Game talkReadingA literacy of appropriation

 Posted by (Visited 16544 times)  Game talk, Reading
Aug 162006
 

A couple of responses to the Harper’s Forum have popped up on the blogosphere, one at The Aspidistra and another at ideant. This latter one prompts a reply, as it comments,

the group wonders about the changing definition of literacy, and what current technologies are doing to our literacy practices:

KOSTER: …To me, there’s a question hanging over our conversation, which is: What kind of writing do we hope to teach? We might like to teach kids to write like Proust, but no one writes like Proust anymore. Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new forms of literacy. Think of blogs, for example: most blog posts are reblogs, they’re parasitic on things other people have written. It’s a democratized writing, a democratized literacy. (p.39)

Not sure I see the connection between democracy and literacy as appropriation.

The “parasitic” phrase was actually Bill Wasik’s editorially pithy way of summarizing a lengthy digression of mine that had to be edited out. But I think I stand by the overall concept.

Creation is hard. Really hard. Everyone is creative in some fashion, but few people are able to move their creativity across a broad spectrum of media and of tasks. And even if you have a knack for it, creation is still hard work, and takes dedication and craftsmanship to do well.

Given that everyone has a creative impulse, the question is how to permit people to feel creative and to create work in a wider array of fields. And one of the classic ways this is done is via the training wheels of imitative, derivative, and appropriated work. Young writers start out with fanfic that gives them ready-made characters. Artists learn by copying the styles of famous works. Musicians work within genres and learn to play the songs of others before they learn to write their own. Businessmen read business books, advertisers copy ads, directors steal camera angles.

The easier it is to appropriate and annotate upon the creation of others, the easier it is to access the act of creation, because requiring creation ex nihilo is a high barrier to entry.

Orson Scott Card’s classic 1979 short story “Unaccompanied Sonata” describes the life of a composer and musician, Christian Haroldsen, who is kept isolate from any other music precisely because he is a genius, and they want him to express himself free of the stain of any influences. Eventually, a listener slips him a recorder with some Bach on it…

“Fugues and harpsichords, the two things you noticed first — and the only things you didn’t absorb into your music. All your other songs for these last weeks have been tinted and colored and influenced by Bach. Except that there was no fugue, and there was no harpsichord. You have broken the law. You were put here because you were a genius, creating new things with only nature for your inspiration. Now, of course, you’re derivative, and truly new creation is impossible fo ryou. You’ll have to leave.”

This is, of course, total balderdash. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Christian goes out into the world, banned from creating music, continues to make it — and, as you might guess, creates his best, most enduring work (and suffers for it, naturally; just go read the story).

Everyone builds on something; shoulders of giants and all that. But it used to be harder to make the climb onto those shoulders; the giants were few and far between, their work was poorly distributed, and the minimum threshold for copying or even understanding their work was fairly high. One of the most profound effects of the historical trend towards the greater distribution of creative work of all kinds is that more people are getting to see a wider range of work: simpler stuff, tougher stuff, weirder stuff, conservative stuff. Now you can hop from the shoulders of pygmies to the shoulders of basketball players and make your way to the giants step by step.

The literacy of appropriation and annotation is a literacy wherein someone can make a solid musical contribution to the world without knowing very much about music, via mashups or loop construction. It’s one where fictional worlds grow deeper with each fan-created concordance. It isn’t new — as many have pointed out even here on this blog, Elizabethan theater was built out of appropriation and commentary on previous stagings of given tales, and today’s Broadway operates in similar fashion.

It is nonetheless a seismic change; the push towards microchannels of content wherein everyone can be a producer also means there’s lots more to copy, lots more to steal from, lots more to learn from. In the long run, this means there’s lots more good work. This is democratized creativity.

I do happen to disagree with Thomas de Zengotita, who gets the last word in the Forum when he says

Everyone in the overdeveloped world will have the tools they need to create this amazing stuff, whether it be blogs or films or games. None of it will rise to the peaks that we associate with names like Joyce or Proust, but a great deal of it will be fantastic … Everyone will be an artist, but the price is that no one will be a great artist.

I don’t see any reason why this easier staircase means that no one will be a great artist; perhaps the fear is that people will stop on the staircase where they can do so more easily. My own personal take is that this is a rising tide and that all boats will go up. Perhaps no one will be a truly great artist only because there will be so many of them that “great” will cease to have the same meaning, as creative content becomes more and more a commodity to be found everywhere.

Edit: another blog’s take on the matter.

