Thursday, February 27, 2014

Stride & Prejudice: Literature Making Strides in the Gaming World

by Olivia Billbrough, Spring 2014 Intern

A recent game developed by No Crusts Interactive and released on the iTunes App store is an endless runner that is a little different than your average smartphone app. Stride & Prejudice combines the mechanics of an endless runner with the entire text of Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice.

The player controls the character, Elizabeth Bennet, as she runs across the screen. Below her, also scrolling sideways across the screen, are the words from the novel. Whenever there is a gap in the scrolling words along the bottom, the player must tap the screen to make Elizabeth jump over the space. While this tapping allows Stride & Prejudice to feel and act like a game, the main focus of the app seems to be on the simultaneous reading of the novel.

Slate writer Ryan Vogt notes that the app’s process allows for a more interactive side to following the book closely, saying “[t]apping the screen while ‘playing’ Stride & Prejudice becomes as unconscious a process as turning a page . . . almost immediately.”

In a similar vein, a Jane Austen computer game called Ever, Jane is currently in production and will allow users to become a part of Austen’s world. Designed as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), the game gives its players the opportunity to play out storylines presented in Austen’s novels, such as attending balls, gossiping and raising their social statuses. The tasks in this game are clearly much more in-depth than Stride & Prejudice, showing that the potential market for games based on literature is varied and wide open.

Stride & Prejudice and Ever, Jane are just two examples of technology taking its material from literature, which helps open the doors for discussion about what video games mean to literature and vice versa. And it’s certainly worthy of it, as video games have for decades lent themselves to telling complex stories and giving the player the chance to relate with the characters and situations—like we do when reading a book.

In a BBC article on the subject of video games and literature, Lynsea Garrison paraphrases thoughts by Ken Levine of Irrational Games, a gaming company founded seventeen years ago: “With video games . . . you can make a character turn left—and experience moments of discovery that do not exist in novels. In addition, video game creators use narrative techniques borrowed from books.” Irrational Games developed BioShock, a first-person shooter (FPS) game that chronicles the moral decisions made by the protagonist in a community ravaged by the aftermath of a brutal class war, which is based in part on Ayn Rand’s theory of objectivism.

With so many video games, ranging from endless runner styles such as Stride & Prejudice, to FPS games such as BioShock, to the action-adventure game Dante’s Inferno—which closely follows the first canticle, or part, of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy—we have to ask ourselves: Are video games literature? Or perhaps: Should we view video games the same way we view literature and judge them using the same criteria? There may come a day when we use endless runners such as Stride & Prejudice to help people practice speed-reading or reading comprehension under time constraints. There may even come a day when we decipher deeper meaning by deconstructing video games using the same lenses that we use for analyzing literature. In the meantime, we can play Stride & Prejudice while we wait for the bus, immersing ourselves in the world of regency and duty while Elizabeth Bennet jumps over gaps in her story.

Did You Know?

Technological interactions with texts have been taken to a whole new level in the past several years. Take, for example, J. K. Rowling’s Pottermore. Work on the site began in 2009, and the page was opened to the public in April of 2012. The site is described as “a unique online experience from J. K. Rowling, built around the Harry Potter books.” It allows not only a visual for some of the most important scenes in the series, but also interaction with the world of Harry Potter, such as being “sorted” into one of the four school Houses, making potions or dueling fellow students. The uniqueness of the site comes in the form of new information not presented in the books—direct from J. K. Rowling. Users can discover previously unknown details about their favorite characters and places, all the while following the basic plot of each of the books. Pottermore currently only contains the first four books of the Harry Potter series, but the remaining three are in production for future release. Pottermore is just one example of the visual interpretation of the deeper levels behind a text, one of many games, sites and apps that take the reader’s experience and make it something more tangible to cherish. (DYK by Kate Carroll)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Body Worlds: An Exercise in Thought

by Nick Perricone, Fall 2013 Intern

You may have heard of Body Worlds, an exhibition about health and the human body that has been at major cities for the past several years. It is not like other exhibitions you may have seen, however, in that it features real human bodies displayed to educate the viewer about his or her own body. These bodies are preserved using a technique called plastination, invented by Gunther von Hagens, the scientist who is also the mind behind the exhibition, and are displayed in a dark room in glass cases. Many people come to see and discuss these exhibits, and since its inception, it has raised over $200 million in revenue.

I visited the Body Worlds Vital exhibition in Boston’s Faneuil Hall recently and found it hard to believe that I was looking at bodies that had once been moving around and breathing. Because of the techniques used to preserve them and the sometimes silly poses in which they were placed, it was easy to lose track of the fact that I was looking at the body of a once-living human being. Nonetheless, the “weirdness” factor rivaled the educational value. The placards that accompanied each display were filled with healthy living advice—for example, dancing is good for the immune system—and facts about each of the displayed body part or parts. However, the text was difficult to read in the dark room, and it was simpler, or more enjoyable, to stand and gawk at the displays rather than read the placards.

