning of the message, which becomes more powerful than the original message and eventually changes the message of the media itself. So the fandom illustrates Bratich’s point about the ‘death of the audience’ but at the same time it’s very much alive in the sense of being active and producing a new meaning and new media. Metaphorically, the media consumption can be seen as a ‘choose your own adventure’ book: the audience can choose what story they want and actually change the story the media gives them. The connectedness in a fandom plays a vital role in getting these alternative meanings to be noticed. Because a fandom is a collection of like-minded people it’s not hard to find a lot of people who simultaneously want to participate in, for example, the #coulsonlives campaign. If there weren’t any platforms on which these people could not connect with each other and share ideas about media, it would be more difficult for alternative meanings to get big. Fandoms are audiences that are not only watching- but also shaping the media they consume.

Finally, we want to briefly support the views of Fabienne Darling-Wolf who argues that, when studying audiences it is important to take a translocal approach. This means that carefully observing not how the audience functions in one environment, but how it functions in different environments. Another reason why a translocal approach is important is because a fandom does not exist in one environment. A fandom is nearly always a group of people who are not connected physically, but through the internet. Outside of the internet, the people belonging to a fandom are situated all over the world. An example to illustrate this is the Doctor Who World tour which was a tour around the world with the two main actors and the current showrunner. It shows how a show can spread all over the world and how the fans might be spread out and celebrate the thing they love differently, at the end of the day they are still in the same fandom and for a TV-show to play into that like this is an indicator of how important an international fandom is. This also means that when studying audiences, it has to be assumed that the audience can watch anything from all over the world and that this translocal approach is very valuable when researching that.

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-Sjoerd, Sascha, Anouk & Laurie