Games Studies and The Sociology of Video Games

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Having started upon a path towards advanced degrees with an emphasis in interactive media and online communities, it has increasingly become evident to me that there is no singular route to studying the emerging field of video games. As I have mentioned in the past, video games uniquely fall at the cross section of multiple disciplines, each with varying ways to analyze and interpret the social significance going on in these digital worlds.

Anthropology, Media Studies, Psychology, and, of course, Sociology, all offer valuable insights for researchers setting out upon this path towards the academia of video games, but the road isn’t probably the neatly paved one you hope it be. Academia, for all it affords and fails to be, is still a regimented system of bureaucracies and categories; those seeking to study video games in any of the aforementioned fields will undoubtedly come across hurdles and pitfalls. Despite this, we push on: we make concessions and we work at expanding the field inches at a time. A triumph has arisen in the developing field of  Game Studies, an interdisciplinary field for all of these traditional academic interests and more.

What is Game Studies?

Wikipedia (The student in me is rebelling) defines Game Studies as

The study of games, the act of playing them, and the players and cultures surrounding them. It is a discipline of cultural studies that deals with all types of games throughout history. This field of research utilizes the tactics of, at least, anthropology, sociology and psychology, while examining aspects of the design of the game, the players in the game, and finally, the role the game plays in its society or culture. Game studies is oftentimes confused with the study of video games, but this is only one area of focus; in reality game studies encompasses all types of gaming, including sports, board games, etc.

That all sounds great! But what does that all encompass? This really is a large umbrella term that captures multidisciplinary research across the vast subject matter of gaming. This isn’t to be confused with game design, which of course is a vastly different discipline centered around the creation of games themselves. The best place to start to understand Game Studies would be with the theory behind it. A foundational theory connecting these discipline comes from Dutch theorist Johan Huizinga in his extensive exploration into how play connects society and culture. To summarize in the most simplistic way, Huizinga believes that play is an essential part of the cultural membrane that connects, one that brings people together and sets rules and boundaries to define the rules of play.  This theory of play, originally formulated in the 1938  book Homo Ludens, has been expanded, reevaluated, and used to understand the cultural significance of gaming, even as it has evolved to to reach highly technological heights.

What role play holds in our life is an incredibly open and complex question, with endless angles for it to be tackled. Authors like Jesper Juul, Ian Bogost, Tracy Fullerton,and Jane McGonigal  have taken upon this question in vastly different ways and they are just the start. My current research has led me to tackle this issue from a different take as well: evaluating what role deviance and punishment play in virtual worlds. Still, there is much to be explored and much to understand. Game Studies sounds to be a haven for all these inquiries and more.

What’s the Issues?

You may be thinking “Well, that sounds all great. Why aren’t we [academics interested in video games] all just flocking to Game Studies then?” .  Unfortunately it’s not as easy as just that.  Academia  is slow to move and currently there are no programs that offer advanced degrees in game studies. Fortunately, Bonnie “Bo” Ruberg of The University of Southern California has been nice enough to put together a guide to obtaining a PhD in Game Studies. Their advice? Get in where you can. Find universities that have academics and professors who work and write in Game Studies, applying to their departments or related ones.  Graduate programs are often about who you know, so such a recommendation is definitely valuable; find individuals you want to work with, not schools that you want to go to on name alone.

Of course graduate programs aren’t for everyone, and one is certainly able to contribute to the field without an advanced degree. For those not wishing to  go back to school, the best thing I think one can do is create work and submit it to the appropriate sources. For all of you lovely game enthusiasts, an online journal for game studies has  been created: Game Studies.

The Journal’s mission statement is:

To explore the rich cultural genre of games; to give scholars a peer-reviewed forum for their ideas and theories; to provide an academic channel for the ongoing discussions on games and gaming.

Sounds perfect…Now to just produce something worthwhile.

All of this is to say that we, gaming academics, have options and avenues available to us. It won’t be an easy route, but perhaps will prove to be a fruitful one.  I am of course not in any way a Game Studies expert, so any oversights or generalizations can be attributed to ignorance. Of course I’m always willing to learn more, so if you have any insight or information that you feel I am leaving out, please let me know.

I hope this post was helpful. For any regulars (the few of you), I apologize for the lack of posts. Graduate school has a way of making you not feel like writing in your free time. I’m hoping to write and share more in the coming weeks.  And now it’s time for me to bury myself in piles of graduate assignments and research.

