Risk Game Modification: Review

This post serves as a review of my experience creating a board game for the first time as a required component for completion of the Digital Media major at The University of Wollongong.

 

My first experience creating a board game was a remarkably intense experience. I have never been a huge fan of board games, and as a result, I immediately felt out of my depth when attempting this task. I decided to use my maiden attempt at game design to modify the classic board game Risk. The primary reason for doing so is that Risk is one game that I have always thoroughly enjoyed playing.

The concept of game-modification can be described as being a process of making modifications, or “mods” to an existing game text. (Postigo, 2007) The process of modding can range from changing the physics of a virtual game experience to changing the in-game characteristics in order to create a new experience. (Postigo, 2007) In my case, I chose to modify Risk to attempt an ideological shift away from the pursuit of conquest that is a fundamental characteristic of the original game.

My goal was to try and retain as many characteristics of the original game as possible, while at the same time reimagining the text to portray an experience that depicts elements of global sustainability. In order to achieve this, I attempted to alter the rules of the original game in a way that shifts the objective away from conquering the map, and towards an objective of maintaining and sustaining a players chosen continent. The idea of defining an ideological frame within a game text is not my original concept. Rather, it has been comprehensively defined and explored by games scholar Hector Postigo (2006). I attempted to channel Postigo’s ideas a focus my attention solely on the ideological characteristics of the gaming experience.

I have written previously about my belief that the pursuit of conquest by western nations (and allies) has created untold pain for indigenous populations. Essentially my belief is that the pursuit of expansionism has previously resulted in a desire for global conquest at the expense of less wealthy nation-states. Perhaps coincidentally, the game Risk provides a relatable commentary on the concept of conquest, and for these reasons I wanted to use this opportunity make create a subtle commentary of my own about the value of global sustainable practices.

Maybe it is slightly ironic that my attempt at creating a sustainable alternative to Risk was not as convincing as the original game. Nevertheless, I found that reimagining Risk was an excellent opportunity for me to understand how board games can provide a commentary on real-world political issues. Another such example of board games mimicking a depressing real world situation is the wildly famous (and ever divisive) game of Monopoly. As much as it divides opinions and causes families to temporarily hate each other it does provide a simple, yet elegant, commentary on the real-world economic structures of which we are all held captive. A worthy analysis of this concept can be found here.

In summary, It was frustrating that I was unable to create a convincing rebuttal to Risk’s dystopian pursuit of conquest, but regardless my first attempt at creating a board game served as a valuable lesson in discovering the ways that games harness real-world situations and realities and recreate them in a seamless yet thought-provoking manner.

 

Bogost, I., 2006 ‘Videogames and Ideological Frames’, Popular Communication,4(3), pp. 165-183

Postigo, H (2007) “Of Mods and Modders: Chasing Down the Value of Fan-Based Digital Game Modification.” Games and Culture 2: 300-13

Making Things Easy: Virtual Reality – Episode 2

This “Episode” of Making Things Easy: Virtual Reality is a purely text-based post.  I have not been working in Unity over the past week, instead, I have spent considerable time researching different aspects of the project in order to enhance my theoretical understanding of virtual reality design. Here I will convey the information I have gathered over the past two weeks, including my recent epiphany about 3D scanning in virtual reality design, the history of bottle design, and lastly I will share some of my recent theoretical research on VR and how the technology is helping us to raise existential questions about the creation of our reality.

3D Scanning

Last week I was watching YouTube videos regarding virtual reality and I began pondering how efficient it could be to “scan” a physical beer bottle and import the scanned file into Unity, rather than redesigning the entire bottle within the software. As it turns out this is entirely possible, which at first was an exciting realization. As I continued to research the relationship between 3D scanning and VR I began to think I may have hacked my own project. I assumed 3D scanning would involve less labor than painstakingly designing the whole bottle using Unity software.  I also presumed that employing 3D scanning technology could save labor and perhaps enhance the semblance of the VR bottle design to the original bottle (keep in mind that I am inexperienced with Unity software, or CAD software in general).

Evidently, it is common practice to 3D scan a physical object (such as a beer bottle) and archives it in a virtual reality environment by simply dragging the scanned file into a Unity project. A number of limitations exist however that can make this process harder than it initially sounds.  Two of the key limitations are A) the high cost of 3D scanners, and B) that 3D scanners can produce substandard quality representations of an object. Both of these limitations seemed worthy of my consideration, and after deliberation, with University staff I have concluded that using a mixed-method of 3D scanning and Unity VR animation design is the ideal way to proceed. In summary, what I now intend to attempt is to 3D scan the basic outline of a beer bottle, place the scanned file in Unity, and use Unity design software to render the image and create a more accurate representation of the beer bottle than would otherwise be possible by using just a 3D scanned file.

