Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christmas presents

The College gives us a present every year. We have had a long list of useful items, all with an outdoorsy theme: backpacks, thermo-bottles, flashlights, a special bag for maps and a compas - well, you get the drift. Of course, each of these have become the source of jokes among the staff: they want us to get out more, they want us to know what we are doing and where we are going, make the ground fit the map, they want us to be able to shine some light into dark corners... you know, the usual type of jokes.

This year the college is shaken by some extremely controversial decisions. Trust has been betrayed, corners cut, texts twisted - you can say both the staff and the leadership is bleeding. So what did we get? A booklet called "10 years of Volda College" - and a first aid kit with the college logo.

Bless whoever had enough self-irony to make that the official gift this year.

Evil is always the other side

Terra Nova has an interesting discussion on matter of choosing sides: Horde/Alliance in WoW. Castranova asks why do people choose to play evil beings, like undead, prompted by the fact that he discovered that he scares his three-year-old son by it. The post got so many responses I gave up on them, but I did get interested.

I can't answer for Edward Castranova, I can only say what I have learned about conflict in role-play, through playing and through research. And yes, I do know about the issues concerning my own rationalisations, read the parts of my thesis about reflexivity, don't think I haven't faced those questions. But back to the Horde/Alliance conflict.

1) Games need a conflict in order to expand. They need "the other side". Yes, orcs, undead and trolls indicate evil, but if nobody played them, the game would collapse, just like democracy would collapse if nobody dared to represent the opposition.

2) Democracy is based on the right to diversity. OK, so the diversity in WoW is a little extreme and the diet of the undead not exactly compatible with the diet of the taurens, but there are a lot of things I don't eat, too. And I have eaten whale meat, which I guess by some are considered the equivalent of the dead bodies of humanoid enemies. So playing the dark side is, to many of the players, a real moral choice: the choice of representing the alternative, the option to the traditionally accepted "good" side.

3) I have a son too. He is 17 years old and had played WoW for months before I started a character. He sat next to me while I learned how to play my orc, and told me how to deal with the game. His main character is a night-elf priest, and he started to play at the alliance side because he thought they were the heroes. The disappointment when he discovered that he went straight into a long tradition of betrayal, in normal human "God is with us" style, was enough to make him roll a tauren, for some serious tree-hugging.

4) Blizzard is playing with the stereotypes. Yes, the names and imagery of the different races play up to stereotypes. Stereotypes strike both ways, they restrict as well as set free.

5) My personal demons: I can't play humans. My version of hell is a pretty, well-organised human society where the deviant are wiped out. Just logging in as a human character, against that sunny, pretty background, I feel uncomfortable. Give me the graveyeard of the undead any time, chaotic, falling apart and openly rotten/rotting. I might be able to play a gnome if I loaded up enough irony, or a nightelf with a heavy dose of selfrighteousness and detachment, but otherwise the stereotypes just get me: ordinary human organisation is the source of real evil. Sadly and very realistically, people don't see evil in what looks more like themselves.

6) One of the commenters on Terra Nova pointed out that the horde-side players go out of their way to be polite and helpful. While I agree on that on certain servers, I think that is more server-based than side-based. What we get are different cultures on different servers. Moonglade (rp-server) horde-side has a very different dynamic from Argent Dawn (rp-server), more like Alliance side on Runetotem (normal server). The players appear to be younger and used to normal servers or pvp servers, and get rude and unpleasant when they are exposed to role-play. I'd like to say that horde-players are nicer, but after a couple of weeks on a new server, I am really not sure. On the other hand - Moonglade is a young server, it has very few high-level characters (the price on light hide is ridiculously low and it still doesn't sell), and no strong, agenda-setting guilds. Moonglade can still shed the "fuk u" responses to role-play and grow up. Culture can develop and become different.

My conclusion to this is: The reason I like WoW is that Blizzard acknowledges the stereotypes Castranova points out, and then plays with them. The backstory of the game does what the game invites the players to do: play with assumptions.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The new battleground

The Women in Games conference in February triggered a frantic comment discussion at joystiq. While there isn't much news ("I get hazzled so I prefer to play with other girls." "You play with only girls! That is so sexist, if I said 'I get hazzled so I only play with guys' you'd flame me for it." "Would not!" "Would so!"), I find it very interesting to see how many of the regular "women should shut up about sexism" crowd hangs out around gaming sites.

link by way of Netwoman.

Researchers' guild

We now have these types of characters:
undead priest
troll rogue
troll warrior
orc warrior
orc warrior
one future warlock
one tauren shaman

So if you want to join the researcher's guild, make a (shaman), druid, (warlock) or hunter - but preferably not another warrior just yet - at Moonglade, European server, horde side, and email me with your information.


