kaon na > WORD > Bitter Nigger Broadcast Network
KAON NA @arlduc.org > WORD

Mary Flanagan: The Adventures of Josie True

This essay is still in-progress. Please email me your suggestions!

A class visit from the California-based web and software artist Mary Flanagan proved to be suprising and interesting, not just because of Flanagan's presentation, but because of the class's response. Our interest lay mainly not in her media/art works, but in her long-term research project: educational software called The Adventures of Josie True.

Josie is a young Chinese-American girl adventuring through time and space, joining with her friends to rescue her inventor-teacher Ms. Trombone. She's the main character in downloadable package that features 11 games. There are smaller activities to engage in online (dressing Josie, reading her diary, taking a slime-battle quiz) and even a list of offline science activities.

Though it seems familiar in its aims, structure, and look, it strikes me as highly original because of its underlying business and cultural models. It has a polished look, an extensive number of activities, and a level of complexity in the finished games that make it hard to believe that it's a nonprofit endeavor. It's wonderful to see and educational/research institution designing an educational game-- I've never heard of that being done before. That, and the fact that the game is continually evolving, will probably make the game more compelling and genuinely 'educational' than commercial games of the same kind. On top of that, most of the games download very quickly, which makes it available to an even broader audience.

I remember spending hours on this kind of software as a kid, and the games that held my attention were the ones that didn't pan out right away-- they often involved quite a bit of research and reading (this is why "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego" was such a popular game in the early 1990's). That the Josie games are structured between many characters on the screen simultaneously means that you actually have to do some cyber-listening before you even start to play the game-- this is an experience that I rarely encounter in games (though admittedly I don't enough computer games these days). The introduction of non-US cultures add another level of complexity resulting from unfamiliarity: you're on their turf (or farm), so you have to learn to play by their rules.

Though it's tone is on the other end of the scale, Josie True share a similar social consciousness, touch, and visual aesthetic with Tana Hargest's Bitter Nigger Broadcast Network. The visual aesthetic is not that unique: It's a cartoonish, flat, colorful and linearly-smoothed look that pervades a lot of flash animation these days. But like Bitter Nigger, Josie True is concerned with underrepresented aspects of American society: namely non-WASPy subcultures and women in science. Both works employ familiar techniques to lighten the touch of their message: Bitter Nigger satirizes commercials and advertisements while Josie co-opts the Saturday morning cartoon narrative.

I'm not in the game's target demographic, so the best I can do to rate the game's "playability" is remember back to when I was seven or so. But even then, a kid growing up with the first generation of Macintoshes and no Internet is a different kind of user than a kid who uses computers today. But putting myself in a kid's shoes, I might lose patience with the fact that none of the really compelling games are quite finished-- worse yet, it's unclearly stated on the download page which games are finished and which are not. Even as I say this, I wonder if a more net-savvy kid might take all these loose ends more in stride.

I also wonder at how long the tree-structure of the game (ie clicking from point to point) can hold a computer-savvy's kid's attention. For me, the reason that simple first-person shooters are so enthralling is that there is a level of tension in the constant action and artificial intelligence shown by the villians. It might be useful to add computer science students to this university art project-- it might add a level of behavioral complexity.

The one aspect of the game that stikes me as most odd is the extreme genderedness of it. On some levels, Josie is trying to overturn gender assumptions by placing an emphasis on science and anthropology. And I have no real complaints that the user can dress Josie and do her hair: in small doses, it's a fun thing to do, and it's silly that sometimes we stifle anyone's femininity (male or female) just as much as it is to overblow anyone's masculinity (no pun intended).

No, I take more issue with the way the game is marketed: why is it's tagline "a game for girls?" Why, when the National Science Foundation is a factor, is it trumpeted that the organization espouses "gender iniquity?" I think these statements belong in a press release, not the actual title itself. It leads to the possibility of alienating another audience that has a lot members interested in science, is often pushed into gender roles, and might do well to learn about non-Western peoples: young boys!

But all of these are minor issues. I give kudos to Josie for being such an original, offbeat, and innovative project.

Related Links:
Mary Flanagan. http://www.maryflanagan.com
Josie True. http://www.josietrue.com

KAON NA @arlduc.org > WORD