My thoughts on composing, below
1. On Composing
As we talked about the unique methods of composing a mashup in class Christina and myself had both come separately with this analogy: it was much like writing a research paper, only we could only use quotes, and those quotes could come from anywhere.
Perhaps a serviceable analogy would be quilting, or bricolage. Regardless, it was for me radically than how I approach composing written/traditional texts.
One of the biggest freedoms to digital composition like mashups is that you are not required to conform to any real structure. I’ve never composed in this digital space before, so that it and of itself was at first alarming. There is no “5 paragraph essay” archetype that I’ve been trained to adhere to all my life (though I did sneak in a bit of a thesis sentence at 00:03). While my piece is still attempting to put forth an argument I am not, as I might in a persuasive essay, culling selected material to reinforce my opinion or statement. Rather, in my mashup, I could pull from anywhere if I thought it would help.
That is another difference. In traditional writing, I personally always feel limited. I must include something from one scholarly bigwig or another, or the readings must be pulled from dusty and well-esteemed books. This is not the case at all in mash-up. I was free, encouraged even, to pull from the whole gamut of web-hosted video.
Looking for video clips and their organization was a challenge, but an enjoyable one. In selecting footage, you spend hours looking for seconds to co-opt. For me, the specificity/importance of an individual clip and it’s placement in my mashup was much more important than a quotation in a text presentation. To me, the use of quotations was always more as signposts, transitions between ideas, and going back to the second paragraph, references I had to make. In building my mashup, specific clips are used intratextually, that is, referencing material in the work as a whole. For example, the images of soldiers training in virtual spaces repeat throughout my presentation (00:01, 00:30, 01:30, etc.) By repeating this, I use it to reinforce the idea that this is how soldiers are being taught to handle combat situations, and, when combined with my other imagery, shows the Army as really doing the troops a disservice.While this can of course be done in text presentation, I felt it’s impact greater when I saw such juxtaposition/comparison play out.
Unlike writing text presentations, I was (gratefully) surprised to learn that it didn’t bother me to start from scratch, which I had to do at two points. If my first draft had been a text presentation, I don’t know if I would have been able to (as I have to get to the final) pretty much jettison most of my footage, motifs, etc to improve. I would have tried to somehow “make it work.” The result would have been half-formed, disjointed, etc. But that’s how I would have done it. Completely re-hauling the project was sort of a revelation, and I’m much happier now with the mash-up.
If I was asked to pick one large difference between how I composed in this digital space and my tendencies in traditional writing, I would say it would be my level, and attention to focus. As we discussed in class, mash-ups are an inherently noisy medium, that is, there is a lot that potentially interferes with the message. Perhaps there is a clip that seems out of place, or the medium/presentation itself does not come across as nothing more than a collection of clips strung together with music. In order to combat this, I needed to focus, scrutinizing both my clips as individuals, them as a collection, and then again regarding placement in relation to each other. By doing this, I tried to make the selection seem more deliberate, which in turn I hoped would lessen the noise. This approach to clip selection is something more reminiscent of quote selections in text presentations; in which quotes are carefully picked to carry and lend maximum weight to the piece overall. Conversely, using quotes as I have used clips in my mashup-as recurring motifs, to establish my points to great effect, could only enhance the writing.
Leaving the mash-up on youtube, where anyone can see it, is an interesting end to the assignment. While we’ve discussed how all writing is open to interpretation, I’ve never personally felt that the work I’ve produced thus far offers itself to that much theortical divergence. And here we have my mash-up, which runs the risk, right off the bat, of being mistaken for the violent video games equal killers equation, or of being viewing by one who does not see my topic as a real problem. It’s an interesting spot to be in, and it’s at this point that I can look back and trust that I’ve layered in enough of my beliefs via clip placement and selection that my argument gets across. And, as its never a bad time to quote the Talking Heads, “transmit the message/to the receiver/hope for an answer some day”.
2. My Mash-up: Creating meaning through signs and visual rhetoric devices
My mash-up seeks to explore and call attention to the relationship between the military and the gaming industry, namely how the military uses video games to both recruit-by sponsoring game nights and even offering free downloads of it’s own game, America’s Army-as well as using virtual reality spaces to train soldiers. (Many of these training environments bear striking similarities to the video games they use to recruit.
Composing a mash-up is a really great way to approach my topic. As Jason Palmeri writes in The First Time Print Died, associative texts such as mash-ups make meaning through juxtaposition of material, through drawing from a variety of sources for that material, and ultimately putting the impetus on the audience to decipher meaning, which even if they come to different conclusions, at least gets them thinking about the topic.
In order to do this, I first set the tone with my soundtrack. At first, I didn’t really see the audio part as a huge part to the presentation. As I composed, however, I began to see how it really helped move the mash up forward. In my first draft, the song exists mostly because there’s one required to be there, it even distracts from the video because the rhythm of the song doesn’t really match with the pacing of the video clips. In my final draft, I edited the clips to match the song better; also the song is very martial while also reminiscent of early video game soundtracks. It also is a bit more subtle and doesn’t overpower the video.