And if you are a Norwegian reader of comics, you probably already know Nemi, and will be able to relate to Neminism.

For everybody else: Nemi is a goth girl in a wonderful comic series. She is oppositional and make very alternative choices in her life, but is at the same time deeply sensitive and warm. She is not particularly successful at anything but living - but she enjoys life with an enthusiasm which is contagious. In Nemi's world it's OK to enjoy candlelight, poetry, chocolate, rock (metal, preferably), sunsets, politics, beer, dragons and sex. Contradictions are her friend, and style is both surface and lifestyle.

So what is Neminism? It's the power of Nemi. She is becoming a cult figure and role model for girls and teaches that they are allowed to be different. It's OK not to be perfect, formatted like everybody else, or constantly consistent and successful. It's OK to be strong and soft at the same time, to make your own choices about what is important and to neglect others. It's not OK to desert your true friends, hurt those who are too weak to protect themselves, or to kill the dragons.

But Nemi also appeals to much older people, and cross genders. The issue where they discussed the eternity engine was a hit at the Norwegian Council of Research, communications of natural sciences program. My husband the Norwegian language and literature teacher confiscates all issues with Andre Bjerke in them. Bjerke was a Norwegian author and poet, whom Nemi and her writer Lise Myhre greatly admires. There are other sharply critical and funny series in Norway, perhaps more elegantly drawn or with a sharper edge, but while Nemi is always defending the underdog and attacking the establishment, she does it with such a delightful self-irony that even the harshest attack becomes - not weak, but human.

And seeing what I have written, I guess I am a Neminist. I'll even dress in black for Christmas.

Christmas Calendar

A little late, but you can always go back and click the rest of December. The Christmas Calendar at Oslo Central Station is both an online project and a decoration at the station. It's made by Ingrid Toogood Hovland.

I am not entirely certain what the girl with the matches (H. C. Andersen's sad Christmas tale) has to do with flying horses and minarets, but, well, Christmas is not the time to be picky about mixed imagery, and at least it's a politically correct mix. And 2005 is the H. C. Andersen year - in Denmark.

I wish I could have seen this at the station though. It looks like it is much better there than on the website.

By way of Nye Eventyr.

Never playful again

From the Onion, a review of a game designed to not harm, exite or interest anybody.

By way of the ICA game mailing list.

Note: for people who don't know the Onion, put your tongue firmly in cheek and beware of irony, sarcasm and downright silliness.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Work vs play

Make tea not war (wonderful name) in Wellington comments on our effort to make a researcher's guild on Wow. Mostly it is a musing at how some people make their hobbies into their job.

This is interesting, because it says something about work as opposed to play, and positions itself in a discourse where certain assumptions are accepted as truth.

1) Playing because it is work can not really be fun.

2) A hobby has to become less interesting if you learn so much about it that it starts to appear to be work.

3) Work is something we do for the sake of duty, enjoying it makes it suspect unless the pleasure is tied to ambition, duty or hard-earned skill.

4) All study of something people do at their leisure is suspect, as the researcher appears to have found an excuse to spend more time with their hobbies than other people.

Luckily, there is more to work and play than this.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The false arch druid

Tonight a friend whispered Agirra on Argent Dawn, and suddenly I was part of a 40 man raid group. The goal was to kill a faction leader, Archdruid Staghelm, in Teldrassil. That is deep in Alliance country, and not exactly an easy place to get in. A few players had managed to sneak in and find a quiet place to wait. They summoned the rest until the whole group was in. Then they snuck into position, pulled the Archdruid to where the main force was waiting, and started killing. It was intense, quick, and then out before the Alliance could get in and do something about it. The Onyx Ascendancy, who were filling out most spots in the raid, posted the story about the event. Afterwards there were celebrations in Orgrimmar, and a group photo outside:

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Horde vs Alliance

It looks like we are leaning towards the Horde side, although I suspect the "I guess trolls and orcs are cool..." email I had this morning was not entirely convincing ;) One reason for it is that the Horde side appears generally more civil and adult, and so I also hope, more robust when it comes to accidental grouping with people who discuss research questions. Also, most of the Joi Ito group are on the Alliance side, and since that list is full of people in comparable fields (including our own Jill), establishing our characters on the horde side will be a stroke for diversity. But the Terra Nova WoW players are on the Horde-side too, so I can't really use that argument for my favourite faction, can I?