 

 

Bottle Design

Considering one of the fundamental aims of this project is to design a bottle in virtual reality I figured to beneficial for me to research the history of glass bottle design. I ended up conducting a fair bit of research and obtained a decent introduction to the history of glass bottle production. Whilst conducting research I came across this infographic that quite eloquently depicts the history of the glass bottle. Rather than attempting to curate the information I have sourced into an awkward paragraph it seemed more productive to just share this beautiful infographic, created by Oberk Packaging Solutions.

 

glass bottle infographic

Virtual Reality Theory

As discussed in my previous post I am endeavoring as part of this project to gain (and disseminate) a better understanding of the relationship between virtual reality and cyber cultures. Part of this aim is to understand the potential paradigm shifts that can occur, will occur, or are occurring as a result of virtual reality technology being introduced into our affairs.

One of the more fascinating (and convincing) philosophical discussions I have encountered so far has been a research paper titled ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’ by Nick Bostrom. The paper, published in Philosophical Quarterly (2003) discusses Bostrom’s hypothesis that either A) The portion of civilizations that reach a post-human stage is close to zero; B) The number of post-human civilisations that would be interested in creating and running “ancestor-simulations” is close to zero, or C) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Hypothesis ‘C’ is perhaps the most interesting of the three. This hypothesis suggests that we are already living inside a computer simulation. It seems counter-intuitive at first, but after consideration and research, the concept seems entirely plausible. The reason that this relates to virtual reality is that Bostrom’s simulation reality is essentially the imagination of a virtual reality simulator that is indistinguishable from “real life”. As I began to explore this idea I started to ponder the idea that we may be in fact living inside Bostrom’s simulation reality. In fact, we might be on our way to creating a simulated reality of our own by way of totally immersive virtual reality technology. If this were to be the case It seems it would result in the creation of an inception type paradigm in which a superior being has created a simulated reality, and that simulated reality then creates a simulated reality of its own, and so on and so forth. Where we fit into this simulated-reality-inception paradigm I have no idea, yet the idea seems no less plausible than Bostrom’s “we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation” hypothesis. For more Information please take a look at my Prezi presentation about the philosophy and history of virtual reality technology.

Next week I will aim to publish a video in which I am either attempting to 3D scan a glass bottle, start designing the glass bottle in Unity, or both.

Game Pitch: Risk – Sustainability Edition

As part of my studies in the Digital Games Cultures course at The University of Wollongong, I have been assigned a task in which the aim is to develop a board game. I have long considered the classic table-top game Risk to be the ultimate board game, and with that in mind, I have decided to create a modified version with an alternate ideological objective.

Modification or ‘modding’ of games is described by gaming scholar Dr. Hector Postigo (2007) as being the act of making modifications, or “mods” to a game. “These mods can range from changes in the physics of the virtual world to total conversions in game play that can lead to changes in story line and game type. (Postigo, 2007) In a sense, the modification of a board game echo’s media scholar Henry Jenkins’ notion of participatory media, whereby fans and programmers are converging in their roles of creating and consuming content. (Jenkins, 2006) In this context, I will endeavor to actively participate in the creation of a game by modifying a game that is already in existence.

The term ‘modding’ is often reserved to describe the act of modifying digital games, but in this article, the term will be used specifically to describe the reinterpretation and alteration of a physical table-top board game style gaming experience.

Risk is the preeminent strategy game of global domination. In the classic Risk, players are battling to conquer the world by capturing territories and defeating their opponents. A player is victorious once all other opponents are eliminated and all territories captured. The quest for conquest in Risk is interesting because it mirrors the relentless pursuit of conquest and global domination that we have seen throughout the history of civilisation, particularly in the west. Prominent examples include the British conquest of Australia in 1788, the Spanish conquest of Mexico, beginning in 1510, and perhaps most notably the Colombian conquest of North America, beginning in 1492. I note here that I for the purpose of simplicity I have chosen to refer to each of these instances by using post-colonial country branding; no disrespect or insensitivity was intended by doing so.

As much as I enjoy playing Risk, it has always found it frustrating that the game creates a narrative which promotes the notion of conquest. In each instance mentioned above, conquest has resulted in pervasive and (mostly) negative consequences for original inhabitants of the lands. For instance, both Australian and North American indigenous populations were decimated to the point of near annihilation due to British conquest, and the region now known as Mexico has seen a massive exploitation of natural resources and degradation of indigenous culture and heritage. With this in mind, I have decided to create a version of Risk in which the object of the game is to settle on and sustainably inhabit a chosen continent. Many of the original characteristics of Risk will be maintained, but this modified version will embody an ideological shift away from conquest and toward sustainability.

