Monday, 12 November 2018

DiGRA 2018

Last summer the prestigious annual conference of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) took place in Turin, at my alma mater Università degli Studi di Torino thanks to the hard work of Riccardo Fassone.

It was the first time that I attended a DiGRA. It was great to see new faces and meet old friends, but most of all I appreciated the variety of topics and perspectives presented: an (unnecessary) proof of the rich cultural reach of digital gaming.

It was great also to be there with my dear friends Vincenzo Idone Cassone and Gianmarco Giuliana (see paper), both semioticians from CIRCe. Big conferences have often a liminal feel that makes them almost playful. This one in particular, as Erik Zimmerman engaged us in a few rather funny games at the end of the day.

I presented an extended abstract on the poetics of cardboard, you can find it here.

Friday, 12 October 2018

GamiFIN 2019 in Levi, Lapland.

If you happen to be interested both in awe-inspiring Northern Lights and in understanding how play and games are influencing our culture and everyday life: look no further! You'll get the whole package by submitting a paper to GamiFIN 2019.

GamiFIN is a very Finnish, top-quality conference on gamification, this year at its 3rd edition - and you know how the saying goes: "third time's a charm". That is probably why this edition of GamiFIN won't be in the big southern cities of Finland, but up North, in the snowy region of Lapland, over the Polar Circle, in Levi.
But don't worry! The venue is easy to reach and, no, you won't freeze to death: the conference is held in the comfortable Sokos Hotel up there. On the other hand, you will both get a chance to see the northern lights and to participate in a leading conference on gamification, where your work will gain visibility and you will be meeting other distinguished scholars.

Not sold yet? What if I told you that GamiFIN also allows you to develop your paper towards the dedicated gamification minitrack at HICSS and special issues in journals such as Internet research and Electronic Commerce Research and Application. This means that GAMIFIN Coordinators will work hard to increase the predictability and rigorousness of the peer-review and publication process by providing a concise review continuum and discussion with peers .
What else?
The conference will be held April 8-10, 2019, while the submission deadline is December 10, 2018.
Check the Facebook event and see you in Levi!


Friday, 5 October 2018

Ninjago and some strange affinities.

I just saw The Ninjago Lego Movie. Although I enjoyed greatly both The Lego Movie and The Batman Lego Movie, this one wasn't great. It had some moments, but it felt pedantic and slow.
HOWEVER it ha a rather interesting feature: it put together three things I wrote about recently: cats (here), Lego (here and here) and east-west hybrid cities (forthcoming in a book edited by Bruno Surace and Frank Jacob). Fun.

Here, have a cat pic.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

New book:  Viralit√†/Virality.

It took some time, but the book I edited with my pal Gabriele Marino is finally out!
Ever wondered where memes come from and why they spread so easily online? Are you skeptical about the biological metaphors that we use to explain everything that is non-trivial in communication? (we certainly are!) Do you spend far too much time on 9gag or 4chan and you'd wish to pretend it's time well spent in some scientific endeavour? Look no further and read our multi-lingual, interdisciplinary, unmerciful, 550 pages-long issue of Lexia!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Designing the Future: what Design Fiction can teach to Sustainable Design.

Earth-chan is in a bad shape. The anime girl with coloured hair and a NASA T-shirt represents our planet's dire situation and it's last call for help.
The meme was born as a running joke against flat-Earth theories, where the girl would get offended for people calling her "flat". Soon enough, however, she put aside these mundane concerns and
started to focus on her own health issues - global warming above
all - asking internet users to do more recycling.

Recycling is indeed seen as a possible solution to prevent a planetary disaster without having to change our lifestyle. This year’s Dutch Design Week was crowded with Substainable Design projects dedicate to creatives ways of recycling - the theme of the event was "Good Design for a bad World".
But are we really sure that we can design our way out of the consequences of human pollution? Shahar Livne's Desing Fiction project forces us to ponder on the irremediable changes that human life has already engraved on our planet. An article by Meg Chaltron appeared on Slate explains us why.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Gamer Grandma (and her Grandkids)

I was reading a paper about elderly gaming when I remembered a 60second documentary I saw once about an old lady who was a huge fan on Skyrim. You might have seen it too, as it went viral about an year ago, but if you haven't, here what I'm talking about:

I went in the comments section (if there's a video that can't attract haters is this one, right?) and I found this:

I immediately wondered: “Wait, are you telling me that she's a meme?”. I googled her and, BAM, I stumbled upon the best fanbase of the Internet. I was immediately in love.

Shirley Curry, a.k.a. Gamer Grandma, has a YouTube channel where she streams her Skyrim games (1 million views!) and, sometimes,  her treadmill strolls, some pretty good fan art and even a Steam group (that I immediately joined): GradmaShirley'sGrandkids (2631 members). The media also noticed her and wrote several pieces about her (e.g. here, here and here).

Gamer Grandma is also quite active on Twitter, and seem to bring out the best from people.

As every Grandma she's always an advice for her grandkids in distress .

