Saturday, 19 December 2015

Semiotics of Virality: For an Epidemiology of Meaning.

 The new call for papers for Lexia - Rivista di semiotica n° 24 is something Gabriele Merino and I have been working on in the past few months, under the supervision of Massimo Leone.
We believe that is time for semiotics to confront one of the most challenging concepts of the Internet era: virality. What communicative mechanisms, strategies and dynamics are hidden under this umbrella-term that seem to imply that Internet users are mere zombies, infected vessels of an external virus on which they have no control?
That's what we'd like to investigate in this new number of the prestigious journal of semiotics "Lexia" that we will be honoured to edit.


Full text PDF (w/ Italian, French, and Spanish translation):
Lexia, the international, peer–reviewed journal of CIRCe, the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Communication of the University of Torino, Italy, invites contributions to be published in issue n. 24 of the new series.

 The topic of the forthcoming issue is “Semiotics of Virality”.

1. Virality?
Users, media, professionals, and scholars talk more and more about “virality”, referring to online communication and, in particular, to social networks. This folk category is a vivid metaphor but lacks heuristic value. It describes what happens to texts that are said “viral” without shedding any light on their nature and functioning. They ‘infect’ social discourses, ‘spread like wildfire’, etc. But what are their features? How are they created? How do they propagate? How are they used? What effects do they have on users? Do they identify a homogeneous class? In addition, the image of contagion carries deterministic and reductionist connotations. It gives Web-users a passive role (‘infected’ subjects do not act, they are objects of action) and seems to endorse the hypodermic needle model (incompatible with the semiotic epistemology).
“Virality” is an umbrella term. It identifies an immensely heterogeneous set of texts and the dominant mode of their appropriation in the contemporary mediasphere. It turns the peculiarities of successful web-texts into something unspeakable and ineffable. Hence, it hinders the creation of specific tools for describing these texts, analysing them, and foreseeing their development. If randomness and accident play an inevitable role in these communicative processes, they are neither their only constituent nor the most important one. Defining a text as “viral” is almost meaningless. It merely tells us that it is rapidly spreading and gaining an important position, at a given moment, among online discourses.
Semiotics is the discipline that studies texts and their pertinence: it allows one to find connections beyond differences and to make distinctions within homogeneity. Hence, it should be able to pinpoint commonalities and singularities in the wide and manifold sets of texts that circulate in the Internet. The discipline of meaning relies on the most rigorous and versatile tools for analysing forms, usages, and transformations of both online practices and texts. So–called Internet phenomena, viral phenomena, and Internet memes represent one of the most fertile macro-areas for the semiotic analysis of online textuality, yet they have been almost completely ignored by the discipline.

2. The place of semiotics
Nowadays, semiotics seems incapable of keeping pace with the increasingly rapid reconfiguration of communicative and media systems, which nevertheless constitute its chief area of interest. A “semiotics of new media” exists, but new media such as Internet and social networks, not to mention their mobile and locative declination, have not been yet made the object of systematic inquiry. In other words, we do not have a “semiotics of Internet” as we have a “semiotics of painting”: namely, an applied semiotics, based on the general theory of signification but capable of taking into consideration the specificities of its objects of analysis. We are not claiming that a “semiotics of Internet” is necessary but that starting to systematically apply semiotics in order to study Internet would be highly desirable.
This semiotic standstill is not only caused by the unstable nature of the object of analysis (ever changing and updating systems, albeit anchored to- and integrated with- everyday life) but also due the discipline itself. Semiotic epistemology is not the problem. More likely, the issue stems from the methodological and analytic habits of semiotics: in particular, from the relationship of the discipline with technology, meant as a tool, not as an object. In other words, sociometric semiotics — that is, semiotics applying its principles and tools to verifiable and quantitatively relevant corpora — is yet to come. Semioticians have neglected a potentially fruitful area of study to the exclusive benefit of engineering sciences that, while embracing different paradigms and employing various tools, nevertheless find their common fetish in numbers and measuring practices: hence, the contemporary obsession with big data.
The possible role of semiotics within this scenario — which is getting more and more complex, selective, and hostile to approaches that are not immediately prone to be monetized — is twofold. On the one hand, semiotics features a consistent theoretical tradition and a strong, inter-defined, meta-language. On the other hand, it can deliver rich ethnographies and fine-grained qualitative analyses of any area of inquiry or corpus. As a matter of fact, semiotics is capable to take into consideration some fundamental dimensions of communicative processes and meaning–making practices that would otherwise be ignored by statistical tools and automatic analysis: humour, for instance, that is inevitably connected to a context, to the pragmatic dimension of a text, and to tacit, often highly specialized encyclopaedic knowledge.

