Now that we have said goodbye to our most recent long-term visitor, Henry Jenkins, we can look ahead to our next, Paul Dourish. It’s a fine time to do so, as he has just been awarded two honors that testify to his important contributions to the study of computation and society. His 1992 paper “Awareness and Coordination in Shared Workspaces,” co-authored with Victorial Bellotti, was awarded the Lasting Impact award at the upcoming CSCW conference. And he was just chosen as a 2015 ACM Fellow, “for contributions in social computing and human-computer interaction.” Paul will be visiting the SMC group and the Microsoft Research New England lab in spring 2016.
We have had the distinct privilege of having Henry Jenkins visit our research group for the past few months. Give the immense impact of his work on the study of digital culture and digital industries, fan communities and the creative repurposing of media texts, and political participation and new forms of online activism, it was an enormous treat to have him with us. The semester was an opportunity for him to make progress on his latest book project, provisionally titled Comics and Stuff. As we say goodbye to him today and send him back to sunny Los Angeles, we thought we would offer a recap of the colloquium he gave on the topic. This is in the style of liveblogging (though its hardly live, given that we sat on it for two weeks) so any lack of clarity is likely ours rather than Henry’s. Nevertheless, it offers a glimpse of the thinking that is animating this latest project. (Many thanks to Nathan Matias, who took copious notes and drafted this post; I merely proofed and posted.)
Comics and Stuff: An Introduction
Henry starts out by explaining that the use of the term “stuff” in his title is not a casual one, that it does actually matter for his early explorations of comics culture. He opens up by showing a comic strip from Mr X that shows an apartment with so much stuff that the background detail overwhelmes the rest of the scene.
== Comics ==
Henry begins by noting that comics have become an increasingly specialized medium, having at times been a mass one. He quotes Art Spiegelman in an interview in Critical Inquiry, referencing Marshall McLuhan, who said “when something matures, it either becomes art or it dies….. I thought of it very literally as a Faustian deal that had to be made with the culture, and it was fraught one and a dangerous one…. I figured it was necessary.” [[ A participant asks: are there any media that failed to become art and died? Jenkins argues that there are no dead media, just dead delivery platforms. Vaudeville and Burlesque might be examples of something that died and is coming back as an art form. ]]
Henry goes on to detail the historical trajectory of U.S. comics, beginning with the immense newspaper comics of in “The Yellow Kid” and “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” At the time, comic artists owned their page — they could do whatever they wanted. The Yellow Kid was full-page, while Little Nemo used panels. Next, Henry talks about comic strips emerging as comics pages, then printed monthly magazines, often published by people who were publishing pulp magazines.
The first “killer app” of comics is Superman: the thing that makes comics commercial viable. In the 1930s, 97% of girls and 98% of boys in the U.S., were reading comics book. As these young fans grew up, they expected that comics would grow with them and take on their concerns, with things like crime or horror comics. The comics panics of the 1950s came from the mismatch that followed, between the assumption that comics were for kids, and the way they were increasingly addressing and being marketed to adults. The industry responded by self-regulating, but also prices went up (from 12 cents to 2 dollars, due to rising paper, ink, and shipping costs) pricing many kids out. In response, comics increasingly became limited to specialty shops. The result is that now comics are almost exclusively sold in specialty shops, that are cut off from ordinary markets. The market shifted entirely to adults, but it was constrained by the codes that required comics to be for kids.
People also started to buy comics as an investment– because comics had been made to read and discard. Every mom who threw away their kids’ comics made everyone’s comics more valuable. But in response, comics were created to be collected, making the bottom fall out of the market. And that’s the context in which Spiegelman is writing, asking how comics will survive.
In parallel, we saw the rise a network of alternative comics self-published by artists, part of the rock and drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s, largely regulated and taking part in a period of experimentation with what comics could do. Emerging from this context, Art Spiegelman published Raw, a yearly comics anthology that introduced waves of new artists across different cultures. It was in Raw that Spiegelman first published Maus, the piece that many people think of as the pinnacle Spiegelman’s vision, and the explosion of graphic novels into mainstream public awareness. Before that came Will Eisner’s “A Contract with God,” which while it wasn’t the first graphic novel, is seen as the first of that time.
