Not So Lively?

28 Nov

Promises to get back to blogging are easy to break. I’ve made them before only to find myself staring at months of silence. I’m not about to make another one now. This blog has been a home for many works-in-progress ideas. When I needed an outlet for exploration, this was an ideal forum. I struggled, as we all can, to maintain a steady volume of output. The ebb and flow of posts is essential for long-term readers. As a writer I am learning to be reliable, but it is a long process.

Part of the challenge–which I recently discussed with a colleague or two at the 2014 meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego–is the paralysis that can come when writing a certain kind of blog post. I have preferred to write lengthier posts that do a bit of the initial free-writing on a topic I’d like to explore further (Demons in video games, for instance, or the viral qualities of cult formation seen in Twitch Plays Pokemon). This preference makes it much harder to be satisfied with your posts. When have I had my say on a topic that I’m just beginning to write about? Am I using my blog as an “open research notebook” for myself or should I consider my audience as I write?

For me the paralysis of writing often emerges when I fail to find a suitable way to balance the demands of audience and personal research notes. The first requires clarity and a willingness to explain context while avoiding jargon. The second makes more rapid progress while shutting out potential conversations. Rather than walk the line I have often chosen not to take a first step and my writing suffered.

Being out of the classroom (we knew we were moving mid-semester so I lost quite a bit of time when I could have been teaching) also diminished my desire to write. Speaking with folks on sabbatical reminded me how integral the conversations in the classroom have been to my own writing process. This blog has been most active when I have been working intensely with students who challenge me to present my ideas more succinctly and seek out points of reference for their frame of experience. Having begun teaching again this fall I feel my desire to write has been rejuvenated. I am also brimming with ideas, many of which are spurred by the work my students have done.

If this experiment has not been so lively lately, I am certainly to blame. But I have not been idle and I hope to be able to share the fruits of other orchards with visitors when they arrive. I still hope to transfer my digital life over to my self-hosted site; I still work on the details of my Spiritual Warfare Archive; I am moving forward in the development of multiple writing projects; and I have exciting partnerships with folks elsewhere on the web such as SacredAndSequential.org and SacredMatters. Perhaps I should shed more light on the shadowy development process, but, as many of us feel, it is often easier to *do* the things rather than discuss them. Self-reflection is a skill to be mastered just as much as blogging.

Viral Religion — Twitch Plays Pokemon, part 2

21 Mar

In Neal Stephenson’s famous science fiction novel Snow Crash, religion is presented as a kind of virus capable of rewriting the basic operating system of the human brain. With recent works such as T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, the sense that religion re-writes the mind and its perception of reality has received new legs. (It’s an very old argument that can be seen in the works of Freud, Durkheim, and Marx.) What’s notable about Snow Crash and the point that Luhrmann and others have revived is that religion is a product of intentional effort. We may speak of religious experiences as emerging from places beyond reason, but institutions of religion are conscious creations.  Religion rewires us. When we play at religion we get better at understanding the game we participate in and its rules. We are practicing our practice. That effort makes us adepts, experts, and professionals.

The recent Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP) phenomenon, which I wrote about last week, continues apace. It takes serious effort to follow TPP. It runs 24 hours a day as players around the globe control the game from their home computers. I manage to follow along only by the generous updates offered by community members online. The latest version of the game, Pokemon Crystal, took nearly two full weeks to finish. At every moment fans are creating new interpretations of the game and its awkward, halting game play. Fan art occupies more than half of the popular subreddit for TPP. Participants in TPP exert continuous forward pressure on the TPP mythos. They actively elevate the game play into the religious realm. It is their effort that spurs the complex narratives. And like a virus replicating in a healthy culture–TPP creates its world and in that effort has become more adept at creating that world. Much like the world occupied by the evangelicals Luhrmann describes (or the cult followers of Asherah in Snow Crash), this is an environment that nurtures itself.