3. Semiotics of virality
This issue of Lexia aims at filling a conspicuous gap in the literature, both in the semiotic tradition and, more broadly, in social sciences. The goal is to investigate the notion of “virality” in order to question it and go beyond it, thus outlining the guidelines for an “epidemiology of meaning”: a rigorous study of the meaning–making systems that regulate the creation, transformation, and spread of online contents.
Senior scholars and young researchers from different disciplinary fields are invited to submit their contributions on the topic of virality and its epistemological, theoretical, and methodological implications. Different perspectives are welcome, provided that they look at virality from a semiotic and communicational perspective. On the one hand, Lexia welcomes theoretically-oriented essays, exploring the current literature on virality and seeking to elaborate new models in order to further our understanding of the phenomenon. On the other hand, Lexia also welcomes analytically oriented papers, with the focus bearing on specific case–studies.

Bibliography -

Here is the expected publication schedule of the volume:
June 15, 2016: deadline for contributions
July 15, 2016: deadline for referees
September 15, 2016: deadline for revised versions of contributions
December 15, 2016: publication of Lexia n. 24.

Contributions, 30,000 characters max, MLA stylesheet, with a 500 words max English abstract and 5 English key–words, should be sent to Gabriele Marino ( and Mattia Thibault (
Languages: English, Italiano, Français, Español [other languages if reviewers are available].

Friday, 4 December 2015

From the Strong with love:
a month at Rochester's museum of Play.

Since November the 16th I have the pleasure of working on my researches in a wonderful and rich environment: The Strong Museum of Play
The museum was founded in 1968 by Margaret Woodbury Strong, a prolific collector of everyday objects, especially dolls and toys, and today encompasses almost 10000 m2 of exhibitions, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the National Toy Hall of Fame, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library (where I spend most of my time) and Archives of Play, the Woodbury School, the American Journal of Play, and  an awesome (alas not open to the public) warehouse full of toys, boardgames and artifacts, with an uncanny resemblance to the Indiana Jones' warehouse...

The Strong also offers three research fellowships, among which the "The Strong Research Fellowship" which I was honoured to be awarded with. 
The project I'm working on – which will be part of the PhD dissertation – aims at investigating the relationship between toys and meaning, focusing in particular on three different dimensions of the way this artefacts operate in a semiotic level: 
-The intentio auctoris: how toy makers, designers and companies try to and actually convey knowledge, meaning and cultural values through their creations; 
-The intentio lectoris: the semiotics aspects of the actual toy-play, that goes far beyond what the authors have imagined (see Sutton-Smith 1986) and make use of toys as means of self expression (see the works of Winnicott and Erikson) or as instruments to explore the world, both physical and semiotic. 
-The intentio operis: how the physical characteristics of these artefacts are able to influence and direct the way they are used and interpreted (see the works of Latour and Verbeek). 
A meaning-centered approach to toys, combining these three points of view, should be up to the task for an in depth analysis on toy-playto place side by side with those proposed by developmental psychology and social sciences. 
The topic, as some of you may know, isn't completely new to me, but the opportunity of analysing extensively different kinds of toys and toy catalogues, here at The Strong, is being fundamental for the advancement of the research! 

Monday, 19 October 2015

Schiaffi&Fagioli: a Spaghetti western videogame tribute to Bud Spencer and Terence Hill.

I just finished to play the brief & funny demo of Spaghetti & Fagioli (Slaps and beans), created in only a month (!) as an entry of IndieVault Spaghetti Western Jam.
The game is inspired by the Italian s-w film They call me trinity, a true masterpiece and cult film (you can hear it's theme song form Franco Micalizzi at the end of Tarantino's Jango Unchained), one of the best of the couple Bud Spancer / Terence Hill.

