Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Selling to Social Selves

I'm in the process of migrating to zoyastreet.com. I must emphasise that it is a process, and I'm not quite finished making the new site everything I want it to be, but it has become the main place I go to post new ideas. My latest post is about advertising, and Facebook's frictionless sharing policy. It’s illustrated with beautiful Shiseido ads that, I suspect, speak not to the social self, but to those things that don't belong to our public face, the things that really drive our purchasing decisions, the things that Facebook can’t touch in its current state.

Zoya Street

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Falling in love with Akihabara again: Retro Games

Mandarake Nakano Broadway

Early on in my stay in Japan this year, a friend of mine introduced me to the Mandarake store in Nakano broadway. It's huge, and sells many beautiful books and Pullip and Blythe dolls, and also has a handsome collection of retro games and consoles for sale. It's the place I bought my Dreamcast from, and although it was a little on the pricey side at 10,000 yen (about 80 British quid at the moment, due to the absurdly expensive yen) it's in mint condition and is a historically interesting limited edition, so I'm fairly happy. However, the retro games stores I later found in Akihabara still kicked its ass.

Super Potato, Akihabara

Super Potato is a hilariously named retro games store that exists on about four or five floors. Each floor is dedicated to another console generation, except for the top floor which is full of vintage arcade machines. It's a lovely place, and has a fairly encouraging, well-organised Dreamcast section at the back of the third floor. Unfortunately, they were missing some of the most popular Dreamcast games, including Eternal Arcadia, the one I really needed to buy as I'm writing my thesis about it. If I wanted to buy dating sims, though, I'd be in luck at Super Potato. It's also worth noting that Super Potato and Game Camp sold unboxed, body-only Dreamcasts, and had plenty in stock, while Mandarake just didn't offer that option. If I was spending more time in Japan, Akihabara would be a great source of disposable Dreamcasts - they probably don't have much life left in them, but if I wanted to I could buy a cheaper one knowing that I could replace it with another when it breaks.

Retro Game Camp, Akihabara

Retro Game Camp looks much less reassuring than either of the other two shops I visited. It's a tiny shop that appears to be fighting for its place on the main north-south road of outer Kanda, and it looks like a complete mess. While Mandarake uses its window space and the area nearest the door to showcase its most prohibitively expensive rare items, Retro Game Camp's doorway is adorned with crates of suspicious-looking, bargain basement CD-ROMS. Their website didn't indicate that they sold Dreamcast games, but since they are located so close to Don Quijote I thought it worth taking a look on my way around. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did the bargain baskets provide me with a dirt cheap, unboxed but completely legitimate, copy of Crazy Taxi, but their Dreamcast shelves were packed full of multiple copies of almost all the most popular Dreamcast games. Shenmue 1 and Eternal Arcadia were both only available at this shop when I was looking around. Retro Game Camp basically gave me exactly what I wanted in huge quantities. I left the place shaking with joy and excitement.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Falling in love with Akihabara again: Queen Dolce

I've just come home after a month-long research trip in Japan, during which I re-discovered my love of Akihabara. I loved the things you find in Akihabara long before I ever set foot in the place - in fact, by the time I actually went on my first trip to Japan, my university course had peed on my geeky parade by immersing me in more acceptable things like Edo period woodblock prints and religious history. So most of the magic of Akihabara passed me by, because the lonely teenage otaku in me was lost behind a head full of academia. But no longer! Now I'm lucky enough to be studying computer games, pursuing electronics as a hobby which artists sometimes pay me for, and occasionally writing about genderqueer fashion. All three of those things are great excuses for me to spend endless hours trawling the streets of Akiba.

FTM crossdressing cafe

I've been to your standard maid cafe before, and it was genuinely fun but didn't really feel worth the expense. I'm starting to think that it's actually a case of finding the theme cafe that suits your own taste. Aside from maid cafes there are butler cafes, cat girl cafes, old japan style cafes, and many other places where the serving staff dress up and take on a particular role. A few months before this trip I became interested in the small number of female-to-male crossdressing cafes that exist (dansou cafe). Most of them describe themselves as 'dansou gyaruson' cafes, meaning 'crossdressing garcon', although garcon itself is a pun as the first two syllables are homophonous with 'gal'. Garcon suggests french waiter-style dress, and the non-crossdressing garcon cafes are staffed by cute young men who look like pop stars. In the dansou gyaruson style, women dress up in sharp shirts and waistcoats, style their mid-length hair into spiky bird's nests and masculinise their Japanese language. And it's totally awesome.

I'll probably never be able to work out whether the theme cafe Queen Dolce constitutes a queer space. While I was there I felt as though the pretext of crossdressing staff members had created a uniquely relaxing and open atmosphere for anybody with non-normative gender identities. The clientele were mixed male and female, with more effeminate men and masculine women around than you usually see in Japan. More impressive was the was people were talking in a very relaxed tone, laughing loudly while discussing their tastes in women - I couldn't follow most of the conversation because they were using so much slang, and it was so far removed from the polite Japanese I'm used to hearing! It's not common for people to be able to open up and be themselves in public in Japan, and leaving the space of the cafe to go back to the real world was jarring. To this extent, it felt similar to Bar Wotever at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

The clear difference is that while Bar Wotever is declared to be about creating community and supporting people who exist outside of the mainstream, Queen Dolce is basically about spectacle. It so happens that the nature of the spectacle sets a tone that allows the guests to be as masculine or feminine as they wish. While the aesthetic and symbolism of Bar Wotever are set by the guests, Queen Dolce consciously makes use of specific visual effects to spark the imagination of visitors - the bar staff are dressed like pop idols or characters from romantic manga, their mannerisms and voice inflections evocative of Takarazuka theatre, the projector shows clips from old timey black and white hollywood movies with old-fashioned handsome male heroes - all together, it makes it clear that what brings the visitors to the cafe together is an admiration for a very specific form of masculinity in the female body. Whether the cafe staff like to express themselves in that way outside of working hours is a complete mystery. In short, Queen Dolce is about one specific non-normative performance of gender, while Bar Wotever is about not having to perform anymore, or performing as a way of getting closer to who you really are.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Gamification in history: game mechanics as social models

Being a grown-up is not fun and games. To amend this, some cheerful people from a nice part of the world, probably California, invented gamification. I've seen some Stanford computer science lectures on iTunesU from a few years ago that seem to express the first buds of gamifying theories. Now we are beginning to see the fruits of those theories. Apparently more and more workplaces and commercial enterprises have modified their working practices to incorporate reward badges for hitting targets, points systems, sometimes level-up mechanics to represent your productivity/consumer loyalty.

