Dissertation Series: Chapter 3: Participation and Shaping Change in Politics and Cultural Objects

3.1 Methodology


The methodology that was chosen to explore the ways audiences influence change through the use of social media, is a case study. The case studies consist of a more general study of how social media can be powerful tool in a political election campaign, and also a study of the level of change that can occur over time as an audience converges and participates collectively in the video game Team Fortress

(TF2). To better understand the process of interaction taking place, a qualitative analysis of both case studies was undertaken. The strengths of this approach lie in its ability to deconstruct the underlying processes and identify the role of the convergence and participation cultures in how people used social media of influence change in two very different environments.  As Flyvbjerg (Flyvbjerg, 2004) in David Silverman’s Interpreting Quantitative Data notes:



For researchers, the closeness of the case study to real-life situations …is important or the development of a nuanced view of reality, including the view of human behavior cannot be meaningfully understood as simply the rule-governed acts

found at the lowest levels of the learning process. [..] (Silverman, 2011, p. 386-387).



This means when undertaking to evaluate such an historically important moment as the election of Barack Obama, and also given the large amount of existing work already available in the area, it was important to have a very narrow focus when conducting the research. The central focus of this case study was on the way people converged together through the use of social media during the election campaign, and how Obama encouraged people to participate by using social media. The second case study is analysis of the way an audience participates together and the mechanics of this interaction between the human and the non-human actors. Actor Network Theory (ANT) was the theoretical framework used for this more in-depth look at audience participation and convergence around a cultural object. Using (ANT) this case study looked at, how the players are an important element of guiding the direction of how video games are developed when the player involved in the development process. (ANT)’s ideas of human and non-human actors interaction was examined in the way users contributed their own content to improve upon the original game for the benefit


of all the players. By doing this, the case study was able to provide an insight into


how the shaping of the video game (TF2) utilized the convergence and particpation of individuals to form a community of active contributers.







3.2 Case Study 1: President Obama’s use of social media to engage and mobilise potential voters.



The election campaign of 2008 was a landmark election for the United States, not only did it signify the election of the first Black President in American history, the

2008 election campaign was also the first election to instrumentalise campaigning using social media. Candidates used Facebook and Twitter to send updates to their supporters and television network CNN used YouTube to conduct debates between rival candidates. Barack Obama was a pioneer of using social media websites to engage, motivate and encourage voters from across America to participate in the election campaign. Information sharing through Facebook and Twitter combined with popular culture remixes of his campaign slogan really helped the Obama campaign to victory. The campaign also inspired online communities to create user generated music videos about Obama and his election slogan, Yes We Can. 2008 saw new ways for people to converge and participate in a political election compared to previous elections.


3.2.1 Change you can believe in


While introducing his article ‘The logic of media convergence’ Henry Jenkins demonstrates the existence of contradictory trends taking place in the American media market:


The American media environment is now being shaped by two seemingly contradictory trends: on the one hand, new media technologies have lowered production and distribution costs, expanded the range of available delivery channels and enabled consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate and recirculate media content in powerful new ways; on the other hand, there has been an alarming concentration of the ownership of mainstream

commercial media, with a small handful of multinational media conglomerates dominating all sectors of the entertainment industry (Jenkins, 2004 p. 33-34).


As new ways to share information on the Internet became available to the public, users began to experience media content in more powerful and dynamic new ways. Jenkins points out despite these new ways of accessing media. Political debates in the years running up to the 2008 election remained constrained, due to the concentration of media ownership and the lack of an alternative to these organizations.

Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder note the affects this trend can have on the electorate:

If the only story is the campaign, then practically all voters, no matter how involved they maybe with other matters, will know who is ahead and who is behind. Such relentless promotion of a single view of the campaign reduces the electorate’s capacity to choose wisely (Iyengar & Kinder, 2010 p. 129).


By having all the content ownership centralized to a small number of very powerful large companies the market loses competition, and thus lowering the diversity of news coverage.  As it did, then social media began to offer new sources of analysis and places for politicians to network with the electorate.  Before 2008, there had only been a limited number of blogging sites and forums to facilitate this functionality. Social media companies like Facebook in 2004, and Twitter in 2006 creating new ways to share information. Rich media website publications also started to become popular at this time, two prominent examples include; the Salon and the Huffington Post. Jenkins notes that potential influence the early days of social media:

Furthermore, early signs are that blogging may play a decisive role in shaping the

2004 American presidential elections, having been identified as a key factor in propelling maverick candidate Howard Dean into the front ranks for the Democratic

Party nomination (Jenkins, 2004 p. 36).


