Thursday, April 23, 2009

Out of touch

I will be unavailable for anything but emergencies until May first. That means most likely no internet, and very limited phone access.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Games and public relations

Most of my readers know I play games, write about them and talk about them. Some know about the blogs too. Well, the meta-part, not just the blogging. And then there's the group that mainly knows me as the teacher, occasionally leader, of a public information/public relations education.

I have been working with this side of communication since 1991, and it's how I entered into studying games. The original study I did of games was the study of one called "Det store manndomsspranget" - the great leap to manhood. This game was finished in 1998, and was just about to be published when it was said to be stopped by the the government which - at the time - had a christian people's party representative as the prime minister: Kjell Bondevik. Even before it was published, the game was critizised for the extreme effect it would have on young people.

The game was designed to teach young boys about relations to others, with and without sex. Mainly it rewarded communication, willingness to wait until both parties were ready, acceptance of alternative sexualities and different cultures. The critics claimed it would make young boys want to try out sex. Also it would lead to negative feelings about monogamy, and encourage polygamy and homosexuality. As you understand, an extremely dangerous game. If you would like to test your personal integrity and are willing to risk ending up polyamorous, gay and obsessed with sex, in 2001 the game was available from Helsedirektoratet, in Norwegian, of course.

My own work with this game was to analyse and discuss its potential as a persuasive game. Since it was created by the Norwegian board of Health in order to educate and persuade boys about/into safer and generally more well considered sex, it was a very interesting experiment for me to write about. I was in general working a lot on health campaigns and information concerning gender, sexuality, abuse, pregnancies and abortion, using several large Norwegian campaigns as examples for my students. Most of the different aspects of these campaigns were however targeting girls. Girls are a lot easier to find, if you want to communicate with them strategically. They read magazines, they watch certain programs, they surround themselves with certain objects, such as school journals. Boys at the age of 13-17 are however much harder to reach. At this age they disappear into their own interests, and very little can pull them back out of it.

What I wanted to learn was if a game could do it. Could I expect a game to be a sufficiently strong medium that boys would be able to take their learning experiences from the game world to the real world?

My conclusion after watching the game, playing it, testing it on a few choice subjects, discussing it against theories of the formation of ideas and attitudes and in general using what tools I had short of a very big and long experiment, was that no. At least not this game.

What happens with games, even extremely pedagogic, educational games such as The Great Leap to Manhood, is that when you start playing, you enter into a play sphere. It's more fun to see what kind of responses you can get out of the game (if I put the avatar's hand under the girl's skirt, will she slap him?), than to try and respond politically correctly. This could then encourage non-monogamous experiments in the game space (can the avatar manage to date both the girls?) Would this endanger the Norwegian core family? Hardly - the game was a point-and-click adventure which at no point let you forget that this was exactly that, a game.

I was thinking about this work now, because I was shelfing, unread, Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games. Spillets leser - leserens spill was in many ways before it's time, and it was looking at connections between games and persuasion which is frequently overlooked.

First of all, as public relations research shows us, it's not easy to create attitude change. It happens slowly, and the media have a limited influence on our attitudes and values.

Second, coming from reader-response theory, which I run into only rarely these days, the analysis of The Great Leap addresses a theory which originally was abandoned due to the fact that "interactivity" in Iser's sense and "interactivity" in the game sense is not the same. Today it might be the time to go back to those topics and question the theories of the active reader more closely. What kind of reading IS gaming?

Third, boys know the difference between playing in order to satisfy the teacher, and playing to satisfy their own curiosity. The issues of oppositional readings must be huge with pedagogical, or "serious" games. Now, there might be a lot of research on this which I have just ignored as I haven't really followed the "serious" scene that closely, but so far I have seen very little on this.

Still, today I find myself thinking that going from Public Relations to games was not such a long step after all. The theories I have explored, the problems I have written about and the topics I teach have changed, but it's still all about how people behave while they communicate. I may straddle a gap, but it's not as wide as it looks.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Researcher's retreat for you?