  29 Responses to “A literacy of appropriation”

  1. [IMG Gta][UPDATE: Raph Koster has replied to this post over at his blog.] The September 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine (not online yet) has a piece titled Grand Theft Education: Literacy in the Age of Video Games. It is a conversation between Jane Avrich (author and English teacher), Steven

  2. has a roundtable on videogames and literacy, including some discussion with Raph Koster. I haven’t picked up the issue yet (and Harper’s Website doesn’t appear to mention it, unless I’m missing something), but Koster’s weblog has a quote and then some interesting followup. To me, there’s a question hanging over our conversation, which is: What kind of writing do we hope to teach? We might like to teach kids to write like Proust, but no one writes like Proust anymore. Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new

  3. discussion on video games, literacy, and education… and guess who doesn’t appear in the discussion at all. Despite this oversight, the article has sparked some very lively blog interlinkage among various people whose opinions I respect, among them Raph Koster and my classmate Ulises Mejias. The following is my response to the article, and to comments that appear on Ulises’s site. MORE… Tue. Aug. 29, ’06 11:25 PM | Re: 0

  4. in video games and/or writing: the September issue of Harper’s Magazine has an article which is getting some buzz, though it is not posted online. You can read more about the article, including some quotes which also touch upon fan fic and blogs, here http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/08/16/a-literacy-of-appropriation/

  5. a response from one of the principals (I was meaning to see if Koster had a blog). Both posts elaborate on some of the elements I found most intriguing in the original piece. Other worthy takes here and here.

  6. Personally I really like the idea of embedding games within seemingly “regular” web sites. Imagine setting up, essentially, a fake web network with clues … Hm. Gotta ponder that a bit. UPDATE: Interesting follow up is right here. What’s fascinating is the idea of the “literacy of appropriation.” Snip: To me, there’s a question hanging over our conversation, which is: What kind of writing do we hope to teach? We might like to teach kids to write like Proust, but no one

  7. Only have a few moments, but I wanted to link to Ulises’s characteristically thoughtful post concerning the Harper’s discussion I pointed to yesterday, one which prompts a response from one of the principals (I was meaning to see if Koster had a blog). Both posts elaborate on some of the elements I found most intriguing in the original piece. Other worthy takes here and here.

  8. I really agree with the idea that the democratization of the means of producing creative works will be a tide that raises all boats. I think there’s significant evidence of that already. I think what some people keyed on is the word ‘appropriation’, as though you were implying that we will speak only by quoting others. I think that’s patently false, and I didn’t take you to be implying that is was true.

  9. Sorry for the double, but a great example of this democratization is Ableton Live and it’s user community. It has fundamentally changed both the DJ and Producer professions almost single handedly.

  10. I don’t think that we will speak only by quoting others. But I would say that quoting others in some fashion is becoming both more widespread and more accepted as a form of contribution. It’s a culture of constant commentary. But that’s a learning tool; everyone starts by mimicking, then you go beyond it.

  11. Everyone will be an artist, but the price is that no one will be a great artist.

    I just love intellectual snobbery. And how are these “great” artists defined, except by thier ability and penchant to hide thier appropriation of that which has come before?

    Do we take an establishment definition, thier greatness is evidence by thier impact on society, thier ability to effect change, thier contribution to thier art was important ergo they are great.

    Do we take a materialist definition, thier sales, thier excellence in craft were substantial ergo they are great.

    Both are biased, both are made irrelavent with the passing of time and the understanding of the artists place in society and that societies state.

    Mozart was a miserable human being, Beethoven was a spendthrift and mooch, and Wagner was a Racist, while Picasso and Einstein were womanizers, who had dysfunctional families. There can be no debating these aspects of thier humanity, we have “access” to thier letters, and thier opinions and personailities. These are not measures of greatness, but measures of humanity.

    But I know greatness when I hear it, I know it when I see it, and I know it when I grasp it through study. And I know my opinion is subjective and likely irrelavent to others

    What critics and those who would quantify and classify what is and is not “great” fear is access, because they fear competition.

    The thing about greatness and excellence, is that historically and sometimes despite family, authority, economic, and government interferance, it does rise to the top. The interesting thing is that it almost has its own impetus despite the vessels flaws (person) and situation. Sometimes I think the amazing thing is not that those who innovate and are “great” are creative, or that this creative process is hard, but that they create despite themselves.

    I agree with everything you put up there Raph. Greatness is built on what has come before, more access can only mean it more of it, more quickly.

    And it may just allow someone who might otherwise not have risen to the top
    or get recognized for it do so, even while intellectual critics gnash thier teeth and flail about, arms waving wildly…”this cant be great its not like Proust”…..