It is on this point  of effort and conscious invention that I want to dwell today (as TPP begins its journey on the next game in the series, Pokemon Emerald). First, let me outline a point of pre-existing mythology in Emerald. The world occupied by the protagonist has two major forces vying for control–Aqua and Magma. Team Aqua wants to expand the oceans of the world; Team Magma wants to expand the world’s landmasses. As a creative, productive force, magma is contrasted with the chaos that would emerge with a return to the sea. In the game both sides are ridiculous. They are the kind of bumbling evil that pervades Scooby Doo. As mythical forces, however, they are the division of earth and water. What’s missing is the tempering force of sky. The give and take of water/earth is an endless cycle. It’s a literal eternal battle, too, between two legendary Pokemon. Only a third force can break the stalemate that rocks the world.

As fans of TPP brace themselves for the start of a new adventure, they already know several layers of mythology. Nearly every one of them will have played Emerald themselves. They will be aware of its pre-existing canon. So too are they aware of the canons of the games that precede Emerald’s myths within the Pokemon world (having played both Crystal and Red in TPP already). And yet there are further layers added from the playing of Crystal and Red in the community. The deities and myths that have been elevated in the last month are now givens for the new TPP world.

I think the community is getting much more than they bargained for when they signed on for the first play through. The creative outlet that the game gave to its fans is now a recognized as one of the exercise’s benefits. It is as much an exercise in the formation of mythology as it is a social experiment about the limits of cooperation within a limited digital medium.

Last week my brother asked whether I saw any religious studies potential in the affair. I replied immediately and without hesitation that I did see scholarly promise in TPP. Part of me sees the exercise’s contribution as time compression. Where else can you see the birth and evolution of mythology laid bare before your eyes with such precision? Another part of me recognizes that it is the virality of experiment and its memes that renders it immediately useful for religious studies. So often we lack a good case study to explain the way in which digital religious lives operate today. This is religion online as opposed to digital religion, I know, but I think there is a mix of both here that makes TPP so exciting.

Update:

This post was set to post Friday, but some technological glitch held it up. Since the TPP Emerald game has already begun, let me say a brief word or two about the latest version. Users were initial struggling with the option of choosing a boy or a girl character. With no democracy mode in this play through–full anarchy mode all the time so every command is executed–the first hurdle appeared when a boy was selected, then a girl, and then a girl again. The failure to sustain the initial choice led the community to speculate on the psychological or even criminal events that might have led to the final selection. The following items, posted on Reddit, highlight these and other developments over the weekend, including the permanent release of the character’s starter Pokemon, the capture of multiple versions of a hyena Pokemon, and the repeated failures to make game progression due to a rock-paper-scissors battle that had the community in perpetual loss.

[All images linked to their original posts on Reddit.]

 

A is for Anarchy

http://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplayspokemon/comments/213btf/torchic_was_a_fitting_choice_for_a/

Definition of Insanity?

 

Only Doge?

 

After the community released Torchic, the Pokemon they started the game with, there was quite a lot of mourning. This comic, for instance, summarizes the complex emotions some of the community was feeling.

Farewell Torchic

 

And then folks started arguing that another pokemon, which evolves like a cicada and leaves a ghostly pokemon shell behind, was really hosting the lost Torchic’s spirit or soul. You can read more about that in this post which references the manga Fullmetal Alchemist.

The sense of loss and anxiety is palpable, while the number of posts emphasizing a community in decline suggests the initial period of euphoria of the new adventure is wearing off and moving on to other darker emotions. Needless to say, it’s a wild time over at TPP Emerald.

 

 

All Hail Helix! Religion in Twitch Plays Pokémon, part 1

10 Mar

Recently, a social experiment in the form of a community effort to play a video game became the platform for the swift birth of a viral religious mythology. The details are complex, so let me take a few moments to get you up to speed on the details you need to know.

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Fan Art depicting the religious aspects of Twitch Plays Pokemon

