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!

 

 

 

Pew Research Center’s Report on Gaming & Gamers

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The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research group that conducts polling and demographic research, has released 17 page long report on their findings about Gamers and Gaming. This is an incredibly insightful report for anyone conducting sociological research on current issues in gaming or  seeking the demographic make up of the video game community. It’s a pretty lengthy report, but I’ll try and break down some of the highlights.

The group posed the following questions to a survey of over 2000 Americans.

  • Do you ever play video games on a computer, TV, game console, or portable device like a cellphone? Yes, No, Don’t know, Refuse
  • Do you think this is true for most video games, true for some games but not others, NOT true for most video games, or are you not sure?
    • Video games help develop good problem solving and strategic thinking skills. 
    • Video games are a waste of time.
    • Video games portray women poorly.
    • Video games promote teamwork and communication.
    • Video games portray minority groups poorly.
    • Video games are a better form of entertainment than watching TV.
  • Based on what you know about video games, please tell me if you agree or disagree with the following statements. Agree, Disagree, Don’t Know, Refuse
    • Most people who play video games are men.
    • People who play violent video games are more likely to be violent themselves
  • Some people use the term “gamer” to describe themselves as a fan of gaming or a frequent game-player. Do you think the term “gamer” describes you well, or not? Yes Gamer, No, Not Gamer, Don’t know, Refuse

Additional probing questions were asked about video game causing violence, how racial groups were represented in games, and how video games represent women.

Let’s go over some of their discoveries!

In regards to who plays video games and considers themselves gamers, the report found that only 10% of respondents considered themselves to be gamers, despite nearly half of respondents answering that they play video games.

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Respondents in older age brackets were less likely to identify as a gamer

The demographics of gender in gaming is similar to what the ESA reported earlier in the year, but there’s a considerable difference between the number of women and men who identify as gamers, perhaps signalling a disconnect between women and gaming culture.

Why is there such a big difference between people who play games and identify as gamers? It could be that by identifying as a gamer you’re admitting you are a part of a bigger culture that many respondents desire not to be counted upon. The term gamer may carry with it perceived connotations that aren’t appealing to more casual or infrequent consumers.

With regards to the questions regarding video games as  cultural and societal entities, the report found that a good portion of the population believe that video games can provide positive effects.

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I believe this graph is a particularly important one, because it represents a practical and reasonable view of video games within society. As with any medium, video games have a varying range in terms of intellectual and interactive value; some games will be your action fueled titles that don’t challenge you to work out problems, while others can be great sources of cooperative play and brain stimulation. It’s unfortunate that the medium often gets labeled as being only its biggest titles (Call of Duty, Madden, GTA) when there are plenty of games that challenge players to think outside of the box, work together, or take witness to a wonderful tale.

The study also asked questions to respondents in regards to how they perceive violent video games as agent in creating  real world violence.

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The majority of respondents did not believe that violent video games lead to violent actions, despite some groups believing they do. It’s clear that younger men and women disagree with the statement, but that the issue is still one that is very much up for discussion and debate among the community.

Lastly, we’ll look at the study’s finding on public perception of representation in gaming:

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This one is a little surprising, as the majority of respondents didn’t choose to weigh in one way or another. It’s clear that more respondents believe that only some games exhibit poor representation of women and minorities, which is a fair statement of video games, but it is alarming that that a healthy portion believe that most games have poor portrayals. This shows that proper representation within video games of women and minorities is an ongoing struggle and that the general population simply do not know about it.

There’s a lot more in the actual report that I highly recommend checking out. This kind of data is rare, but it helps us gain a better understanding of how video games are being viewed in our society and what we need to work on as a community.  For sociologist, such data is invaluable because it gives insight to the social problems existing at the intersection of sociology and video games.

Charts and graphs provided by the  Pew Research Center

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Pew Research Center’s 2015 Findings on Console Ownership

Less progressive parts of the gaming community are in an uproar today, as a new survey suggest that more American women own video game consoles than their male counterparts. Should chauvinistic males flee the medium for fear of cooties? We’ll look into that finding and more!

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The Pew Research Group is a well respected, non-partisan ,and non-advocacy research group that gathers data on public issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. This week they released their findings on technology device ownership, ranging from tablets to video game consoles. It’s great data to comb through, but I’ll be focusing specifically on the findings of console ownership.

Let me start of my saying this: It’s ridiculous that there is a backlash to this survey. Read any article reporting this survey and you’ll be met with juvenile comments from people saying it’s poor research, a conspiracy of sorts, or a sign that video games are going to hell. Regardless of the validity of the data,  such comments and responses prove that there still exists a vocal minority that represent backwards and offensive views. If this survey is true, we as a community should be thrilled that this once male dominated medium is now a more inclusive one. A diverse video game community is a stronger community and  these negative views do not represent the entire video game community.

With that said, lets examine the finding:

The number that is grabbing the most headlines is the finding that 42% of women own video game consoles, while only 37% of men own a console.  This result is contrary to what most would assume, as the ESA report on video game consumption found that male gamers were still in the majority. However, it’s not as inconceivable as it once was; female gamers are on the rise and they make up nearly half of the gaming population.

With that said, there are certain consideration to think about when looking at this data, such as does this data include respondents who are parents and own video game consoles because their children? Likewise, does this include respondents who bought video game consoles because of their multimedia uses and not their video game uses, and would otherwise not consider themselves “gamers”?  Although we don’t have an answer for these questions and these aren’t suggestions for why the data is as it is, such questions allow us to better interpret and hypothesize about the data in front of us. To create a better picture of console ownership, additional probing questions would have to be asked.

Next the survey looks specifically at the breakdown of race in regards to console ownership. This data is actually quite interesting if only for the fact that it’s not something most research groups typically delve into when conducting research concerning video game demographics. That said, it’s not all that surprising; the percentage of people who play video games is relatively similar across each race.

Likewise, the data on educational attainment  and community type is relatively unremarkable. It is worth noting that the educational attainment data is mostly tied directly with financial ability to purchase video games.

As stated at the bottom of the survey, the sample size surveyed was 948 respondents. This is a pretty healthy sample size; more could be included, but it’s viable enough to work off of.  The Research Group goes into their complete methodology behind the survey for anyone with lingering doubts about the survey. Given that, should we take all of this data at face value? Not necessarily. As I mentioned, this data doesn’t give the complete picture. There may be reasons why certain stats are what they are, but the data does  gives us a better picture than we had before.

In all, this isn’t the most earth shattering survey response. Not all data is shocking or dramatic, a lot of time surveys just confirm what we mostly assume. However, it’s important for groups like the Pew Research Group to conduct these surveys because they give us the raw data that we need to formulate our arguments and theories. They’re out there doing the hard work for us. No body wants me calling 948 people asking about whether or not they have video games, I swear.

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.