Summer Travels 2: HEVGA summer school, Sweden.

Continuing with an update about my games research related activities this summer, I wanted to share a little bit about my experience at the Higher Education Video Game Alliance  (HEVGA) summer school in Skövde, Sweden.

This was a three day workshop where games researchers from multiple countries came together to discuss current topics in the field, share on-going research, and collaborate over shared interests. I presented on a research proposal about bootleg consoles I’m starting to dive into and received some great feedback from participants and faculty. It was a terrific opportunity to meet scholars from around the world and create connections outside of my narrow academic lens.

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A brainstorming exercise to find collaborative ideas

It’s a rare opportunity to engage in a event like this, so I was incredibly honored to have the chance to participate in the summer workshop. Even just traveling abroad for video game related research is something I never would have thought i’d be doing some years ago. Hopefully HEVGA decides to hold the summer school next year and the event becomes an annual gathering of academics.

After the summer school I had the chance to spend a few days in Stockholm, and I took the opportunity to check out some game related activities

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One of my first stops was to NERDS video game bar, located in the area of Södermalm. Besides offering video game themed drinks, the bar offered the ability to rent out consoles and tvs for local play of classic titles like GoldenEye and Mario Kart 64. Having done research prior on physical gaming spaces, seeing how social engagement was key to the design of the bar was really fascinating. It was incredibly packed so I didn’t get a chance to play anything, but I did get to try one of the bar’s in-house beers.

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Also decided to check out one of Stockholm’s used game store, GameShop.Se. It was a really neat store that had consoles and games from multiple regions (US, PAL, Japan) and even some old cloning/bootleg devices. The shop owners were incredibly hospitable and overall the store seemed like a great stop for anyone in area looking for some retro titles.

What’s next? I’m hoping to update the blog more often and actually share some written work. Unfortunately academic publishing moves slower than blogging and it’s taken me awhile to actually pull together some research worth sharing, but things are in the pipeline. Overall this summer has been incredibly productive for creating new connections around game studies and for solidifying some ideas I’ve been working on.

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Summer Travels Part 1: Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, New York

I’ve been active doing video game related things this summer and thought it was finally time to sit down and share. I’ll be breaking this up into multiple post, so stay tuned for most posts in the near future.

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A Outside look at the Strong

This July I had the opportunity to conduct archival research at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, as  part of the Strong Research Fellowship. For those unaware of the this impressive museum,  The Strong is the largest museum dedicated to the act of play in the world and boasts multiple exhibits dedicated to video games and gaming. I was thoroughly impressed by the range of exhibits the museum offered, both those pertaining to video games and those more centered more broadly around the history of play. In particular, the Strong had an excellent exhibit on the history of Women in Games that was expansive and nuanced. With the Strong having broken ground in 2018 on a major expansion aimed to open in 2021 that will include a World Video Game Hall of Fame gallery and other immersive video game related exhibits, the future for the museum as a global archive and educator of play is bright.

As a part of the fellowship, I had access to the International Center for the History of Electronic Games’s impressive collection of documents, artifacts, and digital records pertaining to play. I came in interested in studying software and hardware cloning in the early history of video games (1972-1995), a subject that I have developed a fascination for this past year. Through the ICHEG’s archives, I was able to to play and see some devices that have become increasingly rare to find in working order, as well as diving into documents of gaming past that inform our current community. I’ll have more to share via the Strong’s Play Stuff Blog about the specific of my research findings in the near future, but I can’t express how grateful I am to have received the opportunity to do this form of archival research by the staff at the Strong.

My next post will share some pictures and experiences from the Higher Education Video Game Alliance’s (HEVGA) first Summer School that took place in Skövde, Sweden.

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Book Review: Coming of Age in Second Life by Tom Boellstorff

I’m a few years late with this, but I recently had the chance to read Coming of Age In Second Life by Tom Boellstorff, an anthropological ethnography of the Massive Multiplayer Online World Second Life. I know this might be an odd book to review, given that it’s nearly 10 years old now and Second Life isn’t quite the juggernaut in the MMO scene that it once was, but the book provides valuable insight for social researcher looking to do research in online worlds.  I thought I’d share my opinion about the book so that others could check it out.