1. Twitch.

  • Twitch is an online streaming site where the content is video games. (The content is called a “stream” and the content creators are known as “streamers” because they are live-streaming their gaming content.)
  • Just as folks recently enjoyed watching full coverage of their favorite Olympic events, Twitch offers full access to gamers who are sharing their experiences playing games. Popular games such as DOTA2, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo 3 have all been featured by major Twitch streamers. Monetization for the site and its content producers occurs through the display of advertisements and monthly optional subscription fees. Just as more YouTube videos are watched every day than all of cable and public access television, at some point in the future, it’s likely that the streaming experience will become another major form of content for media consumers. For serious (and even casual) gamers, Twitch is a normal part of today’s gaming experience.
  • The best way to understand Twitch is to simply head to their site, pick a stream, and watch for a few minutes. I recommend whatever the stream is with the most views at the time when you open the site. Right now that’s 50,000 folks watching a professional competitive League of Legends player practice.
  • Alongside the main window of Twitch’s content stream (where the game play is broadcast) there is a continuously scrolling bar of viewer conversation. These are often moderated (to prevent spam), but any Twitch user can post comments, questions, or whatever occurs to them to share with everyone else watching the stream. This chat window can be hard to follow because it posts continuously. With 10,000 or more viewers, stream chat windows can get nearly impossible to read as you might read any other kind of text. While some instinct in me says “don’t bother,” other instincts in me say to find a smaller stream to see the value of the text chat for devoted fan interaction with streamers.

2. Pokémon

  • In 1996 Nintendo released a game for its handheld Gameboy console titled Pokémon. Players became trainers of animal creatures called pokémon. Over a series of nearly a dozen iterations of the game, players rehashed the game’s simple mechanics– capture pokémon, train them to become more powerful, and defeat all other pokémon trainers to become champion of a competitive battle league. The game stands as one of the most enduring contributions Nintendo made to popular culture. The franchise’s slogan “Gotta Catch ‘em All” belied their intelligent marketing to young consumers. The video game birthed action figures, printed manga, multiple animated television series, several generations of collectible card games, and more merchandise than you could really even fathom. No, seriously, take whatever amount of merchandise you think would be utterly ridiculous and absurd and multiply it by 50 or a 100. You still wouldn’t be there yet. (The only game franchise more lucrative and loved by gamers around the world is Mario Brothers.)
  • Within the mythology of the Pokémon world, one of the early games required players to choose between a pair of end-game pokémon creatures. The Dome and Helix fossils were mysterious pokémon believed to be extinct. During game play, players resurrected one of the two fossils, and could, if they so desired, add the pokémon to their collection.

Now you have all the pieces you need to appreciate the way in which things have all come together in Twitch Plays Pokémon (hereafter TPP). Let’s get started.

A few weeks ago, a “social experiment” began on Twitch that allowed the community to play through a game of Pokémon Red together. By entering commands into the live-stream chat window, players would be controlling the actions of the character in the Pokémon game. It was a complicated system featuring options for more or less chaos in the way the community controlled the game. In “anarchy mode,” commands inputted to the chat were executed by the game in the order they were received. As you might expect, this meant a huge volume of wasted commands. The character in the game spun in circles, opened and closed menus, dropped important items on the ground, released pokémon that it had caught, and so on.

In “democracy mode,” commands were executed with slightly more control. Each command went up for a community vote, and after a short time the command with the highest vote was executed. This meant a deliberate effort on the community’s part could result in significant game progress. (Anarchy mode, while chaotic, also made game progress, although this progress may have been due to collections of Twitch accounts controlled by a single user and programmed to rapidly enter a series of commands. This kind of botting appears to have been involved in the game, but I’m not sure how reliable any of the information on this is or what its effects might have been.)

During the first TPP run-through of Pokémon Red, players began to speculate about the motivations of the game character for constantly entering the game menus. Consider this for a second. The way in which the community’s control of the game affected game play became an object of speculation for the community about why the in-game character would do such things. Why, they wondered, was the character always looking in the menus of the game? What did it mean?

The “let’s go along with it” attitude is not especially odd for the group of gamers playing this game. Pokémon is at its core a role-playing game. Community participants in TPP were simply being good role-players by asking what the game was doing when its play seemed not to fit the established roles. (I’m trying so very hard to avoid using theory here, but obviously Geertz, Bordieu, Smith, Bell, Douglas, and others would have extreme relevance on this point.) They filled this gap–consciously, deliberately, and knowingly–with religious and mythological content.

Toward the end of the game, after players had collected a Helix fossil, selecting the fossil in the inventory resulted in an error message that informed players they couldn’t yet use the fossil. In an effort to explain why the in-game character was consulting the fossil so often, players began to claim that Helix was a kind of deity to whom the character was turning. When the community finally turned the Helix fossil into a pokémon, all hell broke loose.

Image

Evangelicals for Helix?

