Last semester, three classmates and I were assigned the task of building an arcade cabinet (complete with a functioning game) that illustrated the material covered in our English 794 “Cyberbodies” class. Our project, titled Cybridity, was presented—along with others—at the University of Waterloo Critical Media Lab’s “CABS of CURIOSITY” event in downtown Kitchener, Ontario this past April.
The following is made up of excerpts taken from the final paper I wrote for last term’s “Cyberbodies” class. The paper outlines what Cybridity represents in terms of how social media has affected society and will hopefully make better sense of the project we were assigned in general. You can read the paper in its entirety here.
Despite the fact that Cyberbodies was labeled an English course, topics therein tended to stray more towards the relationships humans have with technology, new media, environmentalism and philosophy. The following is an excerpt from the official course description, which should shed some additional light on the mission of this peculiar course:
Today, specific technologies such as video games and the Internet lure us into forgetting about our bodies altogether, which pale in comparison to the infinite flights of fancy offered by digital embodiment. But in spite of the discourse on progress and disembodiment that characterizes technoculture, the body still remains—in fact, thanks primarily to screen based technologies that encourage immobility, bodies are getting bigger.
With this in mind, the fact that Team Cybridity and their classmates built an arcade cabinet as their final projects may not be as unusual as one thinks. Especially since Mark J. P. Wolf considers video games to be “the first medium to combine moving imagery, sound, and real-time user interaction in one machine” and that also “made possible the first widespread appearance of interactive, on-screen worlds in which a game or story took place” (21). Video games, then, provide the perfect vehicle with which to analyze the ever-growing relationship between humans and machines. After all, the game’s interface, “the boundary between the player and the game itself [that] includes such things as the screen, speakers, and input devices like a joystick, keyboard, or game controller, as well as on-screen elements like menus, buttons, and cursors,” is the only thing that separates human from machine (Wolf 24). In many cases, this boundary is unnoticed by the user, who allows him/herself to fall into the “virtual reality” that is offered by a video game.
Team Cybridity did not create a “virtual world” that consumed its users as games like Halo, World of Warcraft and Second Life have been known to do. Instead, Team Cybridity decided to make the boundaries between human and machine obvious in order to highlight the effects new technology and digital/mass media have on human society. Their video game, also titled Cybridity, is intended to overload users by asking them to absorb all of the information presented on-screen, through a visual interface that looks similar to broadcasts of CNN News or Toronto’s CP24 news channel. The term “Cybridity” is not widely used and will not be found in any standard dictionary. However, Michael Liskin, in his seminar presentation titled “Evaluating Cybrid Communication: A Structurational Analysis of Computer Gaming Teams,” he provides an interesting definition of the word that he himself may have coined. Cybridity, says Liskin, is the “synchronous interaction between two or more people that incorporates both mediated and face-to-face modes of communication within a given frame of time and/or space” (4). With this definition in mind, it is easy to see why Team Cybridity decided to take on this moniker, not only for their blog—which incorporates a variety of communication media, including video, text, images, a Twitter feed and a database of hyperlinked web articles—but also for their video game.
(Below is a video demonstration of an early prototype of the Cybridity video game. We decided to change the way the questions appeared on-screen in order to make reading and selecting the questions/answers easier for the user, but this should give you a good idea of what the game is all about.)
…despite the fact that the newscast is the only element containing human faces, interfaciality exists elsewhere within the game as well, and this helps the user bridge the gap between human and machine. In order to play the game, users must answer questions that display in the top-left portion of the screen by highlighting one of four answers with a joystick, then selecting their choice using the single button on the interface. In addition to “face-to-face relations with the computer,” Munster says that “interfaciality” can occur when the game “subsum[es] the body into a command-control scenario by aligning human and computational ‘cognitive’ processes” (21). When Cybridity prompts the user to answer a question, the user communicates with the machine by selecting their answer, and the two entities (human and machine) somehow become joined in a reflexive conversation. When the user sees his/her choice highlighted as s/he moves the joystick, “the interlacing ‘of one’s own bodily surface with the visible surfaces of the other(s)” occurs, and “even though in a virtual environment these are immaterial,” the on-screen images act as techno-visual extensions of the human body (Hansen 111). In a sense, the user reaches into the computer game and wriggles his/her fingers inside the “guts” of the machine.
