Category Archives: Game Studies
It has been just shy of 5 years since I began my PhD, and it’s been almost 8 years since I have been working on understanding that weird ‘something’ that I felt between myself as a player and Velixious, my avatar from way back when. Over the years, the research has shifted from a quest for personal understanding to exploring how others felt about their avatars, shifting notions of identity, and finding ways to deconstruct videogame play to understand if, when, and how what I have come to term as ‘hybrid-identity’ occurred.
And now the time has come to lay it all out on the line and defend my work:
Between Play and Design: The emergence of hybrid-identity in single-player videogames
June 29, 2012
9 :30 – 13 :30
This dissertation examines the complex nature of identity in single-player videogames. It introduces the concept of hybrid-identity and proposes an analytical framework to deconstruct gameplay across genres to distinguish moments of identity emergence. Hybrid-identity is a fluid, at times fleeting form of identity that exists between the player and the player-character which is developed during the networked process of videogame play. It necessarily includes the player (experience, play-context, etc.), the game environment (design, mechanics, etc.), and the mediating technology (computer, console, etc.) that facilitates gameplay.
In order to delineate the different aspects of gameplay that contribute to the potential emergence of different types of identity, a multifaceted framework was devised to isolate specific interactions between the player/player-character, player-character/non-playing character, player/game environment, player-character/game environment, and player/player. This framework was coupled with a secondary frame of analysis which included the examination of the specificities of the individual player and the mediating technologies that facilitated gameplay. A systematic analysis of gameplay and design elements of three different games; Mirror’s Edge (DICE, 2008), Alone in the Dark (Eden Games, 2008), and Fable 2 (Lionhead Studios, 2008) was performed to illustrate the varying degrees of identity emergence in different game structures.
For more details on location etc., please contact me via email.
A recent blog post over at TAG got me thinking about the role of down time in MMOG’s. Something a lot of (but not all) gamers complain about. It seems that if a game is not chalk full of action, it is often deemed boring or not very good. Over the years, MMOG’s seem to have fallen into this mindset as well, making quests faster (and easier imo), combat is swift, recovery time often little to non-existent, and corpse recoveries that used to take hours turned into a respawn or resurrection…Some people like the fact that the pace of MMOG’s have gone the way of an action-packed, single-player game.
The TAG post mentions that a colleague disliked SWtOR game because there was “no gameplay/no challenge” and the response to this is that he is right …. but the post goes on to say:
But that’s the point… I felt that familiar tedious rhythm of questing in MMOs return. That steady pace, ever incremental, always one more thing on the horizon… time slows, workdays are neglected, worries recede.
And what’s this? Time to ponder, time to think, time to reflect. Playing SWtOR, like all MMOs, brackets time and space — its a virtual world excuse to chat and socialize for some and it’s time alone for others. But what is the nature of this time alone? You are occupied at the keyboard but barely occupied cognitively… this is why MMO players are great multi-taskers. You can play the game while chatting on the phone, watching television, doing email and even playing other games, or… you can ponder and muse about stuff.
Time to ponder and think indeed. For me, the gaps in the gameplay brings mmog play back to its social roots… it is what the waiting is for…… see, back in the day (for me, this starts with EverQuest in 1999), mmog’s were known for long pauses between action, everything took forever to do, even finding a group and getting to the agreed upon location. But they were also known for the close bonds and relationships among guild and group mates because you had nothing to do but hang out and chat while waiting for mana to regen. as mmo’s developed, but as early as Dark age of Camelot gameplay started to shift to exclude the social bits. The big thing was closing the gaps between battles, speeding up the regen time, eventually moving to insta-recast, etc. While this made gameplay more ‘fun’ and action packed for some, what got lost was the available moments for sociality. It didn’t take as long to level up, you didn’t need as many people to help for quests, and battle could rage on almost non-stop as long as you could stay alive. But it came at a cost.
For me, this idea that mmog gameplay should be quicker and there should be less ‘waiting’ is actually what ruined my mmog experience. There was no more time to chat even about in-game stuff; little time to strategize during combat. Every moment had a purpose, unless you consciously chose to sit somewhere and be social, it didn’t happen. See, a lot of people aren’t social by choice (especially in video game play). They don’t want to say “hey, instead of killing mobs and leveling my avatar, I am going log into the game, and go sit in a city or safe place and have a chat with my guildmates, or heck, with random players”. This is not to say that people don’t do this, but having the space to socialize within structure of play is different.