Community members that supported the choice rejoiced and proclaimed that the character’s most powerful pokémon was in fact the champion or protector of the deity. This spawned the instant meme of “Bird Jesus” because the strongest and first pokémon on the community’s team was a bird. That spawned images like this:

Image

Lord Helix’s protector, Bird Jesus.

Community members that rejected the choice argued that the un-chosen fossil was the real deity. A religious schism expressed the community’s lack of explanation for their collective game play. It was the backstory that game randomness meaning. And because they saw it this way, the deity Helix became an incarnation of the value of chaos.

(Sidenote: In the second play-through the TPP community appears to be working out a solution to Chaos’ reign that may result in a battle between order and chaos. This is being actively supported by the TPP leaders through their “hacked” version of the game. They seem to be saying they’ll rig the final battle in the second game to be against the team from the first play through. I’ll update this when I know more.)

If you’ve come this far, you might be ready now to appreciate the kind of madness (in a good way) that this has spawned. Pokémon fans are nothing if not utterly devoted to their game. Their nostalgia and sense of play (in terms of role-playing) has created a serious virality of religious innovation that acknowledges pre-existing in-game content and real-life religious influences. Not only are their products syncretic–combining both real world elements and pre-existing franchise approved mythology–but they also have explanatory power over the community’s experience of the chaotic play-through. These are smart readers of culture and religion and they’re using that skill to create mash-ups that are just astonishingly inventive.

Take this Reddit post by user aseanman27 as your gold standard. In it you’ll find an utterly fascinating image that details all of the steps and missteps of the emergence of TPP mythology. The image is enormous or I’d include it here, but stop reading right now and open the image. Really.

Should it all make sense to you? Absolutely not. If it does, I can guarantee you were about 10 or 12 when pokémon came out and that you had access to a Game Boy Advanced or Game Boy Color. I’m actually working myself to get far enough into the game itself that I understand all the elements that make up this chart. I’ve got about 6 hours of gameplay on a iOS Game Boy Advanced emulator version of Pokémon Emerald that I understand far better the kinds of things happening on the stream than I did previously. Should you do that? Probably not. But I will be posting a series of explorations of the TPP mythology that delve a bit further into the convoluted fray. After all, upon completing Pokémon Red, the folks behind TPP jumped right back in again began another play-through of Pokémon Crystal. The mythology continues apace right this second.

It’s not often we get to see even a pseudo-religious mythology arise. To see it happen over the course of the last few weeks has been astounding. If it has been too far out of your comfort zone to register, I hope I can help. Feel free to comment below on whether you’ve been watching, what you’ve seen, or to ask any questions that have occurred to you about this phenomenon.

Just to stimulate that appetite a bit more, here are a few more viral image compilations:

For more on TPP, I suggest

But above all visit,

Image

Death & Dying in Banished

7 Mar

In the year 20, the village of Tinsel had a famine. Robust supplies of onions, potatoes, and berries dwindled to nothing. Hunger spread and in just a season or two, dozens of villagers perished from starvation. The impact was immediate–overall health improved among survivors while happiness plummeted. Then a labor crisis emerged as the villagers could no longer sustain themselves. Tinsel was soon abandoned as everyone perished. Welcome to Banished.

Banished is a city simulation game that has taken the Steam gaming community by force. At $20 the game’s offers fans the kind of steep but rewarding challenge that recent a-list $60 titles such as SimCity failed to deliver upon. As NPR reporter Steve Mullis said, “Banished is like SimCity Without the City (but with Cholera).” Begin your village with a handful of people desperate for housing. Start a new game when your city has perished from fire, disease, labor crises, starvation, or simple mismanagement. In one game my blacksmith died and I failed to replace him quickly enough. Cue a tool shortage. Production plummeted; villagers died.

As a gamer, I must confess that Banished is both ridiculously enjoyable and terrifically frustrating. Even when your towns do succeed, there is a lack of end-game content to find new funny ways for them to fail. You can upgrade your houses from wood to stone, collect all the different produce seeds by trading, or push your population from 10 to over 1,000. These goals may take you dozens of hours, but at some point you’ll find yourself weary of your town and ready to begin again.

