Panel Report: Korra and Real Life Influences

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!

In our first panel of the day for Saturday, Nathan, Alex and I took the stage to lead a packed room full of Legend of Korra fans (many of them in costume) in discussing the Nickelodeon show’s social implications.

I opened the panel by asking audience members to list some of the differences between Korra and its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. This led into a discussion of how technology and social change were shaping Korra’s world.

We had some ideas coming into the panel about how the Equalist movement does and doesn’t mirror the populist movements of today, like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. We asked the crowd if they thought the Equalists had legitimate complaints – if non-benders really were an oppressed group.

The response couldn’t have been more varied. Some people pointed to the capable non-benders in Last Airbender and suggested that Amon essentially created the inequality as a means to seek power. Others expressed solidarity with the nonviolent civilians of the Equalist movement. When we asked the crowd whether people would join up had they been born a non-bender in Republic City, the hands were about half and half.

Next we talked about the avatar’s actual role in society, and what happens when she enters a more modern system of government that isn’t designed to incorporate a warrior/priest who’s above the law. It’s significant that Korra’s first act on arriving in Republic city is to get herself arrested for property damage.

We spoke about the make-up of Republic City’s council, and whether it was significant that non-benders seemed unrepresented. And we talked about how the “unity” of the four nations was really a result of Fire Nation imperialism, and if we would see more of a cultural affect of that in coming seasons.

The discussion segued from populist movements into technology: Is the new tech in Korra really an equalizer? Again we had a lot of great discussion and voices on both sides of the issue. We compared the industrial tech of Korra to the information age tech of today, in it’s capacity to equalize the common people with the people in power.

We considered what the march of technology would mean for bending into the future – most bending might become obsolete, but metal and lightning bending might become even more powerful.

Someone pointed out how the technology seemed to be used mostly in the military, but someone else jumped in to point out that that’s how it’s often worked in our world too. Military technology matriculates into civilian life.

And finally, we had a discussion about gender and shipping, and whether the focus on relationships undermined Korra’s status as a strong female protagonist. We heard good points from both sides, and we all agreed that this would be one thing we’d be watching closely for in future seasons – a real Korra/Asami relationship above and beyond Mako would be a good step.

All in all, it seems like in our hour together we were able to discuss almost every aspect of The Legend of Korra, and hear from a good chunk of the 100 or so highly intelligent Korra fans who turned up. For those of you who came, thanks for talking to us. I hope the rest of our readers have a chance to join us in the future!

Was there a highlight from the discussion I neglected to mention? Tell me in the comments!

Panel Report: The Sociopath as a Television Trope

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us.

The goal of this panel was to discuss the idea of the sociopath in television. Namely, we attempted to identify characters like Gob Bluth, Sterling Archer, Eric Cartman, and others that share sociopathic traits; why the trope works the way it does; and why it appears so often in television.

To get everyone on the same page, we started with the basic traits of a sociopath: callous lack of concern for the feelings of others, persistent disregard for responsibility or social norms, inability to experience guilt or learn profound lessons, and the tendency to blame others or rationalize when forced to acknowledge one’s own questionable behavior. We noted character comparisons like Eric Cartman versus Michael Scott (for the purpose of this panel, we primarily used the US version, not the British version) to note the difference between characters unconcerned with the feelings of others and characters just a little ignorant of others’ feelings. A true sociopath, many in the audience argued, knows they have these tendencies and doesn’t care.

After defining the sociopath in television, and bearing the disclaimer that no one was trying to diagnose anyone, but just to note similarities, we started to discuss different examples from shows. Audience members brought up shows like Dexter, Arrested Development, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and South Park, among others. The main examples the panelist gave came from Arrested Development, Seinfeld, and Archer.

We talked about all sorts of reasons why the sociopath trope was so common in television, focusing primarily on comedy for time constraints. Within comedy, we found several: the panelists mentioned surreal humor from watching characters who are clearly socially incompetent managing themselves in high-paying positions in social jobs, vicarious living from wanting to break social norms in a society full of norms and networking, and “who you know” scenarios that force us to bond with others. Fans contributed the idea that we also fascinate ourselves with sociopaths that, through their eccentricities, get things done   Dr. House came up here. Other fans noted some shows, like South Park, where we like to see sociopaths eventually get what’s coming to them. 

