Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a conference focusing on the game player at ITU in Copenhagen. I could only be there for the first two days, but I came home with a lot of new inspiration and thoughts about my project and game studies in general. As expected, methodological discussion was in focus, and it was once again clear that as a multidisciplinary research field, game studies are dominated by two different, if not conflicting, scientific domains: the social sciences and the humanities. All in all, there were many interesting talks at the conference, and I want to share some rambling notes here on my blog.
The first keynote speaker was Peter Vorderer from Vrije University, who is a communication scholar doing mostly empirical research on media effects, and in that way firmly rooted in social science traditions. Vorderer made the point that interdisciplinarity is an impossible dream – different methods have different criteria for what is good research, and we are more likely to stick to the approach we think is most valuable. He advocated that we should be more open towards other approaches, and think in terms of integration of methods, approaches and paradigms, although this is not easy. In Vorderer’s research field, what is being investigated is typically the effects of entertainment understood as direct psychological response that can be measured on e.g. a person watching a movie. The content or meaning of the media artefact is not what interests this kind of research, but that is where the humanists look. As far as I could understand, Vorderer’s wish was that by combining these different perspectives, we are able to cover the full aspects of the media experience – by studying psychological effects as well as use contexts, meanings and cultures.
Kristine Jørgensen from Bergen University presented her thoughts on how to investigate the player’s comprehension of the relationship between the game and the rest of the world by the use of qualitative approaches. With this issue, she touched on exactly how social science methods (such as ethnographical observation, video data collecting, interviews) and a humanistic perspective (aesthetics and fiction) might be combined to wield new insights on the relationship between the game and the player. Jørgensen pointed out that the combination of aesthetic and operative elements is central in computer games, because games are both artefact and activity. So, she is embarking on a very interesting research project investigating how these two aspects of gaming are related and experienced.
The first day ended with a panel discussing “The state of modding”. Tanja Sihvonen from Turku University presented some ideas based on her forthcoming, and very interesting-sounding PhD dissertation about modding in relation to The Sims. EA Games has recently started the site Sims Carnival, where users are provided with easy-to-use tools for creating their own games and uploading them to the site. Interestingly, according to Sihvonen, EA Games has officially recognized that the name of the site is also a reference to literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and his work on the carnivalesque tendencies in literature and culture as collective and anti-institutionalized subversion. But, of course, the question is whether EA Games are really interested in the subversive potential of the users’ creativity or whether they are rather holding on to the existing power relation between the game developers and the users by securing their own control over the framework for the users’ creative activities and potential ‘subversive’ behavior. Alexander Knorr from München University also had a critical eye for the relation between the modders and the game developers, stating that while we often talk of the borders between these are eroded in the modding process, he has found that it is rather the case that the user and the game developer find a shared identity or framework for identity in this process.
On the second day, Jesper Juul presented his thoughts on casual games, and how we can categorize the types of gameplay associated with these games as opposed to ‘hardcore’ games. He pointed out that there is a misconception that people who play casual games don’t play as often or for as long time as hardcore players, when research shows that a large part of casual players play quite a lot. This leads him to identify players of hardcore games as more flexible towards the game (willing to change tactics, put in extra time if the game demands it), while players of casual games are less flexible, wanting to be able to stop the game anytime and not for instance spend a whole night finishing a difficult mission etc. Juul’s view was that design changes leads to changes in player behavior, but players also always play the same game in different ways.
Moving on to gender issues in gaming, Hanna Wirman from University of West England presented her paper on female Sims players creating content for the game, understood through the metaphor of weaving (from Sadie Plant) as a way for women to achieve social power through technology. Very interesting, cyborg theory-like approach to this subject. She also pointed out that leisure activities that are identified as feminine, such as casual games, are often devaluated in culture as well as in research. Jessica Enevold from ITU and Charlotte Hägström from Lund University presented the framework for a project on ‘Gaming Moms’, investigating both how women are represented as gamers, and how they juggle time between play and family life and how they experience their gaming life. This should be a very interesting project to follow!
Ulrika Bennerstedt from University of Gothenburg and Björn Sjöblom from Linköping University both presented studies drawing on methods from interaction analysis and conversation analysis, one analyzing in-game interaction and the other analyzing interaction between players in the physical space. Bennerstedt had studied situated identities in roleplay MMORPG, conceptualizing the identity play as a form of digital puppetry, where the players have strategies for achieving the different social roles (the fantasy character, the virtual persona, and the physical self). Sjöblom had recorded a play session between four boys playing WoW to study how game/gaming rules become discursive devices in player interaction (how they talk about the rules). It is always interesting to hear about the sort of micro-analysis carried out in this methodological tradition.