During the previous election seasons of 2006 and 2008 the new technologies were not large enough to enabled individuals to participate in media rich online communities like they did in 2008. But this changed with Web 2.0, social media become more powerful in a way that enabled young voters to become politically cognitive and

aware of social issues. These younger voters shared their beliefs and political opinions faster and more effectively than the traditional news media on the new emerging

online space that Web 2.0 provided, Matthew Kushin and Masahiro Yamamoto noted the role of these new online tools played in young voters networking together (Kushin

& Yamamoto, 2010 p.609):




The growth of online political behaviour has been facilitated partly by the recent emergence of new interactive, media-rich Web sites. These Web sites, often referred to as social media, exist under the conceptual umbrella of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 Internet networks are valued in proportion to their capacity to harness the participation of online communities in the production, amalgamation, and exchange of information (Kushin & Yamamoto, 2010 p.612).


3.2.2 New Media Campaign Tools

When the young voters made use of social media platforms to not only find

information, but also share this information with their peers on the internet, this helped the voters express political attitudes and interact with candidates’ campaigns directly. Kushin and Yamamoto use the ideas of Danah Boyd of ‘social software’ to explain the way this interaction online affected the young voter political awareness on social media:


Social software is about the collective and is organized around

human interaction (boyd, 2007). For example, Facebook users could express themselves politically in various ways such as by making online donations,

encouraging their friends to vote, and posting graphics or status updates

expressing political attitudes and opinions (Kushin & Yamamoto, 2010 p.613).



This trend of interaction was then expended when the news media itself made use of the social media website YouTube to allow users the chance to interact with the candidates in the primary debates for both the Republican and Democratic parties. Users would record a question on an issue that was important to them. From which user submitted videos were chosen to be aired live on the debating floor during a broadcast on CNN. Since 2008, YouTube has also conducted similar debate sessions in Ireland for the Irish general and Presidential elections in partnership with Irish broadcaster RTE in 2011. Kushin and Yamamoto observe this new form of




YouTube and CNN teamed up to sponsor a debate in which candidates took questions from user-created video as opposed to a moderator, further encouraging the emergent phenomenon of user-generated political video expressions (ibid).


This new form of interaction demonstrates the new opportunities social media can provide, from having debates to both online communities participating in a live broadcast. The relationship between media and the political process has now changed; candidates standing for election are now expected to be instantly accessible on Twitter and Facebook.  Social media requires them to engage in new forms of debates, while also being prepared for instantaneous reaction to the slightest misguided comment or


finding of old controversial views. Perhaps the best example of how this can go wrong is Sean Gallagher during Irish presidential election in 2011. In the run-up to the final weeks of the Irish presidential election Gallagher had a strong lead over the other candidates, however, after allegations were made about Gallagher collecting money on behalf of a political party that he had failed to mention earlier, Gallagher’s campaign collapsed. The speed at which information traveled thanks to social media

can be potentially disastrous for parliamentary candidates running for election. Unlike Sean Gallagher, Barack Obama used social media in a much more effective way when he was running for election.


The Obama campaign was spread across multiple platforms including Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, including using prominent celebrities as endorsements of his campaign with the slogan of ‘yes we can’. Converging on social media the supporters were able to connect together and coordinate the campaign at the grassroots

level. This convergence of ‘E- participation’ was managed centrally by the Obama campaign on their campaign website. Aysu Kes-Erkul and Erdem Erkul, highlight the way this participation was organized using the internet:

On, the main tool for interaction between users is the blog page. Visitors can join this blog page and post their comments by creating a user account, which is a very common, user-friendly application […] During the presidential campaign, the website content was focused on the concept of change, whereas the most popular blog discussions were about the development of the campaign and the activities (Kes-Erkul & Erkul, 2009 p. 11-14)


Volunteering and organization of the network of campaign volunteers was also carried out from the campaign’s website. Ordinary citizens were encouraged to register to vote, information on blog sub pages allowed people to participate and create content for the campaign.3 With news and updates of the various different activities that were taking place simultaneously in the country. The campaign developed a ‘MyBO’ section on the website to incentivise the public to become

involved as highlighted by Lorien Abroms and Craig Lefebvre:












3Obama Campaign Site can be accessed here: [Accessed 03/04/2012]


This password-protected section allowed people interested in being part of the campaign to register and then be part of a private community of supporters. In the MyBO community, supporters could communicate with fellow supporters, plan events using event-planning tools, fundraise with goal-setting tools, and blog about their feelings, both positive and negative, about the candidate and the campaign (Abroms & Lefebvre, 2009 p. 416).


