"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more
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“In the absence of aesthetic value, the history of art is just an enormous storehouse of works whose chronologic sequence carries no meaning.
And conversely: it is only within the context of an art’s historical evolution that aesthetic value can be seen” (Milan Kundera, 2005: 5)
Level 1: Haynes and Barbie dolls
In 1987, American film director Todd Haynes ignited a controversy when he released Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Using Barbie dolls instead of real actors, Haynes reconstructed the life of Karen Carpenter, the pop vocalist of the band The Carpenters. To detail the girl’s physical deterioration caused by anorexia (note 1), the director finely whittled away at the face and arms of the “Karen” Barbie doll. The movie takes places in various locales, such as recording studios, restaurants, the Carpenter’s residence in Downey, California and Karen’s apartment in Century City: all the sets were designed properly scaled to the dolls. Shortly after its release, Superstar became a minor art–house hit. However, the film was hastily withdrawn from circulation because Haynes lost a lawsuit filed by Karen’s brother and musical collaborator, Richard Carpenter. Carpenter sued Haynes for copyright violation – the director never sought clearance for the Carpenters’ music used in the film – and won. It is also widely believed that toy maker Mattel would have sued Haynes as well, based on his unauthorized use of Barbie dolls. As a result of the lawsuit, all copies of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story have been recalled and destroyed. Nonetheless, numerous bootleg copies survive and are available on various internet sites. Also, the Museum of Modern Art retains a copy of this film but has agreed with the Carpenter estate not to exhibit it to the public (Justin Wyatt, 1993).
Level 2: Libera and LEGO
In 1996, Polish artist Zbigniew Libera ignited a controversy when he unveiled “LEGO”, the latest piece of his ongoing “Correcting Devices” artwork series . The artwork consists of seven limited edition LEGO kits that include all the elements necessary to build one section of a Nazi concentration camp. “Libera created his piece by assembling Lego blocks into replicas of death camp facilities, photographing them and then using the photos to adorn authentic–looking Lego cardboard packages, complete with the disassembled pieces, the company logo and multi–language safety warnings” (Dean M. Murphy, 1997). As Laura Bien (2003) observed, “The resulting tableaux shown on the boxes’ cover photos include martial uniformed Lego men dragging white skeletons from homes, beating them, administering electroshock, and committing other violent acts”. Interestingly, all the pieces used by Libera came from existing LEGO sets: the black prison guards, for instance, originally belonged to the policemen kits, while the white skeleton figures representing the captives were originally used in the pirate sets; the inmates came from LEGO medical or hospital sets. The outer box looks like a normal LEGO box except in the upper left corner—instead of the “system number” is the inscription: “This work of Zbigniew Libera has been sponsored by LEGO.” Murphy (1997) further elaborates: “The display is so unsettling in its playful simplicity that the Lego Group, which sponsors Lego art contests and donates thousands of plastic pieces to artists around the world, tried to persuade Libera to withdraw it from public view. Only when lawyers became involved did the company give up” (p. 12). As Stephen C. Feinstein (2000) recalls:
The LEGO Group from Copenhagen at first tried to stop Libera by bringing a lawsuit against him. However, the three sets of the LEGO Concentration Camp had already been sold, making a retraction even more difficult. On top of this, European copyright law, unlike that in the United States, permits use of corporate logos for artistic purposes. Thus, the lawsuit was soon dropped, although LEGO still goes through pains to ensure that museum viewers who now see Libera’s work understand that it is not their product (§ 13).
Level 3: Beck and The Warriors
In 2006, Dave Beck, at the time an art student at University of Madison–Wisconsin, ignited a controversy when he presented his latest artwork, “The Highest Score”, a Flash–based website that displayed a short sequence from The Warriors, a videogame produced by Rockstar Games and released for the Sony PlayStation 2 in October 2005. The game is a faithful adaptation of Walter Hill’s homonymous 1979 movie. Beck’s artwork consisted in a brief sequence of the game. On his website and in his messages, he described it as “Five second video of myself playing”. Specifically, the video depicts a game character stomping on the body of a downed and presumably dead woman. Beck then looped the clip “to play continuously and randomly,” and subsequently added a counter in the top right–hand corner of the display to add the scoring element. Hence the title, “The Highest Score”.
