Fan Studies Network Australasia 2017 Conference CFP

From the Fan Studies Network Australasia:

The first Fan Studies Network Australasia conference is to be held at the University of Wollongong, Australia from 30 November – 1 December 2017, hosted by the Research Centre for Culture, Texts and Creative Industries (CTC).

Keynote Speaker: Prof. Matt Hills, University of Huddersfield.

As research and interest on fandom gather momentum in Australia, New Zealand, and Asia at large, the Fan Studies Network is very keen to foster new connections and resources. This inaugural conference for scholars based in the region is the first step in establishing an Australasian branch of the FSN. We invite abstracts of no more than 300 words for individual 20 minute papers that address any aspect of fandom or fan studies. We also welcome submissions for pre-constituted panels (for 3-4 speakers/papers). We encourage all of those engaged in fan studies as well as those existing members of the network to submit proposals for presentations on, but not limited to, the following possible topics: Fandom in Asia, Australia and/or New Zealand – Non-Western fan cultures – Producer-audience interactions– Activism and fandom– Ethics in fan studies– Defining fandom– Anti-Fandom and Non-Fandom– Fan use of social media platforms– Fandom (and) controversies– The future of fan studies.

Please send any inquiries and/or abstracts to fsnaustralasia@gmail.com by 25th August 2017.
Conference organisers: Dr. Bertha Chin, Dr. Renee Middlemost, Prof. Sue Turnbull, Dr. Ika Willis
W: https://fanstudies.org/
FB: https://www.facebook.com/groups/fanstudies/
T: @FSNAusAsia (hashtag #FSNA2017)
DL: http://jiscmail.ac.uk/fanstudies 

About the Fan Studies Network: Since March 2012, the Fan Studies Network has provided a friendly space with which scholars from all disciplines who are interested in fans and fan culture can connect, share resources, and develop their research ideas. In June 2017, the network held its fifth annual conference at the University of Huddersfield, UK. Each year has seen the network grow exponentially, as the mailing list and conference attract more scholars interested in fan studies from all over the world.

Playing Lotus (2016)

This post is the first autoethnographic account in a research project for a future article to be titled ‘Cardboard Asia’.

Background
The lotus flower is a common element in Asian themed games where it is used to denote orientalism and mysticism. The flower, while often used to represent Chinese themes, also has a long history as the ‘sacred lotus’ in the Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The lotus is, therefore, a polyvalent symbol and generic orientalist signifier. The lotus is featured in the German Der weiße Lotus (2000) that depicted territorial control in the middle ages and Flower of the Lotus (1996), which was republished under the title China Moon (1998). The German-only language version of Lotus (1998) is an award winning piece-stacking racing game with some strategical elements, which featured a red snake-like dragon on a grid layout that somewhat resembled a flowering lotus plant, a very stereotypical representation of Chineseness.

Lotus (2016) by Jordan and Mandy Goddard (Renegade Game Studios)

Lotus (2016)
The most recent Lotus boardgame first signals its ‘asianness’ representationally with the box cover that depicts a digital watercolour painting of a woman in traditional straight collar purple cheongsam with coiled buttons and green and gold embroidery, who appears to be levitating a glowing lotus flower. On the cover, the title ‘Lotus’ has a calligraphy-styled font, and the game’s designers are simply listed as ‘Jordan & Mandy’, while the back of the box has images of the game’s components. The back of the box signals the game’s Chineseness with a single hànzì character appearing next to the component list, which Google translates suggests is ‘lotus’. The game is illustrated by Anita Osburn and Chris Ostrowski, and made in China, but Lotus is published by Renegade Games studies, which is listed as a Californian company, who also publish two other popular Asian themed games Lanterns: The Harvest Festival and Honshu.

First encounter
As with most ‘boxed’ board games, the first game involves several commons experiences including the removal of shrink wrap, the ‘popping’ of cardboard tiles from the factory punched card stock and the learning of the rules. Our first game was a four player experience, with Harriet, my ten-year-old daughter, my partner Lucy, and our friend Jodie, who began reading the rule book while I search for a ‘how-to-play video on YouTube. The first game we played was an introduction to the game’s aesthetic experience that I described as ‘beautiful meanness’. Playing the game involves placing the individual flower cards on the table and completing the flower ‘sets’ of the flowers placed by others by adding the right number of cards/petals. Each of the flowers – Iris (3 petals), Primrose (4 petals), Cherry Blossom (5 petals), Lily (6 petals) and the Lotus (7 petals) – is a typical Chinese flower type. The font on the Guardian cards and points coins replicate the calligraphy style of the box cover, but the cards lack other overt symbols of ‘Chineseness’.

