Monday, February 28, 2011

The social side of gaming

Last chance today!

************* CFA ENDS THIS MONDAY 28 FEBRUARY *************

Dear all,

this is the final reminder that the Call for Abstracts of the international conference "THE SOCIAL SIDE OF GAMING" (21-23 July) will end *** next MONDAY, 28 FEBRUARY ***. So please send in your abstract as soon as possible - there won't be an extension of the Call. For further information about the conference topics and the terms of submission please have a look at:

We are also glad to announce the confirmed keynote speakers. They are

RICHARD A. BARTLE (University Essex, UK, co-author of the world's first virtual world, MUD)
MIA CONSALVO (MIT, Boston, USA, current President of the Association of Internet Researchers, author of "Cheating")
MARK GRIFFITHS (Nottingham Trent University, UK, leading expert in research on digital games addiction)

We are also planning a panel discussion with high class industry representatives and some other events that will be announced soon. For more information regarding the conference, please head over to our conference site at:

We updated the website to answer some of your questions regarding the call, the conference fee, the publication/proceedings volume, accomodation, flight connections, travel grants etc. (s. also our mini-FAQ below).

Please note that some people were experiencing difficulties registering via the registration form due to technical reasons. If you did register, but didn't receive a confirmation yet, please contact us directly via .

We hope to see you in July!

With kind regards

Thorsten Quandt
(for the organization committee)

****** CONFERENCE FAQ *****

We also received several questions regarding the event. Here's a mini-FAQ - more answers can be found online at .

* How much is the registration fee?

There is a very moderate registration fee of EUR 50,- for speakers and participants with a 100 % position. The registration fee for researchers with a 50 % position is EUR 30,-. We try to keep the prices low so that everybody who wants to participate can participate. Science shouldn't be about money.

* How much do I have to pay for a flight to Stuttgart? Is it difficult to get there?

The international Airport of Stuttgart is just 10 minutes away from the University (via taxi). There are connections to all major European cities and even transatlantic connections. Furthermore, you can fly in via Frankfurt or Munich. There are some discount airlines flying to Stuttgart, including airberlin, germanwings and TUI (but also Lufthansa, SAS, British Airways, Delta etc.) - so return tickets to major European cities start around EUR 30,-. If you book early, then this might be your cheapest international conference ever!

* I am a PhD student and don't have the money to travel to your place. However, I have a fascinating abstract and would love to visit the conference!

Please consider sending in your abstract nonetheless. We will offer a limited number of travel suppurt grants for international PhD students and researchers on a 50 % position (or less). Preference is given to PhD students/researchers from developing/transitional countries with top abstracts. Please note that this option is subject to availability. The overall availability of funds is limited, so the actual grant size and number is depending on the number of applications and their quality. If you are a member of the named group and think about applying for a grant, please contact us directly via gamescon2011@uni- We can provide you with more information on a per case basis.

* Will there be a proceedings volume?

We plan to publish the best conference papers and some invited papers in an edited volume. It won't be your standard proceedings volume, but a coherent book on the social aspects of gaming, aiming at the worldwide book market. We are currently in talks with major international publishers about the details of the publication.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Another path towards control

Did you think the battle over free information was over? There's another way to argue for control of the internet. Faltin Karlsen, who is currently looking at problematic use of games and the Internet, writes this concerned note:

A group working with the next revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in the category called Substance-Related Disorders, suggests that:
"Gambling disorder has been moved into this category and there are other addiction-like behavioral disorders such as “Internet addiction” that will be considered as potential additions to this category as research data accumulate. Further, the work group has proposed to tentatively re-title the category, Addiction and Related Disorders."

This move will conflate substance addiction and compulsive behavior into one category and increase the scope of the diagnosis. In short, in 2013, overuse of Internet can become a diagnosis. This is problematic in a health perspective (although also with positive sides), but regarding freedom of expression it has more severe implications. Governments in countries without democracies and where freedom of expression is under pressure will have a valid argument for monitoring and regulating the use of the Internet even further. In the West it is difficult to assess what consequences this will have but it might easily put freedom of expression under pressure, in lieu of worrying about the health of the population. I can’t even imagine the avalanches of media panics this will entail.