As Obama actively canvassed people across the internet through social media, some of his supporters used social media to create their own content. This content was in the form of websites, blog posts and music videos made about the Obama campaign. The supporters young and old participated together to form cultural objects themed about the candidate and the slogan of the campaign. User generated content appeared on FacebookTwitter and YouTube, it was through YouTube that some of the most prominent user-generated videos and their creators found fame for themselves due to the remixes and music videos that they made. Abroms and Lefebvre observe how popular some of the user content became:


Obama Girl’s ‘‘I got a crush . . . on Obama,’’ which received more than 12 million views (barelypolitical, 2007) and’s ‘‘Yes we can’’ music video which received over 14 million views (WeCan08, 2008)” (ibid, p. 419)






3.2.3 Politics in a New Age of Social Media


By making use of social media the Obama campaign was able to bring people together to converge and participate in the election process. Combined with a very strong sense of political urgency, people participating in the Obama campaign felt indirectly connected together due to the power of social media. Social media made people converge from different backgrounds and different walks of life to unite around one goal and one objective. This meant the Obama campaign influenced how people interacted with it, The campaign was also shaped by the involvement of ordinary people on the ground. Whether it was raising money or creating awareness about the Obama campaign, Obama’s 2008 campaign stands out for the way in which it used social media to achieve its aims.

These developments indicate that in the emerging era of public communications, tradional media consumption may not be prominent position in the public sphere as in the past. In addition, the discourse taking place online is changing how we engage with media texts. Most of these transformations are driven by the public use of new media platforms and tools. Media Conglomerates should be aware of these implications and weigh their options. More than ever, they need to look at their content, and find new ways to make it easier to access. This will allow for greater diversity and independence in content being brought to the masses.




3.3 Case Study 2: How does the convergence of like-minded communities inform and shape cultural objects




Every human interaction with technology is based on the communication between the actors involved. This process shapes the development of social and technological elements in a cultural object or piece of technology such as a video game, mobile device or social media platform. This idea of networked actors and the agency they have to act on objects was first explored by Bruno Latour. In this dissertation I aim to show that video games like Team Fortress 2 demonstrate this kind of social conversion and dialogue between various actors involved. I examine the conditions that allow or deny these relationships to materialize, and suggest that they have

simultaneously social and commercial benefits for the users of the game as well as the developer.


3.3.1 Acting together to build the Team


In this case study of the popular video game called Team Fortress 2 (TF2) (Valve,


2007), I will explore and examine the relationships that a community of players has with this particular video game. TF2 has undergone a large number of changes since it was originally designed in 2007, using the theoretical framework of Actor Network theory (ANT) first theorized by Bruno Latour. An analysis of the player/game relationship will be conducted to investigate the development of the video game and the community of players. The primary objective in the game is for both teams, is to kill enemy players. In this respect TF2 is not very different from many other contemporary games in the genre. However what makes TF2 different is the history of

how it was created compared to games like Call of Duty.vii



TF2 is a team-based online multiplayer game; the game has its own quirky styleviii. Over the years since its launch in 2007, TF2 has received new content. New content ranges from new weapons to character clothing, to maps and additional game modes. New functionality and user generated content has also been added to the original game through a series of updates. According to the official ‘Wiki’ website that


provides information on the game1, there have been to date: 354 patches released4. This level of developer support is very unique in the video games industry.


3.3.2 Players contributing to the Game


In this model the player has the potential to become more than a passive consumer, s/he can become empowered as active developers and users, part of something much larger than a community. When a larger community becomes active in the contribution of user-generated content it is possible for the wider collective to shape

and improve upon the original game for the benefit of all the interest groups involved. This community shaping of the video game TF2 through user contributions can be described as being a type of conversation that is an ongoing dialogue between human and nonhuman actors’ that collaborate together to form a network. This idea is noted by Mark Cypher (Cypher, 2006) in his work on how actor network theory shapes the way human and technological actors form ‘collective agencies’ that are dependent on one another in order for technology and the society using it to grow and develop. According to Bruno Latour:


The human-technology relation as a heterogeneous network of human and non humans(technologies/machines/materials) that work together to make things possible that neither could achieve without the other (Latour, 1994 p.).



