Exploring the Past and Present of Property in Our Current Future...
A Project by Elizabeth Townsend Gard and Rachel Goda
I (Elizabeth) am delighted to be guest blogging at Terra Nova for the month of April. I want to discuss a current project that I am working on, and in the process I hope to gain suggestions on the direction it should take in the future. Beginning in January 2007, I decided to take 100 first year property students into Second Life as part of their graded work. (I am currently a visiting professor of law at Seattle University School of Law, teaching property, intellectual property, and copyright). The idea of taking 100 students into Second Life was a gamble indeed…for so many reasons. I was not alone in my endeavor, however. I have had the most amazing 2L research assistant, Rachel Goda, who early in the fall, agreed to be part of this crazy adventure, and lend her enormous gaming expertise, both to the design and execution of the project. Our posts will be about our journey—from my perspective, from hers, and even from the students.
What I would like to share in this first post is my original idea for the project, the reasons behind the structure that was finally chosen, and our initial experiences. In the second post, I will let Rachel take the lead and describe her experiences with the project. The third official post will be a blend of discussing with the students what they have gotten out of the project, and then the fourth official post will be a wrap-up of what we have learned so far, and where I am thinking of taking the project next.
To begin, I should explain how I came to this project. This year I am a visiting assistant professor at Seattle University School of Law, teaching intellectual property and property. What this translates to is that my field is copyright, and as part of my teaching package, I was also assigned to teach a year-long first year property course for the first time. A bit daunting with the traditional concepts of first in time, adverse possessions, estates and future interests, landlord-tenant, communal property, easements, nuisance, eminent domain, to name a few. I knew I wanted to include some intellectual property concepts into the mix—our casebook already did in a small way. And I had been encouraged by some to rely on my European history background (a Ph.D. from UCLA) to focus on the historical links and connections that formed the common law traditions upon which property still rests. But, for me, I found the roots of history often made students feel even more disconnected from a subject—it made a difficult subject seem even less immediate. Then, while at the IP Scholars conference at Berkeley, I found the theme that would eventually take us on a journey involving an avatar named Fizzy Soderberg.
At one of the sessions, Tyler Ochoa from Santa Clara University’s School of Law was presenting on his recent work on avatars. A Berkeley student from the back asked a question about what laws govern property within the Second Life? Did property concepts translate into the new virtual environment? How did property and contract laws relate? It was a question I had been thinking throughout the presentation as well. I had been reading about Second Life and virtual property—in various news stories here and there. But I didn’t know much. What I did know, however, started to intrigue me—especially for my property course…
Here was the paradigm. We study modern property three days a week for a full school year. We are deeply entrenched in problems of contemporary property law. But our casebook—our traditions—make us always aware that we are a product of our feudal past—our British feudal past. That is the paradigm that many over years and years have taught Property law. Second Life presented a new opportunity. Now, teach property as three phases: a feudal British past, a contemporary traditional property context, and the future as embodied in worlds like Second Life and the concept of “virtual” property. What can our past teach our present and our present teaches our future? What elements of property are being translated into Locke’s new “America”? (Our case book begins with Locke’s “Thus in the beginning all the world was America” ) Will places like Second Life feel the burden to continue traditions from feudalism or is it a new slate, because of technology, because it is a world based on contract, because it a world situated on intellectual property (for the most part) rather than real property? And by placing the class into the paradigm, I hope to give the students an opportunity to evaluate, apply, and analyze the concepts they were learning in their property class (especially concepts from the Fall semester during the Spring semester) in a new environment. What new challenges does Second Life face that traditional property does not? What role does technology play in regulating conduct and concerns? These were a few of the initial basic questions.
The imagined project took many forms over the Fall semester—I thought of having each student create an avatar. I thought of groups that would work with an avatar over the semester and interact with each other. I came, however, to choose a very different model. We have one avatar – Fizzy Soderberg (named by the first group) and fourteen groups of seven to nine students. We would have a pet hamster, so to speak. We would follow Fizzy’s journey through the semester. Each group would be given ONE week to explore Second Life with Fizzy, gather the latest news, and most importantly, research a key concept in property law. At the end of the week, the students record a screencasting in my office. The PowerPoint is prepared by the self-appointed group leader. Each student creates their own portion of the script. Then, the 15-20 minute presentation is presented to the class, as well as being posted at Fizzy’s Second Life (www.fizzysecondlife.blogspot.com) and iTunes.
So far, we have had six groups record their screencasts, and they have far exceeded my expectations in terms of their enthusiasm, time, and investigation. I made an editorial decision that the scripts would be all their work, and that only when something was significantly “wrong” would I intervene. I wanted it to be their experiences.
The remaining portion of this post is how the exercise is structured in more detail, along with the weekly property categories in the project. This project could not be possible without Rachel Goda, whose enthusiasm, patience, smartness, and experience has really made this project possible. She will be writing the majority of the second post.
And finally, I want to make a disclaimer. This is in many ways an intentionally naïve project. The students were given a few law review articles on virtual worlds, and we had discussions about the kinds of questions, the kinds of news stories that were being discussed particularly with regard to Second Life. We also had Daniel Huebner (Director of Community Affairs at Linden Lab come to our class virtually on the first day of our class in January as a kick-off to the project (thanks to Rachel). But other than that, I wanted them to take their limited knowledge of property and pair it with their limited knowledge of Second Life. The screencasts are their journeys of making connections between their law school course and a new environment, trying to apply basic concepts to a new situation. How does one measures success in this situation? They all seem to be working very hard. That is enough for me, at least for now.
The Exercise (as presented to the class)
We are about to set out on a journey, an experiment, an adventure. We, as part of our class this spring 2007 semester will enter Second Life, the virtual world that is currently the rage. We are part explorers, part journalists. The goal is to take the concepts we are learning in our property course, and see how the traditional, modern conventions of property are manifesting themselves in a virtual world.
This will be part of a larger project, and is an attempt to blend research and teaching. We will be producing screencasts and written reports on what we find that will be posted to a website for both our class as well as a larger audience. We will have virtual guests to our class, and Rachel Goda (my research assistant) and I will be reporting our findings in a number of venues this spring.
Overall exercise: Working in groups, we are going to explore Second Life in general, and more specifically, look at how much modern concepts of property are being imported into a virtual property environment. We will do this be concentrating on four activities with each group: 1) a property question; 2) avatar maintenance; 3) Experiencing Second Life through tourism and event attendance, and 3) keeping up on news about Second Life.
Time Commitment: to make sure that this project does not overwhelm our course, we will have a strict time commitment, both inside and outside of class. All of the work takes place in a one week time period. You will be required to meet four times with supervision/guidance during the assigned week. You will also record a 5-10 minute group screencast presentation. You will also have a one-page writing component. To compensate for the extra time, I will cancel 3 classes during the semester (the first two classes, and a third).
Money: You will be given set amount of $US for the week to spend as group. Each week, the amount varies, and is part of our experiment. What is your experience like with $1 versus $20?
Groups: We will have new groups. You may sign up groups on TWEN. Each week will have a different theme, activity, etc. The groups will be made up of 6-8 students.
Work: The group will prepare about a 10 minute PowerPoint screencast presentation on the questions and findings of the week (including also any relevant news about Second Life that week). [Note: in reality, the screencasts have generally been 20 minutes] This will be filmed outside of class in my office on. The presentation will be screencasted and made available for viewing. Make sure to include a “Credits” page in your PowerPoint presentation. You will record the screencast in my office (a week after you begin your work). This will give us the option of either viewing the screencast in class or assigning it as part of homework in order to give us more time for discussion. It will also allow others outside the class to view our progress throughout the semester.
Each student will be required to do a one-page written report on their experiences and their contribution to the project. These will be posted as part of the project.
Each member must work on a disparate part of the week’s work, as well as with the group. The group must turn in a report on each person’s activities and how the group worked as a whole. You will be graded both on your individual contribution as well as you willingness to work and play well with others.
Group Required Activities:
- Property Question
- Avatar Maintenance
- Exploration of SL
- SL News
Individually Assigned Tasks:
You may divide up the workload in anyway the group sees fit. Here is a list of tasks. Make sure to have a “Credits” slide at the end of the PowerPoint Presentation so that I know who did what.
- Tour guide (3-4 places in SL)
- Avatar Maintenance
- News reporter (both gathering and reporting for the week)
- Property Question Research (before SL); Framing the Question
- Property Question Research in SL
- Events Coordinator and explorer
Additional tasks that may be divided or worked on together:
PowerPoint presentation design and Narrator [this has been combined as part of the group leader’s tasks, as well as coordinating in general]
Monday: Basics with Rachel (1 hour)
Wednesday: Property Project with Rachel (1 hour)
Friday: Time with Elizabeth to report progress (1 hour)
Monday: Record screencast in Elizabeth’s office
Second Life Schedule
Recommended Text: Second Life: Official Guide (suggested readings below)
Group One: The Rules of the Game (what laws control and how)
Design the Avatar
Group Two: Gifts and Finders
Group Three: First in Time (Rule of Capture, Rule of Discovery, Rule of Conquest, etc.)
Group Four: Adverse Possession
Group Five: Ways of Transferring Property and Marriage, Divorce, Kids (in a property law context)
Group Six: Real Estate versus Chattel in SL
Group Seven: Landlord-Tenant
Group Eight: IP Issues: Trademarks, Patents, Right of Publicity, and Copyrights in SL
Group Nine: Public Spaces, Zoning and Nuisances
Group Ten: Nightlife and Gambling
Group Eleven: SL Economy and the Nature of Work
Group Twelve: Prostitution and the Sex Industry in Second Life
Group Thirteen: Linden Lab as Post-Feudalism? (Also look at Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings)
Group Fourteen: Representatives from Each Group – final evaluation, discussion of the experience
Via BoingBoing, news surfaces of a Chinese MMO that is inviting banned players back into the fold if they agree to donate blood. That's real life blood, of course. 1 pint of blood = 1 restored game account. Platelets FTW!
If the forthcoming Star Trek MMO isn't enough to satisfy your fantasies for epic space travel (or if you just like your MMOs served up with a healthy side of RL-relevant content), then do we have some news for you!
TN guest author Mark Wallace has posted a nice piece about NASA's
plans to develop an educational space MMO. They have
earmarked budgeted $3
million and have put out a call for proposals for the project. It's
all part of a larger strategy to increase public awareness and occupational interest
in the space program - like the 1960s Star Trek and Buck Rogers, but for
the 21st century, seducing a whole new crop of impressionable young
minds into being scientists, engineers, astronauts and such:
To accomplish the VSE goals of returning to the moon and going beyond to Mars, NASA must find ways to enhanced science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. This intramural call for proposal ideas seeks to develop a persistent, online, synthetic environment that will support NASA's STEM education goals and allow millions more American to share in the experience of NASA science and exploration virtually.
...NASA faces the prospect of having an insufficiency of trained professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to fulfill the Vision for Space Exploration. The shortage of a highly skilled technical workforce is not a NASA-unique problem, but one faced by the Nation as a whole. It is shortsighted to think that NASA should expect to attract a greater proportion of a shrinking pool of new STEM graduates in the near future. The best course for NASA and the Nation is to expand the overall number of STEM graduates. Increasing the STEM graduate pool requires either guiding more students onto paths that lead to STEM degrees, increasing the percentage of students on those pathways that complete STEM degrees, or both.
It occurs to me that various military organizations could similarly leverage the rabid faction-orientation of games like World of Warcraft and get people riled up about fighting enemies, etc. What ever happened to all of those military MMO projects anyway?
There's still a month to register your intent if you'd like to put in a proposal! You might consider spending some quality time prepping your pitch, too...
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, author of Simulacra and Simulations, has vacated our reality. Seems right to pause a moment and consider
is truly upon us, and if so, does it mean we have sold our collective soul for
the promise of bigger, better, faster, more, convincing ourselves in the
process that pale imitations of precious human activities are fulfilling us?
It is more difficult for us to imagine the real, History, the depth of time, or three-dimensional space, just as before it was difficult from our real world perspective to imagine a virtual universe or the fourth-dimension. The simulacra will be ahead of us everywhere. The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. Since the world is on a delusional course, we must adopt a delusional standpoint towards the world. - Baudrillard
So, let's talk about our delusions...
Many of us find ourselves in the position of defending videogames and virtual worlds in particular, arguing that in the absence of safe physical spaces, videogames are an adequate substitute for socially-binding play, or that we develop important skills (my favorite soapbox), can cease bowling alone, find sanctuaryand freedom of expression, or various other platitudes that we technophiles embrace in order to rationalize the thing we love and others fear.
And while I tend to view the glass as half full and that we are better off focusing on what's positive… Well, Baudrillard est mort. So let’s pause for a minute and consider and look at the evidence that he might have been right - does the presence of simulacra mean there is no truth? Or is it just a different kind of truth that springs from the creation of different kinds of worlds? Consider:
- Kids don’t have real pets anymore. Why have something that scratches the furniture and pisses on everything when you can have simulacra that are much less troublesome? I confess to buying my kid a robot dog for Christmas in the vain hope that she will stop nagging me for a real pet. How long before I have the option of deciding that if I can't find Mr. Right, I can have him built? I mean, if I'm entirely self-absorbed, what do I care if he actually exists or not, let alone what he dreams about? I bet I could mod him to give me foot massages and not leave his dirty socks lying around. I can take that last boyfriend who was so perfect in so many ways and just tweak the not-so-good stuff out of him. I mean, really, what's the downside?
- There is a '"modern-day equivalent of hippies freaking out the squares." Sigh.
- LEGO toys are now an MMOG. Does every major brand in the world need to have a virtual world associated with it? Isn’t the whole point of LEGO the joy of unstructured physical play? (I’m becoming more and more of a luddite as I type – I’d better lay off the Wendell Berry essays)
- Those Entropia ATM cards? Did anyone ever really think that was real money?
- Even cute little web toys create existential identity crises for young children. My 3-year old and I created a version of her in Pictaps, which then rendered a scene that included several dozen versions of her. Is it any wonder that we are so self-absorbed when it is so easy to insert ourselves into the center of so many universes? Amazon adapts to me. RSS pushes news to me. We no longer have to adapt to our environments because our environments adapt to us. Or so we think. Once our credit card numbers stop working, well, it's over.
- Girlfriends need to play videogames so couples have something to do on dates. Now I'm big fan of people exploring alternate manifestations of their relationships in virtual spaces, but it's pretty incredible how divisive an issue this can be in relationships. If you have any doubt, spend some time lurking on the EQ widows mailing list.
- People are having teledildonics-enhanced cybersex. Okay, well, this shouldn't surprise anyone. In an ecosystem, every niche gets filled.
- In the race to stake some claim to the Metaverse, hype eclipses reality. Yeah, I know we're well used to this phenomenon, but it seems to be taking on entirely new dimensions. It's hardly necessary to do something, only to say that one's going to do something - that's what PR people everywhere count on.
- The virtual invades the real. No wonder we're all so confused. But overlays of the virtual on the real are just so freaking cool.
- Our world might just be one big virtual world and we might be the AI. But if there's a heaven, it's kind of fun imagining Baudrillard there right now getting the real scoop.
- We exercise our physical bodies using virtual spaces. All part of wishing these pesky physical bodies wouldn't react so badly to our obsessions with virtual activity.
- Entire countries are obsessed with virtual sports. What's next? Mandatory avatar registration?
- China is electrocuting Internet addicts. No, no, you'll live in OUR REALITY, not yours!
So, are we that opaque mass that happily accepts meaningless substitutes for meaning, while simultaneously scratching our heads wondering why we are bored and depressed and narcissistic? And if so, do we really care? Or is reality worth fighting for? And can reality be found in virtual spaces, despite the prevailing notion that non-physical=not real? In fact, might virtual reality foster spaces and communities where mainstream consumerist tribalism is sidelined and meaning can be found again? Is that the real possibility of play?
Or does the possibility that there is no reality but hyperreality mean that hyperreality is now reality?
Ah hell. My little brain hurts. I'm no philosopher. But vive la réalité! What do you all think?
