Keywords for Video Game Studies

For a third year running, our graduate interest group brings bringing together interdisciplinary perspectives and scholarship on video games.  Our working group aims to bolster critical engagement with video games and video game culture to address:

  • the design of games (as computational, protocological, rhetorical, and aesthetic
    artifacts),
  • the theorizing of games (looking at narrative, interactivity, race/gender/sexuality, gamification), and
  • the pedagogical and political potential of games.

Through close readings of games, close playings of games (i.e., critical gaming), and colloquium discussions, our working group hopes to highlight central questions, keywords, and even dissonances in video game studies and video game theory.  Our framing questions include:

  • What key terms and core concepts animate and shape the field of video game studies?
  • What are the central tensions, challenges, and antagonisms in video game studies?
  • How do we as students, scholars, and game players shape the future of video game studies, video game development, and video game pedagogy?

The Keywords for Video Game Studies group works in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington.  The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

How to Participate, What to Expect

The GIG will be structured as an open, roundtable discussion. There will be no formal leader, however, the core GIG members will try to keep things organized and moving smoothly. Our intention to have an informative, interdisciplinary conversation that will map the critical landmarks for a discussion of that day’s keyword.  Attendees to the GIG are encouraged to read the featured articles assigned for each meeting.  Though we may not address each of them, they provide our participants, who hail from many different departments, a common set of reference materials in which to ground our necessarily interdisciplinary discussion. So, please do read the articles. Also, please come with avenues of inquiry for our group to grapple with and a willingness to contribute to the conversation. Our roundtable format will work best when it is lively and interactive.

Getting the Readings

All of the GIG readings will be made available in PDF form.  If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve (which are held in conjunction with CHID 496: “Keywords” focus group course).   If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

Featured Games, Playing Games

Each meeting will probably address a wide variety of games.  We will , however, identify certain games as emblematic and interesting intersections of the issues we will be covering that day.  It is not required that you purchase, play, or “finish” these games.  Please do though when possible.  We will try to select games that are available for free or demo or games that have useful trailers, game play video, and reviews.

News, Notes, and Commentary

Keywords GIG Holds Roundtable at PNASA Conference, Apr. 20, 9-10:30 AM

April 19th, 2013

A few of the Keywords for Video Game Studies working group will be part of a roundtable on video game scholarship, pedagogy, play, and design at the annual conference of the Pacific Northwest American Studies Association (PNASA), which is being held at the Watertown Hotel in Seattle.

keywordsPNASAroundtable

Ready for My Close Up: Keywords Follow-Up

April 16th, 2013

networkpeopleby Theresa Horstman and Edmond Chang

Thanks to those who joined us for our most recent Gaming Keywords session, CLOSE/DISTANT on April 4, 2013.  The games and readings represented multiple interpretations of our fifth keyword for this year, and as usual, the conversation ran the gamut: reading, playing, research methods, intimacy and space.

Close playing is to video games what can be interpreted as the equivalent of close reading in literature.  As one of the readings defined, “Close playing, like close reading, requires careful and critical attention to how the game is played (or not played), to what kind of game it is, to what the game looks like or sounds like, to what the game world is like, to what choices are offered (or not offered) to the player, to what the goals of the game are, to how the game interacts with and addresses the player, to how the game fits into the real world, and so on. Close playing is about revealing and analyzing what Galloway calls the diegetic and nondiegetic spaces and features of the game.”  Close playing is about developing critical ways of reading, playing, seeing, and experiencing a game that ironically is about a kind of critical distance from the “flow” of play.

Distant reading, as summarized in Kathryn Schulz’s article, is a large scale analysis of large works of literature–much like big data in play analytics.  Schulz meditates, “The idea that truth can best be revealed through quantitative models dates back to the development of statistics (and boasts a less-than-benign legacy).  And the idea that data is gold waiting to be mined; that all entities (including people) are best understood as nodes in a network; that things are at their clearest when they are least particular, most interchangeable, most aggregated.”  However, the difficulty is understanding that data does not always equal certainty or fact.  How we choose to position ourselves in relation to the game, close to the experience or removed from a single event, changes how we make sense of it.  Similarly, combining qualitative research methods with big data tells us a different story about the player experience than the numbers alone.  It is important to provide context and depth for parts of large data sets.

In other words, the study of, research in, and critique of games requires a set of practices and approaches that can handle the multimodal- and multimedia-ness of video games.  Akin to the age old narratology versus ludology debate (a binary that no longer holds much soup), these critical practices and approaches cannot simply rely on games as texts, stories, or gamer experiences nor can they reduce (abstract?) games to the crunching of numbers, stats, or data sets.

All in all, the session was thoughtful and insightful.  Thank you once again for everyone’s continued interest and attendance.  For our final session of the year we will be hosting THATCamp Epic Play on May 24and 25, 2013.  Building on previous years’ colloquia, this year’s THATCamp, broadly themed by the keyword “EPIC,” is the capstone event to a year-long series of workshop sessions on violence, history, fantasy, bodies/sex, and close/distant.  THATCamp Epic Play hopes to foster the growing engagement with what it means to study or make or play games.  For more information and (last minute) registration: http://epicplay2013.thatcamp.org/

 

“CLOSE/DISTANT” | Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Session, Apr. 4, 1:30 PM, CMU 202

March 26th, 2013

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) first event of the Spring Quarter is on Thursday, April 4, 1:30-3:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our fifth public reading and discussion group of the academic year and will focus on the gaming terms “CLOSE/DISTANT.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington, is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve.  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion. The games marked with an * are playable for free. The other games require some online research on Wikipedia, Youtube, etc.

What to Discuss

Constance Steinkuehler in “Why Game (Culture) Studies Now?” argues, “[F]uture research on games might productively focus on the ‘mangle’ of games as simultaneously both designed object and emergent culture, caught up in broader conversation with other big G Games such as politics, academics, parenting, and contemporary life offline.”  The penultimate Keywords session of the school year focuses on the ‘mangle’ of game studies, game research, and game play.  Mindful of the ludology v. narratology binary, how might we think about a different tension: close v. distant?

  • What does it mean to close read a game?  Close play?  Close read its code?
  • On the other hand, what does it mean to distant read a game?  Collect big data?  Study game communities, cultures, and systems?
  • What are the affordances, limitations, and alliances in qualitative and quantitative studies of gaming and gamers?
  • How might we think about scale in video game studies?  Local versus global?  Part versus whole?
  • Finally, how might we think about “close” and “distant” in terms of player intimacy, identification, and communities?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions.  Either way, come be a part of our discussion Thursday, April 4, 1:30-3:30 in CMU 202.

Bodies (and Sex) That Matter: Keywords Follow-Up

March 20th, 2013

by Edmond Chang, Merritt Kopas, and Jennifer  LeMesurier

Many thanks to everyone that attended and contributed to the second Keywords session of Winter Quarter on “bodies/sex” and games.

The framing questions for the session reveal the varied, overlapping, and sometimes incommensurate ways that talking about “bodies” and “sex” are never simple, additive, or easy.  But, the messiness of the conversation is indicative of the ways that many games fail to address and articulate this complexity.  We opened the session thinking about the differences between the terms “body” and “sex,” thinking about the representations of bodies on the screen, and thinking about what it means to play a video game as an embodied experience.

qwop1

 

qwop2

We started with the ostensibly simple game QWOP, where you “play” a 100-meter runner at the Olympic Games (it is interesting to note the avatar’s racialized, athletic body).  QWOP revealed the difficulties of even portraying “natural” or “real” movement, programming the mechanics of movement, and the necessity to abstract and automate the ways bodies move.  Games like QWOP highlight the difference between purposeful and non-purposeful abstraction of bodily movement and action and the high degree of accepted abstraction in most games  We meditated on the logics of embodiment in a medium that all too often stresses disembodiment—how avatars move onscreen, how they are (dis)connected to and from the player (via a cord, vibrating controller, or motion-tracking technology), and the representation of and metrics for things like encumbrance, fatigue, wounds, disease, disability, even death.  Often games which are considered simulations and advertise their “realism” and detail abstract the body the most.  For example, in the ostensibly open world game Skyrim, your character does not need to eat or sleep–the body is an inexhaustible vessel with total freedom of movement.  It is this freedom of moment that Samantha Allen, a trans* contributor to the Border House blog, critiques, saying, “I’ll confess that I seem to enjoy the rampant freedom of open world games just as much as anybody.  But, for cisgender gamers, the supreme motility of open world games often functions as an exaggeration of a freedom of movement that they may already enjoy in the physical spaces of non-game worlds.”

One of the most important entry points for our discussion was gender—how do we map gender onto bodies in video games.  What do we do with (in)congruence between gendered avatars and our “real life” gender performances and embodiments?  What do we do with games that offer ambiguous, androgynous, or even nonhuman bodies?  Do we still gender game avatars, narratives, and actions even when there is no obvious gender involved (e.g. geometric sprites)?  We also discussed the potential queerness of playing a character or avatar not your sex assigned at birth or not your gender identification.  We attempted to trouble and complicate the instrumental and usual observation that most female avatars are played by normative men to gain social advantage (e.g. studies have shown that female “toons” are more often trusted and given help regardless of the user’s gender) or some scopic advantage.

There was discussion about how first person versus third person (or even no person) changes the displayed body—such as seeing the avatar’s hands, a whole avatar, permitted camera angles, shifts of perspective from different characters, and so on.  It was ntoed that first-person games work to elide or hide the body, assuming identification or player-protagonist incorporation, with the ostensible goal of allowing player self-insertion into the gamespace but with the result of reproducing assumptions about which kinds of bodies (get to) participate in certain kinds of action.  This led to questioning the divide between the displayed body and the “controlling” body—the player’s body—both in RPGs and also in less narrative driven games.  How might games show or enact a player’s conception of their own body and their bodily capabilities in relation, contrast, and opposition to the bodies proffered on the screen.  The range of types of displayed bodies led to considering whether or not the visualization of bodies in games should be the main focus in body-related discussions or if the conversation should shift to a less “ocular-centric” frame of understanding, one that prioritizes what the playing body understands through other senses  Does the “fantasy of disembodiment” common to gaming (and other digital productions) overprivilege a disengagement with the body, with our bodies, with other peoples’ bodies?

From there we moved to the term “sex” and to thinking about ways that certain bodies, certain bodily actions and behaviors, and certain embodiments and identities are stereotyped, ignored, or even policed by games.  Genders, desires, abilities, and practices that deviate too far from the norms of the game, the game world and design, the game industry, and the gaming culture at large are usually limited at the very least and racist, sexist, and phobic at the worst.  We looked at indie and queer representations of bodies, sexuality, and sex, such as Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia or Stephen Lavelle’s Striptease.  We considered ways to queer readings and playings of everyday and mainstream games beyond simply looking for token homosexual plotlines and romances.  It was interesting to note that dealing with the body in formats and genres that are less obviously immersive and “realistic” than simulation games can evoke more of an embodied response due to the deliberate nature of the abstraction involved.

Finally, we ended the session with a discussion of sex in games—the act of sex, the refusal of sex, video games as pornography, and video games as erotic.  In general, much like the reductive discussions of violence in video games, sex in/and video games often elicit the same hackneyed sanitizations and knee-jerk condemnations.   There is a shying away from incorporating sexuality into game mechanics.  Ironically enough, sex is often a moment of disengagement from the body within a game.  There is the Hayes Code response of fade to black or there is the move to innuendo.  When sex is included in actual play, it is often reduced to the same kinds of logic that dominates the rest of the game: building up a gauge, scoring points, playing a rhythm mini-game.  Worst yet, sex gets collapsed into violence and patriarchal, masculinist spectacle.  How might we think about how to incorporate sex in playful, positive, thoughtful ways?  How might we develop and deploy what Lana Polansky, writer of “Pushing Buttons: Let’s Talk about Sex (and Video Games),” hopes for, that there can be a “sensual connection between the player and the system of the game.  A game can elicit the erotic in a very real, very human sense without ever needing to rely on titillating camera shots. It suggests that there can be a physical and emotional dialogue that the player has with a game (and perhaps, other players) that can allow the player to get lost in a state of passion, ecstasy, intimacy…”

All in all, the session’s discussion was—dare we say—revealing and stimulating.  Thank you once again for everyone’s continued interest and attendance.  Our next session will not be till the beginning of Spring Quarter with “Close/Distant” on Thursday, April 4.

Moreover, the Keywords group is hosting THATCamp Epic Play, May 24-25, 2013, an unconference and year-end colloquium.  Building on previous years’ colloquia, this year’s THATCamp, broadly themed by the keyword “EPIC,” is the capstone event to a year-long series of workshop sessions on violence, history, fantasy, bodies/sex, and close/distant.  THATCamp Epic Play hopes to foster the growing engagement with what it means to study or make or play games.  For more information and registration: http://epicplay2013.thatcamp.org/

“BODIES/SEX” | Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Session, Feb. 21, 1:30 PM, CMU 202

February 12th, 2013

dance-dance-revolution-hottest-party-tba-20070202113546684The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) second event of the Winter Quarter is on Thursday, February 21, 1:30-3:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our fourth public reading and discussion group of the academic year and will focus on the gaming terms “Bodies/Sex.”  

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington, is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve.  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion. The games marked with an * are playable for free. The other games require some online research on Wikipedia, Youtube, etc.

What to Discuss

Common discussions about video games and bodies usually revolve around fantastical representation of women’s bodies, e.g. Lara Croft, or controversies about sexual content, e.g. Grand Theft Auto and the Mass Effect series. In this “Bodies/Sex” Keywords session, we wish to avoid knee-jerk reactions and delve deeply into questions about the relations between embodiment, sexuality, representation, and performance. The layered levels of mediation present in gaming situations – the controls, the screen, the avatars – create a unique situation for discussing embodiment – should we be discussing the on-screen body or the player’s physical form? What impacts do each have on the other? Video game platforms also allow for discussion of what it means to build a gendered/sexualized/embodied identity as well as the limits of oft-linear game play and accumulation-based scoring systems on constructing such an identity. Relatedly, we wish to discuss how representations of gender and sexuality in games impact the range of available identities for players, and also how these constraints or boundaries might be both productive and limiting.

Bodies and sex are often elided in mainstream games, but the rise of smaller independent authors has brought with it an explosion of games dedicated to exploring these topics. Work by authors such as anna anthropy and Stephen “increpare” Lavelle takes on bodies and sex in ways quite different from the often-constested representations in mass-market games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, and it may be useful to contrast these approaches in our discussion.

We offer the following questions to frame the discussion:

  • What does it mean to be embodied in/when playing a video game? Where is the line between play and performance?
  • How can we begin to discuss the powers and limitations of in-game bodies in ways that allow for how the in-game body is constrained and shaped by forces internal and external to the game?
  • Where can we start to investigate common representations of bodies in video games? E.g. How are “straight” bodies represented? How are “queer” bodies represented? “Able” bodies? “Normal” bodies?
  • How is sexuality integrated into game play? Game narratives? Game timing? How does this differ between mainstream and indie games?
  • How do these depictions of sex and bodies control, limit, or intersect with the range of playable identities?  What implications does this hold for the players’ ability to perform a personal identity?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions.  Either way, come be a part of our discussion Thursday, February 21, 1:30-3:30 in CMU 202.

Sharing Fantasies: Keywords Follow-Up

February 1st, 2013

by Edmond Y. Chang and Sarah Kate Moore

Many thanks to everyone that attended last week’s Keywords session on “fantasy” and games.  Special thanks to the Medieval Studies Graduate Interest Group (MSGIG) for co-presenting and co-sponsoring!

The afternoon’s discussion opened with a set of provocations from the suggested readings starting with Gary Alan Fine’s “Introduction” to Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds.  We raised initial questions about what is “fantasy,” what is the value of fantasy, and why the preoccupation and perpetuation of certain kinds of fantasy, reaching back toward the first games including text adventures like Adventure and Zork and analog games like Dungeons and Dragons and military simulation board games.  The conversation then explored the further antecedents of these games locating them in a genealogy that includes J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels, fairy tales, fables, and mythology, and the (a)historical desire for the “medieval.”

Fine argues, “Fantasy is constrained by the social expectations of players and their world.  The game fantasy, then, is an integration of twentieth-century American reality and the player’s understanding of the medieval or futuristic setting in which their characters are placed” (3).  But if games are about the imagination, then why keep imagining the same thing, the same tropes over and over again?  Fine offers, “Since these games involve fantasy–content divorced from everyday experience–it might be assumed that anything is possible within the cultural system.  Since fantasy is a free play of a creative imagination, the limits of fantasy should be as broad as the limits of one’s mind.  This is not the case, as each fantasy world is a fairly tight transformation by the players of their mundane, shared realities” (3).

elder-scrolls-v-skyrim-scr09

But why the medieval?  How did the genre conventions of fantasy get attached to the medieval, real or imagined, a la the Elder Scrolls series or Dragon Age?  Moreover, what about other kinds of fantasy set in non-medieval settings (e.g. wild west or space opera)?  The conversation meditated on the connection between fantasy and the medieval.  Kim Selling argues in “‘Fantastic Neomedievalism: The Image of the Middle Ages in Popular Fantasy” that “out of all the imaginary landscapes one could place a fantasy in, a consistent choice of setting is one resembling a simplified version of the Western European Middle Ages” (212) and that the “Middle Ages are well known and comfortable…filling in the background without having to make up a new fantasy world from scratch” (212).  Clearly, the medieval functions as a kind of shorthand for a safe, familiar “other” time.  Moreover, we considered (at least in the first generation games) what was programmable, representable, and easier to put into play.

The Medieval Studies group further contextualized the discussion turning to questions regarding the “authenticity” of video games set in a medieval-esque world, as well as a measured assessment of whether that is a useful way to approach fantasy games (and literature and movies, for that matter).  One of the MSGIG participants said,

Particularly interesting to me, as a medievalist, were the insights from gamers and scholars of video games into the elements of “medievalish” games that are dictated both by the exigencies of programming and the interests of people playing the games. For example, we discussed the “hero’s quest” approach or narrative in many games, a sort of rags-to-riches plot line in which the gamer, as center of the storyline, makes his or her own way up the social scale from serf to god/king and the ways in which that says much more about us as a culture than any imagined medieval world, in which social networks and dependence on family and community would have been paramount.

The conversation also covered the push for even more realistic renderings of medieval-esque settings, weaponry, and architecture (though picking and choosing without regard to historical accuracy, whatever that means).  We talked about medieval fantasy games and violence given that such games tend to focus on swords, spells, and the repetitive smiting of foes, monsters, and others.  And we discussed the privileging of the Western European as the only medieval aesthetic to the near exclusion of other parts of the world during the same historical era (e.g. the Prince of Persia series provides a flattened and stereotypical vision of a bygone Middle East).

princeofpersiaoriginal

Finally, the discussion turned toward the pedagogical and the ways that “medieval” fantasy games like the Civilization franchise or The Sims Medieval could be “educational” — the idea that this can be achieved (as Stefan of the MSGIG also suggested) not through “learning history” from games but from a post-play, meta-aware analysis of game play itself (i.e. how did I as a player interact with the world of this game?).  In other words, as Daniel T. Kline argues in “Metamedievalism, Videogaming, and Teaching Medieval Literature in the Digital Age” that there is a “productive tension between the contemporary and the medieval…which considers the metamedieval image in contemporary videogaming as a theoretical problem, a creative opportunity, and a pedagogical challenge” (148).  Again, as per the past Keywords session on teaching and games, the challenge is not only developing better “educational” games but also better ways to engage, talk about, and play them in educational settings and practices.

Overall, the session was thoughtful, illuminating, and even a little nostalgic.  The collaboration between the MSGIG and the Keywords group proved to be rich and generated many interesting intersections.  For those interested in upcoming MSGIG sessions:

  • February 13th (Wednesday) 4-6 pm in COM 202–Slide-show/presentation by two representatives from the EMP/Sci-Fi Museum about their upcoming exhibit “Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic” which opens in April.  This exhibit will have “hands-on installations that include world building and mapmaking, and pop culture artifacts from literature, film, television, video games, and comics.”
  • March 6th (Wednesday) 4:30-6 pm in COM 226–Reading group focused on Tolkien and a medieval Welsh text, TBD.   We’ll also talk about Tolkien in general and his influence on fantasy/medieval studies.

Otherwise, the next Keywords session will be Thursday, February 21 on the terms “BODIES/SEX.”

Moreover, the Keywords group is hosting THATCamp Epic Play, May 24-25, 2013, an unconference and year-end colloquium.  Building on previous years’ colloquia, this year’s THATCamp, broadly themed by the keyword “EPIC,” is the capstone event to a year-long series of workshop sessions on violence, history, fantasy, bodies/sex, and close/distant.  THATCamp Epic Play hopes to foster the growing engagement with what it means to study or make or play games.  For more information and registration: http://epicplay2013.thatcamp.org/

“FANTASY” | Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Session, Jan. 24, 1:30 PM, CMU 202

January 11th, 2013

kingsquest1The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) first event of the Winter Quarter is on Thursday, January 24, 1:30-3:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our third public reading and discussion group of the year, co-presented with and co-sponsored by the Medieval Studies Graduate Interest Group (MSGIG), and will focus on the gaming term “Fantasy.”