As has been said time and again, gamification often, but not always, boils down to pointsification. Points systems do not automatically make a job into a game. That bit in Mary Poppins where you 'find the fun, and snap! the job's a game' wasn't about creating points and merit badges. It was about animating the dull world of chores, seeing the things that other people can't see that make the world a bit more awesome. My jobs feel like games because I get to do them in my underwear at 3am while drinking tea and listening to punk rock.

Points are, of course, analogous to money. They're not the same as money, but in a time of redundancies, unpaid internships, high unemployment, and consumer price inflation above wage inflation, points are sometimes the best we can do. Game mechanics (and meta-game mechanics) that reward effort with points and reward points with status labels reflect a very specific vision of how a heirarchical society functions. They depict the conceit of meritocracy - the people at the top are far superior to those on the bottom, not because of arbitrary social distinctions such as taste, dominant personality types or place of birth, but because the people on the top have superior skills and have put in more effort. The people at the bottom are there because of their own ignorance and laziness. No, it's not equitable to live in a heirarchical society, but at least people get what they deserve, and in any case, if there weren't any losers in the world nobody would have any hope of becoming a winner.

I believe that one of the addictive things about games is that they take heirarchical distinctions out of the hands of fate and put them in the hands of players. The heirarchies of points mechanics can be gamed, while the heirarchies of the real world can't. I know some people think they can 'win' at life by creating games out of business or seduction, but I reckon that those people tend to learn very little about the parts of business or seduction that lie outside of their game mechanic - economic crashes are a case in point, as is the inability of pick up artists to really love a woman.

Edo period Japan didn't have gamification, but games were used as analogies for society and politics. The mechanic used was not pointsification, but the 'rock, paper, scissors' mechanic, known as 'Janken'. Janken games were modified to incorporate social metaphors, such as 'kitsune ken', a drinking game performed with the whole body that equalised the feudal social heirarchy - village elder trumps huntsman, huntsman trumps fox, but fox trumps village elder because foxes were believed to be magical, mischievous creatures that could possess the elder. Therefore, although the heirarchy remains intact as a part of the game mechanic, it is revealed to be preposterous and empty, because the person on the bottom-most rung can overpower the person on the top. (There's a chapter about this in Japan at Play by Joy Hendry) In the print above, the characters are playing a game of janken that analogises scholarly debates over civilisation dominance between India/Buddhism, China/Confucianism, and Japan/Shinto.

Songs were written about janken games, and then parody janken songs were written to spoof recent real-world events. Woodblock prints depicted further layers of playful metaphor. Throughout this early-modern example of transmedia creative output, the janken meme always applied the circular mechanic to a social order that was supposed to be a perfectly linear heirarchy. Janken games made people feel like they could game the system, because they could finally play with heirarchy rather than quietly live under it. Ultimately, janken made the entire system appear futile, because if its true circularity - those at the bottom can topple those at the top. 'Rock, paper, scissors' is a game of chance - one's final position remains in the hands of fate, and cannot be changed by simply trying harder as in a points system. However, in janken, the heirarchy itself is exploded into a ridiculous playing ground.

When applying game mechanics to our own society, there is more at stake than might first meet the eye. One thing that interests me as a historian is the way that game mechanics have both reflected and subverted the existing order. Game mechanics create an order of their own that must make sense to the player, must speak to something that is real for the player, and might lead to creative constructions of player agency. Many points systems reflect our heirarchical and capitalist society, and focus on the extent to which that heirarchy is meritocratic to create a system in which anybody can become a winner. In Edo Japan, janken reflected a fixed heirarchy that could not be changed or gamed, but demonstrated the preposterousness of that heirarchy.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Desktop Wallpaper 19.8.11

It's been a while! Here's a photo I took in the underground walkway near South Ken station. Don't thank me, thank Illford film.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Maoist DapperQ

Just a quick note to say that I've written a new article for DapperQ.com which you can check out here - it's a summary of someone else's work on female masculinity in Maoist China.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Virtual Reality Design Logic in Copenhagen

Today was the last day of my brief visit to Copenhagen for the Against Procedurality seminar at IT University. After going to the Design Center (meh) I decided to take myself on an architectural walk using a map provided by the Architecture Centre, which I visited a couple of days ago. I popped into the Royal Library to use their internet, so that I could go on the CopenhagenX website and get information about some of the sights I was going to see - you're supposed to buy the book to go with the map, but this way was cheaper and I was perfectly happy with it. I planned a 2-3 hour walk that would take me out of the city and home again. This was kind of a strange thing to do, because it meant leaving a lot of historical sites behind me and heading into a post-industrial wasteland, but it turned out to be very interesting. I wish more cities had architectural maps available like this, because it really does turn the cityscape into an exhibition of sorts, and with an extensive map such as the one made by Copenhagen X you end up finding very striking buildings in unexpected places.

One of my first stops was Havneholmen, which is full of dramatic projects, all screaming out for your attention. The name implies that it's a harbour, and indeed there is a lot of water there, but almost no boats. Presumably, the mooring fee is too high for most people to afford. You'd think they'd lower the fee since nobody's buying, but maybe the people who own and rent these expensive architectural projects don't want people's pesky boats ruining their view of the 'harbour'. My perception of Havneholmen as a fake place led me to start thinking about video games. I felt a bit embarrassed last night reading a kotaku post that made mincemeat of Square's design practices. What an idiot am I, I thought, for thinking it wise to write a paper about design history in the Final Fantasy series when this stupid company's idea of a development process apparently may consist of:

Tetsuya Nomura went on making characters, the other artists went about drawing concept art for environments and the 3D artists went about gleefully making objects until, at some point after they’d cut a demo out of the gelatinous marble of game-material they’d slammed together over a period of three years, a new producer stepped in and said, “Guys, let’s turn this . . . thing into . . . something.” Hence: half of the environments were unused. Hence: when the characters banter during levels, their banter never has anything to do with the scenery of the psychedelic racetracks down which they shamble: it’s always “Hurry”, “This way”, “We have to keep going”. Though hey! It sure looked great!

I'm sure that's no way to make a game world. Game worlds are supposed to make sense, in a very constructed, planned and artificial way. Games are designed environments, and they are also screen-mediated spectacles. On the very rare occasions when virtual environment design is exploited for great results, you wander around them knowing that everything is perfectly in its place, the whole world intended to be not only a space for movement but also a series of perfectly composed snapshots. Square don't design things in a considered way, they make a bunch of cool stuff and then throw it all together. This is why the weapons that you find lying around landscapes don't seem to belong the same material culture as the architecture.

It's probably no way to make a game world, but in fairness, I think it might very probably be how real worlds are made. Havneholmen looks like what happens when many disparate architecture firms have lots of money thrown at them and are told, 'make something cool'. So they made cool things, mostly out of glass, often with more cool things inside of them, like giant spiral staircases. Not only does the cityscape as a whole get built up into an ever intensifying state of insane layering, but within each object forming part of the layering you see even more layers. Is it a harbour? Who knows! Each building sure looks great, though.