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First published in 2008, Coming of Age in Second Life is part proof of concept and part by- the-books ethnography of a digital world. With new virtual worlds being constructed each year, Tom Boellstorff set out to prove to the academic community that traditional methods of research could be applied to these rapidly changing, new worlds. Coming from an anthropology background and having done. There have been many ethnographies of online worlds, but Coming of Age may be one of the most groundbreaking and influential.

Boellstorff starts the book by discussing the background of Second Life  and painting what a typical day in the world looks like, before moving onto a discussion about the philosophy, ethics, and academic interest in researching such a community. Collecting data and living natively for over 2 years as his online avatar Tom Bukowski, Boellstorff explores various topics of inquiry within this rapidly changing online world. Using traditional anthropological methods and theories, Boellstorff tackles this virtual world with the same keen sense and methods as he would any other social field.  Boellstorff does not claim his research to be a definitive guide to MMOs or even Second Life, rather a dive into a very specific era of a constantly changing world.

The crux of the book comes in the forms of chapters dedicated to overarching themes that emerged during Boellstorff’s research: place and time, personhood, intimacy, community, and political economy. In each of these chapters Boellstorff explores more narrowed down sub-themes in discussions that include the anthropological and philosophical background for their importance,  and data as evidence for their existence within Second Life. This justification through data comes in various forms, including transcribed interviews with second life citizens,  summaries of pertinent events the author witnessed or heard of second hand, and screenshots that give the reader a visual understanding of what the author is expressing.  I mention this range of topics to say that the book offers a sort of survey about the world of Second Life during the author’s stay. While your typical ethnography will focus on one individual topic of interest, Boellstorff has the luxury of exploring a world that many of his respondents will have absolutely no experience with; such a luxury is almost impossible in the “real world”.

Throughout the book, Boellstorff is attempting to both prove that traditional methods work in digital worlds, but also argue that humans have always existed between real and virtual, with  online virtual worlds being newly enacted forms of  traditional culture creation, social interaction, and creativity.  By presenting his years of research with precision and thoroughly thought out discussion, Boellstorff’s argument is carefully explored and fought for.   The only draw back that I may mention in regards to the book, is that it is at time perhaps a little too academic. This of course is a concession the author must of had to make; either weigh too heavily on public appeal and be ignored by the academic community, or weigh too heavily on the academic side and prove a little dry to the general population. In the end, the book seeks what it sets out to do. For anyone seeking to conduct social research on video games or massive multiplayer online worlds, Coming of Age in Second Life proves to be a useful resource to have on your shelf. Boellstorff’s work exemplify what we students of the social sciences and lovers of interactive media should strive to. You’ll be hard pressed to find a deeper dive into an online world.

I hope this book review has proved worthwhile. I’ll try and recommend other useful books and resources as I come across them.

-Ian L

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.

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.

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.

 

 

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!

 

 

 

UC Davis Creates an Interactive Game To Discuss Its Future

Tomorrow at 11am  UC Davis is launching Envision, an interactive video game designed to allow students, faculty, and associated members to come together to discuss and chart the university’s future. The game will be live for 36 hours, during which users can log in and meet with others in a virtual space.

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UC Davis has created this game with the intent purpose of opening up the discussion of the university’s future to a wider population of students, giving them a virtual space to connect like never before. When it goes live for computers and mobiles, users will be able to share “micro-contributions” about their vision of the future of UC Davis, as well as add onto the visions of others. From their brief description, it sounds like the game will function akin to something like Reddit, where users can respond or add to specific threads of thought. A leaderboard system will be put into place to chart the contribution of users and winners will be awarded prizes, further promoting the “game” aspect of Envision.

This is a pretty neat concept for a major University to attempt; it shows their dedication to gaming as a tool for social interaction and advancement. Online spaces have the ability to make for more neutral and accessible grounds for discussion, so hopefully UC Davis’ community will come out in force to chart its future. It is only open to those associated to UC Davis, but it will be interesting to see if this method of discussion proves to be a worthwhile method for Universities and organizations to consider in the future.

Check out UC Davis’ Press Release about the event

FBI Releases Anti-ISIS Propaganda Video Game

There’s been a lot of strange games released for all sorts of peculiar reasons: PETA’s anti-Animal Abuse Pokemon game and Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015 come to mind as two particularly strange games with questionable motives. However, these games  fail in comparison to a new game released by the FBI. That’s right, the FBI. Allow yourself to take that in for a second: The United States Federal Bureau of Investigations has created a game and it’s just terrible.