 

Original Risk Map

 

The first step in modifying Risk game is to reformat the map. The reason for doing this is to create more of a level playing field, so to speak. The original map for risk consists of six continents, each of which has a different number of territories, ranging from four in Australia to eleven in Asia (see map above). I have deconstructed the map and reshaped it so that each of the continents now contains an equal number of territories, thus eliminating the disparity between each of the continents (see images below). In gaming terms, this type of modification is known as mapping. The aim of the “mapper” is to design new levels, or “maps,” for a game. (Postigo, 2007)

 

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Designing the egalitarian Risk map

 

 

image (3)
Amended Risk map with an equal number (7) territories on each continent

 

The second ideological shift away from the classic Risk is to alter the game mechanics. In the classic version of Risk, the objective is to conquer the entire world. In this new version, players will endeavor to inhabit one chosen continent and create a sustainable environment. Players will still have the option to attempt to conquer other continents, but the incentive to do will be diminished. For instance, a player who has successfully inhabited the continent of South America will find it difficult to then conquer North America, as the characteristics of North America are vastly different to those of South America. If the player inhabiting South America attempts to attack North America they will face foreign diseases, a lack of agricultural knowledge, and military insufficiencies. This challenges are not impossible to overcome, yet will require the South American continent to have first created a sustainable environment on their own continent before they can confidently to attack another territory.

The primary objective here is to inhabit a continent that can withstand attack from opponents, forge a sustainable ecosystem, and maintain the health of the continent. Victory ensues when a player can successfully manage to overcome these challenges and prove to be sustainable for a series of three consecutive turns. Other continents may see a specific continent is coming close to victory and form informal alliances in order to weaken the continent that is close to achieving sustainability. This mechanic is similar to the informal alliances that may be formed in Risk, yet the object is to weaken, rather than to kill.

Other rules and objectives will be teased out further into the design phase and during the playtest phase of game development. This post serves as an introduction to the ideological function of the game. Any suggestions or critiques are welcome and encouraged.

References:

Postigo, H (2007) “Of Mods and Modders: Chasing Down the Value of Fan-Based Digital Game Modification.” Games and Culture 2: 300-13.

Jenkins, H (2006b). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press

Making Things Easy: Virtual Reality -Episode 1

 

Welcome to episode one of ‘Making Things Easy’. This project follows my journey as I dive head first into the world of virtual reality animation.

Episode one essentially gives an introduction to the project. I intend to document my whole experience and create a series of short videos that depict my research and learning processes. I hope that this series can serve as an introduction to VR for people who have no experience with the technology and are curious to learn more about how to develop basic virtual reality animation.

So far I have only just begun tinkering with VR so this video essentially is a depiction of my thoughts and experiences as I download the required software (Unity) and begin to set-up the program to create an animation.

 

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 5.20.17 PM.png
My first creation using Unity software, titled “The Cube”. 

 

Over the next six weeks, I will upload more videos to this blog and produce short posts that explain my thinking, as well as ideas that I formulate surrounding the relationship between virtual reality and cybercultures. It seems so far that virtual reality technology is entirely different to any other design projects I have attempted. Trying to create a virtual reality requires a new mode of thinking for me, as I am trying to design an immersive experience, rather than a simple  2D or 3D CAD image. I suspect that virtual reality is creating a paradigm shift within cyberculture. This idea I look forward to exploring further as this project progresses.

Please leave any feedback or suggestions in the comments section below

Fake News, Anthropomorphism, Milo & Otis

It is common knowledge that the Australian media loves a rumor. Whether it be a messy celebrity break-up or financial abuse allegations from a former MP, the press can always find a way to spin a story. It’s understandable in some respects, as we all know a bit of juicy gossip is sure to lure readers. Frustratingly though a sometimes inability to confirm sources or fact check correctly is one of the needlessly untrustworthy elements of the fourth estate.

Spinning rumors or unconfirmed reports are not, however, confined to the tabloid papers or celebrity gossip magazines. Examples exist where defenseless animal actors have been pulled into the crossfire. One of the more prominent examples of this practice in Australian media history regards the story of the loveable main characters of the 1986 film ‘The Adventures of Milo and Otis’.

The film, which follows the adventures of a young tabby cat (Milo) and a pug dog (Otis) as an unlikely duo of best friends who become separated and each finds themselves on a tear-jerking and hazardous reconciliation adventure. Both protagonists are acted by real animals and the entire adventure is narrated in order to give the characters a human voice. The use of narration this film constitutes a classic example of anthropomorphism, as the animal charters are “imbued with humanlike intentions, motivations, and goals”. The practice of anthropomorphism, while interesting, is not uncommon, with countless examples of the practice present in modern media texts. What is perhaps more interesting are the rumors of animal abuse that have surfaced since the movie was first screened in the late 1980’s.