After Havneholmen I spent a long time walking on cycle paths alongside piles of rubble, but eventually I came to Sluseholmen, home to the Fyrholm project. If I had any remaining doubts about the real-world value of studying the history of the design of virtual worlds, Fyrholm dispelled them immediately. Stepping into Fyrholm is like finding a glitch in the matrix. Only the bafflingly beautiful Teglvaerks bridge marks the transition from the heaps of formless material that make up the industrial site from an area that appears to be the middle of a full-fledged city. Like a mirage in the desert, you know it can't be real, and yet there it is, standing there in the middle of nowhere. Having said that, I've never seen a mirage in the desert, I just imagine that this is what a mirage feels like, based on movies. And I've never been to Amsterdam, but the internet tells me that canal towns of Amsterdam inspired Fyrholm.

I soon noticed that the designers of Fyrholm had used game design techniques to make this town feel deceptively real. When designing a European-style town in a virtual world, game designers will often create a single facade that looks like several different buildings connected together to make a busy, eclectic, historical cityscape. Here I'm stereotyping, but they are too - the conceit is that European cities are 1) old 2) crowded and 3) haven't had to be rebuilt much, because of the relative shortage of earthquakes. So you end up with streets that look cute and jumbled and patchworked. This knowledge should never have helped me to understand real-world architecture, but lo and behold, Fyrholm was designed in exactly the same way. To make it feel like an eclectic, established town or city, they hired one architectural firm for the artificial islands and basic building structures, and twenty more firms to design a set of unique facades that all nevertheless follow a set of unifying principles. It's not that I don't like it. I think it's an ingenious way of making large residential developments feel more personal. Then again, I probably wouldn't mind living in a computer game.

After walking through a lovely, real harbour, with cheap and cheerful houseboats, I crossed a swamp, got bitten by my first mosquito of the year (yay, summer!) and reached Bella Sky Hotel, which I have seen every morning and every night during my stay here. Bella Sky Hotel is completely batshit insane. It leans 15 degrees in all directions. The leaning tower of Piza only leans by a little less than 4 degrees. It stands in the middle of nowhere, its surface made entirely of triangles, its structure probably also made of triangles come to think of it, bending every which way, visible for miles and completely implausible from most angles.

The stated purpose of Bella Sky Hotel is to make foreigners who have come to Copenhagen for conferences make funny noises. It works. I came here for a seminar, and when I first saw Bella Sky Hotel I made some very funny noises indeed. It exists for the same reason that so many buildings in JRPGs float weightlessly off the ground. In many games, we're like people who are just flying in on business - we're really busy doing all these quests, and we need these visual reminders that we're not slaving away for nothing, we're high-flying businessmen, we're professionals, we've been playing this game so long and finally we've earned the right to come and look at this thing that's like a moomin crossed with a gundam. A lot of people talk about pointlessly flashy buildings in games as if it's a bad thing. Like buildings need a reason to float several feet in the air, or to lean 15 degrees in all directions. Yet in reality, just like in games, looking awesome is big business.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Materiality and Procedurality

This is my position paper for a seminar in IT Copenhagen's game studies department called 'Against Procedurality'. It has Portal 2 spoilers in it. Also spoilers for my presentation on Tuesday :P Anyway, I don't usually get to put things I write academically up here because they're so long, so I thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity to post a short piece of work. Enjoy!

‘As humans we experience our world through the materiality of things. We walk on concrete, wooden or carpeted floors and drink tea from a ceramic, paper, plastic or polystyrene cup. There is a continuous, invisible exchange taking place between us, our objects and our environment.’- Karen Richmond, Thingness Symposium, Camberwell College of Arts

‘Don’t get yourself all covered in the gel. We haven’t entirely nailed down what element it is, but I’ll tell you this: it’s a lively one, and it does NOT like the human skeleton.’ - Cave Johnson, Portal 2

Materiality refers to the emotional and pragmatic significance of materials. Wood feels familiar, tactile and reassuring. Plastic feels like anything and nothing all at once - it feels more alien the more it attempts to emulate the familiar. When games involve virtual worlds, part of their procedurality is devoted to the materiality of the game-worlds.

Psychologist James J. Gibson, writing in the 1970s, was concerned with the mind’s perception of surfaces and substances in the environment. Gibson claims that the concern of the active being in the inhabited environment is not the physical properties of materials but what can be done with them - affordances, such as ‘sit-down-able’ or ‘stand-on-able’. The way that game engines model affordances highlights something about cultural understandings of materiality.

How materiality is conceived in the virtual world is by nature a procedural question. In Portal 2 the perception of the environment as surfaces and substances with their own affordances is heavily manipulated. The player’s assumption that the affordances of surfaces can be judged by their colour is turned around by allowing the player to repaint the surfaces to change their affordances. It is a creative masterpiece of hyperreal plasticity in procedural form, and it works because of player assumptions about the virtual materiality of the game-world.

Procedural materiality can be exploited rhetorically. Katamari Damacy posed a phenomenological critique of contemporary consumerist society. A small ball can be rolled around the world, picking up any ob jects smaller in mass to itself, growing exponentially as more things are picked up. It answers the question of what matter really is by reducing the products of modern consumer society down to mere material. Nothing differentiates a pylon from the Eiffel tower or a cow from a human being other than their mass. In essence, all things are just lumps of material.

Affordances determine the possible action-paths that players can follow - a virtual environment with a large amount of surfaces posing a wide variety of affordances presents several possible action paths. Final Fantasy games feature beautiful environments in which almost none of the surfaces present affordances other than passability and impassability. Dirt paths are passable, shrubberies are not. The battle screen offers more action paths - a variety of weapons and items can be used in a variety of ways by accessing them from various menus. While the battle system lends itself to mimeomorphic actions, the range of actions the player may choose to replicate is fairly wide. The procedural materiality of Final Fantasy game-worlds is accessed predominantly in the battle screens.

Chris Crawford argues that to exploit procedurality well, games should be as interactive as possible. I suggest instead that simulations of materiality that account for the limitations that materials can place on human agency are more immersive and persuasive. Players want to experience the limitations of a virtual material world as much as they want to try out new possibilities - limitations make these possibilities more meaningful.

‘Look at this! No rail to tell us where to go! Oh, this is brilliant. We can go wherever we want! Hold on though, where are we going? Seriously. Hang on, let me just get my bearings. Hm. Just follow the rail, actually.’