As a scholar, I also think that Banishes is ridiculously enjoyable and terrifically frustrating. Religion plays two roles in Banished. First, the presence of a church creates a congregation whose formation increases the happiness and therefore the efficiency of your workers. Assigning the church a priest directly equates religious observance with the kind of obedience whose purpose is social control. The church’s function is to manage sloppy, lazy peasants just enough so that they’re sloppy, productive peasants. It’s a minor but crucial shift for your game play, but it says little about the value of religion for the lives of Banished npcs.

The second way that religion operates in the game is by placing graveyards as a stop-gap for the happiness drop that can occur when village elders die of old age. A successful town has a mixture of younger and older villagers. Be successful enough and some of your town’s members may just live to be 80 or more and die of natural causes. (Oh to be so lucky as to avoid disease, falling trees, falling rocks, the dangers of childbirth, or any of a dozen other ways to perish!)

Graveyards provide comfort and solace to grieving villagers. This increases the stability of their happiness, which again helps preserve production and render your population more efficient. But are they necessary?

No. Both graveyards and churches are ultimately only equal to the effectiveness of the brew of the gods. A brewery–distilling fruit or wheat into alcohol–actually provides several functional advantages to both churches and graveyards. Game-play-wise graveyards are semi-permanent structures. They increase productivity and require no specific laborers to operate, but the land they sit upon has now become useless to increase your population, food supplies, or anything else. The AI mechanics of npc character does direct villagers to visit and congregation in graveyards, particularly upon the passing of an elder, but otherwise the land is pretty useless. Churches are similar. They boost production, do require a worker, and don’t offer much other benefit.

Brewers, on the other hand, are a way of consuming surplus food stocks and turning them into a tidy profit. The game’s trading mechanic over-values alcohol as a trade commodity. Not only will it make your own population happy (a happiness at least equal to churches or graveyards) but you can trade alcohol for warm coats, new crop seeds, tools, or even food. The graveyard is only a reasonable choice if you haven’t got extra convertible food, and there’s literally no reason to use a church.

Game designers–and Banished is made by just one really devoted guy–often use religion as a means to preserve order, maintain productivity, or otherwise offer stability to city simulators. As I noted about Civilization 5, religion often emerges as an abstraction to cover game mechanics. Even when it does appear, the religious content itself is often abstracted.

In Banished, religion is assumed to be Christianity–and with churches operated by priests that’s a safe bet–but there is also an underlying philosophy of death and dying that suggests the inextricable link between cultural memory of death and community health. Graveyards work because they offer relief for the grief that a villager’s passing causes. The vacuum of labor a death causes in a small community could become a morass, but Banished argues that the grief can be offset by giving dying structure. Graveyard are stabilizers just as churches are. And yet if one turns to drink they may escape this cycle entirely.

Death is inevitable and swift in Banished

Death is inevitable and swift in Banished

Reddit user HolyNoob’s Banished Village collapses

It’s always frustrating when video games get a hard wrap for being juvenile. After all, adults make them and adults play them. There’s obviously a set of rewards to their creation and operation that exceed their form (just as for comic books.) At a party recently my spouse joked that I sit around playing video games. She was sincerely frivolous in her comment, but the other person quickly agreed that video games were so much nonsense. I steered the conversation elsewhere. I do play games, but more often I work on one computer while listening to video game let’s plays in the background on another computer. Why? I simply don’t have the time, money, or expertise to play every game that hits the market. I do recognize, however, that nearly all gaming content engages the basic cultural values in which it was produced. Some do so explicitly (Assassin’s Creed, for instance), while others offer a commentary or critique on our own labor practices. Do you play Candy Crush all day? What kind of emotional rewards does that provide? Is there a way in which the addiction to gain another level might be analyzed religiously? Absolutely.

I think what really gets me about Banished is that the basic premise of the game–survive–is essential a religious premise. Like so many survival based city-simulators, the means to get from surviving to thriving inevitably relies upon some measure of culturally significant mechanics such as religion. For gamers these are often disguised as “happiness” or “order.” Games take the qualities that religion possesses and distill them into algorithmic components that can be operational in the gaming world. If that’s a shrine that restores health, that says something about the link the game makers see between religious structures and well-being. Otherwise, game players wouldn’t even think about visiting a shrine to heal. These associations are culturally induced by experience. The game designer of banished presumably knew several things about happiness. In looking for items that could be introduced into the game world, religion offered a concrete evocation of health and stability. Do churches increase happiness? There may be a study to say. Do game makers think churches increase happiness? Seems so. The evidence is right there in Banished that the game play works that way. (And it works similarly in a host of other city-simulator games.)