Then we started to talk about characters like Homer Simpson and U.S. Michael Scott, who shared some but not all similarities with the sociopath, and whose tendencies decreased as seasons when on — habits were humanized or explained, and the characters received depth. Comparing this to older comedies like Seinfeld, we then raised the question of why they felt this was a trend now where it wasn’t before.

Panelists described the technological advances that happened since Seinfeld was on the air; back then, one panelist argued, a series was hard to watch in one sitting. You either watched it live, or on one-a-day reruns, or possibly VHS tapes with a few episodes. Television was all around more casual. But with the introduction of elements like DVDs, Netflix, and season box sets, people were able to watch shows all at once, and catch up on episodes they hadn’t seen. This newfound ability of the viewers made way for two things: 1. the ability to make longer arcs that last over several episodes, and 2. a more hastened diminishing return on comedy. After a certain point, the shows realized they could and had to develop their characters a little more, to avoid boring the audience.

Fans also speculated that we are a completely different culture than before. We do like to overanalyze things, and we’re less into casual television watching. We watch TV more in general, and exposure to great shows in the past have raised the bar of our expectations for later shows.

Overall, this panel was much more audience-driven than the rest of them, though most of our panels this con were pretty intimate with the audience. I enjoyed this, though — especially with a topic as sensitive as a disorder and a topic as wide as television, keeping opinions diverse and examples plentiful is what really makes a conversation like this strong. Thanks again, patrons. The panel wouldn’t have been the same without you.

Panel Report: Community and Metafiction

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us.

Chronologically, this was the first panel we did upon arriving at Connecticon – but at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday night when we were competing with the con’s annual striptease, we were lucky to fill as much of the room as we did. All the same, the fans were fantastic conversationalists (and it should really speak volumes about the Connecticon diversity when 3/4 a room wanted to talk about Community and metafiction over seeing a striptease).

We started out by defining metafiction: namely, that it is any work that acknowledges its own fictionalism. And while Community never outright breaks the 4th wall, there are many moments where light jabs are made to acknowledge the possibility. For example, the first episode has Abed compare the cast to the breakfast club, and in “Cooperative Calligraphy” he refers to the actions of the other characters as a bottle episode. 

Community uses metafiction pretty heavily, some ways like other shows and some ways like nothing else on television. Many of the metafiction references utilize a sense of humor that rewards tv nerds, the same way continuity jokes can reward loyal fans of a show. There’s a sense of surreal humor that comes when movie and television tropes are applied to mundane activities  like making pillow and blanket forts, playing Dungeons and Dragons, or beating the class billiards instructor — something action packed. The tropes emulate times when the stakes were high, but the action itself and the actual consequences are all pretty low stakes. Humor arrives from both sides; we laugh at non-serious moments being taken so seriously, while also attributing that high stakes mentality vicariously to our own activities of similar nature. Audience members chimed in here, noting that they think of the show when making forts now or other activities that occurred on the show (one guy in particular mentioned he actually goes to a community college, leading to this train of thought frequently). 

But unlike other shows, Community also has a way of using metafiction in serious tones. Scenes like when Abed referenced Hawkeye to pep talk Jeff come to mind – Abed in particular is good at relating other characters to fiction to get them where they need to be. 

As we mentioned this, conversation started to revolve around Abed for a while, partially because he redefines relatability through his metafiction ways. The same way most characters are relatable for quirks, like Jeff’s ego, Britta’s pontificating, or Pierce’s old man racism, Abed is also relatable — but we relate to him as consumers, not as people of a certain quirk. Abed’s frequent references to television are something we understand, having seen these shows. Not only that, but Abed relates to the rest of the world through television the same way we relate to him; his understanding of what to do in a given situation is largely influenced by television. For example, he proved he could pick up girls when the group suspected otherwise, but only because he was able to successfully imitate Don Draper. Through imitating other things he has watched, he is also able to run a chicken nugget mafia, help save his school with paintball, and operate a space simulator simulator, among other talents. Not only that, but the insight he brings to the group in hard times occasionally rivals Jeff’s “Winger takes it home” speeches that end many episodes. Despite the fact that Jeff runs on street smarts and smooth talking, Abed is able to quote movies and reference shows and still often prove to be just as insightful and relevant. 