Spiegelman and Eisner offered one vision of how comics could go forward into the future. Will Eisner argued a different direction, arguing that comics should be totally reconfigured by being published online, without requiring paper or ink. Online, there has been a remarkable flowering of online comics, but most of them still look to print as a way to reach commercial markets. Yet another future is represented by Marvel: the idea that comics are run as research and development wings of the entertainment industry, or as places to test ideas that then get translated to other screens– the comics run at a loss, but the films make up the profit.
Henry argues that there are now parallel comics markets. Today, the top selling comics are almost all from DC or Marvel. The top selling graphic novels, on the ither hand, include a wider range of second-tier publishers. Compared to the New York Times list of bestsellers are a completely different picture: featuring Fun Home, Persepolis, Maus, and some media tie-ins (like Mad Max). Seven of the top 10 titles in the New York Times list are by women. Beyond the comics shop and bookstore, there’s a different kind of thing, something more diverse represented by the graphic novel market, Henry tells us. Almost all of this wider work has been conceived of as graphic novels developed from end-to-end rather than a serial.
What happened? Graphic novelists courted librarians, who are now key advocates of graphic novels and building new readers of contents. Much of the young adult content is by women, which is diversifying comics.
Henry notes that there are two other cultural configurations of comics beyond this U.S. story: Japanese and Euro comics (French/Belgian). Many of these models don’t apply to Japan or Europe. In Europe, for example, its cultural status has never been in crisis in France or Belgium, where they have been seen as art all along. However, it’s possible to talk about American, Canadian, British, New Zealand, and Australian comics.
Henry argues that we can see a shift from comics to graphic novels; from floppy to bound; from a disposable medium to one intended to be collected and preserve; from specialty shops to bookstores and libraries; from the idea of specialty fans to a wider public audience; from “trash” to art; from a focus on superheros to a new attention to everyday life; and from mostly masculine perspectives to a greater diversity.
As that happens, contemporary comics are not just looking forward, but also looking backwards. Jenkins cites Bill Watterson, who argued that “much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium’s history…. it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward…..Not only can comics be more than we’re getting today, but the comics already have been more than we’re getting today” (1989). Comic artists like Watterson are advocating for an earlier tradition in order to position themselves as part of an important tradition. In some cases, notable comics artists curate and support reprints and curatorial interventions to share and bring forward work from the past, positioning comics artists as people who do that kind of work.
Comic artists can feel ambivalent about this. What made Maus striking was not only that it was telling a story of serious import, but that it was using the form of funny animal comics– bidding for the status of pop culture, while also bidding for respectability. As they reach for a tradition, they find themselves drawing from and distancing them from this.
== Stuff ==
Henry notes that comics are stuff, in that they are objects we consume, keep, or diascard, and they represrent stuff, in that they include in their images the material element sof the life of their characters. Because of this dual relationship to stuff, comics can tell us a great deal about the lived materiality of contemporary sociality. The term “stuff,” says Jenkins, is part of a larger trend to consider the things in life, including Appadurai’s work on “the social life of things” and “the world of goods” discussed by Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, as well as Daniel Miller’s “Stuff” and “The Comfort of Things.” Anthropology and art criticism have also considered objects, in work by Orhan Pamuk (The Innocence of Objects) and Peter Schwenger, Bill Brown’s “A Sense of Things,” and Freedgood’s “The Ideas in Things,” as literary and art critics are responding to anthropologies of stuff.
Bill Brown frames his work by asking “why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or re-make ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies.” Most of that work focuses on 19th century literature. In our current time, stuff isn’t something that will be passed along, itis designed to be discarded. Yet at the same time, we use our material things to make meaning around and of ourselves: adults are holding on to toys that were disposable, posing with images of their collections, sahring them online. This fits into a larger pattern of sentimentalizing stuff, to use it to remind ourselves of places we’ve lived and people we’ve known.
This valuing of stuff becomes a driver of sites like Ebay. Henry shows the following ad from Ebay: what nothing was ever forgotten or ever lost?
We can think of this stuff as something we’re trying to make sense of as a culture. We have things like Antique Roadshow, shows like Hoarders, or even books about “the life-changing magic of tidying up.” The result is that we end up with homes that are full of clutter, conflicting symbols of identity and history, bids for meaning jumbled together. We get the cultural call to keep and to discard. But tis doesn’t look like post-modernity, it’s not surface. People are deeply invested in stuff, and thinking about it as clutter or simply surface doesn’t get at it.