New Study Links Video Game Usage to Alzheimer’s Disease (A.K.A New Study Doesn’t Say That)

If you’re keeping up with the news of the day, you may see numerous news outlets reporting that a new study coming out of a research group in Canada is claiming that they’ve discovered a link between video game usage and Alzheimer’s Disease. The studies does not claim that. However, the  The Douglas Mental Health University Institute was quick to examine the research and make the claim for the researchers in their very own Press Release designed to scare video games right out of your hands (And hearts…).

The Guardian has a great piece written by Chris Chambers, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the school of psychology at Cardiff University, on why these claims are ridiculous…but essentially it’s correlation being blown up by media outlets to grab viewers. Hey media, don’t do that. Be better, please. As chambers points out, the brunt of the “link” comes down to this:

1. The type of learning shown by the gamers has been associated in previous studies with increased use of a brain region called the caudate nucleus

2. Increased use of the caudate nucleus can be associated with reduced volume of the hippocampus

3. Reduced volume of the hippocampus can be associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease

4. Therefore (take a deep breath) video gaming could increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease

That’s not how things work. It’s grade A conjecture on the part of those making the claims.

The press release also includes a statement from the lead researcher that is a clear exaggeration. Dr Gregory West is quoted as saying “we also found that gamers rely on the caudate nucleus to a greater degree than non-gamers”. Actually they didn’t find this at all, because their study didn’t measure activity in the caudate nucleus. Instead it measured a type of behaviour that previous studies have associated with activity in the caudate nucleus. There is a world of difference between these two, and readers would do well to take these latest claims with a generous helping of salt.

We live in world where conjecture is more attractive that facts, so I felt it was appropriate to get some of the bigger eye grabbing headlines out of the way, as to not waste our time on them in the future.

“New Study Shows Link Between Video Games and Being Able to Fly” – A new study out newbury community college has shown that if you play video games you’re more likely be able to grow wings and fly. This study was conducted on a population of 50 students that we’re hanging out by the quad’s pond and prefer to migrate north during the winter.

when will senpai Crash notice me?

“Can Video Games Make You Impotent?” – A Floridan man claims that he became impotent after playing too much  Crash Bandicoot. “No woman will ever look as sexy to me as that Bandicoot, thus I’ll never be able to make love” the man said to a mirror.

“Is There a Link between Playing Candy Crush and Going to Hell?” – A cartoon child drawn by another child, found that people who play video games are more likely to burn in damnation. He found this out by staring at a pond for hours until he imagined it. WHAT A SCOOP.

That’s enough ranting for now..

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo “Video Games Have Sabotaged What It Means To Be Male “

Fairly well know psychologist Philip Zimbardo, famously known for the Stanford Prison Experiments, has been making the rounds recently discussing the findings in his new book “Man (Dis)connected: How Technology Has Sabotaged What It Means To Be Male”I haven’t had the time to read his book, but it’s clear that he’s making some bold claims about how video games are changing the social development of today’s youths, specifically boys.

The Guardian has a pretty well done interview with Zimbardo, so I’ll be focusing on their piece rather than his actual book (I’m poor and too busy to with a full time job/lazy/ don’t really want to support him) On why we’re seeing boys retreat into cyberspace and video games more than their female peers:

“Boys have never been self-reflective. Boys are focused on doing and acting, girls are more focused on being and feeling. The new video-game world encourages doing and acting and not really
thinking. Video games are not so attractive to girls.”

That’s a pretty hefty generalization, albeit not completely untrue. Biologically boys have some proclivity to being less “self reflective” and focused on “action and doing”, but a lot of it has to do with a child’s socialization.  The way we treat little boys and girls, in addition to the images we show to them of what it means to be a boy or a girl has just as much to do with a child’s habits as their biological make up.  Additionally, just the way education is presented to boys and girls is strikingly different; young girls are socialized to hold education in a higher esteem than young boys. Obviously Zimbardo is making this statements to make a generalization about the current population and is probably somewhat representing the population as a whole. That said, if we as a society change the way we socialize young boys and girls then maybe that statement will begin to lose truth.