I vividly advice you to download the demo, or to watch it's video: it is an amazing mix of good pixel art, inspiration and very hard (and quick!) work.

 However, They call me Trinity is not the only film quoted in the demo... maybe it is the 21st October 2015, but I think I spotted something... anachronistic in the beautifully pixelated western city of Schiaffi & Fagioli...

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Ray Cats!

"Ancient tales, told by the elder, warn us not to approach new lands without bringing with us our loyal friends: the ray cats.
Old folk songs, hummed before sleep, tell us to hurry and run away, whenever our cats change colour.
Because the cats are our friends and will glow in the night to warn us from the nuclear wasteland."

This is not the beginning of a Fallout 4 side quest, even if it might look pretty similar, but a possible future imagined by the Human Interference Task Force. In the 80s the U.S. Department of Energy created a team of experts and asked them a simple question: how do you create a message that can still be meaningful after tens of thousandths of years?
More specifically, how can we communicate to the future humanity to avoid the areas that now we are using to store nuclear waste?

If the question is simple, the answer is not. The oldest written texts on Earth are only 5000 years old, and we are unable to read many of them. Who knows what sort of language will humanity speak in a dozen of millennia? What sort of culture will they have? Will they still be able to read? Will they have the technology to detect radiations or not?

The Human Interference Task Force come up with various answers, some of them pretty clever. My favourite is the one from semioticians Paolo Fabbri and Françoise Bastide. They argued that the most durable human product is culture: myths, religions, folklore, art and so on. So, if one wants to convey a message through ages it must engrave it on culture. The message will be modified and translated, but some of the main traits will forever be the same: let's think of Santa Claus or Harlequin!
The second step of the project was to individuate something that will probably still be part of human culture ten thousandths years from now, in order to use it as a vehicle of the message. That's when Bastide come up with the idea of cats. Cats are part of the human culture almost from the beginning, and they always have had very strong symbolic meanings - from the ancient Egyptians to Internet culture.
Fabbri and Bastide idea, then, was to create genetic modified cats that will glow and change colour if exposed to radiations: the ray cats.

Once created the ray cats, it is necessary to make an act of culture engineering and to convey the message "ray cat glowing = danger". In order to achieve this goal the semioticians suggest to create stories, songs, myths, objects that confirm this idea and, in a couple of generations: it's done! The message is part of the culture, now (Dawkins would say it has become a meme) and it will be retransmitted automatically though generations.
When the future humans will approach an area of nuclear wastes, seeing their cats glowing will remember them of all the old stories and songs that told how that is a sign of danger, and maybe they will stop and wonder if it is a good idea to continue in that direction.

The "ray cat" project was presented - not without a certain dose of humour - but it wasn't taken very seriously. Along with the other projects it was later published in German and... mostly forgotten (with the exception of us semioticians, of course!).

This, at least, until a couple of years ago journalist Matthew Kielty rediscovered the "ray cat project" and made it viral.
Since then the ray-cat has started to become a true cultural trope. They have entered the semiosphere and have been declined in several pop-cultural forms like t-shirts:

or music videos, see Don't change color kitty from Emperor X (full album):

This ray cats revival captured the attention of documentarists Benjamin Huguet and  Debanjan  Nandy that created the award-winning documentary La Solution Radiochat that won ANDRA contest "Looks on Nuclear Waste". You can see a preview here.

[UPDATE - The whole documentary in English is now available on-line on Vimeo]

As you can see from the documentary, some scientists are already working on creating glowing cats and so, who knows, maybe 20000 years from now people will look at cats with respect for their unnatural ability to help them avoid particularly radioactive spots in a post-nuclear world...

What I keep wondering, however, is: what if the first glowing turtle, found in September the 30th, is in fact, trying to give us a message? Where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the final result of an ancient act of culture engineering?

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Media Mutations 7 Videos
The videos of all the papers and keyword speeches of MM7 are available here.
You can see many presentations, among which Geoffrey Long's, Tanya Krzywinska's, Ivan Veturi's and, of course, mine ;) .
The registration confers to all of us a very funny "s", which may be distracting 'cause it's kind of funny. The contents are really interesting thought.