Both the Keywords for Video Game Studies working group and the Medieval Studies Graduate Interest Group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington, is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

  • Jesper Juul, “Fiction,” Half-real
  • Gary Alan Fine, “Introduction,” Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds
  • J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, W. Keith Winkler, “Introduction: Fantasy Games, Gaming Cultures, and Social Life,” Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity, and Experience in Fantasy Games
  • Kim Selling, “Fantastic Neomedievalism: The Image of the Middle Ages in Popular Fantasy,” Flashes of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the War of the Worlds
  • Daniel T. Kline, “Metamedievalism, Videogaming, and Teaching Medieval Literature in the Digital Age,” Teaching Literature at a Distance: Open, Online, and Blended Learning
  • “Who Says History Can’t Be Fun?!  Medievalists.net Chats with Simon Bradbury about the Medieval Gaming World of Stronghold III”: http://www.medievalists.net/2011/09/02/who-says-history-cant-be-fun-medievalists-net-chats-with-simon-bradbury-about-the-medieval-gaming-world-of-stronghold-iii/
  • David W. Marshall, “A World Unto Itself: Autopoietic Systems and Secondary Worlds in Dungeons & Dragons,” Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve.  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion. The games marked with an * are playable for free. The other games require some online research on Wikipedia, Youtube, etc.

What to Discuss

J.R.R Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories” defines fantasy as “arresting strangeness” with the power to make a “Secondary World.”  Tolkien says, “To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.”  He continues to say that fantasy is not mere fancy (much in the same way Ursula K. Le Guin argues that fantasy is true in “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”), that fantasy “is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.”  For the upcoming session of the 2012-2013 Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group, the first event of the winter quarter will focus on the topic of “FANTASY,” particularly addressing the ways video games take up the conventions and tropes of the medievalist, sword and sorcery fantasy genre.  The session is co-presented and co-sponsored by the Medieval Studies Graduate Interest Group.

From the advent of Dungeons & Dragons (1974) to the first text game ADVENTURE (1975) to Zork (1980) to Kings Quest (1984) to the recent bumper crop of medieval fantasy games like World of Warcraft (2004), Dragon Age (2009), and Skyrim (2011), fantasy games continue to be a popular and lucrative genre with a legion of players, franchises, and fandoms.  Although we may engage many aspects of fantasy in gaming, we offer the following questions to frame the discussion:

  • How might we theorize the history, longevity, popularity, and canonicity of fantasy games?  What are the conventions, ideals, values, and norms of the genre?
  • What visual and/or narrative elements of these games feel “medieval” to a contemporary audience?  In what ways did the creators of these games use contemporary perceptions of “medievalism” to influence their game concept and/or design? Where might they have gotten these ideas? (i.e. from actual medieval texts, fantasy novels and/or movies, popular culture, LOTR)
  • How “authentic” are the “medieval” elements of these video games?  In other words, how accurately do they represent actual medieval lives/worldviews/technologies? Is this even a useful question to ask?  How do media like video games which style themselves as “medieval” affect a contemporary understanding of medieval lives?
  • Most broadly, why is fantasy important?  Why are fantasy games important?  Tolkien in “On Fairy Stories” argues that fantasy offers “recovery, escape, and consolation.”  How might we revise, extend, or challenge these ideas?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions.  Either way, come be a part of our discussion Thursday, January 24, 1:30-3:30 in CMU 202.

THATCamp Epic Play 2013, May 24-25, UW, Simpson Center

January 5th, 2013

THATCamp Epic Play is an unconference and year-end colloquium hosted by the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group.  THATCamp Epic Play invites digital humanists, game scholars, teachers, artists, librarians, students, designers, developers, and enthusiasts to participate in roundtable discussions; lightning presentations of individual and collaborative work; research, scholarship, and pedagogy on games of all sorts; and of course, play.  Building on previous years’ colloquia, this year’s THATCamp, broadly themed by the keyword “EPIC,” is the capstone event to a year-long series of workshop sessions on violence, history, fantasy, bodies/sex, and close/distant.  THATCamp Epic Play hopes to foster the growing engagement with what it means to study or make or play games.

THATCamp Epic Play will be hosted by the Simpson Center for the Humanities at University of Washington in Seattle on May 24 & 25, 2013.

For more information, if you’d like to help plan THATCamp Epic Play, or if you would like to lead a workshop, contact thatcampepicplay(at)gmail(doc)com.

Registration is now open from January 1, 2013 to January 31, 2013 or when all spots are full.  Before you register for THATCamp Epic Play 2013, please note:

  • The date and location of the event: University of Washington at Seattle on Friday, May 24 and Saturday, May 25.
  • We can accommodate no more than 70 people. We encourage you to register as soon as possible, but please do not register unless you know for sure that you are able to participate.
  • To attend, you need to complete and submit a brief registration application.  Once you’re accepted, you will receive a message confirming your registration.  If you decide that you can no longer attend, please let us know so we may give the seat to another participant.
  • We will email all participants in April, just prior to THATCamp Epic Play on May 24-25, 2013.
  • To keep up with THATCamp Epic Play news, you might want to follow @critgame and the #thatcamp hashtag on Twitter.

To register, please email thatcampepicplay@gmail.com, with subject line “REGISTRATION <Your Name>,” the following information and material:

  • Name:
  • E-mail:
  • Website:
  • Twitter handle:
  • Job title/Position:
  • Organization:
  • Bio (less than 300 words):

Please answer each in just a few sentences (no more than a paragraph):

  • Why do you want to attend THATCamp Epic Play?
  • Are there any specific games, game experiences, or aspects of gaming that you want to discuss?
  • Have you attended a THATCamp before and how can we make THATCamp both accessible and worth your time?

Please also indicate your privacy preference:

  • ___ I agree that the information provided may be published to the open web on the THATCamp Epic Play website.
  • ___ I would like my information to remain private.

So Long and Thanks for All the History: Keywords Follow-Up

November 16th, 2012

by Theresa Horstman & Edmond Chang

We are happy to announce another successful Keywords for Video Game Studies session!  Thanks to all who joined us on Thursday, November 8 to discuss all things video games and “HISTORY.”

We considered the important questions of “which history?” and “what history?” and even “whose history?”  This included the history of games as a medium, genres, engines, worlds, and hardware such as consoles.  In a sense, the conversation pointed up a very different way of looking at gaming that raised many more questions, overlaps, and boxes-within-boxes than it did to resolve them (which is a good thing as per Ian Bogost’s argument that “videogames are a mess”).  In a deep sense, thinking about history and concomitant terms like materiality, archive, conservation, and memory allowed for a purposeful (albeit messy) “approach to thinking the existence of games” to reference Bogost again.   Or, in a different vein, how might video games provide a unique methodological challenge and opportunity to historians, as per Carl Therrien’s concerns in “Video Games Caught Up in History.”  He argues, “The commodity of the computer age, with its data storage, organization and transcoding abilities, promises to solve accessibility problems.  Yet in spite of these resources, and to a certain extent because of them, the challenges in bringing the young, new medium to history books are considerable” (10).

The session’s conversation turned to the different domains or layers of video games as history, video game history, and video games and history.  We dove into considerations of game mechanics and the evolution of game development by adopting and incorporating attributes from previous games, particularly game franchises, game reboots, and the recent trend in recreating (without irony) games of yore, games of nostalgia, porting them without change from a previous platform to a contemporary one.  We mulled over the recent focus on platform studies, code studies, and of the history of video game markets.  In connection to the quarter’s first Keywords session on “VIOLENCE,” we chewed over the privileging of war, combat, conflict, and killing in games about history (from Oregon Trail to Civilization to Assassin’s Creed) and the history of public, mainstream conversations about games.   And we considered the ways that games might import historical events, details, and commentary in obvious and inobvious ways.

In considering games containing historical content  we discussed the contradictions arising from portrayals of fixed histories.  For example, in Civilization the assumed perspective built into game play is one to conquer all others and to develop technology along a very fixed path.  In this sense, the history as it is being developed and played is already known.  In a game like Assassins Creed III we discussed merging history with fiction and the remediation of history when games themselves are modified and rewritten.  Like other medium, historical content within, about and of video games provide an interesting opportunity to reflect on how history is positioned.  In addition, through playing history we’re afforded an opportunity to reflect on its accuracy and meaning.

We then moved to thinking about nondiegetic and paratextual contexts like game libraries, virtual world conservation, player communities, and fandom.  For example, we considered the history of a single player within a single game space and the unique perspective and experience that is carried through to other game spaces.  This led to considerations on shared player history and the creation of a culture of play across individuals.  Moreover, we raised Anna Anthropy’s engagement with video game communities—as indicated by the title of her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form—that perhaps point up and complicate the history of gaming as being “dominated by a small part of the population: generally white male engineers” (23) and how to imagine a future where everyone can make games “rather than by corporations for consumers or by technical wizards for stunned onlookers” (42).

As our conversation came to a close (though not an easy finish), it was clear there is a broad range of the type of history associated with video games and required a concerted effort to “address the evolution and interactions of three circuits: technology, industry, and culture” (Therrien 21).  That’s all, of course.  But this messy work is worth the while.  We hope all those who attended enjoyed our discussion.  Please continue to read, play and comment on the keywords as we move into 2013; next quarter’s sessions are on “FANTASY” and “BODIES/SEX.”  Enjoy the holidays, winter break, and take some time to play!

Making History, Keywords Style

November 8th, 2012

A couple of photos from the last Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group session:

Keywords for Video Game Studies “HISTORY” session. November 8, 2012. University of Washington. Simpson Center for the Humanities conference room. Seattle, WA. Photo by Edmond Chang.

Keywords for Video Game Studies “HISTORY” session. November 8, 2012. University of Washington. Simpson Center for the Humanities conference room. Seattle, WA. Photo by Edmond Chang.

“HISTORY” | Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Session, Nov. 8, 1:30 PM, CMU 202

October 24th, 2012

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) second event of the Autumn Quarter is on Thursday, November 8, 1:30-3:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our second public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming term “History.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington, is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve.  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:

What to Discuss

The second session for the 2012-2013 Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group will focus broadly on the topic of “HISTORY.”  Focusing on this keyword immediately presents a decision for critical focus between the history of “video games” or how they engage in and comment on human history?  In the case of the former we are presented with what Ian Bogost would call a “mess.”   We can easily identify various micro-histories: of video game media, of platforms, of market genres, of engines, of communities and virtual worlds, and so on.  Part of the difficulty here is the impossibility of conceiving of Tennis for Two, Plants vs. Zombies, MYST, Pac Man, Bejeweled, Dance Dance Revolution, Braid, Skyrim, Street Fighter II, Angry Birds, Oregon Trail, and The Secret World as a comprising a uniform “artistic medium,” despite valiant efforts by Mark J.P. Wolf and others.

In the case of focusing on video games engaging in history we’re confronted with another wonderful multiplicity in which we can talk about SuperColumbineMassacreRPG and September 12 and historical events, Spore and models of cosmic history, Fallout and Deus Ex and alternate histories, CIV4 and world history, World of Warcraft and Second Life and virtual histories, and even player histories within game worlds captured via mnemonic systems like in-game play galleries, journals, save games, and achievement and player profiling systems.

Although we may engage many of these aspects of history in gaming in our discussion we would like to channel our critical energy initially on more manageable set of questions:

  • How do games that use human history as their conceit comment on and model those histories?  Is history integral to the game, or is it simply a skin?  If the latter, can we see ways in which the historical context may be working with or against the game?
  • Are there novel ways in which video games relate to their own histories (on the level of “games,” genres, or even internally within sequels)?  What do the assumptions about what is important to record and when tell you about the values of the game/game world?
  • What about platform studies, which attempts to track the material history of video games?  What is gained from these excavations of hardware, code, marketing campaigns, and consumer cultures?  What is overlooked or lost?
  • How might we think across these questions?  How might we engage the intersections of these different domains and definitions of history?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions.  Either way, come be a part of our discussion Thursday, November 8, 1:30-3:30 in CMU 202.

Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot: “Violence” Keywords GIG Follow-Up

October 16th, 2012

by Theresa Horstman & Edmond Chang

Thanks to everyone who joined us for our inaugural 2012/2013 session!  We took on an ambitious topic, “VIOLENCE,” to kick-off our third year of gaming KEYWORDS. Our discussion included considerations of different forms and representations of violence as experienced in digital games.  Given that video games are “often more than just showcases of the latest graphics and design ideas; for many triple-A developers, they’re also opportunities to flaunt the latest advancements in virtual violence” (Caoili), we questioned the fixation on video game violence as only about combat, weapons, war, and physical violence, or, the “new ways to show how the human body crumples from a close-range shotgun blast” (Caoili).  What are the consequences of this narrow view of violence?  What might be gained from thinking more broadly and critically about the overt and covert violences represented, enacted, and engaged by video games and video game play?

Looking at the status quo anti-video game position, we discussed the (at times unfounded) ties between virtual violence and real-world violence, considering not only the ongoing debate of the causal connection between violent video games and enacted violence but the violence (and threat of violence) as part of a protective stance of gamer culture.  In other words, given the recent spate of gamer-on-women gamer violence gaining media coverage (stories like Slate’s “What’s It Like for a Girl Gamer?” and Bitmob’s “Misogyny and Apologists”), how might we unpack the way game play, game communities, and game cultures create, condone, or are complicit with certain kinds of gendered, racialized, homophobic, even nationalist violence?  We expanded our views of what might be considered violence as a multi-colored cube trying to navigate through a hostile 8-bit environment in Lim to the social and political implications of re-skinning a first-person shooter platform for blatant propaganda in Ethnic Cleansing.   Is the allegorical representation of violence in Lim any less violent or powerful than the first-person perspective of all FPS’?   Or, does the context of Ethnic Cleansing make it more violent than other FPS’?

Individual contexts and experiences were also considered as reference points for how games can be interpreted.  Interpreting video games as interactive texts and cultural artifacts may be a springboard for broader discussions on difficult topics like school violence and bullying.  However, this is dependent on how we position ourselves to interpret our in-game interactions with out-of-game experiences.  In this sense the meaning of the violence depicted, whether it be cartoon or high fidelity, is determined in part by the way the player chooses to interpret and experience it.  Ben DeVane and Kurt D. Squire muse, “[A]s players learn to experience games, they understand their ‘design grammar’ and come to develop meta-cognitive understandings of how violence is represented” (7).  On the other hand, players and game play are also framed and constrained, more often invisibly and “naturally,” by a certain banality of violence, a privileged space where violence is never “close to home,” embodied, or consequential.  For blogger Robert Yang, this is precisely the problem with games about war; he says, “The danger is not someone going out to shoot a school or impulsively join the army; the danger is that these games are affecting how we think of war in a decidedly misguided way, and that pattern of thought affects popular support of real-life wars that actually kill people.”

Ultimately, our discussions, albeit fruitful and interesting, left us with more questions than not.  On the table, though, was the desire to leave behind the pro/con binary of video games as good or bad, moral or amoral, fun or violent for a more nuanced exploration of challenging questions: Is violence only limited to the diegesis of the video game?  What violences are privileged and what violences are silenced or erased?  And, even more difficult and troubling, when is violence in a video game relevant, necessary, even—dare we invoke another troubling term—“artistic?”  The debate and near dismissal of games like SuperColumbineMassacre RPG point to the failure of the mainstream to abandon the binaries above as well as the failure to recognize that by refusing to talk about violence in a substantive, critical, and self-reflexive way, we give into the banality, the misguidedness, the blindness.

Getting ready for the start of the Keywords GIG session on “Violence” and video games. October 11, 2012. Simpson Center.

Thanks for your attention, support, and participation.  We hope all those who attended enjoyed our discussion.  Please continue to read, play and comment on our keywords this year, we look forward to having you join our follow-up and future discussions!

“VIOLENCE” | Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Session, Oct. 11, 1:30 PM, CMU 202

October 4th, 2012

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) first event of the Autumn Quarter is on Thursday, October 11, 1:30-3:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our first public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming term “Violence.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington, is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve.  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion. The games marked with an * are playable for free. The other games require some online research on Wikipedia, Youtube, etc.

What to Discuss

The inaugural session for the 2012-2013 Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group will focus broadly on the topic of “VIOLENCE.”  In past sessions the Keywords group has delicately sidestepped directly featuring this keyword given the often high-profile media coverage of violence and video games.  However, the first session of our third year will wade more deeply through the complexity of issues associated with violence and video games.

  • What are the different manifestations of violence depicted in video games?  Is there more than just physical/combat/weaponized violence?
  • How do contexts shape player interpretation of violent video game experiences?  Is violence only limited to the diegesis of game play?
  • What are the affordances and dangers of the popular debate over video games and violence?  How might we negotiate technolibertarianism on the one hand and technophobia on the other?

Given the popularity in recognizing the potential for games and learning and the assumptions of how video games may affect us we will include discussion around the ethical implications of violence and violent representations in games, social practices such as trolling and dealing with trolls, and assumptions about the direct influence of violence and game play.

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions.  Either way, come be a part of our discussion Thursday, October 11, 1:30-3:30 PM in CMU 202.

2012 Keywords “RESEARCH/DESIGN” Colloquium, Saturday, May 19, 8 AM-4 PM, Communication 202

May 1st, 2012

 

For more information and full program, go to: https://depts.washington.edu/critgame/wordpress/research-design-colloquium/

Designed Experiences: “Hack/Mod” Keywords GIG Follow-Up

April 27th, 2012

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Gaming Keywords GIG: “HACK/MOD” on Thursday April 12th.  Our session started off by looking at conventional goals of modding which shifts the control of the “designed experience” in the hands of the player.  Conventional modding includes retexturing objects and modifying the user interface while staying somewhat within the conventions of the original game
design only to enhance it.

Another component of our discussion focused on Galloway’s three levels of modding; visual, rules, and software technology.  His conceptual framework not only provides a way of categorizing the types of mods created but also indicates degrees of impact the type of modding has on the game play experience.  Further, Galloway associates modding as a support for countergaming, mods that divert from the producer’s designed experience to fill a specific customized and alternative mode of play experience.

The discussion also covered the cultural component of hacking and modding.  Players who mod typically participate in a specific community of practice that can be supportive of developing expertise and  the community at large may benefit from it as well.  From a broader perspective, the increasingly accepted practice of customizing game play represents a type of take-charge attitude underlying the normalization of hack culture.

Lastly, our conversation also reached back to previous sessions regarding ALTPLAY-FANDOM where issues like content and game ownership become complicated the more players contribute to the success of continued game play.  This is further complicated when game producers adopt and integrate game components made by
players into a commercial product.

We are looking forward to our final installation of the Gaming Keywords session!  We hope you can join us Saturday May 19, 2012 for our Keywords Colloquium.

CFP: “RESEARCH/DESIGN” Keywords Colloquium Deadline Extended to April 13!

April 7th, 2012

CALL FOR PARTICIPANTS
RESEARCH/DESIGN
Keywords for Video Game Studies Colloquium
Saturday, May 19, 2012
8 AM to 3 PM
Communication 202
University of Washington, Seattle

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group (GIG) at the University of Washington invites game scholars, artists, designers, developers, and enthusiasts to participate in our one-day colloquium on critical gaming.  The colloquium, broadly themed by the keywords “research/design,” is the capstone event to our year-long series of workshop sessions on “democracy,” “time,” “altplay/fandom,” “gold farming,” and “hack/customization” and hopes to provide a space for individuals and groups to present their work, to discuss and collaborate on what it means to study or make digital games, to network, and to play games.

In the introduction to How to Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost argues for “the many uses of videogames, and how together they make the medium broader, richer, and more relevant” (7).  He continues, “I take for granted that understanding games as a medium of leisure or productivity is insufficient.  Instead, I suggest we imagine the videogame as a medium with valid uses across the spectrum, from art to tools and everything in between” (7).  The Keywords colloquium takes up this call to imagine the power, potential, and practices of videogames as objects of study, design, critique, and fun.

Our colloquium then invites “lightning” presentations, demonstrations, or performances that engage (suggested but not limited to):

Video games and research                            Video games and play/work
Video games and academia                           Video games and teaching
Video game code, design, development       Video games industry/marketing
Video games and activism/politics               Video games and art/poetics/performance
Video games and fandom/community         Video games and other media
Video games and war                                     Video games and storytelling

Send a brief abstract or rationale (500 words or less) for your presentation to critgame@uw.edu by 5 PM on Friday, April 13, 2012 *deadline extended*.  Colloquium sessions will be roundtable, discussion format organized around short programs (6-8 “lightning” talk presenters) or long programs (1-3 presenters or extended performance or demonstration).  Short program presentations should be less than 5 minutes to allow for question and answer and conversation.  These should not be conference paper style presentations, but rather provide introductions, provocations, or focused interventions into your work, your project, or your idea.  Long program presentations can be more fully developed game play walk-throughs, performances, or interactive demonstrations.  Please include along with your abstract the names, emails, titles, affiliations or institutions of presenters, and your A/V requirements.

Participants will be notified of their acceptance by email by April 20, 2012.  Participants, if accepted, will need to arrange for travel, transportation, lodging, and equipment on their own.  Unfortunately, the Keywords group is unable to provide any funding for expenses.

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

Download the RESEARCH/DESIGN Keywords Colloquium CFP.