Each player gets two insect tokens – Yellow (Butterfly), Red (Ladybug), Blue (Dragonfly) and Green (Caterpillar), which evokes the connections to Japanese games media where bug collecting (Pokemon and Yokai Watch) is considered an honourable and worthwhile pursuit. In Lotus, the insects are ‘Guardians’, and when placed on the flower cards, they count as that player’s territory. To take a flower, the player must complete it, but to get the bonus points or special power tokens, the player with the most Guardians wins. This helped to offset the ‘meanness’ I felt in completing the flowers that other player’s put down. By building up the flowers, we emotionally invest in them, and it can feel mean when other players complete your carefully assembled Lilly or ambitiously planned Lotus. The beautiful meanness of the game became even more profound to me during our second game. In the first game, my strategy of completing flowers rather than investing Guardian tokens into them meant I won with a huge lead and prompted an immediate second game where I became the one to beat. Instead of focussing on taking the flowers in the second game I invested in achieving all the special powers, which gave me fewer points but it felt like I was experiencing more of the game than simply winning.

Final thoughts
Lotus is a game designed in the United States and made in China. It is a global product, one that is clear in its Asianness but also offering a contemporary feel to the concept. Lotus has a degree of ‘ludonarratological dissonance’ in which the gorgeous aesthetic, underlying spiritual and botanical motifs, contrasts sharply to the competitive element of traditional ‘trick-taking’ in Western card games like Bridge or 500. Board games, in general, suffer from this problem, and in the future, I’ll put together a blog post on those that work to overcome it (I’m thinking specifically of Netrunner).

Lotus is a game designed in the United States and made in China. It is a global product, one that is clear in its Asianness but also offering a contemporary feel to the concept. Lotus has a degree of ‘ludonarratological dissonance’ in which the gorgeous aesthetic, underlying spiritual and botanical motifs, contrasts sharply to the competitive element of traditional ‘trick-taking’ in Western card games like Bridge or 500. Board games, in general, suffer from this problem, and in the future, I’ll put together a blog post on those that work to overcome it (I’m thinking specifically of Netrunner).

iv. the Pokémon GO Plus and embodied space

The Pokémon GO Plus – the Pogo+ or Poképlus – is a wearable technology that connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth allowing the user to play Pokémon GO without being restricted to the mobile phone screen. Playing Pokémon GO, contrary to reports (see the Pokémon GO Death Counter) is concerned with locating the self in space by triangulating the player location in both the real world and the virtual world represented on the mobile phone screen.

The Poképlus is a device which translates onscreen information into blinking colours and vibrations. The device is shaped like a mashup of the Google map ‘pin’ and the classic white and red Pokéball. It attaches to a wrist strap or clip providing the user with the ability to feel, see and hear the location of Pokémon and Pokéstops within the sphere of detection permitted by the app (approximately 40 metres in diameter).

The Pokémon GO Plus lets players see, feel, hear and respond to the world of Pokémon away from their screens.

The player can put their phone in a pocket and interact with the local environment through a button press, which glows green in the proximity of a Pokémon, yellow if the Pokémon is not in the player’s Pokédex, and blue in the presence of Pokéstops. If the Pokémon is captured the device vibrates in a distinct pulsing rhythm, matched with a LED flashing pattern of green, blue, red, and white. An escaping Pokémon results in a simple short pulse accompanied by a red flash. Approaching a Pokéstop the device flashes blue and the player gathers the items from that stop in the app with a button press that results in simple vibration and multiple colours flashing to indicate success.

The Poképlus transforms the experience of space and place in a much more embodied and less visual way that the game played only through the screen. The Poképlus makes the game less about using the screen to reveal the world filled with Pokémon, and more about using the body to interact with the game’s translation of the environment, bringing the game into the physical and tangible world in a different way.