My best writing is always done when away from the daily running of the department at which I have now worked for almost 18 years. While I am here, I know too much about what goes on, and I care and get distracted by it. Away it is true: Out of sight, out of mind. This means that 3 weeks at the end of a publishing process normally is all I need to write a decent article. Three weeks, somewhere peaceful to stay, an internet connection and a library.

Now, thanks to the generousity of Volda College, specifically the Media Department, others can have exactly this if they want to come to Volda! We're formalising this as soon as possible, but the outline of what the department is offering is this:

An easygoing, if sometimes very busy and focused staff, with which to have lunch and occasionally even interesting conversations. The main topics of research and teaching here are journalism, public information, animation, television documentary and new media.

An apartment, at an extremely good rate by any standards, for three weeks (time depends somewhat on how many need to use the apartment a given month).

A desk in a common office, with internet connection.

An ok library (not the largest, but with an extremely helpful and friendly staff).

For this we ask one 90-minute lecture over a topic of your choice - your speciality, the thing you would really like to share with others, the research you're most proud of. If you can't make up your mind, contact us to ask what we need, and we'll slot you into one of the many courses running here.

There's no funding for travel, and nothing to cover your work here unless you negotiate that directly with an interested party. This is an offer mainly aimed at making your own funding go a little longer than it would otherwise. It's a way to make it possible to get away from the daily grind and stay for a while in an extremely peaceful spot on the planet. Fresh air, small community, very little crime, amazing opportunities for hiking or skiing (get a map, you'll need it!), a few concerts while the students are active and organising it, otherwise just a quiet place to be while you rewrite that pesky manuscript.

Volda is far away from everything, but sometimes, that's just where you want to be.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Skype television

There's a show on Norwegian state television (NRK 2) that I didn't know about, it's called Sveip, and runs in the afternoons. It covers net news, and uses the net to do interviews and reportage. My upcoming trip to The Gathering appears to be good news for them, so yesterday I was on the air, live from Volda. It's in Norwegian, but for non Norwegian speakers, I can tell you that we were talking about this research project.

I am fascinated by the ease as well as the quality of the transfer. There was a problem with the light, I drew all the curtains but the sunlight still made me look quite washed out. I don't mind though - not all the details about me look good on television.

And you wondered

why there aren't more women playing games? Perhaps "Shii", the Wii for women gives you the answer.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Professor plans World of Warcraft book

It's big news in The Post Chronicle, that Bonnie Nardi has rceived a 100 000$ grant to study the Chinese approach to playing World of Warcraft. The article focuses on the fact that she's studying WoW - from my point of view it's more stunning that she got all that money to do it!

It's going to be interesting to read her conclusions. The attempts I have heard of to penetrate the Chinese gaming culture have so far failed, and any information about what they do will be interesting. However, considering what I am writing about currently (the community practices of gamers), I really hope that she has noticed that a lot of the mods being used by her American gamers are not created solely by Americans. A lot of the modding spring out of European communities, and if she is to play the geographic differences card, it would be a good idea to remember that Europe still hasn't been taken over by the US - even if much of it is part of NATO. Is it an English language thing? Do Europeans and Australians mod their UI as much as the Americans? What about the Russian, French and Spanish servers in Europe? The Japanese?

And that before we start talking about co-use of machines. My small survey, where I suspect not a lot of Chinese are participating, shows that more than 80% of the gamers play on their own machine. I don't think that number is much smaller for US gamers, although Europeans, particularly in the Nordic countries, have a high saturation of technology. But if you play on a machine used by any number of strangers, to modify the UI can become a real source of conflict. There's nothing as annoying as taking over an interface designed for somebody else. Yep, even in the 20 minutes since I read that little piece of news, the questions are popping up like mushrooms - which is a good thing. Nardi has hit an interesting area to question.

Anyway, Mez sent me the link to the news article, and she asked if Bonnie Nardi is a gamer. What can I say but "I sincerely hope so"? It would be too bad if 100 000$ was spent on gamer scholarship ignoring the game.

PS: Of course, I forgot to congratulate Bonnie Nardi. I am such a barbarian, I forget simple things like that. I was too caught up in the topic and the possibilities. But here it is, a few days late: Congratulations!