“HACK/MOD” | Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Session, Apr. 12, 3:30 PM, CMU 202

April 5th, 2012

Hacking mini-game screen from Bioshock.The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) first session of the Spring Quarter is on Thursday, April 12, 3:30-5:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our fifth public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming terms “Hack/Mod.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

  • Galloway, Alexander.  “Ch.5: Counter-Gaming,” Gaming
  • Zimmerman, Eric.  “Gaming Literacy: Game Design as a Model for Literacy in the Twenty-First Century.”
  • Squire, Kurt. D. “Video-Game Literacy: A Literacy of Expertise.”
  • http://hackasaurus.org/en-US/
  • Zittrain, Jonathan.  “Saving the Internet.”  Harvard Business Review.  (June 2007): 45-49.

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve (held by the Keywords CHID 496 class, under Chang & Welsh).  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:

What to Discuss

On January 8, 1986, a hacker by the moniker “The Mentor” published “The Conscience of a Hacker,” also called “The Hacker Manifesto,” in the underground ezine Phrack.  The rhetorical structure of the manifesto is call-and-response posing on the one hand the mainstream culture’s pejoration: “Damn kids. They’re all alike… Damn underachiever.  They’re all alike… Damn kid.  All he does is play games.  They’re all alike.”  And on the other hand, the hacker’s response: “I made a discovery today.  I found a computer…And then it happened… a door opened to a world… This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud.”  It is the hacker and the intersection of hacker and gamer that the next Keywords session hopes to interrogate, thinking through the potentials and problems of hacking, modding, and customization in games.

Today, it could be argued, there is a growing recognition if not acceptance of hacker aesthetics, politics, and culture, particularly among video gamers.  Modding and hacks can be seen as a mark of achievement or technological prowess in their subversiveness.  And players revel in and often demand platforms and games that offer the ability for customization, design, and player-created content.  The rising popularity of the these practices challenge and broaden our understanding of player and maker, of rights and ownership, as well as deepen play experience.  In this keywords session, we will consider the practice and culture of modifying games and the impact on current game design and player expectations.  We will also consider the cultural assumptions associated with hacking and its growing adoption into non-technical fields as a representation of creative and innovative thinking.  Lastly, we will consider HACK/MOD as a specific form of digital literacy and expertise that exists within certain communities. Some questions we’ll consider are:

  • What happens when the boundaries between acceptable forms of customization and hacking behavior are blurred?  Should everything be hackable, modable?
  • What happens when hacking and modding are brought into traditionally ‘hack-free’ domains, like education (cf. http://hackasaurus.org/en-US/)?
  • On one hand, customized experiences are desired but on the other hand what happens when hacker culture becomes normative?
  • What happens when customization or modification becomes commodified, superficial, only “skin” deep?
  • Since mods and hacks are copyrighted by players, when game companies incorporate players’ intellectual property into their own games, do game companies have a responsibility to players?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions.  Either way, come be a part of our discussion Thursday, April 12, 3:30-5:30 in CMU 202.

 

Ni Hao, Bu Hao: “Gold Farming” Keywords GIG Follow-Up

February 20th, 2012

The Keywords for Video Game Studies session on “Gold Farming” sparked animated discussion about the ways gold farming must be analyzed and articulated as both a range of practices and/or problematic discourses.  The session opened with the simple question, “What is gold farming?”  When defined simply as the repetitive “grind” of collecting gold, materials, or other resources in a game, then almost every player is a gold farmer.  However, the central tension is when does playing the game cross the line into playing against the perceived intent of the game?  Is the accrual of in-game wealth, items, and resources necessarily gold farming?  Or is it when those resources are sold for real world money?  What about games that allow real-money trade (RMT)?

The session provided some historical context for where gold farming as a term and activity came from, noting that it was not necessarily a pejorative or racialized from the get go.  From “Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on ‘Gold Farming’: Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games,” Richard Heeks of the Institute for Development Policy and Management at the University of Manchester outlines:

  • MMORPGs really began to grow in industrialised countries with the launch of Ultima Online in 1997.  Alongside that growth was a strong take-off in real-money trading; facilitated by the founding of eBay (Lewis 2006).
  • The sale of in-game items and currency was initially a cottage industry of players-turned-traders based in industrialised countries.  In 2001/2002, though, this changed as mainly US-based traders perceived the opportunities for outsourcing to low-wage labour locations such as Mexico and East Asia. Some of these traders were North Americans of Asian origin, or Asian students studying in the US (Jin 2006).
  • This “outside-in” model met up with an “inside-out” model that lay behind the second reason for growth of developing country gold farming: serving the domestic/regional market.  There was a particular growth in online games-playing in East Asia from the late 1990s.  The games played were initially foreign imports such as Blizzard’s Starcraft but in 1998 the South Korean firm NCSoft launched Lineage, the first significant non-industrialised-country MMORPG.  The game soon spread to China and Taiwan and Japan. In-game traders began paying those around them to earn “adena” – the Lineage in-game currency (Chan 2006).  As Lineage began being played outside East Asia (particularly when Lineage II was launched on American servers in 2003), and as East Asians increasingly played Western MMORPGs, the “adena farmer” model spread. It seems likely that it was at this point – from late 2003/early 2004 – that the number of gold farms rose from dozens to hundreds and then thousands (Jin 2006b, PJ 2007).  (4-5)

By the MMO boom of the 2000s, gold farming becomes part of the language and landscape of video game culture and communities and eventually gets mapped on to particular players and populations.  Constance Steinkuehler suggests in “The Mangle of Player” that “a whole new form of virtual racism has emerged, with an in-game character class unreflectively substituted for unacknowledged (and largely unexamined) real-world differences between China and America, such as economic disparity, cultural difference, language barriers, and discrepant play styles” (208).  And regardless of actual nationality or ethnicity, the “Chinese gold farmer” emerges from the mangle of games and players as a species, standing in for any gamer perceived to be playing poorly, playing just to make money (in- or out-of-game), or to be Other.  Steinkuehler’s continues saying that “calling someone ‘Chinese’ is a general insult that seems aimed more at one’s style of play than one’s real-world ethnicity” (209).  But is that disavowal of racism problematic?  And how might we need to further think through the differences of culture, power, wealth, and play when players from different parts of the world meet online?  And how might we better address the US-centrism of many online games and communities?

Overall, the session could not come up with any easy answers, which belies that the topic is rich and complex and often full of difficult questions (especially when it comes to talking about race).  But there were still useful moments:

  • thinking about gold farming as a collaborative practice and alternative kind of play
  • connections to prior discussion about what is a game, cheating, and looking ahead to the session on “Hack/Customization”; what are the consequences of disabling certain features in games (e.g. bots) that might have allowed certain players the access to play (e.g. blind/disabled players using particular technologies to access the game)
  • highlighting the difference between gaming for pleasure and leisure and gaming for work and labor; what is the price of and for “fun”?
  • how might we think about globalization, (trans)nationalism, commodification and video games?  how might these connect to other labor practices and protests (e.g. the reports coming out of China about Apple’s manufacturing, Foxconn, and the conditions of laborers)
  • thinking about techno-orientalism, video games, gold farming, and the backlash against gold farmers
  • what are the legal and economic ramifications of gold farming, thinking about End User License Agreements; how might games embrace real-money trade?

Thank you to everyone who attended and participated.  Don’t forget to check out the “Asian American Arcade” exhibit, which in part addresses gold farming, at the Wing Luke Museum for the Asian American Pacific Experience in the International District of Seattle, WA..  Hope to see everyone at the next Keywords session on “Hack/Customization” on April 12, 3:30 PM, in Communication 202.  Also, everyone should submit a proposal to (or just attend) the Keywords “Research/Design” Colloquium on Saturday, May 19, 8 AM-3 PM.

 

“GOLD FARMING” | Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Session, Feb. 16, 3:30 PM, CMU 202

February 10th, 2012

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) first session of the Winter Quarter is on Thursday, February 16, 3:30-5:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our third public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming term “Gold Farming.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays and texts:

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve.  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:

  • World of Warcraft or Diablo 3 (or any MMORPG really)
  • Watch this video (Mad Cow Studio’s “Ni Hao”):

What to Discuss

Edward Castronova argues in Exodus to the Virtual World, “The mere fact that the gold pieces in a game are virtual means nothing as far as economic value goes.  U.S. dollars are virtual, too…there’s no difference, either culturally or economically, between production in Second Life and production in the real world, meaning that we should pay attention to synthetic world economies as if they were real-world economies” (12).  The next Keywords working group session will take up this incredible provocation to engage questions about in-game and real world money, resources, labor, commodification, race, and exploitation through the term “gold farming.”  Simply put, gold farming is the accrual of in-game wealth, items, even prestige to be sold or traded for real-world resources.  From selling and buying gold pieces to epic swords to twinked out characters, gold farming reveals the intermingling, interconnection, and interruption of game world and real world, what Constance Steinkuehler calls “the mangle of play.”

Consider the following provocations and questions:

  • What is gold farming, really?  Is it within the rules of play?  Is it playing against the “intent” of the game?  Is it cheating?
  • What are in-game economies?  What happens when in-game economies affect out-of-game economics (and vice versa)?
  • How might gold farming allow us to think about work and play?  Labor?
  • How do we address the curious intersection, conflating of gold farming and race or nation?  In other words, how do we address what Constance Steinkuehler describes as “a whole new form of virtual racism has emerged, with an in-game character class unreflectively substituted for unacknowledged (and largely unexamined) real-world differences between China and America, such as economic disparity, cultural difference, language barriers, and discrepant play styles” (208).

This session is held in conjunction with the opening of the “Asian American Arcade” exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle’s International District.  Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions.  Either way, come be a part of our discussion Thursday, February 16, 3:30-5:30 in CMU 202.

Beyond the Magic Circle: “Altplay/Fandom” Keywords GIG Follow-Up

February 8th, 2012

Thanks to everyone who attended the last Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group session on “Altplay/Fandom.”  Even with having to reschedule because of the week of snow, the room was full and the conversation was varied and interesting.

We opened the session with a brief presentation from Gifford Cheung, a PhD Candidate in UW’s Information School, who gave synopsis of his article “Starcraft from the Stands: Understanding the Game Spectator” (co-authored with Jeff Huang).  Cheung’s presentation addressed the idea that playing video games is not simply about the player and the game but must also include para-gamic considerations like spectators, social context, and competition.  Focusing particularly on Starcraft, a real-time strategy game played in massive competitions like the World Cyber Games, Cheung articulated “i) who are the spectators and why do they spectate, ii) how different stakeholders affect the spectator‘s experience, and iii) what a spectator finds entertaining.”  Cheung’s arguments opened the conversation up to a broader discussion about what it means to play a game, what constitutes “playing,” and how might the idea of the ‘magic circle’ of playing needs to be widened to include non-players invested in the game.

Next, the discussion turned to further definitions of what alternative play means, including addressing “negative” play like cheating, exploiting, and griefing.  Mia Consalvo’s article “There is No Magic Circle” attempts to think through the “altplay” of cheating, arguing, “players never play a new game or fail to bring outside knowledge about games and gameplay into their gaming situations. The event is ‘tainted’ perhaps by prior knowledge. There is no innocent gaming” (415).  Depending on the players, the game, and the context, some forms of “cheating” are simply acceptable ways of playing and some are seen as disruptive, unfair, and wrong.  We discussed the use cheat codes (often provided by the game itself) or using walkthroughs or having someone else solve a puzzle or play a difficult section of a game.  Are all of these cheating?  Are they just play?  The discussion returned to the problem of the magic circle, echoing Consalvo’s desire to think of play differently.  She says, “Rather than restrict games to a bounded circle, another way of understanding the processes of gameplay could be through application of another framework—the frames and keys of Erving Goffman, modified in Gary Alan Fine’s work with roleplaying gamers in the 1980s…Players exist or understand ‘reality’ through recourse to various frames (their daily life, the game world, their characters’ alleged knowledge and past) and move between those frames with fluidity and grace.  So, rather than seeing a boundary break or simply being ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ a magic circle, by conceptualizing gamer activity as movements between frames, we can better capture and study the complexities of [gameplay]” (413-15).

Finally, we talked about fandom (as distinct from altplay), what constitutes being a fan of a game (can you be a fan in isolation?), the work of fandom (e.g. game inspired art, cosplay, fan fiction, game mods, reviews and critiques), and the importance of games as being socially and culturally situated.  We thought about the productions of fandom as paratexts (to borrow Gerard Genette’s idea) to the game.  We discussed how fandom (like spectators) can affect the playing of a game, how a game is understood by players or groups, and how fandom is an end to itself.  Might fandom be an extension of playing the game?  Or is it something different altogether?  Where do they intersect or overlap?

All in all, the session was illuminating and fun, full of ideas and interventions not usually considered in much detail when talking about video game studies.  Thanks in particular to Keyworder Natascha Karlova for organizing the session.  Thanks to Gifford Cheung for attending and showing us your work.  Hope to see everyone at the next Keywords session on “Gold Farming” on February 16, 3:30 PM, in Communication 202.

Keywords GIG Co-Host HASTAC Scholars Video Game Studies Forum

February 7th, 2012

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group, which also represents the Simpson Center and UW as HASTAC Scholars, are co-hosting an online forum on video game studies on the Humanities, Arts, Science, Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) website.  The forum, entitled “Press Start to Continue: Toward a New Video Game Studies,” addresses the following provocations:

1) New Approaches to Video Games

  • How do games matter to the digital humanities?
  • What are the affordances and constraints of video game studies?  Pedagogy?  Platforms?  Politics?  Everyday practice?
  • How might we further interdisciplinary, multimodal approaches to video game studies (beyond the ludology/narratology debate, beyond the ethnography of players and synthetic worlds census-taking, beyond the “close”/“distant,” beyond serious/casual)?
  • How might video games help bridge the gap between analog and digital archives, between cultural criticism and computational tools and methods?
  • How might you ‘queer’ video game studies?

2) Video Games Pedagogy

  • How do you teach video games as objects of study?  How do you teach with video games?
  • What are the benefits/challenges of teaching (with) games?
  • How might video games complicate and challenge notions of “digital natives” or “digital labor”?

3) Gamefulness vs. Gamification

  • How might video games encourage discussions about the role and importance of “play” in the digital humanities?  What about gamification and the digital humanities?
  • What are the various ways that gaming and gamification are at play in both our everyday lives and academic lives? What is the difference between the two?
  • How might video game design (and play) be a critical practice?  What are critical approaches to and critiques of “flow”?

The forum hosts include Amanda Phillips (English, UC Santa Barbara), Ergin Bulut (Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois), Alenda Chang (Rhetoric, UC Berkeley), Melody Dworak (School of Library and Information Sciences, University of Iowa), Grace Hagood (Rhetorics and Composition, University of South Carolina), and John Carter McKnight (Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology, Arizona State University).

CFP: Keywords “RESEARCH/DESIGN” Colloquium, May 19, University of Washington

January 26th, 2012

CALL FOR PARTICIPANTS
RESEARCH/DESIGN
Keywords for Video Game Studies Colloquium
Saturday, May 19, 2012
8 AM to 3 PM
Communication 202
University of Washington, Seattle

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group (GIG) at the University of Washington invites game scholars, artists, designers, developers, and enthusiasts to participate in our one-day colloquium on critical gaming.  The colloquium, broadly themed by the keywords “research/design,” is the capstone event to our year-long series of workshop sessions on “democracy,” “time,” “altplay/fandom,” “gold farming,” and “hack/customization” and hopes to provide a space for individuals and groups to present their work, to discuss and collaborate on what it means to study or make digital games, to network, and to play games.

In the introduction to How to Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost argues for “the many uses of videogames, and how together they make the medium broader, richer, and more relevant” (7).  He continues, “I take for granted that understanding games as a medium of leisure or productivity is insufficient.  Instead, I suggest we imagine the videogame as a medium with valid uses across the spectrum, from art to tools and everything in between” (7).  The Keywords colloquium takes up this call to imagine the power, potential, and practices of videogames as objects of study, design, critique, and fun.

Our colloquium then invites “lightning” presentations, demonstrations, or performances that engage (suggested but not limited to):

Video games and research                            Video games and play/work
Video games and academia                           Video games and teaching
Video game code, design, development       Video games industry/marketing
Video games and activism/politics               Video games and art/poetics/performance
Video games and fandom/community         Video games and other media
Video games and war                                     Video games and storytelling

Send a brief abstract or rationale (500 words or less) for your presentation to critgame@uw.edu by 5 PM on Friday, April 13, 2012 *deadline extended*.  Colloquium sessions will be roundtable, discussion format organized around short programs (6-8 “lightning” talk presenters) or long programs (1-3 presenters or extended performance or demonstration).  Short program presentations should be less than 5 minutes to allow for question and answer and conversation.  These should not be conference paper style presentations, but rather provide introductions, provocations, or focused interventions into your work, your project, or your idea.  Long program presentations can be more fully developed game play walk-throughs, performances, or interactive demonstrations.  Please include along with your abstract the names, emails, titles, affiliations or institutions of presenters, and your A/V requirements.

Participants will be notified of their acceptance by email by April 20, 2012.  Participants, if accepted, will need to arrange for travel, transportation, lodging, and equipment on their own.  Unfortunately, the Keywords group is unable to provide any funding for expenses.

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

Download the RESEARCH/DESIGN Keywords Colloquium CFP.

“ALTPLAY/FANDOM” Keywords GIG Rescheduled for Jan. 26, 3:30 PM, CMU 226

January 19th, 2012

Once we have recovered from the snow and ice, the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) will hold its rescheduled session on the gaming terms “Altplay/Fandom” next week on Thursday, January 26, 3:30-5:30 PM in Communication 226.  For further details on readings, games, and orienting questions, see the full introduction post: https://depts.washington.edu/critgame/wordpress/2012/01/altplayfandom-keywords-introduction/

“ALTPLAY/FANDOM” | Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Session, *Jan. 26, 3:30 PM, CMU 226 *NEW DATE*

January 11th, 2012

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) first session of the Winter Quarter is on Thursday, January 26, 3:30-5:30 PM *NEW DATE*, in Communication 226.  This is our third public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming terms “Altplay/Fandom.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read, What to Play

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays and texts:

  • Gifford Cheung & Jeff Huang, “Starcraft from the Stands: Understanding the Game Spectator”
  • Mia Consalvo, “There is No Magic Circle”
  • Celia Pearce and Artemesia, Communities of Play, Ch. 10 “Productive Play”
  • Celia Pearce and Artemesia, Communities of Play, Ch. 11 “Porous Magic Circles and the Ludisphere”
  • Please watch “Episode 1: Why Are We Here?” of Red vs. Blue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BAM9fgV-ts
  • Mapstalgia: Video Game Maps Drawn from Memory: http://mapstalgia.tumblr.com/

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve.  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

Moreover, for this discussion, all you need to have played is a game that you are a big fan of, a game that provided a memorable experience — Skyrim, PONG, Star Wars: The Old Republic, ChronoTrigger, World of Warcraft, Castlevania, Plants vs. Zombies, Farmville, Angry Birds, and so on.

What to Discuss

We’re all a fan of something — in different ways. We engage in nuanced arguments and speculation, quote our favorite lines, make inspired art, build databases, attend conventions, run online forums, and varied other activities. With games, these activities might be called ‘alternative play’ because players are playing with games’ worlds, characters, conventions, etc. in addition to or instead of playing the game directly. It’s important to note that these activities require a great deal of labor, planning, coordination, etc. In this way, fan communities can determine the success of a game, provide inspiration for designers, and can extend the life of a game beyond its original support (e.g., Pearce’s Communities of Play). However, the relationship between fandom and intellectual property owners is tense, and increasingly litigious.

Consider the following provocations and questions:

  • Do these altplay/fandom activities extend the ‘magic circle’ or are they outside it?  What would Huizinga say?
  • How has the spread of broadband internet access at home influenced fan communities?
  • How do altplay/fandom activities subvert or complement game designers’ intents? How do these activities affect or influence the relationships between designers and players?
  • Does altplay represent an unintended ‘use’? How can designers leverage altplay activities to improve the User Experience of a game?
  • What kinds of information management techniques or strategies might fans utilize to participate in altplay/fandom activities?
  • What kinds of barriers exist to participation in altplay/fandom activities? Is participation ‘equal’? Is participation equally distributed throughout a fan community?
  • Are ‘fair-weather fans’ really fans?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions.  Either way, come be a part of our discussion Thursday, January 26, 3:30-5:30 in CMU 226 *NEW DATE*.

 

THATCamp PNW 2011 Post-Mortem

December 5th, 2011

On November 12, 2011, three CGP members and Keywords for Video Game Studies organizers had the esteemed opportunity to participate and present a workshop at THATCamp PNW 2011 at the University of Washington-Bothell.   THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) is a participant-driven “unconference.”  The THATCamp format was created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University where participants “check your papers and suits at the door, and just be ready to talk about the work you’re doing, the work you want to do, how you might collaborate with others, and how you can help and be helped by a community dedicated to the intersection of the humanities and technologies.”

Getting ready for THATCamp PNW 2011. UW Bothell. November 12, 2011. Photo by EYC.