But when the waiting is designed INTO the gameplay then eventually, people talk. They strategize, tell stories of past battles, get to know each other but not “on purpose” … they socialize. Not many people like silence (at least when in a group) – even digital silence – when in a group. It was always just a bit awkward to sit in a group of 6 in EQ back when (or in WoW when I did play) where everyone just sat there, waiting for the mob to spawn or someone to have enough mana to continue… So people chose to fill the silence – the waiting - with social bits… Even people who couldn’t care less about being social, ones who, when you talked to them about it later (as I did for my MA research) didn’t see the value in it as an end within itself, would talk about how these moments, over time, became the social glue that bound a group or guild together. To me, judging solely on the TAG post, it sounds like SWtOR brings that old “waiting” mentality back to mmog’s, slowing the action down and returning to a sort of ‘social’ (or potentially social, some people will just sit in silence, or choose to play alone, etc…) gameplay.
I was always furious when people could not see the value in those downtimes. It is where trust and bonds are made that lead to better gameplay experiences (I say imo, but I know this at least from my experience of interviewing ppl during my MA and just being an MMO player over the course of 5 different mmo’s- of a certain era of course – I stopped playing when the first WoW expansion hit, but still – there are so many stories of bad PUGS, people you will never see again, not only because they were horrible players, but because you didn’t have to bother getting to know who you were playing with. There was hardly time to do so. When you can sign your name to an automatic list for a group, get picked up solely based on your class, get insta-ported into the location, and get into battle within a short period of time, there is no sense of obligation to the group or the individual players. If a group sucked, it was nothing for many players to feign getting booted out of the game to rid themselves of a bad group. But when it took you an hour to get something going, the process of getting your foot into a group through chatting up your skill set and accomplishments, taking the time it takes to travel to the camp spot, when you get there and a group sucks, you stick around if only for the time you’ve invested in getting into the group.
Don’t get me wrong, in EQ back in the day, there were bad pick up groups, there was always that person who could never quite play their class right, or what have, but because you got to know people over time (smaller servers helped of course), and you had already committed so much time in getting the group together, you stuck it out (maybe even just a bit more). And while there will always be crappy groups, in my experience, I’ve found that if you have time to talk about things, even if its just strategy, the group usually gets better. But when the game forces you to be in action 95% of the time, there is less time for the glue to gel. Of course, the addition of VoIP enabled players to have these discussions ‘while’ fighting, but in my experience, voice chat never quite enabled the same type of bonding (I have many theories on that, but I will reserve them for another day).
In the end, I think that all the epic feats talked about among elite players would never have happened (here I am referring to EQ specifically, but it is transferable) or not with the same amount of pride that many elite players have when recounting their stories. In my opinion, without these ‘waiting’ times designed into the game – people would not develop the same levels of attachment to the game, to their avatars and to their fellow guild/group mates, for these epic battles to be successful (and fun), there needs to be a level of trust and camaraderie in place. And trust has space to develop in these moments of waiting….I could go on about this, but I will restrain myself…
The rounds of headlines that are coming out of the last round of research on the impact of gaming on marriages (and from what I see, MMORPG’s) look like this:
- Wired: MMORPG’s Can Hurt Marriages
- Daily Mail UK: Dungeons, Dragons and Divorce: World of Warcraft can seriously damage your marriage scientists say
- US News: Love and Warcraft: Spouses being pushed aside for video games
When it could look like this:
- Kotaku: Don’t Blame Your Crappy Marriage on Video Games
- Slate: How Playing Online Video Games Can Help Your Marriage
and the most balanced headlines I’ve seen:
- Scientific American: The Perils and Pleasures of Online Gaming for Married Life
- Slate: MMORPG like World of Warcraft can Hurt or Help a Marriage
See, all these articles reference the research of Michelle Ahlstrom, Neil R. Lundberg, Ramon Zabriskie, Dennis Eggett, Gordon B. Lindsay who researched and wrote an article called ME, MY SPOUSE, AND MY AVATAR: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MARITAL SATISFACTION AND PLAYING MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER ONLINE ROLE-PLAYING GAMES (MMORPGS)
What bothers me the most is that every one of the articles linked above go on about the statistics and reasons people fight (and divorce) over excessive video game play. Of course, blaming the game, not the person or the relationship (thanks to Kotaku for pointing this out yet again for those who tend to forget). The titles reflect the negative view the media feeds off of when it comes to video games, addiction, social problems, violence, etc… (reminds me of the whole cigarettes are bad for you and lets do everything to make you stop smoking EXCEPT not selling cigarettes, because where would we make all that money from otherwise!? thing – but I digress).