Image 1: Dave Beck’s “The Highest Score”, 2006 (courtesy of Dave Beck)
Image 2: Dave Beck’s “The Highest Score”, 2006 (courtesy of Dave Beck)
According to Kristian Knutsen (2006a), the first journalist to write about the case, a few days before launching his project (note 3), Beck sent a viral email to several media outlets describing his initiative and hoping to get reach a wider audience. In his epistolary statement Beck explained the rationale behind “The Highest Score”, providing four main reasons for creating the project (note 3). For reasons that will become soon become clear, I am transcribing Beck’s entire message:
1. I’ve always been interested and fascinated with video games, but not until recently did I become intrigued enough to analyze it with my own work. I feel that video games as a medium are perhaps one of the final frontiers where sexism and graphic violence exist, to a certain point, unchecked and DEFINITELY encouraged. If you look at movies or books for instance, things such as rape, murder, graphic sex, etc. do in fact exist, but they usually carry the weight of some “message or lesson” to be learned in a broader story. If they do not carry this factor, it is often thought of as some sort of pornography or “NC–17” rated film/book. In the case of video games, what is depicted on my website is something that occurs in the game, but does not help you solve puzzles or learn lessons – it exists for pure entertainment. In the Grand Theft Auto game for instance, you can actually pay a prostitute for sexual intercourse, participate in that action, and then kill her and steal the money you paid her. That act not only awards you extra points, but gives you extra “energy” or “life” in the game as well. The saddest part concerning this “entertainment” approach to these issues is that while these games are rated for certain age groups, it is a common fact that video game rental stores and many other stores that actually sell the game do not check the purchaser’s age at the time of the sale (just as this website does not). When I worked as a kindergarten assistant a few years ago, I had 6 year old kids telling me about how they “watch their older brother play Grand Theft Auto and its cool cuz you can just run around and shoot people and run away from the cops”. So as far as this point is concerned, it is more of a critique of our culture’s situation at the moment.
2. Secondly, I’m very interested in the concept that our postmodern world has dealt with for the past 20 years, namely, the desensitivization [sic] of violent images on one’s mind. The fact that this video clip is occurring at a constant sound beat and motion, and it is paired with a numeric value, I’m interested in the idea of this image becoming less and less hard to look at with every second that passes, due to the hypnotic rhythm that exists within the site.
3. Paired with that, I wanted to point out how America seems to be so obsessed with large numbers (hence, thehighestscore.com) lately – whether it be money, church congregation populations in megachurches, myspace friends, or even deaths in Iraq, I truly believe things have changed in our society from being concerned with what the number means (ramifications, the goods, the bads, etc) to focusing more on how high it can get period. That is why I put a counter in the top left corner of the video, tracking the number of times the man has kicked the woman. I’m essentially conducting an experiment, as i am curious as to whether people will begin to lose their focus on how brutal the image is and begin to become obsessed with the number’s growth. (Essentially, people will begin to focus on the number, and not the atrocity). I’m able to track how many people have visited www.thehighestscore.com, as well as how many people have returned a second time – thus proving that people are curious as to whether the number has climbed to a larger height, or perhaps something has happened in the clip itself, and there is something new to look at.
4. Finally, and least importantly, i wanted to experiment with the idea of public art via the internet – where it is absolutely free (as all public art is ideally supposed to be) and accessible by anyone, anytime, anywhere (which is not the case for public art in its physical form).