I found the Poképlus to be a massive release from lifting the screen up to view when walking. No longer does my neck ache after a Pokémon Go play session. It means that my walks with the game were less punctuated by stops and starts, and a more seamless movement through the environment. There is a degree of anxiety that I first encountered when playing with the Plus as the catch rate for Pokémon feels more random. The device is also deeply connected to the in-game economy, as it only uses basic Pokéballs in the catching process, which means these can be depleted and have to be replaced through buying currency and items in the game. The catching process is limited to a single throw, which means that higher level and rarer Pokémon can evade capture more easily. I had to make the conscious effect not to look at the in-game journal and ignore the ones that got away.

I use the Poképlus every day, and thoroughly enjoy the transformation of play into a differently embodied experience. It’s a device that reveals how AR experiences don’t have to be limited to interacting with screens and it shows how wearable technologies might expand interactions with our environments in simple and effective ways in the future.

iii. first encounters with Pokémon GO

Critics of Pokémon GO have called the app a device for amassing geospatial intelligence, and an instrument for violating personal information and privacy. The autoethnographic approach employed here recognises that these concerns are important, but they are only one way of addressing the disruptive potential of Pokémon GO and the degree to which its play has been performed, contested, resisted and rewarded at a local level. The debate and concern over the potential abuse of surveilling features of all mobile technologies should not be minimised, but it is also only part of what is going on and we shouldn’t abandon a closer look at the entire experience.

My first experience with the Pokémon GO app transformed the interior and exterior of my workplace, the University of Wollongong, especially how I came to view and experience the campus. Often a place of intensive periods of work, teaching and researching, inside classrooms and between them, the campus – although an aesthetically enchanting location of artificially created streams and duck ponds and richly authentic native flora – had become a familiar site. That changed with Pokémon GO, as I searched the local environment for virtual monsters between classes, on the way to the library, to buy coffee and attend meetings.

The app changed the way I was oriented to the campus. My typical landmarks of central buildings, duck ponds and pathways changed to focus on the Pokéstops in the game which would reward me with in-game items. I was also intrigued to learn, and often think about, how these in-game locations were crowdsourced by players of Niantic’s previous game, Ingress. Walking between Pokéstops, I began to hold the phone up in front of me as I walked: forcing my eyes between the virtual environment of the simplified Google Map on my screen and the direction I was heading. This act signalled my performance of play, and I noticed other ‘Trainers’ who similarly identified themselves as players to the world with a particular stance that centres the phone at chest height or above and in the middle of the view. The app forces the player into a new physical relationship with the phone, holding it out in front to look between the screen and the path ahead. This new way of holding the phone while walking aggravated a pre-existing neck injury, and I found myself always trying new ways of holding the phone to reduce its impact on my body.

Pokestop

My favourite UoW campus Pokéstop.

 

Here I note the immense power and privilege that comes with the position of lecturer at an Australian university. First, because my wage had enabled me to buy into a contract for a new iPhone, the 6S, in the week of the app’s launch (deciding between the closed model of Apple products and more open operating system of Android devices). Having access to the high number of 4G access points on the rooftops of the campus buildings and the institutions high-density WiFi signals servicing the demand for high-speed internet access of students and colleagues, meant that connection – when the servers were operating- was assured and not disrupted by gaps in coverage experience by other regional and rural players. The campus was also privileged as a prime location for Ingress players, university students who had mapped the location of potential sites of significance and interest by submitting details to Niantic as part of the play of their previous game.

Pokemon GO map of Pokestops on the University of Wollongong Campus

Pokemon GO map of Pokestops on the University of Wollongong Campus

This Google Map is an incomplete picture of the Pokéstops that I choose to seek out as I walk across campus. I no longer travelled along the most direct route between buildings, which increased the distance I covered with the app and advancing the number of pokémon I could find and the number of Pokéstops I could visit each trip. I began to leave the office to make short walks of ten minutes more often.

Until playing Pokémon GO, I had assumed that non-university attending players would regard the campus as a public place. My assumption was that ‘the public’ would visit to take advantage of the density of pokémon and Pokéstops. I had assumed, wrongly, that players would regard the University campus as a public place, similar to the Wollongong Botanic Gardens directly across the street, which also has a high density of available Pokéstops.  My incorrect assumption was revealed by a question on the Illawarra Pokémon Go Facebook group. On the annual recruitment ‘Open’ day the University of Wollongong marketing team added ‘lures’ to each of the campus Pokéstops.  Lures are purchased in-game items that increased the number and rarity of Pokéman ‘spawning’ in that location, which resulted in the arrival of a rare Kabutops: the question posed to Facebook asked if it was permissible for those not intending to enrol to be on the campus.