One idea behind showing real bodies as opposed to models is that every body is a unique specimen and has a story to tell. So does creator Gunther von Hagens. An East German émigré, von Hagens was actually imprisoned in his early 20s for attempting to escape to West Germany, where he eventually earned a medical degree. Later in his life, he invented the plastination technique used to mummify the bodies, after which he began touring the world with his exhibition in 1995. Since then, it has given rise to several copycat exhibitions.

The process von Hagens invented, done at one of many plastination facilities, involves draining the bodies of fluid and replacing it with silicone or epoxy resin. The preserved bodies lose some of their color, but their organs, joints, and bright red, oxygen-suffused muscles are revealed by the skin being peeled back. In the exhibition, the bodies are shown in poses such as a man swinging a baseball bat or two men playing hockey; the organs, joints and muscles are held in their proximate locations.

One concern I went in with, above all others, was where the bodies and body parts come from. Von Hagens claims that every body on display comes from a donor who gave written permission during his or her lifetime to have his or her body displayed. However, as NPR reports, there is no paper trail establishing that every body that you see matches the appropriate forms. Each of the bodies is separated from its corresponding form after the consenting document is verified with a death certificate at the Institute for Plastination. This process, which may seem questionable to some, was actually established in order to preserve anonymity of the bodies on display. Moreover, many argue that though one might take von Hagens’s word that the bodies are donated, there is no word to go by as to where each of the organs used in the exhibit are from. This makes many call into question the traceability of each piece of anatomy. On the flip side, the question arises as to what is more important, maintaining a donor’s consent in the face of privacy, or having clear, verifiable documentation for each piece of the exhibit.

In what could be seen as further pushing the envelope, Body Worlds’ competitor, Bodies: The Exhibition, raises similar questions. The site verifies its specimens come from “persons who lived in China and died from natural causes [and] . . .were unclaimed at death.” Is either this or van Hagens’s documentation system acceptable for something many consider of vital importance: respect for the human body? Or is the process of maintaining anonymity exactly that: respect for the privacy of the person whose body is displayed, as well as respect for that person’s survivors?

Sometimes technology raises the ethical question, “If we can do something, does that mean we should?” I think the ability to preserve human bodies—for show and for medical study—raises a similar question. Even if the bodies preserved and displayed in certain poses for a paying public pass all the ethical tests, is it moral to do so? Is the beauty and wonder of the human body truly captured in these poses? Is this the best way to celebrate and learn about the human body? The educational and even artistic benefits of such exhibits are clear for many, but the moral conundrum and questionability of the bodies’ origins may always be up for discussion, and perhaps that is why the phenomenon remains so interesting.

Did You Know?

Much of the educational factor to exhibits like van Hagens’s and its competitor, Bodies: the Exhibition, lies in how the bodies are posed. In many cases, the plastinates are formed in such a way to best reflect their physicality. Those who were athletic in life, for instance, are often positioned playing a sport or dancing. This allows viewers to witness how the body and its muscles work and move during certain activities. The process not only provides education, but also, some find, inspiration. Showcasing the abilities and accomplishments of the human body not only promotes health and wellness, it also shows the results of determination and dedication: a kind of triumphant realization akin to watching the Olympics. (DYK by Kate Carroll)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Higher Education Is Necessary . . . or Maybe Not?

by Nick Persad, Spring 2014 Intern

I applied to various graduate schools in October 2011. I researched the schools extensively and set aside ample time to visit each before I made my selection. Also, I needed to debate whether grad school was the right choice.

I made a list of all the reasons I wanted a master’s degree. Here are the top three: First, I loved my undergrad major—Magazine Journalism—and I wanted to expand my education beyond a bachelor’s degree and learn more about the field that I worked tirelessly in for four years. Second, I was being told that a bachelor’s degree didn’t hold as much weight as it did ten years ago because “everyone has a bachelor’s degree these days.” Finally—and this was a reaction to my second point—I felt extreme anxiety about not being able to secure a job with just a bachelor’s degree and only one internship under my belt.

Now I am a graduate student working towards receiving my master of arts in Publishing & Writing in May 2014, and I am ready for a job—hopefully in the publishing industry. Upon graduation, I will have completed six internships.

In a recent New York Times article, op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman discusses the “shift in the education-to-work model in America.” Friedman theorizes that employers no longer care about the degrees you have or from what institution they were received—whether it be an Ivy League or a community college—they simply want you to “add value” by providing the skills they need.

In this same regard, many graduates are finding that their costly, hard-earned degrees are not propelling them beyond the average applicant—even at the master’s level. According to Friedman, applicants may have esteemed schooling, but they do not know how to apply the skills necessary for specific jobs, and employers don’t want to spend time training even the most qualified of applicants. They want applicants who can transition into a position with minimal effort.

While I am in full support of employers hiring individuals with tons of related working experience, the idea of overlooking highly qualified applicants shines a harsh light on the reality of the job market and the application process.

After completing six internships, I know I will be qualified to work in any publishing field, but every new employee will need some type of training when entering a new working environment, regardless of whether they have the desired skill set or not.

Countering Friedman’s point is another article from The New York Times by Catherine Rampell, which states that “the college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job.” Rampell says that some employers require a bachelor’s degree as a base requirement, even for jobs like file clerks, administrative assistants and receptionists.