It appears that the new motto for control is "Let's close it, and say it's for their own good."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Design, nature and culture

The other day I picked up Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. I am not done with it yet, so this isn't a review. However, it triggered quite a few questions in, which highlight one of the main problems with design, a problem my mother pointed out 40-50 years ago. What she pointed out (in less words) was how the distribution of power in society influences design.

I love the main credo of Don Norman's book and approach to design. Rather than the top-down approach where "good design" is something recognized by the designer's peers and rarely truly appreciated by "regular people," Don Norman starts, like a true functionalist, with function, and claims that good design starts with good function. It has to work for the people who use it. I am almost ready to break out in hallelujahs here, I couldn't agree more. Then he goes through a whole stack of problems with design, listing several examples... and that's when I start seeing a different problem with how design is developed, based on the teachings of my mother.

Back when my father built the house we sold last year, fashion demanded small, scientifically designed kitchens, largely designed after time-motion studies. The idea was a work-space where the housewife would be able to reach everything with as few steps as possible. That's when my mother put her foot down, with the pretty precise analysis of the situation: "That's designed by men."

The traditional Norwegian kitchen was and is, excluding a period lasting from 1945-1970, a large, social room, today frequently merged with the living room thanks to efficient vents and fans. It's an important place for work, socialising and enjoyment, a focus which is even more important in an active, two-provider family where the socialising time is limited. It's where children are taught how to cook and clean, it's where the family cooperates to create an important value of the family life, and it's where work and socialisation can mingle, as it offers a chance to be together, work, chat or open up to each other. You can't do that in a tiny kitchen designed for one person to stand in one spot; you need room, several working spaces, and light.

Don Norman and I don't really disagree here, but still, this is where he uses his examples oddly, without consideration for status and power. One of his examples is an Italian designed washing machine that can do one hundred things, but the couple owning it barely makes it do one. My mother had some funky washing machines in her lifetime, and despite her low level of education and absolute terror of computers, she always made them work the way she wanted. Why?

The example in Don Norman's book is an extremely educated couple. I am sure they can operate any kind of technology they need to get their work done. But do they even care about the process of laundry? My mother would recognize materials by touch, she knew the nature of different colours (blue bleeds more easily than red), she would distinguish between weaves and was deeply offended by blends that changed the properties of all materials included. She'd treat each piece of clothing belonging to a large family individually, and the washing disasters with mixed colours were normally the fault of her not-that-focused daughters. In many ways, my mother was like the Austrian bus driver in another of Don Norman's examples, who, when asked if it wasn't difficult to keep track of everything in his complex panel answered "it's all where it should be."

Now we're getting where I want to. Yes, to a certain extent design is bad because it invites error. However: to a certain extent design is bad because it assumes people are all the same. We believe doing laundry is a simple task, because we all have to do it. It's knowledge we aren't trained or certified for, and so it has to be easy. Driving a bus, on the other hand, includes rigorous training and strict certification. It has to be complex. A complex washing machine causes frustration with the design, a complex bus causes respect for the handler.

Next couple that with gender theory, and we start to see one of the reasons why telephone systems are allowed to be designed as such horribly impractical tools. Most professional phone operators are women. They work a tool which we all use, and so we believe it's simple. They have jobs they are not certified for and which require very little special training. Also, where the bus driver might kill his passengers if he didn't find everything right at hand, nobody dies from a missed call (unlike it's to an emergency call center, and I suspect their systems don't look much like the ones Don Normal describes).

My mother loved to be able to adjust her washing machine to do exactly what she wanted. The bus driver probably has the same feeling about his bus. I love the huge clunky windows machine that I use for gaming, because it lets me do the same thing. I am a lot more frustrated by the apple machine I have through work, because it treats me like an idiot, "simplifying" things I want to do by hand. I use it as a compromise between weight, size and certain functions, and grind my teeth when it calls me stupid by making so many decisions for me. If I was a different kind of user, I'd probably worship it by now, just like I want my car to be simple to drive, and I would not buy a washing machines with functions I didn't recognize the use for.