Scrolling a meme website I stumbled upon this wonderful picture by Louis Boutan, the first underwater photographer:

My first though, went to the film "Tale of tales" (Mattero Garrone, 2015) in which John C. Reilly with a similar suit had to fight against a water dragon...

 The underwater fight, although not really epic, was rather enjoyable, mainly thanks to its aesthetics.
Boutan's picture, however, puts together many different aesthetics and ends up looking ancient, mysterious and somehow magic all at a time. The historic value of his photograph and its unusual subject both pale in comparison to its astonishing and marvellous appearance, capable of evoking unattainable sensations in an infinite semiosis whose interpretant remains hidden and unclear.

If, on the one hand, today video games have almost attained a pure photorealism, on the other hand it becomes more and more evident that the future of the media will be aesthetic regimes that will differ more and more from reality and exploit the true potentialities of non-photorealistic aesthetic regimes and of the technologies they employ.

If wonderfully looking games like Future unfolding and Cuphead are already about to happen, I wonder what we'll see when we will be finally able to integrate neural system's Deep Dreams into complex, eye-candy (and somewhat creepy) dreamlike games.


Monday, 25 May 2015

Media Mutations 7 in Bologna.

Tomorrow I'll be in Bologna for Media Mutation 7 annual international meeting dedicated to communicative evolution. This year edition, entitled "Space Invaders. The impact of digital games in contemporary media ecosystems" seems to be perfect for my Lotmanian, semiotic approach! I prepared a bunch of colorful slides to make my semiotics more sexy and I'm ready to go! :)
I'll be glad to visit again the city of Towers (how is it possible that there is no Assassin's Creed set in Bologna? It would have been perfect! Well, in the meantime we have this, currently in kickstarter!).
I've to admit that I'm also quite exited to hear our keynote speakers, Tanya Krzywinska and Geoffrey Long (Peppino Ortoleva, in charge of the final remarks, is also very good, but I have the chance to see him quite often!).
I'm looking forward also to meet Gabriele Ferri - possibly the first "semiotician of video games" in the world - which since now I've only met on Skype...

Anyway, here you can find the program of the conference. My presentation (and my colorful slides) will wait you here in a couple of days!

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Gamification and Urban Spaces in Turin.

The conference "Mettiamo in Gioco la Città - Gamification Urbana e Cittadini Giocatori" was held in Turin the 7th of May, and was quite a success.
You can find here some preview photos, for all the materials (videos, slides, book of abstracts and photos) see:

Professor Peppino Ortoleva the inventor of the term "Homo Ludicos".

Some of our public.

 The round table with Professor Guido Ferraro (president of the Italian Association for Semiotic Studies), Fabio Viola (international expert of gamification), Marco Mazzaglia (from Ovosonico), Agata Meneghelli (game semiotician and researcher) and Riccardo Fassone (from dotventi).

 ...and myself! =)

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Gamification and Urban Spaces: only a week to go before the Workshop in Turin.

"Mettiamo in Gioco la Città - Gamification Urbana e Cittadini Giocatori"*is the title of a (kind of semionerd) Workshop to be held in Turin the 7th of May.
As the head of the organizing committee i couldn't be prouder: thanks to a grant from the Fondazione Fondo Ricerca e Talenti we have been able to invite many awesome speakers and the number of registered participants is higher than expected!

 Here you can check the Facebook page of the event! The program will be the following:

09:00 Opening remarks by Ugo Volli.
09:30 Peppino Ortoleva: “Esperienza urbana e ludicità contemporanea”.
10:15 Atelier. Participants: Eleonora Chiais, Alessandra Chiàppori, Vincenzo Idone Cassone, Gabriele Marino, Marta Milia, Elsa Soro, Simona Stano, Mattia Thibault, Federica Turco.
13:00 Lunch break.
14:00 Gabriele Ferri: "Playmakers. Finzione, interazione e gioco di ruolo nella costruzione di spazi pubblici".
14:45 Agata Meneghelli: "Percorsi aumentati: il ruolo della narrazione nelle app ludiche geolocalizzate".
15:30 Fabio Viola: "Playable city: il gioco come strumento di cambiamento".
16:15 Coffee break.
16:30 Mauro Salvador: "Dotventi e Media mutations 7: il design partecipativo di un conference game".
17:15 Round table. Chair: Fabio Viola. Participants: Riccardo Fassone, Guido Ferraro, Marco Mazzaglia e Agata Meneghelli.
18:30 Conclusions by Massimo Leone.