So I'll just say: For the Horde! and see if I am zerged. And shamans are way more fun than paladins, too ;)

So: Moonglade, Europe, Horde side. We want the first group to contain:

1) healer (preferably priest or healer-specced druid) (have one undead priest)
2) warrior, main tank, because meat-shields are a must to a good group (have one orc warrior)
3) mage-type for range and damage (mage or warlock) (have one mage)
4 and 5) hunter for range, other assist type: shaman, rogue - or just one more warrior, not specced for defense. This can also include for instance feral specced druids or shadow priests. (have one troll rogue)

We need 10 people to make a guild, which means 5 more.

No name yet. Any ideas?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Wow-europe researcher's guild

Jill, Hilde and I would like to found a researcher's guild in World of Warcraft, on the European servers. It is something I have wanted for a long time, and with the number of researchers playing WoW it should be doable. We are still discussing things like which server (I am all for Moonglade, a new RP server), which side (where I am of course, partial to the horde, if we go alliance I will insist that we work on building a team which can beat the horde in Arathi Basin. I really want to see it done.), and even name and story.

The OOC purpose of the guild will be to meet to discuss game research informally, to do pilot studies to test out research strategies and to learn how the different aspects of the game interlinks through playing in groups and discussing with other researchers.

The IC purpose if the guild will be... Well, depends on what side we are on, really. It needs to fit well enough into the role-play structure of Moonglade that we don't violate the rules of an RP server, and be sufficiently conform that we don't change the server too much through our presence. It should not be so peaceful we can't experiment with all the different play-modes of the game, and not so violent we spend our time ganking and be ganked. That in itself will be a study of the role of the researcher in a delicate online research environment.

If you are interested in being part of this, to learn more and to give shape to the guild early, get in touch with me, Jill or Hilde. Emails will do, until we have decided on the details. We need six more to be able to start the guild, so once we are nine a lot will be settled quickly.

Monday, December 12, 2005

It's not appropriate

Danah Boyd writes about how men and women can't have business dinners without being perceived as being on a date. There's a long long list of other things which are hard to do. While I challenge them frequently, that does not make them go away. I guess all women who work with men at a fairly equal and regular basis can make lists. I have tried to put a few things on mine, but doing so made me realise how much I miss having more female colleagues.

Digital vs paper

I was delighted when I discovered that I could update my Diffusion of Innovations copy with a digital copy of the fifth edition through amazon.com. So now I am cursing at the system which will not let me copy it. I have tried to activate the account which should let me make back-ups of the book to other computers, but does that mean other computers by way of fetching it from amazon? It certainly does not let me copy it to a CD for backup. I could however move the whole "my ebooks" archive from the computer hard-disk to the college server, which gives me much better backup and a chance to get at books even if I change computers (which I tend to do frequently). That means, however, that I only have access to any digital books I put there for as long as I work at this college.

I tried to activate the system (an unholy alliance between Adobe and msn) which is supposed to let me copy the books from one machine to another, but when I tried to figure out how to download the whole thing to another machine, I started a new download. I have no idea if I have to pay for that or not. Most likely I now have two digital copies of the book, billed twice. Fun.

Anyway - this is an innovation, and it will take time before slow old ladies like me feel safe using the new technology. I may be a fairly early user of certain things, but the adaption process is not as quick as my practice...

Update: putting the book on the college server does not make it easier to share the book with my colleagues, for such things as for instance planning the reading lists for students or making exam questions. Installing my adobe DRM activator at another machine, which supposedly should let me move the document between machines, did not work. This makes digital editions pretty useless for professors except as last desperate call when it is impossible to find the book anywhere and we really need that citation. In that case 13$ (which this cost me) is way too much. The way digital books apparently are organised through Amazon at present they make books only consumer goods, not tools to work with. Not good enough.

Understanding delayed

I don't know her name any more, but a friend in junior high school (whose name I remember) dragged me with her to visit this old lady in some of the lunch breaks. My friend was sent by her family, I was cajoled into accompanying her while doing her daughterly duty.

After the first few visits, I was not hard to ask. This was a woman who lived in a house filled with books. There was a piano my friend played for a few minutes each visit, but what I cared for were the books: all the walls in that large, old house covered with them. The lady was almost blind, but she rejoiced at the technology of the casette player, because she could listen to books! There was a magnifying glass in each room, and she wrote letters. Not just your regular "hello, how are you" letter, but intellectual discussions with authors and professors all over the country, and one of them was a quite famous fellow student. She had studied with Inger Hagerup, who was a well known poet, political activist and one of the few early female intellectuals. This old lady was no famous poet, but she was something else - a woman who had chosen her passion for academic and intellectual pursuits over other, more common activities for girls of nice families. And seeing she was a contemporary of Inger Hagerup - well, she had to be one of the very few other intellectual Norwegian women, right?

