Archive for August, 2006

Fear at Home

Seen at the Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side, this image resonated. Not because of the boldness of the statement but because of what that it says about fear and country. Could it be that African American soldiers who fought in the war felt more comfortable with the Vietnamese than they did on their racially charged home soil? I wouldn’t doubt it.

That brings to mind a more recent point: I remember so many saying they felt fear at home for the first time after 9/11; peril was so close. But I don’t recall any black folk saying exactly that. It’s not that the attack wasn’t terrifying and clearly great pain was (and continues to be) felt equally by all, regardless of background. It’s just that black folk in this country have had to live with fear for so long. And Builder Levy’s photo stands as a particularly pointed reminder.

For more on Levy’s exhibit, see the Henry Street Settlement. We were there to see the Chris Earle’s fabulous post-9/11 exodus play Democrats Abroad.

image grabbed from

Anti After School Special

Half Nelson is one of those movies you go into certain you’ve seen it all before. Just from the promo image up top, it seems we’ve stumbled into yet another inspirational story of that ever-so-rare teacher who transforms an inner city classroom (against all odds, no less). On finding out the teacher is a basehead, it becomes clear that we’ll watch as he finds new strength in a streetwise student (mature beyond her years). Either way, we’re all going to learn a valuable lesson, right?

Not so much. If Half Nelson does one thing, it’s play against expectation and stereotype. In fact, it often seems to turn them in on themselves — and believably so. The script shows remarkable restraint, trying its best not to take the easy way out. That, along with truly fine acting and lovely direction, is what makes the movie so unusual. (And all the more impressive because it’s writer/director Ryan Fleck’s feature debut.) This doesn’t mean Half Nelson is flawless, but but it does mean you should go see it right away.

Overload and Absence

We’re so used to the visual pollution that surrounds us that we seldom stop to think about it. Studiosmack smartly calls this out with Kapitaal, a video that shows us the world with almost everything but type blacked out. And most objects are still quite discernable, highlighting the multitude of messages that we’re bombarded with; so many, in fact, that those messages become ineffectual and easily ignored. Adbusters would be proud.

The flip side is playfully presented by Mark Callahan in I.S.P., a selection of popular (and often cluttered) websites with all their internals removed, leaving them textless wireframes. The degree to which they remain identifiable speaks to the strength of the visual layout…and the depth of the site’s soul. An essentialist interpretation of websites? It’s entertaining stuff, but it also helps us think about the role type and images play in creating a brand’s identity, and how far you can get without them.

Together, these two work opposite ends of the text spectrum: overloaded vs. absent — hinting that the middle may ultimately be the best place to be. Not a profound observation, but it would be nice if it got more respect in the wild.

We last talked about type in Found Time and Ransom Notes

The Atlantic Jinx

In October 2001, The Atlantic Monthly ran a cover story called “Peace is Hell,” which wondered aloud about the role of the US military in a stabilizing world. A week after it hit newsstands, 9/11 happened.

The September 2006 Atlantic cover proclaimed “We Win,” referring to so-called war on terror. A week later, the UK plane bomb plot nearly happened. And author James Fallows has been working defense ever since.

Strange how an Atlantic cover makes an assertion and world events instantly move to disprove it. While his story continues to hold some water, it’ll still be interesting to hear Fallows explain himself on WNYC tomorrow


When I first played Darfur is Dying some months ago, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean how much of the awful situation in Darfur could really be communicated through a hopelessly impoverished flash game? I expected to feel insulted. Heck, I insisted on being insulted. And I was wrong.

As simple as it is, Darfur is Dying engages the imagination — asking the player to see themselves in a different skin and a different place, where things we take for granted (like getting water) become complex and dangerous and not guaranteed. It stuck with me. There’s something about actively playing that role, however abstract, that brings this lesson home the way a thousand news stories just can’t. Or, maybe it’s the combination of those thousand news stories and the opportunity to imagine yourself as part of them. It’s anti-escapism.

What I find fascinating about Darfur is Dying (and many other serious games) is how little it takes to make this happen. There are no full 3D environments, no orchestral score, no 80 hours of gameplay, no multi-million dollar budget, no five years of development. Just thoughtful design. As far as design goes, then, it harkens back to the golden age of videogames in the 1980’s. And that begs the question: how repeatable is this? What does it take to create games on other topics that provoke similar feelings?

Many old school “educational games” motivated rote learning with dessert (finish the math problems and you get to play space invaders), but what really sets serious games (new and old) apart is that they insist on incorporating learning strongly with gameplay rather than tacking it on. They insist on working to make learning engaging, transparent. They are learning-by-doing, but they protect you from the dangers of doing it for real.

There’s a lot of breath in serious games (everything from Falcon 4 to Guitar Hero to Sim City to Pump Expeditions seems to fall in), but my favorites tend to have a socially relevant message. They don’t so much try to teach you how to operate a tank as to change your attitudes about someone, someplace, something.

So, while the serious games moniker typically refers broadly to games that teach real world knowledge or skills, I prefer to think of serious games as games with a serious message as well (like the G4C folks). They make you emotional. They make you rethink. They make you want to find out more. They motivate. And, ultimately, that is one of the most powerful things interactive media can do.

For more, see the Serious Games Initiative

Future Found

Shanghai is a wonderful place to visit as a fan of the futuristic. From the well known Pudong skyline to the wicked fast Maglev train to constant KTV and the seedy neon lit backstreets featuring whispered promises of “younger beautiful woman, bar, watch, bag, dvd…”, Shanghai has a little something for everyone.

The place that really hit it out of the park future-wise, though, was the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, which features details on a number of forward-thinking projects, including a truly stunning floor-sized model of Shanghai 2020. It’s not hard to buy a lot of it considering what present day Shanghai already represents.

But it can’t all be spotless. The voiceover that comes with the future perfect displays (above) truly echoes the sanitized, disembodied voice accompanying the Blade Runner blimp in dystopian Los Angeles 2014:

A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. New climate, recreational facilities…absolutely free.

Just replace Off-World with Shanghai and you’ve pretty much got it. It’s this sort of thing sends those tiny chills, snapping you out of the full-on adoration of the city and revealing the “museum” as the propaganda palace it really is — presenting the super green, zero unintended consequence, 100% thought out, everybody happy all the time tomorrowland that will be Shanghai in 20 years. Surely, it’s a nice thought but we’re also left to wonder what is conveniently absent.

Of course, the lack of free press means it may be impossible to ever know for sure how much is real and how much memorex. But it certainly whets the appetite for more trips to Shanghai, and much more conversation with the Shanghainese about real life and the real impacts of a rapidly arriving future.

E-mail It