I present to you: Slippery Slope, an anti-ISIS propaganda flash game meant to dissuade youths from falling into the trap of logic leading to violent extremism.

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The game is apart of the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” initiative, which is an online effort to educate impressionable youths about the dangers of extremism and warn them about the potential realities of such beliefs, including perpetrating hateful attacks based on race or religion. The program is meant to encourage teens to think for themselves and deploy skepticism and  practicality when coming across extremist ideas and rhetoric.

Let’s pretend for a second that this game is necessary and not a vapid attempt from an out of touch agency trying to  reach kids through patronizing means, how does the FBI intend to convey such a delicate and difficult message to kids? With Goats and explosions of course!

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Minecraft is popular right? Just put a goat and radical text in there. Boom!

Included in the Don’t Be A Puppet’s interactive basement, the game is meant to be a original gameboy game entitled “The Adventures of Poonikins” starring the titular Poonikins, a goat who is apparently struggling with extremist beliefs. Design wise, it has a relatively simple  gameplay design: players control  Poonikins  while avoiding green walls as he traverses a vast green pasture attempting to make it to each of the game’s 6 finish lines. If Poonikins is to run into one of the green walls, he explodes instantaneously into various small blocks; a horrifying death for a confused goat. Upon passing a finish line and completing a level, the game displays “distorted logic text”, giving impressionable teens examples of harmful rhetoric.  Just on a purely  analysis of the game as a video game, Slippery Slope’s biggest problem lies in its horrendously touchy controls and it’s almost laughable difficulty; a tap of either arrow will send Poonikins flying faster than you can say, well, Poonikins. It’s just simply not well designed, featuring gameplay elements that feel like they would  fee stale even on  something like the Magnovx Odyssey.

Of course the greatest question is: What the hell does a goat avoiding walls and exploding have to do with radical extremism?  This game doesn’t convey any meaningful message in any way, if anything it just distracts from the initiatives overall message by being strange and absurd. Why is the goat’s name Poonikins? Does the FBI think Goats explode when touching green walls?  The Goat is a terrorist, is that whats going on? There are so many baffling questions unanswered by this one’s Goat dangerous descent into extremism.

So why am I bringing this up? What could this terrible game with questionable motives have to with sociology? On this blog I like to point out new ways video games are being implemented in our society, from usages in medical rehabilitation to being used as a means to weed out job candidates. These new implementations speak to how ingrained video games have become in our society; they are permeating into all aspects of society, giving us new ways to interact and carry about our regular lives. The FBI creating a video game with the intent purpose of educating youths is a pretty remarkable action, exemplifying society’s gradual shift towards an acceptance of the medium as a powerful tool in education. We’ve come to the point where video games, for better or worse, are transcending the the typical gaming conventions and being used for new and unique way every week. The FBI’s Slippery Slope may be an example of a poor harnessing of the power of the mediums ability to do more, but  it’s a novel one at the very least.

Still, it’s hard not come away from playing this game without feeling dirty.  If this game is the latest tool in counter terroism that the FBI can offer, maybe we need to rethink some things.

Play the Game For Yourself Here!

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Square Enix Teams With Pacer to Stop Bullying

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Square Enix announced a partnership with the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER) to enact an anti-bullying initiative.  Starting on January 13th, Square Enix will donate towards PACER’s national Bullying Prevention Center for every tweet of #EveryDayHeroes they receive this week, a hashtag inspired by the game “Life is Strange”.

Join our cause by sharing your own #EverydayHeroes moments. Tell us a story about how you overcame adversity, stood up for what’s right, or helped a friend in need. For every post using the hashtag #EverydayHeroes from January 13 to January 19th, Square Enix will make a donation to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. Share your story today, and give help to those who need it

Life is Strange is a 2015 title that tackles the theme of bullying, allowing the player to weigh in and progress the plot through choices that will shape the game and ending. The game, which has been awarded game of the year by several media outlets, is receiving a physical release this week, but is currently available on most major platforms.

You can watch Square’s promotional video to kick off the event here

Life is Strange is a perfect example of video games can be used to tackle real world problems and issues, and it’s refreshing to see a big corporation like Square-Enix partner with organizations trying to instill real change in the world. If you’re on twitter, please tweet the hashtag #EveryDayHeroes. It’ll take two seconds.