Wednesday, October 5, 2016

When Words Fail Emotion

Apple emoji images. Image source:    

“The young people these days… they can’t write, they can’t spell.  They’re always on their phones, spelling words however they please, using smiley faces and children’s pictures instead of words… what’s the world coming to….” I’m sure you’ve heard these words uttered at some point.  But is the world really coming to an end because we’ve found a way to communicate quickly and succinctly through the written word? 

I’ll say it upfront: I love text speak. I love emojis and emoticons.  They allow us to quickly and succinctly convey tone and nuanced emotion in written form.  When we speak face-to-face, we read each other’s body language, facial expressions and vocal tone.  However, thanks to the internet and the rise in email, text messaging and social media as preferred methods of communication, our ability to express ourselves via the written word is more important than ever.

Emoticons generated by the iPhone’s Romaji keyboard  
Most of us have, at some point, sent an email or a text message where the tone or intention has been misinterpreted by the person at the other end.  It’s hard to communicate sarcasm via text message, but in some instances a couple of characters, such as (; can overcome this barrier.  If I text a friend with “I went out last night. I have so many regrets”, they might panic. If I pop a wink at the end, they’ll probably know that I probably just had a couple of pints too many. Basically, two simple characters can turn a serious statement into a light-hearted one. Emoticons can also help tell a story.  “I spent the day with a cat” is rather banal.  If I write “I spent the day with a cat :/”, it indicates that the day really didn’t go to well (FYI this is based on a true story: I spent the day with a cat. In true cat form, it bit me).

Tears of joy emoji
ICYWW, there is a difference between an emoji and emoticon.  They’re often used interchangeably, but in short, emoticons are a typographical expression using only text, such as the examples above.  Emojis on the other hand are pictograms. The term emoji stems from two Japanese words -  e and moji  - and translates roughly to ‘picture character’ or ‘picture letter’. Unlike most written languages, emojis are generally easily interpretable (I say most because after Oxford Dictionaries declared the ‘Face With Tears of Joy’ emoji/LOL emoji/laughing emoji as their 2015 word of the year, a couple of academic studies concluded that the symbol is sometimes interpreted as grief-stricken emoji.).

Of course, there’s a time and a place for emoticons, text speak and the like.  We haven’t got to the stage where it’s appropriate to use smiley faces in an email to your boss, or an academic essay or exam (I once marked a university art theory exam in which a student had described the Raft of the Medusa with a L. He didn’t pass.)  Perhaps we need to think of these new methods of expression as another language of sorts.  Language is constantly evolving, and text speak in particular is already affecting all languages, not just English.

The fact that we use acronyms like LOL and IMHO doesn’t mean that the English language is dying.  To illustrate the evolution of language, (as well as our treatment of geese) consider this passage from the 1653 that exalts the joy of using a goose as an ‘arsewisp’ (now commonly called toilet paper):

“...o conclude, I say and maintain, that of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole-cleansers and wipe-breeches, there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well douned, if you hold her head betwixt your legs: and beleeve me therein upon mine honour, for you will thereby feele in your nockhole a most wonderful pleasure, both in regard of the softnesse of the said doune, and of the temperate heat of the goose, which is easily communicated to the bum-gut, and the rest of the inwards, insofarre as to come even to the regions of the heart and braines; and think not, that the felicity of the heroes and demigods in the Elysian fields, consisteth either in their Asphodele, Ambrosia, or Nectar, as our old women here use to say; but in this, (according to my judgement) that they wipe their tailes with the neck of a goose, holding her head betwixt their legs, and such is the opinion of Master John of Scotland, ali├ás Scotus.”
Not quite a swan, but close enough. Jan Asselijn, The Threatened Swan (c.1650). Google Cultural Institute.

When people launch into a generational superiority rant like “young people don’t know how to write properly”, they reveal their ignorance as to the way language evolves.   If text speak, emoticons and emojis are the most efficient way of communicating then let’s embrace this evolution (IMHO).