Is griefing simply emergent play that some folks don't like?
I think this is an interesting question to pursue, and I'm going to take a somewhat provocative stance and answer "no," partly to explore some territory and partly because I think there's a case to be made against griefing that doesn't founder on a libertarian objection (i.e., that if some people do something in a low-consequence environment, then it must be fun to them/their choice, and therefore must be okay).
I should state at the outset that studying cheating, griefing, and similar topics is not a principal part of my research, and there are several esteemed folks around here that do it, so I hope to learn from them if they'd like to weigh in. Here, I'm just following through on some ideas that have been percolating on meaning and games, and how they might help us answer Steven's question.
To begin this speculation, the first thing I'm going to do is narrow the topic a fair bit. Rather than discuss "griefing" in the broad sense, I'm going to focus on one activity in MMOGs that is often seen as griefing: ganking. Very specifically, I'm talking about a human player, piloting a higher-level/better geared toon, attacking a toon that is much lower level, without any other circumstances (game objectives and narratives), histories (they, or their guilds, know each other or similar), or players (on either side) involved. This is simply the killing (frequently, one-shotting) of another toon by a vastly more powerful toon. I'm drawing my sense of this phenomenon from the open PvP servers of World of Warcraft -- other games/server types may vary considerably and interestingly.
What I would like to suggest is that this kind of PvP is meaningless. Or, perhaps more precisely, that the meaning it has is so narrow, rationalized, and improverished that it is outside of, or rejects, the game in which it is situated. Games, as ends in and of themselves, are things that can generate new meanings and experiences. For the ganker, however, ganking is a means to other ends ("Personal best crit!"), not a potentially generative new experience. (And, by the way, please keep in mind that I am not talking about all PvP -- there are many other kinds, both institutionally designed by the developer and emergent, which would not fit with the argument I'm making here.)
I'm speculating that ganking happens when a player who does not want to be challenged to play a game (i.e., encounters where the outcome is contingent), instead opts to do something where the outcome is a foregone conclusion: kill a player that is vastly lower in capabilities. If meaning is found at the meeting point of inherited systems of interpretation (cultural expectations) and the performative demands of singular circumstances (something I talked about here), then ganking is a denial of that meaning. It is a retreat from the demands of the new, and it signals a disposition that does not want to be performatively challenged. Ganking lower level players is, then, a somewhat pathetic attempt to feel, well, something. But that something is not the meaning that participating in a challenging game would create -- it is removed from that. If there is no contingency, it follows that there is no meaning -- all you have left is an impoverished environment where pointless negative reciprocity (I was ganked at L24, so I’ll gank at L60) reigns.
It might be argued against this that an environment of open PvP, rather than erasing contingency, actually spawns it, generating a wide open landscape of ganking possibility for the lower level players. This would be a way to argue that there is still a game, on a broader level, and it is a cat-and-mouse game. The difference in capabilities once the battle is joined is not in question -- the cat wins -- but the game is actually about avoiding that encounter (thanks to David Simkins for voicing this argument to me). This is an interesting way to go, and I agree that it can turn out this way, under certain game design conditions. I would argue, however (again, I'm being provocative to see where this leads), that in WoW this doesn't hold, because the architecture of the game is not very flexible about alternative places to go to accomplish objectives. The quests for any given level are in a small set of vastly distributed places, and the transportation costs (in time) for low level characters are high. This means that if someone is trying to get quests done in Stranglethorn Vale, there is not a viable game in avoiding the gankers -- they have every advantage also in the "meta" game of cat-and-mouse. For most players, this means that the ganking feels, again, like a foregone conclusion, it is only the question of when it will happen that is utterly contingent (that is, too contingent). In neither aspect is there a performative challenge for the gankee or the ganker. One is left with either too much determination, or too much chaos; either way leads to a loss of meaning.
So why does it happen at all, if it's so meaningless? To answer this, one would have to make a normative, critical claim (and goodness knows those are popular around here). One would have to say that what happens is that the game objectives get replaced by utterly personal objectives, individualistic and empty goals that are the simulacra of actual (new) meaning. Gankers, this argument would say, are getting their jollies in an endless circle of confirming their own expectations, mistaking the increasing number of notches on their belt for actual personal development. In fact, this line of reasoning would argue, they are each stuck in an iron cage of false objectives.
Now, I can spin this argument out, and understand how to get from point A to point B, and it's consistent with my experience and preferences. But, on the other hand, I have lots of friends who enjoy open PvP, even the random but inevitable ganking part of it, so I hesitate. I'm also certainly one to be wary of normative claims about other people's experiences ("Yes, yes -- you say you're having a good time, but you're really just deluding yourself").
On the other hand, the argument that if people choose to do something in these domains it is just a different "style of gameplay," and therefore morally unassailable, also rubs me the wrong way. It seems to rest not only on a separation of play from real experience (and I have a whole set of strong empirical objections to that view), but also on a modernist, individualistic ethic -- it's all about the individual experience, this seems to say, and that should be our final arbiter of all matters ethical.
I don't have any real answers here, but I'm quite taken with the notion that ganking is, effectively, not a game, and with thinking through the consequences for meaning and experience that follow from this. To what extent this could be extended to other kinds of griefing, I'm not sure, but it does seem to me that quite a few players out there actually don't seem to want to play a game at all.
So I've been having my usual beginning-of-the-semester chats with my graduate students about their projects and progress. I enjoy these, and I think they do to (they almost never complain about the thumbscrews, or -- more of a shock -- having to read Habermas). One of them, Krista-Lee Malone, is a master's student and long-time gamer who is completing an excellent thesis about hardcore raiding guilds. During our chat she said something about how these raiding guilds went about preparing her to participate in their activities, and it prompted me to follow up on some ideas from here. It's about Foucault, bodies, institutions, and whether the relationship between developers and guilds is changing in important ways.
Krista-Lee plays a priest (one with more purples than I'll ever see for my druid, I'm sure), and what she said was (paraphrasing), "I can healbot Molten Core in my sleep, but if I'm thrown into a new situation, I can't heal at all." While that's probably an overstatement, it suggests something about the nature of raiding guild discipline -- at least, pre-TBC. It turns out, and this is not unusual, that the guild power-leveled her toon and then taught her to follow a very specific and detailed script for the instances they were running, starting with UBRS and then through Naxx.
Michel Foucault famously argued that the power of modern institutions is driven, at root, by the ability to discipline people, or, more directly, to discipline their bodies -- to mold those bodies and order their actions in ways that allow groups to achieve institutional objectives effectively. To do this, they draw on practical techniques developed first in places like early Christian monasteries and the Roman legions. Bodies are organized, regimented, taught to sit, to stand, to kneel, to match their singular shapes to the demands of regularity -- no pinky out of place, the leg held just so. The effect of this "bio-power", as he most convincingly shows in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, is not only effective institutional control over otherwise unruly subjects, but in fact a re-shaping of their selves. They come to see this discipline as consitutive of who they are, as shaping their very desires. The classic (and idealized -- practice is messier) example is the panopticon, where prisoners are architecturally situated in view of an invisible and authoritative observer. The guard watches from in a darkened room while they are laid out in a brightly-lit Cartesian grid. It comes to matter little if the guard is there at all, as the prisoners internalize the surveillance.
I'm not saying that Krista-Lee was a prisoner of her guild. Um, exactly. Foucault argues (in later works) that this disciplining of bodies is something taking place all around us, particularly as we learn to act within highly-regulated contexts, like schools, the military, hospitals, and airports. And, like the prisoners, he asserts that we come to accept and even celebrate the kind of self the institutions have made of us.
All of this is to get us thinking about to what extent hardcore raiding guilds should be seen in a similar light. The essence of disciplined bodies is that they are malleable; they can be shaped to perform in lock-step (literally) under a command hierarchy. The tension, of course, is that this strategic control always involves a tradeoff with the tactical, the ability of a group to respond on the fly, to emergent situations. For Krista-Lee, this effect was directly discernible -- while she enjoys soloing and quest-grouping, she felt lost in new instances, when there wasn't an explicit script to follow.
As I've pointed out, for WoW, this had -- before the expansion -- created a mutually constructive relationship between the 5(10)-person instancing and the large-scale raiding. While small-scale grouping not only allows for, it depends upon, tactical rethinking on the fly, large-scale groups narrow and leverage the set of available class skills (maybe hunters begin to leave pets behind, druids get pushed into healing, only one hemo rogue is called for) into more strictly-defined roles. The small-scale was, perhaps like boot camp in the military, an intense and necessary part of enculcating a set of competencies (what is a pull, sheeping, aggro), but one that ultimately is left behind, smaller in comparison to the institutional ambitions which these competent bodies now serve to realize. Rationalized systems of resource distribution, like DKP, along with political structures and communications tools, play a role as well for these institutions, harnessing individual desire into organizational discipline, to get the 40 people needed together all at one time, ready to down Onyxia, or tackle a world boss.
The reason I think this is particularly interesting for us to think about now are the cases of both WoW and Second Life and some of the recent changes these VWs have undergone. The downsizing of endgame instances in WoW, the availability of soloable loot roughly on a par with Tier 1+ in Outland, and (to my unsystematic eye) the prevalence of small group quests there with excellent rewards, all suggest that Blizzard's moving away from supporting the emerging institutions (guilds) of its creation, ones which had dominated server culture for pretty much the whole game. This is an interesting contrast with past TN conversations, like the one here.
By contrast, the revamped estate tools in SL (which I'm sure many folks out there know more intimately than I), increase the amount of governance by island owners not only over a piece of property, but also over a group of people, and in fact these tools have thereby become deeply intertwined. To my eye, this enables the generation of institutional players on the SL landscape that LL has never had to deal with before. I'm not thinking first of the existing external institutions with a "presence" in SL, but rather of those entities that until recently we could somewhat reliably continue to think of as individuals, but which are now better understood as institutions. While the relationship of LL to some of its major content creators has been undoubtedly cozy, one can't help but wonder how long that will last -- institutions are competitive. The interesting thing about Second Life is the extent to which Linden Lab has had a "free-ride" for a long time, effectively being the only large institutional player in the arena. Social convention was emergent from the users, and was (is) something with which to contend -- a lot of time at Linden is devoted to this "community management". But architecture, the market, and "law" (others modes of governance, as I see it) were all firmly in Linden's hands. That's changing now, and the question is whether Second Life will fly apart at the seams once these other institutionalized interests find their footing.
All this is really just to wonder whether we're entering an era where the relationships between virtual world makers and the people involved them are changing. It is probably wise for us to get in the habit of thinking just as readily about developer/(in-world) institution relationships as we do about developer/individual player relationships. I actually think this will be a hard habit to break -- the idea of the game maker/game player relationship as primarily institution-to-individual is just one instance of the engrained tendency for those in industrialized societies to think about social institutions primarily as they relate to individuals.
WoW and SL both demonstrate, at a very broad level, different solutions to the emergence of institutions within their creations, an emergence that was, I believe, inevitable once resources began accumulating within these persistent and contingent domains. Foucault, like Weber, thought that people banding together to accomplish something was fine, but was wary of what happens next. Once any nascent institution begins looking for something else to accomplish, its primary raison d'etre has already changed. At that point, it's more interested in its own reproduction than in its original aims or purview. Once that happens, look out.
[Addendum: Ever-alert Julian Dibbell points to ShaunConnery's Rapwing Lair. Surely the script in Krista-Lee's guild never sounded so good.]
Finally, via Joystiq, a productive use of time for those of us who worry that repeatedly whacking monsters is not actually contributing to improvements in our zen… Or maybe it is, but soon it will be possible to learn Chinese in Zon – The New Chengo Chinese MMO, and we'll be able to both get zen and spout koans right and left in their intended language! And maybe even be able to play someday with our millions of Chinese fellow WoW fiends, or at least lambast the gold farmers appropriately...
The new MMO even includes a 20-page design document complete with learning objectives! Here's an excerpt:
The new Chengo Chinese will be a massive multi-player online game, consisting of four virtual worlds: “villages”, “towns”, “cities” and “cosmopolitans”. The four virtual worlds will progress with increasing complexity, advancing from ancient times to modern times and from countryside to cities. Those different virtual worlds represent a variety of cultures and living styles, and teach different cultural contents and language in correspondence with learners’ language proficiency and cultural knowledge. Learners will start with “villages” and advance into “towns” after they grasp a certain level of Chinese language and cultural knowledge and reach a certain point.
The game will be an open platform. Players could exchange and trade their points, and could accumulate points with knowledge acquired and social services provided to others. For instance, players can gain points through helping others solve problems.
The players can choose five career paths in this game, which include: scholar, businessman, kongfu master, officer and historian or archeologist. Players encounter different experiences based on their individual career choice. Furthermore, players with different career goals co-exist in the virtual worlds and interact with each other. In addition, the game also contains many artificial intelligence ‘robots” (i-bots) that can interact with the players.
The new Chengo Chinese will provide at least 1000 learning activities, each activity presenting learners with Chinese culture-, society-, geography-, and history-based learning opportunities. Each activity will take at least three hours, and thus the new Chengo Chinese will provide learners with 3000-hour Chinese language and culture learning contents.
Now I, like a few others, have adopted the approach that rather than put education in our MMOs, we should look at the learning that can be found in the ones we already have. I've also tended to think that we should spend more time studying learning cultures before jumping in too excitedly into the educational MMO space. But as Henry Jenkins reminds us, there is momentum to be found in the serious games movement, and the associated money might dry up if we don't 'get serious about serious games'.
The recent flurry of attention to SL and its numbers (here, here, here, and, most recently, here) leads me to think that folks might be interested in having a chance to chew through some methodological stuff, along the lines of the "Methodologies and Metrics" panel on which Nic, Dmitri, and I served at the State of Play/Terra Nova Symposium early this month. Below the fold, some tweaked ideas from some emails I circulated among the panelists in preparation for the panel. While I'm not discussing virtual worlds and the methodologies we'd use to understand them specifically, I hope this will be helpful background for such a discussion.
It is hard to get away from a common conception, both within and outside academia, that numbers are the one, true path to understanding. This is part of a set of cultural expectations that are reproduced precisely because they are so rarely challenged. Most commonly, one hears that claims with numbers are "grounded" or otherwise true in a way that other kinds of claims (such as the ones based on the kind of research that Tim talked about here), are not. Claims based primarily on those other kinds of research, particularly on interviews and participant observation, often get branded as "anecdotes", with the suggestion that they hold no real value as reliable claims. Here I would like to push against this association, and help clarify our understanding of what qualitative social science research methods (ethnographic research ones in particular) bring to the table. In short, they are not "anecdotes", and they can form the basis of reliable claims, even without numbers, although as Dmitri and I never tire of saying, having both is better than having just one.
No social scientist, of course, would want to "generalize from anecdotes," but the problem is that often we do not really understand what that means; or perhaps it is more accurate to say that across the academy many scholars (not to mention the public at large and policy makers) do not know enough about methodology (this is true of both qualitative and quantitative methods, and more broadly about exploratory versus experimental research), and therefore these charges are in essence a political move meant to marginalize the other side's research that can succeed because of that lack of broad grounding. From my conversations with everyone involved with TN I have never felt that we (as a group of authors) were particularly prone to make these errors, but there is no question that it finds its way into the discussions on TN, as in the recent threads.
The goal of all social science is "generalization" in a sense, but the legacy of positivist thinking about society (that it is governed by discoverable and universal laws) has left us in the habit of thinking that the only generalization that counts is universal. It is always interesting to me how some work (especially that done by the more publicly-legitimized fields, such as economics) can proclaim itself to be about the universal despite the fact that only a moment's thinking reveals the application of the ideas to be narrow (to industrialized, capitalist contexts, etc). The strange thing is that this doesn't end up being a problem for those already-legitimate fields; instead, it is largely ignored -- this is what being well situated on the landscape of policy and academic relations of power gets you (to be Foucauldian for a moment).