 

Throughout the film, there are various scenes in which the characters are placed in dangerous situations. Examples include a cat actor being placed in a wooden box and pushed over a waterfall, (see video below) and a pug actor entering a physical confrontation with a bear. As the movie was produced in a time before the realistic computer generated images for which we have become accustomed it is understandable that questions were raised as to whether the animal actors were treated humanely during the filming process.

 

 

Shortly after the film was released, rumors began to emerge that raised allegations of animal cruelty during filming. Brisbane newspaper The Sunday Mail reported at the time that Animal Liberation Queensland founder Jacqui Kent alleged the killing of more than 20 kittens during production, among other abuses. Animal abuse of any kind is a shameful and inexcusable act, yet in the case of Milo and Otis, the anthropomorphized nature of the animal actors made it easy for newspaper readers to empathise with the characters, and consequently to conjure a sense of outrage. The reason for (at least part of) this outrage is that anthropomorphized animal actors act as powerful agents of social connection when human connection is lacking. In the case of ‘Milo and Otis, rumors’ the human narration of the non-human protagonists allows the viewer to feel a sense of connection and intimacy with the adorable cat-dog Rumors

 

of animal abuse during filming are troubling, even sickening, yet from the perspective of a media observer what is perhaps more troubling is that in this case the rumors were reported whilst they remained unsubstantiated. The American Humane society is documented as stating at the time that there is no available evidence to suggest that any animals were harmed during the production of ‘The Adventures of Milo and Otis’. It is, of course, the role of the press to investigate a wide range of potential abuses, but more important is the responsibility to uphold the truth, and report the facts. In this case, however, it seems that the adorable and relatable nature of the characters in question has resulted in the facts of the story being placed secondary to a moral panic regarding unsubstantiated claims of animal cruelty.

 

These rumors have persisted well into the 21st century, with articles surfacing as recently as January 2017 that reference the Daily Mail’s original assertions. There is even an active Reddit forum from 2014 dedicated to the topic. This story shows not only the power of the media to spread unsubstantiated claims but also the role that anthropomorphism of non-human actors can play in providing assistance to the dissemination of such rumors. It is interesting too to note that the ‘Fake News’ phenomena have emerged recently as an apparently new trend in (mainly digital) media reporting, yet the case of Milo and Otis shows that perhaps this problem is something far older than Facebook.

Board Game Review: Risk

I have never really been interested in board games. Actually, when I think about it, I’m not really interested in any games, computational or physical. There is one game, however, that I have managed do develop and sustain a long-standing addiction to, and that game is Risk.

 

Put simply, the classic “World Domination RISK” is a game of military strategy. Your objective is to conquer the world. The board is set out like a simplified world map, consisting of six continents, and 42 countries, which players are aiming to overtake. The game’s manufacturer, Hasbro, defines the objective of Risk as being “To conquer the world by occupying every territory on the board, thus eliminating all your opponents”.

 

 

It sounds simple enough, but just like in real life, global conquest does not come easily. The game of world domination is actually very complicated and dynamic. Simple, yet complicated. Easy, yet hard. Frustrating, yet extremely popular. These characteristics have led to Risk gaining cult status within the board gaming community. Since being developed in 1957 by French film director Albert Lamorisse, the game has gone on to become one of the top 10 highest selling board games of all time

 

 

Part of the ecstasy (and agony) of Risk is that the game can be enjoyed with between 2-6 of your closest allies (or worst enemies). However, in my experience, the best battles occur when you are pinned against between 4-5 adversaries.  If too few players are partaking you lose out on some of the beautiful nuances of the game, such as declaring unofficial treaties with your adversaries in order to safeguard yourself from impending attack. The alliance strategy is one of the most interesting components of the game. This is because there are no rules protecting these informal agreements. There is something distinctly human about making an alliance with your fellow man, only to go back on your word once a better opportunity comes along. The potential to form (and break) alliances increase with the number of participants in the game, yet there are also drawbacks to having more players huddled around the map. One such drawback is that when you are playing with five other players the game can get very long. I have personally been involved in battles that have lasted over four hours! The sometimes elongated game time can add another layer of frustration to the volatile, relationship-testing masterpiece that is Risk.

As I was planning this review of Risk I set out to find some worthy foe’s to challenge me over a couple of Friday night beers. Unfortunately, my friends are no longer willing to take the risk, (pun, sorry) so there I was, alone on a Friday night, wondering how I was going to write a review for a game that I haven’t played in over 6 months. It then suddenly dawned on me that I have the “Risk: Global Domination” game app downloaded on my smartphone! Perfect.