As mentioned above, one of the strengths to the presentation style is being able to juxtapose material for comparison. Presenting material in sequence allows me to develop my argument. In creating juxtaposed suites of clips, I build moments that call attention to how the military uses video games, and I do this primarily through three semiotic devices outlined by Sean Hall: sameness & difference, appearance & reality, and irony. To build these moments, I rely on proximity, which Hall writes is a semiotic device used to group things together based on their closeness. An example of such grouping begins at 01:24. A sniper scope bobs over a landscape, watched by a young gamer. Then, a soldier drops in Iraq. We cut back to the gamer, who is now gloating over his victory. Proximity is what groups these together, and the sequence also relies on audience participation. Using a term from comics theorist Scott McCloud, the gutter-the space between the clips/images-is filled in by audience participation; as he writes “human imagination takes two seperate images and transforms them into a single idea” (McCloud, p.66). Proximity and the gutter work together to link the ideas, leading here to the conclusion that the gamer has killed the soldier in Iraq. In another example, at 02:33 a digital grenade is thrown, followed a wounded child. Here, I hope the audience participation makes the connection that digital training spaces like these lead to unexpected consequences such as the injured child.
Hall writes that highlighting the differences/sameness of any given items is “only a matter of how we choose to perceive these shapes that make us say that one is different from the others” (Hall, p.58). One example he gives is of a human and a mannequin, another of a genuine dollar and a forgery. Fundamentally, these pairs are very similar to each other; however small their differences are though, they translate into a vast difference in perception. Sameness/difference was a really great tool for me to use, as the use of video game environments by the Army to train is an emphatic statement that those spaces and real life are pretty much the same thing.
At 00:53, we see a soldier in a room with goggles covering his eyes, pulling away at the trigger of a machine gun. We cut next to another soldier behind a machine gun, this one framed against a blue sky and sandbags, a man next to him feeding rounds into his gun.
The first man is using the Army’s Dismounted Soldier Training System (from here on, DSTS) and the second is engaging the Taliban in Afghanistan. The two images are very similar. Both feature soldiers, both soldiers firing machine guns. The Army judges them to be similar enough that the DSTS virtual training is used to gain familiarity with handling the real world machine gun. However, the differences are vast, and by placing the two clips next to each other, highlighting those differences becomes easier. It is not necessary to know what the DSTS soldier is doing; whatever it is, it isn’t anything like the second clip. The similarities here actually serve to exaggerate the differences, liked the forged bill analogy. While the Army perceives the two as similar, the juxtaposition is intended to leave audiences wondering if that is really the case.
In the same way, I use appearance & reality to question the comparison. Appearance & reality focuses on techniques used to make reproductions seem more authentic-think of techniques used to make paintings more lifelike, for example. The games and training spaces use highly realistic graphics to make the user feel they are immersed in a given scenario.
At 01;16, the digital avatar of a soldier stands with a civilian. At 01:17, his real life counterpart begins to pat a suspect down for hidden weapons. At 01:20. a soldier sits in a fake humvee, in the next clip, a humvee in Iraq is struck by a rocket. At 03:24, a corpsman works to stop a Marine from bleeding out. This is followed by the digital reproduction; an avatar runs up to another avatar lying on the ground. These moments serve to question the value of virtual reality training. Despite how good the graphics in the training spaces may be, they cannot be mistaken for the real thing (these comparisons also go back to sameness & difference), and so I’ve used the clips to show that these training methods are not presenting the same gravity that real life training would lend.
Conversely, there are also moments where I use appearance and reality to show how the military approaches war. As the Air Force seems to be targeting gamers , for its drone warfare program, I address this by appearance and reality. At 02:03-02:08 I put together quick cuts of Apache helicopter attacks and Call of Duty video game drone footage, and at 03:02-03:06 shows two clips of air-to-surface attacks, one from Call of Duty and the other from Iraq. By not specifying which is which, I allow the audience to recognize how closely the game appears to mimic reality. Here, it does not matter if the audience even recognize that some of these clips are from video games, that might even help to show why the military is trying to draw in gamers who are already familiar with the visual layout of drone combat.
I felt my topic allowed me many, many opportunities to make ironic comments on the variable success of the military’s use of video games to train and recruit. Hall writes that irony is about opposites. He also notes that ironic commentary relies on awareness of irony in the audience, and that irony runs the risk of overstatement which causes the irony to lose its power.With this in mind, I tried limit my use of irony, primarily only using glitches, like at 00:47, to highlight how video games are really unable to accurately represent real life.
As a composition mode put together from other compositions, mash-ups offer opportunities to use intertexuality( how works reference other works) to construct meaning. I felt my topic was almost aggressively open to intertextual moments to help me construct meaning. For example, at 03:03, we see guncam footage of a air-to-surface attack, followed by another clip of the same subject, but closer in (these are, in order, Call of Duty and the famous Wikileaks footage of an helicopter attack on civilians) followed by a +200 flashing on the screen, followed by a celebrating group of gamers. The intertextuality here works if 1). the audience is aware of both Call of Duty’s gunship missions and the Wikileaks video, and 2) understands that the air force is recruiting gamers familiar with this environment for their drone program. If the audience does, then they see how the military using video games as a recruitment tool might make service seem more desirable to gamers. Hall does, however, write that intertextuality fails if the audience does not understand the references. So, if they do not get that one of these clips are from a video game, or if they are unaware that the controls for operating drones are analogous to video games, then that intertextuality might not work so well. Still, I tried to construct these moments so that even if they are unaware of specifics, the audience can make intratextual (in-text references to other portions of the text) connections to note that there is some sameness & difference or appearance vs. reality commentary being made. Another example would be the inclusion of The Last Starfighter, Wargames, and Ender’s Game clips; even if the audience doesn’t get references (all three of these clips deal with war via computer/game, and recruitment of gamers into military), they at least serve as more footage of young gamers being targeted by the military.