To summarize, “stuff” is a lifestyle choice. There’s been a shift from inherited objects (19th century writers) to personal selection — the stuff we own as a reflection of us rather than our family, tribal, or national history. There’s a shift from “possessions” to “belongings” — it belongs to us and signals what we belong to. There’s a shift from the disposable to the collectable, and then from trivia to expertise. Collectors are not just people who own stuff, they’re people who desire stuff and know stuff, creating forms of knowledge that former generations might have thought as trivial.
== Comics and Stuff ==
Comics artists are part of this. Jenkins notes the Canadian film “Seth’s Dominion,” as well as photographers hurriedly taking photos of art deco buildings that were about to be taken down, telling stories about those buildings, and then creating versions of those buildings in cardboard that then gets into art galleries.
The digital becomes a gathering point of this kind of thing. For example, Hip Hop Family Tree inspires media collectors to find and reassemble the pieces that are mentioned in it. Steampunk is another example of a collector culture that builds futuristic objects in the aesthetic of older objects. Retrofuturism is a similar example of this, people who are obsessed with 1930s images of tomorrow, with films like Terminal City, Tomorrowland, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. These all represent an attempt to reclaim the material objects and material imagination of the 1939 world’s fair.
Henry talks about the emergence of the still life in the early modern world. There’s a shift from paintings that are epic in scope, works funded by church and state, to a focus on everyday stuff. In Dutch capitalism, wealth is growing, yet there’s not a tradition of civic giving or charity; wealthy merchants wanted something to spend their money on, so they paid for beautiful paintings of their objects. It was a way that people displayed their own stuff and showed their appreciation of all kinds of stuff, and images of people collecting and gathering stuff. Art historians of the still life argue that there’s a shift from the crown or church to private collectors, a shift from the epic to everyday life. In the case of early modern painting, the shift to everyday life was seen as a lowering of status, unlike comics, where the shift was from lower to higher status.
Now, so with graphic novels. Jenkins shows us panels from Asterios Polyp that were designed to tell us things about a person’s life from the state of someone’s living quarters: an apartment with modernist furniture piled high with stuff. Across the book, there are six panels that show the history of a relationship. In the beginning, it’s a purely modern place. And then, there’s a moment of crisis: will his girlfriend’s belongings fit? Does she have a place in his life, as we see encated through the placing of her stuff. They integrate her furnishings into the space, then we watch is her aesthetic begins to takes over. After the relationship sours, remanants of her things linger. Readers learn to make sense of the scene by flipping back and forth between these moments. And it’s also part of a narrative.
Jenkins next compares comics about collectors with early modern about paintings that they would like to own and bring together– very similar to the kind of thing that collector comics creators are doing. Remember, says Jenkins, that everything drawn by the artist has a personal cost — they don’t get paid any more or less based on how much detail they include.
In Alice in Sunderland, Talbot introduces “cabinets of curiosity,” bringing back to the early modern practice of collecting oddities in cabinets and displays that are cornucopias of fragmented curiosity, dispersed attention, and personality. Ghost World is very much about why people own things. In two poignant moments, a teenager weeps over stuff that is important to her. There are things about stuff that shows us aspects of character that become turning points.
Compared to comics by men, female comic artists are focusing less on collecting stuff and more on the burdens of stuff and the process of getting rid of it. In Fun Home, Bechdel has problems with her father’s aesthetics that hide who her father is. It then focuses on the mother’s willingness to get rid of all the things after her father’s death. Special Exits is similarly about the death of parents, the emotional demands of getting rid of clutter, what’s left behind, with a blind mother-in-law asking if there are still ink smudges on the door frame left by her husband’s routine. Even though she’s blind, she can still guess that the stain and removal of stain is still there — something that expresses the relations in the family. Roz Chast’s “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant” includes a section on Grime and what collects on stuff.
To wrap up, as Henry reads these books, he’ll be patying attention to “Mise-en-scene as a site of virtuoso performance,” the social skills of reading stuff as key to understanding characters, collecting stories, and stories about culling through stuff (especially as men and women write about them differently), and stuff as key for thinking about memory, nostalgia, and history that run through these books. Often there’s a kind of “critical nostalgia” running through them, that is revealing of the genre and the cultural moment.