But of course generalization, in the more limited sense of seeking a bridgehead of understanding across times and spaces, has long been the hallmark of history (the first social science, in a way). The strange thing is how difficult it seems to be for those who would like to criticize methods such as participant observation and interviewing to see the projects those methods support in a similar light to history and its efforts. There is nothing inherently problematic with such claims; they are just as able to inform policy as universal ones, and have the benefit of incorporating more nuance.
So then what is an anecdote? It is a description of an event isolated from its broader context, so no wonder all of us would like to shy away from the suggestion that we are drawing our conclusions in isolation of the broader context. But ethnography (meaning principally participant observation, along with interviewing, surveying, and other methods), to speak of that relevant methodology most familiar to me, quite distinctly does not treat these events in isolation. Brief descriptions are often presented in the course of ethnographic writing in order to illustrate a point concretely, but the point made is only as sound as the degree to which we trust the author's command of the broad array of processes ongoing in the context at hand. How is this credibility established? Through a complex of many, many, many techniques of writing, thick description, peer review (always including experts in that period or place), solid reasoning itself, track record of previous research, etc, etc. This form of generating reliable claims is not somehow "less" viable than other ones, and its strengths and weaknesses of similar scope (though differing in their particulars).
So one of the tropes that one finds in the recent spate of posts about SL and its numbers is the suggestion that only when numbers that we trust are present do we feel that the claims authors make are "grounded". This is not true. As anyone with much experience with statistics knows, the numbers say nothing without the ability to interpret them provided by other kinds of interpretive research. In fact, given the above, if any research has a claim to being "grounded" it is the first-hand research of participant observation.
Even when this kind of contribution from qualitative research methods is acknowledged, however, there is still a tendency to see the claims of work based on them as always and severely limited to a "niche", at least until numbers come along. But a social history or ethnography of a place and time is not this narrow. They are able to make general claims at the level of locale, region, or even nation, and they often do (when done well). The idea for ethnographies is that the ethnographic research method, at root, inculcates in the researcher a degree of cultural competence such that he or she can act capably (and sensibly) as a member of that culture. Supported by observation, archival research, surveys, or interviews (usually some combination), as well as (possibly) prior work, this learned disposition informs an account of the shared disposition of the actors on the ground, and is laid out in the published work (as best one can in writing) as representative of a worldview from a particular time and place. Thus, my claims about gambling in Greece were made beyond the level of the city where I did my research, and I argued for the existence of a cultural disposition that characterizes Greek attitudes toward contingency at something like the national level (without holding too much to hard boundaries).
Of course, these claims are further bolstered by the broadening of one's research methods, whether through surveys, demographic data, archival research, media studies, or any other means that support the big picture. Relatedly, there is nothing about quantitative methods that dictates that they must "stay big." They can be productively focused and narrow as well.
This is not to say that there isn't a limit to the level of generalization for qualitative research that is exceeded by quantitative methods. So, for example, while an ethnography could make reliable claims about Greek culture, I don't think it could about American culture. The reason for this connects to what culture is -- a set of shared expectations, based on shared experience and continually re-made through shared practices -- and why it is far too fragmented and varied across the US for an ethnography to make such claims. But while this is true, the important point is that qualitative methods' levels of claims are not as particularist as they are sometimes made out to be.
I become, I confess, a bit sad whenever I encounter this kind of marginalization in action (for me, it most often happens on interdisciplinary fellowship review panels and the like), because at root it bespeaks a lack of trust across the academy. There is little doubt that there have been excesses across the gamut of methodologies and theories that the social sciences use (reductions to representation, or materiality, or power all come to mind), and perhaps this accounts for the parochialism and suspicion, but let's hope that we don't fall prey to what are more often, in my view, essentially not battles over the nature of sound inquiry but instead part of gambits meant to direct or redirect institutional resources.
This just in via CNET...
The International Association of Virtual Reality Technologies (IAVRT) has just announced plans for the Neuronet, an initiative that "will evolve into the world's first public network capable of meeting the data transmission requirements of emerging cinematic and immersive virtual-reality technologies".
"Today, the best and the brightest innovators in the world are pushing the boundaries of virtual reality and gaming. Virtual worlds such as Second Life, The Sims, Everquest, and World of Warcraft continue to attract legions of followers while new game systems from Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft offer near life-like character renditions. In business, companies like IBM and Sun Microsystems are investing heavily in virtual reality business applications. These VR trailblazers, and many others, have been limited by the confines of the Internet. The Neuronet's communication bandwidth and real-time VR and gaming data transfer protocols will enable them to reach their full potential."
Have they really been limited? I'm not so sure. But certainly thinking about fancy infrastructure for the MMOs that might exist from 2009 onwards (the date this will be ready for 'consumer applications') must be a good idea, right?
Domain names - .vr (for 'immersive virtual reality neurosites') and .cin (for 'cinematic virtual reality neurosites') - will be available next year...
For those of you who want to escape family obligations today and tomorrow, tell them that you have to work on a submission for this call for papers! It's for a special issue of the Games and Culture journal, focused on Gaming in the Asia-Pacific region. Read on for details...
Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media Special issue: Gaming in the Asia-Pacific
As a region, the Asia-Pacific is marked by diverse
penetration rates of gaming, mobile and broadband technologies, subject to
local cultural and socio-economic nuances. Two defining locations – Seoul
(South Korea) and Tokyo (Japan) – are seen as both “mobile centres” and “gaming centres” to
which the world looks towards as examples of the future-in-the-present. Unlike
Japan, which pioneered the keitai (mobile) IT revolution and mobile consoles
such as playstation2, South Korea – the most broadbanded country in the world –
has become a centre for MMOs (online massively multiplayer) games and
convergent mobile DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadband i.e. TU mobile).
Adorned with over 20,000 PC bangs (PC rooms) in Seoul
alone and with professional players (Pro-leagues) making over a million US per
year, locations such as South Korea have been lauded as an example of gaming as
a mainstream social activity. In a period marked by convergent technologies,
South Korea and Japan represent two opposing directions for gaming – Korea
emphasizes online MMOs games played on stationary PCs in public spaces (PC
bangs) whilst Japan pioneers the mobile (privatized) convergent devices. These
two distinct examples, with histories embroiled in conflict and imperialism,
clearly demonstrate the importance of locality in the uptake of specific games
and game play.
This issue seeks to explore the politics of game play and
cultural context by focusing on the burgeoning Asia-Pacific region. Housing
sites for global gaming production and consumption such as China, Japan and
South Korea, the region provides a wealth of divergent examples of the role of
gaming as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Drawing from micro ethnographic studies
to macro political economy analysis of techno-nationalisms and trans-cultural
flows of cultural capital, this issue will provide an interdisciplinary model
for thinking through the politics of gaming production, representation and
consumption in the region.
Topics of papers will discuss the region in terms of one of the following areas:
- Case study analysis of specific games and game play
- Is there such thing as a culturally specific aesthetic to the production and consumption of certain games?
- What is the “future” of gaming?
- Emerging and re-occurring productions of techno-nationalism in the region
- New media and experimental gaming in the region
- Convergent technologies and the impact on established modes of game play
- Gendered consumption and production of games
- Government regulations and types of game play
- Pervasive gaming and the role of co-presence
Deadline for this special issue of Games and Culture:
15th March 2007. Authors should submit all inquiries, expressions of interest
and papers to Larissa Hjorth (RMIT University) larissa.hjorth [AT] rmit.edu.au.
Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media invites
academics, designers and developers, and researchers interested in the growing
field of game studies to submit articles, reviews, or special issues proposals
to the editor. Games and Culture is an interdisciplinary
publication, and therefore it welcomes submissions by those working in fields
such as Communication, Anthropology, Computer Science, English, Sociology,
Media Studies, Cinema/Television Studies, Education, Art History, and Visual
All submissions are peer reviewed by two or more members of the distinguished, multi-disciplinary editorial board. Games and Culture aims to have all papers go through their initial review within three months of receipt. Manuscripts should be submitted with four paper copies and electronically in Word or Word Perfect format and conform to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (Fifth Edition)0,000 words in length. Papers that do not conform to these guidelines will be returned to the author(s).
UCLA's film, television, and digital media e-journal would like to solicit contributions from the TN community for the features and reviews section of an upcoming issue.
Read on for more details... (but hurry, deadline is Jan 1, 2007!)
Mediascape Call for Submissions:
Mediascape, UCLA’s online Critical Studies journal, is now accepting submissions for the Features, Reviews, Columns and Meta sections of its next issue. This journal, a place for articles pertaining to film, television, new media and other areas of visual culture, is peer-reviewed and published on an annual table. The deadline for the next issue is the 1st of January, 2007.
Submission guidelines and section-specific calls for the next issue can be found on the submissions page of the Mediascape website:
Any other questions can be directed to Erin Hill (erinhill [AT] ucla.edu).
A while back in a comment posted in this thread, Ren posed an excellent question that I've been pondering for some time. Wondering about the implications of my model of games as process for the question of meaning, he asked:
Do we then just have that the meaning-generative property of games is just a fact of process [i.e., no different from other social processes] and the types of meanings [in games] are consequences of the contrived contingency?
Curse you, Ren! I haven't slept since August!
Puzzling through this in the wee hours of the night, I began with how I responded to Ren originally: on Weber and bureaucracy. This has led to the beginnings of a paper that I hope to have up to ssrn soon, but I wanted to talk about it now because I gave my first airing of its ideas on a recent panel that I wanted to mention. Tom Boellstorff (SL: Tom Bukowski) and I co-organized a panel on virtual worlds and anthropology at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, where we were joined by Heather Horst and Mizuko Ito (co-authored paper, Ito presenting), Genevieve Bell, and Douglas Thomas, with the distinguished linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein as our discussant. The panel was filled with great ideas, on everything from virtual methodism in England to the Neodaq, and I hope to have news to those presentations' culminations in paper form soon.
As for me, I gave a version of my current and still-rough answer to Ren's question. I proposed that virtual worlds and their emergent effects demonstrate an aspect of the human condition that has largely been obscured under modernity – that of the human engagement with the unpredictable or contingent. Max Weber and his definitive account of bureaucracy and the state formed the backdrop for a century-long inquiry into the vanishing sources of meaning under the advent of rationalization; for Weber, charismatic leadership provided the only answer to the iron cage of rationality. But a consideration of bureaucracy, games, and virtual worlds alongside one another fills in this bleak picture. If bureaucratic projects are driven, at root, by an ethic of necessity (in their procedures and logic of consistency), games, and the virtual worlds based on them, are driven by its antithesis: contingency. As socially legitimate spaces for cultivating the unexpected, games provide grounds for the generation of meaning that is not ultimately charismatic. Virtual worlds like Second Life have largely retained this open-ended quality, and they rely on game architecture to create a domain that, while not utterly unbounded in possibility, has wide opportunities for success, failure, and unintended consequences, and it is this that makes possible the meaningful and emergent effects we witness today.
So the answer to Ren's question is that, in my view, the engaging mix of constraint and contingency that well-designed games (and the worlds based on them) have makes them more productive of meaning than those parts of our lives that are increasingly governed by regulatory projects which aim to eliminate the uncalled-for. (One might further say that those parts of our lives that are too contingent, too unbounded in possibility, also create a challenge of meaning.) Of course bureaucracy in practice is also a site for contingency (and regularity). Bureaucratic projects certainly do not perfectly realize the modern aim of consistency, but they always aspire to do so. Games, by contrast, are socially legitimate domains where unpredictable events are supposed to happen, and that is why they are valuable lenses through which to see key points of discursive and practical contestations over meaning and resources played out. Games, then, do not create "unbounded" contingency; they are not places where anything at all can happen. But they provide room for a contrived mix of constraint and contingency. By mixing the regularity and the sources of contingency just so, they create their potential for the meaningfully unexpected, as well as for unexpected meanings.
Claude Shannon in the mid-twentieth century presented the surprising finding from mathematical information theory that messages which contain the most information are those with 50% expected (redundant) information and 50% unexpected (noise) information. Katherine Hayles of UCLA expanded on this point during a visit to my seminar on ethnography and technology at UWM. Imagine, she said, a language in which it was impossible to say anything new; it would be meaningless. The lesson is that contingency is inextricable from meaning. New circumstances, new experiences, and new collisions between different systems of meaning are at the heart of meaningful human life. This is why we should be very interested in virtual worlds and the approach to cultivating the contingent which underwrites them. By leveraging the techniques of game design, Linden Lab and others have almost accidentally fallen into creating products which are supposed to do things they do not expect, and in this way they have made a choice that turns out to be strikingly anti-bureaucratic in its ethical stance. For Weber, it was only the individual virtuoso – a master of performance in a singular context – who could provide new meaning in an era of the iron cage. Virtual worlds show us another possibility; that meaning can be cultivated through techniques derived of game-making.
It’s easy to look at the graphs of MMO growth over the last few years and think that it’s a game category that will continue to grow exponentially. In fact, I have often said that since games have always been largely social (and single player gaming an anomaly that resulted largely from technological limitations), that once people have a taste of gaming with others few will choose to go back to solo play. And I do believe that. Other players represent that sort of super sophisticated AI that no NPC can begin to approach. And for me, the only thing that makes the average MMO grind at all fun, for instance, is the chaos and uncertainty brought forth by other random players. Social structures make games more complex and interesting, to be sure. But is that always a good thing?
I think we are at an interesting crossroads with regard to the continuing appeal of the types of MMOs we are currently seeing in the marketplace. If there isn't some significant diversification soon, I fear that the whole MMO category is in jeopardy of plateauing or even seeing numbers drop off, due to various negative impressions that are circulating about the game environments and the ongoing commitments (financial, social and time) necessary to experience them. Marketers often refer to negative brand equity to describe what happens when a product (or category) develops a reputation that is not desired. For instance, no one involved in its development or distribution wanted people to think of the Yugo as a crappy car from some obscure country in Eastern Europe. However it didn’t take long for stories (worse yet, jokes!) to emerge that belied whatever messages the marketers were concocting.
Similarly, I think MMOs, at least in the West, are developing some seriously negative brand equity.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to
some non-MMO gamers about why they haven’t been bitten by the MMO bug and have
been surprised by how passionately some of them feel that MMOs aren’t for
them. Here are some of the reasons that have been cited:
- Some people simply refuse to play a monthly fee on top of paying for a game. This seems to be a matter of principle for many, but is often related to the fact that they feel trapped into one game environment if they are paying the fee. They don’t feel that they can pick up a game, drop it for a while, then pick it up again later if the mood strikes them. (the Asian predilection for item-supported models, etc. seems to be a decent way to deal with this issue)
- The second most common thing I hear is that
people don’t feel like they have the time for an MMO, even if they spend lots
of time playing videogames otherwise. The perception that one has to play
upwards of 30 hours a week in order to play properly is a huge barrier to a lot
of people who perceive themselves as more casual gamers. (Jim Rossignol wrote a great piece about this in a recent issue of the Escapist).
- Tied to the previous issue is the idea that one’s time is not one’s own in an MMO. For a lot of people, having to adhere to a guild’s schedule or priorities is a responsibility they are unwilling to take on. They hear stories about mandatory raids and other prescribed activity and think (rightly so, perhaps) that it sounds an awful lot like a job. And unless you don't have a job already (the core MMO audience of university students, it would seem), then who needs a job that doesn't pay some real cash?
- A lot of people complain that it is too hard to just jump into an MMO and start playing. There are complex social rules to be learned, grouping can be tricky and time-consuming, and navigating huge worlds can take a ton of time just in terms of travel. I have heard lots of stories about people logging on at lunchtime to play, but not even being able to prep and find playmates in that time. And I have heard other stories about people joining a game to play with friends, yet being unable to meet up with them in a reasonable timeframe.
- Although it’s appealing to play with others, it is a double-edged sword in a level-based system where people have to play at a similar rate in order to be able to continue to play with each other. WoW is particularly problematic in this regard (to the point that people have to work hard to synchronize quest chains, etc.), but CoX is somewhat better with its side-kicking/exemplaring system. Still, it’s a big problem for those buddies who want to invest significantly different amounts of time in the game.