And Abed, much like Community itself, is less concerned with reaching all of the possible audience as much as he is concerned with reaching choice targets who will understand or need to understand what he’s trying to say. “Introduction to Film” and “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” both come to mind here, as well as the end of “Filmmaking Redux.” One of the ACP members, Jonah, commented here on how Dan Harmon frequently got into arguments with the network about whether or not the show should be a generic, safe, selling sitcom. The show isn’t meant to be safe, though. 

All in all, the Community panel went pretty well, largely thanks to, well, the community. Thanks to everyone who participated through listening or contributing comments! 

Is there anything else we forgot to add? Say so in the comments! 

Panel Report: Klingons and Feminism, Take Two

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us.

This weekend at Connecticon, Jonah and I reprised the panel I led with Gillian at Revoluticon on Klingons and Feminism. It was sad to lose my cohost (and a little awkward to be on stage talking about gender theory with no women) but my brother knows more about Star Trek than anyone I know, so I felt like he was a relatively good replacement.

The crowd was fantastic. We sold out the room, and a diverse audience comprised of many ages, races, and genders of Trekkies provided key discussion points and kept the conversation moving in unexpected but fruitful directions.

Starting with the same roots, the discussion went very differently than it did a few months ago. The Connecticon audience seemed more interested in broader themes and the portrayal of Klingon culture as a whole than analysis of individual characters which had been the focus of the panel in Ohio.
We discussed the sexual aggression of peripheral female Klingons, to what extent it was the result of male writers, and the role comedy played in shaping that aspect of their development. We looked at how Klingon women were empowered vs. objectified, and what sort of roles they were allowed to play in their own society. Finally we came around to the question of how Klingon society could even function with its entire population devoted to warfare.

The character study we did do was more focused on Worf than B’Elanna this time, and delved more into issues of race and stereotyping. Worf’s complexity comes from his attempts to meld the culture he was raised in with a heritage he feels is his birthright, but which he has come to as an outsider. The discussion took this point in several directions I had not considered, noting that Worf ultimately fails in many ways to assimilate into either culture, but does accomplish the goal of learning to accept himself for what he is.

One audience member brought up the racism inherent in attributing B’Elanna Torres’s anger issues to her Klingon blood, which led us to a conversation about the questionable racial politics of monocultures. Just before wrapping up, we compared B’Elanna and Worf’s parenting woes, and the fact that neither wants their child to grow up straddling two worlds. B’Elanna wants Miral to be fully human, whereas Worf strives for Alexander to be a Klingon warrior. We asked the question of what wouls happen if they’d ended up with children of the opposite genders.

All in all the panel was a huge success. In any part of the country, Trekkies can be counted on to be knowledgeable and insightful.

One audience member commented that she thought the panel would delve into all of Star Trek’s races. Klingon’s were about all we could handle in an hour, but I’d love to look at sexism in Trek through the lens of the Ferengi, the Romulans, and the Cardassians. Is that something you would be interested in reading? Sound off in the comments!

Panel Report: Psychology of Gamer Overs, Take Two

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us.

The basic goal of this panel was to challenge the audience with this question: why is it that a game can make you fail over and over, yet still want to try again, while slight discouragement from the real world can make you want to give up? Using sources like Jane McGonigal and Jesper Juul, I talked about the basic psychology behind game overs and loss in video games, focusing much on how games were, in many shades, more positive than real life scenarios. Since this was one of two panels that was covered already at Revoluticon, I’ll skip some of the finer details to avoid being redundant.