By the way, she also have some rather good piece advice on how to deal with online bullying: “Older gamers leave me comments on my channel saying that they don’t even record because they’re afraid of getting nasty comments. Well, it isn’t anything to be afraid of — either ignore them or delete them! You have the power.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Semiotic Smugglers

Most of people when they hear the word “smuggler” will probably think of someone selling cheap cigarettes across the border. Maybe some Al Capone type importing alcohol in Prohibition-time USA. Some others might think of fictional characters the like of Han Solo, smuggling Jedi across the Empire, or the Onion Knight, the fingerless hand of a couple of Kings in Game of Thrones. Few, if any, would think of middle aged professors of semiotics.


It is true that cultural smuggling is a thing, especially when confronted with authoritarian states. In Kaunas, Lithuania, there is a statue dedicated to the book-smugglers that were crossing the border of Soviet Union in order to provide books in Lithuanian – a language that was prohibited by the Soviet State in favour of Russian.

It might be unsurprising, then, if our story of semiotic smuggling happened in another Baltic state under Soviet rule: Estonia. By the 1970s, Tartu had become one pf the Owrd's most important hubs of semiotic studies (a singular Mecca-like field for us 'pilgrims' laboring in the domain of semiotics” as Sebeok will later write). The discipline was deemed by Soviet authorities as bourgeois, based on the (questionable) claim that it was in contrast with Marxism materialism. Several semioticians, then, abandoned Moscow for a more low-profile location: Tartu, in Estonia.

The newly born Tartu-Moskow school of semiotics still had a few problems with censorship. Using the word “semiotics” was absolutely out of question, so they started to use “sign systems studies” instead. Still today Tartu semiotic journal has that name even if it conserves, in the cover, a massive trolling of soviet censorship. Tartu scholars, aware that censors weren't very cultivated people, had the brilliant idea for writing the forbidden word on their journal anyway: they simply wrote in in ancient Greek. The censors wouldn't recognise the alphabet and so they would avoid any sanction.

Authorities still kept Tartu scholars under surveillance and Juri Lotman, the most well-known semiotician of the time, had is house searched several times.
This was making it hard also communicating with the exterior: every publication that they wished to translate and to publish in the West had to be checked and approved by the censors, which was making it very hard to disseminate Tartu-Moskow school theories. The permission for participating in conferences abroad was also rather difficult to get.

Thomas A. Sebeok
You can imagine, then, how many suspicions were raised when an American professor, Thomas A. Sebeok, who was in Estonia to attend a congress on Finno-Ugric studies, was informally invited to attend Tartu's Semiotic Summer School (called Summer School on Secondary Modelling Systems, always for censorship reasons). This was a great opportunity for Tartu-Moskow scholars to get out some of their works, as well as for the West to learn what research was going on down there. Sothe 18th August 1970 Sebeok and his wife were driven from Tallin to Tartu by a KGB agent. As he later remembered:

While in Tartu, a number of colleagues handed me manuscripts to convey to the West. Most of these were intended for publication in Semiotica; some were meant for delivery to other editors. Such scholarly papers (the only kind I ever accepted) were entrusted to me to sidestep nightmarish Soviet bureaucratic restrictions. I was aware of the illicit nature of such dodges and the risks if I were caught, but bowed to abet them because of my refusal to condone censorship of intellectual property of any kind. Too, many of the pieces by authors, such as the ones I list in fn. 7 below, that would soon come out in Semiotica, would scarcely have appeared in English otherwise and, very likely, would have remained unknown to all but a very limited readership.

Sebeok, then, find himself entrusted with a series of papers to illegally smuggle to the other side of the Iron Curtain. He knew for sure that his luggage, as all outgoing baggage, would have been searched in the Tallinn harbour. He therefore decided to ask advice to Paul Ariste, the organiser of the Finno-Ugric Studies conference and, most importantly, the friend that had managed to get the permission for Sebeok to come to the Baltic States and even to leave Tallin one day and reach Tartu. Sebeok imagined that Ariste would have advised him against an action that was potentially harmful for the authors of the manuscripts as well as for Sebeok and his wife themselves. At the contrary, Ariste serenely told him not to worry, that he would have taken care of everything.

We can only imagine how Sebeok must have felt, waiting in line while the passengers ahead of them were having their baggages thoroughly searched. His bag full of illicit manuscripts was about to be searched too: what would have happened to them? When finally a Russian officer summoned him, he was ready for trouble. He slowly placed his baggage on the counter, but before the official could do anything the door busted open: it was Ariste. The professor was carrying and enormous bouquet of flowers that he promptly offered to the astonished Mrs Sebeok.

Paul Ariste

At the top of his voice, he proclaimed what an honor it was for his country to have had two such distinguished and gracious American visitors in attendance at the Congress. While holding up the line behind us, the noisy hurly-burly fomented such befuddlement and delay that the impatient officer hurriedly waved us, with our untouched luggage, through to board the ship. I thanked Ariste warmly, saying goodbye. I never saw him again.”

Finally, thanks to Sebeok's courage and Ariste's distraction skills, the manuscripts were safely smuggled outside Estonia and published on the West. Who would have imagine that being a semiotic professor could be so adventurous?

I come to know this history of semiotic smuggling thanks to my friend Taras Boyko, to which I'm grateful. He's conducing an extensive and fascinating research on the history of the Tartu-Moskow School. I highly recommend his work, you can find some of his papers here and here.

Sebeok's recollection of his adventures in Estonia can be found in a very interesting and funny paper entitled “The Estonian Connection” and published on Sign Systems Studies 26.