Secondly, no. Video games are attractive to both young boys and girls. If anything, video games are now more attractive to both males and females than ever before. More and more the gender divide in the gaming community is becoming less unequal. Though it still has a long way to go, it’s clear that young girls enjoy playing games just like young boys; video games have historically only been taught to be  “boy thing”, big impart due to marketing and parenting. I don’t agree with that statement.

The driving cause Zimbardo places in his theory of boys becoming addicted to porn, video games, and Ritalin is lack of a father figure in the household.  The lack of a father, or any second parental figure, obviously changes the dynamic of any household. That’s one less parent to provide affection, attention, and income.  All of these factors lead to scenarios in which it’s harder for a child to create more stable relationships and social skills. For example, children from a one parent household are less likely to engage in extracurricular activity because their parent has less time to take their children to the activities or have the money to spend on the activity. This lack of extracurricular activity leads to less chances for socialization and more towards being motivated to seek electronic alternatives. If anything, video game and porn addiction are a symptom of a greater issue. However, these are things that Zimbardo probably already knows and perhaps even addresses in his book.

My biggest issue, and I say issue sparingly as obviously I haven’t read his book, is that video games once again are seemingly taking the blame for something else that’s at hand. Video games, like any other media, can be an outlet for many problems and not necessarily the cause of those problems. Zimbardo doesn’t sound like he’s arguing that, but when you make claims like “Technology Has Sabotaged What It Means To Be Male” it puts the blame on the object, rather than the underlying causes that are resulting in the object overuse or misuse. Yes, more advance technology give easier means of escaping reality and disconnect, but the reason why people are desiring to disconnect and escape is the issue at hand.  Granted, Zimbardo expresses desires for games that better promote social relationships and cooperation, but he’s gotta be better at making a enemy out of something that isn’t there.  I will say this: the book sounds more grounded than it’s shocking title.  Zimbardo is a smart guy, albeit one with questionable tactics, and he has to know hyperboles aren’t helping anyone. Though shock and awe seem to be his style…

New Study Suggests Violent Video Game Releases Coincide with Low Crime Rates

Quick one today folks! Another week, another article claiming that violent video games have X effect on society. There seems to be a pendulum with these types of studies; one article will claim to have found a link between violent video games and violence and the following week another new study will claim that there is no effect. This study is..a little different.

Coming out of Villanova, a psychology researcher and professor claims that violent video games actually lessen the amount of violent crimes during launch periods of bigger violent video games (Halo, GTA, etc). Are the villains of the world really too busy ranking up gamerscores to go and commit crimes? That’s pretty much what it sounds like the piece is claiming. Essentially, violent crime offenders are among the target audience who plays violent video games and when a new title comes out the amount of violent crimes seems to decrease.

There can be other explanations as to why this is occurring that we can ponder off the top of our heads. Big titles like GTA and Halo typically come out at towards the end of the year, as that’s many company’s biggest earning season. Certainly something else may be going on during these times that have little to do with video games (More people are in their houses earlier in the night, police enforcement is typically more alert for crimes during holiday seasons, etc). The article itself tries to think through what potential reasons could be effecting this outcome, so it’s certainly not a definitive statement on the researcher’s part.

The research goes onto claim that people with specific personality types playing violent video games are more likely to increase their aggression, but that people without those personality types will not be effected These are claims that were based on research that was conducted years ago by the same researcher. These proposed claims seem almost obvious; if you claim yourself to be an “angry person” then you committing a violent crime is more likely, regardless of if you play video games or not.

Which of Pixar characters are most likely to commit a violent crime after playing Halo?

I wish I could go more into the article, but unfortunately I’m not able to get the entire piece because I’m a poor individual, but you can certainly purchase the entire research paper here! 

New Study Finds Risk Glorifying Games Lead to Deviant Behavior

A recent study suggests that playing mature rated video games may lead to risky, deviant behavior including alcohol use and cigarette smoking. OH HEAVENS!!!

Coming out of Dartmouth College and published this week in the American Psychological Association Journal is a 4-year spanned study that focuses on the effects of violent and mature rated video games on adolescent adults. Are violent video game the gateway drug to worse things, including buying gates and/or drugs? 