What I find the most interesting is, after all the articles point out the negatives (without mentioning the context of the couples), is that there were positive effects found in the research. But the fact that the abstract itself gives six lines of the bad stuff (detailing it) and ends with “ Positive effects of gaming together were also identified.” …. can you maybe share in the abstract as much as you’ve shared the negative impacts?
Personal anecdote. My partner started playing EverQuest when it was released. It took up all of his time. It made me cranky (he has an obsessive personality). After a few months (3 actually), I decided to see what all the hype was about, made an avatar, loved it so much, we bought a second computer, opened a second account and we played together for 6 years (Dark Age of Camelot, Lineage II, and World of Warcraft). It was some of the best times of our lives as a couple – and as parents of young kids. We were housebound more often than not (never had any babysitters), and we played with Danes so our play schedule wasn’t infringing too badly on family life (and they loved fishing and doing tradeskills, so we all got to play!).
When we were faced with criticism from outside people (who didn’t play), we would always explain that it was no different than spending the weekend together camping, playing golf, whatever. The point was that we were doing something together that we both enjoyed. We even met people from around the world through our gaming experiences (and a trip to Denmark to remember!). Our circumstances and interests centered around gaming, and we are thankful for those bonding times. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had plenty of fights because he didn’t heal fast enough (he was a gnome cleric for a while) or I didn’t get my slow in on the mob fast enough (I always played a shaman)… there were nights I went to bed mad because my corpse was left out to rot (in early EQ days, there was a timer, and if you didn’t get your corpse out in time, your items would disappear – most corpse retrievals were long battles in secondary armor if you weren’t friends with a good monk).
Point is, all of these articles quote the article as saying:
- “According to the study, 76 percent of respondents from the “both game” group “reported that MMORPG playing had a positive effect on their marriages.”
- “The take-home message is that doing things together, whether you’re video gaming or doing something else, is better than doing something apart,” Lundberg says. “This confirms the idea that doing things that create interaction and bonding is obviously going to strengthen a marriage.”
- However, shared gaming produced a positive effect on the marital relationship for 76 percent of the couples playing together (which constituted 62% of the study participants).
A (very) brief update today, but I’ve (finally) come up with a title and wrote the formal abstract for my dissertation. After hundreds of pages of writing, one would think that the abstract would not be as challenging as it was. If interested, you can find it here.
I feel a very strange mix of pride and fear as I put this out there. For so many years, I have only talked about my work, while publicly presenting my secondary research interests. In some ways, keeping my primary research close to my chest has kept it safe in my head, but there comes a time when I have to just put it out there, hold my head up and be proud of what I have been working on over the last few years.
I have been working on what is essentially the same research question since 2004 – working towards understanding the player/avatar relationship and identity – not in it’s classic sense as that which belongs (and identifies) an individual or entity (avatar), but rather how identity is morphed and redefined through digitally mediated interactions into something new. I am sure I can come back to this statement in two hours and re-articulate it again and again – get lost in it and come back again, but in the end, when I am talking about “hybrid-identity” (as I have yet to find – or invent – that perfect word for what it is I am talking about), that is basically what I am talking about.
My MA work pointed to a very specific, contextualized form of ‘hybrid-identity’ – an identity which emerges from the long term interactions between the player and the avatar and the game world over time and (social) interaction. This identity does not belong to either the player or the avatar, although both player choices and avatar design play a part in it (along with other contributing elements). I developed a framework of interconnected gameplay elements that contribute to the emergence of this type of identity in mmorpg’s. (note: this research stemmed from Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, Lineage II and early WoW [pre-Burning Crusade] – since then, there have been significant changes to the genre that may alter the original framework. I will address this in my dissertation if all goes well =)).
The (long term) goal of the framework is to be able to apply it to a range of games (and contexts) and determine whether or not the conditions exist for ‘hybrid-identity’ to (potentially) emerge. My PhD work is testing the framework that I developed in my MA (specific to mmorpg’s) against different genres of games (through close readings of gameplay) to see where the framework breaks down, what restructuring is required for it to be a useful analytic tool, and essentially, to test whether or not ‘hybrid-identity’ even has the potential to emerge in single-player games. Of course, the most grandiose goal of my research is to re-articulate the nuances of identity in digitally mediated game play (and not just the player’s or the avatar’s). These are my ideas.
