Saturday, March 27, 2010

PAX East Day One

I'm pleased to announce that I will be joining folks at 8bitlibrary.com this weekend to provide coverage at the PAX East Conference! It's both an honor and pleasure to be working with JP Porcaro and Justin Hoenke, so I shall endeavor to be worthy of my post.

Day One (Friday): Wil Wheaton was right.

Clearly the news that Wil Wheaton was going to be offering the keynote to the PAX East conference here in Boston was a Big Thing (tm). Not only is the child actor turned successful writer turned adult actor a heck of a speaker, but he's also a hopeless gaming nerd who never met a d20 he didn't like. So even though I was originally not planning to attend PAX, when I heard that Wil would be kicking off the festivities I realized that I'd be a fool not to go, if nothing else than for the keynote.

My initiative (so to speak) was rewarded mightily. For not only did I manage to meet up with a couple of local librarian gamers with whom I correspond regularly on Twitter- @calzone and @jmgold, who were gracious enough to let me tag along with them for most of yesterday afternoon as we waited in line for our opportunity to witness Ensign Crusher to take the con- but I also got to experience first-hand the crazy arena-rock reception that Wil Wheaton received when he did appear on stage to the blaring tune of MC Frontalot's "Your Friend Wil (Don't Be A Dick)".

Wil assumed the podium with an axe to grind, and he ground it well- time and time again the enemies of gamers have attempted to smear and/or marginalize them, but despite the best efforts of these "concerned citizens" and social critics gamers have demonstrated that not only are they not dangerous deviants, but that gaming culture has proven to be a powerful lens through which gamers have focused their creativity and imagination in an unprecedented manner. From Atari 2600's Adventure to Dragon Age: Origins, from the "Red Box" Basic Dungeons & Dragons set to 4th Edition D&D, Burning Wheel, and Dogs in the Vineyard, gaming has always challenged players not just to passively consume their entertainment but to immerse themselves and fully participate in it.

We are only just beginning to understand the ramifications of this tectonic shift as we move from what Laurence Lessig terms "R/O (Read Only) culture" back to the "R/W (Read/Write) culture" that our ancestors took for granted before the rise of mass-produced content that was awkward to share, difficult to copy, and of dubious legality to modify or remix. While digitization has rendered all but the aforementioned legal limitations virtually obsolete, Wil reminded us that this R/W culture did not begin in the ginormous antiquated servers of DARPAnet but in the wood-paneled basements of a generation of tabletop gamers, who were ripping, mixing and burning a new participatory creativity right there on their formica tabletops with painted lead figurines and funny dice.

So what does all of this have to do with libraries? Wil Wheaton's anecdote about his free day captures it perfectly- finding himself with 12 whole hours where he was left to his own devices, Wil had originally planned to fill this half-day unencumbered with family responsibilities with a marathon re-watching of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy on DVD when he found himself inexplicably drawn to spending his free time playing the new FRPG Dragon Age: Origins instead. Why would he, an admittedly devout Tolkien enthusiast, do this? His answer: "Because I already know how it ends." Faced with the choice of passively consuming a masterpiece of the fantasy genre and actively participating in his own epic quest, Wil chose the latter, and so does an ever-increasing percentage of our population. Whether or not these people choose to identify themselves as "gamers" or not is irrelevant. A new media literacy is evolving right here and right now, and if we are only just beginning to make sense of this in general popular discourse can you imagine how behind we are with this as librarians?

As an academic librarian I have seen questionable choices made with regards to popular literature and new media such as music, movies, and game. Some libraries made early snap decisions that these latter-day items would always be ancillary to their research collections, acquired either begrudgingly or not at all. To be fair there is a new generation of bibliographers who understand that with the rise of interdisciplinary studies and the serious study of popular culture one must be prepared to collect anything-- my favorite example as an Interlibrary Loan librarian is our acquisition of the Death of Superman comic book for a senior faculty member who professed never to have read a comic in his entire life! How long until that same patron or someone like him returns to us looking for a playable copy of the Legend of Zelda or Activision's Pitfall!?

R/W culture has only just begun its Renaissance, and it won't be long before academics train their research on the origins of this movement when gamers helped a generation wrestle the means of cultural production from the titans of Big Content and start telling their own stories by playing- in this regard we can't start collecting games soon enough. But it's not just about collection for academic posterity. To borrow from Wil's keynote, games have become a "default setting" of our cultural discourse, as sure as have books, music, television, and movies. As digitization accelerates our still-nascent R/W sensibilities it will not be long before games become *the* default setting for our culture.

Are we ready for this as librarians? Ready or not, the Wil Wheatons of the earth are here in force.

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