 

I sat down, opened the app, and selected the ‘Global Domination’ game mode, which pins me against 3 computer-generated opponents. I could have chosen to play against other real people online, or there is a “pass-and-play” option so you can play with friends, but on this particular Friday, I was pretty comfortable with just beating on robots.

 

The game was essentially over before it started. Anyone who is familiar with Risk knows that once you have taken control of Australia, the game can often be won fairly quickly. I have played Risk many times before, and I knew that this hack would surely lead me to victory against the computer. It turned out to be frustratingly easy. After three turns I had conquered Australia. After six turns I had conquered Africa, and eliminated one of my three opponents. After fifteen turns, and about half an hour of my time, I had defeated all of the computer generated opponents and staked my claim as ruler of the world.

 

It was, however, a hollow victory. One of my favourite parts of the Risk board game is the interaction between players. The comradery and the hostility. The treaties and the antagonism. The way you can see what your opponent is thinking by the way they play their hand. These human elements were distinctly absent as I battled against computer generated opponents, and it made for a lackluster experience.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I love Risk. It is my all time favourite game. I have spent countless hours battling against friends and family during Christmas holidays and weekends away. Some of the best arguments I’ve ever been privy to have come about after a few rolls of the Risk dice. What I have learned here though is that it takes two (or more) to tango, and I alone cannot facilitate an enjoyable Risk experience by sitting alone on a Friday night playing against a computer.

Project Proposal: Virtual Reality

I’m coming to the end of my time as a digital media student, with less than one semester of full-time study remaining at the University of Wollongong (UOW). Over the past little while I have spent considerable time stressing out about what I am going to do with my life, and whether or not I have actually learned anything of value during my time at UOW. Luckily for me, I was coerced into creating this blog at the commencement of my studies, and throughout the past few years I have proceeded to publish any and all of my work here. As a result, I (and anyone else for that matter) am now able to look back and see what I have learned.  It seems that I have learned quite a lot and that my understanding of the media is much greater than when I commenced my bachelor degree. Still, the feeling remains that I have much more to learn. In a vain attempt to try and boost my skill set before I graduate I have decided to use the flexibility afforded by the course framework to train myself In a skill that I believe will prove both interesting and beneficial to my future as a media professional.

 

As was the case last year when I attempted to learn JavaScript, I have again chosen to research an emerging digital media technology that I believe will be prominent in the media landscape of the future. After deliberation with both university staff and the Twitterverse I have decided, somewhat hesitantly, to attempt to create a virtual reality (VR) experience using Unity software.

 

I was inspired to create a digital artefact using VR because in 2017 we are living in the moment where VR is about to become mainstream technology. This is partly because the falling costs of producing and consuming VR are making it possible for more people to access the technology. Technologies such as Google Cardboard are emerging which is far cheaper ($15.00 AUD) than the typical console devices like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. The high price of headsets combined with a high barrier to entry makes the Rift and the HTC Vive a hard sell for a lot of people. As the price is coming down it seems the uptake of VR technology is becoming ever more widespread. I feel that If my prediction of VR becoming mainstream is correct then it will be important for me, as a media professional, to have a better-than-introductory understanding of the technology.
I plan to learn-by-doing as I research VR.  I am to create a YouTube series that documents me attempting to create a VR animation in Unity. VR allows people to create and experience entire computer-generated worlds, but in this instance I will be attempting something much more simple (given that I am a beginner). I will simply be attempting to create a virtual beer bottle sitting on a virtual table.

 

I have chosen to attempt this creation in the Unity platform in Unity as my preliminary research suggests that Unity is the industry standard VR design software. On top of this I found that Unity is free to download which is highly beneficial for a struggling uni student such as myself. As I am totally inexperienced with Unity software I am hoping that I am able to learn to use Unity and create this project in an 8-week time frame. All successes and failures will be documented and I will be creating a series of YouTube vlogs to document my experience. The blogs will serve as a diary of my research, as well as providing viewers with an opportunity to learn with me as I undertake this endeavorur. I will attempt to upload the videos to my blog on a fortnightly basis, with a brief description current progress. My end goal is to have published a series of videos that can be used as tutorials for budding amateur VR enthusiasts, whilst simultaneously documenting my research methods and creative process.

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At this time, I have gone as far as downloading Unity and making initial sketches to try and visualise my VR beer bottle. My next post will contain the first YouTube video and will  also include details and links for people wishing to begin creating VR for themselves.