The THATCamp PNW 2011 theme for this year is tech & social justice, asking questions like “What are the relationships between technological literacy & social change?  Online & offline forms of participation?  Projects in the cloud & projects on the ground?”  With this broad theme in mind, I proposed a workshop on video game pedagogy, on teaching (with) video games as a way to think about technology, education, and critical analysis as forms of social justice.  Specifically, I wanted to talk about technological “literacy” (for lack of a better word and the idea that students need to be taught how to play games as researches, scholars, and even activists.  The session was entitled “Close Playing, or, Teaching (with) Video Games” and featured Sarah Kremen-Hicks (English, UW) and Terry Schenold (English, UW) as roundtable respondants:

Central to this workshop is a definition and demonstration of the pedagogy of “close playing” and “paired playing.” Like close reading, close playing requires careful attention to how the game is played (or not played), to what kind of game it is, to the design and goals of the game, to what choices are offered (or not offered) to the player, to how the game intersects with players and the culture at large. In other words, before we can take video games as serious objects of study, we need to develop ways to frame them, study them, and to seriously play them.

We had a engaging time at THATCamp PNW 2011 and thank the organizers and sponsors for giving us the opportunity to attend and to run a workshop.  Though the camp addressed technologies and issues beyond video games and pedagogy, we were delighted at the number of people who attended our session (and the general interest in games overall) and happy to share our experience and practices.  Here is a down-and-dirty debrief/post-mortem from the event.

1) Why did you attend THATCamp PNW?

Terry Schenold (TS): I had heard good things from colleagues about the “unconference” experience, and the theme of tech & social justice was of interest to me.

Sarah Kremen-Hicks (SK): Initially? Because it was here, and because it was free. It’s hard to beat that, right? When I saw that the theme was social justice, though, I realized that it would be quite useful in making connections between the service learning class I’m teaching this year and the digital humanities content I tend to bring to my work.

Edmond Chang (EC): I had attended one session at THATCamp PNW in 2010 to see a colleague give a presentation on video games and as intrigued by the THATCamp format.  This year, I was fortunate enough to be invited by one of the organizers to run a workshop, particularly addressing technology and pedagogy.  I thought it was a great opportunity to talk about “close playing” and to bring some experienced teachers of video games together to share not only an approach to teaching (with) games but also to offer some practical advice on how to do it.  It was a great opportunity, and I had a wonderful time.

2) What sessions/topics interested you the most and why?

TS: Obviously I was interested in the sessions/workshops having to do with game technology, though I also have interest in cloud computing and collaboration technologies. I am very interested in the work being done at the Center for Serious Play (CSP) and the discussion of the Wetland Restoration game to be very engaging. It was helpful to hear from a game desginer how he viewed the project and the rationale for adapting commercial game mechanics and aesthetics.

SK: The session on GIS/NeoGeo was fascinating, and fed into a project idea I’ve been toying with. Having a chance to just gab with a room full of people geeking out about mapping was great, and I hope I’ll be able to make use of a lot of the information that came out of it.

EC: Like Terry, I gravitated toward the games sessions.  I split my time between the session by the Center for Serious Play called “Learning About Games, Playing for the Future, Games for Change” by Mike Mulvihill and Wanda Gregory” and the session on cultural studies/gender and sexuality and video games.  The conversation in the latter, in particularly, was really rich and the questions participants raised really fed into my own interests and research.  Mostly, however, I really liked the scheduling session in the morning, where the program for the day emerged organically from people’s suggestions, votes, and interests.  It was really helpful and interesting to see the THATCamp process, and I hope to use some of that ad hoc fun and negotiation in the ways I organize things.

THATCamp PNW 2011 Scheduling Session. UW Bothell. November 12, 2011. Photo by EYC.

3) What was one thing you got the most out of the unconference?

TS: Meeting other individuals working on technology and hearing about their projects.

SK: Definitely the contacts; I’ve enjoyed keeping up with the people I met there on Twitter and being able to exchange ideas with others who are equally invested in the future of the humanities.

EC: Meeting people, seeing some of the same faces again, and getting the opportunity to talk in a setting that was about ideas and sharing and conviviality.

4) How did the conference connect to your scholarship?

TS: Ed’s close playing workshop and the CSP presentation both connect to the work I am engaged in on games in my dissertation in a broad sense. I am invested in developing a broad understanding of games as communicative media, and this includes expanding the ways we think about their use. Games are very information rich and dynamic as objects of inquiry, and to see their expressive value we need to develop strategies of attention that are apposite to the activity of gameplay.

SK: I think the most useful thing for me was just the chance to toss an idea around with a bunch of people. So often in our discipline we work alone, and I think we forget how productive collaboration can be. I came away feeling energized to work on a number of new projects that have been on the back burner because I wasn’t sure how to begin.

EC: I study, write about, and teach video games.  So, the (un)conference gave me the opportunity to share my ideas and to get immediate feedback.  Mostly, though, I think any space that is open to video game studies (as a newish and emerging “field”) is important to me.  It shows me that the work that I do is valued and is supported and will hopefully translate into opportunities down the road.

5) Specifically, say something about the video game pedagogy roundtable.

TS: It was delightful to see that there is real desire to engage games critically, and the discussion featured interesting questions about teaching games. The questions we received in the panel phase were enlightening, revealing the many complications of teaching with video games: student resistance, new assignment formats that draw out the uniqueness of games, issues with evaluation, and so on. The session as whole prompted me to think more about the labor/time investment unique to teaching with games, everything from tech access to extra time needed in class for communal play, more time for teaching media prep (compared to a course using texts or images only), etc.

SK:  The roundtable was great fun – there aren’t nearly enough opportunities to discuss the mechanics of teaching, I think. I came away with some really exciting ideas to incorporate into my own teaching, and I think others at the rountable felt the same.

EC: I echo the statements above wholeheartedly.  And I want to extend what I said earlier about wanting, finding, and developing the space to do the intellectual and pedagogical (and even political) work that you want to do as a scholar, a teacher, and an individual.  The workshop showed me that there is a real desire and need for ways to talk about and teach games, ways that do not simply instrumentalize games and ways that do not assume that students even in the 21st Century are already “there” in terms of critical awareness and skill.  The field is wide open, and I hope we continue to shape, transform, and fill it with a wide range of perspectives and possibilities.

The Timeliness of Time, “Time” Keywords GIG Follow-Up

November 29th, 2011

Although this follow-up for the second session of the Keywords for Video Games Studies is not very timely, the topic of TIME in games was (and is)!

We framed the discussion with an image showing a set of topics that emerge as discourse on games begins to consider time as a design focus and the diverse temporalities of gameplay as a topic of critical interest. You can view it here (click to enlarge):


If we were conducting our meeting in the ’90s or early ’00s we probably would have started with and remained within a discussion of narrative in games, but today we are less obsessed with what something is as an object (is this or that game a new form of narrative?) and much more concerned with the experiences a game can afford.

This led us directly into a discussion of Jesper Juul’s “casual revolution” as a response to the shift in game culture to a “time economy” in which time spent in game environments is a primary design concern. We linked many of the design techniques of casual games to the industry desire to extend total gaming time, such as achievement systems and bonus content. We talked about games like Braid, which use time as a content theme as well as a game mechanic principle, and games like Time 4 Cats which are specifically focused on player time as a resource. We also had an extended discussion of Progress Quest as critique of how RPGs have handled time in their stereotypical, more repetitive designs. This example highlighted the wider observation that although many games have found new ways to extend time spent in their environments most have not made that time very meaningful.

Connected to this topic was a running thread about “grinding” and the blurring of the gameplay (as the name we give the time we spent gaming that does not feel onerous) into what I would call “gamelabor.” This provides a new time-based perspective on MMO gaming in which avatars are storage of gamelabor (which is often reducible to time spent grinding) and game designers inevitably depreciate labor value by adjusting their world’s virtual economies, mechanics, leveling trajectories, and so on. The fact that gameworld adjustments contained in expansions and patches of World of Warcraft cause such consternation seems to point to something problematic in the approach to time. If the meaningfulness of time spent gaming in Azeroth emphasized experiences (of events, collaborations, discoveries, e.g.) one would expect less concern for the depreciation of gamelabor.

There was also a thread in the discussion pertaining to the hardcore/casual divide in current game culture and as a trajectory in the evolution of games. There was a loose consensus that there has been a casualization of game design generally which can be seen specifically in how player death (or failure) is handled in games. We discussed the time-reversal mechanic in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time briefly as a starting point for various commentaries on difficulty and how games have become more mindful of how players spend their time learning a game as well as recovering from death or failure. We briefly noted the cultural differences encountered in game design and difficulty, and how games value player time. Foreign imports like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. FPS-Adventure series (Ukrainian) and Gothic RPG series (German) severely punish poor player attention to how the game is made, both in terms of diegetic content and mechanics. These examples underscore the tendencies of American developers to “respect” the quantity of time spent playing (or mere effort) by guiding play away from failure, reminding players of key information they may have forgotten, etc. Conversely, these imports judge the quality of time spent playing, too, and time spent without attention to the gameworld’s design and purposes is time wasted. Put another way, we might say these imports only respect attentive player time.


Finally, we touched on “numbers porn” in game design, considering how games afford an aesthetic experience of game time via numbers. This discussion tied the quantification practices of games to how game designers have understood and represented the pleasure of gameplay as a time investment. As games vie for our sustained attention in the frenetic new media ecology representing the time spent gaming in aesthetically captivating ways becomes a strategic focus. Many games seem to assume in their design that it is not enough to provide an interesting game experience – it must also provide a pleasurable accounting of the player’s time, measuring it and representing it constantly both privately in-game, and, increasingly, publicly online (or parallel console platform networks).

One upshot of a focus on time in games criticism and design, in my view, will be a greater appreciation of how games develop experiences: of ideas, desires, moral problems, our bodies … or of exploitation. The conceptualism of gameplay—its compartmentalization into events, actions, choices and consequences, information and rules, story and mechanics (and on and on)—gave many critical gamers an alibi for avoiding tough questions about how (or whether) particular games use and value our time. When we ignore time, conceptual arguments set in: “this type of gamic action is fun!”; “this game mechanic is stupid!” This contributes to a reductive idea of game design as a calculus of accruing “fun” events, mechanics, and information (feedback); yet it seemed clear from our discussion that the logic of more does little to increase the quality of our gaming experience, and in some cases can undermine itself (as in the emergence of “grinding”). Adding a temporal dimension obviously entails different questions, and suggests we approach games as designed experiences, not just perpetual fun-activity machines.

-Terry

“TIME” | Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Session, Nov. 17, 3:30 PM, CMU 202

November 7th, 2011

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) second event of the Autumn Quarter is on Thursday, November 17, 3:30-5:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our second public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming term “Time.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect
The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read
We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

  • Steven Poole, excerpt “Time, gentlemen please,” Trigger Happy (2000)
  • Jesper Juul, Ch.4 “Fiction,” esp. “Time in Games” pgs.141-162, Half-Real (2005)
  • Jesper Juul, Ch.2 “What is Casual?” The Casual Revolution (2010)

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve.  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play
Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion. The games marked with an * are playable for free. The other games require some online research on Wikipedia, Youtube, etc.

What to Discuss
The second session for the 2011-12 Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate working group addresses the design techniques and player experience of “time” in games. If part of the sea change in gaming has been toward the social, both through greater integration and harnessing of gamer communities and more elaborate, collaborative multiplayer experiences (as discussed in our previous keyword session on “Democracy”), it also includes a corresponding change in how player time is conceived of and valued in game design and game marketing, as well as how players spend and experience it. As Jesper Juul notes in his recent book, the “casual revolution” in gaming includes an increased attention to time investment by the player. This should lead us to consider how time is spent in gameplay (grinding, reflecting, watching, reading, etc.), how it is managed and archived by the game systems (auto save points? missions? pausing? progress metrics?) and even how it is made an asset in play itself (achievement and experience systems).

Unfortunately, not much critical attention  has been given to the topic of time in game studies publications beyond its role in thinking about narrative in games, so our  readings from Steven Poole and Jesper Juul will serve better as starting frameworks  and concept toolboxes than as arguable or provocative viewpoints. In place of a central critical foil we will explore a series of games including Passage, Progress Quest, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Braid, Plants vs. Zombies, Gauntlet, TES4: Oblivion, and World of Warcraft, all of which that offer radically different approaches to time that prompt many interesting questions:

  • What are the distinguishable temporalities involved in gameplay?
  • How do games use time as a resource? To what effects?
  • How would a time-focused view of gameplay (rather than theme or genre-based focus) expand the critical conversation about games?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions.  Either way, come be a part of our discussion Thursday, November 17, 3:30-5:30 in CMU 202.

When a Problem Comes Along… You Must Fold It?

October 16th, 2011

by Alenda Chang, University of California, Berkeley
Contributing Scholar

Do a Google Image search on the term “proteins” and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with a festive array of squiggly, multicolored ribbons that would look perfectly at home on a child’s birthday present (that, and a few dietitian’s displays of meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs, beans and legumes, and nuts).  Though my last biochemistry class is over a decade behind me, lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with these oddly shaped yet strangely beautiful computer-generated molecules.  In fact, I’ve been doing a whole lot more than just looking at them—I’ve been rotating them, stretching and twisting them, even shaking and gently jiggling them, all in the name of Science.

I have, of course, been playing Foldit, a scientific puzzle game developed by researchers at the University of Washington in both the Center for Game Science and Department of Biochemistry.  Players of the game compete to find the best (most stable) three-dimensional configurations for a wide array of protein polypeptides (hence the “folding”), in a bid to join human cognition to overworked computer programs in a computational approach to basic biology and disease treatment.  First released in May 2008, the game has since become something of a media darling and may deserve principal credit for allowing the words “gamers” and “Nobel Prize winners” to be uttered in the same breath without a bolt of Scandinavian lightning crisping the speaker’s sacrilegious noggin.

While the game’s creators have mused that Foldit players might someday be eligible for Nobel Prizes in biology, chemistry, or medicine, serious games proponent and alternate-reality game designer Jane McGonigal has openly expressed her hope that a game designer will win the Nobel Peace Prize within the next twenty-five years.  McGonigal mentions Foldit in her recent book, Reality is Broken, as an example of intellectually crowdsourcing gamer communities, moving beyond the harnessing of game hardware’s hefty processing power (exemplified by the Sony PlayStation/Stanford Folding@home project, also a protein-folding endeavor) to actually tapping the spatial reasoning and problem-solving drive of gamers themselves.

It’s hard not to view the hype over scientific accolades potentially accruing to non-specialists as distracting from the game’s real innovations in translating basic biological constraints (hydrophilic/hydrophobic side chain behavior, the stability of hydrogen bonds, amino acid sequence, and so on) into attractive and accessible gameplay.  There’s a danger here of turning a Nobel Prize into just another accomplishment in the current craze for achievement systems in games and other areas of user experience (“You have won a Nobel Prize in Medicine! (1/5) Share on Facebook?”).  I sometimes wonder whether there can be such a thing as service gaming, or game altruism, and whether competition need be the only model for the increasingly distributed nature of knowledge production. Perhaps friendly rivalry prevents the game from becoming merely unpaid labor, because as with many other “serious” games, Foldit also dramatizes the increasingly fine line between work and play.

Concerns aside, I’m duly impressed with what Foldit players and developers have managed to accomplish in such a short amount of time. Foldit represents a rather engaging step forward from sites like Freerice.com, where a player’s actions have little to no relation to the kind of charitable service provided by the site’s sponsors in return for participation.  While correctly identifying Papua New Guinea on a map might be difficult the first or second time the question is posed, it’s not likely to stump you again and again—the rote quizzing of the World Food Programme’s site offers limited challenge that scales poorly with repeated visits and intensive time investment. In other words, Freerice.com does little to generate what McGonigal calls intrinsic rewards—“the positive emotions, personal strengths, and social connections that we build by engaging intensely with the world around us” (45). Foldit, on the other hand, with its complex, three-dimensional protein-folding puzzles, is quick to produce what positive psychologists call flow: focused engagement with a challenge during which external considerations fall away. I’d much rather “Solve Puzzles for Science” than “Play and feed hungry people,” at least when “play” feels suspiciously like taking the GRE.

On a final note, I should observe that Foldit falls neatly into line with ongoing trends in scientific visualization, as science and engineering have themselves moved increasingly toward the nanoscale.  Historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison and new media scholar Colin Milburn have independently identified this paradigm shift away from depiction toward fabrication, to frontiers where the formerly distinct boundaries between recording and producing have been breached.  Digital games like Foldit thus take part in this transition from optical photorealism to nonoptical or haptic visualization and fabrication (seeing-doing), which suggests that someday games may be better suited to the practice of science than conventional, noninteractive images.

I leave you with these timeless words of Devo, which have been pattering through my head since I started this post (modified just slightly… for Science):

When a problem comes along
You must fold it
Before the cream sits out too long
You must fold it
When something’s going wrong
You must fold it

Now fold it
Into shape
Shape it up
Get straight
Go forward
Move ahead
Try to detect it
It’s not too late
To fold it
Fold it good!

Try it yourself: fold.it/portal/


Contributing scholar Alenda Chang is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her research interests include film, new media, science, and literature, and her dissertation work address the topic of environment and ecology in virtual worlds and other digital media.  CGP presents another contribution on Foldit and “games for good,” which continues the discussion on “democracy” and games started at last week’s Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s session.  See also Chang’s response to Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution in her blog post “Casual Dames” on her blog Growing Games.

Gamification is Broken, “Democracy” Keywords GIG Follow-Up

October 15th, 2011

We kicked off our second year of gaming Keywords this past Thursday, October  13th. Thanks to everyone who joined us! Our discussion included reflections on McGonigal’s optimistic introduction of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World and Castronova’s description of human exodus into semi-permanent virtual existence (preface and chapter one of Exodus to the Virtual World). Both authors paint the virtual as a powerful force based on the amount of time we voluntarily spend playing games but as our discussion revealed, there are number of questions raised in their proposals.

McGonigal’s make-a-game-to-solve-our-problems proposal glosses over a range of issues that, in and of themselves (if we are to take McGonigal’s advice), would need another set of games to solve. This is not to say there isn’t value in the practice of game design as an approach to thinking through complex issues or even that the experience of game play results in discoveries never before reached (i.e. protein folding of Foldit fame) but is it really just a matter of designing and playing games that will solve our problems? Playing for science is a great cause, but what happens when industry steps in and poses a problem for the masses to solve, who owns the results? What are the consequences of free labor?

Taking from Castranova’s writing, if a person is willing to forfeit other activities in order to participate in a synthetic ones, then we have to assume there is value in their virtual activity. However, though players subsume into synthetic worlds, they don’t do so disconnected from their other lives. Games and synthetic experiences though bounded are still situated in a much larger contexts (unless you define life as a game J) and what players bring to these bounded spaces is far reaching and complex. The start state in World of Warcraft or Poptropica represents equitable access and resources for characters, it’s the external conditions of the player that creates an uneven playing field. Access to money and time still manage to shape the play experience, especially if you don’t have either.

We seem to be standing in a space where we’re attempting to broker reality with game mechanics; so what does that say about the consequence of our decisions? As Sarah said during our discussion, I know I’ve spent too much time playing games when I begin to look for the reset button for real life. From a design perspective, missing this core mechanic should have profound consequences to our “in-game” decisions. Consequences that would prompt us to re-think our choices. Perhaps pointing to the greatest value of creating games and synthetic worlds as perpetual space to practice and fail without fear of permanent consequence.

“DEMOCRACY” | Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Session, Oct. 13, 3:30 PM, CMU 226

September 29th, 2011

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) first event of the Autumn Quarter is on Thursday, October 13, 3:30-5:30 PM, in Communication 226.  Building on the conversations started last year, this first public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming term “Democracy.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve (held by the Keywords CHID 496 class).  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:

What to Discuss

The inaugural session for the 2011-12 Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate working group continues the conversations from last year, particularly our one-day colloquium “GAMER+GAMIFICATION.”  Given the uptake of gamification–the application of game logics to almost all walks of life–our first discussion will focus broadly on “democracy” and digital games to think through Jane McGonigal’s argument (in Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World) that “gameful design” is the solution to many of the social, political, even material ills of the world.  McGonigal posits, “What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality?  What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?” (7).  For example, in recent news, players of the UW-developed Fold-It (a protein folding simulation game) deciphered the structure of the retroviral protease of HIV, something that has eluded biochemists for many years.  The amazing potential Fold-It’s “crowd-sourcing” or “group-intelligence” seems to verify McGonigal’s dream.  However, is this participatory democracy at work or is this what Ian Bogost calls “exploitationware?”

With all of this in mind, then, our session will consider the following:

  • How might games be (more) democratic?  Do all games offer a level playing field?
  • What are the benefits and consequences of using games for “solving real-world problems?  What is foregrounded and obscured by this?
  • How do you develop games for democracy?
  • How might we address questions of access, participation, labor, competition, collaboration, ownership, intellectual property, and representation?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions. Either way, come learn about these topics and issues at our discussion on Thursday, October 13, 3:30-5:30 PM in CMU 226.

Serious Play Conference Post-Mortem

September 12th, 2011

The Simpson Center for the Humanities sponsored two members of the CGP and the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate working group, Theresa Horstman and Edmond Chang, to attend the Serious Play Conference held at the DigiPen campus in Redmond, WA on August 23-25, 2011.  The conference was a joint venture and partnership of Clark Aldrich, author of five top selling books on serious games; DigiPen Institute of Technology; and Sue Bohle, President of The Bohle Company.  Although not specifically targeted to video game academics, both Horstman and Chang found the conference an important opportunity to interact with developers, designers, educators, marketers, and professionals from across the country representing a wide-range of disciplines, institutions, and corporations.  Here are some of the questions and conversations Horstman (TH) and Chang (EC) brought back from the conference:

1) Why did you attend the Serious Play Conference?

