Operation Supply Drop: A Charity Making A Difference Through Games

A quick one today about Operation Supply Drop, a charity organization that is changing the lives of veterans and currently serving men and women in arms.

Before I write anything I should note that Venturebeat has a great piece about how the charity is helping Veterans with life after service that you should read instead whatever I’m going to write here.

Still with me? Alright, I’ll give you a little information about the organization myself. OSD’s mission is pretty simple:  to “Make Fun Where There is None”. By providing games and entertainment to currently deployed men and women, the charity looks to make a difference in the lives of those that are activity trying to make a difference around the world. Giving these men and women video games is giving them an escape or diversion from what is often a lonely and hard situation. Games can brighten their days in countless ways, from giving them a piece of their regular lives back to connecting with friends and family from across the world. It’s pretty damn awesome what giving someone a video game can do.

OSD also does significant work for those who have returned from war:  the charity facilitates online and offline communities for veterans that have returned home to give them a network of friends and fellow veterans, creates networks for veterans seeking to get into the video game industry, provides financial support and scholarships for veterans to attend school for programming and game design, and more.  Pretty amazing stuff coming from people who first hand experienced how gaming changed their lives during deployment.

Organizations like OSD show that games be used as tools for social change. Everyday we’re finding out more utilities for gaming, ones that we wouldn’t had imagine years ago. Video games are truly augmenting our daily lives in more ways than ever before.

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How Riot Games Cut Down Online Harassment in League of Legends

Video game communities really are interesting microcosms; small societies that have their own ways of life and governance.  A major part of sociology is examining how social institutions(Religion, Government, Law Enforcement, Social Clubs, etc.) reproduce societal beliefs. Video games are a relatively new social institution, as for a long time their social components were reliant on other forms of society, such as the creation of social clubs or social ties with others. With the advent of the internet and online communities, video games have arose as a social institution of their own; a formative social structure that brings people together  and replicates what it means to be apart of society. For example, if a person had no outside knowledge of the world, video games may be able to give that person a sense of the morals and beliefs of the greater society.

Even games like Grand Theft Auto can teach about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in a society, as if you break the law in the game cops and bystanders will react to your actions. There’s morals and lessons to learn in about any game, but where sociology really finds its footing is in the online communities that have formed in and around specific games.

Why do I bring up all of this nonsense? It’s because the development staff over at Riot Games have created a governing system in their insanely popular game, League of Legends, that exemplifies this idea of video games as a social institution.  Jeffery Lin, a lead game designer for the team, wrote a really insightful piece  for Recode.net.

Let’s go over some of it.

But that led to a big question: How do you introduce structure and governance into a society that didn’t have one before? The answer wasn’t as simple as abolishing anonymity. Privacy has become increasingly important online as data becomes more widely available, and numerous studies have shown that anonymity is not the strongest cause of online toxicity. While anonymity can be a catalyst for online toxicity, we focused on the more powerful factor of whether or not there are consequences (both negative and positive) for behaviors.

The team had been seeing a problem of online harassment for sometime; problems of racism, sexism, and homophobia were among the community’s issues. To curve the amount of harassment, the team at Riot created something called the Tribunal System. The system effectively creates  case files for the community to view and judge whether they deem them acceptable or unacceptable. If an action is deemed unacceptable by the majority of members, then players will be given warnings and then an eventual ban if they persist.

As a result of these governance systems changing online cultural norms, incidences of homophobia, sexism and racism in League of Legends have fallen to a combined 2 percent of all games. Verbal abuse has dropped by more than 40 percent, and 91.6 percent of negative players change their act and never commit another offense after just one reported penalty.

That’s pretty remarkable, and a clear indicator that online communities can benefit from a form of organized structure. By putting it up to the majority of gamers, you’re probably not going to see bans given out for trivial things like gloating or leaving a game early.

However, the system isn’t just to penalize people, as there is also a system in place for rewarding gamers who effect the game positively.

In League of Legends, we’re now able to deliver feedback to players in near-real-time. Every single time a player “reports” another player in the game for a negative act, it informs the machine-learning system. Every time a player “honors” another player in the game for a positive act, it also trains the machine-learning system. As soon as we detect these behaviors in-game, we can deliver the appropriate consequence, whether it is a customized penalty or an incentive. Critically, players in the society are driving the decisions behind the machine-learning feedback system — their votes determine what is considered acceptable behavior in this online society.

I’m just going over what you can read in the article itself, but I think it’s important to point out how meaningful this is to the study of video games as social institutions.  Games can now have their own system of government, penal systems, and other facets of society that we probably would have never guessed would appear in a video games. They’re mirroring society, yes, but they’re also expanding and changing what it means to live in society. Video games have the unique ability to augment the parts of society that we deem  important or interesting; we can potentially create more dynamic and interesting societies than even our own.