Sad Western Porn

The photograph of deceased Syrian infant Alan Kurdi laying face down on a beach in Turkey is one of the saddest images I have ever seen. Shot in 2015 by Turkish Photo Journalist Nilüfer Demir, the image quickly gained international media attention and became somewhat of a symbol for the global refugee crisis that was emerging as a result of the ongoing civil war in Syria. I recall seeing the photo for the first time when it was trending (and subsequently igniting a debate) on social media shortly after it’s initial publication. The emotional response evoked within me back in 2015 was much the same as it is today: sadness.

 

 

Wait a second, why did I start this paper by immediately addressing my feelings?  I set out to write this paper about the western media’s portrayal of poverty, and how problematic it is, yet here I am, unintentionally beginning my rant by selfishly concentrating on my own emotions, rather than the broader issues present within the portrayal of poverty by the media. Why did I not start by attempting to empathise with the Kurdi family, who’s pain and sadness no doubt dwarfs my own? Or perhaps I could have begun by focusing more specifically on the situation in Syria, which has now reportedly claimed up to 400,000 casualties.

Sadly, the egocentric response I have exhibited here is fairly common in the media landscape, especially when the topic at hand is poverty. The term poverty porn has been invented and is now widely used, to categorise the behaviour I am describing here. Put simply, poverty porn, also sometimes referred to as development porn, is any type of media which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for generating profit or increasing charitable support for a specific cause.

 

 

Be it a photo of a deceased Syrian baby washed up on a Turkish beach, or Kevin Carter’s famous 1994 photo of a vulture waiting to devour a dying child in Sudan (above), the media has long been addicted to poverty porn. Here I will highlight the western media’s tendency to focus primarily on the suffering experienced by the western audience when confronted with these images, rather than the suffering of the non-western subject.

The first example is a promotional video (see below) produced by the charity organisation Red Nose Day and starring comedian Jack Black. The video begins with Mr. Black giving an introduction and explaining to the viewer “what your donations will be going to”. After the cheerful introduction, the video quickly descends into a gloomy mood as a sullen piano tune begins playing. Mr. Black cries whilst being interviewed about what he has witnessed during his time in Uganda. A large portion of this four-minute video is dedicated to footage of Mr. Black crying as he describes the pain elicited by witnessing other people’s suffering. The video is clearly intended to provoke an emotional response from a western audience, and in many ways, it does a good job of that. Mr. Black uses the closing sequence of the video as an opportunity to plea for public donations towards the Red Nose Day charitable campaign. This video serves as a clear example of the above-mentioned definition of poverty porn in which the producer uses the suffering of the poor to generate sympathy and garner support for a charitable organisation. Seeing the usually jovial and affable Jack Black crying creates a sense of sadness that a western audience can relate to, albeit without addressing the causes of issues present in Uganda.

 

 

A second and perhaps more famous example is Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 photograph, titled “The Vulture and the Little Girl” (pictured and mentioned above). The image was first published in the New York Times over twenty years ago the image still to this day is regarded as one of the world’s most famous examples of western photojournalism. Some have argued that Carter’s photograph is poverty porn, while other’s argue that his work did a tremendous job of raising awareness toward the famine in Sudan at the time. After careful consideration, I have concluded that it is probably a bit of both. The photograph is no doubt striking, and as a result, it has become famous, which in turn has raised some level of awareness of the public perception of issues in Sudan during the 90’s. The issue, however, is that Carter’s photograph was captured as a commercial endeavor. The fact that it heightened western awareness about Sudan would have only resulted in a bigger payday for Carter, and for the New York Times. It would be unreasonable to assume that either party was present in Sudan purely on humanitarian grounds. The goal of both the photojournalist and his employer is to earn money.

It is quite easy to argue these two examples above as being ‘poverty porn’. What is much harder is deciding whether the good outweighs the bad when it comes to poverty porn. There is obvious good that comes from the sharing of images which highlight suffering, as there too is negatives. Perhaps what we need more of though is explanations as to the causes and solutions to said suffering. There is no humanitarian side to the poverty porn sccenrio unless the genuine intent is to use it to create a better world.

 

A Sometimes Lack of Selfie-Respect

Over the past week I have spent considerable time wading through my vast swamp of thoughts pertaining to the art of the selfie. This process begun on Tuesday as I was reading an in-depth journal titled ‘What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon’ (2015), in which authors Theresa Senft & Nancy Baym attempt to uncover the meaning(s) behind the suddenly pervasive and ubiquitous act of self-generated photographic portraiture. I took this initial encounter to be somewhat of a defense of the selfie. The authors appear concerned that a moral panic has arisen in the debate around selfie culture, and that there is an unwarranted concern amongst the public that selfies have become symbolic of the narcissism and self-absorption present in our modern, increasingly digital, society.