By analyzing the way the player interacts with the game in the context of shaping the development of TF2, I will examine four different areas that illustrate how this

process happens. Firstly the game exploits its unique art style and game-play to attract players into playing it. Secondly, a dialogue between actors shaping the game, as the players start becoming more engaged in the process of creating their own content that is subsequently added to the game. This shows the social shaping element of the human actors and their contribution to the shaping of the technology as described by Actor Network Theory. The third stage looks at how this new content from the community was created, developed and built on the game’s preexisting content. This process has resulted in the evolution of TF2 over the course of its life since its launch; I will explore the methods that the games developer uses to add the content into the game and how this is a different model when a community mods a game to their own

enjoyment. The final aspect that will be looked at is the commercialization of the



4 More information on TF2 can be found here: [Accessed: 03/04/2013]


game and how this has changed over the course of the games life cycle due to the affects of players social shaping influence on TF2, A new kind of commercial relationship between users and the developer has begun thanks to the game makers use of a micro transaction model which has become popular in video games such as Farmville (Zynga, 2009).



The first component in creating the dialogue between the human and technological actors is to create a video game experience that will evoke and motivate individuals to feel emotionally invested in the game play experience and to create what Christopher Moore calls an ‘affective tone’ whereby, ‘a game encompasses the methods the designers implement in their games to evoke emotional responses from the player’ (Moore, 2011 pp. 1-14).


What Moore is referring to is the connection and emotional feeling the human actor gets when interacting with the game, and other players in the TF2’s virtual environment. This attention to creating an immersive experience most readily manifests itself in how TF2’s characters and multiplayer area maps are designed and animated in order for it to appeal to potential players. Moore (2011) observes this element of the game’s design in how the two competing teams are styled and presented to the player:



The RED team’s base locations are rendered in warm red, orange and brown tones. The buildings are exaggerated and idyllic examples of farmhouses and warehouses and other fixtures of rural America of the mid twentieth century. BLU bases tend towards cooler colours, the blues and greys of industrial materials, with flat roofs and angular building designs (Moore, 2011 pp. 1-14).



Coupled with this is atmospheric art design is the game play that features different classes that work together and force individuals to operate as a team, helping the video game developers make TF2 an immersive experience that compels players to keep playing long after games that were released in the same time period have fallen out of popularity.




3.3.3 Mann vs Machine: player involvement in content creation


Once the player feels invested in the product and the game has managed to attract a


large community around itself, it is possible to observe how the community has shaped the development and design of TF2 as it has been updated with added new game-play elements, modes and content. The largest element of the game to have changed since its release relates to how new content is created. Where once it was only the game’s developer who were driving the content for the game, since 2010

players now have the Steam Workshop(Valve, 2010) toolkit to create and add


content such as new items and weapons to the game. This additional user generated material is networked interaction between the players and the game, supports actor network theory where the dialogue between social actors is central to the development of both the human game-play experience and the development of the game. The

toolkit is extends the human user and his or her actions in much the same way as Latour (1994) described how a central component of a game such as a weapon (gun) forms a network with a human actor when the human is welding the gun. Further elaborated by Cypher:



If I define you by what you have (the gun), and by the series of associations that you enter into when you use what you have (when you fire the gun), then you are modified by the gun – more or less so, depending on the weight of the other associations that you carry […] (Cypher, 2006).



By making the users part of the development process, the next step in the


development of the game is to begin adding the user-generated content into the game. The addition of content is then determined by the community. This model is very different to the way a community of ‘modders’ will act, because it is mediated

through the developer, Valve. The ‘modders’ add new content to the game as it


develops into a finished and fully realized piece of software. According to Scacchi


(2010) modders are:














5 Further details on the Steam Workshop can be found at

[accessed 02/04/2013]


Increasingly becoming a part of mainstream technology development culture and practice. Modders are players of the games they construct, just like FOSS developers are users of the systems they develop. There is no systematic distinction between developers and users in these communities

(Scacchi, 2010 p.)