 

 

ii. an autoethnography of Pokémon Go – beginnings

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality (AR) locative data application with a virtual and ludic interface connecting mobile device users to a universe filled with friendly monsters. The game functions like a magical talisman revealing hidden creatures in the everyday environments of our networked connected world. Released in July 2016 on the iOS and Android operating systems by Niantic Labs, the app had a turbulent first month. The experience of Pokémon Go in the first few weeks of play was characterised by disruptions: a fervour of activity and excitement generated by a new relationship to the user’s mobile device which revealed unconsidered dimensions to familiar locations.

Pokemon Go App location

By holding up the mobile phone, the user, the app and the object transform the ordinary space of homes, work environments and public places into newly inhabited locations full of ‘first generation’ of Pokémon. Generation One (Gen 1) refers to the first Pokemon game for the Nintendo Game Boy developed by Game Freak for Japanese audiences in 1996. At launch, Pokémon Go included 151 pokémon of different rarity, which produced a highly nostalgic experience for players of Gen 1. The first few weeks of Pokémon Go was also marked with very high degrees of player frustration, as the servers which Niantic used to support the game were not able to keep up with demand. Hackers and modders overloaded the game’s application programming interface (API), and players were shut out of the Pokemon tracking features meant to encourage the exploration of the play environment for hidden pokémon. These features were removed from the game entirely and later reinstated in a less server intensive iteration, which caused many players to register complaints via social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.

Despite the early days of server-side instability, this game continues to attract millions of daily users, generating more than a $1 billion (USD) in 2016. There are numerous reasons for the game’s global success beyond the popularity of the Pokémon franchise. Among them is the unprecedented harnessing of existing technology: the phone’s forward-facing camera enables the augmented reality feature, overlaying pokémon onto the world; the internet connectivity provides access to the in-app Google Maps overlay revealing the hidden locations of pokémon around us; the network data storing the locations of Pokéstops (generated by players of Niantic previous locative data app, Ingress) which are required to receive in-game items and player experience points that increase the level of their personal avatars (XP); the mobile phone towers and GPS satellites triangulating location means the players transverse the virtual game space in the real world through walking or running; and the haptic phone interface which provides the experience of catching Pokémon in the wild, bringing to life the dreams of millions of players who have enjoyed Nintendo devices for three decades.

Norman Denzin, (2006) argued that doing and performing autoethnography is a way of being ethical and political in the world. This approach suggests that respecting objects is not merely understanding their role in the political economy of late capitalism, but requires making sense of our relationships with them as they are performed, lived and experienced in the everyday. Pokémon Go brought with it the sudden increase of people looking at their phones in public. A wave of news stories surfaced about absent-minded mobile phone users endangering lives, breaking property boundaries and turning previously highly regulated spaces such as workplaces such as offices, hospitals, police stations, as well as cultural sites like war memorials and museums into playable zones. Pokémon Go, with seemingly careless ease, reordered and destabilised previously established location-based networks of performance and behaviour.

The feelings of euphoria and discovery that characterised Pokémon Go play by people across the globe looking into their phones to see the world anew, was reflected on in the tweet from Nathan Sharp:

Nathan Sharp's Pokemon Go nostalgia

The launch of the app coincided with the original series celebrating its twentieth year, with GameFreak releasing a new Nintendo DS game, Pokémon Sun and Moon. The new game updated the player’s experience but kept intact the vision of its creator, who synthesised elements of the Shinto and Buddhist cultural experiences of his earlier life, bringing them together with his love of bug collecting. Unlike GameFreak, Pokémon Go’s developer, however, was not a traditional game development company and the app lost many players as Niantic changed fundamental aspects of the game after launch. Very few games companies would, or would be able to, remove core design elements post-launch.