Needless to say, some of these names belong to the most important game scholars in Italy!

The workshop will be also availabe in streaming here, and the video will then go on the youtube channel of Lexia (international semiotic journal).

We are also planning to publish the proceedings...

I'll keep you updated here on the blog!


*Translated: "Let's bring the city into play - Urban gamification and player-citizens"

Conspiracy Theories and Semiotics of the Web.

This year's "Meetings on Meaning", the semiotic conferences organized by the CIRCe (Interdepartmental Center of Research on Communication) and held at the University of Turin, are dedicated to conspiracy theories.

 [Click here for the program]

The record of all the meetings already held are available (in HD!) on the Lexia (International Journal of Semiotics) channel on youtube. Most of them are in Italian, but there is some in English too, so it's worth to check...

In any case, here you can find my lecture, dedicated to conspiracy theories in the periphery of the semiosphere of the web (i.e. all those sites like 4chan and 8chan) and a case study on the GamerGate controversy. I hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Turin Semiotic Atelier on Games is now on line!

The 18-19th nober of E|C, the journal of the Italian Association for Semiotic Studies is now available on line!

Atelier #2, Estetiche del Quotidiano, supervised by Prof. Massimo Leone is all dedicated to how games are changing our everyday life. Unfortunately it is only in Italian, but an English Book of Abstracts is also available.

The atelier's articles are:

Eleonora Chiais: I-dress e giochi del vestire. Appunti semiotici sulla ludicizzazione della moda 3.0.
Alessandra Chiappori: Romanzi cinguettati e contraintes virtuali. Come Twitter gioca e fa giocare con l’arte del narrare.
Elsa Soro: Mapping in love. Forme del desiderio e forme dell’incontro nelle dating app.
Simona Stano: Edo ergo ludo, ludo ergo edo. Forme di vita ed estetiche del quotidiano tra universo alimentare e dimensione ludica.
Mattia Thibault: Gioco e spazialità digitale. Percorsi ludici tra avenue digitali e realtà alternata.
Federica Turco: Io ballo sola. Dalla piazza alla casa, come cambiano le performance nei giochi per console e smartphone.

Monday, 16 February 2015

How to write a Ludography.

Some days ago I had to write a ludography (which is the list of games taken into consideration, the lusory version of bibliographies and filmographies) for a chapter I'm co-authoring. As almost all the ludographies that I ever had read had different formats, and there is not a single, clear definition on how to write it I had to be somewhat creative, and create my own way of referencing based on Harvard Referencing (see here).

Note: even if some indication to how reference video games and computer programs do exist, I haven't found anything on analogue games.

The basic schema for referencing games is:

Authorship/developers (year)[eventual year of first publication] game title (version)[kind of game][support][platform] Distributor/publisher.

Here some examples:

Epic Games and Digital Extremes (2000)[1999] Unreal Tournament (GOTY edition)[videogame][CD-ROM][Microsoft Windows] Redversiongamer.

ArenaNet (2012) Guildwars 2 ("Point of no return" release, season 2)[videogame][download][Microsoft Windows] NCsoft.

Garfield, R. (2005)[1993] Magic The Gathering (Ninth edition)[trading card game] Wizards of the Coast.

Cook, M., Tweet J. and S. Williams (2003)[1974], Dungeons and Dragons: Player's Handbook (3.5 edition)[Role-playing game rulebook] Wizards of the Coast.

Perudo (2011)[traditional dice game] Giochi Uniti.

Darrow, C. and E. Magie (2008)[1903] Monopoly [Montcuq edition][Boardgame] Hasbro.

For any question, advice or feedback, contact me!