What I found really interesting about doing this panel a second time was that a different audience made for a completely different kind of feeling to the panel. Many more people at Connecticon were eager to participate and throw in their two cents, so the variety of game overs and games discussed greatly increased. Among others, our panel this time discussedDonkey Kong Country Returns,Conker’s Bad Fur Day,Spider-Man, Assassin’s Creed,Tales of Symphonia, andThe Legend of Zelda: Four Swords.

Much more time was focused on McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, and discussing the way that, compared to real life, video games are more forgiving. Pattern recognition games, combined with McGonigal’s Fun Failure theory, make video game losses less discouraging; we take the loss itself less seriously, and receive more constructive feedback to know where to improve later. With the pattern recognition of games, we always know just what made us lose; we didn’t jump far enough, we didn’t know an enemy was there, that sort of thing. Each time we play, we think, “This time will be better. I know something I didn’t know before.” But with real life losses, like trying and failing to get a job, we don’t always receive the same feedback — an employer has no obligation to write a letter saying, “Thanks for applying. Your resume looked great, but you could have won us over with more experience in so-and-so,” or, “We appreciated your qualifications, but your interview was a little abrasive.”

As we continued to make real life examples applying the comparison of game losses and why they were more forgiving (see the other panel report for more detail), we started to hit a wall that the Revoluticon kids didn’t really find — the mood in the room started to get a little dark. A little depressing. Hoping to not end on that note, I reminded the audience that McGonigal did not write her book comparing real life to video games to depress us. Her approach in that book was to take what made video games more appealing and utilize it in real life. Amongst harsh critics that say we spend too much time playing video games and that games should be eradicated, McGonigal was one of the first to say that this wasn’t a problem, it was a solution we haven’t noticed yet.

With this in mind, we started taking the comparisons we made and attempted to problem-solve a bit, thinking of ways we could make our own lives a little less hectic. Responses were slow at first, but people started jumping in eventually. Constructive criticism was a big thing — nobody wants to fail and not know why, because that makes most people feel like loss is out of their control.

Doing this panel at two cons instead of one was a pleasure; it reminded me that not every crowd will react to information the same way, just like not every gamer will love a game for the same reasons. What we can bring out of games, much like what we can bring out of life, is different for everyone — which I think is pretty cool.

Was there something we missed about the panel that you wanted to add? Tell us in the comments!

Panel Report: The Psychology of Game Overs

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Revoluticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!

Justin and I led a panel regarding the use of loss in video games, which was more or less split into two min-panels. My part took a bit of a psychological approach, and asked the readers this fundamental question: “Why is it that, in a video game, you can lose a thousand times and still want to carry on, when real life losses make you feel discouraged?”

The first point I mentioned was that video games, in their inherent nature, are typically pattern-recognition-based in some way, leading most players to feel personally responsible for their loss. Contrary to popular belief, feeling responsible for loss typically can be more encouraging than otherwise. Using a study done by Jesper Juul as a reference, I explained how most players prefer games where their losses are their own fault, rather than because of some luck-based element. What seems to happen is that, when the brain feels responsible for loss, the loss becomes more in control — and therefore much more reassuring. The player will look back at the loss and say, “This time, I know when to jump,” or “This time, I know that Bubbleman’s gun is useless against this boss.” And both of these result in one other thought: “I know something I didn’t know before. This time, I will get it.”

But it’s more than just personal responsibility that encourages players; sometimes, the game makes something Jane McGonigal coined in Reality is Broken as “Fun Failure.” Sometimes games make funny noises or cut scenes when we lose. Games like Donkey Kong Country Returns make the characters reward our incompetence with primates screaming in agony, while games like Rock Band make the musician throw his instrument in a fit of rage while the crowd boos and heckles. Little rewards like this make failure a more active experience than passive failures of real life; we lose, and something happens — often things that please us through comic relief, like little rewards for trying. When this happens, it’s easy to make failure a little less serious and a little more lighthearted.

From there, I discussed how games have clear, tangible goals with constant verification. Tutorials, plot, character motivations, and instructions tell a gamer exactly how to win or lose. And beyond that, we have little bits of progress that make the most step-by-step instructions in real life seem like huge steps; achievements, trophies, level ups, save points, and bosses all give us ways to slowly check and gauge our progress. For example, you can fail a boss, but level up a few more times to guesstimate how close you are to beating it the next time.