Beck's statement of intent requires thoughts and a summary. the author first explains why he became interested in videogames – not simply as a gamer, but as an artist. He then suggests that the real significance of the medium has been largely ignored or overlooked by critics. Beck states that “graphic violence” and “sexism” are not simply tolerated but “DEFINITELY” encouraged, presumably the game makers/publishers. To support his thesis, he quotes another Rockstar Games’ title, Grand Theft Auto, one of the most controversial videogames of all time. Specifically, Beck finds troubling that the procedural and configurative nature of digital games, that is, the ability that players have to actively shape the ‘narrative’ of the game instead of consuming a pre-packaged story, comes at a price: the (perceived) lack of a “message or a lesson”. Otherwise said, unlike movies, novels, or other narrative media, videogames seem devoid of any moral principles. Beck feels that the graphic violence of The Warriors is not a means to an end, but, rather, that violence is an end in itself. Beck is also concerned by the fact that games intended for mature audiences are regularly accessed by kids, who presumably lack the critical competence to make sense of their content.
He expressed these ideas not with an essay, but with “an online art installation”, created using footage from the game. In the last paragraphs of his letter, Beck elucidates the logic that underpins his work, focusing on three jey themes: the notion of desensitization (i.e. the numbing effect produced by continuous consumption of violent media content), the current fascination for statistical data (America’s obsession “with large numbers), and the idea that art should be freely accessible (“all public art is ideally supposed to be” free). In other words, Beck’s message is both a statement of intentions and a critique/interpretation. A quite sophisticated one, one might say.
It is also important to mention that Beck felt necessary to express his sincere admiration for The Warriors. “I want to put out there that I’m an avid video game player […] The Warriors is a great game and I’m not going to deny that,” he told ISTHMUS’s journalist, Knutsen (2006a). It is not uncommon, for artists that experiment with videogames to openly communicate their “love and hate” relationship with the medium. Think, for instance, of Anne-Marie Schleiner’s appreciation for Counter–Strike, a game that she deliberately subverted with her seminal hack, "Velvet–Strike" (2002). In an essay titled “Velvet-Strike: War Times and Reality Games (War Times From a Gamer Perspective)” (2002), she wrote: “I must also confess to enjoying many aspects of the game--I have actually always enjoyed shooters” (§ 4)(note 4).
“The Highest Score” was officially launched at 7 PM on Saturday, February 4, 2006. The counter increased methodically at one point per click: the visitors, therefore, became assistants (accomplices?) in Beck’s experiment. This makes “The Highest Score” a collective artwork whose rhetorical value heavily relies on the power of networks. In less than five days, the “score” reached approximately 300,000 points. Beck’s original intention was to keep the website operating “for as long as [possible] without intervention” (Knutsen, 2006a). But like the fire of a matchstick that burns brightly before being killed by a sudden, forceful blow, the lifespan of “The Highest Score” was short. The cause and manner of death was not “natural”. Beck’s previous “disclaimer” was not enough for game publisher, which threatened him with legal action. A few days after launching his online project, Beck suddenly replaced the looped video on his website with the following message: “On February 9th, 2006, I received a cease–and–desist letter from Morrison Cohen LLP of New York, New York, ordering me to immediately remove all screen shots and video displays taken from the video game “The Warriors”. If I were to ignore these orders, I would be subject to a trial in the United States District Court, where they would ‘seek preliminary and permanent injunctive relief”, as well as ‘compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys fees and costs.’” (Knutsen, 2006b)
Image 1: Dave Beck’s “The Highest Score”, 2006 (courtesy of Dave Beck)
The letter was signed by Fred H. Perkins, a lawyer who “handles a wide range of intellectual property matters, including trademark, copyright, unfair competition, trade secrets, patent, antitrust, licensing, Internet and software related disputes” as described on the website (note 6) . According to Perkins, “The Highest Score” “constitutes unequivocal copyright infringement under 17 U.S.C. § 501” because Beck “copied and [is] continuously displaying Take–Two’s copyrighted material without its authorization. As a result, Take–Two is entitled to enjoin [Beck’s] continuing copyright violation and recover damages, costs and attorneys fees because of enjoin [Beck’s] unlawful activity” (Knutsen, 2006b). Unable to confront Perkins in a court of law because of economic constraints, Beck decided to comply and withdrew his work.
Suddenly, the screen turned black.