- Many standard videogame players, especially those attracted to adventure/RPG genres, perceive that MMO gameplay is extremely non-linear with too few concrete goals (yes, yes, even with WoW's linear questing system - just having more than one path or option, or a whole world that one could explore, is overwhelming to the gamer brought up in the Myst-like box-to-box environment progression). For them, there is too much freedom of choice, making play difficult and diminishing the satisfaction of progress (aside from leveling, which while pleasurable in that Skinnerian/dopamine unleashing sense, may not be so appealing to those who look for more complex challenges).
- A LOT of people fear becoming addicted, even people I work with in the game industry. Nearly every person I have talked to has some terrible story to tell of someone they know who knows someone who locked themselves in their room for a year or two and completely forgot the real world after getting sucked in by some MMO. And then there are the stories of silly Koreans falling over dead or Chinese gamers killing each other for virtual swords which make people think that MMOs are like some kind of crack that makes completely normal people go crazy (not to mention the possibly apocryphal stories about people wearing Depends so they don't have to afk for their bio breaks).
- Finally, many non-MMO gamers think that MMOs mean, by definition, PvP, or more accuratel,y open PK-ing. And no one wants to pop into a game world a n00b and get killed right off the bat. (this happened to me, btw – I played UO very briefly back in the beginning, was repeatedly ganked within 5 minutes of entering the game, and as a result I didn’t play another MMO for years).
So what does this all mean for the burgeoning (?) MMO marketplace? Is there still an untapped audience for MMOs? Maybe, but maybe just about everyone who might be compelled to play an MMO has already been tapped by WoW? And if so, what effects are those experiences having on both those gamers and those who observe their infatuation? It seems to me that MMOs frighten a lot of people, even relatively hard core gamers - and that can't be a good thing.
Parodies like the recent South Park episode inspired by WoW have alerted mainstream non-gamers to the darker side of the MMO compulsion (at least those who watch South Park – your Grandma is still probably in the dark about this, unless she reads Slate or the NY Times regularly…). In fact, the Everquest Widows list was in a gleeful frenzy after the episode: they viewed it as a sort of unintentional PSA for the perils of online gaming. Yet it’s easy to look at that sort of thing and think, wow, MMOs have really arrived. They’ve been parodied on South Park, written up in the mainstream media -- all we need is Britney Spears to write a song about her hawt night elf and we’ll know that the tipping point is nigh.
But we could be wrong.
The thing is that WoW could well be an aberration, a red herring that makes us think that MMOs are really taking off
when it might in fact be the only MMO that several million of those players
ever play. For a lot of people (in the U.S. anyway- I'm painfully aware that Asia is a whole different ball of wax), WoW is their first MMO – and the reason
they started playing was either a) they simply thought it was the next
installment in the Warcraft franchise and didn’t give much thought to the MMO
aspect or b) they got nagged by friends to play it and flocked to it in the
same way they all rushed to set up their MySpace pages (and as uncommitted Web 2.0 types will all follow sheeplike the inevitable diaspora, as well). They may decide that the
investment/pay-off equation just doesn’t add up, or just experience boredom
with the whole repetitive experience (WoW-nnui, as our own Mike Sellers calls
it) – not all of us can possibly find the grind to be a delightful experience
in Zen, after all.
So my question is this… how can MMOs evolve to combat these perception problems and barriers to entry/continued participation? Or will they continue to remain a niche activity for those who have the time and inclination to make the necessary investments?
Yes, the lunatic has finally taken over the asylum.
I'm organizing an academically-oriented virtual worlds workshop under the aegis of both State of Play and Terra Nova. It's running at New York Law School on Dec 1-2, down in bee-you-ti-ful Tribeca. Attendance is very small and exclusive. The people speaking are very smart, and the audience is going to be even smarter and involved in all the panel discussions. The conference registration is cheap. The food will be good.
Details are here and registrations are now open.
Dmitri recently received an e-mail from Mike Fred, a
Behavior Intervention Specialist who uses WoW therapeutically as part of his work with challenged kids:
I play WoW with a few of the students from my school. It has proven to be beneficial to the students socially, academically, and therapeutically. In general these students lack social skills. Even when they want to make friends, they often behave inappropriately and tend to push people away. Yet, as these students have gotten involved with playing WoW, they have made social connections - not only with each other, but with other players online. They are all active members of their online guilds… their online relationships are not deep. However, the fact that they make relationships at all is significant. Moreover, two of these students have developed a real friendship.
WoW has proven to be a help academically. One of my students, who has a learning disability, has shown an increased interest in reading as a result of having to deal with the text in WoW. I have also noticed his "tells" and ingame emails have gotten easier to read. One of the important factors in getting children to read is giving them a reason which has meaning for them. For this student, finding out where to go to gather Laden Mushrooms in the Barrens is a reason to work harder at school.
The most important benefit from playing WoW with my students at school has been the therapeutic effect. It has proven to be a bridge to one of my students who was withdrawn and disconnected from school. He refused to engage with his social worker, and was determined not to work with his teacher. Through WoW I was able to form a relationship with this student. In the course of our game interactions, he would bring up things that had happened during the day. Perhaps as a consequence of the peronal distance afforded by intergame communication, he was able to talk about these things. Over time, he was able to extend this willingness to talk to his teacher in the classroom. I am happy to say that he has taken steps that have started to put him on track for return to public school. In the course of my job, I often deal with students when they are in crisis. I have very little trouble dealing with the kids I play with, even when they are in the throes of a violent tantrum.
I asked the TerraNovans if I could be the one to post about this because my Ph.D. research looking at social learning associated with virtual worlds has morphed somewhat into an assessment of the socio-cultural literacies that players develop in order to achieve mastery of a virtual space. In more basic terms, I've become interested in the 'soft' skills (social intelligence?) like communication, team-work, leadership, etc. that players develop as by-products of play, and whether those skills are potentially transferable to real life. In fact, I have just returned from New Zealand, where I was invited to do a keynote at a Ministry of Education conference about these possibilities, especially important there, where a set of soft skills-based competencies (based on the OECD's five key competencies) have been introduced into the formal curriculum - these competencies emphasize core life skills like managing self, relating to others, and participating/contributing. The local media, in particular, has taken quite an interest in this idea, and I spent a few days taking advantage of a whole bunch of opportunities to assuage parental fears about their kids' videogame play (and hopefully making myself a few juvenile gamer friends in the process!). So the reception there, even (or especially) among the teachers, was fantastic, though it has certainly stirred quite a lot of debate, especially as it relates to the transferability to RL bit.
Aside from my own observations while conducting ethnographic research in various virtual worlds (but particularly
City of Heroes/City of Villains), I was encouraged to think
about these issues more fully when John Seely Brown introduced Steven Gillett,
a Yahoo executive who scored his job in large part because of his experience
running a big MMO guild, at the Games * Learning * Society conference last
year. And this year, JSB collaborated with
Doug Thomas on a related piece for Wired magazine. In the meantime, I have been attempting to
collect some data to support these ideas, though not quite the rigorous and
longitudinal study this sort of thing really deserves. Still, there are some interesting hints in my
data, a survey of nearly 10,000 City of Heroes/City of Villains players, that
though based on self-reporting, serves to help generalize some of the things
that most virtual world residents have observed anecdotally.
So when asked to write a book chapter for the just-published Games & Simulations for Online Learning: Research and Development Frameworks, I collaborated with educator Melanie Zibit on our chapter, 'Online Games for 21st Century Skills' [12 MB PDF]. That chapter outlines the hypothesis that online games, particularly MMOs, are excellent practice arenas for 21st century skills. My survey data definitely supports this idea, with about a third of participants acknowledging improvements to their RL skills in areas like communication, team-work, conflict mediation, patience, sense of humor, etc. But some of the most poignant examples came from the open-ended comments: people with Asperger's syndrome, for instance, who have found MMOs a safe place to practice their social skills, or a recent widower who used an MMO to cautiously reintegrate himself into life, or a fellow who sought RL social skills training after being marginalized by his guild. Ted Castranova has referred to this 'socio-emotional therapeutic potential' as 'sanctuary', and I agree that this is a very compelling feature of virtual worlds to the large number of people who find physical reality scary, unfriendly, inaccessible, or just downright unfair (the mysterious R.V. Kelly 2 covers this ground compellingly in his chapter on the reasons for problematic usage in his book Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games: The People, the Addiction and the Playing Experience)
In addition, there have been a spate of articles about various games and virtual worlds, including Second Life, that have attempted to focus on the pro-social aspects, like the development of skills (in some cases just basic computer literacy) that are potentially transferable. I appreciate this sort of reporting, because I think looking at what kinds of benefits can emerge spontaneously from play in entertainment spaces is a nice counterpoint to much of the consternation surrounding the potential of games for explicitly education or training purposes. Gonzalo Frasca, for instance, has been (rightly, I think) raining on the serious game parade, echoing a sentiment many of us have felt: the potential of serious games is perilously close to being over-hyped. Though most people can see the potential, there is something a bit awkward about trying to take a medium like videogames and stuffing pre-established curricula, designed for a linear and pre-digital context, into it. This is a big part of the reason why I got out of e-learning/educational game design and into game research from an anthropological perspective (a la Jean Lave, I like to think, and inspired mucho by Constance's work). I believe that the key to understanding the potential of games/virtual worlds for learning is to understand what is being learned there already, and how that learning happens. So that's my question to you all… what are people learning? And is it transferable to RL contexts?
One final wrinkle in all of this:
A fair number of my respondents,
when asked whether skills learned in-game have had an impact on their real
lives, are adamant (!) that an MMO is 'just a game' and has no effect whatsoever on
their lives. When I probe those
responses, I most often find that it's a statement being made by young males. Does anyone have an explanation for this?
The online journal First Monday has just published their 7th special issue, Command Lines: The Emergence of Governance in Global Cyberspace, wherein you will find a number of articles by current and former Terra Novans, including Ted, Richard, T L Taylor, and me. (NB: the articles are appearing in three sets over three months; the complete list of them is at the link.)
The special issue (edited by Sandra Braman and me) grew out of the Command Lines conference at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (sponsored by its Center for International Education), where we brought together a number of people interested in governance online. In many ways I saw it as a chance for scholars of virtual worlds to contribute their unique perspective to a broader conversation, and the conference was a tremendous success. Anyone interested in how to make sense of the moving target that is governance in and beyond virtual worlds is encouraged to dive in.
State of Play IV: Building the Global Metaverse
January 7-9, 2007 (Singapore)
Sponsored by Harvard, Yale and New York Law Schools as well as Trinity University in Texas and the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, we are convening thought leaders from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas to engage in a lively discussion about the unique regulatory and cross-cultural challenges posed by the growth of transnational virtual worlds.
Whether they take the form of games, social spaces, or educational environments, virtual worlds are now truly global in scope. The popularity of virtual worlds in Asia is phenomenal. From Thailand and Malaysia to Indonesia and the Philippines, the Asia Pacific region's on-line gaming market generated approximately $1.4 billion in annual revenues last year – a figure that is expected to reach $3.6 billion by the end of the decade.
Much of this growth will be propelled by 180 million Chinese Internet users, the majority of whom will play on-line games. Jaw-dropping insight into China's hunger for on-line games can be seen in the turnout for last month's ChinaJoy conference. Now in its fifth year, the event attracted approximately 124,000 game developers and enthusiasts -- almost twice the number who attended E3 at its peak in 2005. As industry analyst Frank Yu points out, "this makes it the most attended game event in the world." Unlike E3 and CES, which emphasize graphics hardware and home consoles, ChinaJoy focuses on virtual worlds and casual games.
Of course China is just part of the story. Throughout Asia, people of all ages are gathering in cybercafes to participate in "deep" virtual worlds such as Lineage II and World of Warcraft or to play casual titles such as PangYa. With the highest broadband penetration rate of any country on the planet, Korea is currently an epicenter of gaming innovation, pioneering a free-to-play business model that seriously threatens subscription-based titles. Meanwhile, analysts note that India is poised to become a huge player once it builds out the necessary technological infrastructure. India is already the region's third largest market for on-line games, despite the fact that less than .02% of the population has broadband access.
When you take into account the fact that NGOs and many government development agencies hope to seed the Asia Pacific region with inexpensive wireless broadband notebooks, it is clear that we are witnessing something completely unprecedented. We are eager to tease out the implications of these developments, and are intentionally convening virtual world industry experts, game scholars and technological neophytes to deepen our shared understanding.
In addition to premiering two documentaries, this year's SoP will include an extemporaneous discussion about the future of virtual worlds between Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, and our own Julian Dibbell. The legendary Jane McGonigal also has something exciting planned for the opening night.
Panel topics include, but are not limited to: virtual property, regulation of virtual worlds, qualitative and quantitative metrics, digital youth cultures, the interpenetration of the physical and the virtual, cross-cultural interaction, taxation, the state of the industry and virtual worlds as learning environments.
Confirmed speakers include, but are not limited to:
Alice Taylor (BBC Worldwide)
Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom)
Frank Yu (Microsoft Research Asia Advanced Technology Center in Beijing)
Ge Jin (Director of the Gold Farmers documentary)
Greg Boyd (Kenyon and Kenyon)
James Grimmelmann (Information Society Project at Yale Law School)
Jane McGonigal (I Love Bees)
Jerry Paffendorf (Acceleration Studies Foundation, Metaverse Roadmap)
Joey Alarilla (Founding President of Asian Gaming Journalists Association)
Joshua Fouts (Director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy)
Julian Dibbell (Play Money)
Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash)
Nick Yee (Stanford / PARC)
Ren Reynolds (Terra Nova)
Richard Bartle (MUD, Designing Virtual Worlds)
Unggi Yoon (Gamestudy.Org)
Yehuda Kalay (Director of Center for New Media at UC Berkeley.
Conference schedule and registration information will be posted on September 1st. Please continue to check http://www.nyls.edu/stateofplay for more details. If you have any questions, please contact the conference coordinators:
Dr. Aaron Delwiche
Organizer, State of Play
Assistant Professor, Department of Communication
Organizer, State of Play
Institute for Information Law and Policy
New York Law School
Avatars of Story, hot off the press from University of Minnesota, well, Press, is no life-changer, but it makes for a marginally interesting read. Written by Marie-Laure Ryan, an independent scholar from Colorado with a number of related books to her credit, the hefty hardback offers something of an overview of the manifestations of narrative in new (i.e. electronic) media over the last twenty-five years, with a specific hankering for testing out the pliancy of these different "avatars of story."
The book is clearly intended for the likes of academia; no carefree frolics through cyberspace here. Ryan's tone shifts from dense but captivating to just plain dense. Specifically, her first section, "Narrative in Old Media," seems lifeless and bland (Think bad high school textbook) in comparison to the palatable, even tasty chapters of her second section, "Narrative in New Media," which become much more readable--and interesting. Chapter 6 in particular, "Interactive Fiction and Storyspace Hypertext," is just waiting to make some lucky professor a handy-dandy new undergraduate reading assignment.
But even the good parts have their shortcomings. Ryan can come off as judgemental--of gamers, TV watchers, and culture in general. She sometimes strays off topic; occasionally for an entire chapter (What, pray tell, does the success of Survivor, really have to do with narrative?). Her discussion of games in her chapter on ludology vs. narratology can't help but seem archaic with reoccurring outdated examples like The Sims--and not a single mention of a virtual world. Plus, she makes light of some things that just seem wrong: like the writing of game developers, and the internet; wouldn't you think, in a book about new media, that online resources deserve to be cited just as clearly as papers in print?
Avatars of Story has its useful moments, but it doesn't say anything revolutionary. The real trouble with its approach is this: If you're a big fan of the subject matter, chances are Ryan has nothing new to offer you. And if you're not--honestly--you're not going to want to read through this book.
Selling games short -- it's happening all the time in games research scholarship and in books on game design. In the rush to carve out a special place for games scholarship, to demonstrate its importance, and to attempt to convey what we feel as gamers is powerful about games, games thinkers have relied on an exceptionalist approach to games, seeing them as a form of play necessarily set apart from the everyday, and therefore requiring a distinct treatment. In short, this inherited and largely unexamined theory of games assumes there is a rupture (in experience, in form) between games and other aspects of social life. But while understandable, this is precisely the wrong approach.