All of this leads to answering the topical question in the first paragraph in one way: compared to reality, video games are all around more encouraging. Pattern recognition and personal responsibility convince us we can change what isn’t working. Lighthearted rewards ensure that failure is more than a passive, painful experience. And clear goals, combined with little notes of progress, give games both more direction and constant affirmation. If more of reality worked like this — like the job application process that is often all or nothing, passive after a certain point, and lacking any clear direction of what went wrong in many cases — the world would be just as ambitious, if not more so, in everyday scenarios.

Panel Report: A Feminist View of Klingons

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Revoluticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!
We were the first panel of the morning and it took us a little while to get started, but pretty soon about nine people were out in the audience – more would trickle in later. I was a little apprehensive about sitting down in the massive panel room one, especially as our modest turnout was dwarfed even more by the venue. But the people who showed up were all obviously interested in one or both aspects of our topic – they seemed to be all either Trekkies or feminists, and we decided to just jump in.

After a brief introduction where we talked about who the ACP is and what it is we do, I started by observing how Star Trek uses different monocultures like the Klingons, the Ferengi, and the Romulans, to tell stories about the human condition – basically a reiteration of some of the points in this article. In the particular case of the Klingons, the monoculture is one of hypermasculinity – that is to say, the Klingons represent what it is to be a “real man” in our society, at least according to the sociopolitical constructs of the patriarchy. I asked the fundamental question of the panel, which was, looking at the Klingons in this light, what insights does Star Trek have about gender politics?
Following this, Gillian took the mic for a while and briefly defined a few terms – the patriarchy, the male gaze, etc. – that we thought would be useful to our audience over the course of the discussion. Over the next forty-five minutes we would find our audience surprisingly well-versed on this topic, but it was still important to make sure everyone was on the same page.
Our discussion was structured primarily around two characters – Worf, from Star Trek the Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and B’Elanna Torres, from Star Trek: Voyager. At one point a quick poll of the audience revealed that most of them favored Voyager of the three shows, a statistic which surprised me somewhat but steered the B’Elanna part of the discussion more into the spotlight than we had perhaps planned. Still we started off talking about Worf, and his struggle between his warrior heritage and the culture who had raised him, the utopian Federation, which stresses diplomatic solutions and non-violent conflict resolution. The outline at this point had us discussing Worf’s relationship with his son, but the audience seemed more engaged with the fundamental struggle between Klingon and Starfleet morality, so we talked about that for a while before venturing into B’Elanna territory.
Many aspects of B’Elanna’s character generated a spirited discussion, and it was here that the feminist element of the panel really took the spotlight. We talked about her as a metaphor for women in positions of power, drawing comparisons to Hillary Clinton at one point, and how that was influenced by her warrior heritage. We also talked about her relationship with Tom Paris and the ways in which that it confirmed and challenged traditional male/female power structures. This led us into a discussion which was nowhere in our outline, about the various fully Klingon characters on the show (Lursa and B’Etor, Grilka) and how they did and did not uphold the sexual double standard. This took us into totally new and exciting territory as we talked about whether the sexual double standard would even exist in such a hyper-masculine culture. I have to credit our audience with starting us down this train of thought, which never occurred to me during my preparation for the panel.
After a brief digression about the believability of institutionalized misogyny in Klingon culture given the rest of what we know about them, we found ourselves dissecting the very idea of a monoculture, especially one composed entirely of warriors. One audience member quoted Terry Pratchett, saying of the old Klingon adage that “Today is a good day for someone else to die” is a much more effective mantra for a militaristic culture. This brought us back around to the idea that perhaps both the masculine and the feminine are required for a productive society.
All in all I think the panel was a great opportunity for a group of Star Trek fans to talk about their passion in a new and hopefully more analytical context, and I think everyone had a great deal of fun. The level of articulate and insightful audience participation was really heartening and I hope to be invited back for Revoluticon 2013.