APPLICATION DEADLINE: JANUARY 29, 2016
Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for advanced PhD students to join the Social Media Collective (SMC) for its 12-week 2016 Intern Program. The Social Media Collective scholars at MSRNE bring together empirical and critical perspectives to address complex socio-technical issues. Our research agenda draws on a social scientific/humanistic lens to understand the social meanings and possible futures of media and communication technologies. The ideal candidate may be trained in any number of disciplines (including anthropology, communication, information studies, media studies, sociology, science and technology studies, or a related field), but should have a strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation, be interested in questions related to media or communication technologies and society or culture, and be interested in working in a highly interdisciplinary environment that includes computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists.
MSRNE internships are 12-week paid internships in Cambridge, Massachusetts. PhD interns are expected to be on-site for the duration of their internship. Primary mentors for this year will be Nancy Baym, Tarleton Gillespie, and Mary L. Gray, with additional guidance offered by our lab postdocs and visiting scholars.
PhD interns at MSRNE are expected to devise and execute a research project (see project requirements below), based on their application project proposals, during their internships. The expected outcome of an internship at MSRNE is a draft of a publishable scholarly paper for an academic journal or conference of the intern’s choosing. Our goal is to help the intern advance their own career; interns are strongly encouraged to work towards a creative outcome that will help them on the academic job market. Interns are also expected to collaborate on projects or papers with full-time researchers and visitors, contribute to the SMC blog, give short presentations, attend the weekly lab colloquia, and contribute to the life of the community through weekly lunches with fellow PhD interns and the broader lab community. While this is not an applied program, MSRNE encourages interdisciplinary collaboration with computer scientists, economists, and mathematicians.
PEOPLE AT MSRNE SOCIAL MEDIA COLLECTIVE
The Social Media Collective is comprised of full-time researchers, postdocs, visiting faculty, Ph.D. interns, and research assistants. Current projects in New England include:
- How does the use of social media affect relationships between artists and audiences in creative industries, and what does that tell us about the future of work? (Nancy Baym)
- How are social media platforms, through algorithmic design and user policies, adopting the role of intermediaries for public discourse? (Tarleton Gillespie)
- What are the cultural, political, and economic implications of crowdsourcing as a new form of semi-automated, globally-distributed digital labor? (Mary L. Gray)
- How are predictive analytics used by law enforcement and what are the implications of new data-driven surveillance practices? (Sarah Brayne)
- What are the social and political consequences of popular computing folklore? (Kevin Driscoll)
- How are the technologies of money changing and what are the social implications of those changes? (Lana Swartz)
SMC PhD interns may have the opportunity to connect with our sister Social Media Collective members in New York City. Related projects in New York City include:
- What are the politics, ethics, and policy implications of big data science? (Kate Crawford, MSR-NYC)
- What are the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development? (danah boyd, Data & Society Research Institute)
We are looking for applicants to focus their proposals on one of the following seven areas (though, you may propose a project that speaks to more than one of these):
- Personal relationships and digital media
- Audiences and the shifting landscapes of socially mediated entertainment
- Affective, immaterial, and other frameworks for understanding digital labor
- The social and political consequences of popular computing folklore
- The politics of big data, algorithms, and computational culture
- How emerging technologies shape countercultures, identities, and communities of difference
- Histories of computing and the internet that focus on the experiences of people from marginalized social, economic, racial, or geographic groups
Applicants should have advanced to candidacy in their PhD program by the time they start their internship (unfortunately, there are no opportunities for Master’s students or early PhD students at this time). Interns will benefit most from this opportunity if there are natural opportunities for collaboration with other researchers or visitors currently working at MSRNE. Applicants from historically marginalized communities, underrepresented in higher education, and students from universities outside of the United States are encouraged to apply.