The reality that I have been struggling with while writing is seeing my ideas materialize into clear, defendable arguments. The challenge of making proof plagues my sociological brain. It all makes perfect sense to me. I see it with my eyes; feel it with my heart, but when I try to explain what I mean, I sometimes lose control of my argument and find myself caving into the exist definitions of identity. The concept of identity is so concretely grounded in the human (or at least as a human construct), that trying to pry it loose seems to be a very messy (and sometimes controversial) project. I am passionate about my ideas, it is the reality of articulation (and proof!) that keeps jamming a stick into my spokes.
And with all of that – it is time to get back to work. I am close… so very very close to getting this dissertation out the door … perhaps when it is enveloped in its intro and conclusion, the reality will mirror my ideas and I can breathe easy again.
After a grueling 11 hour bus ride (apologies to my Facebook / Twitter friends for my off the rail rants!), I arrived in Fredericton, my old undergraduate stomping grounds. Was stunned to realize that it has been 17 years since I lived here, yet, little has changed besides the location of the bus station (which, btw is interestingly no longer in the downtown area – strange if you think of the history of bus stations in urban centers….). Anyways, walking down Waterlow Row along the riverfront was like being transported in time – funny how geography (and smell…) can bring back such vivid, almost physical memories.
This morning marks day one of the annual meeting/conference of the Canadian Game Studies Association. I present today at 1pm – still not ready – but realize that I don’t think I ever really am anyways – so I decided to not stress too much and just try to be as prepared as I can be. I am nervous since I am presenting the core ideas from my dissertation (that I had hoped to be finished by now!). I am probably even more stressed about the question period, since I am not sure how to address certain issues that I know will be brought up. I guess that’s the point – learning how to address the hard bits effectively (and convincingly…).
I will do my best to blog about the sessions – will probably only be after my 1pm presentation – on that note, I should get dressed and pack up – breakfast in 15!
This came to my attention today via a friend on facebook, and thought it was worth sharing. It is nice to know that change can (and does) happen.
Worth the read – even if it hurts the eyes =)
“Straight Male Gamer” told to ‘get over it’ by BioWare
BioWare adopted a (sadly) very special and very principled stance in designing one of their recent games, Dragon Age 2. Their stance was simple: relationships are for everybody, whether gay, straight, or anything else in between. You can also have have more than one romance at a time with the game’s characters. In this game, everybody is equal. Too equal, it seems, for one particular straight male gamer who was upset to be on the receiving end of a little flirting from another male character in the game. The reaction of this Straight Male Gamer?
click the link to read the rest of the article:
And the bioware forum link:
I am working on the ‘lit review’ (and definitions) section of my dissertation this week, and it has been an interesting challenge so far. I come from Sociology, where a proper literature review – reviewing what has been written on a particular topic – usually framing the field or the range of perspectives before adding your own – is a formal process with a relatively homogeneous structure across the field.
In this case, for my dissertation, it is a bit different. I am in a field that does not require a lit review (or methods section for that matter!), but I cannot justify writing on a topic that has such an extensive background. It is also important for my readers to know where I am coming from, what I know about what I am writing about, and acknowledging the history of a topic. As it stands, seeing as I am not ‘required’ to include a literature review as defined by a social science structure, I have made a few decisions about its purpose within the context of my dissertation in my department. To be fair, the inspiration came from this book on dissertation writing. While some may have accused me of procrastination while reading it, it has helped me see the structure of my dissertation – and I don’t just mean chapter breakdown or anything – it really busts out what each bit of your diss should be accomplishing. In talking about the literature review, Dunleavy talks about good and bad lit reviews – the cumbersome review that includes everything under the sun ever written, and the good (read: functional) review that develops the literature in a ‘need to know’ structure for the reader. Since I am using a lot of literature from outside Film Studies, it is important for my committee to understand the ideas that frame my work (so that I can prove that the work I am doing is innovative in respect to what has been done already).
