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

New Research Finds Adult Men are Choosing Video Games Over Full-Time Work

It’s the end times my friends: Video games are destroying our economy.

New research coming out the Princeton, The University of Chicago, and University of Rochester has found a correlation between the abundance of high quality video games and uneducated adult men choosing to remain out of the workforce. The study itself isn’t yet available, but the Washington Post has a good summary of the study’s findings and an evaluation of what they may mean.

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The study compares unemployment rates of adult men with happiness levels and screen time usage and found that, despite having higher unemployment rates than in previous years, adult men are on average reporting having higher levels of happiness, which is potentially tied to their increase in average video game usage. It’s a pretty interesting study with some pretty big implications:

While young men might temporarily enjoy a life of leisure, the implications could be troubling for them as well as the economy. The young men aren’t gaining job experience that will better equip them to work in their 30s and 40s. That, in turn, could lead to a lifetime of decreased wages, limited opportunities and challenges such as depression and drug use — problems that the United States is already seeing in areas hit with heavy job losses.

These are interesting findings, and in some way makes logical sense: the abundance of media is making people more content, unemployed or not. However, there are potentially other variables that are effecting this relationship. It’s not absurd to think that a contributing factor to adult men not entering the work force is because of the entry level job have been considerably reduced in recent decades due to shrinking opportunities for the working class: rather than enter the work force working for Mcdonalds and making next to little money, many adult men choose to stay at home and focus on their happiness instead.

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For an economist, these are certainly concerning findings because they exemplify how potentially disenfranchised uneducated adult men are with job opportunities. At the same time, it’s positive to see that happiness levels are steadily rising, potentially because of video games. Whats bad for the economy may be good for the individual.

I would need to read the entire study, including their methods, to make a better critique and analysis of it, but it’s great to see video games gradually become a more researched field. I highly recommend at least reading the Washington Post article as the research does do a good job of looking at the whole picture. Video games are important sociological variables that are pervading in all parts of society, so it’s great to see different disciplines starting to struggle with their place in society.

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.

 

 

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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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.

Video Games Being Used in New Medical Practices

It’s an interesting world we live in, one in which video games are constantly finding new ways to infiltrate our daily lives. We’ve already seen school utilizing video games for teaching purposes, and even video games serving as parts of business interviews, but medical institutions seem like the last place you’d imagine to be playing video games. Fortunately this article is not about medical schools using the game “Trauma Center” to teach potential surgeons.

Scalpels not included.

A new trend in the medical is looking towards video games as medical tools. This trend is really novel and interesting, especially since 10 years ago we probably wouldn’t imagine that we’d be using video games to aid in physical therapy or in any realm dealing with the medical profession. These are in no way the first time we’ve seen video game being utilized in physical therapy and as medical tools, but they certainly are ones that do it in new and interesting ways.

Researchers at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital have developed an interactive video game that is being used to measure upper extremity movement in younger patients with muscular dystrophy who are unable to walk. The game, which is zombie themed and utilizes a Xbox Kinect, has patients extending their arms to push back a force field protecting them in the game. The game, which is currently only being used in clinical trials, has had very positive feedback from both patients and parents.   The game, which charts the improvement and changed for patients over the course of time, was developed because of the sheer lack of outcome measure for this population of patients.

Another new tool in therapy has emerged for patients with Multiple Sclerosis. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society have given a grant to researchers to develop a game that will be used to help in Multiple Sclerosis treatment and rehabilitation. The game, “Recovery Rapids”, uses an Xbox Kinect and has the patient guiding and propelling a kayak. The game also asks questions to the patients in order to track the patients progress in other everyday activities such as brushing their teeth or drinking. Developers of the game hope that it will be a cost effective and fun way for patients with M.S to do daily rehabilitation and recovery, a group whom have very few options when it comes to physical therapy option.

So why should we care about these instances of games being used for physical therapy and medical means? Is it because we’re worried that we’re potentially missing out on GOTY and that we should sneak in these facilities to play these games? No…Though, I did hear that some of these games are better than the recent Assassin’s Creed game (TAKE THAT UBISOFT!). We should care because video games are embedding themselves into facets of life that have previously been untouched by the medium. While these news pieces have more to do with field beyond Sociology, it’s important to think of the social impact that such games can have on our society. With video games becoming more than just virtual toys our perspective on them and their utility changes and they become a greater part society. HEY MAN. IT’S IMPORTANT.

As a physical therapists responding to the game being developed for young boys with Muscular Dystrophy puts it “They have to spend hours with us doing nothing that’s easy, only hard things. Looking at their faces after they play this game where they get to just play and be kids is a lot of fun to see.” That’s key. To find new ways in which video games can reach, aid, and even brighten the day of new audiences is the real reason we’re seeing this trend.  You probably shouldn’t get your hopes up for Nintendo to be diving into this market ,(Though to be fair, Wii Fit and their purposed Vitality sensor certainly do come close) it’s not unlikely that we’ll see more games used as medical tools develop.

New Study Finds Positive Effects of Video Games on Social Behavior

This is it guys: A study that directly looks into the effects of video games on social behavior. What could be more relevant to this blog that this study? PROBABLY NOTHING.

Coming out of The University of Oxford, the study explores how time spent playing video games accounts for variation in positive and negative psychosocial adjustment. To do so, the researchers studied a representative sample of 10 to 15 year old children and had them report their daily intake of video games. Essentially, the researchers were trying to see if the number of hours spent playing video games per day had a significant change on one’s adjustment.  I’ll go through the abstract

A pretty interesting hypothesis. Obviously one might assume that playing video games for copious amounts of hours per day would have negative effects on a child, but what about brief periods of time? Let’s hear about these result.

Low levels (<1 hour daily) as well as high levels (>3 hours daily) of game engagement was linked to key indicators of psychosocial adjustment. Low engagement was associated with higher life satisfaction and prosocial behavior and lower externalizing and internalizing problems, whereas the opposite was found for high levels of play. No effects were observed for moderate play levels when compared with non-players.

Huh. The “high levels” of game engagement seem to fall in line with what one might naturally assume; kids playing too much may be antisocial and not well adjusted. However, it’s the low levels effects that are more surprising. The study suggests that playing games in low moderation can actually have positive effects on children. Those prosocial behaviors is sociology speak for saying that kids are more socially adjusted. That’s great news! Video games aren’t making us strange and recluse, well at least if we don’t spend too much time with them. That said, we do have to take into consideration that excessive video game playing was found to be detrimental to one’s social behavior. MODERATION IS KEY MY FRIENDS.

The links between different levels of electronic game engagement and psychosocial adjustment were small (<1.6% of variance) yet statistically significant. Games consistently but not robustly associated with children’s adjustment in both positive and negative ways, findings that inform policy-making as well as future avenues for research in the area.

Hey, that’s a more intelligent way of saying what I just said! I won’t go into the specifics of the study, as the study itself is currently free to read and it’s only 9 pages. It’s great to see more and more studies focusing on the sociological and psychological effects of video games. WE’RE GETTING THERE GUYS. Before I go, a few considerations on the study that I think are important in examining the result.

Considerations: The study is trying to be representative of an entire population, but obviously we can’t make overlapping statements.  Likewise, the low moderation of video games and high moderation of video games can be indicative of something else going on, such as parenting levels and amount of free time. If a child has something else going on in their free times, such as sports or lessons, their amount of hours spent playing video games will considerably lower. We can’t say for sure if it’s correlation without causation; perhaps those who are playing less video games are more well adjusted because of another factor we’re not recording.