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Evan Conaway

Graduate Student, University of California, Irvine

Contributing Editor, Platypus: The CASTAC Blog

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About Evan

Evan P. Conaway is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His dissertation work examines how servers shape the way gamers experience place. Currently, he is exploring how gamers are using servers to preserve, memorialize, and restore virtual worlds, asking how virtual space is maintained and reproduced in relation to the material technologies that create it and what politics are embedded in present-day efforts to engage with the pasts of online game worlds.

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Contributions to Platypus: The CASTAC Blog

View all of Evan's posts on Platypus: The CASTAC Blog.

Locating Servers, Locating Politics

When we think of servers, like web servers and Amazon servers, we don’t usually think of them as occupying physical space. We might think of a remote data center, thanks in large part to images that have been circulated by companies like Facebook and Google. But still, these only visualize unmarked buildings and warehouse rooms, showcasing a particular tech aesthetic of colored wires and tubes, and neatly assembled rows of blinking machines (Holt and Vondereau 2015). Such imagery is hardly meant to provide the public with a sense of where servers are actually located. For most day-to-day computer users, it often doesn’t matter at all whether servers are in the U.S. or China or Russia, so long as they work.     But server location matters, and many groups of people value certain material benefits and effects of the placement of servers and their own proximity to servers. It matters for online gamers, who want to play as close to servers as possible to get the fastest connection (known as “ping”) and to reduce lag. It matters in a similar fashion for Wall Street traders, who sometimes strategically locate themselves closer to servers to gain a speed advantage in stock trading. Because racks of servers generate loads of heat, server location matters for cloud computing service corporations; they tend to situate their data centers in colder climates to make use of financially-sound “free cooling,” a process by which cold air is circulated from outside in place of an electric cooling (more...)

Pokémon GO and the visibility of digital infrastructure

This blog post is about the popular augmented reality game, Pokémon GO. If you are unfamiliar and/or want a brief overview of it and its cultural history, this is a useful resource.

As a virtual world anthropologist and a Pokémon nerd, I have become immersed in Pokémon GO. As the game continues to gain traction and I wander around meeting strangers and friends who are also playing the game, I have taken note of numerous issues of anthropological concern, like new forms of social interaction and the re-mapping and flattening of cityscapes. Colleagues and I have even speculated about whether Pokémon GO is a virtual world—by which I mean a computer-simulated, persistent, and shared environment online—and, if it is such a world, how it represents one that is visible even to non-players.

Participating in and observing the Pokémon GO phenomenon, I’ve found that players have been confronted by another recurring topic related to visibility: the visibility of game servers. I recently attended a large gathering of about 1000 Pokémon GO players in downtown Riverside, CA. We all walked around together, yet apart, huddled among small groups of friends with phones in hand, capturing virtual pets. Servers are the typically invisible and distant machines that allow such an event to happen. They connect people to the game world and to one another by receiving and returning signals to and from our mobile devices. They are an integral part of the ecology of media that enables the shared experience of being in a virtual space overlaid upon the actual world—and, curiously, players have a vague understanding of this. Pokémon GO servers have become very visible. If you ask any Pokémon GO player, servers are to blame for some of the greatest downfalls of the game, like faulty connections, glitches, outages, and lag. Developers have repeatedly mentioned servers as the root of many issues with the game, and, as a result, many players continue to point fingers at servers. So why have servers, things we can’t see or even explain, become the targets of so much anger and frustration? How can we characterize the very visible role servers play in the social worlds of Pokémon GO? (more…)