Gaming at the Intersection of Arts, Humanities, and Sciences

Controlling a Super Mario game using only your mind, cameras embedded in Times Square advertisements that watch and respond to the crowds watching them, wireless connections between separate, living brains. It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but these are just a handful of current technologies that Timothy Lenoir, the Kimberly Jenkins Chair of New Technologies at Duke University, claimed are already shaping the future of brain-machine interfaces during his keynote address for “Gaming the Game: Tweaking, Cheating, Hacking, Creeping.”

This two-day conference coordinated by Professors Colin Milburn (English) and Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli (Cinema and Technocultural Studies) asked how new technologies have changed our notions of subjectivity, sovereignty, property, and privacy. Scholars and industry researchers from UC Davis and abroad gathered to respond to the challenges posed by new and increasingly invasive interactive media and new structures of technopolitical power across the globe.

In a series of talks, panels, and performances, participants considered a range of questions: What are the implications of these new technologies? How do new media technologies modify behavior? How do we think about innovative gaming and practices such as modding, cheating, and hacking?

Appropriately located in the malleable space of the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, the conference brought together scholars whose work does not always fit into a single disciplinary box. Designers, engineers, and humanists shared the stage with performance artists and scholars of media, information, technology, communications, and the law.

Rita Raley, new media scholar and Professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, commented: “This is the first time I’ve been in the same room with so many people doing similar work to me. It’s very exciting to be here.”

Conversations buzzed throughout question and answer sessions and spilled into the breaks as participants considered emergent systems such as the evolving legal issues created by questions of jurisdiction on the internet and how gaming techniques of “tweaking” and “cheating” might help us to understand social relations influenced by online gaming and social media.

Julian Bleecker from the Near Future Laboratory asked the audience to think about using stories as a way to “tweak reality” by provoking the imagination, creating speculation, starting and circulating conversations, and prototyping new ideas.

Panels also explored a variety of not-so-innocuous ways technologies creep into our everyday lives. Jennifer Terry of UC Irvine provided compelling evidence for the continued militarization of everyday life through medical technologies fueled by war and the creative circulation of capital.

Raley gave a compelling talk on the many ways that the already tenuous relationship between our public and private lives is further being eroded through online databases such as Google profiles and Facebook. She questions the rhetoric of Google, who claims that they are “recognizing your browser, not you.” In an age when many are so intimately connected to our handheld and laptop devices, can we really separate ourselves from our browsers?

The conference provoked discussion among established scholars as well as graduate and undergraduate students. “What I really enjoyed about this conference was the way that it merged the speculative possibilities of art with the cutting edge of science in a nuanced way,” said Xan Chacko, a first-year student in the Cultural Studies Graduate Group.

Thursday and Friday night’s performances featured “Bodytext,” a collaboration between media artist and programmer Simon Biggs, dancer Sue Hawksley, and sound installation artist Garth Paine. Hawksley’s body and speech blended with technologies as her dancing and speaking body manipulated words projected on a screen. As the words “danced” with her, the performance demonstrated the powerful possibilities that exist at the intersection of the arts, humanities, and technology. (See Biggs’ website for a recorded performance of “Bodytext”)

Performances and conversations explored the problems and possibilities of these ubiquitous new technologies. In the face of troubling questions, Timothy Lenoir reminded participants of Alexander Pentland’s famous quip regarding the pervasive and often invisible nature of new technologies, “Assimilation into the Borg Collective might be inevitable, but we can still make it a more human place to live.”

This event was sponsored by the UC Humanities Research Institute, the UC Davis Humanities Innovation Lab, the Center for Science & Innovation Studies, and Film Studies.