    “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources”-Einstien

  12. [...] Raph Koster has an excellent post up right now discussing the notion of democratized literacy that is well worth the time to read. I’d have to say that I largely agree with him, and feel that he makes an important implicit point: the entire notion of literacy and literature is constantly evolving, and should not be assumed as a static and limited definition. The structure and limits of a definition can change and expand, as long as the idea remains. [...]

  13. I agree as well. William Burroughs put this notion foward very eloquently in his dynamic metaphor of the “word virus”, implying a sort of pyramid scheme that stems from ideas. Except unlike all other pyramid schemes, the pyramid of language, of expressive patterns in general, is one where the later you arrive to the party the higher you have to climb.

  14. but that they create despite themselves.

    It has been argued that they create such great things because of the shoddiness of their circumstances. I think the argument has some merit, but not enough. The latest trend is that creativity springs from constraints, which I think has a lot more merit.

    Greatness is built on what has come before, more access can only mean it more of it, more quickly.

    There are two ways to “measure” greatness. One is absolute, the other is relative. The former says there is a threshold between not-great and great. The latter says that it takes more than getting better to become great, but that you have to be better than some majority of others.

    I think that the latter has more meaning; please note I’m not actually arguing what either criteria is, only the broadest stroke.

    I also agree with the comment about intellectual snobbery. A lot of people who talk about greatness or whatnot speak about the past without factoring in everything else about the past. They talk about how awesome they who have gone before were, yet fail to recognize that we who are here now are doing things that surpass those past achievements.

    I don’t think that we will speak only by quoting others. But I would say that quoting others in some fashion is becoming both more widespread and more accepted as a form of contribution. It’s a culture of constant commentary. But that’s a learning tool; everyone starts by mimicking, then you go beyond it.

    I think it’s significant that to quote others you have to read what they said first. And then you have to understand what they said. And then you have to realize it’s significant to either what you’re talking about or who you’re quoting to.

  15. I agree that an important part of creativity is the ability to “quote” (borrow, remix, annotate, appropriate) other work. As Lessig suggests (in Free Culture), curtailing these opportunities by imposing strict copyright laws results in the stifling of creativity. Thus, the ‘open’ content movement is truly revolutionary as a response to copyright restrictions. However, it does not follow that these new practices will automatically or exclusively engender democracy, which is why I could not understand your (edited) comment about a literacy of appropriation amounting to a democratized literacy. What if what most people are appropriating and annotating are the products that limit their freedom in the first place? What does the freedom to remix pre-packed, establishment-sanctioned cultural products really mean to a democracy? In any event, I am still struggling with these questions, and I thank you for providing more food for thought.

  16. Well, out of these definitions, I was really referencing #2, “to make something more of the people,” not the definition that means “to make something more like a politically democratic system.”

  17. One interesting thing about any kind of literacy is the contrast between tools that are required for its basic competency vs. craftsmanship vs. genius. When you talk about language/writing literacy, we all understand that there is a great difference between understanding how to read at a “I can read just fine,” level — cultural literacy — and being able to read and write well enough to do a job where it is a main component; being a copywriter for an ad agency, a technical writer, an editor, etc. And then there is another quantum leap between that and being a great poet, novelist, song-writer, speech-writer, script-writer, etc. The basic *units* of the process are the same, the words of the language, but the tools used to put them together are vastly different.

    When you talk, Ralph, about a literacy based on a more universally available and mashable repository of culture, it makes me think of the dictum that “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” And it makes me nervous and I’ll tell ya why. I teach students who often don’t seem to understand the (to me) vast chasm between: 1) search, find, copy, paste-text-into-essay-wholecloth; which I tend to call plagiarism, and; 2) search, find, read, digest, comment in essay w/ your own observation, which is the whole point. Again, the “units” of the two behaviors (Google, Ebsco, NetLibrary, Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, type, print, mouse, etc.) are very similar. But the difference between the usage is the difference between being able to read a McDonald’s menu and being able to write a decent press release.

    And there are other differences along the way, too. For example, the ability to judge and review sources and balance speed vs. reliability of information; to weigh opinion (which can be valuable) against “fact.” To understand that there can be more than one set of facts. To value multiple viewpoints and conflicts and dualities and pluralism. If you are going to let people eat at a buffet vs. preparing a meal for them course-by-course, they need to be taught buffet skills. Including restraint.

    I’m all for a literacy that incorporates The Long Tail and the ability to pick-and-choose from more midgets and giants. But the skills we need to teach in order to be “literate” in that space are, I think, barely understood currently.