What people find fascinating about activities labeled "games" is precisely how they make the contingency of our day-to-day experience available to us, but within semi-bounded (never fully separable) spaces. It is because of this that they are able to take on the same stakes and range of meanings that we find in everyday experience. If we are ever going to be able to ferret out what is powerful and important about games, we must work from an approach that: (1) sees them as never fully separable from other aspects of experience, (2) recognizes what is at stake in them (they are never entirely "consequence-free"), and (3) avoids normative, culturally-located assumptions (about "pleasure" or "fun"). In short, this approach must see games as processual -- like everyday life, they are open-ended sites for social practice. Once we have such an approach in place, we will be free to do the more interesting (and challenging) work of exploring their stakes, relative separabilty, and affective or normative associations through empirically-grounded research, no longer assuming what we should be explaining.
I have posted a paper to ssrn, "Stopping Play: A New Approach to Games" (here), that presents such an approach to games (and briefly outlines the sources and limitations of the play assumption along the way). Any comments welcome.
Games have intruded into popular awareness to an unprecedented level, and scholars, policy makers, and the media alike are beginning to consider how games might offer insight into fundamental questions about human society. But in the midst of this opportunity for their ideas to be heard, it is game scholars who are selling games short. In their rush to highlight games’ importance, they have tended toward an unsustainable exceptionalism, seeing games as fundamentally set apart from everyday life. This view casts gaming as a subset of play, and therefore – like play – as an activity that is inherently separable, safe, and pleasurable. Before we can confront why games are important, and make use of them to pursue the aims of policy and knowledge, we must rescue games from this framework and develop an understanding of them unburdened by the category of play, one that will both accord with the experience of games by players themselves, and bear the weight of the new questions being asked about them and about society. To that end, I offer here an understanding of games that eschews exceptionalist, normatively-loaded approaches in favor of one that stresses them as a characterized by process. In short, I argue for seeing games as domains of contrived contingency, capable of generating emergent practices and interpretations. This approach enables us to understand how games are, rather than set apart from everyday life, instead intimately connected with it. With this approach in place, I conclude by discussing two key recent developments in games, persistence and complex, implicit contingency, that together may account for why some online games are now beginning to approach the texture of everyday life.
[Edit: One more piece, to fill out the picture I am offering here...]
Here is the short version of the definition of games I offer in the paper, plus a brief elucidation:
"A game is a semi-bounded domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes." (p. 9)
All games, I argue, include the incorporation of one or more sources of contingency (the paper identifies four: stochastic, social, performative, and semiotic), carefully calibrated (by design or cultural practices) to create a compelling experience. This is the first aspect of games. The second aspect of games is their capacity to generate meaning. The outcomes that games generate (never perfectly predictable) are subject to interpretations by which more or less stable culturally-shared meanings are generated; the key point about this generation of meaning is that it also is open-ended, potentially transformed by the unfolding of the game itself.
Review of "The Effect of Videogame Violence on Physiological Desensitization to Real-World Violence," by Nicholas L. Carnagey, Craig A. Anderson, and Brad J. Bushman, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2006. Many thanks to Andy Havens for sending us this link.
The authors present the result of an experiment in which 257 college students played video games and then were exposed to films of real-world violence. Heart rate (HR) and skin conductance (sweat; SC) were measured. These unconscious measures are accepted as valid indicators of arousal. In the main experimental condition, subjects were separated into two groups, one that played a violent video game and one that player a non-violent video game. HRs and SCs were measured before the experiment, after video game play, and after films of real-world violence. The data indicate that for those who played nonviolent video games, arousal rose during video game play, and again during the violent films. Those who played violent video games experienced an increase in arousal during the video games, and a decrease during the violent films. The authors argue that these patterns are significant, and indicate that those who play violent video games become desensitized to violence.
While the experiment appears to have been competently conducted, the statistical treatments that lead the authors to conclusions of significant desensitization collectively constitute a veritable handbook of quantitative error and deception. This review can only select some of the more egregious failures. Unfortunately, the abysmal quantitative skills evidenced here are in fact all too common in this literature and most of its close relatives. Entire disciplines seem to believe that they are discovering things, when it seems to this reviewer that they are making up their discoveries as they go along.
In particular, the primary failings one sees again and again in this literature are:
1. Failure to honestly and fully report data
2. Failure to distinguish statistical from substantive significance
3. Failure to develop statistics relevant to prior theory
4. Failure to draw careful and appropriate policy inferences
The Carnagey et. al heart rate data will be used as examples of each failing.
1. The authors do not fully and honestly report their heart rate data. Six small numbers are all that's necessary: the authors should simply tell the reader what they found. What were the average heart rates for people who played violent or non-violent games, at the three times in the experiment? They bury four of these numbers in parenthesized text on page 5, but some digging reveals: Heart rate before game play, 66.4 beats per minute (bpm) and 65.5 bpm for violent and non-violent games; and heart rate after game play but before film, 69.3 and 68.4. The authors do not report heart rate after the film, which of course is the most important set of numbers. Instead, the reader is referred to a figure (p. 5). As best one can tell, heart rate after the film looks like about 70.5 for the non-violents, and about 68.5 for the violents. Thus, the data are
Before experiment, after game, after film:
Violent: 66.4 69.3 68.5
Non-Violent: 65.5 68.4 70.5
It would also be necessary for the reader to see the measured standard deviations of the respondent heart rates across the respondent sample. Otherwise, it is impossible to tell whether these variations in heart rate averages are substantively significant (see below). Absent these data from Carnagey et al., we have to rely on outside data. It turns out that average heart rates at rest for human beings run between 65 and 70 beats per minute. A range of 50-100 is normal (source; source).
Instead of these numbers, the authors report their HR data using a single figure, indeed one that makes use of one of the most frequently denounced practices of statistical charlatans: the vertical axis is not grounded at zero. The range of HR values in the figure runs from 60 to 75 bpm - the entire range falls within the normal range for a human heart. On such a graph, of course, the numbers reported above do look like significantly different numbers. But it is a deception of significant magnitude, well worthy of an 'F' in an introductory econometrics course.
2. The authors cannot distinguish (or do not understand) the difference between statistical and substantive significance. An overview of similar follies can be found here. The idea is simply this: a long time ago, statisticians invented a certain kind of test for the relationship between the mean of a variable and its variance. They called the test a "test of statistical significance." If the mean turned out to be bigger than its standard deviation, they said that the mean was "statistically significant." In one of the most unfortunate linguistic twists imagineable, generations of quantitatively clumsy followers have morphed this notion into a general test of whether a variable is large or not. It's unfortunate becuase statistical significance is just an artifact of the data, it can never tell us whether a number matters or not. In fact, any statistic will become statistically significant if the sample is large enough; as the sample gets larger, the variance around the mean gets smaller, and presto! statistical significance. But theoretical questions don't change on the basis of whether the data set is big or small. The classic story is of an animal husbandry scholar who found that the length of hair on the left side of a sheep's back is statistically significantly longer than on the right side. Of course, he had data from thousands and thousands of sheep. Even a tiny difference in average length - 0.0001 inches - would become statistically significant if you measured hair on a million sheep. Yet the test of substantive significance - "is this a meaningful difference in hair length or not?" is absolutely independent of sample size. And substantive significance is all we should care about (see item 4 below).
Nonetheless, the bugbear of statistical significance is loose among poorly-grounded fields, among which one must now, on the basis of their acceptance of this paper, sorrowfully include experimental social psychology. It is common among bad statisticians to
a) Drop the word 'statistical' when referring to the significance of a finding
b) Report only statistical significance tests, not substantive significance tests
c) Report all statistically significant findings and ignore all statisticall insignificant ones
Carnagey et al. commit at least one of these three of these errors in every paragraph of their results discussion, and they frequently commit all three. Almost all of their statistical discussion is devoted to F-tests, which are statistical significance tests. On page 5 they assert, for example, that the difference in HR from game to film was "large" for both groups, inserting a parenthetical F-test result as their only support for that assertion. Large. The reader may judge: is the difference in HR of 69.3 to 68.5 bpm "large" by any standard of substantive significance? This reviewer does not think so, especially given the understanding that individuals may have HRs between 50 and 100 bpm and still be considered normal.
To report statistical significance tests as tests of substantive significance is more shamefully deceptive than the simple graph cheat identified in (1), but it is of the same color.
3. The authors fail to develop these statistics within the context of a sound theory. Carnagey et al. do spend a long time talking about theory, but interesting things start to happen once they apply their theories to the data. In their "Preliminary Analyses" on page 4, the authors describe what they call "significant" and "insignificant" modifiers to the study's results. One might theorize, for example, that prior exposure to video games might affect how HR responds. Or, perhaps being male or female might matter. Family background might make a difference. Since this is a random-assignment study, it's unlikely that these effects will be important. Still, the authors were careful to do a post-hoc assessment of the data along these kinds of lines. Where their practices turn shady, however, is when they conclude from "insignificance" of difference that a given variable can be completely dropped from the study. It probably does not need saying that the standard of significance here is statistical significance, and therefore this practice is to use the old statistical significance bugbear to substantively alter what is considered theoretically important, prior to the construction of the study's primary statistics. The proper procedure is to complete all theoretical reasoning prior to data manipulation. If theory suggests that a variable such as sex matters, it should be included in the entire analysis. The correct protocol for studying any effect is to embed it in a regression analysis so that its effect can be isolated while holding the effects of other variables constant. Again random-assignment is one way to do what regression is supposed to be doing, namely, to hold other factors at bay. But it is even better to do what Carnagey et al. apparently do, which is to approach the post-experimental data using regression as well. The bad practice comes in dropping entire variables from the analysis simply because some aspect of them was statistically insignificant at a prior step. If theory dictates that they matter, they should be in the final regression. To exclude them for some reason related to an ad hoc statistical significance test is another terribly bad practice; very likely, the inclusion of all theoretically-relevant variables in the analysis would make the HR differences reported even smaller.
4. The authors do not draw careful and appropriate policy inferences. The policy issue in this line of research is whether violent video games are so bad for us that our use of them should be controlled, either by governments, our loved ones, or ourselves. Carnagey et al. reveal themselves to be utterly insensate to this question. Rather, they conclude that any measurement of desensitization, so long as it passes a statistical significance test, is worthy of public notice. Returning to the heart rate data: playing a violent video game reduces heart rate when viewing subsequent violent content by two bpms. This indicates something about arousal. One can debate whether it is "significant". Let us assume it is. Does this arousal effect indicate a significant amount of desensitization to violence in the real world? Carnagey et al. apparently believe so, judging from the title of their paper. Should individuals therefore decrease their exposure to this content? That is indeed the implicit message running through this paper. That conclusion is far from being warranted, however. The true policy issue is this: would a significant decrease in exposure to violent video games lead to a significant decrease in real-world violence? The statistics in this paper do not support such a conclusion.
Indeed, because of its ham-handed and deceptive treatment of data, this paper probably should not have been published.
Joystiq reports on a recent talk by Thomas Bidaux of NCsoft Europe at the Develop UK event where apparently it was revealed that 'everything we think know about MMOs is wrong'. Mr. Bidaux has a number of opinions about how MMOs are going to be revolutionized, turned on their heads even, via platform innovations (though anyone who played Everquest on the PS2 might be a bit skeptical that this is a positive move), Xbox Live style persistence in terms of player rankings and achievements, novel payment models, and yes, 'a lifestyle revolution' enabled by our experiments with Web 2.0, 'collective intelligence (e.g. Wikipedia) and viral content (e.g. MySpace)' that 'provide opportunites for community and collaborative efforts'.
The 'lifestyle revolution' is the one that intrigues me the most because I think it hints at something quite interesting, without having any tangible referents whatsoever. But maybe what he means is that the whole basis for the MMO might change, based on our collective experiences with social software, collaboration and the like.
During my research trip to Asia last year, one trend emerged in Japan that struck me as quite striking: the rather pervasive idea in the game development community of the MMO as a small subset of a larger community experience, rather than the game as the hub around which community grows. Although I hadn't given it a great deal of thought till then, it struck me as very intuitive that a social network should be paramount, and that the way MMOs have developed elsewhere is actually quite counter-intuitive, encouraging the growth of communities with quite ephemeral characteristics, the pick-up group being symptomatic of a need that is otherwise unfulfilled because of a lack of community-centrality outside of guild constructs. One Japanese company, GaiaX , is creating a community platform that is basically MySpace on steroids, where users also have the option of inviting their friends into a variety of play activities, including MMOs. Their management have developed this strategy from the ethos that connecting people, especially in Japanese culture (where connection is a really big problem), is of core importance; the activity that unites people is secondary, but it's the primacy of the social network that must be fostered.
Ever since I visited them and gave some thought to this approach, I've thought it strange that we give so little credence to the importance of the social network, whether it's been made explicit or not. I have lost contact with countless in-game friends who jumped to another game and had no way to leave forwarding info. And how many communities were lost when worlds like AC2 ended? And what about the frustration when an in-game friend gets lost in the black box of another game that one hasn't subscribed to?
Author Steven Johnson, a guy who likes games but doesn't research games per se, has even complained about the separation between the various virtual worlds. I heard a talk recently in which he suggested that we need, at the very least, an open communications standard between worlds, much in the same way that Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL once walled off their subscriber base only to be forced to open the gardens once open standards for e-mail like SMTP emerged. City of Heroes/City of Villains, for instance, implemented a global chat function, allowing communication across characters and across shards, in an update last year. This was rendered particularly necessary in that environment given the average CoX player's propensity for dozens of toons (really quite seductive given the range of customization options that the developers apparently delight in enhancing). Global chat in this case allows players to communicate one-to-one across servers and toons, or to join up to five global chat channels that allow for cross-server coordination. So is this a trend? Will we see developers opening up further and creating communication protocols that allow for cross-shard and cross-world communication? Will SOE add that capability to their multi-game packages, then create Xbox Live type tools that allow one to manage friends globally? (Wait! Do they already?)
If I might speak for him (and hope that he speaks up here), Jerry Paffendorf is also passionate about this topic. He made the excellent point in an earlier TN discussion about trends that the walling of virtual worlds will be increasingly unsatisfying, that a big part of the future will be "the ability to communicate externally to the MMOG or digital world you're in (IM, email, pics, social software, etc.)", also pointing out that Second Life users can already send e-mail or Snapzilla pics to the outside (ideas akin to, but well beyond /pizza) and that the Matrix Online allowed (allows? has the Matrix imploded yet?) integration with AIM. And obviously, external tools like IM, Teamspeak, Ventrilo, Skype, etc. create community hubs that cross those boundaries, though I find it striking that players use those tools to circumvent a lack of in-game options that could otherwise allow them to create the sort of community dynamics they want. The problem, as I see it, is that few MMOs are designed for sociability first, and for gameplay second. This is not to say that this approach, in terms of design, is even feasible, but I have found it striking how few developers can answer the question of how they think about sociability, or even recognize that this in an issue (Rich Vogel, who worked on SWG, was one of the few I've talked to who could). Community features are often tacked on, as if in afterthought, when in an MMO environment, they should really be central.
And this is where I have to plug ethnographic research methods. How will we ever know how to design for sociability if we haven't spent time really understanding how the communities that do exist emerge, how do they self-manage, how do people self-organize? (but this is probably another post, as this one is already getting much too long).
But let's say we do figure all that out. What does the Metaverse look like in terms of technology architecture? Is it, one big crazy behemoth, or like the Internet, are there actually a bunch of small metaverses that are not consistently navigated by the same people (as in the English-language Internet vs. the Chinese-language version), but the basic architecture and open standard protocols allow for interoperability and communication to whatever degree desired? And how will that be accomplished? Will it take a total MMO platform? And if so, are we then talking about skinnable worlds all based on the same architecture? Perhaps the back-end of the Metaverse is the virtual world equivalent of Amazon's business services, spinning fully-branded user experiences off of one tightly-integrated, hugely interoperable back-end? Heck, even Microsoft and Yahoo have recently merged their IM clients. Are we on the cusp of becoming one big interoperable digital family?