So: Good design of everyday things is user-centered and based on tests, I am all with Norman there. I would however like to see him question the many places where he says "natural", possibly exchanging several of those with "cultural." After all, most desicions which feel natural to us aren't. They are cultural. Another example from the book: He has tied a string around his closet door in able to open it. At that age, I'd have been down in my father's workshop, looking for a door-knob. That was the culturally logical, available solution to me, and since I thought all fathers had a fully equipped workshop, it also would seem natural. The string was a very clever idea though!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The age of stupid

Once upon a time, somewhere around the bronze age, I started reading fantasy novels by female writers. I read works by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Tanith Lee, Barbara Hambly, Ursula K. le Guin and so many more fantastic and funny writers. I have been collecting books for more than 20 years, and now that I am moving there is a stack of crates in Norway, waiting to come with me.

I am still reading new fantasy, adding to the success of Amazon's Kindle day by day, as I can't resist. It is however starting to get really hard to get the fix I want. Why? The heroines have, for some reason, grown incredibly stupid! See for instance Rachel Vincent's shifters series. Young werecat girl runs away from overprotective daddy (and his powerful clan) to have a life. Girl gets in trouble. Much fantastic fighting, shapeshifting and romance follows. Now, this looks like just my thing, I am hooked on "world almost falls apart and then just gets saved because people are decent somehow and the good guys always gets out on top." Please hold the social realism, if I wanted to feel bad I'll read the papers.

However, Rachel Vincent's heroine has one terminal flaw. She's stupid. Her stupidity is what drives the whole thing forwards. She's self-centered, short-tempered, spoiled and obviously has a severe learning disability, as she keeps doing the same stupid things through six books. And no, I didn't read them all. After the first few, I decided it was enough, and for the last ones I just read the increasingly annoyed reviews.

In Bradley's books from Darkover, women faced a harsh society, fought and managed to scrape out some room for themselves somehow. They weren't perfect, luckily, but they were also not murderously stupid. They had a lot more going for them than looks and the ability to turn into a cat, really.

To a certain degree stupidity is an equal opportunity problem. In J. R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood books, the main character is the king of the vampires, a king who doesn't really want to take on his duties, but has now reluctantly agreed not to keep being only a warrior, but to get on with being a king as well. We have sexy men, beautiful women, dead and undead, fast cars, loyalty and spectacular fights between good and evil. Our vampires are good, by the way. Anyway: So far so good, and I guess if I am able to accept that there are vampires and other versions of undead, being annoyed about the king being plain stupid - well, I should be able to suspend my disbelief a bit more, shouldn't I?

The problem is: I just can't. I not only want the world to be saved, I want it saved in a clever manner! So when the king, rather than meeting with his council, discussing and getting updated on vampire politics (neglected for so many years), goes in a three week vacation with this sexy wife, I really don't feel he has any right to be angry when his soldiers do something stupid and get themselves and their friends hurt. He is ignoring exactly the duties he claimed he'd take on, he's super intelligent, has enourmous resources and a divine connection, and all he does is use it to get laid and spar with his sister, when he doesn't threaten to kill his own men. Still, he looks great, and he has powers. What more does a vampire king need to worry about (except daylight)?

Luckily, not every hero/ine is like that. Some are - if not brilliant - at least likeable. Diana Pharaoh Francis has started a series about the Horngate Witches, where the main character is a magically enhanced warrior with authority issues and a very strong sense of justice and honour. No, not brilliant at all, she doesn't fill others in on what she's doing until it's almost too late, and she is dangerously horny - which causes the dialogue to be... less than good. Waaaay too much heavy-handed innuendo, really. However: she has worked for her skills, she has taken responsibility and learned her job when she realised she was stuck with it and good at it, and she can put her own personal issues aside for the greater good. Also, she loves somebody other than herself, and isn't fully given over to instant gratification.

Anyway, to my point: Is stupid and selfish the new plot move/way to hammer female dependency in with otherwise strong girls? It does explain why the heroine ends up in one emergency after the other. Storm out of the room in anger = get kidnapped. Leave your boyfriend rather than talk to him when you see him with another woman = get raped while you're on your own. Go away to study at the other side of the country = get your friends killed while they try to protect you. Be rude and smart-assed when in the presence of stronger, smarter people than yourself = get beaten up and ruining all chances of a diplomatic solution.

And yes, I know, I am asking a lot from literature that depends on the main characters drinking blood or casting spells, while hanging out with fairies and angels. But still... can we please have heroes that don't constantly behave like spoiled, over-indulged teen-agers on steroids? Please?