If you’re intrigued you can follow along with a Let’s Play or lay down $20 on Steam for a chance to find out what really happens when famine becomes a problem in your town. You don’t have to have a graveyard, but maybe it’ll make you and your villages feel better as you all starve to death because you expanded too quickly. Yup. It’s just that kind of world.

Back in the Saddle

5 Mar

A hearty hello to all! Expect regular posts again as I return to blogging form after travel, holidays, family visits, injury, sickness, distraction, non-blog-able work, tutoring, and, yes, a bit of procrastination. Today’s post is a medley of thoughts, mostly inappropriate for a “content” post as I normally offer. Enjoy!

  1. Why 1,000 words?
    • If you’re a member of the American Academy of Religion, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. 1,000 words is four  beefy page-long paragraphs of 250 words. It’s the length of the requested paper proposal summary for the AAR’s annual meeting. I must confess–and I’m taking risks here by saying taboo things–that it stinks. Other conferences, even those that meet concurrently with the AAR like the SBL or ASCH, do not put this undue burden of bloated pre-thinking upon its proposers. Consider this for a second. In March you write 1,000 words about a presentation you will give in November. And yet that November presentation itself will only be slightly longer, maybe 2,000-2,5000 words. What’s the point of only giving us half the space? If we’re just suggesting the idea, wouldn’t a quarter be more reasonable? After all, the abstract gets a beefy 150 words, which is probably 50 more than anyone should get. We don’t gain anything by being encouraged to artificially inflate our ideas. It’s okay to let less be more now, and demand better presentations later through pressure on organizers to get papers 1 month ahead of time to foster revision. Make it a requirement that papers must be submitted to respondents and presiders at least 30 days ahead of the conference. No more talks written on airplanes on the way to the conference. (And yes we all know folks that have openly confessed this academic sin.)
    • Here’s my thought: Banish the 1,000 word paper proposal. Dial it back to a robust 500 words with a 400 word minimum. This guarantees a consist quality of proposals that must all struggle to say things concisely. Precision is not one of my strengths, but my proposals would be better if I were to be forced to say only the most crucial and significant things. This would a) save the committees work, b) save scholars work (since only 20% or even less of all submitted proposals are accepted), and c) increase the quality of all proposals by evening the playing field. A final bonus? The AAR could increase the number of proposals one can submit. If the proposals themselves are half as long it wouldn’t be any extra work. Then reduce the abstracts by 50 words to match. This is the American Historical Association’s model, and I must say that it produces better panels. (They also exclusively accept pre-arranged panels, something I think the AAR should do more of.)
  2. Is “independent scholar” a taboo designation?
    • I graduated in June. I’m self-employed part-time as a private tutor, but I’m also seeking at least a part-time academic appointment. Since I moved right in the middle of the academic year, it’s been challenging to align my schedule with the hiring schedule of departments and schools nearby. At a recent conference I had to repeatedly explain what I meant by “independent scholar” to individuals I met. This is often an opportunity for interesting discussion, but there is a perception (given during conversations with pointed questions about my employment) that somehow I have failed or am a pariah. I don’t want to sound chuffed, but why is it so hard to imagine someone who still conducts research may not have an academic affiliation? In this day and age of the perennially lousy job market, is it any surprise that some folks have to pay the bills in other ways but may still want to do the business that they were trained to do? If teaching and research is a vocation, as so many of us must think to spend so much money overcoming the barriers to entry, then why is it any surprise when we continue to attempt to research and teach without an alabaster academic appointment? The rise of the alt-academic should have quieted these discussions, but that hasn’t happened yet.
  3. There is little that is more rewarding than visible student progress.
    • One of my pupils is making leaps and bounds in his/her reading. Every session I can tell not just that confidence has been restored in the learning process, but that an enthusiasm and eagerness for progress has also emerged. Success has bred a hunger for more success. In the secondary school classroom–especially when teaching humanities subjects such as religious studies–this progress is often disguised. We plant seeds that may take time to grow. If we’re not explicitly out to change the way our students view religion and religious topics, then we can at least expect their analyses and critical examinations to be much improved. Immediate recognition is less common. I’ve been following with glee the student blog posts from Mike Altman’s “American Religion in America” course at Alabama. If you haven’t had time to read them, you’re missing out. This is the kind of a-ha work that religious studies should evoke in our students. Set that goal for yourself and find ways to make it apparent to both you and your students!
  4. Blogging is a process that I’m still learning
    • The guilt that arose when I didn’t post was almost paralyzing. While I was productive in so many other ways, not posting here regularly in the last month or two made me feel less than up-to-snuff. I’ve tried various methods to ensure regular posting before (daily themes, weekly post quotas, binges of post-construction set to more evenly future auto-post). None of them seem to quite work for me. Part of the challenge is that I try to offer serious work in my content posts. That takes time. It’s easy to get on with the work and not take a moment to share it in progress. It’s also a legitimate concern that blogging detracts rather than adds to scholarly output. This post is nearly as long as an AAR proposal and that’s just 1/10 or even less of the way to an article draft. Other times I find that the work I’m doing is hard to share. As I’ve dived into the back-end of the Omeka Spiritual Warfare Archive I’m creating, my ability to easily share what I’m doing (and have it be interesting) appears pretty limited. I’ll see if I can’t think my way past that and get on with the business of writing about religion!