Here's why I care about this. I am so, so tired of rebuilding my social network in every new service, social software site, IM client, and game that comes along. When is someone going to give me some persistence, allowing me to filter for levels of friendship/professional relationships, but maintaining one common repository of social network data from whence all these activities can emerge? Of course, to play devil's advocate, leading with community can mean creating a sort of social echo chamber. But there must be ways to introduce serendipity into the system.
But all you people know way more than me... I just like to ask the questions. Can the MMO be turned inside out, even if only in a few limited ways?
Fifteen new virtual world research papers are now linked to the on-line syllabus for the course “Games for the Web.” Written by thoughtful undergraduates at Trinity University, the papers explore topics ranging from sexual practices in virtual environments (PDF) to ways that MMOs might be used to ease the suffering of children with cancer (PDF). (Note: As some curmudgeons have correctly noted, the title "Games for the Web" is a misnomer that glosses over the distinction between "the web" and other TCP/IP-enabled services. The explanation can be found in the appended comments.)
Students met throughout the semester to discuss milestone works related to gaming and virtual worlds, and they supplemented these theoretical conversations with ongoing fieldwork in the virtual world of Norrath (Everquest II). The class played primarily on the Antonia Bayle role-playing server, where they were welcomed by the guild The Vindicators. In a completely unplanned twist of fate, the guild leader (Bandel) turned out to be the legendary game designer Scott Adams.
As they became more familiar with both the theoretical and the virtual landscapes, each student articulated a narrowly defined question that could be answered with qualitative methods. They paid close attention to ethical concerns and the importance of informed consent, and all students were required to pass a test on research ethics before collecting a single scrap of data. All of the class research projects were approved by the Institutional Review Board at Trinity University.
Please wander through the class site at your leisure, and take a look at the student's preliminary research findings. The students would love to hear your constructive feedback, either through e-mail or via postings to their web logs. Please keep in mind the limitations of this research setting. Time was too short to pursue in-depth ethnographic research, and sample sizes were too small to extrapolate with confidence to the broader gaming community. For many of the students, it was the first time that they had undertaken a research project of this scope. Nevertheless, this work reflects the efforts of a new generation of scholars grappling with the social significance of this vital medium.
Gritty details about course mechanics and pedagogical premises are elaborated elsewhere, as are extensive acknowledgements of those who supported the course in some way. I am especially grateful to my colleagues at Terra Nova for graciously sharing their time and expertise, to our guild-mates in The Vindicators on Antonia Bayle for helping us navigate the world of Norrath, and to the many gamers who agreed to participate in these studies.
I just got my copy of Ian Bogost's new book, Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Game Criticism. My jacket blurb says "Bogost challenges humanists and technologists to pay attention to one another, something they desperately need to do as computation accelerates us into the red zones of widespread virtual reality...Highly recommended." Reading it over again, that's still how I feel. A tough and important subject, handled really well, chock full of arguments relevant to the virtuati. Read it!
Want some reading over the holidays?
I'm a bit late with this, because of Typepad's recent problems, but take a look at the term papers for Aaron Delwiche's Games for the Web course at Trinity university. They're almost all refreshing and insightful, and if I didn't tell you they were written by undergraduates you might have had a hard time figuring it out from the content - it's of a very high standard. Not all of them are formal enough to put in .pdfs, but even some of those that aren't make some interesting observations.
If you're into the social science side of virtual world research, check them out.
Go to arden.indiana.edu to download the report and watch a documentary.
We just hosted the DAC conference here at the ITU and it was, as always, great to hang out with smart, interesting folks and get to chat and hear what they are up to. There are a lot of threads that came up during the conference and you can read various coverage via links at the conference wiki. I just want to mention one theme I have been hearing more and more about recently, something termed "player-centered design."
I suppose it is still because it is being formed that I can't give you any precise definition, but I have been struck by how often I hear the term these days. It seems that it can indicate everything from what I would consider more "market research" to fascinating work (like that by Olli Sotamaa and the gang in Finland) on using cultural probes(PDF link) for game design. While I am not a designer myself I am very interested in what techniques do get used (or can get used) for the ways they tell us something about the overall landscape of user/designer relations. Of course we have lots of beta-testing & QA feedback in MMOGs (and EQ now even seems to hold a regular guild summit in which devs meet up with well-established community members to talk about the game and its future), but is there a place for things like cultural probes, participatory design, user workshops, etc. in either developing new platforms or maintaining the existing ones? Maybe this question in some ways relates to Richard's previous entry about platforms for academic research - though I think not excluding commercial ventures is important. Is anyone (any company? any commercial enterprise?) integrating something roughly called "player-centered design" into their MMOG dev processes or is that wording the kind that makes the practicing designer cringe as it seems to undermine the artistic/auteur aspect of producing a game? Microsoft's Game User Research Group seems one of the most active in trying to get players integrated into the design process (although sometimes it isn't much more than basic UI stuff) so I wonder what might the future be for extending initiatives like that to MMOGs. And, just as critical at least from my point of view, does the structure of the development process (complete with publisher demands etc.) even allow for these kinds of more exploratory or nontraditional design methods? While there seems to be growing interest in the academic community on this approach, I am curious to hear what working practioners might make of it.
[As a small sidenote, this is my final TN author post as I am turning my attention to my pro-gaming research. I look forward to continuing to follow discussions from the readers seat however ;) ]
One thing that I've been thinking about a lot lately is my set of experiences over the past two years reviewing for large grant agenices. While my experience is still a bit limited, it has been intense, and I have developed some impressions (and that is really all they are, given anyone's limited point of view relative to these funding agencies) about the current trends in social science research on technology in general (and virtual worlds in particular)...
I invite anyone with experience on either side of this equation (applying, reviewing) to share their thoughts as well. Unfortunately, the incentives in this part of academia push everyone to hoard what little information they have about what works (and doesn't), but I'm actively trying to push against that here in order to ponder whether there are any important shifts or trends that we can identify.
This post is also inspired by one thing that has struck me in particular: the unabashed and common presence of qualitative and exploratory research methods as components in research proposals. In many cases in my experience, and in quite large grants, ethnographic and interview-based methods have a prominent place (I understand that this is somewhat field-specific; education has apparently been pushing the other way, toward quantitative). Cultural anthropologists have a tendency to see themselves as the 'black sheep' of the social sciences because of the historical marginalization of both their method and their subjects (for many decades the far-flung places of the world), and this still has some validity, but it is such a dominant self-picture that sometimes we miss how our methods and perspective are in fact increasingly welcomed in some quarters. (Marketing and governmental intelligence are both growth industries for anthropologists right now--a development which makes my head nearly rotate off its axis.)
My general impression about the qualitative methods, particularly ethnographic research, in these proposals (again, primarily those focusing on technology) is that it is mixed--sometimes there is careful thinking and established qualifications behind the research design of that component, but just as often there is clearly not. But I take this as actually good news for qualitative social science, in a way, because it suggests that this method is valued enough in funding circles to be a component that applicants 'reach for' even if they do not have the expertise to carry it out. Of course, it is the reviewers who then evaluate the quality of this component, along with the others in the proposal, so my presence as a researcher with a qualitative social science background also itself testifies to these agencies' commitment to qualitiative approaches.
Beyond this point, however, I've also noticed that there are three contrasts that variously define types of research that are sometimes conflated more generally, but which in my experience are seen quite clearly as distinct within the funding arena, and which we need to think a bit about in virtual worlds research. I'll keep this short, however, because these are very treacherous waters, and I really just want to begin a conversation. (Boilerplate caveat: the oppositional way that I've presented them here should be taken with a grain of salt, because these are not mutually exclusive, at least theoretically.)
-quantitative vs qualitiative approaches. In addition to my impression noted above, there is a broader trend, which the funding trend (if it exists) may be following, toward a reincorporation of qualitative research across the social sciences (most obviously in sociology). For me, the key question in virtual world research is: How do we incorporate both of these forms, and evaluate claims across them?
-macro- vs micr0-level studies. This is not quite the same as quant/qual, although they are often treated as such. For virtual world research, the question is: What counts as macro-level? Given that these worlds still occupy the attention of a relatively small group of people, are we necessarily engaging in small-scale research, at least currently? How broad is the impact of our conclusions?
-experimental vs exploratory research. This is to me a central, but largely unspoken, contrast that has a particular importance for virtual world research. Exploratory research, which gets far less attention as a scientific methdology than experimental, is typical of the activity of many geologists, astronomers, botanists, and archaeologists. Rather than hypothesis-testing, it is based on the gathering of information about a given phenomenon, particularly one that is large, complex, and about which we know too little to generate useful (that is, other than self-confirmatory) hypotheses. Its contribution is both empirical (lots of data--'thick description' in Geertz's phrase) and analytical, proposing possible explanations suggested by the data. (In this respect it can plausibly be seen as the expansion of the 'observation' step of the 'scientific method'.)
I'm particularly interested in this last contrast, because I get the impression that it mirrors differing views among virtual world researchers. Some see virtual worlds as having promise for their work primarily as sites for experimental research, and they look for how experimental research could be carried out within and through VWs designed for that purpose. A possible extension of this claim is that that until this research is done, all the observation and analysis of what's currently going on is not going to generate knowledge that is comparable in terms of impact. Others see the current landscape of virtual worlds as already a site for such a wide variety of (potentially transformative) human activity that exploratory research is our best hope for generating knowledge about them. The possible extension of this view is to say that experimental contexts will never generate insights that apply in the 'real world', where there are real stakes.
I have some reservations about laying out these contrasts as I see them, because I don't want to polarize the discussion, but (and to return to the topic at hand) I was surprised by the degree to which qualitative, micro-, and exploratory research were a significant part of the proposals I've seen, and we researchers need to take account of this when we think about how we can increase support and awareness of virtual worlds research.
In the UK or want to study here? Has your local higher education establishment recently started a computer game design course? Do you worry that they are just surfing the Abertay wave and are looking for applications by the bucket-load with all the attendant grant money but don’t have anyone on staff that know the first thing about game design?
Skillset (Sector Skills Council for the audio visual industries – or so it says in the press release) have just announced that they are going to be assessing courses and, if any match up, awarding an industry kitemark to those that do.
And it not all the product of a bunch of game-designing-wanabe civil servants either. ELSPA and TIGA are helping out, Activision, Blitz Games, Codemasters, EA, Sony and Visual Science are involved and of course the inescapable Ian Livingstone is chairing this, that and indeed the other.
Is it a good thing?
Well there is the question. It’s good in that at least there will be a standard to which people will be educated so if you get into one of these courses you should get a half decent degree and if you got tech, will not just be able to code you way out of a paper bag, you’ll be able to code the bag, the wetness and the associated mini-game.
But this leaves wider cultural questions to be asked. Is professionalism and standards good for cultural endeavours? This kind of governmental engagement will have some impact on what it means to be a legitimate developer.
But heck, with budgets into the £10m’s I guess there is little use in pretended that for the most part we are an industry, ball bearings, soap powered, quests, it’s all just product eh.
The Thalo delegation won the overall competition fair and square (despite reports in disreputable media) and with it the Shining Star of Light (left); Kudos to Betsy Book, Nick Yee, Greg Lastowka, Dave Rickey, Larry Yaeger, and Ron Meiners. We believe the mace has been taken to New York, where rumor suggests it may play a role in controlling the flow of events at State of Play this weekend. The delegation from Sysland (Raph Koster, Joshua Fairfield, Mark Terrano, Tim Burke, Nate Combs, and Peter Ludlow) won the Chalice of Saethryd (right), which we understand has been enshrined in a place of honor (relatively speaking) at the IU Law School. The delegation from Aroland was admitted into the Royal Order of Somnambulists and Gluttons (ROGS): Thomas Malaby, Sasha Barab, Michael Steele, Cory Ondrejka, Ren Reynolds, Mia Consalvo; the deciding factor was the bourbon consumed in their conference room at 2:30 am - at the behest of Judge Daniel James, mercifully trying to get them to stop working.
And as the previous example suggests, it was at times hard to see the line between play and work. As a result, work happened. Indeed, it may have happened in abundance, although we will not know for sure for a few months. In the pipeline (and don't hold me to this, you know how things go): Several research-ready, tiny-but-scaleable MMORPGs to be launched at universities; several student-run projects at Indiana; as well as a cross-university research initiative helped along by industry support.
Speaking of students...based on their performance this past weekend, I'd advise you to hire the following people: Will Emigh, Nathan Mishler, Ian Pottmeyer, Victor Chelaru, Ian Aliman (MS/MA); Nick Cassidy, Nick Mendel, David Hall, Derrick Kelley, Derek Strand (BS/BA). Tomas Feher, Master of Thieves, was the executive producer.
[Edit: Bridget Agabra Goldstein, co-organizer, deserves most of the credit for making the ludium run smoothly. If I was smart, I would have asked her to edit this post before it went live, precisely to avoid such an egregious omission as I've made in failing to celebrate her contribution properly.]
Look for a short documentary and a full report soon.
I'd also like to thank the following companies and organizations for their direct support:
College of Arts and Sciences, Indiana University
The following companies provided prizes!
Sony Online Entertainment
Linden Labs / Second Life
Amanda Linder, a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, now uses Anarchy Online to teach Technical Writing. While past teachers had students read a sci-fi novel as the context for all the writing assignments (reports, instructions, memos, and the like), Amanda has students play – and write from the context of – Anarchy Online. All technical writing assignments and class discussions are now based on in-game content, typically written from the perspective of employees of Omni-Tek, the mega-corporate power in the game.
You can find her very cool course syllabus here.
What happens when fan fiction becomes part of the writing curriculum? We’ve talked about the ramifications of breaking the golden circle IRT economy (i.e. when in-game worth becomes out-of-game wealth), but what happens when in-game literacy practices becomes part of our more general (and offline) understanding of what it means, say, to write? On the one hand, the idea of schools colonizing peoples’ game spaces seems to add one more notch to the belt that marks the closing of the great virtual frontier. On the other hand, though, when the in-game practices are of equal (if not greater) complexity and sophistication of those we want folks to engage in out-of-game, it starts to seem like foolishness not let them “count” in the off-line world as well.
Ah, the eternal question… Should GL have RL consequence? Doesn’t it already?
This conference is different, first, because it's being hosted by the National Academies, the premier academic organization in the United States. Second, representatives from 30 funding agencies will be there. The conference was developed in stealth mode, but the remaining seating is now open to the public. Invitation here [note: 3.1mb; link will go bad when the event is over]. See inside for an accompanying text.
"The Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education of the national Academies, The Woodrow Wilson Center International Center for Scholars, and Digital Mill invite you to participate in a one day workshop on "Challenges and Opportunities in Game-Based Learning." This event is intended as a dialogue between the research and development community and the federal funding agencies supporting game-based research. The day-long event will showcase advances in game-based learning, delineate policy and research needs, and identify current and future funding agency initiatives into which community needs may be integrated. A program announcement for "Challenges and Opportunities in Game-Based Learning." is attached. To RSVP to this invitation, please email Merrilea Mayo at email@example.com with your name and affiliation. Space is limited, and attendance will be on a first-come, first-served basis.
The workshop will take place on Nov. 2 at the National Academy of Sciences Building at 2101 Constitution Ave., NW. The timing is such that interested parties may plan their trip to attend both this event on Nov. 2, and the Serious Games Conference in the two days preceding.
The ability of electronic games to engage and absorb today's youth is well known. High school students spend as much time playing video games as doing homework. A "good" online game has as many active players as are graduated annually by the entire U.S. higher education system in science and engineering. A "great" (or free) game reaches ten times as many. And now, emerging research shows well-crafted games can teach much more effectively than traditional classroom experiences, and even stimulate decidedly postive health outcomes. The excitement caused by the confluence of an effective education medium with a national education need has stimulated the growth of the game-based learning community beyond all expectation in the past two years. "Challenges and Opportunities in Game-Based Learning" seeks to help guide the development of this fast-moving field."
