Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Digital rhetoric in the days of -chans

This year I learned something new about how people behave online, and I can thank gamergate for that. Since September, when I realised DiGRA had been connected to DARPA through some serious mental gymnastics, I have been both talked about, had anonymous emails, been threatened personally and generally as part of DiGRA and dismissed by this odd "movement" or "hashtag". I have gotten away with no real aggression though, compared to friends and colleagues such as Mia Consalvo and Adrienne Shaw.

I have written about the main gamergate misconceptions about DiGRA, what they believe is the scandal of peer-reviewing criticism and the connection to DARPA and the so-called feminist ideologue take-over earlier, so this isn't a rehash of those points. This is about the particular rhetoric device used online, of ignorance, repetition and conspiracy hypothesis. It was pointed out to me on Twitter that I shouldn't call an insubstantiated assumption theories, but hypothesis, and yes, thank you stranger, that is correct, the assumptions adding up about DiGRA in the different gamergate discussion fora are not theories. One of their main claims can be summed up in this post on twitter. Here they put the blame for all the articles pointed to on that list on a few articles by Consalvo and Shaw, criticising the concept "gamer". (Shaw in ADA, Shaw at DiGRA, Consalvo in ADA), and claims that DiGRA could have "stopped this" - as in stopped gamergate, I presume.

But let us first look at the fora where gamergate is active.
Gamergate started, as far as it is possible to put a finger on it without defining "started", in /pol on 4chan, a discussion site for political discussions which are dismissed elsewhere. Here you can find speculation on race, the red scare, and, relevant in this case, the Frankfurt School conspiracy hypothesis. 4chan, and later 8chan, are open discussion sites where all who discuss do so anonymously, and where anonymity is cherished. To learn more about -chan culture, see the storify from A man in black and a discussion of it by Anders Sandberg. Both of these demonstrate how technology and moderation together facilitates a style of discussion that is insular, exclusive and supports a particular type of amnesia.

This amnesia is necessary for the repetition that is particular to gamergate rhetoric. Since the -chans do not keep threads available to the public once a certain limit of content has been reached, previous discussions disappear to the public eye quickly. This is a feature, not a bug, if you want to control the "narrative" and avoid displaying previous debunking or mistakes. The DiGRA discussions keep coming up there, and new people keep coming in to ask for "old information on DiGRA." They are then carefully served a mixture of increasingly elaborate claims, starting with the claim that DiGRA is financed by DARPA, and supports Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, as well as the game developers Silverstring media. The "proof" for this is a collage produced by one of the anonymous on these boards, where they show that at some point, some of the persons gamergate have decided are very important (Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu) have been in touch with some people who have also been in touch with DiGRA. The nature of academic associations become proof of deep and sinister conspiracies, conspiracies that leads to politically correct computer games and, most recently according to /gamergate on 8chan, a takeover of the US government's plan for their "common core" curriculum for education, through increased use of electronic resources and gamification in education. Incidentally, DiGRA is a place where you may find some of the best informed and outspoken critics of gamification anywhere, but that doesn't stop the conspiracy assumptions. There have been several threads about DiGRA, but here is today's hits on a search for DiGRA on 8chan board /gamergate, as well as an image that followed one of those posts. This is not the most inflammatory or aggressive set of posts, no addresses revealed, very little cursing or attacks on the women they have attacked previously, but it demonstrates their obsession with finding out how DiGRA controls the development of US common core.

So, let's look at these conspiracies.
Of course, the nature of deep and sinister conspiracies means that any front has to be innocent. "What? Us? We just had lunch, we never discussed how to control the western world." And as such, an academic meeting place is perfect. People travel there from all over the world, and do - what? Listen to each other and talk? If you are unemployed, or employed in a job where you have to come back from any travels with proof of having achieved something, closed a contract, made a sale, brookered a deal, the very loose, almost flimsy, achievements of academic networking appears incomprehensible and, possibly, quite scary. After all, we present for 20 minutes, but spend days in some remote location such as a mountains above Salt Lake City. And the interesting thing is - I can't prove that my colleagues are not discussing how to change US education. Actually, a lot of them probably did. Discussing the educational system is both a favourite topic and in the job description of academics. We are supposed to teach, care about teaching, and research ways to teach better. Some of us focus on how to do that better with our own topics, some of us look at how our own topics can contribute to better teaching in general. I am pretty certain that the educational systems of every nation of every DiGRA member has at some point been discussed. Which brings us to another aspect of the questions asked by gamergate - who are really the DiGRA members? That is a very tricky one, that will make it hard for gamergate to get anywhere. DiGRA membership fluctuates wildly. People will skip paying fees for years, then do it again when they go to a conference. It isn't a static thing, so any membership lists will be outdated very quickly. This means, of course, that it is almost as hard to pin down DiGRA as to pin down gamergate - if you say you identify as a DiGRA member, then you're pretty much it. If you want to be able to prove it, you should pay and show off the receipt, but without the receipt, you can't prove or disprove membership at any given point in time - except for the conferences. Pretty much everybody at a conference are DiGRA members - because it's cheaper that way. And that lasts for a year.