This quote, by a robotic character in Portal 2 who has been recently emancipated from a monorail in the ceiling, seems to be a self-referential comment about game design. Level designs that allow a sudden sense of freedom are entertaining, but only in contrast to the restrictive nature of level design ordinarily. Likewise, aspects of game design which give players more agency over materials are only meaningful when materials are ordinarily resistive to interaction. Portal is a more meaningful franchise because not all surfaces can be modified with a portal-gun. You can’t interact with every surface, because there is something fascinating and fun about the way that materials limit human agency and force us to use our power to interact with the world in a smarter way.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Surface 2

Here's another surface colour experiment on Sonic the Hedgehog. I think this one works a little better - this time I've used Sonic the Hedgehog 2, selecting only the levels with a material name in the title (playing fast and loose with definitions here by including sky...) What you lose in this attempt is the larger perspective on how colour is used to visualise the plot arc, which was an interesting feature of the last one, but what you gain is a perspective on how surface colour and virtual material are linked.

Monday, 16 May 2011


I'm currently working on a hypothesis that an early stage in the development of virtual materiality in video games was the manipulation of surface in 1980s platformers. As an experiment, I've made color palettes from screenshots of the first six (out of seven) levels of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game, to see if color choice alone is enough to guess the materials the level is supposed to appear to be made up of. I'm not sure my hypothesis is on solid ground yet, but I think the illustration is quite thought-provoking. Color really is a powerful tool.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Desktop Wallpaper 2.5.11

My latest desktop wallpaper is a photograph of an illuminated manuscript of the Koran which I saw at the Islamic Arts Museum on a recent trip to Istanbul. This is one of the wallpapers I've been the most satisfied with so far - I like the tension between media and the way the use of the photo as wallpaper imposes flatness onto an image with a shallow depth of field. Its not too busy, but you can still enjoy picking tiny details out of the small part of the image that's in focus. Hope I can make more like this in future.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

DapperQ in Japan

I wrote this for awesome transgressive fashion blog DapperQ.com. Thought I'd repost it here for anybody interested:

All dapperQs know that female masculinity has its own unique style, swagger and sexual charms. But in a world dominated by polarised gender norms, celebrating dapperQs can seem like a pioneering step into unexplored, new territory. So it came as a surprise to me when I learned that in Japan, women taking masculine roles in musical theater are followed by hordes of screaming fangirls and praised for being the ideal man.

Check out this incredibly colourful video of the Takarazuka musical, Monaco:

In Japan’s conservative society, the Takarazuka theatre company can seem pretty anomalous. Indeed, Takarazuka, founded in 1910 by a right-wing businessman, shouldn’t be misunderstood as a miraculously progressive institution; the plays all revolve around heteronormative romances, and reinforce established gender roles in which men act and women watch. However, it proposes an interesting female heterosexual fantasy of the ideal man that is considered only possible when the man is female-bodied.

As a British woman watching videos of Takarazuka plays on my laptop in London, I find myself gazing in adoration and infatuation for these drop-dead-gorgeous women in elaborate menswear, sauntering around on the stage. They sing and dance with a suggestive confidence, occasionally glancing at the audience or the camera as if to say, ‘we all know that I’m your hottest fantasy’. I’m privileged to have grown up in a society where lesbianism is acknowledged, even if it’s not often treated as equally beautiful and romantic as heterosexuality. Perhaps for me, these glamorous, musical romances between two female-bodied people have a slightly different meaning than for audiences in Japan.

Women who act as men, otokoyaku, are described by their fans as beautiful, kind and sensitive. There is a perception among Takarazuka fans that otokoyaku lack the dirt, roughness and dominating attitude of men in real life.

The romantic possibilities portrayed by Takarazuka theatre don’t push the boundaries of conservative, heterosexist society. However, the plays do portray a fantasy partner embodied by the female sex presenting as male. Takarazuka is always framed as an exotic fantasy set in far-off lands and far-gone times. But it’s the reality of the female sex of the actresses that is essential for the unique charm of the male characters portrayed. One fan, interviewed by Professor Lorie Brau, compared two performances of the medieval Japanese epic, the Tale of Genji:

"I had seen the Tale of Genji before, at kabuki [all male, traditional theatre]. When Genji is performed with male actors, there’s something dirty about the man who plays Genji – he doesn’t fit my image of Genji. When I saw Takarazuka’s Genji, I was really moved. I thought, “Yes, this is it!” Genji and Tō no Chūjō [... ] were really handsome young courtiers. A man that handsome and wonderful doesn’t exist in real life; Takarazuka is, after all, a fabrication. But as long as I’m watching this theatre of make-believe, I can forget reality. I can dream."

This belief that the ‘gentleness’ of the male characters and the masculinity of the female actresses are just fantasies, fabricated for entertainment, seems to support the enduring existence of binary gender norms in real life. Takarazuka theatre exists in a confined, liminal space, where new gender possibilities live out a seductively beautiful existence. Like DapperQs, Takarazuka actresses are not simply trying to imitate men. They occupy a separate space on the gender spectrum, with its own beauty and its own sense of cool.

The difference is that DapperQs aren’t just fantasy figures. DapperQs are very real, and this is what makes being dapper such a powerful stance. It takes courage to occupy this subversive space as an expression of who you really are.
To express yourself in a way that privileges your own identity over binary gender norms, is to take a subversive step beyond the Takarazuka fantasy into reality. It is to embody broader possibilities for gender expression in the real world. Still, I find joy and excitement in watching the Takarazuka with a reading that speaks to me, as a glamorous celebration of women who have the confidence to be dapper

Friday, 15 April 2011


I came across this picture of two very mysterious-looking archaeologists in an article about marble being historically viewed as a form of water. Isn't it nice?

Thursday, 24 March 2011

What is an image board? Reflections on Image Threads

I've just taken down the Image Threads installation that I described in my last post. It wasn't a fabulous success, but it was enough to give me some reflections on two issues:
1) Why interactive installations are difficult to set up
2) What is an image board

I'll start on an up-note. While the contributions to the installation were very limited in number, those that did come up towards the end of the installation period were quite interesting in terms of how people made use of the medium. While the system was designed to replicate the topic-threads of web-based image boards, the realisation of the system in a three-dimensional environment led to three-dimensional, cross-thread references. In addition, the flexibility of the materially realised medium, the postcard, allowed people to make additions to other peoples' comments on the same card. This led to a small but recognisable 'trending topic' about squirrels and other small creatures becoming visible at two different trajectories - across different parts of the installation and within a single card.

The limitation on the number of posts to the irl image board was caused by two main factors. Firstly, the timing and placement of the installation to coincide with my MA course's work in progress seminars was ineffective. I had hoped that with over thirty people in the same building for three consecutive days, the installation would get a lot of traffic. However, the schedule for the days was very intensive, with only short breaks during which it was hard for people to relax and take their minds off the content of the seminars. Activity did rise in the last 24 hours of the installation, but this was really too late for any significant dialogue between cards to flourish.

