Participation in the “Gaming Blind” Documentary by Accessible Media Inc.

I had the opportunity to participate in Accessible Media Inc.’s documentary Gaming Blind, a documentary that explores blind and partially sighted accessibility in the video game industry.

“After losing her sight, Shelby Travers thought video games were a part of her past. Join her as she discovers how accessible gaming is to the blind and partially sighted community today, picking up a controller for the first time in 10 years.”

You can see a trailer for the documentary here:

but you can also watch the entire documentary, including the interview with me,  right here: Gaming Blind

I had the pleasure of talking with Shelby and we discussed the changing demographics of the video game industry, as well as how developers are attempting to reach a more inclusive audience.  The documentary does a great job of evaluating issues that blind and partially sighted gamers face, and speaks with prominent industry professionals about how these issues may be faced.

Thanks to Shelby Travers and everyone at AMI-CA for developing this great documentary and for allowing me to be a part of it.

Follow me on Twitter @Socialvideogame

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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.

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!

 

 

 

Report on the Status of Teens’ Use of Technology in Social Life

The PEW Research Group has recently released their 2nd  of 3 reports on “Teens, Technology &  Friendships”. PEW, which describes themselves as  “a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world”,  has conducted extensive research to academically confirm something we all probably know: Teenagers are using technology  to maintain social relationships.

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If you’re mind has just been blown, please take sometime to compose yourself and in the near future you might want to reconnect with society (Google has self-driving cars now, don’t be scared). The report itself is actually pretty insightful and explores how teenagers use video games in their social life more thoroughly than any study I have seen previously. It’s obviously isn’t going to be ground breaking conclusions, but a big part of sociology is academically documenting and observing trends in society.

There’s a lot of information we could go over, most of which dealing with how teens are using social media sites and apps like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to create and maintain social ties, but for the sake of only going over what most pertinently concerns this blog we’ll only be delving into the report as it concerns video games. LET’S JUMP IN:

“52% of all teens spend time with friends playing video games; 13% play with friends daily.”

In line with what the ESA reported on video game usage for 2015, this statistic doesn’t surprise me. Gamers in general are becoming more and more social, so it’s only natural that you’d see teenagers take advantage of this as well. Games like World of Warcraft and Halo are cited as specific games that have been used as tools for socialization within teen social groups.

“Overall, 72% of teens ages 13 to 17 play video games on a computer, game console or portable device. Fully 84% of boys play video games, significantly higher than the 59% of girls who play games. Playing video games is not necessarily a solitary activity; teens frequently play video games with others. Teen gamers play games with others in person (83%) and online (75%), and they play games with friends they know in person (89%) and friends they know only online (54%). They also play online with others who are not friends (52%).

This is a little confusing to read because of all the numbers. The way to read these numbers is the percentage of respondents that fell into that group. Don’t try and add them up, as individuals may fall into multiple categories (for example, a teen may respond  that he plays online regularly with friends he met online AND plays with people who are not friends).

What’s interesting here is to examine just how much video games have pervaded our culture. On whole 42%* of Americans play video games regularly, so for 72% of teenagers to play video games  regularly one can hypothesize that the number of Americans who play games regularly will probably continue to go up year to year. Likewise, just the sheer number of teens playing online is remarkable. 10 years ago that amount probably would have been halved. It’s not all that surprising, what with all major consoles being online  and the majority of AAA games having some sort of online mode, but it’s dazzling to see for someone who grew up in an era in which video games were mostly a solitary activity.

  • -38% of all teen boys share their gaming handle as one of the first three pieces of information exchanged when they meet someone they would like to be friends with; just 7% of girls share a gaming handle when meeting new friends.

  • -Of teens who have met a friend online, 57% of boys have made a friend playing video games. That amounts to 34% of all teenage boys ages 13 to 17.

These two are particularly interesting, just because these aren’t the type of statistics most studies will look into.  It makes sense that a good portion of teens making friends online would do so in a video games, as it’s a common ground for people to meet and share something they’re both interested in.  If anything, I’m more interested what the relationships of people meeting in others  online grounds would be; forums potentially have the same effect, but social media sites are more of an oddity in my mind. Regardless, it shows that technology is being used in various ways to strengthen and even create relationships.

When playing games with others online, many teen gamers (especially boys) connect with their fellow players via voice connections in order to engage in collaboration, conversation and trash-talking. Among boys who play games with others online, fully 71% use voice connections to engage with other players (this compares with just 28% of girls who play in networked environments).

This one is the statistic I found to be the most interesting, as one might be able surmise a bigger problem at work.  With 59% of girls playing video games, it’s surprising that only 28% responded that they play with voice communications. In a interview by Kotaku, a lead author of the report concluded that this means only about 9% of girls playing video games are using voice communication in online games. Why the low number? The study unfortunately does not go into why this may be, but if I had to guess I would say they may be a mix of practical and troubling reasons for the community. I don’t want to make assumptions, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the reasons found were because teens girls had negative experiences when playing online with others. I’ll leave it there.

This chart is exemplifies this gender difference between how male and females are using video game communities. For boys, video games are being used as social outlets in the same way text messaging and social media is being used, which is something one might not automatically assume.

There’s much more in depth analysis in the report itself, which can be found here in its entirety. The grand take way to the entire report is that technology isn’t causing the social relationships of teens to diminish. Yes, teens aren’t connecting the same way they did 20 years ago, but they’re still connecting and the social bonds they create aren’t any less real or solid. Technology, in many ways, is augmenting the ways we connect with others and even allowing us to reach groups and people that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to connect with.  So, the next time you see a teen on their phone don’t scoff or dream of the “good ol’ days”, just realize that society advances and restructures how we socialize.

*Data from ESA 2015 Report

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