TH: I attended the Serious Play Conference because I was interested in hearing how industry has come to grapple with using games for learning.  In the past few years it has become increasingly more acceptable to use games for learning and its gone beyond just using games for icebreakers or the occasional break in learning.  Instead, it’s expanded to include rethinking and re-structuring entire programs and experiences to be more game-like.  I wanted to see if there has been any progress in understanding how to use games more effectively and if there were any success stories, people who have designed and built games for learning that are playable and fun.

EC: When I first saw the program for the Serious Play Conference, I realized that I was not the conference’s target audience.  As an academic, a cultural studies scholar, I would be an unusual (though not necessarily unwelcome) presence at a conference designed for industry executives, developers, policymakers, and administrators.  However, I thought it would be a unique opportunity to see perspectives on why video games are important, what makes a game effective or educational, and what central exigences, ideologies, and “bottom lines” animate and motivate these designers and implementers.  I was also interested to see how the terms “serious play” or “serious game” have been taken up in recent years.  Looking at the possible “tracks” at the conference—Games for Learning, Government/Military, Health/Medical, Business/Corporate Training, Consumer/Games for Good, and Sim and Game Designer—the range of what it means to work on or work with “serious games” is still limited, I think.

2) What does “serious play” mean to you?

TH: Immediately, I think serious play should draw attention to the pervasiveness of play in our daily lives and prompt us to consider the importance and relevance of play as it relates to learning and development. There is also an opportunity in serious play to consider and explore what play says about the human condition. In the context of this conference the focus is looking at play in digital games and how games are used in learning situations. However, even in this context it should raise the immediate question whether or not serious play is mandatory and whether the shift from self-selected play and mandatory participation puts an inherent risk on the quality. Ultimately, serious play is just considering the consequences of play, both when it’s presented as guided instruction and as a spontaneous and necessary activity in our development.

EC: Since the late 90s/early 2000s (in particular), this has been a big buzzword.  How do you make a serious game?  What does it mean to play for serious reasons?  How do you use play for serious ends?  Again, the very phrase “serious play” reveals our assumptions about “play” that it must be the opposite of “serious.”  Play is to be fun, low risk, frivolous, superficial, even childish—see Huizinga’s idea of the “magic circle.”  However, play need not be simply empty fun.  In fact, a lot of play mimes, practices, explores, and negotiates important and vital ideas, situations, or consequences—playing “house” or “doctor,” running an obstacle course, role-playing a job interview, simulating a zombie attack—since they are often metaphors or engagements with social norms, survival, preparation, even life and death.  In terms of digital games, I think that we still need the adjective “serious” in order to think through analytical, rhetorical, political, and pedagogical ways to play.  Much of the focus of “serious play” is on education, training, and simulation, the delivery of content or facts or directions, and I hope that more attention will be turned toward other critical approaches including academic study and cultural critique.

3) What was one thing you got the most out of the conference?

TH: I think one of the biggest benefits of the conference is putting educators (as well as training and development professionals) and game industry people in the same room. Some of the discussions, such as the Keynote Panel with Alex Games, Zoran Popovic, James Portnow, and Bob Dolan, represented a sample of different perspectives on games for learning present at the conference. Each stance presenting a different way of looking at the benefits (and subsequent shortfalls) of using games for learning. Portnow challenged us to think about what we mean about engagement and Popovic highlighted the potential for novices to participate in and contribute to expert science communities.  Donald Brinkman of Microsoft Research had a couple of really good sessions (including “Productivity Games”) that demonstrated how new technology and is being used (like  ChronoZoom for Big History) in addition to hearing about the efforts to improve college retention by redesigning the educational experience to include achievements.

EC:  There were a lot of ideas, a lot of interesting projects, and a lot of different people at the conference.  And being able to hear from people who work on games from very different standpoints and investments was eye opening for me.  It was also important to see the small slice of the gaming world (or reality for that matter) that different perspectives worked with.  I particularly liked hearing about development and design.  For example, David Edery (Fuzbi, Spryfox ) on Microsoft’s Ribbon Hero 2 talked about the importance of having clear design goals and the time to playtest.  I also enjoyed Chris Skaggs (Soma Games), who talked about the need to connect mechanics and content and meaning (metaphor) through richer game narratives.  Finally, I was deeply impressed by Dr. Zoran Popovic’s presentation on the Fold-It game developed at the University of Washington.  In the end, though, I couldn’t help but think during the conference that there needed to be more of an academic presence.  It would only enrich the mix.

4) What was one thing that the conference did not address or could have addressed better?

TH: Overall, there was a lack of discourse around the definitions and concepts pervasive in games and game studies. A lot of terms get thrown around such as without the much needed clarification of what the authors or developers meant (or assumed) by using these terms. I think opening the discussions to include these considerations would have brought more depth and bridged current application with current theories.  Along those same lines I would have liked to have seen representation of a more critical engagement on gamification, perhaps through a broader inclusion of academic positions. In one session on storytelling and interactivity, there wasn’t a lot of room to discuss the complexity of these concepts and the demonstration bordered on the fine line between teaching about options and marketing a brand (Know Your Options).

EC: Piggybacking on Theresa’s comment, I wanted to see more critical attention and awareness of the tensions within the serious game “movement” and industry.  The values, norms, and goals of a game for teaching mathematics are very different than the values, norms, and goals of a game to train military drones (or if the values aren’t different, might that be a point of concern or conversation).  These are the assumptions that Theresa points to.  Moreover, given my own work, I am interested in values, norms, and goals that are not necessarily intentionally designed or even thought about—for example, might there be more attention to heteronormativity or stereotyping or globalization?  Perhaps the most worrisome assumption running through the conference is the issue of making money, commodification, developing a product, having metrics.  Indeed, much of what is being done is often philanthropic or progressive or socially conscious, but another way to understand the adjective “serious” is to consider how much the economics impact what games get made, what games get promoted, what games get played, who gets to play them, and who gets to reap the benefits?

5) How did the conference connect to your scholarship?

TH: My background is in instructional design so attending this conference reconnected me with my years of experience in industry. But it also resurfaced my biggest conflict with industry practice (and what eventually led me back to school) is the lack of or weak connection to theoretical frameworks and educational research. In practice, the strategies for design seem to be influence more by concerns with ROI and the restrictions and limitations of available resources. As I’m learning from the academic setting, the rigor of the conceptual frameworks and ties to educational and game research is key even though the practical concerns can’t be ignored. Like so many other discipline, the gap between theory and application is an interesting space to reside and attending this conference reinforced the complexity of this gap. Using games for learning sounds awesome and amazing but getting into the nitty-gritty of doing it well is really a complicated task.

EC: One of my dissertation chapters is on the gamification movement.  It was very enlightening to see firsthand the kinds of promises and seductions gamification makes, and I fear that like games themselves, gamification will become naturalized in a way that makes questioning turning “life” or “work” or “school” or “war” into a game much more difficult.  I think the power and potential of serious play and serious games are real and needed.  But I also think that developing critical literacies and approaches is also needed.  In general, too, the conference tracked for me the kinds of conversations and disciplines that I will need to be able to engage in my own scholarship now and down the road.  I think that as games are taken more seriously by the culture, the need for critical approaches and theories will also be taken more seriously.


The Keywords for Video Game Studies group works in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington.  Also, as HASTAC scholars for 2011-2012, the Keywords for Video Game Studies group continues to represent the University of Washington as part of the online activities and forums of the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory.  The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

Keywords for Video Game Studies GIG Renewed

July 3rd, 2011

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group, which had a very successful first year run this past year, has been renewed by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.  The project continues the work and community-building started last year.  Planning is underway for the 2011-12 sessions, including the second annual video game studies colloquium in Spring 2012:

Keywords for Video Games is a continuing graduate interest group bringing together interdisciplinary perspectives and scholarship on video games.  Building on last year’s conversations on terms like play, immersion/interactivity, avatar, and pedagogy, our working group hopes to further the critical engagement with video games and video game culture to address the design of games (as computational, protocological, rhetorical, and aesthetic artifacts), the theorizing of games (looking at narrative, interactivity, race/gender/sexuality), and the pedagogical and political potential of games.  Through close readings of games, real-time demonstrations and close playings (critical gaming), and discussion, our working group hopes to highlight central questions, keywords, and even dissonances in video game studies and video game theory.

Alas, the group bade farewell to Megan Bertelsen and Timothy Welsh.  But the Keywords group has gained two new organizers.  This year’s organizers include:

Edmond Y. Chang (lead) is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at the University of Washington in Seattle, after graduating from the University of Maryland with his B.A. in English, a B.A. in Classics, and his M.A. in English.  His main areas of interest are contemporary US fiction, technoculture, digital studies, cultural studies, queer theory, teaching, role-playing games, video games, and popular culture.  His article “Gaming as Writing, Or, World of Warcraft as World of Wordcraft” was published in the Fall 2008 Computers & Composition Online Special Issue on “Reading Games.”  He has taught at the university level for over twelve years and was the recipient of the UW Excellence in Teaching Award in 2009.

Theresa Horstman is a doctoral student in Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, U.S.A. She received her B.A. with a focus in philosophy from The Evergreen State College and her M.Ed. from the University of Washington.  Her interests include comparative analysis of video game and e-learning design methodologies and the correlation between the metaphoric process and creative process in designing instruction for virtual environments.

Natascha Karlova is a PhD student in the Information Science program at the Information School, and is advised by Prof. Karen Fisher.  She also works with Prof. Mike Eisenberg, Peyina Lin, and John Marino on the UW VIBE Project investigating trust and credibility in Second Life, a 3D, social virtual world.  She studies how teams of online game players disambiguate between misinformation and disinformation.  As a gamer herself, she loves researching player practices around games, and how they transform it.  She is passionate about the roles that information plays in games and virtual worlds, and how information can shape the user experience.

Sarah Kremen-Hicks is a Master’s student in the English department.  Her interests include Victorian poetry, neo-gothic and Victorianism, fan culture, and pulp novels.  She is currently researching the competing curatorial and anthologizing impulses in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Terry Schenold is a Ph.D. candidate in English writing his dissertation “Reading and Reflection in the Novel and New Media,” which includes an exploration of digital roleplaying games as the best potential analog to literary media, as instruments for reflection, within the emerging digital media ecology.  As an instructor in CHID he has taught several classes on digital games, most notably the seminar “Poetics of Play in Digital Roleplaying Games,” which has been offered twice.  He is also the founding member of the Critical Gaming Project and continues to work closely with undergraduates to develop new focus group courses addressing digital games.  His specific research interests in the field of game studies include ergodicity and narrative, all things having to do with time, sources of “immersion,” and comparative configurations of imaginative work in different game media.

GAMER Colloquium Follow-up | Gamification

May 25th, 2011

Last Saturday’s GAMER Colloquium was a fitting close to the Keywords for Videogame Studies Graduate Interest Group. It brought together truly diverse participants including scholars, students, educators, developers, journalists, and, of course, gamers for a broad-ranging and through-provoking discussion. Despite the variety of perspectives contributing, a core set of concerns emerged from the stated themes of GAMIFICATION and GAMER. The central question of the day, to which we returned in many forms, was how does gaming become meaningful or significant? I’ll recap the first session here and the second session in a post later this week.

Though one might presume that this is an obvious question or that there was already a good answer if we are discussing gaming in an academic setting. Yet, it is precisely because the meaning of videogames is such an ill-defined “mangle” that the Keywords group has been so productive this year. Further, recent attempts to “gamify” everything from school to advertising often are hinged on the expectation that gaming is somehow inherently significant, that the structure of a game makes any activity meaningful to the participants. Against this assumption, our day-long discussion demonstrated just how complicated

Mark Chen opened the first session by defining ‘gamification’ as ‘a way of providing incentives’ and expressed concern that these incentives normalize the accrual of cultural capital which may have negative effects on emergent play. Joshua Gerrish followed by breaking down the what drives gamers to game, highlighting goal-setting, status or affirmation, reputation, norms of reciprocity, time pressure, scarcity, set completion, reinforcement schedules, and loss aversion or sunk costs.

Screenshot. Frontierville

Next, Eliot Hemingway used gaming as a metaphor to talk about motivation and apathy in education, which he tied back to the objectivization of learning. He wondered aloud if the mechanized acheivement system represented by many models of a gamified classroom abstract the purpose of learning and actually get in the way of discovering goals on one’s own. Theresa Horstman then addressed the uses of gaming in the classroom. She explained that assumptions about e-learning are often in direct conflict with game-design best practices. As the trend moves from attempting to incorporate mini or commercial games into the classroom to developing whole games for educational purposes, she argued that instructional designers would do well to recognize the limitations of linear instructional strategies and allow for learners to identify and define their own learning objectives.

Kris Knigge followed by discussing the often restrictive space game journalism occupies between developers and the gamer community. This lead to an open conversation about how game journalism has formed the way it has and how the gamer community came to be so resistent to critical gaming. We talked about the ferver with which gamers identify as such and/or with a particular game and recognized this self-identifying tendency as central to the appeal of gamification practices. Gamification as a marketing strategy typically aspires to cultivating ‘fanboy’ or ‘fangirl’ levels of brand loyalty. This suggests the underlying strategies of ‘gamification’ have a much longer history in capitalism rather than originating with the recent the success of Farmville or coming out of 21st-century gamer culture as is often presumed.

We made reference here to McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory and his description of contemporary culture as gamespace. In this context, some of the base assumptions about gamification were challenged, such as whether or not gamification is possible if culture isn’t a level playing field. Further, in a gamified culture, some of the less savory practices of contemporary gamer culture such as griefing, trolling, hacking, and so on, which in many ways disrupt or out-right reject reputation systems and other gamified models, might play an important socio-political resistence roles. We acknowledged that these practices are often immature and insensitive at best as we raised the question of how to cultivate sincere contemplation that is not the product of or subject to logics of accumulation. The first session concluded with the suggestion that perhaps it is the structure of gaming itself that makes sincere analysis difficult or, at least, a mismatch between the types of responses gaming elicits and the outcomes we keep calling for. “Fun,” like any other engagement, is an affordance of the game being played, which means maybe we need to access different kinds of “fun.”

GAMIFICATION+GAMER Colloquium Full Program

May 10th, 2011

Program:

9:00 AM-10:00 AM Registration & Welcome

10:00 AM-12:00 PM Session I: “Gamification”

The morning session will engage the questions, issues, and challenges of game development, game commodification, and games as life.  How might scholars, teachers, writers, and developers think about the trend to gamify everything and the recent multi-billion dollar investment in gamification?  Gamification.org defines gamification as “the concept that you can apply the basic elements that make games fun and engaging to things that typically aren’t considered a game.  In theory you can apply Game Design to almost anything including Education, Health, Work and more.  Gamification at its core is about fun, rewards and social connections.  It has the opportunity to connect people in ways never seen before.”  What are the theories and possibilities of fun and games?  What are the critiques and problems of fun and games?

Mark Chen, “The Mangle of Gaming to Socially Create Meaningful Experiences,” Advancing Gaming in Innovative Learning Ecologies (AGILE), Institute for Science and Math Ed, LIFE Center, UW

Joshua Gerrish, “Incentive-Centered Design is Related to Gamification and Game Mechanics,” Founder gaming and gamification startups Empty Box and Reciprocade

Eliot Hemingway, “Games and Classroom Education,” Comparative History of Ideas, UW

Theresa Horstman, “Approaches in Game Design for Learning,” Department of Education, UW

Kris Knigge, “Video Game Blogging and Journalism,” Associate Editor at Siliconera.com and founding member of Sega-Addicts.com, Department of English, UW

Timothy Welsh, Moderator, Department of English, UW

12:00 PM-1:00 PM Lunch/Break

1:00-3:00 PM Session II: “Gamer”

In “Growing Up Gamer,” researcher and designer Jane McGonigal says, “We cherish the time we’ve spent playing games.  We love what games give us the power to do.  We love who games give us the opportunity to become.  And with every additional generation that grows up playing games, there are more and more of us who see gaming as a way to have the best kinds of experiences, to make the best kinds of friendships and lifelong partnerships, to do the most amazing work, and to become the best possible version of ourselves.”  The afternoon session will engage video games and play, art, community, and cultural critique.  How might scholars, artists, developers, and players think about games as cultural artifact and popular culture?

Megan Bertelsen, “Environments of Flesh: Body and Flesh in the Fantasy RPG Environment,” Department of Comparative Literature, UW

Blaine Doherty, “Close Playing of LIMBO,” Comparative History of Ideas, UW

Taya Huang, “Immersion and Assassin’s Creed,” Departments of Biochemistry and Scandinavian Studies, UW

Nathan Moller, “Machinima and Game Cinematics,” 5th Cell Media

Terry Schenold, “RPG Games & Memory,” Department of English, UW

Gary Walsh, Jr., “Taming the Monster: Violence, Spectacle, and the Virtual Animal,” Comparative History of Ideas, UW

Edmond Chang, Moderator, Department of English, UW

Presenter’s Bios:

Megan Bertelsen is a Master’s student with the Department of Comparative Literature, emphasizing media studies.  Prior to coming to the University of Washington, she worked primarily in horror and splash cinema, queer theory, and critical theory.  She is currently researching protocols and policing of identity production in sustained online gaming communities, particularly MMORPGs, as shaped by the interpenetration of the internal economies of these communities with more conventional iterations of the global economy.

Edmond Chang is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at the University of Washington.  He received his M.A. in English from the University of Maryland.  His main areas of interest are contemporary US fiction, technoculture, cultural studies, queer theory, teaching, role-playing games, video games, and popular culture.  His article “Gaming as Writing, Or, World of Warcraft as World of Wordcraft” was published in the Fall 2008 Computers & Composition Online.  He has taught at the university level for over twelve years and was the recipient of the UW Excellence in Teaching Award in 2009.

Mark Chen’s research focuses on teamwork, communication, and group expertise in situated gaming cultures. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, looking at the practice of a specific group of gamers in the online game World of Warcraft.  He is currently a post-doctoral scholar at the UW Institute for Science and Mathematics Education, helping to evaluate player learning of science and math games such as Foldit and Refraction. He is a founding member of Advancing Gaming in Innovative Learning Ecologies (AGILE).  You can read more about Mark on his blog at http://markdangerchen.net

Blaine Doherty is a student in the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) at the University of Washington.

Joshua Gerrish is a recent University of Michigan School of Information graduate, where he specialized in Incentive-Centered Design and Social Computing.  Previous to this, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Science.  He is currently the founder and principal software engineer of a location-based gaming and consulting startup in Seattle, Empty Box LLC (also DBA Reciprocade).  Josh is interested in the intersection between technological and social systems, and the amazing possibilities that open up when you begin designing and building systems with people in mind.

Eliot Hemingway is a senior undergraduate student with a longtime interest in methods of learning.  He has been a gamer for over a decade and has brought that passion and perspective into his educational experience.  Eliot has facilitated three CGP-affiliated focus groups under the CHID program (Actions Speak Louder, The Ninja Matters, and Challenging Forth).

Theresa Horstman is a doctoral student in Learning Sciences at the University of Washington.  She received her B.A. with a focus in philosophy from The Evergreen State College and her M.Ed. from the University of Washington.  Her interests include comparative analysis of video game and e-learning design methodologies and the correlation between the metaphoric process and creative process in designing instruction for virtual environments.

Taya Huang is a UW student aiming to double major in Biochemistry and Scandinavian Studies.  She is also an art student at Gage Academy of Art.  She is learning 3D modeling and whether she will model proteins or human figures or bones, she doesn’t yet know.

Kris Knigge is a sophomore majoring in English at UW.  He is also the Associate Editor at Siliconera.com and founding member of Sega-Addicts.com.

After working in the New York film and television industries, and then some award-winning work in the machinima medium, Nathan Moller joined BioWare and helped ship Mass Effect, Mass Effect: Bring Down the Sky, Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2, and the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic.  He now works for 5th Cell Media, the creators of Drawn to Life and Scribblenauts, in Bellevue, WA.

Terry Schenold is a Ph.D. candidate in English writing his dissertation “Reading and Reflection in the Novel and New Media,” which includes an exploration of digital roleplaying games as the best potential analog to literary media, as instruments for reflection, within the emerging digital media ecology.  He has taught several classes on digital games, most notably the seminar “Poetics of Play in Digital Roleplaying Games.”  He is also the founding member of the Critical Gaming Project.  His specific research interests in the field of game studies include ergodicity and narrative, all things having to do with time, sources of “immersion,” and comparative configurations of imaginative work in different game media.

Gary Walsh, Jr. is a UW senior majoring in Comparative History of Ideas with a minor in Anthropology.  He is also a humanities and writing tutor at Seattle Central Community College.  His research focus is on cultural authenticity, identity, and representation in relation to the commodity form.  Currently he is working on his senior thesis which examines my relationship to Japanese popular culture and how Japanese cultural productions are utilized in the construction of cosplay identities (individuals which dress as anime, manga, videogame characters) and the identities of American tourists in Japan.