But is this a conspiracy? DiGRA doesn't happen in secret, and doesn't hide anything. Gamergate believes DiGRA hides the money trail to DARPA, because they can't find it. Those of us who have any knowledge about how a Nordic no-profit organisation works, not to mention DiGRA, know that there is no such money trail, or the Finnish government would have found it and taxed it to pieces. You don't mess with Nordic no-profit rules, as they are very carefully watched to avoid political corruption and public spending fraud. The Finnish government is actually gamergate's best friend in this case, as it will not be difficult for a savvy Finn to find and read the financial statements of DiGRA. So when no such money trail has come to light, it's because it doesn't exist.

So why keep harping on the importance of a small research association? ("Small" is in the international context. Compare it to ICA, and DiGRA is tiny.) Because DiGRA is a soft and friendly target. There are no lawyers lined up to sue the many who spread lies about DiGRA. There are no professionals publishing statements and pushing back against gamergate. The closest is a television appearance of Mia Consalvo on Canadian television, where they talk about the gamergate controversy. If you need confirmation that this is taken very badly by those who identify and speak for gamergate, read the comments to that youtube link. Since Consalvo is currently the president of DiGRA, such appearances become "official DiGRA standpoints," even if they are simply the words of one game resarcher, not acting as president or speaking for the association, making DiGRA appear dangerous, powerful, and with "secret connections to the press."

In short: when you live with the belief that there is a conspiracy, everything appears to feed the conspiracy.
There are no member lists of DiGRA? They must be supressed and hidden!
There is no proof of money passing from DARPA to DiGRA? It has been hidden!
There are no transcripts of the meetings where DiGRA plans to take over the common core? They are kept secret!

And if somebody accept that there may actually not be a deliberate plan from DiGRA to crush gamers nor to change the western world as we know it, that doesn't matter. If you go back to this very dense and hard-to-read image, post 6 points out that it doesn't matter if DiGRA just does its thing and isn't an evil conspiracy, because it's part of the greater plan to destroy western civilisation. And this is where the conspiracy hypotesis turns very dark indeed.

The cultural marxism conspiracy is the idea that academic marxism, multiculturalism and cultural criticism based on the understanding of cultural hegemonies and cultural bias (ethnicity, class, gender to mention some) is a corrupted process of intellectual control. According to this, all who question the priviledged position of white, christian males are traitors or enemies. The logic behind this theory has lead to horrible tragedies, as I as Norwegian can not forget. This links gamergate to a line of thinking which defies all facts we can present, because the facts don't matter. DiGRA is a research association working out of mainly western universities, promoting cultural diversity and the understanding of an increasingly diverse culture. According to this understanding, everything any scholar of the humanities or social sciences does is worse than useless. They - we - are dangerous.

And this is the scary part. I am not afraid of gamergate calling my boss. I told him about the movement and the accusations, and he lit up and told me he just couldn't wait to see those complaints based on me doing my job. But I am afraid of some crazy believer in those conspiracies deciding to act on their own. That has happened before. It will happen again.

This isn't a new fear. Celebrities have always been in danger of unbalanced minds. The "new" part of it is how people become celebrities. Zoe Quinn dated the wrong guy. She might not have handled that perfectly, but who does? Now she is in hiding, because of the aggression aimed at her. Some Internet subcultures create involuntary celebrities like her, then build huge complex networks of assumptions about what they have done, and punish them for these imagined acts. The truth is unimportant, because it is possible to construct what is almost an alternate reality based on forcefully fitting a lack of evidence into existing assumptions.

Gamergate is a lesson in the rhetoric of how to force a lack of facts to fit a hypothesis. As such it has taught me more than I ever wanted to learn, and I will keep studying the structures of online communication it has opened up to me. It has confirmed in an unexpected manner that understanding game culture is a lot more important than even I believed. And I had dedicated my career to it!

Friday, November 14, 2014

We think games are for everyone

A sentiment I can get behind:
We want games to be a space where everyone feels welcome.
We think critical thinking in games should be applauded.
We want to play all kinds of games, made by all kinds of people.
We think games are for everyone.

Thanks for making the logo and spelling it out.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

DiGRA board 2014 and gender scholarship

One of the popular claims by people wearing the GamerGate tag is that the DiGRA board is currently rife with feminists. Compared to the negative tone used by the #GamerGate stream when speaking about women, most places outside of the inner circle of discussion sites where #GamerGate started are feminist. So in that sense yes, the claim is correct. However, this is not a useful distinction, so let us put this differently: is the DiGRA board now taken over by gender scholars?

Today the question of gender is commonly discussed in academia. Most scholars will at some point address it, just like they will address class or race. This means that to understand if a scholar is a gender scholar with a feminist background, we have to look at their work, not just one publication, but a list of work.