Secondly, the balloon-mounted structure of the installation turned out to be unsuitable. While I had hoped that the balloons would sink a little when loaded with cards, making popular threads more noticeable, they inevitably sank so much that the cards lay flat on the floor or on the table, making the thread appear closed and inactive. This happened regardless of the amount of balloons used to hold one thread, especially after a couple of hours had passed and the helium started to seep out of them, reducing their buoyancy at an alarming rate. It's interesting here to observe the amount of social agency possessed by the balloons, as they effectively silenced the human actors in the installation.

However, the response of users to the failure of the balloons taught me a lot about the nature of the thing I was simulating. While on the first day, when there was very little activity, the sinking of the balloons discouraged people who might have posted something, on the second and third days, as activity increased, people responded inventively to the problem, essentially restructuring the threads around the nearby furniture to keep them alive. Since this furniture just happened to be a computer, the installation seemed to absorb meaning from its surroundings as it was restructured by the users.

For me, this foregrounded the fact that an image board owes very little to its fundamental structure and a huge amount to its users. Even when the structure fails, if the users have enough motivation they will assert their own agency over the structure to make it work. This interpretation illuminates a very important aspect of the history of 2channel (2ch), futaba channel (2chan) and 4chan. All three of these platforms owe their success to people manipulating existing structures for their own ends, be it the ascii art of the text-based 2channel, the set-up of, and migration to, futaba when 2channel was in danger of being shut down, or the impressive ability of the 4chan community to organise powerful, coordinated actions on a mass scale when the hive mind sets upon a target. While Image Threads was a small project with a low level of response, it has succeeded in highlighting the problematic nature of technologically determinist accounts of the development of internet cultures.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Image Threads: an installation proposal

‘There are very few places, now, where you can go and not have identity, to be completely anonymous and say whatever you’d like. And saying whatever you like, I think, is powerful’ - moot, founder of 4chan

This installation will explore how the tactile aspects of our interface with communication devices affect the content of discourse and inscribe particular modes of self-presentation, by recreating in material form the digital communications structure of the image board. Visitors will be invited to contribute to anonymous discussions by writing messages on the backs of postcards and attaching them to message threads hanging from helium balloons. This combination of graphical and written communication in the hands of anonymous contributors will simulate online ‘image boards’ such as those hosted on the infamous 4chan.

Receiving as much web traffic as the New York Times or the Washington Post, 4chan is home to an enormously influential online subculture. Any regular user of the internet has participated in modes of discourse and expression that originate on 4chan’s imageboards. It has a reputation for depravity; much of its discourse is explicitly sexual or otherwise offensive. However, it is also the source of the most well-known memes of internet culture, and its hive mind of anonymous contributors has powered some of the most high- profile collective actions in the history of the internet. The image board is an important site of contemporary cultural production that should be explored by anybody interested in identity and discourse in the internet age. In this installation, the plan is not to deliberately include offensive content, but to see how the same communication platform in materialised form changes the nature of the content contributed by users - presumably people won't post offensive material, and I'm interested in what they will post instead.

This installation will be an experiment into how the virtuality of digital media affects self-presentation and the content of discourse. Visitors will be given the opportunity to interact in a tactile way with a communication structure that simulates the virtual communication of an image board. It is a chance to reflect on the effects of anonymity and virtuality on digital communications media, and also to consider materiality and simulation in the unusual case of an installation that represents the virtual.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Monday, 14 February 2011

Panoptic games

***This blog post contains spoilers. Go play Portal and Metal Gear, then come back and read this.***

I have some recollection of first playing the Sims, and assuming that controlling the lives of tiny little people who I created would be like playing god. But it never felt like playing god. There was no power trip, no sense of responsiblity and no guilty feeling that I had crossed a line that humanity must never cross. It's not that I wasn't immersed in the game or didn't on some level believe that the Sims were real. I did play the game as though there really were tiny little people who just wanted to have their needs met and their goals fulfilled; my rational knowledge that this was all a computer-modeled simulation that could easily be hacked didn't get in the way of my emotional response to the poverty, sickness or loneliness of my Sims. But I didn't feel like their god.

Looking back, I think the reason for this may have been that although I had a panoptic gaze over the Sims, they were not aware of it, and as a result their behaviour was not affected by my gaze. I suspect that if they had looked up at me guiltily after sleeping with their best friend's spouse, I might have felt like their god. They did look up pleadingly at me when their needs were not being met, but they didn't try to bargain with me as they would if they were more aware of my presence. If they had promised some sacred offering that would please their maker (say, the construction of a beautiful garden or the enactment of a ritual orgy) in return for my favour, I might have felt more like a god.

Portal is an obvious example of a panoptic game - you're surrounded by cameras, and the viewer periodically chides you if you misbehave, to remind you that you are being watched. But in this case, the panopticon fails. Maybe it's because you don't want to die, maybe it's because you know that you can disobey, or maybe it's because you have seen glimpses of a world in-game beyond Glados' gaze, but in the end you do disobey and you do wreak havoc. The failure of the panopticon is written in the game's narrative, but I'm still left with the niggling question - what if Glados had understood human behaviour just a little better? What if she had managed to get the world outside of the shiny, white testing areas closed off completely so that you knew you were always in range of her watchful eyes no matter where you went? What if she had offered some reward better than cake? Would you have disobeyed her then? Is it possible to re-write Portal so that the player feels obliged to jump in the fire pit?

It is possible for a panoptic game to exist? Can a game control your behaviour by making you feel that you are under surveillance? Perhaps all games do, without necessarily having the sign of surveillance built into the game world. You know that the game itself is assessing your actions and giving you points accordingly - it's surveying you so that it can reward good behaviour, rather than punish the bad. Games are hard-wired with a protestant work-ethic - the knowledge that your virtuous hard work in the game will be rewarded drives you to spend hours on end on even dull, menial tasks like levelling up. You pursue side-quests that could take hours of your time, just for the fanfare and pat on the head that the almighty algorithm will give you. The 'camera shy' challenge in Portal is an ironic case in point. You spend time and effort seeking out and destroying the sign of surveillance for the reward of your real panoptic observer, the game itself.