Timothy J. Welsh is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at the University of Washington studying Twentieth Century US fiction and new media.  He received an M.Ed. from the University of Notre Dame while volunteer teaching at St. Louis High School in Louisiana, before completing an M.A. in English at Washington.  A version of his MA essay, “Everyday Play: Cruising for Leisure in San Andreas,” appears in the collection The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto.  His research interests include postmodern fiction, literary theory, contemporary art, digital media, and video games.  He is currently completing a dissertation entitled, “Immersive Fictions: Modern Narrative, New Media, Mixed Reality,” in which he reads contemporary novels in conjunction with popular video games to develop an approach to narrative media that responds to the expanded role of digital environments in contemporary life.

 

“GAMER” Colloquium, Sat. May 21, 9-3 PM, CMU 202, UW Seattle

May 2nd, 2011

GAMIFICATION+GAMER
Keywords for Video Game Studies Colloquium
May 21, 2011
9-3 PM
Communication 202
University of Washington, Seattle

____________________________________________________________

The Keywords for Video Game Studies colloquium invites game scholars, artists, designers, developers, and enthusiasts to participate in roundtable discussions, presentations of individual and collaborative work, scholarship, and play.  The colloquium, broadly themed by the keyword “gamer,” is the capstone event to a year-long series of workshop sessions on play, immersion/interactivity, avatar, power/control, and pedagogy.  The colloquium hopes to foster the growing engagement with what it means to study or make or play digital games.

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.  For more information about the Keywords group, go to: https://depts.washington.edu/critgame/wordpress/keywords/

The colloquium is free and open to University of Washington students, faculty, staff, and community.

Program

9:00 AM-10:00 AM Registration & Welcome

10:00 AM-12:00 PM Session I: “Gamification”

The morning session will engage the questions, issues, and challenges of game development, game commodification, and games as life.  How might scholars, teachers, writers, and developers think about the trend to gamify everything and the recent multi-billion dollar investment in gamification?  Gamification.org defines gamification as “the concept that you can apply the basic elements that make games fun and engaging to things that typically aren’t considered a game.  In theory you can apply Game Design to almost anything including Education, Health, Work and more.  Gamification at its core is about fun, rewards and social connections.  It has the opportunity to connect people in ways never seen before.”  What are the theories and possibilities of fun and games?  What are the critiques and problems of fun and games?

Featured Roundtable Presenters:

Mark Chen, “The Mangle of Gaming to Socially Create Meaningful Experiences,” Advancing Gaming in Innovative Learning Ecologies (AGILE), Institute for Science and Math Ed, LIFE Center, University of Washington

Joshua Gerrish, Incentive-Centered Design is related to “Gamification” and “Game Mechanics,” Founder gaming and gamification startups Empty Box and Reciprocade

Eliot Hemingway, “Games and Classroom Education,” Comparative History of Ideas (CHID), UW

Theresa Horstman, “Approaches in Game Design for Learning,” Department of Education, UW

Kris Knigge, “Video Game Blogging and Journalism,” Associate Editor at Siliconera.com and founding member of Sega-Addicts.com, Department of English, UW

Timothy Welsh, Moderator, Department of English, UW

12:00 PM-1:00 PM Lunch/Break

1:00-3:00 PM Session II: “Gamer”

In “Growing Up Gamer,” researcher and designer Jane McGonigal says, “We cherish the time we’ve spent playing games.  We love what games give us the power to do.  We love who games give us the opportunity to become.  And with every additional generation that grows up playing games, there are more and more of us who see gaming as a way to have the best kinds of experiences, to make the best kinds of friendships and lifelong partnerships, to do the most amazing work, and to become the best possible version of ourselves.”  The afternoon session will engage video games and play, art, community, and cultural critique.  How might scholars, artists, developers, and players think about games as cultural artifact and popular culture?

Featured Roundtable Presenters:

Megan Bertelsen, “Environments of Flesh: Body and Flesh in the Fantasy RPG Environment,” Department of Comparative Literature, UW

Blaine Doherty, “Close Playing of LIMBO,” Comparative History of Ideas (CHID), University of Washington

Taya Huang, “Immersion and Assassin’s Creed,” Departments of Biochemistry and Scandinavian Studies, UW

Nathan Moller, “Machinima and Game Cinematics,” 5th Cell Media

Terry Schenold, “RPG Games & Memory,” Department of English, UW

Gary Walsh, Jr., “Taming the Monster: Violence, Spectacle, and the Virtual Animal,” Comparative History of Ideas, UW

Edmond Chang, Moderator, Department of English, UW

Games + Teaching = Learning? | Keywords GIG Follow-up

April 23rd, 2011

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Gaming Keywords GIG: PEDAGOGY this past Wednesday, April 20.  We had a great discussion that covered a range of topics related to games, education and learning.

The biggest questions threaded throughout our conversation dealt with the effectiveness of using games for learning and to what extent they can be designed to teach.  This lead to recognizing the distinction between using games to teach domain specific content versus studying and critiquing games in and of themselves as cultural artifacts, much like film or literature, as a worth while academic endeavor.

We played the 2010 Imagine Cup Game Design winners, Wildfire by Implication. This sparked discussion surrounding game mechanics, design intention and effective learning. On one hand the designers successfully matched learning objectives to game mechanic (gather and distribute volunteers). On the other hand, the game mechanics could be co-opted for anti-social values such as recruiting for hate groups.

Part of unpacking our understanding of games being used for learning was to consider which games are being used and under what circumstances do they successfully teach. We discussed Little Big Planet’s challenge to teach math and science, and watched a demonstration teaching differences in slope. This led to discussions on determining when it’s appropriate to use games for learning and when other methods might be more effective.

Gamification was another key topic discussed as assumptions about motivation and engagement are bound with game-like features.  Using game mechanics tied to learning objectives raises issues on the meaning and value gamified experiences have to the player.  Looking at the variety of mini-games on Super Me and the accrual of points towards abstracted skills such as ‘wisdom’ and ‘influence’.  These are used as quantified measures of the player, not a character (or even the player/character) raised issues of accuracy and misrepresentation of the concepts. It also raised issues of reducing all our daily activities to quantifiable measures (see Jesse Schell’s TED talk When games invade real life) potentially diluting the meaning and value of our actions.

We are looking forward to our final installation of this year’s Keywords for Video Game Studies programming–the “GAMER” Colloquium!  Please plan on joining us Saturday, May 21, 2011, 9:00 AM-3:00 PM in Communication 202 for discussion and conversation with gaming scholars, developers, and enthusiasts.  More information on the colloquium can be found here: https://depts.washington.edu/critgame/wordpress/gamer-colloquium/

 

“PEDAGOGY” | Keywords GIG Session

April 11th, 2011

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) first event of the Spring Quarter is on Wednesday, April 20, 3:30-5:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our fifth public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming term “Pedagogy.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

  • “Video Games & Embodiment” by James Paul Gee
  • “Gaming Literacy: Game Design as a Model for Literacy in the Twenty-First Century” by Eric Zimmerman
  • “Games for Civic Learning: A Conceptual Framework and Agenda for Research and Design” by Chad Raphael, Christine Bachen, Kathleen-M. Lynn, Jessica Baldwin-Philippi and Kristen A. McKee
  • “Ideological Videogames: Press Left to Dissent” by Gonzalo Frasca

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve (held by the Keywords CHID 496 class).  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:

What to Discuss

The next Keywords session focuses on “pedagogy” and the questions about and challenges of what we can teach with video games, what we can learn from video games, and what makes video games educational?  Given that current attitudes and attention to video games is polarized–from violence, addiction, demonization to freedom, innovation, and digitopian dreams–the field of play is fraught.  For example, on the one hand, the US Supreme Court recently held hearings about a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors (Schwarzenegger v. EMA) arguing “about the harmful effects of video game violence and scolding the industry for seemingly shrugging off reports from organizations that indicate there is an effect on children” (Gamasutra).  On the other hand, the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning grantmaking initiative is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into projects, research, and institutions engaged with “how digital media are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life.  Answers are critical to education and other social institutions that must meet the needs of this and future generations” (MacArthur Foundation).  Even our very own Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group is a product of the University of Washington and the Simpson Center’s attempt to start asking and answering the above questions about video games.

James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Teaching and Learning, argues about the value of video games and simulations saying, “Children play games early in life to prepare themselves for real life.  It turns out that we all play games in our heads to prepare us for action and decision in the real world, games we make out of images, actions, feelings, and dialogue that come from our experiences in the world.”  (This hearkens back to the Keywords session on “Play.”)  Moreover, before we can simply turn to video games as educational panacea, Eric Zimmerman says that traditional education does not prepare students for and with “gaming literacy,” a critical attention to “systems, play, and design.”  With all of this in mind, then, our session will consider the following:

  • What can we learn from video games?  What makes video games educational?  What are the challenges, dangers, and limitations of video games?
  • What does a video game pedagogy look like?  How do you practice a video game pedagogy?
  • How do you teach a video game?  How do you teach with a video game?
  • How might we develop our own definition of “gaming literacy” or might “literacy” already be a faulty analogy?
  • What about edugames, serious games, non-serious games, and mainstream games?  What about game design and development?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions. Either way, come learn about these topics and issues at our discussion on Wednesday, April 20, 3:30-5:30 PM in CMU 202.

Keywords GIG and CGP Featured in UW’s Columns Magazine

March 14th, 2011

The current issue of University of Washington’s alumni magazine Columns is dedicated to all things “gaming” and includes a feature about the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group and the Critical Gaming Project:

“The Pedagogy of Gaming”
by Mark Cooper

This past fall, the University of Washington became the first institution in the nation to throw its money and support behind a project that focuses specifically on exploring the value of video games and what they tell us about ourselves.

Video games may seem like a strange subject for scholarly research. But the fact is—from a quick hand of Texas Hold ’em on a mobile device to Scrabble on Facebook—Americans everywhere are playing them. The sheer prevalence of video games—whose sales are rapidly outpacing global cinema and music sales, statistics show—is evidence of their growing importance. But what does it mean to play a video game?

To answer this question, a half-dozen Humanities graduate students from the College of Arts and Sciences formed the Keywords for Video Games Studies group. But right away, this group realized that the vocabulary used to talk about play, expression and experience doesn’t satisfactorily describe the unique effects of digital media. So, armed with a grant from the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities, the research group decided its first action should be to host a series of workshops to measure old words against a new art form. The workshops are taking on six keyword concepts: play, immersion/interactivity, avatar, power/control, pedagogy and gamer.

Full text here: http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns-magazine/march-2011/features/pedagogy/

(A special thanks to Mark Cooper for taking the time and showing interest in the Keywords Group/CGP!)

Not Something You Can Control | Keywords GIG Follow-up

February 23rd, 2011

Another great Keywords for Video Game Studies session. Our topic last week was “POWER/CONTROL” and we touched on a wide variety of conversations under that broad heading.

The session began with the trailer for “Gamer,” a movie about video games played with live avatars. The movie highlights tensions between having control over technology and being subject to power in the form of socio-political structures. We discussed how the movie fails to confront this tension because it characterizes “control” in terms of an opposition between the technological and the human. In the end, the film echos a logic of possessive individualism — Kable overcomes implanted technologies to reclaim control of his body through shear determination — that proceeds and succeeds despite the fact that, as head of the Humanz hacker syndicate warns us, the power structure in play “is not something you can control.”

Kable’s struggle to become a whole human exemplified the recurring concern about losing control to new technologies. Just as popular, however, is utopian excitement about their liberatory capacities, or gaining control through new technologies. Early conversations about the social impact of the Internet and hypertext for example. Gaming as well had a period in which freedom of movement in game was read as an expression of freedom in “real life.” Here we had a brief discussion of the technological limitations that undermine or complicate what it means to “control” digital media.

Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

We played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for a few minutes as we noted the ways in which the apparent freedom with which we move through the virtual environment is structured by the affordances of the game’s design. We also noted the constraints put on our “free play” by the authored representation of the game’s characters and the real world identity positions manifesting themselves in the virtual world as cybertypes. This lead on to a broad-ranging conversation about Alex Galloway’s discussion of gaming and algorithmic culture and his suggestion that even games with seemingly benevolent intentions like Darfur is Dying still participate today’s digitally-enabled control society.

Screenshot illustrating a glitching maneuver

From the political implications of protocol, we moved on, like Galloway himself, to discussing exploits. Again our conversation was wide-ranging touching on hacking, glitching, cheats, countergaming, and non-gamic uses of game technology like speedruns and machinima. The point was made early on that because these practices are all permitted and enabled by the protocological nature of digital media, they are much more about social than technological. This was exemplified by the inconsistent and unpredictable status in gamer culture of different “cheats.” Where some cheats demonstrate expert knowledge and get taken up as elite gameplay, others are almost universally deplored. Cheats, mods, exploits, and so on are in a sense a kind of meta-gaming, however the complexities of “gaming capitol” suggest there is much more going on than digital formalism.

As we look forward to our next session on “PEDAGOGY” we will certainly have a great deal to discuss. Much enthusiasm for games as educational devices focuses on interactivity as a vehicle to “empower” players to conduct their own learning experiences. Last week’s discussion, however, demonstrates how complicated that proposition can be. The apparent “control” games grant players is mediated by a variety of factors from game design to socio-political context. Just how those mediating factors play into gaming and pedagogy will be a question for next session. Until then, we hope to keep our conversation about power and control in digital gaming going here.

“POWER/CONTROL” | Keywords GIG Session

February 9th, 2011

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) second event of the Winter Quarter is on Wednesday, February 16, 3:30-5:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our third public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming terms “Power/Control.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

The format for the reading group/workshop is simple: read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

  • Alexander Galloway, “Allegories of Control,” Gaming
  • McKenzie Wark, “Analog (on Katamari Damacy)”
  • Constance Steinkeuhler, “The Mangle of Play”
  • Mia Consalvo, “Introduction,” Cheating

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve (held by the Keywords CHID 496 class).  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:

What to Discuss

In the 2008 gamer documentary Second Skin, a World of Warcraft player says, “…an MMO is a world within a world.   It’s a completely different set of rules, you’re a completely different person while you’re there, just to have that kind of freedom, to be able to get away with it and not have anybody question you makes it a world unto itself.”  It is this notion that video games offer gamers control, power, and worth that our Keywords session wants to interrogate.  For many gamers, playing games like World of Warcraft or Madden NFL or Call of Duty is part escape, part adventure, and part self-actualization where players and their avatars feel empowered and important and resource full.  Nick Yee, online game researcher and founder of The Daedalus Project, says in the above documentary, “A lot of players have what they perceive as dead end jobs…and they log on to these worlds and suddenly they’re someone with power.”

How do video games allow us to think about power and control?  A quick cross section of games highlights an incredible array of rhetoric that exhorts a player’s ability to be someone powerful, who can alter and affect the world, with choice and agency.  But do players really exert control and power?  Might we believe ludo-utopian arguments like those of Kevin Parker’s “Free Play,” which argues that video games take “power from authors — to break rules, control pace, and manage plots — and gives to players a more coherent world of places, people, and things. The product is more toy than movie, more sandbox than story.  Video games are evolving into a grand anti-authoritarian laboratory.”  Our session hopes to raise questions about the way “power” and “control” get defined by game narratives, game mechanics, players and player communities, and the industry at large.

  • In what ways do games offer freedom, flexibility, and choice?
  • In what ways do games limit players and play?  How do games hide or mediate these limits?
  • How does in-game omnipotence translate to or critically reveal the way power and control work in- and out-of-game?  How might games reveal the “informatic” or “protocological” shifts in our culture?
  • Do rules matter?  What is the difference between design intent and playing against the game?
  • How do game mods or cheats, fandom or copy protection, and game companies themselves configure or challenge definitions of power and control?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions.  Either way, come be a part of our discussion Wednesday, February 16, 3:30-5:30 in CMU 202.

CFP: Keywords “GAMER” Colloquium, May 21, University of Washington

February 7th, 2011

CALL FOR PARTICIPANTS

“GAMER”
Keywords for Video Game Studies Colloquium
Saturday, May 21, 2011
9 AM to 4 PM
Communication 202
University of Washington, Seattle

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group (GIG) at the University of Washington invites game scholars, artists, designers, developers, and enthusiasts to participate in our one-day colloquium on critical gaming.  The colloquium, broadly themed by the keyword “gamer,” is the capstone event to our year-long series of workshop sessions on “play,” “immersion/interactivity,” “avatar,” “power/control,” and “pedagogy” and hopes to provide a space for individuals and groups to present their work, to discuss and collaborate on what it means to study or make digital games, to network, and to play games.

In “Growing Up Gamer,” researcher and designer Jane McGonigal says, “We cherish the time we’ve spent playing games. We love what games give us the power to do.  We love who games give us the opportunity to become.  And with every additional generation that grows up playing games, there are more and more of us who see gaming as a way to have the best kinds of experiences, to make the best kinds of friendships and lifelong partnerships, to do the most amazing work, and to become the best possible version of ourselves.”  The Keywords group takes this optimism and now asks how, what, and why.

Our colloquium then invites brief presentations, demonstrations, or performances that engage (suggested but not limited to):

Video games and play/work
Video games and other media
Video games and academia
Video games and teaching
Video games and activism/politics
Video games and art/poetics/performance
Video games and fandom/community
Video games and design/development
Video games and capitalism
Video games and storytelling

Send a brief abstract or rationale (500 words or less) for your presentation to critgame@uw.edu by 5 PM on Friday, April 1, 2011.  Colloquium sessions will be roundtable, discussion format organized around short programs (6-8 quickfire presenters) or long programs (1-3 presenters or extended performance or demonstration).  Short program presentations should be less than 10 minutes to allow for question and answer and conversation.  These should not be conference paper style presentations, but rather provide introductions, provocations, or focused interventions into your work, your project, or your idea.  Long program presentations can be more fully developed game play walk-throughs, performances, or interactive demonstrations.  Please include along with your abstract the names, titles, affiliations or institutions of presenters, and your A/V requirements.

Participants will be notified of their acceptance by email by April 8, 2011.  Participants, if accepted, will need to arrange for travel, transportation, lodging, and equipment on their own.  Unfortunately, the Keywords group is unable to provide any funding for expenses.

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

Download the Call for Participants PDF.

“Me Player, You Avatar!” | Keywords GIG Follow-up

January 24th, 2011

Many thanks to those that made it to the third Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group session, which focused on the slippery term “avatar.”  Because the term now serves as an umbrella for a number of digital, textual, and representational formations, pinning down “what” an avatar is (or is not) became less useful than “how” does an avatar mediate a gaming experience or “why” might thinking about avatars help us explore and interrogate the intersections and overlaps of video games and culture.

The conversation opened with discussion about creating an avatar, about role-playing (or not) as your avatar, about customization (the fun or perils of being able to do too much, see video below on Eve Online), and about how certain avatar design choices can communicate or signal more than just appearance (see Natascha Karlova’s guest blog post on the work being done by the UW’s Virtual Information Behavior Environment (VIBE) team):

The discussion identified an important tension between digital games or environments that allowed avatar selection and customization (and to what extent that customizability afforded the player) and games that required players to play a single or set group of avatars, which led to thinking about identification with avatars and avatars as extensions or prostheses of the self, particularly in the different contexts of single-player, first-person, and massively-multiplayer games.  Does a game invite identification?  How does identification affected game play and game mechanics?  What happens if that identification is refused?  For example, in a first person game like Bioshock, the player never gets to see what “he” looks like in game (no reflection, no body, only the FPS hands and voice) but does that mean the game fails at creating that identification?  The challenge here was, for lack of a better phrase, to analyze how serious to take the relationship between player and avatar, between avatar-to-avatar, and the intentions and expectations of the game.  World of Warcraft and Second Life became touchstones for the kinds of avatars available, the choices made by players, and the range of “identity tourism” (referencing Lisa Nakamura) allowed by avatars:

Concerns about race, gender, sexuality, and other cultural logics were then raised.  In particular, for example, in the shorthanding of “real world” race in the ostensibly fantasy world of World of Warcraft.  Or, as Alexander Galloway once posed, “[T]he world is still waiting for an explanation for why World of Warcraft’s troll race speaks with a Jamaican accent” (“Starcraft” 94).  Or, for instance, as discussed by Bonnie Nardi in her chapter on “Gender” in My Life as a Night Elf Priest, the overwhelming problem of gendered (or sexist) attitudes toward women players, female avatars, and the “boys’ tree house” or “locker room” spaces of game play and game chat.

The session concluded with Raph Koster’s “A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars.”  In particular, the discussion focused on the issue of who “owns” the avatar, of gaming companies and end-user license agreements, of intellectual and emotional property, and the labor involved in creating, playing, leveling-up a character.

Overall, the discussion was rich and ranging.  The central threads that came out of the conversation, the readings, and the sample games focused on:

  • avatar creation, customization, persona and personality, and identification
  • the distinctions between window dressing and whether avatars affect game play or game mechanics (e.g. RPG race/class bonuses and penalties)
  • avatar “bodies” matter
  • context of play (e.g. for business in Second Life or team play or single player)
  • protection and persistence (or not) of avatars

Once again, thanks to everyone for your continued support, contribution, and insights.  We look forward to the next Keyword session on “Power/Control” on Wednesday, February 16, 3:30 PM, in Communication 202.

