Vice’s “The Invisible People: Why Asians Need to Be Better Represented in Video Games”

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Vice News posted an article by Khai Trung Le entitled “The Invisible People: Why Asians Need to Be Better Represented in Video Games” that discusses the the lack or representation and misrepresentation of Asians in video games. It’s an interesting subject that often doesn’t get brought up in the community all that often. Before we discuss the article, here are some important tidbits from the article:

The issue of representation is perhaps more difficult to confront because Asians have always occupied a significant presence in games history, culture, and production, creating the assumption of a non-issue. China, Japan, and South Korea are strong markets for video games with their own idiosyncrasies, studios and market influence, and are certainly as responsible for propagating these tropes as Western developers and publishers. Nor do Asian men experience the same career barriers within the tech sector and generally are not currently under the extremities of harassment and hate felt by others: not under threat of deportation or assumptions of terrorist sympathies, nor under fear of trigger-happy law enforcement. Fortunately, there has been no organized social-media movement against Asians—although some of the coarser language certainly focused on ethnicity—but rather a continuous disregard.

Nevertheless, 49 percent of Asian American respondents to a 2015 Nielsen survey “strongly disagreed” with the statement of “all races have ample representation/inclusion in video game characters.” This is more than twice as high as Hispanic and African American respondents, and similarly more than twice as high than women that “strongly disagreed” with the same statement toward gender.

I think the reason representation in video games doesn’t often get brought up in regards to Asian communities is that there is a misconception that Asian characters are being well represented in video games, primarily due to Japanese characters having a good deal of representation in the medium. There in lies the issue; the terms Asian is such a broad term referring to such a vast number of cultures and people that one population within the umbrella term receiving representation in no way should trivialize other groups’ lack of representation. One Asian community does not represent all Asian communities, and nor should representation be looked at as a form of checking of groups.

The article is pretty articulate in regards to the problems of representation in gaming, but it should be noted that the article’s focus seems to be arguing more so for representation of Asian Americans within gaming, rather than Asian communities outside of the United States. Perhaps this division goes without saying, but the article doesn’t make the distinction which will perhaps lead viewers to extend his viewpoint to more communities than just Asian Americans. Regardless, representation within the Asian American community in general is a subject matter that extends to many forms of media and gaming is no different. As the author puts forward, we’re seeing some positive portrayals in recent games but a significant portion of Asian Americans feel that video games are underrepresenting or misrepresenting their communities. With more emerging game development communities forming in Asian countries like China and S.Korea, hopefully we’ll begin to see other Asian communities better represented within gaming as a whole. Similarly, American developers need to be more conscious of representing the entire American population within their game, which needs to include the various Asian American communities that call the United States home. More diverse characters with more diverse backgrounds mean for more interesting games.

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Pokemon Go: A Bizarre Social Experiment

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I don’t need to tell you that Pokemon Go released this week for IOS and Android in the U.S, you already know this because of the numerous grown adults who have stopped right in front of you while walking.  The game made headline and incredible numbers within hours of being released and it isn’t showing any signs of slowing. Popularity alone isn’t enough to be deemed noteworthy here on the Sociology of Video Games (Take that Overwatch!), but Pokemon Go is proving to be much more than just a game; it’s becoming a social experiment.

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For those unaware, Pokemon Go has users going out into the world looking for Pokemon in their communities. Certain Pokemon appear is specific areas, and the abundance and availability of Pokemon change depending on your location.The game also features Pokestops and Gyms, which are specific landmarks that earn new tasks, abilities, and items, and these locations are scattered throughout various designated spots in each community. Players choose between 1 of 3 teams and each team must work together to claim the most gyms by battling it out with other players. How this translate to the real world is that users are venturing out of their homes to find new Pokemon and new locations that offer them rewards (I.E the baptist church down the street is seeing more people than it has in 20 years). What has developed since its release is a slew of very sociologically interesting events. To name a few:

Pokemon Go Pub Crawls are popping up in many major U.S Cities. Get wasted why you look at your phone and stumble into unknown territory with strangers. What could go wrong?

Pokemon Go is bringing a lot of new business to locations deemed Pokestops. You know that Barbershop down the street you never had the guts to try? Now you can, because a game developer has deemed them worthy of Mons.

Robbers are using Pokemon Go to lure potential victims. Sorry, no Jynxs here…Just The Jinx

Pokemon Go is showing positive benefits for people with metal illness and depression. Who needs a therapy dog when you can have 150 different Pokemon to tend to.