An awareness of the power balance of seeing and being seen is key to the Metal Gear series. Your first concern is not being spotted by the guards. If one guard sees you, you are seen by all, thanks to their radio communication, so if you do enter a confrontation you usually try to break their communication device to disrupt the network of connections that comprises the panoptic gaze. After that, you're trying not to be seen on camera, either by avoiding their visual range or by shooting them. So in general, you either avoid the gaze or you attempt to disrupt it. However, this is only the sign of surveillance - the real panoptic gaze is from your commander, who sees everything you do, reads signals from your body that even you are not aware of, and yells at you if you fail, as if dying weren't punishment enough. Snake is always, at the end of the day, a soldier, a pawn and prisoner of an all-powerful governing system that he can never observe in its entirety. Of course, in terms of the storyline, the gaze of his commander is a minor expression of control compared to the fact that the government gave him life, made him who he is and then tried to kill him. But in terms of the gameplay experience itself, the gaze of the government is ultimately more real than the events that occur in the game, because the gaze is the game. Metal Gear Solid 2 was a thrilling shock to the system as I was reminded that the game is in fact gaming me, and I'm just trying to play within its confines to see what I can make of it.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Constructing the self

I'm reading Judith Butler on how the self is constructed out of normative gender. It reminds me of a Channel 4 TV series for older teens that I saw when I was a younger teen - I don't remember the name of the series or any details like character names, all I remember is this one scene. Nevertheless, I appreciate this scene as an example of our intuitive understanding that gender categories are closely tied up with the stability of the self. The scene somehow makes more sense because of the portrayal of the character as outside of hegemonic norms of embodied gender presentation.

The protagonist is an enigmatic, dark, 'alternative' and tomboy from that lovely time when the hottest alternative fashion was baggy clothes, chunky criminal damage jeans and dirty blonde dreadlocks. She's had a massive row with her long-term boyfriend and is now alone in her tiny flat, distraught, on the verge of doing something really stupid. Behind a cupboard door is a huge collection of minidisk recordings of her psychotherapy sessions. She picks out disks at random and listens back over hours and hours of conversations about her subconscious, her childhood, how she relates to others... and then she finds that one is missing. She realises that her boyfriend must have been listening to them, eavesdropping on her most intimate conversations. He was just feeling shut out and wanted to take part in her emotional life.

I love this scene as an illustration of the problem of making sense of the self as both the agent and object of enquiry - her self-discovery and self-control are mediated by her therapist and her boyfriend, each with differing effects. Here the construction of the self - or maybe a reconstruction or a re-envisioning of an already constructed selfhood - is carried out by a process of documentation and the compilation of an archive. The minidisc collection sprawls out over a huge amount of wallspace. It is colossal, too immense to be taken in all at once, but through the process of archiving an attempt has been made to tame and control it. The invasion of the romantic other has interrupted the archive, upseting the whole construct.

However, is this scene's value as an example limited by the fact that I have no idea what the context is? I cannot give the TV series a name, or the character. Nobody can go and view this scene and give their own reading of it, except by re-interpreting my own description of the scene filtered by my own memory of something I saw over ten years ago. The specific self being discussed here is not a real human being or even a complete fictional character, but an incomplete fragment of a self, remembered and reconceived by my mind in pursuit of my own subjective interest in the questions of selfhood and gender.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Agency and Intelligence in computer games

This man is stupid but free

I just wrote this in my essay for this term:

Implicit in the prevalent labelling of computer games as interactive media is the idea that the players* have agency, because through their interaction they are able to influence the content of the media that they consume. However, the Final Fantasy series, in spite of its huge popularity, is often criticised for not being genuinely interactive. Final Fantasy games are usually linear in structure, with only one possible plotline, only one legitimate course of action, and often only one effective tactic in any given battle. The game will not progress without the action of the players, but the players' actions are dictated by the rules of the game - the players have no real choices to make and therefore have no real influence on the content of their gaming experience.

The personalities and behaviour of the playable characters are never significantly altered by the decisions of the players. While the players can sometimes choose during dialogue scenes what the playable character should say next, the core content of the conversation never changes, and the plot continues unaffected by the decision the player made. The appearance of the playable characters is also not under the players' control, except for carried weapons. For this reason, playable characters in the Final Fantasy series cannot be construed as avatars of the players. However, without the intervention of the players, characters will not progress in the game. Furthermore, characters will not become stronger unless the players choose to spend time levelling up by fighting small-scale battles over and over again for prolonged periods of time, as well as acquiring and equipping the best weapons and armour.

Due to the lack of agency on the part of the players, the relationship between the players and the characters cannot be described as simply, `the players control the characters'. At best, the relationship is one of guidance. In some ways this resembles the concept of shido (guidance) in Japanese education; children are seen as dependent on teachers for their own progress towards self-reliance. Teachers earn the respect of children by working together with them, so their authority exists with the consent of children in an essentially egalitarian relationship. Japanese educators such as Arai Ikuo and the Japan Teachers' Union have often argued that that it is only due to the equality of this relationship that they are able to enable the growth of independence in their students. Similarly, the content of Final Fantasy games focuses on the concerns and progress of the playable characters, and the narrative often possesses strong themes of personal growth and life's journey. The role of the players is to enable the playable characters to progress on their journey.

This woman is intelligent but not free

One thing I probably won't do in my essay is compare Final Fantasy games with Dwarf Fortress. I'll do that here instead. Dwarf Fortress players have much more agency. They have control over the direction and strategy of the game, down to small details such as which stone to use to build this square of tiled floor, all the way up to 'what am I even doing here anyway?' Dwarves occasionally act out, reminding you of their agency by, for example, entering a fey mood and occupying a workshop for weeks on end. They also have a 'private life,' that is not under your jurisdicion - you can't tell them what to eat or who to fall in love with. If they become unhappy they won't do your bidding with as much relish, and they may slack off altogether, but that almost never happens. Most of the time, their significant actions in the game are under your control. You're irrefutably in charge.

Although Final Fantasy characters have more agency than Dwarf Fortress characters, they have much less intelligence. Final Fantasy characters are programmed to tread one pre-determined path and follow one set of actions throughout the game. Dwarf Fortress characters have their own thoughts and feelings, and form their own decisions in response to ever-changing situations and opportunities.

At this point I crash into a problem of definitions - I'm thinking of agency in Gell's sense that objects have agency because they have influence in the world of human experience, but usually agency has been construed in opposition to structure. Final Fantasy characters' lack of intelligence by implication limits their agency because they don't make real decisions - they blindly follow the predetermined plot. But if Tidus and I are two agents struggling to work together at making the FFX storyline move forward, Tidus has more agency than I do because I have to act through him but I don't get to choose how he acts. Which is part of the reason why he is so bloody annoying. My dwarves cannot help but do what they're told, so long as their surroundings provide sufficient happy thoughts.

Dwarves are basically slaves. I've felt uncomfortable about this for as long as I've been playing. I'm forcing intelligent actors to give up their agency to me in exchange for food, shelter, security and small luxuries like a fine bed. Final Fantasy characters are stupid people who cannot think for themselves but are 'free' in the sense that my gameplay exists solely to enable them to pursue their single-minded goals.