EVENT: “The Life and Death of Digital Creatures,” 1/21, 4 PM, CMU 120

January 19th, 2011

Given that the last Keywords session was on “avatars,” this might be of interest to folks:

Kristen Whissel
Film and Media
University of California, Berkeley

Friday, January 21, 2011
4:00 pm
Communications 120

The Life and Death of Digital Creatures

Since the release of Jurassic Park in 1993, digital creatures have become the most visible, spectacular signs of the incursion of computer-generated images into the domain of popular live-action cinema.  While some have been brought to life chiefly through digital processes, many are hybrid creatures realized through a combination of digital visual and analog special effects that also include prosthetics, maquettes, and animatronics.  The analog-digital hybridity of many artificial creatures extends to the dialectic between the material and the code so crucial to the motion and performance capture techniques that combine human performance with digital animation to create lifelike Gollums, Kongs, and Na’vi. To make such creatures compelling and credible, animators, directors, effects artists, and actors must work in concert to convert the dead, inanimate matter of analog special effects into animated, pulsing life and transform the immaterial information of digital visual effects into a compellingly embodied diegetic presence.  Hence films featuring digital creatures must overcome the ontological differences between live-action actors, inorganic binary code, and inanimate substances to create a range of characters and life forms that appear to be equally alive and animate—especially when audiences will arrive at the cinema knowing such creatures are not “real.”

Rather than discuss such creatures in terms of their “perceptual realism” or photorealism, this lecture will analyze the way the analog special effects technologies and new digital technologies, along with a set of surprisingly consistent textual strategies, have been used to transform material and code into compelling “vital figures” that appear to mediate the line separating life from death in the films in which they appear.

Kristen Whissel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on early American cinema and the digital turn in contemporary cinema. Her articles have been published in Cinema Journal, Screen, Film Quarterly, and Camera Obscura. Her book, Picturing American Modernity: Traffic, Technology and the Silent American Cinema (2008) won honorable mention for the Katherine Singer Kovacs Book Award. Her latest book project is titled Digital Effects Cinema.

Presented by the Moving Images Research Group, sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

“AVATAR” | Keywords GIG Session

January 16th, 2011

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) first event of the Winter Quarter is on Wednesday, January 19, 3:30-5:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our third public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming term “Avatar.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

Those who came to the previous sessions on “PLAY” and “IMMERSION/INTERACTIVITY” can expect a similar format.  Read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

  • Lisa Nakamura, “Cyberrace,” PMLA
  • Bonnie Nardi, “Gender,” Ch. 8 of My Life as a Night Elf Priest
  • Raph Koster “A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars
  • Maureen McHugh, “Virtual Love” & “A Coney Island of the Mind”

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve (held by the Keywords CHID 496 class).  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:
World of Warcraft (See character creation videos like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuwC8zoNELU and avatar dances like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=066_q4DIeqk)
Second Life (see the Second Life trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OTjANCXS6A)
Nintendo Wii’s Miis
XBox LIVE’s Avatars

What to Discuss

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original meaning of “avatar” as “the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form” from the Sanskrit avatāra meaning “descent.”  More recently, with the advent of computers, the term means “a graphical representation of a person or character in a computer-generated environment, esp. one which represents a user in an interactive game or other setting, and which can move about in its surroundings and interact with other characters.”  The Wikipedia page on “avatars” extends the definition to include “a two-dimensional icon (picture) used on Internet forums and other communities.  It can also refer to a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs [Multi-User Dungeons].  It is an object representing the user.  The term ‘avatar’ can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user.”  Ironically, the literal, physical sense of “incarnation” is lost when translated to digital games.  However, the relationship between user and avatar, player and representation still retains traces of and connection to embodiment and marks the tensions and troubles over digital disembodiment.

For example, Julian Dibbell’s oft cited “A Rape In Cyberspace” explores the “dissonant gap” between users and their digital incarnations.  ”A Rape in Cyberspace” is the account of a text-based, chat-based, online, social world called LambdaMOO and an incident where one user/avatar assaults and attacks other users/avatars.  Given that LambdaMOO is only text, only the scroll of descriptions and narrations and that “no bodies touched” in the online assault, what happens when a virtual world produces “a lucid illusion of presence,” a convincingly ambivalent experience that is “neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but nonetheless profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally true?”  Step forward a few years to the advent of graphical representations of players (and computer characters) and the issues and concerns are compounded by the visual and by increasingly sophisticated sound, voice, and animation technologies.  The resonances and dissonances between player and avatar continue to confound and complicate notions of identity, identification, interactivity, narrative, and action.  On the one hand, avatars are dress up fantasy, a techno-utopian call to be anything you want to be, an extension or rarification of the self.  Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design and lead designer of Ultima Online, and creative director of Star Wars Galaxies, argues this side in his polemical “A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars” saying avatars are “the manifestation of actual people in an online medium, and that their utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions should be considered to be as valid as the utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions of people in any other forum, venue, location, or space.”  On the other hand, avatars reflect and further render cultural norms, stereotypes, and logics, from “identity tourism” to digital blackface.  Lisa Nakamura, who coined the term “cybertypes” to demonstrate how racial, gendered, and sexualized stereotypes and norms are ported from “real life” into “virtual life,” argues recently in PMLA that technologies like digital games “incessantly [recruit] its users to generate content in the form of profiles, avatars, favorites, comments, pictures, wiki postings, and blog entries.  Cyberrace has gone the way of the Cybershot, cybercommuting, and cyberspace, and for much the same reason: racialization has become a digital process, just as visual-imaging practices, labor, and social discourse have.”

Clearly there is a range of experiences, performances, problems, and possibilities when unpacking the term “avatar.”  How might we use these ideas and concerns as jumping off point to think about the mediating forms and functions of video game avatars?

  • How might we interrogate avatars as extensions, prostheses of the player(s)?
  • Are avatars just fantasy and window dressing, immune to social, cultural, and “real life” critiques and analyses?  What happens in the leaky intertwingling of VR and RL?
  • What happens to race, gender, sexuality, and identity/embodiment when routed through avatars?
  • How do avatars function diegetically and non-diegetically?  How do they affect and mediate point of view, action, and identification?
  • What about non-player avatars?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions. Either way, immerse yourself in these topics then come interact in our discussion Wednesday, January 19, 3:30-5:30 PM in Communication (CMU) 202.

Much Ado About No Controller, Or, Further Meditations on Immersion/Interactivity

December 30th, 2010

A few months ago, there was buzz about the arrival of Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox and the revolution in gaming the controller-free technology would herald. (Now after its debut to some mixed reviews, the Kinect is still lauded as one of the most innovated gadgets of the year, including the much shared story about the Kinect and an autistic child, and people are already trying to figure out ways to augment and hack and subvert the tech.) I want to extend my earlier thoughts about controller-free gaming and propose a handful more points, particularly drawing my own experiences using the system as well as connecting (pun not intended) the liberatory rhetoric of this new “gestural gaming” (a lovely metaphor for what its currently worth) to curious and nettling resonances with things like the immersive fallacy, full body scanning, fat shaming, net neutrality, and homeland security and surveillance.

“Xbox, Dashboard!”

Much like something out of one of the many Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes featuring something afoot, awry, or astonishing about the ship’s holodeck–the fully immersive, interactive, and simulation “chamber,” often used for entertaining “holonovels” or technical simulations, the Xbox Kinect evokes the same kind of hopes and dreams of being able to transport yourself, to engage fully fledged simulation sensorium, to step into a fantasy. It also invokes the thrill and power of commanding and controlling the immersive technology with a voice, with a gesture. It is definitely a satisfying experience to talk to and in a sense handshake with and to be recognized by your Xbox. I am reminded in particular of the second season of ST:TNG in the episode entitled “Elementary, Dear Data” in which a holodeck simulation of a Sherlock Holmes story is augmented and the character of Professor Moriarty is given sentience. The holodeck Moriarty wakens to discover that he has power and control over the “simulation.” Moriarty’s first call for the holodeck arch (the interface, the main menu so to speak for the holodeck) is much like playing with the Kinect for the first time.

I wax trekker for the moment because much of the description of the Kinect (and like devices) recalls for me Janet Murray‘s important Hamlet on the Holodeck, which is technoutopian about the ability for computers to provide a full and robust narrative experience. The metaphor of Hamlet on the holodeck is the same metaphor of the user and the kinect: it’s all about immersion and interaction. And as the last Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group meeting tried to wrestle with, the problem with video game immersion is that it is a necessary fiction (as outlined by Salen and Zimmerman”:

The immersive fallacy is the idea that the pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality. According to the immersive fallacy, this reality is so complete that ideally the frame falls away so that the player truly believes that he or she is part of an imagined world” (450-451).

As I said in my previous post about the Kinect, the problem here is that all of the packaging for Kinect-like technologies produce this very fallacy. The controller-free (which is more accurate than “hands-free”) technology is supposed to plunge you into the gaming experience and the simulated world even as the very same technology constantly reminds you that you are playing a game and that your body is the controller.

One of the central problems with the Kinect is purely material: do you have enough room to set up the system? The Kinect’s all-seeing-eye requires a focal length of at least six feet, though optimally about eight or nine feet, and at least a footprint of three or four square feet to boogie (more if you’re playing multiplayer). In other words, unless your playspace is some palatial Kinect-ready room (see above “tech sensitivity map” video), using the system effectively is challenging. If you are too close, if you are too far, if there is too much clutter (furniture and other people), the Kinect chastises you for not completely upending your living space just for its digital needs. In other words, the technology keeps telling you that you’re not in the frame, that you’re coloring outside of the lines. (The target audience here is clearly a user of some affluence with square footage to spare. It would be interesting to track not only who can afford to buy the system and its games, to support its internet conection, but also who has the necessary space to make it work.)

Granted, as I was playing games like Kinect Adventures or Kinect Sports or Harmonix’s Dance Central, there was fun to be had and some of the affordances of the Kinect are promising, particularly when “natural” gesture and game control and gamic action align. For example, I was pleasantly surprised by the way the Kinect did track my movements in Dance Central, that what I was doing and what I was expected to do matched up. If you watch the sample video below (not me), you can see a player trying one of the hardest dances. Note that the game shows you what it “sees” in the small picture-in-picture that looks in part like an infrared cam:

Dance Central: Lady GaGa Gameplay. Watch more top selected videos about: Xbox 360, Harmonix Music Systems

Or consider the triumphant University of Southern California researcher’s hack of the Kinect in order to play World of Warcraft:

Watching this, I, too, want to be able to roam the wilds of Azeroth and fight monsters and cast spells with a gesture. However, both the Dance Central and the WoW examples do more than just show us the possibilities of the technology (not that gestural tech is somehow totally new: anyone remember The Clapper?), but here I want to look at where the technology once again reminds us of the “frame.” Apart from when the technology simply fails to recognize a proscribed gesture (jumping recognition seems to be a problem), the nature or choreography of the gesture is important to unpack.

First, for DC, I was immediately struck by the opening animations for the game and for each dance level. Characters, who serve as both instructors and oddly displaced avatars (are you supposed to be these avatars or are they dance-off adversaries?), open each sequence with a little bravado and sample dance moves (the cultural and racialized logics here are for another day). Some of these dancers show off some pretty mean moves, but when the game round beings, they immediately get locked into the programmed routine that you are supposed to follow. These routines are decidely cookie cutter, discrete, and mappable, which are at odds with the in-game characters’ expertise. The game’s catalog of combinable dance moves makes the machine behind the curtain apparent, particularly when the player is given a chance to “freestyle” in the middle of each song where you can do whatever you want (which then gets recorded and played back at hilarious speed after the round is done). The “freedom” to dance, to use your body as the controller is constrained by the game’s frame. The only times when dance is truly “free” is when you are not “playing” the game.

Second, in terms of the “controller-free” WoW, the constraints of the “freedom” provided by the Kinect are once again revealed by the limitations and arbitrariness of the gestures. To look around, the player gestures left or right. To move forward in the game, the player leans forward as if on a bike. To cast a spell, the player makes one of several arm movements, none of which are particularly “natural” for spellcasting. If the goal of immersion is to reach some sort of parity between actual movement and virtual action, then the WoW Kinect interface fails. The gestures, much like the DC dance moves, pull you out of the fiction of the game world because they remind you that you are playing a game and not actually casting a magic missile or executing a flawless pirouette. (Of course, these gestures can be refined and expanded, but short of the holodeck, controller-free gaming will always need the “frame.”)

Pankinecticon?

I was joking around the other week, after playing with a friend’s Kinect and watching another friend’s kids play Kinect Sports, that if I were a conspiracy-theory-paranoid sort, I would say that there would be soon amazing news of how Homeland Security officials nabbed some most-wanted criminal or would-be terrorist via data collected via the Kinect and Xbox Live network. I mean look at the numbers: as of November 2010, over 2.5 million Kinects were sold and that number continues to grow. These are gamers and households who have willingly invited what amounts to be surveillance technology (even if it is not ostensibly for that purpose) into their homes, put them in common room spaces, and provide friends and network the ability to see what they are playing, doing, showing. Couple these population cams with face recognition technologies and you have yourself the makings of a pankinecticon (cf. panopticon).

Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts aside, I do think it would be useful and critical to think about how the Kinect (and like technologies) are being absorbed and naturalized by the culture. In a culture that is constantly scuffling over the public/private (a totally different kind of immersive fallacy, I might add), here is some serious engineering, computer science, and biometrics packaged neatly as a “toy” or a “game.” (I am reminded of Donna Haraway’s caution in “A Cyborg Manifesto” that life has moved from “all work to all play–a deadly game.”) The challenges over traffic cameras and looking for faces during the Super Bowl and the recent brouhaha over full body scanners at the airport all point to an unsettled, even antagonistic relationship to being surveilled, to being digitized, and to being exposed. And whether or not the Kinect is leveraged to “spy” directly on the public is beside the point because the technology is already being used to accumulate all kinds of user data, which will be in the very least used to develop new games, new technologies, and new markets. It will be interesting to see how the Kinect and like systems will fit into these debates; I imagine they will fall in similar step to debates over online chat rooms and web cams and the ills of social networking (which might spill into debates about net usage and neutrality).  Sadly, though, there is definitely a certain segment of the culture that welcomes this surveillance in the name of “security” or in the face of some imminent “threat,” and perhaps this ready acceptance of biometric technology is part of that trend.

As I introduced in my earlier post I am mostly interested in how these technologies will further inculcate and entrench cultural understandings and expectations of “normal” bodies or how they will be used to unsettle and reimagine the body and the user. It is always a double edge. Even as players and pundits evince the possibilities of the Kinect (particularly for therapy or physical activity and for around “getting the family back into the living room), critics and frustrated consumers challenge its limitations and its normalizing logics, particularly around body height and size and disabilities. (I have a personal and perhaps apocryphal story about how Kinect developers refused to include eye-tracking capabilities that would have recognized and benefited severely disabled users.) How might these technologies further shore up the proper, improvable, individual body? How might the call for freedom of action and freedom of movement be also a call for a freedom of self, which is made available only to a select some?  And how might these “games” alongside these other body scanning machines be purposed to police these boundaries and outlines of the normal (i.e. not fat, not disabled, not brown, and not a would-be terrorist)?

Here then is an opportunity to test and think about the tolerances of the system and how these tolerances reinscribe the player as body as first and foremost a normal body: normal size, normal height, normal weight, normal shape, and normal ability. I am sure the developers would have used “average,” which is statistical euphemism for “normal.” Not only does the system require a normal body but also actively works to recuperate bodies back into normalcy: i.e. fitness, weight loss, physical activity. The battle of the bulge and the battle over (couch potato) bodies has only intensified because of controller-free gaming. The rhetoric tells you that there is now no excuse for being overweight since you can play video games and exercise at the same time. The booming fitness game business will be coupled with the capture and public sharing of fat shaming videos of players, a perfect recipe for the continued policing of bodies that fall outside of the normative pale (see above user-made video that is now featured on Comedy Central‘s website). After all, one of the central complaints about airport full-body scanning is that it makes people hyperaware of body shape, that people do not want to feel embarrassed or judged for their size in all sense of the word. (Of course normal can also mean other kinds of difference, like thinking about how the Kinect handles differences in race and appearance, and whether or not Kinect users, akin to Wii users, are taken seriously by “hardcore” gamers, e.g. Google “Kinect” and “queer” and much of the discussion about the Kinect is homophobic and pejorative.)

As I said above, it’s all double-edged. But I think as with anything new and ostensibly worthwhile, the challenge will be to not only push limits and explore possibilities but also imagine how the technology can be repurposed, recontextualized, and radicalized. Already there are folks–artists, children, doctors, poets, queers, and yes, gamers–trying to leave the immersive fallacy behind (or at least recognize its problems) and playing, thinking, and creating about more than just the status quo.

Upcoming Keywords for Video Game Studies Events

December 16th, 2010

The Keywords group would like to everyone who attended and participated in the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group sessions this past Autumn Quarter at UW.  The series and GIG have been an unprecedented success and the Keywords group would like to continue to foster critical awareness, discussion, and scholarship about video games.  Here are our upcoming events for Winter and Spring Quarters (a call for participation will be going out for the capstone, full-day colloquium in May):

Workshop and Colloquia Schedule, 2011
Time: 3:30-5:30 pm, except where noted
Location: Communications 202

Wednesday, January 19: “AVATAR”

Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design and lead designer of Ultima Online, and creative director of Star Wars Galaxies, argues in his polemical “A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars” that “avatars are the manifestation of actual people in an online medium, and that their utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions should be considered to be as valid as the utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions of people in any other forum, venue, location, or space.”  How might we use this provocation as jumping off point to think about the mediating forms and functions of video game avatars?  How might we interrogate avatars as extensions, prostheses of the player(s)?  Are avatars just fantasy and window dressing, immune to social, cultural, and “real life” critiques and analyses?  What happens in the leaky intertwingling of VR and RL?  We will read Koster’s “A Declaration,” as well as Lisa Nakamura’s “Cyberrace” and Bonnie A. Nardi’s anthropological account of gender in World of Warcraft.  Our gamic texts for this meeting will include World of Warcraft, Second Life, Nintendo Miis, and Xbox LIVE avatars.  We will also include two short stories by Maureen McHugh.

Wednesday, February 16: “POWER/CONTROL”

How do video games allow us to think about power and control?  In “Just Gaming,” Julian Stallabrass argues, “The distinctiveness of computer games lies in interaction…[it is] an environment in which the player’s actions have a direct, immediate consequence on the world depicted” (83).  A quick cross section of game play, packaging, and promotion highlights an incredible array of rhetoric that exhorts a player’s ability to be someone powerful, someone who can alter and affect the world, someone with choice and agency.  With the push of a button or a tilt of a joystick, something happens, things change, the world responds.  But do players really exert control and power?  Might we believe ludo-utopian arguments like those of Kevin Parker’s “Free Play,” which argues “as games shift from pre-rendered animation and simple behavior to physical modeling and advanced artificial intelligence, players find that this new realism further relaxes limits and expands gameplay.  It takes power from authors — to break rules, control pace, and manage plots — and gives to players a more coherent world of places, people, and things.  The product is more toy than movie, more sandbox than story. Video games are evolving into a grand anti-authoritarian laboratory.”  Our session hopes to raise questions about the way “power” and “control” get defined by game narratives, game mechanics, players and player communities, and the industry at large.  How does in-game omnipotence translate to or critically reveal the way power and control work out-of-game?  How do game mods, cheats, and exploits or machinima, griefing, and fandom or copy protection, intellectual property laws, and game companies themselves configure, maniuplate, or challenge definitions of power and control?  We will read Alexander Galloway’s “Allegories of Control,” McKenzie Wark’s essay on Katamari Damacy, Constance Steinkeuhler’s “The Mangle of Play,” and Mia Consalvo’s introduction to Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Video Games.  Our video game texts include the Civilization series and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.  We will also consider video game End User License Agreements (EULAs).

Wednesday, April 20: “PEDAGOGY”

Details forthcoming.

Saturday, May 21: “GAMER” (9:00 am-4:00 pm)

Colloquium details forthcoming.

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

Immersed in Keywords | Keywords GIG Follow-up

November 17th, 2010

The second Keywords GIG session is in the books. We want to thank everyone who came out and joined our lively discussion on Immersion and Interactivity. We especially would like to thank Dr. Lizbeth Goodman, director of the SmartLab, for attending our session and telling us a little about  her work, her colleagues and their work, and what they are cooking up over at UW Bothell’s Center for Serious Play.

The session began with a viewing of Peter Molyneaux’s presentation of Milo and Project Natal at the E3 2009, which brought our conversation immediately to the fundamental question, “what do we mean by ‘immersive’?” As Milo’s friend Claire, splashes around in a virtual pond, we took Janet Murray’s classic definition as a starting point and as Molyneaux blames the controller for getting in our way, we turned to Marie-Laure Ryan to differentiate immersion from interactivity.

Screenshot. Microsoft E3 2009 presentation, Lionhead Projet Natal video

"There Claire is. She's in Milo's world. She's in that pond" - Peter Molyneaux describing Claire's experience of immersion.

This lead into a discussion about the relationship between immersion and training. Immersion seems to require a lot of interactivity to be somewhat automated. We noted how the supposedly “natural” interface of Natal, released early this month as Kinect, disciplines its participants into expected and practiced actions.