Protected: For Sacred Matters

28 Feb

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It’s a Digital December

9 Dec

The weather outside isn’t so frightful in Southern California as it has been lately elsewhere, but the chill in the air is encouraging me to spend a bit more time at my desk.

In previous posts I discussed the database development I was undertaking to map the network of spiritual warfare literature and spiritual warfare practices. I was never very satisfied with the progress I was making. Discussions with colleagues about Omeka‘s progress as an archival platform convinced me I had too easily dismissed its flexibility and depth.

So I dove in and committed to Omeka as my platform. Rather than host the site at Omeka–which I found unbelievably slow to load–I have installed it on my on web space. You can see the project in its earliest development at dmcconeghy.com/spiritualwarfare/. Dmcconeghy.com will be my future  homepage, but I haven’t yet finished fixing the WordPress installation to be the way I want it to be. When I finally get around to that, then I’ll discontinue this site or use it as a mirror.

I faced an early challenge today when, while installing plugins to expand Omeka’s capabilities, every page turned into a blank white screen. After a few minutes of panic, I found the answer I was looking for on Omeka’s site–one of my plugins was not 2.0 compatible. ItemRelations was the plugin in question. It appeared to be a way to interconnect the items more thoroughly. I’ll have to think about how I want to achieve this without the plugin. Tags are certainly an option, but they don’t seem very flexible. As I try to begin mapping the documents visually, I will find out whether they can be called upon easily.

There’s a lot of legwork in this stage of the project. I’m trying to establish some standards for item entry. I’m learning how Omeka has coded the backend so that I can design pages that do more of what I want them to. I have many documentation items to read about the various plugins I’ve installed and how they work. The data entry is comparatively straightforward. How to then use that data in the way I want to, well that’s not so clear.

As I learned in this year’s THATCampAAR, the vision of your project matters. I have an audience in mind for the early and mid stages of the project–fellow scholars. I’m about to begin recruiting some of them and I hope to convince them of the benefits of participation. In the later stages of the project, I see ways to include a broader audience that includes members who actively practice what I only study academically. The contributor plugin will allow annotations and data-entry about spiritual warfare documents, people, and practices. Eventually, for instance, I hope to be able to invite people to add their church to the list of congregations that have done prayerwalks. Or even more excitingly to add the routes of their prayerwalks on a map.

I have plenty of time to develop this over the next year. If you’re interested at all in the technical or academic side of things, let me know. I’m definitely open to partnerships and collaborators. I have felt odd so far declaring myself the “creator” of this entry or that item, but it is inevitable. There is really no biography of C. Peter Wagner, for instance, apart from the limited offering on Wikipedia. See C. Peter Wagner, which I will compose based on my own primary research and will be fully annotated and referenced. You can tell that the Dublin Core elements of the item entry are currently obscuring a better presentation of the basic details of Wagner’s biography. That’s among the many elements I’ll be fixing as I go along.

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