I suspect she came from an old, well-off family where the daughters could afford the luxury of education. The house she lived in was no common little shack, it was withdrawn, like a manor, into a large garden in the more exclusive area of town. But her choice still touched even my 14 year old self. At the time I had no idea what I was looking at, what kind of woman who served me oatmeal cookies with brown cheese and chocolate milk, but over the last years, while the words "Inger Hagerup early pioneer female liberation" have been sinking in, I have realised and grieved at the lack of understanding my younger self had. How could I understand? Her accomplisment through a life of scholarly labour was so far from the experience of a wild barbarian girl as it could be.

Still... I always wanted to just stay behind and read, quietly, in one of her large leather chairs.

Just call me Cassandra

Some of you know that last year I was working on a plan for reorganising the college. Friday the board decided to what extent the college should be reorganised. They threw out everything we suggested and went in the opposite direction, except for one little bit where we had said that this was one possible way of organising things (hiring instead of electing deans).

I foresee years of saying "this was exactly what we wanted to avoid".

Or, if I am not Cassandra, perhaps I am Dr. Kathryn Railly.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Non-sense of Gender

I just added a link to the article I wrote with Hilde Corneliussen for the Women in Games Conference in Dundee this august: The Non-sense of Gender in Neverwinter Nights. I have been waiting for the organisers to publish the proceedings online, but as this seems to take a little while, here is our article. Yes, I have permission, as long as I cite them properly.

I can't wait

So I pre-ordered Aphra Kerr's book The Business and culture of Digital Games.

From what I have heard in her presentations the last year, this book will address quite a few of those lose assumptions which have been bandied around lately, such as "computer games are more important than the Hollywood film production." So, yes, I am waiting eagerly, Aphra!

One step up

If you're in Oslo 10th of January 2006, there is a conference on women in Academia at Håndverkeren. It's arranged by the comitee for integration - women in research (kvinner i forskning), and speakers are Professor Virginia Valian, Professor Teresa Reese and professor Kari Melby.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


In a conference far far away and a long time ago, a professor bought me a whiskey and told me, smilingly, that I have too much hubris. "The gods love punishing people like you" he added, and drank happily to my expected demise.

I don't think he meant it as a warning or in any way a negative comment, because if I am the hero filled with hubris, daring the retribution of the gods, he is the helper who tries to make the dreams and the wild plans possible. But his observation still made me pause and question my behaviour, what made him say something like that?

I have slowly come to the conclusion that it is because I am a woman. A man could not get away with talking about grand plans and world domination the way I do (metaphorically, of course), because those things would be possible to a man. He would simply be a dangerous maniac who might do some real damage. A woman who aspires to the role of evil overlord is filled with hubris, overconfident and certain to be destroyed.

On the one hand, this should make me seriously angry: Why shouldn't I be able to run the universe as well as any man? On the other hand, it gives me more freedom to fail gracefully and tragically, and not because I am stupid, but because the gods are against me and no mortal can outwit the gods. There is a certain security in that, it is comforting to know that I can blame something else, somebody else.

But that thought brings me to another male who used to return to the claim that women are always using equal opportunity work and gender prejudice as an excuse for not qualifying themselves academically. "The gods are against me, I can't finish my Ph D..." Oh, wait, I did!

So what am I trying to say? I think this sums it up:
1. Women are allowed to try things men can not, because we are expected to fail.
2. When we fail, we are expected to be bitter, angry and blame everything but our own incompetence.

Luckily there is a point three:
3. Some people know about both opinion 1 and 2, but insist on listening to other expectations, continuing to offer support and advice and the occasional glass of whiskey.

So here's to hubris, to naive over-confidence and the belief that we don't have to live our lives like stereotypes. (Not even that of a tragic hero.)

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Working Norway/USA?

Your cooperation is from the 9th of December regulated by an agreement (PDF in Norwegian) between Norway and the United States concerning research and scientific cooperation. The agreement covers all kinds of research and unless there are other agreements, is the default position for cooperation. It will not change a lot in our regular cooperation, but there are a few interesting points:

- People who might otherwise have problems leaving USA due to for instance security concerns, are to be allowed travel in order to facilitate cooperation. Not such a big deal for most game researchers I know, but for those who work in the more regulated areas of computing, it may be.