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And those are just a start. What we’re seeing is that Pokemon Go is changing up many normal gaming conventions and creating a new way of play. People are interacting, bonding, cooperating, and working together in new and dynamic ways.It’s really quite something to observe, as one probably wouldn’t imagine that it would take a video game for people to venture further into the community and be opened to new locations and places. The developer, Niantic, ingeniously went about how they crafted their Pokemon world; Art installations, unique community landmarks, and lesser known locations make up many of the Pokestops and Gyms, spurring many players to discover new things in their local community. Similarly, the gym mechanic is making for something interesting partnerships between strangers, as taking over  a gym pretty much requires you to work with others in your group or else your Pokemon will be trounced by the opposing team.

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Pokemon, even if its first incarnation, has always been a social game and Pokemon Go is proving to be a brilliantly crafted take on the franchise’s social elements. I personally think Pokemon Go is a really unique app. I say app, because it’s honestly a little light on the actual game side. It’s more the social phenomenon that the game has created that keeps bringing me back to the app, checking to see if any new Pokemon are near me. Niantic has the basis of something amazing; if they improve upon the game’s features and add more of a built in social element (the ability to trade, battle near by trainers, etc) then Pokemon Go might be a near perfect social mobile adaptation of the Nintendo franchise. The developer seems to have plans to expand the game, and with their record breaking numbers it’s likely we’ll be hearing about Pokemon Go for years to come. We’ll keep watching this bizarre social experiment of catching fictional beasts out in our community and report back with any more sociologically interesting findings.

 

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Mafia III Will Utilize Racism as a Gameplay Mechanic

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The upcoming 2K game’s/Hanger 13’s “Mafia III” has some interesting gameplay elements that may change the way gamers think about racism in America. Set during the late 1960s, Mafia 3 places players in the role of Lincoln Clay, an African American Vietnam War veteran who is returning to his home after serving overseas. The game’s narrative has Clay seeking revenge on the Italian Mafia for the deaths of several of his childhood friends. To enact revenge, Clay will form his own mafia in the hopes of achieving revenge for his friends and earning himself a better life.

For anyone who has played a Mafia game in the past, this doesn’t sound far off from standard fare. However, this will be first time the series has introduced a character of color as the main protagonist for the game. For the developers, this isn’t a cosmetic change they wanted to make lightly: creating a character of color set in the world of  the 1960s means that the character would interact with the world differently than a white character. As a result, the developers decided to make how characters and area react to the protagonist’s skin color a part of the gameplay itself.

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Haden Blackman and Harms, creative director and lead writer of Mafia III respectively, shared some insight with IGN on how they’re making Mafia III reflect the turbulent times of the 1960s:

The behavior of pedestrians and NPCs – certainly not everywhere throughout the game, but in large sections of it – there are places where if Lincoln looks out of place and seems out of place, people will react to that…There are places you can go that just being there is an offence and will elicit a police response. ..We aren’t so naïve to think that a single game could cure racism, but if we can get the player to think, ‘Why am I being treated differently here than in other parts of town?’ then I think we’ve done something worthwhile.”

It’s an innovative design element, one that could potentially open some eyes to hardships that many people of color face in their every day lives. We’ll have to see how it’s fully implemented when Mafia 3 comes out in the fall, but it’s great to see a developer be cognizant  enough to  realize that their characters and action have to reflect the world in which they are set. As Haden Blackman eludes to, if the game can change the way people think about privilege and make people even slightly more sympathetic to those who have to deal with everyday racism then the game will have accomplished something great.

Check out IGN’s piece on Mafia III

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Apple Rejects Game About War-Stricken Gaza, Citing it as a Non-Game

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Apple’s appstore has seen some backlash over their rejection of game about a girl in war-time Gaza looking for her family. They rejected the game on the grounds that it  doesn’t meet the criteria of a what constitutes a”game” for their games category, a seemingly arbitrary categorization on Apple’s part. Liyla and the Shadows of War, a independent title from developer Rasheed Abueideh, tells the story of a young Palestinian girls who is trying to rescue her family during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. In terms of gameplay, the game is a mix of puzzles and platforming with the player having to solve different puzzles to accomplish the game’s goal. The game expresses the grim realities of war and what people in war-stricken locations are faced with. If players make it to the end of the game they are given the actual numbers of how many people lost their lives during the conflict, as well as other facts about the conflict that express the nature of conflict.

The game, which has received some level of praise on the google playstore, was rejected this week by apple:

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I refer to the game as a game because it’s undeniably a game; anyone who sees or plays the game would immediately contend that it functions like a game, and yet Apple rejected it for their games category. This comes as a result of Apple’s very strict policy of what they consider a game, one that many believe to be outdated and backwards. It stems from the appstore not allowing for games that have controversial messages to be in their game category.

