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May 1, 2003 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
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Are video games art? Conference to explore impact of online pop culture

Additional Contact:
Alex Golub

The College of the University of Chicago and the Digital Genres Initiative present Digital Genres: Semiotic Technologies this Side of the Millennium, a two-day conference exploring how digital forms of communication are changing our lives. On May 30-31, 2003 at the University of Chicago, scholars from Illinois to India will meet for papers and conversations in an environment where the internet and the academy cross-pollinate.

"80 years ago, critics argued that movies and jazz were passing fads, not real art," says conference organizer Alex Golub, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology. "Today we're going through similar changes, but most critics are barely even aware of video games and weblogging." Meanwhile, consumers spend more money and time on these forms of entertainment than all of the Hollywood film industry. By opening up hugely popular but sometimes hidden new online worlds to critical analysis, the conference aims at doing for today's digital culture what a few cutting-edge critics did for pop culture eighty years ago.

Golub says that "Digital and network technologies are creating new methods of communication that, like the popular genres of the 1920's, allow new forms of creativity and expression. With this conference we want to see what people are doing with these new forms. In 1924 Gilbert Seldes' The 7 Lively Arts argued that popular genres like movies and jazz deserved the same attention critics gave the fine arts. His view was controversial at the time but is now widely accepted. Yet today writers who accept even comic books as fine art dismiss computer entertainment as mindless, while never having played a video game or hung out in a chat room. But these digital genres - the ones that will preoccupy us on this side of the millennium - are the true successors to the lively arts of the 1920s." At the conference, an unusual combination of historians and anthropologists, programmers and internet users will come together to explore what weblogs, massively multiplayer games, chat rooms and other popular digital genres tell us about how humans create and communicate today.

Panels will cover the whole range of digital culture, including papers on religion online; fan fiction; video games and virtual worlds; digital identity and branding; "real" spaces and simulated spaces; and the history and impact of previous semiotic technologies like the alphabet, the Talmud and the telegraph.

Among the participants will be:

  • University of Chicago scholars Robert Moore, who studies corporate language use in the Internet bubble and the semiotics of branding, and Theo van den Hout, a Hittitologist whose "Miles of Clay: Information Management in the Ancient Near East" will explore how the formidable bureaucracies of 3,500 years ago dealt with data smog.
  • Chicago anthropology students who do their fieldwork among net users and hackers, like Biella Coleman, who works in Silicon Valley exploring the ethics of the community that created the well-known 'Linux' operating system, and Aditya Sood, who studies the rise of internet kiosks in rural India.
  • Edward Castronova, the first economist to demonstrate that buying and selling of items in virtual worlds produced an economy with a higher GDP than Russia.

  • Greg Costikyan, a game designer and science fiction novelist who has designed some of the best known computer games of all time.
  • David Weinberger, author of a major manifesto of internet culture, Small Pieces Loosely Joined, co-author of the influential Cluetrain Manifesto, and a frequent commentator on NPR's All Things Considered.

All in all, the conference will feature scholars from twelve different universities, speakers from five countries, two ordained priests, one rabbi, and a former comedy writer for Woody Allen. Participation is free and the press and public are invited. More information is available at
Last modified at 01:55 PM CST on Friday, September 12, 2003.

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