  18. [...] The September issue of Harper’s Magazine has a roundtable on videogames and literacy, including some discussion with Raph Koster. I haven’t picked up the issue yet (and Harper’s Website doesn’t appear to mention it, unless I’m missing something), but Koster’s weblog has a quote and then some interesting followup. To me, there’s a question hanging over our conversation, which is: What kind of writing do we hope to teach? We might like to teach kids to write like Proust, but no one writes like Proust anymore. Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new forms of literacy. Think of blogs, for example: most blog posts are reblogs, they’re parasitic on things other people have written. It’s a democratized writing, a democratized literacy. [...]

  19. Raph, I’m not sure “democratized” is exactly the right word; perhaps “popularized” might be more accurate. I suppose you mean that more access to more text to be pasted and manipulated in more ways = democracy. But infestations of viral memes don’t equal democracy as such, at least any notion of *liberal* democracy.

    Writers have always appropriated all through history. Many writers throughout the ages took from the Bible or were influenced by the Biblical themes and narratives, as were artists — entire centuries go by where the major artists and writers are drawing mainly from the Bible.

    Writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien drew from George McDonald’s fairy tales. And so on. You can always find something derivative of something else. The question is how much new and unique and aesthetic is forged in this process.

    I’m troubled by all these new-fangled college departments I see where somebody is teaching digital arts and “the new literacies” — as if they now have a pass to be illiterate, or unencumbered by literary history, or in a state of constant celebration of “mash-ups”.

    I remember spending a torturous 2 days trying to read many of the pieces that were pointed to as the ne plus ultra at the _always black library in Second Life, which prides itself as being new and digital and hip and all the rest. I read and read; none of it was any good that I could see, I mean, not even as good as a bad F. Scott Fitzgerald story. One can hope some of this stuff might age and be appreciated more in 50 years; after all,most writers of the past centuries having to churn out copy for pennies in serials and magazines and such were under terrible pressures, were considered hacks by their era, and only got immortalized later.

    I’m wondering if the narratives you partake of, or which get forced upon you, in online games and virtual worlds, reduce or remove any need for linear, left-to-write writing as such. That is, you start making a different story which has elements of textual writing, game action, screenshots, IMs, etc. And that’s what they mean by the new literacy, I suppose, but that “new narrative” or “new literacy” are often merely reworked Biblical or Greek mythological stories. Often my kids will tell me about some game they are playing through with Link or something and I’ll say, oh, but that’s Captain Ahab, oh, but that’s the Cain & Abel story, oh, but that’s the idea of Medusa or Pandora’s box, etc.

    When they had that thing called the National Novel Writing Month, I started writing a novel the old way. But it wasn’t working to capture the realities of the virtuality of Second Life. So instead, I started just making a thousand screenshots and capturing all chat, even the dumb chat of the scripted objects and the drop-down maintenance screens. I quickly amassed the 100,000 words needed for my novel. I then cut it a bit and submitted it, but gosh, that’s not writing, that’s type-writing. It had some really masterful moments of course but then I had a computer crash and lost most of it.

  20. Often my kids will tell me about some game they are playing through with Link or something and I’ll say, oh, but that’s Captain Ahab, oh, but that’s the Cain & Abel story, oh, but that’s the idea of Medusa or Pandora’s box, etc.

    This kind of statement has always made me wonder whether those ideas were original or derivative. And if they were derivative… from who? And those, were they derivative too? Et cetera. What is the first cause, the big bang, the creator god of storytelling? I mean… if nothing’s original, what was it copied from?

    My answer to this is that “originality” means to take life and reframe it in a narrower context. And it’s interesting that Raph often talks about games in the exact same way. And I do wonder about the strangeness of reframing a reframing a reframing of life. (Replace “reframing a” with “derivative of”.) Do we lose the original essence? If we do, is it a bad thing?

    Originality isn’t even valuable in and of itself (except in marketing, but only because people think it’s valuable =P). When I was working with my friends developing the game, I would remind them that “uniqueness” isn’t necessarily a good thing: sometimes no one’s doing it because it’s a really bad idea.

    When they had that thing called the National Novel Writing Month

    You use the past tense. I’ve decided to try my hand at it again this year. =P Do it again, it’ll be fun!

    vast chasm between: [snip] plagiarism, and; [snip] [your own thoughts]

    That’s precisely what it isn’t. It’s not a creative act to copy and paste. Appropriation would be closer to use someone else’s algorithms to code something even more fantastic.