But the game was not over for “The Highest Score”. In a sense, the project respawned elsewhere. It is as if the authoritarian response from the publisher became part of the performance itself, extending, rather than suppressing, its value and significance. Shortly after Beck’s online installation vanished from public view, an intense debate took place on “GamePolitics.com”, a popular website that “explores the complex (and often controversial) relationships between the world of politics and videogames”. In just a few days, 309 comments written by users explored issues relating to intellectual property rights, copyright, and trademark law. Similarly to Haynes and Libera, Beck’s artwork ignited a heated controversy. Unlike the previous cases, however, the latter did not become the subject of scholarly examinations. Being a “simple” school project that incorporated a videogame, it did not attract the attention of art critics, historians, or high profile journalists.
The critiques, in these case, were provided ny gamers, art students, and readers of "Game Politics". To me, “The Highest Score” is as fascinating as The Karen Carpenter Story and LEGO. I spent endless hours reading, coding, and classifying the comments, following the various threads like a modern-day Theseus lost in a digital maze, trying to build a mental image of the authors who took part in the conversation. I relied on their statements, visible profiles, and links as cues. Mine was not a futile investigative game, although re-constructing the puzzle proved highly entertaining. I find this case utterly fascinating because it represents a paradigmatic example of how disputed notions such as art, freedom of expression, and copyright are understood and discussed in online forums.
What follows is the story and an analysis of a lengthy dialogue that took place on “GamePolitics.com”. For fidelity reasons, I decided transcribe the users’ comments with minimal or no editing, even though they often contain misspellings, grammatical mistakes, and profanities. Like it or not, the debate is exemplary of the kinds of conversations that take place in game-related online forums and I felt necessary to maintain the original style, format, and content. Like email, online forums are an asynchronous means of communication, but they differ from the former on various levels. As Harasim, et al. (1995) noted, forums comprise a unique setting in which textual messages represent the connecting line between the participants and the knowledge that is being built. Participants read or write the comments at their convenience. All epistolary correspondence is saved and maintained in one shared space. The messages are arranged by threads according to the different discussion groups or the different topic within the same discussion. As Ravid and Rafaeli (2004) noted,
The existence of common message storage, the option every forum participant has to read and to write to any other participant, and a communication topology based on messages and knowledge as the main connecting axes, are the characteristics that separate discussion groups from e–mail communication. Differences in the attributes of interaction and the topology of the technology create a social structure of special interest (§ 11).
When the debate took place, “GamePolitics” was hosted on LiveJournal, a popular virtual community that allows users to keep a blog, journal or diary. “GamePolitics” combines journalistic content on videogame-related controversies with user-generated comments. It is important to clarify that LiveJournal differs from other blogging platforms because, especially in its early days (it was launched in 1999), it was more like a self-contained community rather than a collection of loosely connected sites. Moreover, it offered – and still does – several social networking features that subsequently became a mainstay on such sites as Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook. Each journal entry has its own web page, which includes the comments written by other users. In addition, each user maintains a journal page, which shows all of his or her most recent entries, along with links to the comment pages. The most distinctive feature of LiveJournal is the “friends list,” a feature that can be found in most – if not all – social network sites. Each user has a “Friends” page, which collects the most recent journal entries written by contacts on his or her friends list. This function has been examined, among the others, by Fono and Raynes-Goldie (2006).
Moreover, LiveJournal allows users to customize their accounts in several ways. Members can modify and personalize journal templates, upload graphical avatars, or “userpics,” which appear next to the username. The site if free, but premium accounts are also available. Among other things, paying members have extended customization abilities and can upload userpics. Each user also has a “User Info” page, which contains a variety of data including contact information, a biography, images (linked from off-site sources) and lists of friends, interests, communities and also schools which the user has attended in the past or is currently attending. As with most weblogs, people can comment on each other's journal entries and create a message board-style thread of comments — each comment can be replied to individually, starting a new thread. All users, paying and not paying can set various options for comments: they can instruct the software to only accept comments from those on their friends list or block anonymous comments. They can also screen various types of comments before they are displayed, or disable commenting entirely. Users can also have replies sent directly to their registered e-mail address. As mentioned before, LiveJournal acts as host to group journals, dubbed “communities” (frequently abbreviated as “comms”). Anyone who joins a community can make posts to it as they would on a regular journal; communities also have “maintainers”, ordinary users who run the community and oversee membership and moderation.