Time’s “Everything You Know About Boys and Video Games Is Wrong”

A new Time’s piece is claiming that everything you know about boys and video games is wrong. I don’t know if exclusive knowledge on either subject is false, but you may as well throw away all of your beliefs about both boys and video games. Rosalind Wiseman, whose work you probably have experienced without even knowing it (Her book was the basis for the movie “Mean Girls” for example) explores how middle school and highschool boys view sexism in video games. Should we care? Is this study worth your time?  “Forget Everything You Know About Research Studies”

The interest in the subject matter began when she started noticing her students being annoyed by overly sexualized characters in their handheld games (Candy Crush 3 features some real bosomy candy bars). She specifically mentions “Game of War” which is an incredibly popular mobile game that has, as its mascot, Kate Upton dressed in a outfit very inappropriate for the battlefield. Thus, she decided to team with her research group to survey kids from across the country to get their perspective on sexism in the video game industry. She surveyed  more than 1,400 middle and high school students with a questionnaire that asked them to agree or disagree with certain statements relating to sexism and objectification of females in gaming. The results, she claims, will stun you (They probably wont).

To preface, I want talk about the presumption the article takes: it assumes that young boys are drawn to games that features women in scantily clad clothing and feature a male protagonist.  This assumption is an odd one, as teenagers and middle school students aren’t the target audience for games that feature these characters. Obviously puberty is difficult and young boys hormone are insane, but that doesn’t mean they want sexism or objectified women in all aspects of their lives. If anything,  I would argue that young men have more shame when it comes to characters being over sexed because they  feel embarrassed to play games with on-screen characters they don’t want their family seeing. Adults, on the other hand, could care or less, which is why they are the target audience for games with more explicit characters. As such, I don’t think a results that claim that boys are “more progressive” than we believe is a stunning new finding.

Terrible anecdote time: From my own personal experience, I wouldn’t have wanted to play or had games around that featured sexist characters.  For example when I was a teenager, I wasn’t particularly proud of playing Final Fantasy X-2 at points. It’s a perfectly harmless game that features the games heroines in ridiculous outfits, but otherwise it’s actually a pretty solid game. Being a fan of the original I naturally wanted to play the sequel, but was embarrassed at times because some of the silly and ridiculous scenarios and outfits the game would place the characters in. I also knew others who chose not to play the game as a result (Probably more so because it looks like a girls game, but regardless). FFX-2 is also a very low offending game, so I can’t imagine how others would feel with more explicit characters and games.

Nevertheless, back to the claims:

Boys believe female characters are treated too often as sex objects

47% of middle school boys agreed or strongly agreed, and 61% of high school boys agreed or strongly agreed. “If women are objectified like this it defeats the entire purpose of fighting,” Theo, an eighth-grader who loves playing Mortal Kombat, told us. “I would respect the [female] character more for having some dignity.”

This one is the that’s garnering the most debate. It’s a difficult thing asking middle-school children about objectification, as it’s a complex concept that a lot of them may not understand. That said, the results aren’t as overwhelmingly positive as piece seems to make them out to be.  If only 47% of middle schoolers and 61% of highschoolers agreed with the statement that women are being objectified it leaves a healthy portion of kids that either don’t agree or have no particular opinion on the matter.  I have other issues with the research method (or lack there of in terms of description), but we’ll come back to those issues.

Both boys and girls aren’t more likely to play a game based on the gender of the protagonist

70% of girls said it doesn’t matter and 78% of boys said it doesn’t matter. Interestingly, boys care less about playing as a male character as they age and girls care more about playing as a female one.

With more female characters in gaming becoming the norm, it’s positive to see this response.  I have a sneaking suspicion that this question was influenced by the wording however, as the results are almost too overwhelmingly in favor of not caring whether the protagonist is male of female. Likewise, I’ll discuss that a little more in a bit.

Girls play a variety of game genres

26% played first-person shooter games like Call of Duty and HALO, 36% played role-playing games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, and 17% played sports games like FIFA and Madden. (19% did not play games, compared to 3% of boys.)

This one if the most straightforward, and represents a lot of the data that the ESA reported on with their yearly findings.

The survey isn’t currently available and I haven’t been able to find a copy of it. If I had a better sense of what was asked I could make a more informed decision on this study, but as of right now it’s all conjecture. I bring up that I’m unsure of the answers, as the statements seem like they could have been led in some way. The way someone phrases a question can dramatically effect the way someone answers it. For example, a questionnaire that asks “Do you care if the video game protagonist is your same gender” is a radically different question than ” Who do you prefer to play as: Male, Female, or it doesn’t matter”. This isn’t to suggest that the results would be different, but if you’re going to make bold claims that claims everything we know is wrong, you should have a strong methodology to back up your research. This takes us to the surveys bigger issue:

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The gaming community is questioning some of the research methods, as it seems that a portion of the respondents were distributed via twitter and using Survey Monkey.  That right there is a red flag, as one’s twitter following is clearly not representative of a general population and  survey monkey in no way  prevents people from lying about their age to take the survey.  These two facts alone are grounds to throw the whole thing into question, as it’s just not proper science.

