Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Challenges in Computer Game Research and Theory

Friday at the ICA

James D. Ivory started the session with a paper on “Exploring the role of Technological Advancement on Video Game Effects.” It contained the anticipated issues about effects of games, and followed through without any shocking news. Sean Zehnder did not exactly change the scale of the expected either, with his “Methodological challenges and rewards for using eye tracking technologies for computer game research.” This paper was a fairly thorough presentation of what you can do to see where a player is looking and focusing through cameras and infrared light, a much less intrusive technology than the eye-tracking technology of the early media studies. At large discomfort to several victims, media researchers in the 50ties and 60ies discovered that the human (western) eye moves in a shape similar to a “Z” when scanning a page, and design has considered this ever since. After Zehnder’s paper it is pretty obvious that the discomfort of the next generation of human guinea-pigs will be much reduced, while researchers figure out the ultimate eye-movement pattern for computer games.

The fun in this panel started with Francis F. Steen’s paper “Digital Dystopia: Rise and fall of the Sims Online.” Steen had a clear and impressive analysis of why the enforced peaceful society does not always lead to utopia, and revealed the wicked nature behind the mild academic in his descriptions of how locking up two sims in a room they could not escape would eventually lead to disaster and/or tragedy. The major flaw of Sims Online according to Steen was how the game denied the players any creative outlets but crime. And so, as the game had been created to make griefing impossible, to actually manage grief-play became a major challenge, and as such the sign of a really skilled player. He also pointed out that the game’s only permitted advancement method was horribly boring, and after you had struggled to advancee your own character to the point that you could get a house and your own stuff in the game, your best way of liberating your character from drudgery was through taking advantage of the other players’ need to advance, and make money off their character’s practice sessions.

This was a rich and sharply critical paper, and also well researched, delivered by somebody who obviously had taken the time to really play and understand the game, and as such was, to be frank, a highlight of the Friday sessions. But it was perhaps a little miscast in the methodology session, as it discussed the Sims Online rather than the methodology of studying it.

John L. Sherry’s paper on “Measuring Media Flow” was more methodology, as he spoke of the challenge of measuring flow. Sherry was looking for a way to measure the direct experience, as he does not believe in using narratives or interviews after the event. He did not offer any solutions, the paper was exploratory, which is nice as it leaves open ends while giving suggestions.

I still did not find his approach useful, as I don’t think flow is something which can be measured without the player’s own assessment of the experience as something particularly involving and gripping, while Sherry specifically wanted to avoid that kind of narratives, dismissing the individuals' own assessment of their experience. The behaviour we see in people involved in flow can as easily be seen in people struggling in frustration with complex tasks, or even be caused by aggression or by being deeply involved in competition, neither of which necessarily cause the experience of flow. This means that measuring and studying behaviour does not give us a good tool to explore this, while interviews and narratives does – which is what Sherry wants to avoid. A neat little dilemma there, and I am not holding my breath expecting it to be solved any time soon.

And now a little personal gripe about the use of “flow”. It comes up frequently in American game research, and tends to be treated as if it is a natural state the players can slip into. Particularly while discussing gender-related flow experiences, it seems as if researchers think flow is genetic and hard coded. It is not. Csikszentmihalyi points out that flow is the result of learned behaviour, and that people need to practice a skill actively in order to achieve it. This means that when women do not experience flow from the same things as men experience it from, this is not mainly because women genetically are different from men, but because women have been taught to master very different skills from men, and also to recognize different challenges. (And that felt good, it’s been annoying me since Friday and I now finally got it off my chest.)

In general the game sessions at ICA so far are not stunning. The research is pretty mainstream media research, perhaps even a little old-fashioned and theoretically thin, applied to a new medium. What is uplifting is that this is a line of game research not heavily pursued by the communities forming around Digra and other European based game-groups. The lack of contact between these two traditions is frustrating, but as quite a few of the younger game researchers are aware of this gap and aware of the other traditions, this promises a diversified future for game research.


dltq said...

I have never commented on your blog, but I have been a steady reader of it for hmmm a long time. So here I de-lurk. Being an old mudder myself (DIKU II) as well as an ex-gamer (FPS), I find your work interesting. Also I like the fact that you are a scholar blogging - I still try to figure out why that should be so surprising.

Great blog - keep it up! :)

Torill said...

Yes, I wonder why that should be so surprising - after all, scholars are about gathering and disseminating information, and blogs are great for that.

I am glad you enjoy your reading!