At this point we had to make a distinction between interactivity and interface, which initiated a discussion of the assumptions the Kinect’s interface makes about its user’s interactive abilities, who the design excludes, and the kinds of embodiment it validates.  While acknowledging  the role of political economy in this design decision, we also recognized how the “natural” and “immersive” interface of motion controls are often pitched as making games “for everyone.”  The rhetoric of easy interactivity frequently accompanies so called “casual” games. This raised questions about whether Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” might be problematically normalizing. In particular we analyzed Jenova Chen’s charts and visualizations, which suggest a consolidation of gamer affect into a single pleasure-seeking trajectory with little capacity to register creative variations.

Jenova Chen's visual representation of the Flow Channel

Jenova Chen's visual representation of the Flow Channel

Here we attempted to make another distinction between immersion and engagement, remembering there still has to be something compelling about what a game asks its players to do. This gave way to a discussion of counter-gaming, machinima, and all the ways in which players engage with interactive media beyond a designer’s intentions. After all, interface and interactivity are about a set of affordances, as Johanna Drucker might have said, and new technologies open new possibilities for compelling and significant experiences. Talking about these affordances and what they allow “you” to do, we wondered to whom that “you” refers. We concluded, it is an educational address that presents possibilities for a communal or co-produced interaction, which tries to avoid making assumptions about “your” experience or the way “you” will play.

Thus, despite devoting a large portion of discussion  of problematic and worrisome trajectories of immersion and interactivity, the session ended with hope. Dr. Goodman showed us in the example of her colleagues and former students the exciting and important work that can be done when artists are teamed with engineers to develop projects from the ground up. We concluded, then, that our challenge as scholars, educators, and collaborators is to expand the prevailing technological imagination to see graphics, gameplay, narrative, platform and culture as all integrated and in this way rearticulate “immersion” and “interactivity” in ways that aren’t predicated on photorealism or one-to-one motion control.

It is through changing the technological imagination of and around these terms that will help us address the following:

  • How might we trouble the immersion/interactivity binary and/or conflation?
  • Where is player agency in these concepts? Where is the player’s embodiment in these concepts?
  • Given that the industry, in particular, insists on connecting these terms to video gaming, how might we define them and deploy them more usefully, critically, precisely?
  • Why do we tend to want to situate immersion/interactivity in “interface” or “usability” or “engagement” or “playability”?

Thanks from the Keywords GIG, Upcoming Events

November 12th, 2010

Thanks to everyone who helped organize, publicize, and participated in the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group.  Our first quarter events were a major success filling the room both times and drawing undergraduates, graduates, and faculty from across disciplines.  Our inaugural session on “PLAY” and our second session on “IMMERSION/INTERACTIVITY” fostered great conversation and thoughtful exploration of these key video game terms.  A special thanks to Dr. Lizbeth Goodman for her attendance and contributions to the discussion, and a special thanks to the Center for Serious Play at UW Bothell for helping arrange for Dr. Goodman’s visit.

The Keywords GIG’s working group sessions will continue next term; the Winter Quarter meetings are:

Wed, Jan. 19: “AVATAR”
Wed, Feb. 16: “POWER/CONTROL”

Continue to check the CGP blog in the meantime.  The Keywords group will keep the discussions going online.

“IMMERSION/INTERACTIVITY” | Keywords GIG Session

November 3rd, 2010

SCREENSHOT - flOwThe Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group (GIG) will continue on Wednesday, November 10, 3:30-5:30 PM, Communication 202 with our second public reading group/workshop on “Immersion/Interactivity.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to expect

Those who came to the “PLAY” session can expect a similar dynamic next week. Our goal is to get a bunch of people, from a variety of fields and all different points in their academic careers, who have an interest in gaming into the same room to tease out the issues and angles related to immersion and interactivity. There is no structure or agenda, just a forum for lively discussion.

What to read

As fodder for the session, we hope everyone can read the following essays:

  • Marie-Laure Ryan. “Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory”
  • Salen & Zimmerman, “The Immersive Fallacy” from Rules of Play
  • Jenova Chen, “Flow in Games (And Everything Else)”
  • Aarseth, “Introduction: Ergodic Literature” from Cybertexts

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve. If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:

What to discuss

Immersion and interactivity seemed like a perfect follow up to our previous session on “Play” and the conceptual legacy of Huizinga’s “magic circle,” for they seem to carry some of the same contradictions. Last time we talked about how Huizinga describes the magic circle as marking play off from everyday life, yet at the same time is trying to make the case for the centrality of play to the development of culture. It is apart from social life, yet drives it.

Likewise, the relationship between immersion and interactivity is more complex than is often assumed. Just this week, for example, in the momentous Supreme Court hearing, California made the common claim that “acting out” on-screen events in violent video games is “especially harmful to minors.” Conveniently left out of this argument — and it is always left out — is any explanation of how virtual-world interactions transition into real-world violence. Even though we have plenty of theories about active viewing and we were getting “lost” in books long before video gaming was even a thing, it is simply taken for granted that gaming’s immersive interactivity is inherently more influential than other media. No explanation of how or why, its just “more.” Thus, though “Immersion” and “Interactivity” are often paired together, frequently used interchangeably, and consistently cited as the defining characteristic of the video game medium, both concepts remain under theorized.

In broad terms, the “immersion” gets defined in one of two ways. First, there is the sense we commonly think of that Janet Murray describes in Hamlet on the Holodeck, as “the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air, that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus.” This is what we think about when we say we get “immersed” in the world of Bioshock‘s Rapture. The second version of immersion is closer to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi‘s concept of “flow” or single-minded focus. This is what we mean when we say we are immersed in Tetris. It has no world to imagine ourselves into, yet can be wholly absorbed by the experience.

Interactivity folds into these concepts in different ways. Marie-Laure Ryan argues that imaginative immersion has an antithetical relationship to interactivity, for awareness of the implementation apparatus, the controller, the HUD, the game itself, can interrupt our experience of “being there.” Salen and Zimmerman, on the other hand, refer to this as the “immersive fallacy,” the assumption that players “forget” they are interacting with a video game when they feel immersed in a virtual world. Instead, what is important to understand is how games are structured to give meaning to the kinds of “non-trivial effort” Espen Aarseth says constitute ergodic texts. Jenova Chen adapts Csikszentmahalyi’s theories of flow to chart the perfect coordination of challenge and player skill to channel this effort into a feeling of flow. And yet, it still seems something of our imaginative investment in fictional worlds, how that happens and what that means, is getting lost.

Like last time, here are some questions to get us going.

  • What is the relationship between immersion and interactivity?
  • What are the essential qualities of each? And how are they generated?
  • How has the explosion of gesture-based motion control systems influenced these discussions?
  • Where is player agency in these concepts? Are there political ramifications to consider?
  • How do these terms, and our culture’s insistence on connecting them to video gaming, shape our conversations about gaming?
  • What are the implications of reading games through these terms?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions. Either way, immerse yourself in these topics then come interact in our discussion Wednesday, November 10 3:30-5:30 in CMU 202.

Upcoming: “IMMERSION/INTERACTIVITY:” Keywords for Video Game Studies Graduate Interest Group, 11/10, 3:30 PM

November 1st, 2010

The next Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group meeting/workshop is coming up on Wednesday, November 10, 3:30-5:30 PM, in CMU 202.  The GIG meeting will focus on the terms “immersion/interactivity.”

In 2006, Nintendo introduced the Wii by promising “a new immersive playing experience” resulting from its revolutionary motion-control system.  Three years later, Microsoft’s Kinect eliminates the controller all together, claiming to offer “no barriers” between players and virtual environments.   The marketing of the motion-control revolution expresses the common assumption that immersion is a problem of interactivity: if the technology would just “get of your way” you would feel like you’re really there.  But is the relationship between immersion and interactivity really that simple?   If so, how could anyone get lost in as clunky an interface as a book?  Is it feasible to make the implementation media transparent?  Would it even be desirable to do so?  This second session of the Keywords for Video Gaming working group will look at the relationship between immersion and interactivity in the context of video game studies.   We will read Marie-Laure Ryan’s influential work defining immersion and interactivity as oppositional forces, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s concept of the immersive fallacy, Espen Aarseth’s ergodic literature, and Jenova Chen’s experiments with “flow” in games.   To demonstrate these theories, we will play with the Wii and Chen’s game, flOw, as well as discuss the meta-immersion masterpiece Psychonauts.

In addition, Dr. Lizbeth Goodman, the director and founder of the University of East London’s SMARTlab Digital Media Institute, will be a special guest and participant in the next Keywords meeting thanks to the University of Washington Bothell’s Center for Serious Play.  The Center for Serious Play is engaging in an exciting new collaboration with SMARTlab.  Through this relationship Dr. Lizbeth Goodman will be visiting UW Bothell campus on November 8 and 9 and UW Seattle campus on November 10.  Dr. Goodman is known as an expert in learning models for communities at risk and as an advocate of community-based ethical learning and teaching models using interactive tools and games to inspire and engage learners of all ages.  Dr. Goodman directs studies for a group of professional new media artists and technology developers from industry and the creative industry sectors.  SMARTlab’s customized live and online practice-based PhD program is noted as one of the world’s largest and most successful cross-disciplinary cohorts of higher
level researchers, grounded in community need and creative industry theory and practice.

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.  For more information, go to: https://depts.washington.edu/critgame/wordpress/keywords/

Keywords at Play | Keywords GIG Follow-up

October 17th, 2010

Reblogged on to my HASTAC page.

Progress toward writing skill, Sims3 (EA, 2009)

Sims3 character has almost completed a level up in writing. (EA, 2009)

The first GIG session is in the books and it was a HUGE success! We want to thank everyone who came to PLAY. We had a lively and diverse discussion and though we never expected to come away with a definition of “play,” we were able map some of the contours of the concept. Also, near the end we were getting into some pretty thought-provoking meta-play concepts that could really use some drawing out in future sessions.

So, I took some notes and I’ll try to briefly sketch the conversation. If I got something wrong or left out something important please place corrections and additions in the comments. Or, we can keep the conversation going.

The session openned discussing Huizinga’s Homo Ludens as we, like so many game scholars before us, turned to his theory of play to get a foothold on the concept. As we pointed out, however, contrary to popular conception, Huizinga’s version of “play” is not walled off from culture, but was pitched specifically against the regimentation of modern life as a fundamental element of culture that hyper-instrumentalization cannot account for.

We then got into a variety of margin cases trying to suss out the limits of what constitutes play. We talked about Farmville, LIMBO, and Flight Simulator as liminal cases and returned to gold-farming as the example par excellance of gaming that does not count as play.

The conversation about Farmville and resource management games led to a long discussion about feedback and gaming interfaces and what they have to say about the play element of digital games. We discussed Castronova and others who point out the centrality of visible, numerical “progress,” rewarding players for time invested and were reminded that feedback is a basic tenet of usability design. Mods for the World of Warcraft interface, for example, stream huge amounts of real-time data to players to the point where one might play without even looking at the 3D rendered world.

This gave way to a discussion of “mastery” or “expertise” and play and we gave a shout out in defense of difficulty. Yet, as gaming comes to be a model of efficiency monitoring of numerical/visual feedback, it becomes data management and cost-benefit analysis, pattern recognition, a deployment of rules that rewards efficiency over fancy, gaming the system, (There was a brief mention of the place of cheating in play, but that was put off for a later session.) , all of which would seem to suggest play having come full-circle on Huizinga. This brought us to the question of how to deploy the labor power of efficiency gaming and TEDtalks about how “gaming can make a better world.”

We carried this into a conversation about “play” as creativity and how creative play relates to strategic play. It was, here, I believe, the conversation took a decisive turn with the recognition that our efforts in defining play had been to some extent at cross purposes. On the one hand we had persisted in trying to define the parameters of play all the while retaining that an essential element was the player’s free choice to play. If the player’s agency in determining play is a core component, then the attempt to sketch and impose a model of play is meaningless for any definition would violate his fundamental assumption.

The question that follows, then, is why the investment in defining play? How has “play” been rhetorically constructed? To what extent has capital colonized “play” and sold it back to us? Rather than identifying play, might we be able to identify the conditions under which play can occur?

Those are the questions to which I hope we can return here or in future sessions because I think they are moving the conversation in really important directions. As the Schell talk at DICE and Priebatsch’s talk at TED indicate, the success of games like Farmville have people looking to figure out this sweet-spot where gaming becomes its own motivation and the feedback of progress-bars can be monetized for big profits. At the same time, there is a sense in which we, academics trying to describe Keywords for Video Game Studies, are involved in a similar endeavor, albeit with significantly less informatic data about what keeps people coming back to click cows. It would seem that the casual revolution, as Juul calls it, is a crucial moment for the definition of “play.” As we move on to our next session on Immersion and Interactivity and it seems inevitable we will continue to discuss where to draw the line between game world and real world, let’s build off our productive first discussion make a push for to “define” our Keywords so they still have some “play” in them.

“PLAY”: Keywords for Video Game Studies Graduate Interest Group

October 7th, 2010

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group (GIG) will kick off next week, Wednesday, October 13, 3:30-5:30 PM, Communication 202 with our first public reading group/workshop on “PLAY.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What Should You Expect?

Our inaugural meeting will bring together video game scholars, students, and enthusiasts for a roundtable discussion that will map the critical landmarks for a discussion of “play” as it pertains to the study of video gaming.  We do not expect to emerge from Wednesday’s session having settled the definition of “play,” as if that were possible, but, instead, to leave with a grasp of the avenues of inquiry, points of tension, and stakes bearing on such an endeavor.

The readings that will be covered are:

  • Huizinga, Homo Ludens (Ch. 1 & 12)
  • Caillois, “The Definition of Play”
  • Juul, “The Magic Circle and the Puzzle Piece”
  • Juul, “A Casual Revolution”

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve. If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:

Why “Play”?

We decide to open our GIG series with the keyword “play” because it calls us to question the very creation of video game group in the first place.  Play, obviously, is an important concept for any conversation about games and gaming. So, when video games started to attract attention from academics, those brave scholars looked for a theory of “play” on which to ground their approach. The two texts that became the touchstones in this context were Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games. Huizinga aligns play with ceremony and in doing so makes an argument for the play-drive, which amounts to something like competition, being a core component of all culture. Caillois, a former student of Huizenga, objects to the central position Huizinga attributes to competition, or agon, and so codifies several other categories and forms of play, thereby, expanding the definition several fold. Together, the pair is basically the Plato and Aristotle of game studies (if you don’t count Plato and Aristotle, that is).

Even so, both have been frequent subjects of critique in contemporary game studies. The reason is that each defined play as distinct from the business of everyday life. For Caillois, play is unproductive and for Huizinga, the transition of the playful into productive arenas, in the form of stock market gambling, professional sports, or even art with a message, was a herald of its decay. Both early theorists of play wanted to mark it off from the world of day-to-day concerns, separated by its own “magic circle.” For the early scholars of video gaming, however, this was unacceptable. Play became almost instantly a political problem as researchers wanted to understand the real world ramifications of what was going on in-game. Or, on the other hand, they wanted to use what transpired in-game to effect change out of game. In short, play was serious business. Though reactions to Huizinga and Caillois have been varied, as we shall see in the first Juul piece on the magic circle, video game studies have continued to operate in and around this tension between the whimsical and the productive. Even the name of so called “casual games,” the subject of Juul’s Casual Revolution, implies another strand of gaming we have been taking too seriously.

Our first GIG session positions itself in this fold, as the very premise of a studious attitude toward games would seem to contradict Huizinga and Caillois’ definitions. None the less, we shall attempt as serious study of play and hopefully even enjoy it. Our discussions will likely circulate around the relationship between leisure and work, game worlds and real worlds, and the casual and the hardcore. We will ask questions such as the following:

  • What makes a game playful?
  • Can play be serious?
  • Can we take play too seriously?
  • What happens when play starts to resemble work?
  • Is there such a thing as a “magic circle”?
  • What is at stake in a definition of “play”?
  • What is the state of play in contemporary culture?

New Course: CHID 496 I: “Keywords for Video Game Studies” (Autumn 2010)

September 30th, 2010

“Keywords for Video Game Studies” Focus Group
CHID 496 I
Autumn Quarter 2010
Edmond Chang & Timothy Welsh
https://depts.washington.edu/critgame/10a_chid496i/

IN 2000, HENRY JENKINS WROTE, “The time has come to take games seriously as an important new popular art shaping the aesthetic sensibility of the 21st century,” that video games do matter. But only within the last few years has the state of video game studies, either popularly or academically, found legitimacy and critical attention, pointedly the recent John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Digital Media & Learning Initiative, which “aims to determine how digital media are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life.” Given this recent proliferation of video games, playership of video games, video game technology, art and film inspired by video games, and scholarship on video games, the moment is ripe for interrogating this growing medium, art form, and cultural production and to produce a critical vocabulary for their analysis and discussion.

OUR FOCUS GROUP, as part of a continuing series on video games generated by the Critical Gaming Project at UW, will draw inspiration from Raymond William’s influential Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society and the new Keywords for American Cultural Studies book and website to identify and interrogate the key terms, the key moves, and the key players in video game studies. We will play a range of games alongside formal video game and cultural studies scholarship in order to investigate keywords like: play, control, immersion, interactivity, identity, avatar, violence, casual, hardcore, race, gender, sexuality, nation, and economy.

THE COURSE will meet once a week for 2 hours to engage reading, guided discussion, analytical and reflective writing, and game play. This course coincides with the inauguration of the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities. Students will be required to attend two working group sessions in lieu of two, regular class periods. Students will be asked to participate in discussions both in class and online, write a review of a video game of their choice, and make a short in-class presentation.

Keywords for Video Game Studies Graduate Interest Group Launches, Named HASTAC Scholars

September 28th, 2010

Starting this fall quarter at the University of Washington (UW), a new graduate interest group (GIG) sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities will host a school-year long series of workshops and colloquia on video games.  The major players behind the Keywords for Video Game Studies working group consists of six graduate students representing four campus departments and grew out of the collective work of the Critical Gaming Project at UW, an informal community of undergraduates, grads, and faculty interested in playing, studying, and teaching games.  The Keywords participants are Edmond Chang (English), Timothy Welsh (English), Terry Schenold (English), Theresa Horstman (Education), Megan Bertelsen (Comparative Literature), and Michael Barthel (Communication).

“We recognized a need for a more formal space, an institutionally supported space for video game studies at UW,” says Edmond Chang, a key organizer of the Keywords group.  “Attention to video games as legitimate objects of study is growing, even as people are trying to figure out what that means.  Part of the goal of the GIG is to make video game studies more visible on campus, to show that there’s already a lot of interest and work in games going on, and to get people to network, collaborate, and keep doing what they do.”

Given the recent online brouhaha over film critic Roger Ebert’s controversial claim on his blog that video games could never be considered art, the Keywords group hopes to bring together interdisciplinary perspectives and scholarship on video games and video game culture, addressing things like the design of games, the analysis of games, and the pedagogical and political potential of games. “I am interested in the theoretical and conceptual analysis of video games.  I think this type of analysis can be used across a variety of fields.  For example, it would be great if a student could major in education with an emphasis in video games or even vice versa,” Theresa Horstman says.  “I’ve played video games for a long time, and I’m amazed at how efficiently video games teach players how to play.  As an instructional designer, it seems like there is an enormous opportunity to design virtual environments for learning but in order to do so it requires researching games from a variety of perspectives.”

The Keywords group is one of three GIGs funded by the Simpson Center this year, each receiving up to $1,000 for events and workshops.  The Keywords group hopes to highlight the central questions, key terms, and most importantly, the resonances and dissonances in video game debates and theories in the contexts of and alongside other areas of study.  “My early love of literature, writing, and roleplaying games like D&D found a tandem focus in computer games. As I grew older I started to reflect on why those experiences were so meaningful to me and wanted to understand how they shaped my habits, imagination, and view of life. Studying video games is an extension of self-study in this way,” says Terry Schenold, who started the Critical Gaming Project at UW in 2007.  “Video games provide one of the most inclusive and historically relevant objects of inquiry in the humanities.”

In addition to funding the GIG, the Simpson Center has also nominated all six of the Keywords group as HASTAC Scholars for the 2010-11 year.  HASTAC or Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, is a consortium of scholars, artists, scientists, social scientists, and engineers from over a hundred institutions and organizations committed to collaboration, critical thinking, and creative uses of technology.  HASTAC Scholars are nominated by HASTAC members who are faculty or staff at institutions of higher education, and each scholar receives a small fellowship for their contribution, funded by their home institution.  This year, the Simpson Center wanted to nominate a cohort of Scholars formed around a focused line of inquiry and the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group seemed a perfect match.

The Keywords group will hold six reading group meetings and workshops, two each quarter, culminating in a one-day colloquium at the end of spring.  Workshops are organized around a key idea or concern and will draw on important video game scholarship and actual game play.  The first two events of the autumn quarter take as the starting points for analysis and discussion the keywords “Play” on October 13 and “Immersion/Interactivity” on November 10.  In addition, the GIG will produce and maintain a blog and discussion space, hosted and co-presented with the CGP, contribute as a collective to the HASTAC forums, an offer a two-credit focus group course through the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) department.  All of the group’s public events are free and open to students, faculty, staff, and the community of the UW.  For more information about the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group and for a calendar of events, visit their website at: https://depts.washington.edu/critgame/wordpress/keywords/

Download a PDF of the full press release.