Back in 2003, photographer Robbie Cooper photographed dozens of portraits of online gameplayers alongside their avatars for a book called ALTER EGO. The book is an incredible illustration of the ways that digital platforms have transformed fixed physical characteristics into a virtual wardrobe that can be donned or dismissed with a few clicks of a button.
This phenomenon might be trivial if online identity were all "just a game"—but the truth is, the line between online and offline identity has increasingly blurred. Writing about a study he conducted exploring gender identity among MMO participants, researcher Lukas Blinka wrote in the journal Cyberpsychology in 2008 that “the data...shows that younger players tend to identify with — i.e. not to distinguish from — their avatars, and the younger the respondents were, the stronger the phenomenon."
What are the implications for traditional aspects of identity in a context where they can be so freely and fluidly altered? What does the ability to hide or disguise identity mean in particular for the experience of race — and racism — online? This panel will debate whether digital platforms can enhance racial engagement and understanding, or simply encourage conscienceless and consequence-free acts of hatred and abuse — and explore how online identity is forcing us to confront new ways of thinking about race, ethnicity and gender.
David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel _Infinite Jest_ imagines a not-too-distant future in which the equivalents of Hulu and Netflix streaming kill the advertising business to such an extent that the government decides to save the economy with "sponsored time": hence, a great deal of the novel's action takes place in the "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment." The book is deeply (if hilariously) pessimistic about people's chances of connecting with one another in a culture built on one-way media consumption -- this pessimism, of course, is represented most baldly by The Entertainment, a technology-enhanced movie so entertaining that anyone who once sees it becomes incapable of doing anything other than watching it over and over again.
This panel will, broadly speaking, address the question of whether David Foster Wallace was or would have been a Clay Shirky fan. In other words, would (did) Wallace believe that the Internet is better for us than TV because we are active participants in the creation of Internet content? Why are the digerati enamored of _Infinite Jest_, and what can the book tell us about the Internet's potential to help or hinder human connection?
Once, as depicted in classic teen comedies from the 80's, nerds were outcasts -- a special brand of too-smart-for-their-own-good, role-playing, glasses-donning, weak-armed, thin-voiced boys and girls. They were picked on and mocked.
Then, suddenly, it became cool to be a nerd. Geek chic proliferates, with Ashton Kutcher sporting a buttoned-up plaid shirt, Kirsten Dunst in heavy black glasses; nerd core music, the stylings of Deerhoof and Modest Mouse, is on the radio; hot girls who in a prior generation would have never given a nerd the time of day profess to love formerly geek-only pursuits like videogames and esoteric kung fu movies.
How do nerds respond to the co-optation of their once-exclusive domain? Is it sweet revenge to have the jocks that used to beat us up now playing Crackdown with us? Do we welcome the cheerleaders and the stoners with open arms or are they the elements that grief the ecosystem? And where do we go from here?
This panel cheerfully and irreverently examines the impact that mainstreaming has had on "gamer culture", which is at the forefront of this sort of gentrification, traces theories of how and why it happened, and makes totally unfounded but nevertheless visionary claims about the future. Audience participation greatly encouraged.
11th–15th March 2011