State of Play III: Social Revolutions is the third annual State of
Play conference on the future of cyberspace convened by the Institute
for Information Law & Policy at New York Law School, the
Information Society Project at Yale Law School, and the Berkman Center
for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. This year, we focus on
social relationships in the metaverse and how to build vibrant,
flourishing, creative places.
Conference Schedule and Registration please visit:
The conference will be held on October 7–8, 2005 at New
York Law School in TriBeCa, New York City. We expect this third event
to be the best yet, drawing leading voices in the online virtual world
and videogame space together with legal and social thinkers to explore
the next-generation of cyberspace and the legal implications of its
massively-multiplayer, immersive and graphical environments.
We intentionally convene both virtual world experts and technological
neophytes to deepen our shared understanding of the impact of law on
the virtual world and of the virtual world on our legal, social and
The conference will feature panels on:
Law and journalism in virtual worlds
The law of virtual worlds
The rise of stock markets
Public space and architecture in virtual
Globalization and the metaverse
A special keynote panel will mark the tenth anniversary of cyberlaw
with a debate about governance in the new cyberspaces. A special
competition will commission the design of innovative public spaces for
virtual worlds. There will be the traditional State of Play keynote
dinner that will showcase leading virtual world technologies and their
designers, the State of the Industry breakfast, and, of course, the
Dance Dance Revolution Extravaganza, the Mini-Machinima Film Festival,
music, art, films from the new frontier, and wonderful conversation.
For more information, please contact Catherine Bracy, Berkman Center
617-495-7547 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Conference Schedule and Registration please visit:
Beth Simone Noveck, Assoc. Prof.
Director, Institute for Information Law & Policy
New York Law School
DEMOCRACY DESIGN WORKSHOP: http://www.nyls.edu/democracy
CAIRNS BLOG: http://cairns.typepad.com
**Registration now open for State of Play III: Social Revolutions, New
York, October 7-8, 2005 at http:www.nyls.edu/stateofplay.
Video archives from State of Play I and II also available on the
It would probably make sense for us to start a post every August for the academic job openings that virtual world specialists might be interested in. To keep it simple, let's only have positions open to people with the standard university-level terminal degrees - PhD, JD, MFA.
In 2005, there aren't going to be too, too many of these. But time, and the digital revolution, marches on.
I'll start with my department's two tenure-track openings at the assistant professor level...
Two Faculty Positions
Department of Telecommunications
Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana
University’s Department of Telecommunications seeks two new tenure-track Assistant Professors. Applicants should hold the Ph.D., M.F.A, L.L.M. or other appropriate terminal degree and present a promising program of either (1) scholarly research using social scientific, legal, or historical methods related to electronic media / communications or (2) creative activity in interactive new media. Promising candidates must also be able to teach effectively in one or more of the department’s undergraduate areas of concentration: Media and Society, Design and Production or Industry and Management. Graduate teaching is also possible.
We offer a B.A. in Telecommunications as well as M.A., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. Undergraduates can also pursue certificates in New Media and Interactive Storytelling and in Game Studies. There are established M.A. and M.S. programs in Immersive Mediated Environments (MIME). Joint M.S. / M.B.A. and M.S. / J.D. degrees are offered in conjunction with the Schools of Business and Law. Our Institute for Communication Research offers support for faculty research including assistance with stimulus design/creation and data collection using an array of methodologies (psychophysiology, focus groups, personal interviews, and computer-assisted survey/experiment administration). We also have digital audio, video and multimedia production technologies. Salaries, fringe benefits and research and teaching opportunities are consistent with peer Research I institutions.
Current research faculty include experts in media psychology and sociology, media economics, political communication, organizational communication, digital games, and media law, policy and technology. Creative faculty emphasize digital and analog media production and digital gaming and interactive storytelling. While we especially seek people in law and policy, management, media psychology, interactive storytelling, game design, 3D modeling, and international communications, our overall objective is to attract the best applicants in the field, regardless of interests, who either enhance current strengths or extend our reach. More about the positions, the department, and our faculty and programs can be found at http://www.indiana.edu/~telecom/. and http://www.indiana.edu/~icr/index.htm.
Applicants should submit (1) a cover letter summarizing their qualifications for the position and explaining how they will add to, supplement or complement existing department strengths, (2) a current vita, (3) selected research publications and/or a portfolio documenting recent creative work (as applicable), and (4) evidence of effective teaching. Three letters of recommendation should be submitted directly by recommenders.
Direct questions and applications to Professor Walter Gantz, Chair, Department of Telecommunications, Radio-TV Center, 1229 E. 7th Street, Bloomington, IN, 47405-5501. Professor Gantz can be reached by phone at (812) 855-1621, fax at (812) 855-7955 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
Start date is August 15, 2006. Review of applications will begin October 21, 2005 and will continue until the positions are filled.
Indiana University is an Equal Opportunity / Affirmative Action Employer. We strongly encourage applications from women and minority candidates as well as from two-career couples.
Let me stress that I am on the recruiting committee for these positions, and also the Director of Graduate Studies for the department. And we are posting this at Terra Nova. Get the picture? :) We are really interested in people with research and production agendas in MMORPGs, simulations, and virtual worlds. If you're just starting out (finishing grad school by August 2006 or just been out a couple of years), going for (or with) an appropriate degree (PhD, JD, MFA), and have a track record of work in the media subject areas listed above (media and society, law, policy, etc., or production), I'd encourage you to apply.
Sage has recently launched a new peer-reviewed print journal for game studies named Games and Culture. They seem to be really putting a lot of backing behind it (even turning up at DiGRA to get a sense of the work out there and meet folks) and hopefully a new kid on the game-journal-block shows the strength of the field :) You might have heard about it before but they have just announced they are offering a free trial issue (electronic) for the first issue due in January. You can find out more about the journal and sign up for the freebie at their website. I also really encourage folks to consider submitting work. The editor, Doug Thomas, has a very exciting and ambitious vision and I know he is looking forward to receiving submissions so definitely check it out.
In case you missed it, the next DAC (digital arts & culture) conference will take place December 1-3 at the IT University of Copenhagen. DAC has long been a host to game studies work so definitely consider submitting and coming out for it. Deadline for papers and workshop proposals is August 8. Full info can be found at the conference website.
Recently, I have been faced with the task of "Reviewing the Research on Virtual Worlds" (yes, with capitalization) as part of my dissertation requirements (ch. 1 of dissertation for me, due in 13 days and counting) but also to be published in a "Handbook of New Literacies," edited by well-known literacy scholars such as Michelle Knobel and Conlin Lankshear. So, for the past few weeks, I've been burying myself in old and new writings on the very spaces we all hold so dear – MMOGs, MUDs, virtual worlds of all forms.
The task is, well... obscenely hard and messy. There's stuff on MUDs, web-published but never peer reviewed, that's held up as "canon" for the field. Then there's the academic papers, much of which consist of conference papers and proceedings publications. There are a few books, here and there, written from fairly atheoretical stances that focus on game design or personal stories. And then the occasional academic paper, such as T.L. Taylor's work or Hunter & Lastowka's (to name a few). Our collective work is all over the place. And that's fine for individuals, but not fine for the development of a field of research for others to draw on.
Am I naive in thinking that we exist as a field? If we do, where do we send our students to read through the literature? So far, I've treated Terra Nova as a sort of repository of ideas. But this will not easily sustain us as more scholars join the field. So... I wonder. Is it time we publish a journal of our own? Or at least a yearly review of some form? I worry that knowledge gets lost as generations move on to other topics/activities and newcomers will see nothing but a whole lot of webtalk without much scholarly, peer-reviewed writing on the issues.
And, yes, it does matter. If academensian's (pun intended) are to take virtual worlds seriously, then we have to give them reason to do so. R. Bartle, you question why it is that MMOG's are constantly translated into the home fields of those who write on them. Well, without a defined audience of our own that proves itself legitimate, we risk becoming nothing more than a fandom community around a technology that will, itself, grow tired, as all eventually do.
So, my questions include: Are we ready for a peer-reviewed journal on MMOGs? And, if so, who exactly ought to serve as peer review? And too, would we be "selling out" or whatever to establish such a forum for paper publication? And could we create one that worked in conjunction with the lively discussions here?
no no, not that kind of moonlighting.
A growing number of flickerbees are using the 'digra' tag, so to check out more photos from me and others go Flickr.
I've got a lot of thoughts sparked by DiGRA coming, including a long meditation on the dreaded ludology-narratology thing, but first I wanted to mention an interesting sub-theme I noticed weaving its way through the conference: emergence, complex systems, non-human agency, network theory and related topics. Nicholas Glean dealt centrally with these issues. I understand Seth Giddings as also being engaged on these topics, though I missed his paper presentation. I caught a number of other mentions or invocations of these concepts. Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's Facade (their presentation on it was one of the highlights of the meeting for me) also clearly is a case of emergence, even if they don't explicitly see it as such.
My own paper dealt with the same issues. A draft is available at my blog. I've fiddled with it some since then.
One thing that I think is important about the general suite of concepts under this heading is that they can be painfully vague or misleading in the wrong hands, or just marketing hype. But in the context of games, at the very least, emergence is a technique for creating the psychologically convincing simulation of life or intentionality. There is clearly a deep mental algorithim that human beings use to sort life and non-life that agent-based emergent systems do a pretty good job of tapping into.
I think there's even more to the concept that's relevant to games, and especially persistent virtual world games. But I'll leave that for the full paper. I do think it's an important concept for game scholars to consider, and consider well.
Command Lines: The Emergence of Governance in Global Cyberspace will be really useful to this community, I think. We talk all the time about economics and law, not enough about governance.
We now have some firm info about the conference. From the website: The conference "will examine the diverse ways in which governance is both implemented and emerging within cyberspace and the effects of such approaches to governance in the off-line world. Sessions will cover the entire range of types of governance mechanisms, from the formal laws of government through the formal and informal governance mechanisms of both state and non-state actors to the cultural practices of governmentality that sustain and enable both governance and government."
The formal announcement:
The Center for International Education at the University of
Wisconsin-Milwaukee is pleased to announce
Command Lines: The Emergence of Governance in Global Cyberspace
a colloquium at the Hefter Conference Center, University of
Wisconsin-Milwaukee, April 29-30, 2005, organized by Sandra Braman
(communication) and Thomas Malaby (anthropology).
The transfer of many realms of social life to the global domain of
cyberspace presents numerous challenges to formal governance through law and
law-making – while increasing the relative importance of other approaches
to "the conduct of conduct." While governments struggle to develop and
apply laws to cyberspace, the producers of the internet (its users and
programmers) create their own parameters, norms, practices, and rules that
control life online. Experience within cyberspace, whether building a
virtual world, making or participating in games, or learning how to
communicate congenially and productively in a listserv, is becoming the most
important training in political life for many. Governance systems being
developed within cyberspace in turn are providing models for, or interact
with, the laws of governments. This colloquium will examine the diverse
ways in which governance is developing within cyberspace and the effects of
such approaches to governance in the off-line world. Sessions will cover
the entire range of types of governance mechanisms, from the formal laws of
government through the formal and informal governance mechanisms of both
state and non-state actors to the cultural practices of governmentality that
sustain and enable both governance and government.
Participants and Contributions:
"Why Governments aren't Gods and Gods aren't Governments"
"Playing Politics: Videogames for Politics, ACtivism, and Advocacy"
"From Governance to Government to Governmentality: The Regulatory Roles of
Cyberspace in the Post-Law Era"
"The Social Question: Games for People Left Behind"
"User Design and the Democratization of the Mobile Phone"
"How Machines Govern"
"Pew Survey Research Findings Related to Internet Governance"
"Code, Everyday Life, and Mundane Governance"
"System Architecture, Geography, and Global Internet Governance"
"Inter-Media Dynamics and Reality Television in the Arab Region"
"The Jurisdiction of Play"
"More, Faster, Better?"
"Coding Control: Ethics and Contingency in the Production of Online Worlds"
"Values at Play: Method and Application"
"Digital Art/Public Art: The Networked Commons"
"Command Tones: Acoustic Space and the Ordering of Motion"
"Beyond Management: Participatory Governance in Emergent Player Culture"
Facilitator: Dangling Thoughts Discussion
"Digital Politics, Responsive Governance, and Cyber Freedoms Meet
Authoritarianism in the Arab World: Results still Emerging"
"Guest Work: The Use of the 'Other' in Producing Rules and Identity Norms in
"Networks of Power, Links of Resistance: How Online-Offline Connections
Challenge Internet Control in China"
For more information, contact: Sandra Braman (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Thomas
Social Study Games.com collects research about social effects of MMORPGs. Many TN sources are linked there. Brought to you by doctoral student Lisa Galarneau.
By the way, we encourage anyone mounting a site like this to send us the link for our resource list. Centralized info is good.
Alan Meades, under the aegis of Middlesex University / UK, is running a survey of Final Fantasy XI players. Please publicize and distribute the link. Participation by Japanese players is especially welcome. A full Japanese translation of the survey is available at the site.
Back in January this year Espen Aarseth (short beard) of ITUC and Henry Jenkins (long beard) of MIT met up at HUMlab in Sweden to discuss games. Fortunately the face to face was filmed and even more fortunately there is a stream.
So if you want over an hour of heavy weight discussion of: what it is to study games, ludology the role of story and a whole lot more, tune in, kick back and enjoy.
What are the defining qualities of virtual worlds? What defines their worldliness: the there of There, the everquestness of Everquest?
These questions are central to Lisbeth Klastrup’s recently published phd thesis: Towards a Poetics of Virtual Worlds: Multi-User Textuality and the Emergence of Story.
Diving straight to page 322 ‘Defining Everquestness’ Klastrup suggests that the experience of a virtual world can be split into three levels:
- The lived experience of individual characters “those which turn into stories"
- The experience of the game ”of mastering it and discussing it as “a tool”"
- The total experience of the world incorporating “the knowledge of the world “gathered” by all my characters on their travels”
She goes on to say that the experience of the world also includes becoming part of a social network, the malfunctioning of EQ as a capricious technological artefact, the “playful oscillation” of acts that have one meaning within the world and another to those outside it etc. Finally she concludes that the worldliness of EQ is made up of the sum of all these experiences.
Having not read the preceding 321 pages yet I’m unsure of the detail. But thinking about what makes the experience of VW distinct from others I tend to think in terms of Bartle’s take on the Hero’s Journey. Yes it’s our experiences of the worlds what they are - but specifically for me it is the breadth of the arc of those experiences, the actuality of being one of the heroes of a saga, the intensity of relationships that are forged and lost, this to me is the particular if not peculiar worldliness of VWs.
Thanks to Mirjam Eladhari’s Blog for pointing out that Lisbeth’s thesis is now out.
I was going to post a review of some papers from the Other Players conference (many very interesting ones btw) and then this entry but since a discussion got going over in another thread I think it's worth foregrounding now. One of the big conversation points that came up at the end of the conference was on the relationship of scholarly game studies to design. Eric Zimmerman raised a very good question and concern at the end of the last session which was why are we seeing so many academic studies include some kind of conclusion around "what this means for design" or "how designers can use these findings." I was particularly grateful for Eric's intervention because I've personally been feeling a growing unease with how often scholarly work in games seems to seek a kind of legitimacy by being able to sum up how the research can be used in future game implementations. It's of course not the case that we never want what happens in game studies to have real impact and influence but can we always anticipate what that will be? By making moves into predictive work are we quickly losing ground for good basic research to thrive? Are we beginning to foster a space in which research is primarily legitimated through its usefulness in building future MMOG markets?