With such conflicting viewpoints, where does this leave applicants?

If a certain skill is required for a job, where do you acquire that skill? This brings into question the structure of education. Applicants attending institutions of higher education are learning theory, but how often is this theory put into practice in the classroom? With each employer or company looking for a specific skill, how can an applicant, especially one who went to school for the job they are applying for, know what skill they should perfect to get the job?

It might come down to the job itself. Applicants will have to do the appropriate research to determine whether a job requires a degree, a certain skill or a degree in addition to a certain skill. Clearly, the current standards for hiring are fluctuating, and applicants are trying to keep up with employers. However, it is the responsibility of the applicant to decide if this means he or she should go to school or jump straight into the work force.

Did You Know?

How do you know if the skills you have are right for a job? HireArt is a company seeking to help bring job seekers and job creators together by testing applicants in relevant skills for a particular job. Companies go to them with job descriptions in fields such as marketing, sales, customer service and business development, and HireArt develops tests for them, specifically assessing the skills an applicant should have for one of these positions. The tests are meant to examine on-the-job skills and to give the applicants a chance to show their knowledge or skill level in a video interview.

What are some skills employers expect their employees to have? Good writing and proper grammar usage are two important skills that one of the founders of HireArt notes are often overlooked. Of course, specific knowledge of Excel or other software is important. But the skills are not assumed to come with the degree. Some companies want you to prove you have skills in addition to your degree, while some require having a degree as mere evidence of how hard you’re willing to work.

As The New York Times article “It takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk” notes, the college degree is becoming the new “minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one” to get a job. Despite the associated accumulation of debt, the value of a college degree has increased over the past decade. People with at least a bachelor’s degree are more likely to have jobs, work the amount of hours they want and make more money than those who only have a high school diploma.
(DYK by Nick Perricone)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Authors Autographing Ebooks

by Olivia Billbrough, Spring 2014 Intern

Whenever my father gives a book as a gift, especially if the book’s recipient is a fan of the author, he will write something funny on the book’s title page and sign it as if it is from the author. While no one who receives these books is fooled by my father’s joke, the recipient still appreciates the idea of the author signing the book (especially if the author has been dead for fifty years). If my father were to gift ebooks, however, autographing would prove difficult. Likewise, autographing ebooks would be tricky for the actual authors; that is, unless someone comes up with a way for authors to electronically sign ebook copies of their work.

Recently, Apple has drafted plans for a patent that will allow authors to embed their signatures into ebooks. With some people opting to forgo the paper book in favor of electronic text, this may be a way for those readers to join in on the fun of having their favorite author personalize their ebooks. And with a rise in ebook readership it is no wonder Apple is looking into this patent.

While this may be an interesting innovation, it lacks the personal (and potentially monetary) value face-to-face contact with an author typically guarantees. According to the Apple patent outline, the reader and the device need to be within the vicinity of the author. This indicates that there is the potential for face-to-face interaction, but will the signatures really be unique? The ebook is never touched by the author’s hands like a real book being signed would be. Another question raised has to do with the value of the ebook itself after it has been signed. A physical book can be traded or sold, or given away as a unique gift, but an ebook is much more difficult to give away, let alone sell. And if you delete the book from your e-reader does that mean that the autograph is gone forever?

Another issue Slate writer Ariel Bogle touches on is the fact that these e-readers are one of the reasons so many brick-and-mortar stores are going out of business. Yet, readers who want their ebooks signed would have to go to the places where authors are holding book signings: typically in these brick-and-mortar bookstores.

However, the biggest issue here seems to be that ebooks are still not really bringing anything new to the table. Autographs are part of the physical world paper books belong to, and the modern ebook is still trying to emulate everything real books are. This could be hurting the evolution of ebooks. The Apple patent, while maybe not initially bringing anything new, could open the door for more interesting developments. The Apple patent outlines ways in which the author can customize his or her signature, going so far as to speculatively include, “text, audio clips, images, photo albums, videos, or other media items that can be received by a user through senses such as sight, sound, touch, and taste.” By implementing new and interesting ways to design and personalize electronic signatures, ebooks could finally begin to separate themselves from paper books and create a unique reading experience.

Did You Know?

In a blog entry back in mid-2013, we discussed Barnes & Noble's decision to discontinue in-house manufacturing of Nook tablets. After the press release, the warnings of “don’t buy a Nook; they won’t be around much longer” more than likely spread like wildfire across the bibliophilic world. However, it seems like whenever you set foot in a Barnes & Noble store these days, there’s the Nook kiosk, complete with tablets.

So what’s the truth? Well, according to a Michael Huseby, president of the company and CEO of Nook Media, a couple months after the initial announcement, the company decided not to pull the plug on the Nook tablets after all. So that would explain why the HD version of the tablet is still alive and kicking in brick-and-mortar stores and online.

Only time will tell how the Nook will fare in the long-term against the iPad, Kindle and the countless other e-readers. But this extension, however temporary, is great news for Nook buyers, Nook owners and those of us who love the proliferation of books, no matter what their format may be.
(DYK by Troy Lilly)