*Note: I put players in the plural to acknowledge that 'single-player' games are often experienced and played by two or more people - one holding the controller, others watching the game.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Representation is chunky and clunky

I've been thinking lately about simulation and representation and stuff in all sorts of ways. One thing that has struck me is the way that science fiction shows used to make the surface appearance of future technologies extra clunky, chunky and cumbersome in order to make them look at once more familiar to the viewer and at the same time more technical and unfriendly. A complex surface appearance is a placeholding sign for the imagined internal physical contents of fictional technological objects. By making an object look easier to deconstruct with a screwdriver, attention is drawn away from the fact that if you were to take these objects apart you'd find nothing inside. It's funny now to watch Star Trek because the laptop computers and datapads they use are far bulkier and fussier in appearance than the ones we use today, but I don't think this is just an act of foolishness and shortsightedness on the part of the set designers. The process of miniaturisation in consumer electronics was already well underway when Captain Janeway first sat in front of her huge, plastic machine with a cup of black coffee... did I remember rightly that she claims that replicated coffee doesn't taste as good? That's a whole other blog entry right there... the replicators on the set of Voyager are also hilariously overburdened with buttons for something that operates via voice recognition, and even voice recognition is too cumbersome a way for a machine to interface with a decision that is governed to a greater or lesser extent by personal habits and nutritional chemistry (at this point I realise that my science speak is terrible :,( ). I think all this buttoning-up of appliances is a deliberate attempt at representation. Even though the claimed referent doesn't exist yet, what was really being represented is present-day technology, which at the time was bulky and button-laden.

In 2009, the year of the iPhone 3G, along came the dollhouse chair, with its smooth, modernist stylings and relative scarcity of buttons. The dollhouse chair has its own canonical design story. Originally many wires and sticky pads were needed to connect it to an active - still used when the technician wants to demonstrate their domination and psychological invasion by means of the sign of physical invasion. But then Topher Brink, the awkward yet somehow enigmatic user-friendly science guy (swoon) comes along and declares that all these wires are unnecessary and can be replaced by some sort of ultraviolet light or something. I dunno, I wasn't paying attention to the science speak. As technology gets more miniaturised and individual appliances take on more functions, their designs become less intrusive. In consumer electronics these designs are deliberately multivalent, best expressed in the iPhone, which doesn't look like anything in particular because it can do almost anything at all. In science fiction, rather than having multiple purposes, clean, designed objects have one purpose that is only embodied for the duration of the relevant activity. Following this, the purpose fades away, leaving an empty space with no particular use inscribed onto it. What better example than the dollhouse chair, which routinely fills people with purpose and then empties them again, telling them simply to 'be their best.' Now here I am in 2011, trying to be my best in a polysemic, multivalent environment where I can no longer just push the right buttons and get moving towards my 'home,' like Janeway. At least the coffee is good.

Desktop wallpaper 22.1.11

Here's another desktop wallpaper. This one's made of fabric from the V&A collection. Enjoy!

Monday, 10 January 2011

Pretty Wallpaper

My usual sources for beautiful desktop wallpapers aren't serving me well at the moment, so I'm doing my own thing for a while and I thought I might as well share. This wallpaper is made up of silk ribbon images (mentioned on Black*Eiffel) and a Pema Chödron quote. More as and when!

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Dissecting Love Actually

Dissecting Love Actually

My boyfriend finally agreed to watch Love Actually with me last night. It's one of my favourite films, it always makes me cry several times, and I was looking forward to initiating him into the wonderful world of crying at films. Unfortunately he found it profoundly morally and intellectually offensive, primarily for its unswerving loyalty to the Rapunzel myth of females as beautiful yet inactive beings with no moral obligations or individual agency, and men as only worthy so long as they work their asses off and suffer deep emotional pain for the sake of these dainty, near-magical beings. Worst of all, the film is far more interested in infatuation (and sex) than in loving relationships. So here's a breakdown of what was wrong with every sub-plot of Love Actually and how the stories should have gone. Look here to jog your memory of the original storylines.

Juliet, Peter and Mark
It's the classic moral infraction - you've fallen in love with your best mate's girl. Worse still, you're the best man at their wedding. So what else is there to do but provide a surprise brass band just to make the lady smile? Well, you could videotape her dashing grin so that you can enjoy it over and over again in the privacy of your own trendy art studio (not voyeuristic or erotic at all of course).

I want to see the story told from Juliet's point of view. If I'm her, and I'm watching the beautiful, flattering and ever so slightly invasive video that he's made of me, and he's stood charmingly silent and honorable, ashamed for being a bad friend but unrepentant of his love infatuation for me, I'm going to wonder, maybe only for a minute, maybe for the rest of my life... did I marry the right man? Mark had the imagination and initiative to hire out a brass band, for no other reason than to make me happy, 'with no hope or agenda', while all my husband Peter ever does is stand around looking goofy but smug. In fact, not only is Mark clever, moral and unabashedly loving, he's depicted in the film as positively saintly. Strictly observing the self-denying protestant morality this country thrives on, Mark stoically bears all the pain of ill-fated infatuation without a peep for his own needs - his heart may be 'wasted' for loving her for eternity, but his soul is exalted, as indicated by the angelic chorus of 'silent night' that he plays to conceal his guilty secret from her husband.

Juliet is nothing in this story but an object of affection. Her lack of agency is so profound that she is granted the license to kiss him with no guilt or repercussions - it's merely the natural, programmed response to an admission of affection, not the willful act of a self-aware human being wavering from a life-long contract she has only recently signed. If this film had any justice or conscience, Juliet would have recognised the saint-like perfection of the man pouring out his heart to her, ended her marriage while it was still young, and spent the rest of her life with the better man. Instead she stays with her husband, not out of marital fidelity but because if Mark got the girl, where would be the noble self-sacrifice?

John and Judy
Two people spend an inordinate amount of time naked, pretending to have sex with each other, and eventually the man works up the courage to ask the woman on a date. She says yes, because women are programmed to say yes to any proposal even if it comes from an awkward, flaccid ginger guy. The story is boring, but I'd like to leave it as it is because it's a) funny and b) ironic that while most romantic films are laced with brief, superfluous sex scenes that add nothing to the plot, this one shows people filming brief, superfluous sex scenes that add nothing to the plot.