There seems to be at least three levels at play here - what I might call critical game studies, critical or innovative design work, and market-driven design work. It seems to me that more and more "speaking to design" or designers is conflated to the third category - addressing market concerns (the need for more eyeballs, more subscribers, bigger games, etc). But interesting design may, in fact, be that which is political, provokes, offends, unsettles, runs counter to mainstream sensibilities, or even challenges commercial orientations and I worry that all too often this point is overlooked. My concerns are, in fact, not primarily directed at designers. While of course there are cases (most?) in which research is dismissed outright if it doesn't have clear, direct utility to building markets I'm less inclined to try and fight that battle. In fact, when I think of designers who approach this most thoughtfully they don't see it as a burden we in academia need carry. As even Richard Bartle notes in his thread post,
"I'm with Eric in that I don't think "games studies" researchers should have to justify themselves to designers. As a designer, it's more useful when they do justify themselves, because it means I don't have to go scouring the literature for interesting stuff - it's already flagged for me. They shouldn't feel obliged to do that, though (especially if it reduces the chance of their getting published in their "home" field)."
Of course, it's always good to think about how to translate one's work out, but I am not a designer in any fashion. I know what is critically important to my subfields and what I find analytically important, but I don't have the orientation or the skills to invoke innovative design. So my question is more at us, the academics. Are there ways we are fetishizing market-focused design which is concerned with that very narrow branch of the commercial MMOG world? Social science in particular has a long history of working in the service of marketing and while I don't want to suggest that's not a fine path for some, I feel like I've been seeing quite a few studies that try and talk to the most limited conception of "design." It's not a clear line of course. A lot of the work we do can certainly be used to retain players or find new demographics for games but I believe we have to retain a space for other kinds of work - often basic, often critical - to exist.
Does this mean I'm saying scholars cannot, should not, pay attention to design? Absolutely not. My training leads me to always want to inquire about structure and in games & virtual worlds that can go to the heart of design. Indeed I often find myself engaged with what I consider critical political issues that touch design spheres. But that can be very different than trying to then place oneself in the role of quick'n'dirty designer or marketer. There are those talented individuals, of course, that can have a foot in each world and do justice to both. This post is in no way meant to incriminate the work done by people in trying to translate their findings out to a broader community or embody it in concrete forms. But scholars increasingly feel significant pressure to legitimize their work only through industrial channels (not to mention those that can only secure funding by doing so). We often exist in cultures and organizations that continually say the only real means of validation can come through industry and usefulness to it. Unfortunately I think much of that argument rests on a very limited understanding of how influence and innovation can occur (for most of us our work will insinuate itself into practice and organizations via our students and not because the current scene takes it to heart). It's this rhetoric, and the future it suggests, I hope we can find pockets of resistance to. At the very least, maybe we can have some fruitful discussions about it along the way.
Looks like a stellar lineup. Speakers/papers include:
Newbie Induction: How Poor Design Triumphs
Nicolas Ducheneaut, Robert J. Moore, Eric Nickell
Designing for sociability in massively multiplayer games: an examination of the “third places” of SWG
Mirjam Eladhari, Craig Lindley
Story construction and expressive agents in virtual game worlds
Chek Yang Foo
Redefining Grief Play
Chek Yang Foo, Elina M. I. Koivisto
Grief Player Motivations
Other Playings - Cheating in Computer Games
Rikke Magnussen, Morten Misfeldt
Player Transformation of Educational Multiplayer Games
Flow, seduction and mutual pleasures
A Discourse Analysis of MMOG Talk
Peter Zackariasson, Timothy L. Wilson
Massively Multiplayer Online Games: A 21st Century Service?
This should keep us busy for a while.
Can't decide where to start? Browse the summaries of each paper at the official proceedings page.
Suppose I went to a conference on Artificial Intelligence and introduced my talk with the following words: "I'm not interested in AI, I know very little about it, and what I do know is beyond my comprehension. I'm only interested in computer games." What kind of a reaction could I expect?
I just got back from a conference (CGAIDE 2004 *) where a speaker actually said this, only the other way round. He was an AI expert who didn't play, understand or like computer games, but hey, we might be able to find some use for the AI stuff he works on so here it is.
It wasn't just him. Several speakers were keen to explain their ideas of how AI can be used to make a game adapt so that its difficulty level changes dynamically depending on how well a player is playing it - this even though they hadn't actually bothered to find out from developers (let alone players) if this was a good idea or not. One speaker told us about crime scene investigation software, with an, "Oh, and you can use this for computer games probably" tacked on at the end. It happened time and time again.
What is it about studying computer games (or any kind of game) that gives researchers from other disciplines the right to look down on us, patronise us and ignore our work?
* Disclaimer: several papers were both about computer games and very good. Because of them, I won't be asking for my money back...
In case you haven't seen it yet, just a reminder that the registration deadline for the Other Players conference here in Copenhagen next month is approaching. Here is an update just sent out by the organizers:
Please remember that if you wish to participate in the Other Players conference on multiplayer issues you need to register before November 15th.
To register go to: http://itu.dk/op/register-new.htm
If you have any questions please write to
- Academic questions: Jonas Heide Smith (smith +at+ itu.dk)
- Administrative questions: Tasha Buch (tabu +at+ itu.dk)
We hope to see you in Copenhagen.
Jonas Heide Smith
The Other Players Organizers
Center for Computer Games Research
Alex Golub, founder of the Digital Genres movement at the University of Chicago and PhD student of one of the world's most highly reputed anthropologists, will hold an informal meeting on ethnographic practices as they apply in virtual worlds. The site, suitably, is the virtual world of Second Life. Since C. Steinkuehler's recent post, we have all been thinking deeply about the human subjects/ethnography issue, and with good reason. Golub's meeting is aptly timed.
Slashdot has covered it, but we want to get the word out: Project Massive is one of the few sources we have for information about MMORPG users. They've got the results from one survey wave up and are looking for more. Take their wave 2 survey here.
So the "ludology" vs. "narratology" debate has flared up again, along with accompanying feuding over whether "game studies" really is or should be a discipline. Markku Eskelinen 's reply to Julian Kucklick (via Ludology) is only one of the stones that Kucklick's review of the anthology First Person has set in motion. Jasper Juul also has replied to Kucklick at his weblog.
So I thought I'd take a crack at this old chestnut myself. On one hand, I think the ludologists are if anything being too generous to some of what has been said about games by scholars who come more from the narratology end of things--the problem with some narratological accounts isn't that narrative is somehow intrinsically different in games, it's that some people coming out of literary or cultural studies have a tendency to write about genres and texts that they know little or nothing about. On the other hand, I don't have much sympathy for the desire to make "game studies" a discipline, partly because that's not where my bread is buttered, but also because I think academic writing about games provides a good opportunity to practice a new middlebrow form of academic cultural criticism that consciously avoids the insular norms of scholarly writing.
Read on for more detail if any of that makes you sharpen your knives...
On my first foray into the world of academic game criticism at Bristol in 2001, one of the things that fascinated me anthropologically, as an outsider looking in, was the heated conversation between self-professed ludologists and narratologists, and the way that conversation—sometimes conflict—interlocked with a parallel conversation about whether there should be a new discipline devoted to the study of games or whether games should be an object of study within existing disciplines.
I had been thinking about computer and videogames in isolation, more or less, as the next step in the development of my growing intellectual investment in cultural studies that followed on my earlier work on children’s television. Since that work was consciously middlebrow from the beginning, shaped by my sense that there could and should be an academic practice focused on popular culture that read and sounded differently than mainstream academic literary criticism, and sought a different relation to its audiences, I suppose that I was less surprised by the bid for disciplinarity in games studies than I was opposed to it outright. Not opposed from the perspective that games could be studied narratologically in a properly academic way in an existing discipline, but opposed instead from the position that games criticism was an ideal place to invent a new middlebrow academic practice that did not reproduce the norms and apparatus of academic respectability as they are typically structured, particularly not the isolating and hierarchically exclusionary mechanisms that come with proclaiming a new “discipline”.
My position on this whole question is a by-product of my own institutional situation. I have standard-issue academic respectability (probably fading fast the more I blog) as a historian of modern Africa. I don’t need to protect myself as a games researcher—but others do, and to do that, they need the apparatus of a discipline. If we’re not going to break down disciplines as a whole, then anyone who wants to move into a completely new line of inquiry needs parity with established researchers. So the argument for “normal” disciplinarity makes a certain kind of sense, and I oppose it only because I have the professional luxury to do so.
Henry Jenkins has read through the narratologist vs. ludologist debate very throughly, and there’s no need to reiterate his many keen observations again. But it is worth noting that the debate, such as it is, essentially tracks very closely against a much larger metadebate within the academy, about the strengths and weaknesses of the trope of textuality. You can find that discussion situated very sharply within history and anthropology, for example. In history, it’s centered around the “linguistic turn” and the practice of cultural history; in anthropology, around the idea of “experience” as something separable from “text”, and "participant-observation" as the favored methodology for understanding experience.
What the debate boils down to in many cases is an assertion by some scholars that there is a (social or otherwise) reality which has an ontological status that cannot be reductively encompassed as “text” or "representation". Those who argue this might concede that that we might benefit at times from understanding practice or experience or society as “texts”, but that to make this out to be more than a provisional heuristic or metaphor, to begin to believe that text or representation is ontology, that it is turtles all the way down, is a big mistake.
The ludologists seem to me to have been making a version of this point, that understanding games has to involve narratology (what a game says, what a game means, what the content and story of it is) but always also attention to the concrete practice of its consumption, the experience of play. Not because we have to study everything (because one could say the same even about literary texts, that we simultaneously should try to understand the social reality of their consumption as well as their content) but because the content of games is defined by their modes of practice. On that point, I’d say I’m a ludologist as well. But so are most of the scholars who describe themselves as narratologists in their approach to games. Broadly speaking, in fact, the rise of the historicist mode of literary criticism and hybrid forms of cultural studies in the humanities means that at least some lip service to encompassing texts in terms of the totality of their production, circulation and consumption is usually made even in scholarship that largely focuses on hermeneutical and interpretative readings of “texts”.
This point is only one-half about grand metadebates on ontology and epistemology. It’s also a pretty simple claim about methodology, and here too, I suppose I’m a ludologist, and more sharply so this time.
The thing of it is that at least some of the most obviously narratological treatments of video games out there share a similar flaw. They don’t seem to know anything about games in general or the game-text they’re dealing with in particular.
This too is not unique to the study of games. One of my most pressing critiques of a great deal of writing about “colonial discourse” is that it tries to emulate Edward Said’s Orientalism by cobbling together a few cherry-picked quotes from a smattering of thinly-related texts to pronounce the existence of a “discourse”.
In the context of games criticism, this tendency might lead to a narratologist placing enormous interpretative weight on the fact that most first-person shooters are structured by conflicts between the player’s avatar and small groups of three to six enemies, seeing this as a narrative choice that has authorial intent behind it, that can be related to various similar kinds of narratives in other media (e.g., the ur-narrative of Die Hard or Rambo or James Bond films, the narrative pacing of action films where the uber-masculine hero crushes small packs of slightly-less-manly bad guys). The problem is that the narratological kinship between Die Hard and first-person-shooters is a much more complicated matter in its actual historical evolution. If anything, when first-person-shooters first appeared with narratological structure that resembled the narrative of action films, to some extent that content was a superficial add-on rather than a deep structure of gameplay, a kind of narratological “skin”. The original Doom is a very good example of this pattern. The deep structure of the game (single player avatar versus distributed clusters of enemies) was, before anything else, a technical requirement dictated by the number of enemies it was then possible to have on the screen. This continues to be the case even though computers have much more processing power because the enemies have become much more graphically demanding.
It would probably be possible to go back and re-do the original Doom with its original graphics and engine on a contemporary computer so that the player had to face armies of two or three hundred enemies at once—a narrative structure that would have a certain kind of “realist” modality to it, and would surely result in the regular unheroic death of the unnamed marine sent to invade the base if the marine’s relative power and weaponry were kept constant with the original game’s design. That developers do not create such games has a little bit to do with the structured narrative of action heroics (with all the possible meanings one could reasonably interpret as residing within that narrative) but a lot more to do with the technical requirements of game production and the path-dependent nature of any particular genre or cultural form. First-person shooters are today first and foremost what they are because of what they have been, and what they have been first and foremost goes back to the roots of the videogame form itself, roots which were and remain structured significantly by the technical capabilities of the medium itself.
Another good example of this is the “cut scene”, which some narratologists have also chosen to see as an intentional authorial mechanic that is characteristic of visuality and representation in games, a perspectival shift that meaningfully forces the player from first-person interactivity into third-person spectatorship. It’s true that this may be the ultimate impact of the “cut scene”, and it is certainly an important thing to analyze narratologically for that reason. But it is not necessarily an authorial artifact, a mechanism which was originally intentionally put into games as a communicative act by game producers or authors. Again, it’s actually a kind of technical kludge, a reflection of the technical and creative difficulty at one point in the evolution of computer games of feeding scripted content through the same engine that supported gameplay. More and more, the kind of scripted content that once appeared solely in “cut scenes” that were visually and perspectively set apart from the game engine and gameplay are now being integrated within the game itself in some fashion. It doesn’t make the difference between scripted content and gameplay unimportant—it still requires analysis from a fairly “narratological” perspective, with “narratological” tools—but that analysis has to come from some kind of fairly situated understanding of why that structure exists in order to prevent over-reading its meaning and intentionality.
It’s somewhat catty of me to suggest that narratologists are more prone to not knowing what they’re talking about, but I’ll go out on a limb and say just that—not only about games, but as a general tendency across a vast array of genres and forms. Cultural studies struggles enormously with this problem, with the appropriation of new genres of popular culture and particular texts within them into preloaded, preconceived analytic frameworks.
A while back on a cultural studies listserv, for example, I ran into several scholars talking about the reactionary qualities of the comic book character Captain America, and their assumption that his comics would be the natural habitus for pro-Bush representations of 9/11. It might be true that the entire idea of Captain America is reactionary in some fashion, but a detailed reading of the history of his comic book reveals some interestingly ambivalent and complex reconfigurations of “patriotism” through and within the character himself. In fact, because Captain America is so bland a personality (pretty much from the character’s origins to today) he has always tended to be a natural prism for contemporary contestations about the nature of American nationalism. So in the 1970s, the character turned his back on his identity to roam around Easy Rider style, looking for America. At various points in his history, he’s run into and confronted conspiratorial interests at the highest reaches of the American government—recently including a post 9/11 Secretary of Defense seeking to manipulate paranoid fears about “homeland security” (who turned out to be the Red Skull). So in actual content, the character turns out to be much more polymorphous and multivalent in political terms.
There is a very real style of academic cultural criticism that simply grabs at quick, unsituated readings of texts and fits them to a procrustean bed. I see it with comic books, I see it with “colonial discourse”, I see it with a great many subjects—including games. If some academics interested in games have protested about “narratology”, this style of writing is often what they’re really talking about, rather than criticizing a very legitimate and important kind of games criticism which focuses on the narrative structure of a game, or on the larger ways that narrative functions in games and between games, or legitimate and necessary concerns with the meaning and content of games. Much of what could be classed as narratological doesn't have this problem, and some of what could be classed as ludological does--the fact that you think games are something different than texts doesn't mean that you actually know anything about games. But it's more likely, for many reasons, that someone who stresses the continuity between a game-text and other kinds of texts that they have already studied is going to just casually and appropriatively fit a game into a pre-existing analytic framework without really getting to know it.
So it’s a very simple methodological point: know what you’re talking about before you talk about it.
That demand doesn’t commit me at all to the proposition that writing about games as an academic needs to take on the normalized forms of academic respectability, however. Who, after all, knows the most about what games are, about their history, their technical functioning, their consumption, and their real intertextualities? Gamers and designers. Academic games criticism can bring a great many things to the table, but gamers themselves have already set it. There’s no reason, as Justin Hall has noted, for game criticism to take a rhetorical and substantive form that dramatically overstresses its distance from the already existing (and often sophisticated) discourse of gamers and designers themselves. As a recent discussion at Grand Theft Auto suggested, that distance is not necessary or productive. There’s every reason for scholars who want to do game criticism not to adopt tedious academic practices of artifically exaggerated respectability which interfere with the timely delivery of relevant analysis and findings, such as lengthy peer review—one reason I’m really excited to be blogging at Terra Nova, because I think the group blog is an excellent form for delivering just-in-time critical analysis of games and the issues that surround them.