The researchers contacted a pool of over 5000 young adults multiple times over the span of 4 years and focused on the three video games “Manhunt”, “Spider-man 2” and “Grand Theft Auto”. Although the respondents fell to less than half of the original 5000, over 2000 subjects were interviewed for the effects of having played one of these three games and continued to play similar risk glorifying games. The researchers found that respondents who played risk glorifying games with an anti-social protagonists (Manhunt and GTA in this case) had reported higher rates of cigarette use, and similar patterns were found for other forms of delinquency than those who reported only have played games with honorable protagonists (Spider-man). 

Honorable.

Jay Hull, the lead researcher, concludes that playing risk glorifying video games increases the likelihood of performing risky actions in the real world. As Hull puts it

“[In video games]They’re not practicing drinking and smoking and risky sex, but what they are practicing is being a less than good person,”.

We’ve seen similar studies where violent video games have been linked to aggression, cheating, and other less honorable behavior, but this might be the first one I’ve seen linked to risky sex..I don’t know how to take that. Likewise, we have seen studies that suggest positive benefits to violent and all video games in general, so the debate seems to be all over the place.The thought behind why this is occurring is that playing violent and risk glorifying games makes kids more willing to take risks in their own life:

“Once a kid is trying one substance, the odds of trying another one go up…The risk starts piling up much faster, and the outcomes for these children get much worse in a hurry.”

 

Eh…that’s no good. The researcher endorses the use of the ESRB rating system as a form to combat adolescents from getting their hands on these games prematurely.

I don’t know what to think about this study, as it seems pretty well constructed. Obviously the study is reliant on the respondents to tell the truth and gauge their effects, but I can’t think of a more developed way to do so. There may some causes that are effecting the respondents that the study doesn’t take into consideration, such as reasons for why adolescents are getting their hands on violent video games before becoming of age. For example, I can imagine parents who buy their children a spider-man game (regardless of its ESRB rating) may not be the same level of attentiveness as a parent who is okay buy and M rated GT game….but that could be neither here nor there.

The study itself is, unfortunately, only available to those who subscribe to the  APA’s website, but a decent explanation of the study can be found here. 

Can Playing Video Games Cause Hallucinations?

Can Playing Video Games Cause Hallucinations?

A Recent study out of Nottingham Trent University, and reported on by Gamespot, claims that playing video games for may cause hallucinations. Should we be worried, or should we just forget about it and continue to try and get Donkey Kong out of my backyard?

The study is based on experience compiled by  gamers collected on online gaming forums. The fact that the study is relying on personal experience from internet testimonial is already questionable, but we’ll just go ahead and move on.  Gamers reported seeing distorted versions of reality that included aspects of games after playing for extended periods of times. This could include things like seeing gaming menus, signs, or even options in the real world. This phenomenon the research team calls “Game Transfer Phenomena”is  what they describe as “how playing games can affect a person’s sense of sight, sound, and touch after they are done playing”.  These experiences were mixed, with some gamers having uncomfortable experiences in which they were unable to concentrate, confused, or even worried about the perceived objects they saw.

From personal experience: One night, after a particularly long session of playing the 2001 title “Super Monkey Ball” the game seeped into my reality. Day was night, light was dark, balls were filled with monkeys.  Had my loved ones been trapped in spherical cages, or was it all in my mind? As I navigated the mazes of my mind, and the ones manifested into my reality I began to laugh at the comedy of it all; for aren’t we all monkeys in our own balls? Trapped in our own spheres of lies and desperation? What a world to live we in; It’s Bananas.

…Where was I? Back to the article: Should we stop playing video games excessively for fear that Mario will sneak into our reality? Who knows. The research study team admits that relying on personal experience from an internet pool of respondents means that we can’t say that the group represents a majority of gamers. Further research needs to be done to see what type of gamers are more likely to have GTP occur and to see how and when GTP manifest, if it does. Regardless, it doesn’t seem like GTP is anything gamers should fear, as the majority of gamers didn’t seem to respond to having it. However, if true, GTP does mean that video games and media effect our brains in ways we haven’t quite figured out. Then again, is it just video games and other media that have this effect? One could argue that doing any activity for an extended amount of time can have adverse effects on one’s mental state and lead to sensations of that activity in normal life. We’ll have to keep an eye on the phenomena to further see how video games and media are effecting our social world.

If this sensation has ever happened to you (And not like the ridiculous lie I told) please share!

For more photos of Video games in Real Life!

http://kotaku.com/real-life-photos-mixed-with-16-bit-video-games-are-amaz-476024420