- All participants have equal rights to publish material which is the result of cooperation. This has been a real issue at times, as the rules concerning citation, copyright and what the document calls "immaterial rights" are different in Norway and the US. While these are quite lenient in Norway, the restrictions on the US side could make publication elsewhere problematic.

- Both nations are to allow for research equipment both to enter and leave their territory. While I mostly imagine huge research ships slowly crossing from international to national waters when reading those words, it may also mean something as simple as carrying with us a computer or just a disc filled up with cutting edge software. Before this agreement, we could have been either refused to enter or stopped leaving with this information, now we can all relax and steer our research ships happily past those serious-looking borderguards.

OK, so my life won't change on the 9th, but it is nice to know that somebody works to facilitate the free flow of information and research.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Role play games seminar

In Tampere, at the Game Research Lab, they are arranging a seminar on Playing Roles in March, 23-24th 2006. Sadly I am either somewhere between Wellington and Europe or Los Angeles and New York at the time, neither option which permits a trip to Tampere (which I would have loved, never been there). But hopefully a lot of other people can be there, and will, it looks interesting.

*** NOTE: update from Markus Montola, who arranges this seminar, in an email:
There have been some minor scheduling problems with the Tampere role-playing seminar, and we've been forced to postpone it by one week. Due to this we have also postponed the submission deadlines. The new seminar date is 30.-31. of March.

Elinor and DAC

Friday night there was a reading of electronic poetry organised by elinor, the nordic electronic poetry organisation started by several of the DAC regulars. I have tried to find the program online today, but no such luck.

My impression was of a religious sermon devoted to the word, this time electronically conveyed. Swedish, Danish, Finnish and American artists presented their work to a silent, reverent group of Scandinavians and some baffled-by-the-seriousness non-scandinavians.

Three examples of the revered word, by three different creators:

See also Grand Text Auto for more about the reading.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Rules all the way down

Daring in this company, Andreas Gregersen applies his paper to the discussion of Ludology in relation to Narratology and Semiology. In his understanding ludology is about rules, and ludology is rules all the way down.

First, I think he (and Zimmerman and Salen in his quote) is forgetting another limiting aspect of games, which is the arena. While code is interpreted as law in some contexts, here code is interpreted as rule, but rules the players can not consent to.

If we compare this to playing fields, that means that the field itself is "rule". In the Huizinga definition of play, the field is considered the arena. Certain rules state how the arena is to be: how long, how large goals, etc, but still as all players of games know, one arena is not the same as the other. Physical laws which the game rules can not adjust influences the arena - as for instance when they golf on the ice on Svalbard, carrying a rifle with the clubs, or there are ski-jumping competition on different snow simulations. So what is the rule and what is the arena in computer games?

Debunking myths

Henry Jenkins (not at DAC that I know, simply a link that showed up while writing the previous post) addresses 8 popular myths about video games. Very useful, good sources. My favourite statement is the first one:
1. The availability of video games has led to an epidemic of youth violence.

According to federal crime statistics, the rate of juvenile violent crime in the United States is at a 30-year low. Researchers find that people serving time for violent crimes typically consume less media before committing their crimes than the average person in the general population. It's true that young offenders who have committed school shootings in America have also been game players. But young people in general are more likely to be gamers — 90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls play. The overwhelming majority of kids who play do NOT commit antisocial acts. According to a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General's report, the strongest risk factors for school shootings centered on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure. The moral panic over violent video games is doubly harmful. It has led adult authorities to be more suspicious and hostile to many kids who already feel cut off from the system. It also misdirects energy away from eliminating the actual causes of youth violence and allows problems to continue to fester.

Exergaming and physical engagement

One of the members of my clan constantly complains about the state of his keyboard. He plays a fury warrior - a warrior who can act at extreme speed. The player himself refuses to drink alcohol before or during challenging game sessions, as it slows down his reaction time, and his play is so vigurous and physical that he keeps breaking the keyboard.

Ian Bogost is speaking about exergaming and the physical analogies used in these games, and how such physically oriented games are not all that fit for private homes. His talk is connected, I find, with the thoughts expressed in Henry Jenkins' article "Complete freedom of movement", which connects to and expresses some of the opinions I have on why games are so popular - our society needs to control excess physicality, and leisure is defined as being still. Resting means vedging out on the couch rather than changing mental modes by going from no physical activity but heavy mental activity to more physical activity and less mental activity.

What does it have to do with WOW? Well, everything has to do with WOW these days, but the real connection is in the physicality: how playing a game well does not only connect to the mental activity, but as much to the physical body: ability to endure strain, react quickly, think clearly and cooly, navigate in the virtual space.