    In the first NaNoWriMo I did, I wrote a fantastic first chapter. It was a prologue where I — oh, [random expletive]. Here, read it yourself. It’s not that long. I appropriated the baby Jesus story without a hint of remorse, yet I didn’t copy and paste. It’s not plagiarism. And because I’m in the mood, here’s some lifting from Grecian myths, same story, a couple pages in. Very light, very delicate, but in both cases, the allusions do most of my work for me. I don’t have to set up the atmosphere of “Something greater is at work”: the continual references do that for me.

    The way I understand it, it’s a higher standard of literacy. It doesn’t merely demand that you be able to read, or even simply comprehension or critical analysis. It requires that you have all of that and furthermore recognize what is being referenced. The copying of the Biblical story is useless to someone who’s never heard the Christmas story: my contrasting will evoke nothing.

    And I need to start writing for real… I have so much garrulous energy to burn that they’re going into comments on blogs and forums. *mutter*

  21. Erm…how to put this, Michael. There’s the Baby Jesus story as a fundamental narrative that itself may have come from some Egyptian myth or something but which got fashioned into its own, very long-running Greatest Story Ever Told. Then…there’s your reworking of it. Um. Ok. Then there’s O’Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” Whatever the core narrative in all these “works of art,” they have their levels, eh? Their variances in quality. And that’s what literature and art is about. And you’re right, that without the cultural basis in the Great Books to start with, it’s not possible to really appreciate the derivative works. And yet millions of kids who weren’t taught the Bible in their family or their schools are getting the regugitating of these story lines in games, I suppose, and for that we’re supposed to be grateful, I guess.

  22. [...] i d e a n t: Video Games, Authority, and Problem-based Thinking (Via Mr. Belshaw.) Here is a great thread of posts pointed out by Mr. Belshaw. Ulises Ali Mejias at Ideant responds to a Hapers Magazine article, which documented a conversation including game designer Raph Koster, who then responded to Mejias’ post. [...]

  23. [...] From SL Creativity Jump to: navigation, search A literacy of appropriation Raph Koster Teaching literacy has always been the central business of schools. School literacy teaching had tended to focus on written literacy rather than on oral literacy, which is mainly learnt outside school. Literacy has never been a fixed body of skills but has evolved with the development of technology, such as pens and paper, and the needs of society as in the Industrial Revolution. For example, handwriting was a major focus of schooling during the 19th Century as the demand for clerks grew rapidly. Then the invention of the typewriter made neat handwriting a less important business skill. However, important literacy technologies such as the newspaper, the typewriter and the telegraph took decades to spread throughout society, giving schools time to adapt. Schools today are struggling to cope with the teaching of new literacies that are often less than five years old but are widespread in society. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multimedia_literacy The marketing people nightmare is coming true: People are no longer content to express individuality through mass produced goods. Turning of TVs Producing our own culture A literacy that is more inclusive – relate to Davis Other ways to convey meaning & Taking notes with spaces and images Expanding the Concept of Literacy We need to recognize that writing words is the Latin of our modern times. Video and sound are the vulgar languages of the common people, tools for speaking with power – a new potential to speak, learn, a new literacy that’s reviving the read-write culture. Lessig at Wikimania http://www.andycarvin.com/archives/2006/08/larry_lessig_fightin.html [...]

  24. [...] kestrell @ 03:06 pm: Media and literacy A heads up to anyone interested in video games and/or writing: the September issue of Harper’s Magazine has an article which is getting some buzz, though it is not posted online. You can read more about the article, including some quotes which also touch upon fan fic and blogs, herehttp://www.raphkoster.com/2006/08/16/a-literacy-of-appropriation/[...]

  25. [...] Context: This post started out as a comment in response to Ralph Koster’s insightful and thought-provoking comment on Brian Lamb’s discussion of the recent article in Harper’s Weekly “Grand Theft Education.” After I finished the first three paragraphs I promoted it to post! [...]

  26. [...] Fascinating dialogue between Ulises Ali Mejias and Raph Koster following from a multi-person discussion piece in Harpers about video games and literacy. [...]

  27. [...] 1. Last month’s Harpers has a fun roundtable discussion on video games and education that I participated in a few months ago. (It also included the excellent Ralph Koster, whose book A Theory Of Fun is a must-read for anyone interested in the gaming culture.) Annoyingly, the forum is not online, but Ralph’s got a few followup responses on his blog. [...]

  28. [...] Raph Koster has replied to this post over at his blog, and Gus offers some interesting thoughts as [...]

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