Thursday, September 17, 2009

Grimlie's World on Metaplace

Exploring theoretical concepts and course materials beyond simply writing about them can be a challenging prospect. This semester, in lieu of the standard class presentations, I'm asking my cmns 455 Women and New Information Technology students to explore the theories, terms and ideas discussed in seminar through social networking tools. Since technology is best approached as a form of practice, embedded in culture, relationships and social institutions, what better way to think through the debates, challenges and opportunities that ITs provide than to experience firsthand how these tools can be used to produce critical analysis.

Of course, these types of projects can be easier said (or assigned) than done, so I've decided to join my students in this endeavor by constructing a virtual world component to my lectures. The world will serve as a compliment to course materials and resources, and will function as an immersive and more interactive version of the course website. It will also provide a virtual space for group discussions, if students are willing to give it a try.

For this project, I'm using Metaplace, a user-friendly WYSIWYG (a.k.a. what you see is what you get) virtual world building tool that is free and open to the public. I first heard about Metaplace at this summer's State of Play 6, via Raph Koster's (Metaplace founder and all-star game designer) keynote. I was immediately excited to give it a try, and am even more excited about it now that I've had a chance to give it a whirl. Here's a screenshot of my work-in-progress, "Grimlie's World":

I've attempted to design a virtual environment that reflects some of the ways in which I make sense of issues surrounding women/girls and technology, particularly in terms of how they relate to my own research on children's digital games and play technologies. Here's the excerpt from my "Design Principles" statement, which as I mention above is posted on the course website as well as on the Intro page of the world itself:
In addition to being what I know best and therefore most available for thinking through theoretical issues, I find the realm of children's culture (digital and analog) a fascinating and highly useful way of exploring gender and technology. Very few areas of society are as overtly and openly gendered as children's toys and media - just visit to a nearby Toys "R" Us (pink aisles vs. blue aisles) or watch a few hours of Saturday morning cartoons for some immediate examples.

While counter-examples exist, the dominant discourse is one of extreme divisiveness with a rarely contested emphasis on hyper-femininity and hyper-masculinity, and hyper-hegemonic ideals (e.g. middle-class "family values") and politics (heteronormative, conservative, etc.). This emphasis is reflected in the design and implementation of children's cultural and technological artifacts - from porcelain dolls to Easy-Bake Ovens, to Batman action figures.

Within the specific area of digital games, which have long been typecast as "toys for boys" (a problematic title for many reasons), these issues are at the centre of an ongoing debate, which we will be exploring in seminar and through our readings of Kafai et al's Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat. We will spend time discussing the whole concept of "girls games" - the argument that getting more girls into gaming will translate into more women in the game and other IT industries, the various issues of representation that are involved, the often overlooked question of leisure politics in contemporary society, as well as market and industry concerns about gendered design and the movement toward gender-inclusive design.

Throughout this discussion, however, we'll see that most games "for girls" continue to feature very gendered themes and imagery, not to mention colour palettes, and inexplicably limited design affordances. But if all games, and many technologies, are gendered to begin with, as well as predominantly gendered as "masculine", could the explicit display of "feminine" technologies not also be seen as a direct challenge, a re-appropriation and source of potential empowerment? The phenomenon is complicated - it raises so many interesting questions about the social construction of gender and technology, and hits right at the heart of some of the key divisions among feminist technology theorists.

I'm hoping to use the space as a way of depicting, and possibly eventually challenging, some of these paradoxes. My first iteration has been pretty straightforward - basically a suburban playground with different themed areas filled with objects that link up to external website, videos, etc. But I'm hoping that as I become more familiar with the space, I can start using it to engage with the theories and concepts at a more experiential level.

The most exciting thing about this is that my students are along for the ride as well, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how their projects evolve and develop over the course of the semester. You can find out more about the projects and the course on the cmns455 website, or come and see my progress in Metaplace. If you do, please share any thoughts or feedback - as a work in progress, helpful suggestions and comments are welcome and deeply appreciated. Here are a couple of additional screenshots FYI:

Some of the themed areas, reflecting dominant themes found in commercial girls' games, including "Sweets & Treats" (think Candyland or Strawberry Shortcake)

The town square, where you can transport to a separate "Classroom" are where course materials can be downloaded:

And lastly, the Classroom:

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