At first, it was intuitive to me that selfie culture is narcissistic. The act of capturing a self-styled image itself does not intrinsically appear that way, rather, the selfie culture becomes narcissistic when images are shared with the public via the various popular social media channels. I took the publisher (and subject) of the selfie to be acting in self-interest, parading themselves in the public sphere, and seeking validation for their efforts. These thoughts, however, were just my intuition, and I found no evidence to suggest these ideas held any merit. What I did find is the new art of the selfie is complex, multi-layered, and that there is no single meaning behind the selfie phenomenon.

This conclusion left me feeling a bit lost. In all honesty, selfies are not something I really care to know about. As a media scholar, I generally think there are more important topics that deserve my attention – the recent media storm surrounding US President Donald Trump, for instance. My interest was not seriously piqued until I stumbled across the work of Berlin-based Israeli artist/ satirist Shahak Shapira, titled Yolocaust, – detailed in the video below.

 

 

Shapira was displeased by the manner in which young attendees were behaving during visits to Berlin Holocaust memorial. The artist was particularly unhappy about visitors publishing selfies that appeared to depict insensitivity toward the suffering of Jewish people during World War 2.  In retaliation, he decided to Photoshop some of the selfies he was dissatisfied with into real, powerful wartime photos that depict Jewish suffering during World War 2. The resulting Yolocaust project raises consciousness about how we should behave when visiting places that are designed to commemorate those affected by the atrocities such as the Holocaust.

instances, however, it does seem appropriate for Shapira to raise questions about appropriate conduct when taking selfies in sensitive situations. I can personally relate to the themes present in Shapira’s Yolocaust project as I have taken selfies (pictured below) when visiting various Holocaust memorials during my time in Poland.

 

selfie aushwitz
My brother Tom (right) and I (left) pose for a selfie during our trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in July 2015

 

The photo above is a selfie that my brother and I captured during our visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland in 2015. The photo clearly shows us appearing stern-faced as we pose for the photo. I am seen clutching my SLR camera, which shows that I had attended the camp on that day with the intention of capturing photos. I believe there is a clear distinction between this photo and those depicted in Shapira’s Yolocaust project. The first is that unlike the photos in the Yolocaust project we do not appear to be enjoying the experience of visiting the holocaust memorial. Second, this blog post is the first time this selfie has been made public, and the sole purpose of this publication is for the purpose of an academic inquiry.

My introductory exploration into the world of the selfie found that context is all-important when deciding to capture and to share one’s selfie.  Shapira’s Yolocaust project highlight an apparent lack of respect being shown by those visiting the Berlin Holocaust memorial, whereas the selfie of my brother and I show’s the discomfort we were experiencing when visiting the Auschwitz camp to pay our respects to those who died during World War 2. My key finding was the context of a selfie may be depicted by something as simple as the facial expression of the person pictured, the caption of the image, or the decision of where to publish the image, if at all.

 

References

Senft, TM and Baym, NK 2015, ‘What does the selfie say? Investigating a global phenomenon’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 9, Vancouver

The End of the West

In October 2016, former Spanish Foreign Minister Javier Solana wrote an article for The New York Times, titled “The Decline of the West, and How to Stop It”. In this somewhat optimistically constructed op-ed, Mr. Solana asserts that “The West”, which he describes as The United States, Canada, and Much of Europe, (one could also include Australia) as having set an example for regional cooperation, and served as a mainstay for “the liberal world order” throughout the past seventy years. While Mr. Solana’s decision to assert the term ‘world order’ as a positive arrangement is slightly disturbing, it is perhaps his total ignorance toward both history, and contemporary environmental concerns, that is more troubling.

 

In the 21st century, it has become standard to view ‘The West” as being a set of individual nation-states which are banded together by free-trade agreements in the pursuit of the fantastic prosperity promised by unfitted neoliberal capitalism. In this sense we can view ‘The West’ as a sort of globalised empire, using power and wealth to create a transnational metropolis that exploits and conquers its less fortunate neighbors in the global south. For much of the twentieth century, this centralised model of conquest (and capitalism) has delivered unprecedented wealth to those in power, while at the same time delivering the greatest levels of inequality and concentration of wealth ever experienced by mankind.  (Saez & Zucman, 2016) Solana conveniently ignores the vast expanses of data available regarding the concentration of wealth. Perhaps more troubling though is that Solana ignores the history of empires, which tell us we have seen this all before – and that there is no stopping the decline.