Scholarly analyses of LiveJournals include wide-ranging descriptions (Boyd and Ellison, 2007), a Friendship classification scheme (Hsu, Lancaster, Paradesi, & Weniger, 2007), motivations to contribute in online communities (Backstrom, Huttenlocher, Kleinberg, & Lan, 2006), and the role of displaying preferences relating to cultural artifacts such as films, books, albums etc. in creating a parallel network structure (Liu, 2007). For additional resources, see boyd, d. m., & Ellison, N. B. (2007). There is also is a significant body of scholarly analyses relating to online discussion groups which may be relevant considering the hybrid nature of LiveJournal. As Anne Laur Fayard, and Geraldine DeSanctis (2005) tell us, researchers like Constant, Sproull & Kiesler (1995), Rheingold (1993), and Wasko & Faraj (2005) have investigated member contribution patterns, churn, sustainability, and motivations for contributing, while Smith & Kollock (1999) discussed issues relating to social control. Finholt & Sproull (1990) studied how work-oriented groups differ in their contribution patterns from more entertainment-oriented groups (Finholt & Sproull, 1990). As Fayard and DeSanctis (2005) write, "Collectively, the research to date shows that intimate relationships and development of community are possible online, and that online forums can be productive and sustainable". The research produced contradicting results regarding the efficacy of online forums for sharing information for several reasons like lack of familiarity among individuals, distinctive thought worlds, disparities in verbal skill, differing cultures, status differences, and challenges associated with physical distance (Bechky, 2003; Bechky, 1999; Earley & Gibson, 2002; Smith, 1999; Gruenfeld, Mannix, Williams, & Neale, 1996).
Interlude: A top-down view
For the sake of comprehensiveness, I should add that I wrote about Beck’s case in a book devoted to Game Art (Bittanti, Quaranta 2006). At the time, his case seemed to me a textbook example of the ongoing struggle between the ‘popular forces’ and the ‘power–bloc’, a struggle that Stuart Hall described in his essay “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular” (1981). Hall suggested that popular culture is informed by an opposition between these factions. Popular forces are defined as “a diverse and dispersed set of social allegiances constantly formed and reformed among the formations of the subordinate,” (p. 230) whereas the power bloc is “a relatively unified, relatively stable alliance of social forces” whose influence has economic, legal, moral, aesthetic implications. Hall described this dichotomy using a series of analogies – such as “homogeneity vs. heterogeneity”, “occupying army vs. guerrilla fighters,” and “center vs. the circumference” – based on notions of confrontation and conflict. I interpreted “The Highest Score” as an exercise in semiotic resistance in the form of a “remixed” artifact. Beck wanted to beat ‘dominant capitalism” at his own game, “hacking” a popular culture text to create a new, clearly antagonistic, meaning to that intended by the creators. As Fiske wrote in Reading the Popular (1989), “The basic power of the dominant in capitalism may be economic, but this economic power is both underpinned and exceeded by semiotic power, that is, the power to make meanings. So semiotic resistance not only refuses the dominant meanings, but construct oppositional ones that serve the interests of the subordinate is as vital a base for the redistribution of power as is evasion” (10). Beck was also acting ‘adversarial’. As Lionel Trilling wrote in Beyond Culture (1966), “A primary function of art and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture and to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception and judgment” . Beck subverted a popular videogame to transcend his subordinate position. As Fiske (1989) argued,
Popular culture is made by subordinate peoples in their own interests out of resources that also, contradictorily, serve the economic interests of the dominant (…) Popular culture is made from within and below, not imposed from without or above as mass cultural theorists would have it. There is always an element of popular culture that lies outside social control that escapes or opposes hegemonic forces (…) “Popular culture is made in relationship to structures of dominance. This relationship can take two main forms – that of resistance or evasion (…) Evasion and resistance are interrelated, and neither is possible without the other: both involve the interplay of pleasure and meaning, but evasion is more pleasurable than meaningful, whereas resistance produces meanings before pleasure (…) Popular culture is always a culture of conflict, it always involves the struggle to make social meanings that are in the interests of the subordinate and that are not those preferred by the dominant ideology (…) The victories, however fleeting or limited, in this struggle produce popular pleasure, for popular pleasure is always social and political” (p. 2).