At the time of writing, while the initial disruption and playful sense of discovery have abated, there remains a colossal and very active contingent of players around the globe. The game remained in the top five grossing apps available via the Apple iTunes store, with over $950 US million in revenue and attracting millions of previously non-gaming consumers to the market in 2016 (Stewart, 2017). The Pokémon Go app was released to the public in a very unfinished state -providing a bare minimum experience – it continues to be updated by Niantic in non-regular updates that remove some elements of the game and change others. This makes the play experience less stable and predictable compared to other Pokémon games.

i. autoethnography of objects

Autoethnography uses narrativised experience in order to examine, interpret and explain cultural experiences and practices (Adams, Holman Jones and Ellis 2015):

“Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience.” (Ellis, Adams and Bochner 2011: np).

Autoethnographic researchers describe and analyse cultural beliefs, practices and experiences that qualitatively recognise the value of the research relations with others, but rarely do those others include objects. One notable autoethnographic engagement with tangible materiality is Paul Booth’s Game Play (2015) which examines paratextuality in contemporary board games. Adapting Matt Hill’s approach to the study of Fandom, Booth explores the ludic functionality of analogue games through play by scrutinising the tastes, values, attachments and investments of his and his game group’s personal experience. Objects, however, are only peripheral in the engagement and while some of the physical matter of board games is considered, objects take a backseat to the reflexive analysis of the subjective experience of the researcher and his team of players.

Autoethnography is a research method that is careful and methodological in its reflexivity, but the focus of reflection is almost always on the self, society, the personal and the political. Objects are rarely considered in equal measure to the subjective experience of autoethnographic ‘thick description’ (Geertz 1973: 10), and objects are not considered as partners in the narratives and stories that reflect heavily on time, place, emotion and affect but rather as a basis for heightened concerns about social, political and ultimately subjective identity. In the desire to make sense of the messy and uncertain social life, autoethnography attention is paid to the physical experience and embodiment, but even the body as an object is often sublimated in the narratives and accounts that are used to answer questions about how identities matter. It is important to understand that the identities, characteristics, experiences, regulation, silencing, disregard and abuse of objects also matter.

The omission of objects in autoethnography is understandable as the methodology places the ‘self’ within the scope of the investigation and the narratives developed are the framing devices for critical analysis of subjective experience. Autoethnography asks the researcher to consider their own biases, opinions and assumptions as part of the process of discovery and learning. This approach makes objects part of the intellectual firmament that autoethnography so promisingly seeks to escape. To consider objects is to risk falling into the ‘crisis of representation’ (Adams, Holman Jones and Ellis 2015: np) precisely as we are attenuating our senses to “local knowledge” that promises to subvert existing power relations to ‘create more just and equitable living conditions”. There is a sense that this kind of qualitative research can only focus on human intentions, actions, and motivations, and to incorporate objects is to fall back into the traps of colonialism, scientificism, and capitalism. Autoethnography is “a method for exploring, understanding, and writing from, through and with personal experiences in relation to and in the context of the experiences of others” and those others can include objects (Adams, Holman Jones and Ellis 2015: np).

In the posts to follow this one, I will provide an autoethnographic account of the interactions with the objects involved in playing Pokemon Go and experiencing Virtual Reality.  The autoethnographic account will seek to retain the core ideals of the methodology which generally involves the foregrounding of personal experience; an illustrative sense-making processes; highly reflexive analysis; illustration of insider knowledge to document a cultural phenomenon and experience; critique cultural norms and practices; and seeks to communicate with and respond to audiences from outside the academy (Adams, Holman Jones and Ellis 2015: np). In order to include objects in what Leon Anderson (2006) describes as Analytical Autoethnography, it is possible to rebuild attention between the subject and object by including 1) attention to the social world that the objects and the researcher are a part of; 2) reflexivity involving understanding of the privileged and often unique position of the researcher and access to the objects; 3) narrative visibility of the active researcher, which makes visible the human and the non-human within the networks of the social world under observation; 4) a non-technical account of the interaction and dialogue between the researcher as subject and the objects involved in the encounter, and the experience of others as presented in available media to be consumed, such as YouTube accounts, Memes, Tweets, and communities of practice, including specific online communities (fans, experts, reviewers) in a dialogue with others (Anderson 2006: 386); and finally 5) a commitment to theoretical analysis which draws on empirical evidence to conceive and test theoretically the illumination of a broader set of cultural and social phenomena.