So, I spent the last four days hammering out my lit review, more unconsciously than I realized. I decided to roll my “definitions” bit into the same chapter, so the reader will know within which context I am talking about certain terms. So, I categorized my literature by ‘term’ in order of relevance to the content of my work. Starting with Identity (obviously), I realized I wrote a pretty classic lit review almost by second nature (I have written a few on identity in my academic career….). When it was all done, I broke it up into sections of what it is I want the reader to know about identity and its construction process – within a historical context. Instead of writing a full overview of the lit and situating my work within it, I am using it more as a definitional construct. What is it about identity construction that my reader needs to know so that they understand what it is I am proposing when I am talking about ‘hybrid identity’ construction in video game play? What are the key pieces of work that will demonstrate how thinking about identity construction has changed over the decades (centuries). Once decided, I was able to re-edit the literature to act more as a demonstration than a framing…. make sense?
While it might sound the same, the process (and outcome) is a bit different than what I am used to. It is hard to go against my trained nature of what a research paper (diss) looks like, what parts are necessary, and what are complementary – it is nice to finally be at this stage of my writing – that’s for sure!
The closing conference cocktail was put on by TAG at Concordia University. An intimate 5à7 (actually, was a 4à8!) held in the open lobby space of the 11th floor of the EV building where Hexagram and Tag are housed. With two walls consisting of floor to ceiling windows opening on to a large terrace, the views from the room were beautiful, giving the international guests a magnificent visual to take home with them (we even had our first snowfall that evening!). The food, consisting of all local Quebec fare (cheeses, pate’s and delicatessen delights) was paired with carefully selected local artisanal beers, and delectable wines (both white and red), the spread was a delightful temptation – even for those who had already eaten.
With great candle light, and ambient (video game soundtracks) music, the atmosphere lent itself to getting to know each other, squeezing in a last few chats with people you were sad to see leaving, a nd playing a game or two that were conveniently set up in the space.
Another shout out to those who helped put this all together, the hosts and the bar staff were amazing; warm and friendly, willing to answer any question they could. Thanks to Bart Simon & TAG for hosting, Alanna & Saleem for coordinating all the crazy details, to Shanly Dixon for selecting such great food and to everyone who made this a great event – the bar has been set high for future conference events – I can promise you all that! Here are a few more shots taken during the early part of the evening (much more impressive once the sun went down of course!).
Personally, this was a great ending to a pretty great conference. While the food and drink will be missed, I got to talk with a lot of great people, reconnect with some old colleagues and walk away from the whole thing inspired to write my dissertation.
A day late, but thought I would write up a brief summary of yesterday’s conference – talks and social bits of course.
As a bilingual (English / French) conference, attendees are offered headsets so they can hear all the presentations in their mother tongue – allowing for an exchange between groups that may not otherwise have the chance to share their research. One of the things that I noticed after the first day, is how the French community seem to use games as their example within larger research questions (on sociality, digital identity as something that is related to Lancanian / Freudian theories of lack, unattainable desire for the ‘other’, etc) whereas, the English presentations were more focused on the game as object – talking about the elements within (insert game title / genre here) game that make it ‘social’ or defining what games are through casual and social games. Whichever perspective, the presentations were interesting, and I was able to take a nugget or two from most of the presentations (will blog about the individual presentations at the end of the conference). As a single track conference, all the attendees get to hear the same thing, making coffee breaks and drinks feel more connected. I always prefer small conferences where you get to talk to most everyone, there is little hierarchy, and even less ‘groups’ to break into.
Socially, I couldn’t be happier with the first day. Lunch was provided at Benelux (will insert link later), with a free drink to boot (they brew their own beers on site – well worth popping in whenever you are in Montreal). What was nice was the fact that we had the whole place to ourselves – our lunches were placed on the tables prior to arrival (a nice light lunch of tuna tortilla wraps, couscous, bean & feta salad, a few crudites, and some really yummy dessert bread). It was nice to keep the group together for lunch. After a full day of presentations, there was a welcoming cocktail in the library of UQAM. Always wanted to drink in a library! Was a nice ice breaker, the space was open and luminous, with beautiful floor to ceiling windows on three sides. The food was filling, and the server was amazingly quick to keep our wine glasses full.
Afterwards, as most people headed back to their hotels and homes (there is quite a large amount of local attendees), a small group of us headed east, to L’Amere a Boire. We were a bit too big of a group to get a table inside, but thanks to the warm temperatures, they opened the back terrace for us. It is a nice, enclosed, intimate space. Got to talk to several people about their research, crazy pub crawl experiences, and other such ramblings that make conferences so memorable (aside from the presentations of course).
It is on to day two. Looking forward to a full day of presentations, but sadly, a little less social time (one of the cons of attending a conference in your home town).