Clearly, I did not find questionable that Beck chose to remix an existing artifact for his project. After all, the practice of appropriation has been used in the art world since the 1960s. As Martin Pichlmair (2006) notes:
Appropriation art sought the de-contextualisation of consumerism's symbols: brands, advertisements and logos. The digital hijacking of mass-produced products and the succeeding abduction of digital content is a recent phenomenon. Artists working with games as raw material, adapting its code include Cory Arcangel, who solders his own cartridges and the artist-duo jodi3, who stripped Wolfenstein 3D from all its colours and most of its textures […] Appropriating a game means meta-playing. It means playing with the game (as coded possibilities) rather than playing the game. (Pichlmair, 2006 2—6)
Dave Beck was silenced by a corporation for using copyrighted work in his performance. “I just intended to make a statement about the situation our culture (I believe) happens to be in – he told a journalist – And by making that statement, I was punished by higher powers” (Knutsen, 2006b). I concluded that while the game industry clearly benefits from the massive work spontaneously generated by enthusiasts from all over the world to the point that the boundaries between appreciation and exploitation become blurred (Sotaama, 2007), it shows high levels of intolerance when users remix “their” intellectual properties for purposes of criticism rather than celebration.
Naively, I felt the issue was over, at least for me. I had done my research. Interviewed the artists and written about the case. Mission accomplished, Right?.
I was wrong.
Oh, boy, I was so wrong.
The real game was about to start.
[to be continued]
This article went through several iterations since I became fascinated with this case. I would like to thank Sonja Baumer, once again, for her precious comments and suggestions during the writing phase.
1. Karen died in 1983 after a cardiac arrest. She was also suffering from anorexia nervosa and bulimia,
2. According to the author, “Correcting Devices” was meant to illustrate the gap between the ideal world marketed to children and the real one created by adults. Other pieces include Barbies with bulging tummies and unflattering thighs, and an infant doll with hairy legs and armpits.
3 Kristian Knutsen, “A warrior’s highest score”, The Daily Page, February 7, 2006, available online:
4. Additional comments on the allure of first-person shooters can be found in “Anne-Marie Schleiner interviewed by Pedro Soler for SonarOnline”, available at http://www.opensorcery.net/interviewp.html. The essay is available here. (http://www.opensorcery.net/aboutvs.html).
5. Kristian Knutsen, “Rockstar legal warriors squash online installation”, The Daily Page, February 14, 2006, available online:
6. From Fred Perkins’ profile, available online at www.morrisoncohen.com/new_bios/perkins.php.
7. See: Lionel Trilling, Beyond Culture, New York, Penguin, 1966. For more information about the notion of “adversary culture” in art, see Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite, London, Verso, 2000.
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Hall, S. (1981) “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular” in S. Hall, People’s History and Socialist Theory, London: Routledge, 227–49.
Knutsen, K. (2006a). “A warrior’s highest score”, ISTHMUS’s The Daily Page, February 7, 2006, available online:
Knutsen, K. (2006b). “Rockstar legal warriors squash online installation”, ISTHMUS’s The Daily Page, February 14, 2006, available online:
Kundera, M. (2007). The Curtain. An Essay in Seven Parts, New York: Harper Collins.
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Pilchlmair, Martin (2006) “Pwned - Ten Tales of Appropriation”, essay presented at Mediaterra conference, Athens, October 4-10.
Sotamaa, Olli (2007). "Let Me Take You to The Movies(TM): Productive Players, Commodification, and Transformative Play", Convergence, 13:4.
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Wyatt, J. (1994). “Cinematic/Sexual Transgression: An Interview with Todd Haynes”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 3, Spring. p. 2–8.