Jamie and Aurelia
This story starts with Jamie's brother having sex with his girlfriend. The repercussions of this are never really covered. Rather than confront his brother or his girlfriend directly about their atrocious behaviour, Jamie retreats to the south of France for a while, and is slightly rude to his family at large on Christmas day. In fact, we never get to know his girlfriend. Presumably she just cheated on him because that's what women do. Being cheated on by a woman is basically as tragic as your house getting flooded - it's just a natural disaster, no use blaming anyone for it. At the end of the story he marries a Portuguese girl he has never held a conversation with. As the audience we're okay with this, because we've already seen her naked and our stupid monkey brains are hard-wired to confuse nudity with intimacy. Aurelia accepts his proposal, presumably because women are hard-wired to accept marriage proposals.

Jamie could have started off strong by punching his brother and kicking his still-naked, cheating girlfriend out of the house. The next day, when he's calmed down, she comes over, begging him to forgive her and take her back. He says he needs time to think about it, and goes on his writer's retreat. While there he has a fabulous time with Aurelia naked in the lake, and immortalises their fling by writing a sexy scene about her in his crime story. Satisfied that his brother has not, in fact, out-manned him, he can happily trot back to London to rekindle his relationship with his girlfriend. Aurelia learns English and comes to find him in London a few months later - they talk over some coffee, the same spark is there, but now they can actually hold a conversation. Jamie learns how much they have in common, how great they could be as a couple, how unlikely she is to sleep with his brother. Following this he can gently break it off with his girlfriend and spend the rest of his life with Aurelia.

Harry, Karen and Mia
Here's a puzzle: how do you cast Alan Rickman in your film without making him a satanic villain figure? Answer: cast him alongside a slutty secretary. For everyone knows, the only thing more ungodly and evil in this world than Alan Rickman is an attractive, single woman. To underscore this point, she wears devil horns at the office Christmas party. The only independent woman in this movie is portrayed as a selfish home-wrecker. Even her name screams, 'Me, me, me... Mia.' As a secretary trying to sleep with the boss, or failing that, wangle free jewellery out of him, she is the only character who is self-consciously seeking money through romance. I say self-consciously, but Aurelia and Natalie both get a rags-to-riches, Cinderella-style boost from their love lives, and Aurelia has very little other information to go on when accepting Jamie's marriage proposal - she's just more poker-faced about her hustling than Mia. Meanwhile, when Karen confronts her husband about his cruel and disloyal distribution of shiny, golden things, she asks him, 'If you were in my situation, would you stay, knowing that things would always be a little bit worse?' The obvious answer is yes. Her choice is between repairing a marriage with injured trust, and becoming a single mother who has to fight in court over every other child support payout. And she does stay with him, but we don't get to find out how they work at their marriage - all we see is her continuing to be passive aggressive and angry with Harry a month down the line. Harry looks sad and maligned, as he has looked all through the film, because he does love Karen, and he values her love for him (ergo, Joni Mitchell CD for Christmas). The only thing Mia could play for was sex and money - Karen's problem is not love, actually, but trust.

In a film with justice, Mia would have overplayed her hand with Harry, who would have ended up feeling angry and manipulated and firing her. In a film with strong female characters, Karen would have responded to seeing Mia dancing with Harry at the Christmas party by stepping over and proposing a threesome, thereby exerting her sexual dominance and her position as the alpha female.

David and Natalie
A newly-elected prime-minister called David - oh, the foreboding - prances around 10 Downing Street and falls in love with the tea lady. This one is only vaguely problematic - the main problem is that, due to the nature of the British media, it's really quite irresponsible not to keep your relationship a secret. If she didn't like one ex-boyfriend calling her chubby, she's not going to respond well to the tabloids. Nevertheless, this is a really nice story because the honorable prime minister chooses to pursue a relationship rather than a fling with the pretty tea lady. Unfortunately, no party would get in if the leader wasn't married. I'd like to see the story reworked with David as the chancellor running for party leadership when the PM declares he's retiring. His ratings are low until his burgeoning relationship with the tea lady is revealed at the nativity play in an adorable and amusing moment that captures the imagination of the party grass roots. Following his rise to power as the prime minister he marries Natalie, who proceeds to tell the seedy journalists that if they don't like her thighs they can all go fuck themselves.

Daniel; Sam and Joanna
Sam's mother has just died, but he insists that the reason he's so depressed and withdrawn is that he's in love with an American girl. Rather than worry about this textbook case of erotic transference, bereaved stepfather Daniel encourages the crush. The main purpose of this story seems to be to underscore the Rapunzel myth in which men work their asses off for women who do nothing all day - an intensive two-week crash course in playing the drums and breaking the law by bypassing airport security in a post 9/11 setting are only examples of the pains men must go to just to see a girl let her hair down. In real life, Sam would have spent at least an hour or two in a police station after Joanna bluntly responded to his surprise arrival with, 'what are you doing here?' In a good story, if Joanna really did like Sam back, she could have bloody well told him this before she left for America, leaving a couple of weeks for them to earn enough money for Sam to get a return ticket to visit her when she moves away, an fun-filled, romantic and action-packed couple of weeks which they spend busking in Covent Garden.

Sarah, Karl and Michael
Two coworkers who have been infatuated with each other for over two years almost have sex but then don't because Sarah has to be with her mentally ill brother. Karl is so swelteringly gorgeous that it would turn anybody's brain into bad Israeli halloumi. Sarah, another self-sacrificing saint, is briefly rewarded for her moral virtue in a tender tryst with the sexiest man in the film, but the moral virtue for which she is rewarded must not be undermined by the reward itself - she can't actually have him because she is angelic and noble and must sacrifice her own happiness for someone else, regardless of whether or not it's the best solution for everyone concerned.

If Karl really is in love with her, there are two obvious answers to their problem. If Sarah's brother really does need her to be available on the phone 24/7, he could grow up and learn to be patient, understanding and supportive. Chances are, the amount of pain it would cause her brother if she didn't always answer the phone is much less than the pain she is causing herself by limiting her own happiness for his sake. Sarah needs Karl to open her eyes and guide her to get some help from the rest of her family. This kind of life-changing help and support is what love actually is, rather than the blind infatuation that led to their first ill-fated tryst.

Guy goes to America and has an orgy with sexy American girls. A fine fantasy that has nothing to do with love and bears no relation to reality. It would have been much more interesting if he suddenly realised that his obsession with having sex with women is nothing more than self-denial - he's actually in love with his best friend.

Billy Mack and Joe
As for the rock star who declares his love for his best friend... rock on. However, it's a shame that Joe doesn't have a mind of his own and never objects to being publicly humiliated by Billy. In the world of Love Actually, he's basically a woman. Given that this is the case, he could at least have made Billy work for his companionship - he could have turned down the beer and porn and demanded jewellery. Or he could have grown a pair and found himself a woman. They're programmed to kiss you if you admit your undying love for them, so it's really not that hard to get one.

This interesting critique covers some of the same points made here and is worth a read :)