 

When we look at the history of empires we can see striking similarities between previous examples throughout history and the modern transnational empire of ‘The West’. In his essay titled “The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival” Sir John Glubb analyzed the lifecycle of empires, from the early pioneers to the pervasive consumers that become a burden unto themselves. (Glubb, 1978) He found remarkable similarities between them all, particularly the six ages of an empire. These six ages of civilisation are defined as the age of pioneers, the age of conquest, the age of commerce, the age of affluence, the age of intellect, and ending in finally the age of decadence. (Four Horsemen, 2013) Glubb also found that the lifecycle of an empire almost always lasts around 250 years (see table 1). We can see the six ages of an empire occurring in the Western Empire, except in this iteration we can see them occurring, in some instances, simultaneously. Most importantly though we can see that western civilization has now rapidly advanced to the age of decadence. There are certain characteristics that define the age of decadence, particularly the age of decadence, that defines he current empire.  An over-extended and undisciplined military, conspicuous displays of wealth, massive (and in this case unprecedented) disparity between rich and poor, a desire to rely upon the state, and an obsession with sex.

 

Exploitation of resources and a continued desire for expansion is the key characteristic that we must address, as it bears strong correlations with the age of decadence. These characteristics were evident in the Roman Empire, among others, and today we are seeing them in the Western Empire. (Fulford, 2010) In the Western Empire expansion is viewed primarily as the expansion of population, and the exploitation of resources. When the population of an empire grows, the economy must continue to expand in order to support it. We have seen the unprecedented population expansion throughout the course of the 20th century and in to the 21st. The global population has expanded from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion at the turn of the century, and to over 7 billion in 2017. (Kremer, 1993, U.S census bureau, 2017) At the same time the population in the Western Empire has expanded to over 900 million as of 2016. (Solana, 2016) This rapid expansion of population correlates with an ever-growing exploitation of resources.

 

Here we will use The United States as a primary example of the over-consumption and exploitation of resources by the west. “The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas”. (World Watch Institute, 2017) These troubling figures are unparalleled elsewhere in the world, although other western states do attempt to emulate the US model. Many rich European countries, including Canada, Australia, Brittan, and other wealthy European states, are responsible for the massive exploitation of resources. All of the above mentioned states are ranked within the top 25 top resource users on earth. (Pappas, 2012) This shows that the west is responsible for a large percentage of the world’s resource consumption. Perhaps this phenomenon is best described by reiterating that 20% of the global population uses 80% of its resources, consuming 30% more than the planet can regenerate. (The End of Poverty, 2008) The majority of the richest 20% percent of the earth’s inhabitants are found in living in Javier Solana’s idea of the Western civilization.

 

This information is not ground-breaking. In fact, it has been known to the west for many years, and to indigenous peoples for even longer. We are exploiting the earth’s natural resources as a exponential, and absolutely unsustainable rate. What is perhaps most troubling about these figures is our collective reluctance to change our behaviour. Many politicians and various people in power like to be seen to be implementing change, yet much of this is speak is little more than political hyperbole. For instance, President Obama’s decision to address the topic of “sustainable development” in 2015. (Obama, 2015) In deciding to counteract global inequality and poverty with ‘sustainable development’, Obama was essentially declaring his unwillingness to accept our fate and in turn propose necessary fundamental changes to our way of living. The term ‘sustainable development’ is central to this idea, because the term itself is an oxymoron. Development by it’s very nature is not conducive with sustainability practices. (Latouche, 2003) This idea that sustainable development is attainable is reminiscent of Javier Solana’s fantastic statement in his above-mentioned New York Times article that “For globalization to be politically sustainable, it must be more economically equitable. Measures like these would begin to persuade a critical mass of people at global, regional and national levels that they, too, can share in a new wave of prosperity”. Both Obama and Solana ignore (or are uneducated on) the impossibility of endless expansion and development from within an empire.  Rather than ignoring the inevitable negative environmental consequences of expansion and development, leaders in the west (currently US president Donald Trump) should be looking at implementing radical alternative ways of living, especially now that we have arguably reached the point in which the western empire has advanced to the age of decadence, and impending collapse.

 

The tributary empire has always been a flawed concept. It has proven itself time and time again to be unsustainable and self-defeating, yet today we seem stuck in a paradigm where the West has developed a sort-of transnational tributary system that has reincarnated the concept of an empire, but on a global scale. This is fundamentally important as the global reach of the western empire is unprecedented, and the impacts of the eventual demise will no doubt be profound. Unlike previous empires which have collapsed soon after arriving at the age of decadence, we now find ourselves in a paradigm in which we have firmly cemented ourselves in the age of decadence, but the impending tipping point may also prove to be the point of no return. Sustainable alternatives to the empire are being proposed and even implemented in some localized environments, however, it is yet to be seen whether even true sustainability can withstand the effects of a failing West in the modern world.