We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical App. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store. – Apple App store Guidelines

 

Liyla’s rejection likely comes from the game featuring the real life statistics in its conclusion, which is quite absurd given that it’s such a small part of the overall game. This isn’t the first time that the apple app store has rejected would be titles on similar grounds, as they also rejected the 2011 title “Sweatshop” because the game held a message about the grim realities of sweatshop work.  These rejections are indicators of a larger issue with Apple’s categorization of what constitutes a game, as rejecting a game merely because it has a controversial or political message has the potential to censor and withhold numerous worthy games from reaching an incredibly large audience. The line as to what dictates the content of what they allow on their appstore also seems tremendously arbitrary, as there are numerous games that straddle or even go over the conceivable line on the appstore. As video games become tools to convey social messages and educate others to real world issues and ideas, it’s unfortunate that Apple is acting as a behind-the-times gatekeeper to the general population of gamers. Video games are evolving to be more than just passive entertainment; more and more we’re seeing developers harness the power of the medium to instill real messages. If Apple can’t evolve their definition of  a game then maybe we need to rethink their platform as an avenue of play.

Luckily, Liyla and The Shadows of War can be played through the Google Play Store.

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An/Other: A Game That Simulates Everyday Racism

Video Game designer Jordan Sparks has created a game that simulates what it’s like to be black living in Toronto, Canada. The game “An/Other” is Spark’s attempt to demonstrate how racism is embedded in society through the interactive medium of video games. Local media outlet Torontoist has a great piece about what you can expect once booting up the game, but I’ll go ahead and mention some of its highlights.

The game places you in the first person perspective of a single day experience of a typical black person in Canada. The first experience players receive is a police officer  requesting for identification while walking to work. Throughout your experience, players will witness and come across many forms of racism, many of which are nuanced and exhibit more embedded forms of racism that lurk under the surface of many who may consider themselves a non-racist. Things like a NPC clutching her purse as you walk near her or other characters making sweeping generalizations of children of a different race strike at  the everyday occurrences that people of color experience.

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The game accompanies a 80 page long paper entitled “Seeing Through The Eyes of An/Other: Developing Games For Social Change” which argues that video games have the potential to teach valuable social lessons because of their more intimate and immersive nature. I could write a lengthy post about the paper itself, which echoes a lot of what many voices in the field are arguing about video games having the potential to ignite social change with the proper harnessing of their power, but I’ll instead just refer you over to the paper itself, which more eloquently and extensively puts anything I would say.

I highly suggest anyone and everyone try the game out, as well as read his paper. It’s games like this that really exemplify how video games can augment society and will change the way we learn about social issues. Sparks and his work is invaluable, as  voices like his are ones pushing the study of video games as more than just a form of entertainment. We need more voices, more research, and more games like An/Other.

 

 

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Nostalrius: Blizzard Shuts Down Popular Private Serve of the Original “Vanilla” World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft may be the most sociologically interesting game of all time because of the massive community the game has fostered in its 12 years of being active.  In those 12 years Blizzard has made some dramatic changes to the game, with new areas, races, and elements being added in with each update and expansion. While fans have been more or less positive about these expansions, recently a niche crowd of the WOW population grew nostalgic for the World of Warcraft of the past. Thus a private server named Nostalrius was created to give players an option to play the original, “vanilla”, World of Warcraft just as it was when it released in 2004.

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This form of game  duplication falls into a murky waters when it comes to piracy. As it stands, it’s impossible to play the original vanilla WOW on an official server. Blizzard, for obvious reasons, has a stake in pushing their newer versions of the game that feature updated elements and graphics. What the team behind Nostalrius did was provide fans with an option to experience ( or experience again) a very specific version of the game that will most likely never be released officially by the developers. While what the team did is technically piracy (they’re distributing a game they don’t own for free) they are distributing a game that, for all intensive purposes, is financially dead: Nostalrius isn’t charging clients for the product and neither is Blizzard. Legacy servers are not a new thing, several MMOs offer legacy servers that allow players to play the original versions of their games, but the majority of legacy servers are officially ran or sanctioned. With World of Warcraft being the most popular MMO of all time, it’s only natural that Nostalrius grew in popularity and eventually reached a client base of 150,000 users (  a mere fraction of WOW’s 5 million subscribers). Despite being a fan-made project not seeking any financial compensation for their product, Blizzard has sent the team a cease and desist letter to halt all distributing and running of the game.