This article was originally published in the September edition of Warp Magazine

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Pokémon... it's not cute by accident.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard of Pokémon Go.  You’ve probably seen people playing it in the streets too – hunting and capturing cute bug-eyed creatures, and collecting potions, eggs and balls from the Pokéstops that dot our parks and streets.  15 million people downloaded the augmented reality game in the first week of its release last month.   Thanks in part to the media frenzy, the game has achieved almost mythical status.  Naysayers like to quote the car crashes by distracted gamers, muggings at Pokéstops, and people falling over objects, walking off cliffs etc. etc. The pro camp cites the number of people getting out into the world, away from the couch and the telly (although from personal experience, if you sit on the couch long enough the Pokémons come to you). Friendships flourish among the hunters, who bond over the shared goal of seeking and collecting digital creatures. 

Proof that you don’t have to leave the couch.  The Pokémons will come to you. Originally posted on Instagram @stealthpooch 
Obviously, I’m not a hater, but I’m not obsessed either.  Call me a semi-enthusiastic dabbler.  I like the thrill of the hunt, and I’m a user of other geo-location activities, like the games Ingress and Munzee, as well as the more grounded Geocaching, orienteering and rogaining.  With the exception of Munzee, I’d say that these other platforms are just as, if not more, enjoyable than Pokémon Go.  So why has Pokémon Go received so much more attention? 

One obvious answer is that Pokémon is a well-known franchise. Pikachu appears on our cereal boxes, on our TV screens, and even on the sides of planes.  Pokémon cards have been traded in Australian schoolyards since the 1990s, which means gen Y is not only familiar with Pokémon characters, but have a great deal affection for these cute creatures.   The original Gameboy game from the mid-90s had a similar basic premise: hunt the Pokémons for points (although in the original there’s an endgame: you train your captured Pokémons for the ultimate battle with the Elite Four - but that’s another article).  The Gameboy Pokémons were pixelated and black and white - far from the brightly-coloured creatures of today’s game - but it appealed to the part of us that likes to collect, explore, collect and collect some more.

However, Pokémon Go’s popularity cannot be explained brand saturation alone.  Nor is it solely due to the novelty of having our surrounding environment turned into magical hubs, or the human urge to collect and classify.  Collecting and problem solving is a key part of Munzee, but its interface is based on scanning boring old QR codes. Similarly, Ingress turns our surrounding environment into a web of portals: sites of battle and exchange. Ingress has a dedicated community, but its mass appeal is limited by the complexity of the game and the rather hostile machine-aesthetic graphics (I always think of the 90s movie Hackers when I open Ingress). 

Essentially, I think the popularity of Pokémon Go is largely about aesthetics.  Pokémon is cute and humans like cute.  This isn’t just a learned-in-the-schoolyard-over-obsessive-card-swapping thing either.  Humans are naturally attracted to and want to care for animals with juvenile features - ‘cute’ features - such as large eyes, large foreheads and retreating chins.  Within the Pokémon universe, even the most hostile animals are manipulated for appeal.  The snake, Ekans, for instance, has an unusually stunted snout, making it appear cuter than a snake ever should.  And don’t get me started on the mouse, Pikachu.  Pokémon Go therefore has hit on a winning combo, appealing to our biological attraction to cute, our urge to collect and classify, the novelty of augmented reality gaming on a widely used platform, existing brand awareness, and, of course, a significant leg up from the media. 

"Humans feel affection for animals with juvenile features: large eyes, bulging craniums, retreating chins (left column). 
Small-eyed, long-snouted animals (right column) do not elicit the same response." 
Drawn by Ephert from a diagram diagram in "Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, vol. II" by Konrad Lorenz. 
Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

We have also convinced ourselves that Pokémon Go is somehow a healthy game, a morally acceptable game.  I don’t know how many friendships or social encounters have really been facilitated by the game, but my dog has definitely benefited.  The dog park and oval at the end of my street seems to be quite a hub for all things Pokémon.  There’s a ‘gym’ at the seniors centre (no joke), and multiple Pokéstops.   There are few lights in the park and, at this time of the year when our nights are long and cold, there are also very few people.  Since Pokémon was released, however, the park is filled with ‘fairy lights’, as groups of people (and their dogs) chase elusive Pokémon, phone screens glowing.  For the first time in memory, I’ve been happy to take the dog there at night, rather than sticking to the safe, brightly lit streets.   Whatever the reason for its popularity, I hope it lasts if only for my big-eyed dog’s sake.

This article was originally published in the August edition of Warp Magazine, 2016.