While this process of modding was used in the creation of the first Team Fortress game, the process can have its own problems. One of the common issues and main negative side effects of having so many different actors working on the same source code comes when people have conflicting ideas of how the overall mod should function and progress. Such conflicts may then lead to the mods’ development becoming stagnated as people work against one another on competing ideas. One way of getting around this issue is by having a clear central actor that is in command of the overall direction in which the development is headed. Valve performs this role in TF2 development because it takes control how the new content is added to the game. The updates for TF2 add new content in two different ways, I will now examine what impact this has on how the games has evolved over the course of time with the interaction between the human and non-human actors.



3.3.4 What makes TF2 different


The first way that content is added to the game is through software updates, these updates have included, ‘additional changes to the character classes, new items, hats and achievements’ Moore (2011) these smaller updates are more common and are best described as performance tweaks to the game rather than wholesale changes to the core architecture of the game. However, the major updates that are released contain more content. Major updates are accompanied by additional sources of information about the new features and changes that are to be included in the upcoming new release. This form of advertising and creation of hype is noted by



Transmedic elements including websites, comics, and cryptic blog posts that are all designed to expand the affective bonds between the publisher, game and the consuming players (Moore, 2011 pp. 1-14).



As TF2 has changed in line with updates and additional new game modes such as the zombie-robot survival mode within the ‘Mann vs Machine’ update. Importantly, the game-play experience is also changed; the agency of the actors becomes augmented through the way the players evolve into users of a platform for different experiences


available within the same video game. In TF2 the survival mode is one option of many options available within the game-play, whereas with other video games in the FPS genre the game-play experience of the player is much more consolidated. With the variation of the experience being achieved through different difficulty levels. In the case of TF2 there are very different game-play options. These include game-play types such as the aforementioned survival mode to capture control points to original game-play type of the traditional team death match. Actor network theory accounts

for how participants of the game have been a major factor in the development process of these new possibilities. Mark Cypher notes this impact of the audience by discussing the work of Don Ihde (Ihde, 1991) who researched how the actors interface together:



Even for a situation seemingly as simple as acquiring and holding a gun, the relations and possible implications become much more complex when the collective is taken into

account (Cypher, 2006).


This makes the case for a large amount of relationships to be taken into account, when associating technological devices and the tasks they perform with the human actor.



Another method of making user generated content available to players in the game is through the Mann Co. store, integrated into the game. This store is an area of the game that allows players to find new character apparel and weapons. Users are then encouraged to purchase new weapons and items in the Mann Co. store for real currency. It is this new element of commercialization that has enabled Valve to offer

TF2 as a free to play game (FTP). This means that the player doesn’t have to purchase


a license i.e. a DVD copy of the game in order to start playing.




Micro-transactions6 allow players to unlock content through making in-game purchases of items and weapons that the player wishes to use. By making a one off payment the player can avoid the large number of hours of game-play that are normally be required to obtain a specific item. The development of micro transactions changes the way the game generates revenue for the developer, but also it opens the

opportunity for the community members themselves to become involved in making



6 Further details on Micro Transactions mentioned above: [Accessed 2/04/2012]


money from the game through this micro transaction process. The benefits of this new marketing system were first used with major success in the arcade game Farmville (Zynga, 2009) the success of this marketing strategy and benefits of micro

transactions in Farmville is noted by Liszkiewicz in (Moore, 2011):




Of course, people can sidestep the harvesting process entirely by spending real money to purchase in-game items. This is the major source of revenue for Zynga, the company that produces Farmville. Zynga is currently on pace to make over three hundred million dollars in revenue this year, largely off of in-game micro-

transactions (Moore, 2011 pp. 1-14).


This chapter has shown that the relationship between video games and their players is a dynamic one were the human and non-human actors involved both shape the video game. This process has been shown on multiple levels to conform to the ideas and theories developed by Latour and Jenkins, i.e. the actors forming a network that ultimately shapes and forces change upon the technology. The end result of this process its that the game has changed into a platform that enables the users to not only add new content to the game but also the participate in the generation of revenue and sharing of the profit of these new micro transactions that take place. Through all of

this development the developer and the community have been able to greatly increase the life expectancy of the game when comparing to other games in the genre that have since been either replaced or stopped in their development.  What I am arguing for is that video games can become cultural objects by encouraging direct participation

from its invested community and allowing convergence and participatory cultural practices to emerge from the interaction of the actors present in this technology.