For a complete list of all permanent researchers and current postdocs based at the New England lab see:
Previous MSRNE interns in the Collective have included Amelia Abreu (UWashington, information), Stacy Blasiola (University of Illinois, Chicago, communication), Jed Brubaker (UC-Irvine, informatics), Aleena Chia (Indiana U. communication and culture), Jade Davis (University of North Carolina, communication), Brittany Fiore-Silfvast (University of Washington, communication), Scott Golder (Cornell, sociology), Germaine Halegoua (U. Wisconsin, communications), Tero Karppi (University of Turku, media studies), Airi Lampinen (HIIT, information), Jessa Lingel (Rutgers, library and information science), Joshua McVeigh-Schultz (University of Southern California, interactive media), Alice Marwick (NYU, media culture communication), J. Nathan Matias (MIT Media Lab), Jolie Matthews (Stanford, learning sciences), Tressie McMillan Cottom (Emory, sociology), Andrés Monroy-Hernandez (MIT, Media Lab), Laura Noren (NYU, sociology), Nick Seaver (UC Irvine, anthropology), Jaroslav Svelch (Charles University, media studies), Katrin Tiidenberg (Tallinn University, Institute of International and Social Studies), Shawn Walker (UWashington, information), Omar Wasow (Harvard, African-American studies), Sarita Yardi (GeorgiaTech, HCI), and Kathryn Zyskowski (University of Washington, anthropology).
For more information about the Social Media Collective, visit our blog: https://socialmediacollective.org/
To apply for a PhD internship with the social media collective:
- Fill out the online application form: https://research.microsoft.com/apps/tools/jobs/intern.aspx
On the application website, indicate that your research area of interest is “Anthropology, Communication, Media Studies, and Sociology” and that your location preference is “New England, MA, U.S.” in the pull down menus. Also enter the name of a mentor (Nancy Baym, Tarleton Gillespie, or Mary Gray) whose work most directly relates to your own in the “Microsoft Research Contact” field. IF YOU DO NOT MARK THESE PREFERENCES WE WILL NOT RECEIVE YOUR APPLICATION. So, please, make sure to follow these detailed instructions.
Your application will need to include:
- A brief description of your dissertation project.
- An academic article-length manuscript (~7,000 or more) that you have authored or co-authored (published or unpublished) that demonstrates your writing skills.
- A copy of your CV.
- The names and contact information for 3 references (one contact name must be your dissertation advisor).
- A pointer to your website or other online presence (if available; not required).
- A short description (no more than 2 pages, single spaced) of 1 or 2 projects that you propose to do while interning at MSRNE, independently and/or in collaboration with current SMC researchers. The project proposals can be related to but must be distinct from your dissertation research. Be specific and tell us: 1) What is the research question animating your proposed project? 2) What methods would you use to address your question? 3) How does your research question speak to the interests of the SMC? and 4) Who do you hope to reach (who are you engaging) with this proposed research? This is important – we really want to know what it is you want to work on with us and we need to know that it is not, simply, a continuation of your dissertation project.
On Letters of Reference:
After you submit your application, a request for letters will be sent to your list of referees, on your behalf. NOTE: THE APPLICATION SYSTEM WILL NOT REQUEST REFERENCE LETTERS UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE SUBMITTED YOUR APPLICATION! Please warn your letter writers in advance so that they will be ready to submit them when they receive the prompt. The email they receive will automatically tell them they have two weeks to respond but that an individual call for applicants may have an earlier deadline. Please ensure that they expect this email (tell them to check their spam folders, too!) and are prepared to submit your letter by our application deadline of Friday 29 January, 2016. Please make sure to check back with your referees if you have any questions about the status of your requested letters of recommendation. You can check the progress on individual reference requests at any time by clicking the status tab within your application page. Note that a complete application must include three submitted letters of reference.
Due to the volume of applications, late submissions (including submissions with late letters of reference) will not be considered. We will not be able to provide specific feedback on individual applications. Finalists will be contacted the last week in February to arrange a Skype interview before the internship slots available to us are assigned (note: number of available slots changes year-to-year). Please keep an eye on the socialmediacollective.org blog as we announce the 2016 PhD Interns on the blog by the end of March.
If you have any questions about the application process, please contact Mary Gray at mLg@microsoft.com and include “SMC PhD Internship” in the subject line.
PREVIOUS INTERN TESTIMONIALS
“The internship at Microsoft Research was all of the things I wanted it to be – personally productive, intellectually rich, quiet enough to focus, noisy enough to avoid complete hermit-like cave dwelling behavior, and full of opportunities to begin ongoing professional relationships with other scholars who I might not have run into elsewhere.”
— Laura Noren, Sociology, New York University
“If I could design my own graduate school experience, it would feel a lot like my summer at Microsoft Research. I had the chance to undertake a project that I’d wanted to do for a long time, surrounded by really supportive and engaging thinkers who could provide guidance on things to read and concepts to consider, but who could also provoke interesting questions on the ethics of ethnographic work or the complexities of building an identity as a social sciences researcher. Overall, it was a terrific experience for me as a researcher as well as a thinker.”