…Bernard Stiegler (with inspiration from Katherine Hayles) feels that by encouraging people to focus on the quantity of information that they are exposed to— rather than the quality—society has experienced “a generational mutation” (72). In a rather excessively dystopian claim, Stiegler describes what kind of generational mutation we are dealing with:
What parents and educators (when they are themselves mature) patiently, slowly, from infancy, year after year pass on as the most valuable things civilization has accumulated, the audiovisual industries systematically destroy, every day, with the most brutal and vulgar techniques, while accusing the family and the education system of this disaster. (72)
…The theories of Stiegler and Hayles are most evident at the end of Cybridity, once the user’s “score” is revealed. Users who answered 0-20% were told they had Attention Deficit Disorder, while those who answered 21-80% were declared hyperattentive, and anyone who managed to answer over 80% of the questions correctly were told they exemplified deep attention. Of course, these labels were not handed out with any scientific backing, but were rather a fun way of connecting the game to course theories.
…Epiphylogenesis played a big role in the most interesting aspect of Cybridity—the inside-out arcade cabinet in which the game was played. But perhaps a better way of explaining the concept would be to describe the cabinet as being “outside-in.” In the early 1980s, during the peak of video arcade popularity, “teens could go to the video arcade not only to play video games and perhaps consume minor refreshments… but also to socialize” (Farr 35). Video arcades were community centres, public meeting places like arenas, ball parks, and bowling alleys. People had to leave their homes and go to the arcades to play video games. They socialized face-to-face with opponents; they stood over each other’s shoulder as they attempted to defeat high scores; they sat beside each other as they drove virtual racecars around a virtual track. Human interaction was always present to some degree at the arcade.
But as technology evolves to meet the needs of humans desiring to become more mobile, so too are humans evolving by taking advantage of stationary technology within the home. With the demand of affordable, practical personal computers came the technology necessary to create small and affordable game systems that people could plug into their televisions, and experience the arcade from the comfort of their own living room. In 1985, when the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) hit North American markets, the popularity of the video arcade began to diminish and people stayed at home to play their games. Additionally, with the popularization of the Internet in the 1990s, global communication changed forever. Now people can play games over the Internet with people they may have or have not met previously, they share personal stories with friends and strangers publicly over Facebook and Twitter, and are able to speak face-to-face with people around the globe with computer programs such as Skype. As the title of Sherry Turkle’s book suggests, we are “Alone Together”—together in the fact that “the global reach of connectivity can make the most isolated outpost into a center of learning and economic activity,” but quite literally alone in our living rooms or bedrooms (Turkle 152). Having users of Cybridity play inside the arcade cabinet rather than outside emphasizes this current dominant trend of people communicating virtually from their homes.
Cybridity is planned to be placed on permanent exhibition in THEMUSEUM, downtown Kitchener, Ontario. Additionally, a conference paper on the subject has been submitted to the SLSA 11 conference (also in Kitchener) and is pending approval.
“Engl 794: Cyberbodies: Rhetoric and Fiction.” Course Description. Date Unavailable. Web. 14 Apr. 2011. <http://english.uwaterloo.ca/grad-courses.html>.
Farr, Daniel. “Arcades.” Encyclopeida of Play in Today’s Society. Vol 1. Ed. Rodney P. Carlisle. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006.
Hansen, Mark B. N. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Liskin, Michael. “Evaluating Cybrid Communication: A Structurational Analysis of Computer Gaming Teams.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dresden International Congress Centre, Dresden, Germany. Date Unavailable. Web. 14 Apr. 2011. <http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p93315_index.html>.
Munster, Anna. Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics. Hanover, NH: UP New England, 2006.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic, 2011.
Wolf, Mark J.P. The Video Game Explosion: A History from Pong to Playstation and Beyond. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008.