The Nostalrius team will be shutting down their server on April 10th and active users are already preparing for the end of the game’s world: clients across the world are actively participating in pilgrimages across the game’s world as  symbolic measures to bring in the servers demise.  “We never saw our community as a threat for Blizzard.” said the team in their open letter to Blizzard offering the company their help in providing fans with an option for legacy servers.

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Cases like Nostalrius are particularly interesting in that they are instances in which a portion of a video game may simply no longer exist or be available to the general population. With video games slowing becoming more and more digital exclusive, certain games may become lost to time because the developers will no longer offer them or no longer have the means to offer them. In the case of WOW, fans came to Nostalrius because they were enthusiasts of something long-gone and fans of World of Warcraft as a whole. I’ve discussed these issues in the past, but it’s interesting to see the discussion come up around a very active game. Nostalrius and their community stark set on an in-game   pilgrimage to the apocalypse represents just how evolved and unique a video game community can become.. Some will revere the experience of playing the original game while other wills scoff and go back to the more updated version, but I do believe it’s an important thing to be given the opportunity to experience the game’s beginning. The in-game world of games like World of Warcraft are becoming more than just data online, they’re developing into shared experiences and worlds that hold sentimental value to those inhabiting them; when a online world ceases to exist it doesn’t simply disappear, it lives on in the memories and experiences of those who loved them. To a sociologists, we need to research and observe  how the advent of these digital worlds are effecting our social dimensions. If distant version of massive popular game can garner such a community, then certainly there is something more at work people merely playing a passive video game.

It is unfortunate that Blizzard will be forcing Nostalrius to shut down as it seems the server was only supplying fans with something Blizzard themselves are unwilling to offer. Perhaps one day Blizzard will head the advice of the team and provide fans with an official chance to experience the game’s beginnings. The story of Nostalrius reminds us to not take for granted the online games we love and play, because one they day they simply may not exist.

PCgamer’s piece on Nostalrius

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Block’Hood: Can a Video Game Change How We Design a City?

Releasing tomorrow as an early access title on Steam is Block’hood,  an isometric neighborhood-building simulator. The game gives players more than 80 types of blocks to create unique and ecological neighborhoods and promotes players to find the optimum solution to creating cost efficient, sustainable communities.

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“Block”, the project’s first incarnation, was developed inside The University of Southern California’s School of Architecture as a open-source game that thought to plan the Los Angeles of tomorrow. Now, as Block’Hood, the game is open to the public and  has expanded its reach to designing the communities of tomorrow using cost efficient and resource smart practices. The game offers various ways of play including a “research mode”, a mode that requires players to play with real world values in mind, and a challenge mode that gives player specific scenarios and resource allocation to solve a building dilemma. With a message of conservation and  forethought towards building communities, resources management in the game is key to building a healthy city, for cities and buildings that don’t receive proper resource allocation and design will begin to decay and crumble.

The game will also be a tool of research, as the developers will share player creation and findings with academic communities and publications to further develop a better understanding towards how we can create better communities. With Block’hood being used as a tool for the academic community to use and discuss, the game has the potential to be much more than just a simulator.

This probably sounds like a advertisement for a game that isn’t even out. I haven’t had the chance to give it a try, but it sounds like a unique tool for those who are interested in architecture and community planning. Video games have developed to a point in which they have the potential to serve similar practical implementations in specific industry as more specialized complex programs. I’m not suggesting games like Block’hood replace programs like AutoCad or any advanced programs, but it’s great to see video games being developed to give the general public a taste of what goes into an industry they may not be apart of. It sounds trivial, but the designers and creators of the communities of tomorrow are the gamers building vast worlds in games like Minecraft. If a game can harness that curiosity and give the player the educational tools to make smart and practical decisions, then our future may be all the more brighter for it.  Even for those of us who won’t be the next generation of designers or architects, games like Block’Hood promote a better understanding of how we as a community use valuable resources and the cost our creations take on our environment and homes.

For us sociologist, we can observe Block’hood as another facet of society that video games have built their way into. This augmentation of society through video games is what is at the heart of the sociology of video games, as the more ingrained the medium becomes in our society the more we need to evaluate video games as a social institution. How we use video games and let them evoke change in our society has remained to be seen it is full extent, but games like Block’Hood point towards the medium being used for the betterment of society.

At the very least, the game looks like a fun lego-like creator for adults…So it has that going for it.

You can read a piece about Block’hood’s development from an academic tool to video game here!

 

 

 

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