— Jessica Lingel, Library and Information Science, Rutgers University
“Spending the summer as an intern at MSR was an extremely rewarding learning experience. Having the opportunity to develop and work on your own projects as well as collaborate and workshop ideas with prestigious and extremely talented researchers was invaluable. It was amazing how all of the members of the Social Media Collective came together to create this motivating environment that was open, supportive, and collaborative. Being able to observe how renowned researchers streamline ideas, develop projects, conduct research, and manage the writing process was a uniquely helpful experience – and not only being able to observe and ask questions, but to contribute to some of these stages was amazing and unexpected.”
— Germaine Halegoua, Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison
“Not only was I able to work with so many smart people, but the thoughtfulness and care they took when they engaged with my research can’t be stressed enough. The ability to truly listen to someone is so important. You have these researchers doing multiple, fascinating projects, but they still make time to help out interns in whatever way they can. I always felt I had everyone’s attention when I spoke about my project or other issues I had, and everyone was always willing to discuss any questions I had, or even if I just wanted clarification on a comment someone had made at an earlier point. Another favorite aspect of mine was learning about other interns’ projects and connecting with people outside my discipline.”
–Jolie Matthews, Education, Stanford University
Like most people who read this blog, I spend a lot of time thinking about the internet. I’ve come to realize that there isn’t really one internet, there are many, and these many internets are the result of the different practices and workarounds that individuals and communities have developed to make the internet meet their needs. As part of the Digital Culture Symposium at the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn, I organized a workshop called Meta/Hacking the Internet. I wanted the workshop to open up a way of thinking about the many-ness of the internet. At the same time, I wanted to think about materiality, partly because there’s a stubborn tendency to think of the interent as abstract and cerebral, partly because traditional academic settings are often themselves abstract and cerebral. So I invited four people – activists, artists, academics and social media practitioners – to share their favorite metaphors for the internet. Sean Brown used the metaphor of fire to talk about the utility and dangers of the internet. Sara Leavens talked about the transition from cyberspace to web as a metaphor, while tracing connections between poetry and the internet. For Damien Luxe, the internet is best thought of as an open mic, while Hector Postigo likened the internet to play doh.
(All photos by Kyle Cassidy)
(or, interactive art & entertainment: a short tour)
OK, dear readers, it’s time for some BuzzFeed-style content here on the Social Media Collective.
You want to understand digital media, right? You occasionally like to play a game, right?
I’m pleased to revisit and refresh my list of games that quickly demonstrate what is possible in digital gaming. Sort of: “digital games, a short tour.” With this list, you can inexpensively, briefly play one game every day and at the end of it all you’ve had a broad experience of what digital games can do.
To keep your attention, this blog post is illustrated with a few choice screen shots from games on the list. Like this one:
The ground rules. Games on the list must be:
- a computer game
- easy-to-learn-to-play (Not necessarily “easy.”)
- free, cheap ($10 or less), or have a meaningful playable demo
- quick, or at least quick to get into the substance (They need not be “casual” but casual is OK. If there’s a long tutorial before you get to the good stuff, forget it.)
- more likely to be from obscure, independent producers
- representing some aspect of gaming so that the complete list captures much of what is possible (The goal is breadth, within the limits of cheap, quick, and easy-to-learn.)
- the kind of thing that does not require unusual hardware or software (Games that can be played in a browser are ideal. Multi-platform games are great. Games that can be played with an downloaded emulator are OK. Games only playable on the Vectrex will not work.)
Note that the games don’t have to be new — in fact classic or influential games are a big plus. Technically I shouldn’t even care if the games are fun; they are supposed to broaden your perspective about what is possible. But don’t worry, these are fun.
Keep in mind that with the above requirements (free! obscure!) you won’t find AAA graphics and celebrity voices. Although some of these games are quite beautiful, there’s definitely less polish than average. Indeed, you could say these contenders tend toward the bizarre. But that’s OK. In the words of Mettaton, “Who needs arms with legs like these?”
But taking this tour is a great way to expand your perspective about digital game genres if you haven’t spent a lot of time with indies. And who doesn’t like a quick browser game? Vin Diesel understands.
(ASMR) Vin Diesel DMing a Game of D&D Just For You 
I’ll mark games on the list with [*] if they are super-duper quick, so you can jump right in if you want to.