It’s a shame, as this is an interesting question and one that, with a proper methodology, could potentially yield similar results. If video Games  are to become an academic medium then we must adhere to tried and true forms of scientific methodology. Faux science isn’t going to cut it.

Games That Make a Difference: Never Alone

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Some games are rare. Not rare in a sense that they are hard to find or procure, but rare in the sense that they don’t fit the mold of the traditional video game. Never Alone  (Also known as Kishima Innitchuna) is a rare game. Thematically, the game is one that is seemingly a phenomenon.

Never Alone is the first game I’ve featured in the category that I’ve actually played completely through, primarily due to it being a game that is easily accessible to all gamers (It was even free with Playstation Plus for a limited time). I know I’m a little late on the subject matter, as the game has been out for over a year, but even a year later it is a remarkable entity in gaming history. Gameplay wise, it’s a decent enough game that features some beautiful visuals, but overall it isn’t something that’s going to revolutionize the genre. In fact, if you’re playing the game  alone it can actually be somewhat frustrating at points (Never Alone can be described as the preferred play method as well). This frustration lessens when you have someone next to you playing as the second character in the game, as it cuts down downtime between moving characters and makes the overall experience more enjoyable. Like many cooperative platformers, it requires a good amount of communication and team work to progress, but that’s not the reason why it’s a special game or anything out of the ordinary. Where the game really shines is its ability to be more than simply a passive experience of play: The game serves as an educational tool and means of cultural preservation.

Upper One Games, which identifies as the first indigenous-owned video game developer and publisher in US history, has created a game that stands as a cultural representation of a culture and people that  is increasingly disappearing and being dissolved. The game is very much so a cultural survey of the the Iñupiat, an Alaskian Native population, who are a people that are trying to adapt to the changes brought on by the advancement of technology. Why are we seeing traditions and cultural heritages disappear in this modern age? Historians and academics believe it’s a combination of globalization and cultural blending. One can imagine that a culture that has historically only relied on oral and written tradition as a means of passing on knowledge being opened up the the greater  world in a dramatic way, via the internet, would certainly effect the way people learn and view the world. While globalization comes with some amazing new opportunity, it can have the side-effect of dispersing certain ways of life and traditions because of the influence of this previously untapped outside world. Thus, certain cultural traditions are disappearing in a time in which even the number of individuals that may identify with these groups  are decreasing as well.  With this in mind, the staff at Upper One Games had the idea of creating a game that would serve as a way of preserving and passing on traditions and information about  the Iñupiat culture to both people inside their community and to the wider world, and with that Never Alone was created.

The game itself features the story of a young Alaskan native named Nuna who finds her village destroyed by a raging blizzard. With the aid of a white fox, Nuna goes on a journey to find the source of the blizzard in an attempt to put an end to it. During her journey, she travels through many myths and tales of the Iñupiat tradition, each with some beautifully rendered graphics that stay true to the culture’s history. The story comes alive as more than simply a game’s plot, as the developers  allow the myths and legends of the Inupiat people to become characters and experiences in the game. Even the harsh weather of the Alaskan winter becomes a character as the duo struggle to press on against it. Alone, these facets of the games create a detail world, but its in the game’s additional content that the developers connects and illuminate the world of Never Alone to the grander world outside.  They do so in 22 optional mini documentary pieces that unlock as the player progresses through the game.

These “cultural insights”  are presented on different facets of the rich culture of the Iñupiat people, delivered directly by members of the Iñupiat community.  In doing so, the story of  Nuna and her artic fox becomes more than just the story of a video game, it becomes a painted illustration of culture. This blend of game design, documentary, and storytelling allows for Never Alone to take on the form of modern day oral tradition in a unique and detailed way. These insights are an fun and interactive way of blending education and gaming, one that more developers  should consider implementing to expand the lore of their in-game worlds (real or not).

Never Alone shows that video games can be more than just a way to waste some time; they can be tools of education, a digital display of one’s cultural history, and a means of preserving traditions of the past. In creating Never Alone, Upper One games created a new form of oral history, one that has the potential to reach much grander audiences than ever before. Like generations before them, the team and community behind Never Alone has created a historical artifact for generations to come to experience. Judging by the success of the game and it’s subsequent DLC, it seems that Never Alone has succeeded in its mission: The world is now much more aware of the  Iñupiat people and its community. Video games can be more than what we previously imagined and we’re only beginning to see how they can be utilize to expand our experience.

Never Alone is available on all Major Platforms including PS4, X1, Wii U, and Steam. If it sounds like something you’d might want to try, I’d recommend giving it a go; your gaming time will be well spent.

Do you have a game you think has historical or social importance? Let me know! I’d love to explore some more games.