Okay, without further ado, here is the list.
The 17 (Quick, Cheap, Easy-to-Learn) Games that Showcase (the Breadth of Potential in Digital) Gaming:
- Undertale.  ($10. This is the RPG where each monster does their best. At first it looks like straight nostalgia, until you realize what is actually going on. Would you kiss a ghost? HECK YEAH.)
- TIS-100  ($7. The puzzler’s puzzler. Motto: “It’s the assembly language programming game you never asked for!” This counts as easy-to-learn because its goal is to be “almost inscrutable,” and it succeeds immediately.)
- (ASMR) Vin Diesel DMing a Game of D&D Just For You  (Free. Yes that entire thing is the name. That title really describes it quite well, except that there is no ASMR. It’s a text adventure.) [*]
- Passage  (cost: free, format: side-scroller, crying: possibly, difficult to explain: yes) [*]
- Thirty Flights of Loving  ($5. Demolitions! Mechanic! Sharpshooter! Confectioner! Anita does it all. Time for a blast of narrative.) [*]
- Diner Dash  (Free. The game that took StarCraft casual. Heck it’s the game that took casual casual. It’s real-time resource management. Hurry up, it’s closing time.) [*]
- dys4ia  (Free. A game about identity that is also an autobiographical journal.) [*]
- Flow [2006/2013] (Free to download or $6 on PSN. Action/arcade, with a twist or two. Play the rebooted version on your biggest available screen.) [*]
- Façade  (Free. This game pioneered a new direction in conversational AI. It’s an uncanny cross between an RPG and a chat session. The New York Times said it was “the future of games” in 2004, but Trip told me “you know what? I think you should leave.”)
SissyFight 2000 [2000/2014] (Free. Take the trash-talk out of the CoD lobby and put it where it belongs… in the schoolyard. SissyFight is multiplayer game theory, people. And by “game theory” I mean the John Nash kind.)Oops, it looks like the 2014 Kickstarter reboot doesn’t work. I see a lot of bug reports and no players. 😦
- A Series of Gunshots.  (Free. Quite a different take on the shooter.) [*]
- Papers, Please  ($10. A morality puzzler/RPG crossover you might actually be able to finish, unlike the other puzzler on this list.)
- QWOP  (Free. A paragon of simulation. You’ll scorn those games with a simple “run” button after you get the chance to individually operate each of your hips and knees.) [*]
- Candy Box 2  (Free. It’s time-based click-farming that forges a new relationship to time, and to clicks. Or at least a new relationship to the game developer.)
- FTL [2012/2014] ($10 with a great iPad interface. Roguelike. “Please accept these small cakes made from stiff dough.” This is space exploration with character, and a great way to practice dying over and over.)
- Habbo Hotel. [2000-present] (Free. It’s a MOO! Sort of. Motto: “A strange place with awesome people. Get noticed!”)
- EnviroBear [2000/2010] (Free for PC, $1 for Android/iPhone. No list of games is complete without a driving game. Here’s a driving game where the premise is that you are a one-armed bear trying to drive a car. You may also get to wear a hat.) [*]
But there are so many great games I’ve left off the list! It makes me so mad I almost want to give the “throw baby” command.
Peasant’s Quest 
So here are some Honorable Mentions:
- Ultra Business Tycoon III.  (Free. A text adventure that feels like André Breton may have been involved somehow — but I have too many text adventures on the list already.)
- Peasant’s Quest.  (Free. This is a fantastic game but it only works if you are already very familiar with the “Quest” series of split-screen adventure games it is parodying.)
- Journey.  ($15 Wonderful but just too expensive for our rules. Also too long.)
A Series of Gunshots (2015)
An acknowledgement: Great suggestions above came from Mia Consalvo, Adrienne Massanari, Alex Pieschel, and Leigh Alexander.
17 is kind of a weird number, and this list is always in revision. What am I missing?
I worry that I’ve given short shrift to arcade games, as only Flow and EnviroBear represent that experience, and they’re far from representative. Likewise, my “shooter” isn’t a real shooter. My “driving game” isn’t a real driving game, etc. To cover the range of what people actually do when they play games, it seems like I should have a game more obviously about chance or gambling.
I’ve got games about confectioners covered though.
Thirty Flights of Loving (2013)
Let’s fix this tour. Please post your suggestions, people.