Mia Consalvo, the president, lists 147 publications on her CV, which she mailed after she noticed I had used the academia.edu page for this count. Out of these, 35 are somewhat gender related. I have reduced this to "somewhat" from "clearly" because when I looked closer, several of the articles mentioned are about gender related topics, such as domestic violence, but not automatically about gender theory - it depends on the discussion. This means that quantitatively, Consalvo is clearly one of the more active when it comes to talking about gender in games. We can still not call her a gender scholar, for that her main focus would have to be gender, and it is currently close to a quarter of her work. It is also unfair to call her a scholar who is only interested in the representation of women, as that means to ignore such articles as "The monster next door", which strongly criticises the way men and boys are represented as violent monsters in the media, focusing on the example of the perpetrators of the Columbine shootings; or "Looking for gender; gender roles and behaviors among online gamers", which is a study of whether the activities of male and female WoW players can be explained through traditional gender roles.

Jose Zagal is the vice president, which means he has considerable influence at the board. He has been a long-term member of DiGRA, and active in different capacities within the organisation. Let us look at his publications list.  He also has 33 articles on his list, out of which none are gender related.

Ashley Brown is the secretary. Her publications list contains 7 articles, out of which one indicates a main gender focus. Brown is however a special case here, as her focus so far in her career is eroticism in games. This means that she has to engage with issues concerning sexuality, which again means it would be a flaw if her work was not informed by gender studies. A closer reading of her articles will show that she systematically discusses gender definitions, gender roles and gendered expressions, as part of her studies of sexuality and eroticism.

Jussi Holopainen is the treasurer. His publications list is not as rich as it could be, so I will use his google scholar list. This list is not entirely to be trusted, as it lists others with the same name, and it has some patents which I am not certain are connected to Holopainen or not. Still, out of the more than 40 works which he clearly has authored or co-authored, none are on gender-related topics.

Annika Waern is the media liason, which is a function rather than a position. She has mainly coordinated with the media over press-releases and ads for a conference. Let us still look at her publications. Note that these are only her game-related work, she is a mature scholar with several accomplishments. Out of her list of 40 publications, one is clearly gender related. The one article on gender is on gendered game design, and discusses what is known as "pink games", games specifically designed for women.

Rachel Kowert's publication list holds 10 articles, out of which one is on gender gamer stereotypes (forgive the error, which came from reading with a bias for gender). It has not yet been published, but from the title: "Unpopular, Overweight, and Socially Inept: Reconsidering the Stereotype of Online Gamers", we have reason to believe that it is a criticism of the general idea that online gamers are unpopular, overweight and socially inept - as a matter of fact it is likely to contain proof that the prevalent stereotypes painting gamers in a negative light are wrong.

Hanna Wirman's publication list contains 40 publications. Of these seven are gender related. One is her Ph D: "Hanna's PhD research focused on women players and their co-creative participation in the design of The Sims 2 through game modification." Wirman's publication list shows a typical academic development from one topic over to a related one, in this case from female Sims players to the study of animal play. This exemplifies how she is mainly a game scholar rather than a gender scholar, as her focus is firmly on the play aspect of game studies.

Lindsay Grace has a publication list with 51 articles, out of which one is gender related.

Chris Paul has 66 publications on his list (download the PDF with his CV to see the list), out of which three or four are gender related. When I don't give an absolute number, it's because it is a bit unclear how to count papers that develop into articles. This is despite the fact that one of Paul's stated research interests is gender in games, but as we can see it plays a minor part in a scholarship that is mainly focused on play and rhetoric.

Consalvo is still the scholar with the most gender-related articles, and considering that she is the president, this may make it appear at a casual glance as if gender is suddenly the focus of DiGRA. Before insisting on this, please consider what DiGRA's main function is. The main event at DiGRA is the annual conference. The topic of the conference is set by the program chair. The program chairs of DiGRA 2015 are Staffan Björk, who is clearly not a gender scholar, and Jonas Linderoth, who has one gender-related article out of the 12 most recent he lists on his page (Updated to include Linderoth). On the other hand, choosing these two for program chairs is an expression of a direction which has been considered controversial within DiGRA - the move from a clear focus on digital games to a wider focus on games in general.  If there is a current change in the direction of the association, it is in this more clearly stated inclusion of LARP and table top gaming in the relevant scholarship.

There is also no evidence that there is a trend of increased study of gender in the different DiGRA conferences. There may be leaps in certain conferences, due to the call topic or current events. It is for instance quite likely that #GamerGate itself will trigger several gender-focused papers for the next conference, as the movement has brought into sharp focus the necessity to understand the anti-feminist minority in gamer culture. Up until 2013 there was no rising gender-trend in the papers accepted to the conference.

(Note: I expect that as the scholars I discuss here take note of this page, I will receive corrections. We are academics. We do like to make sure information is correct.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Misconceptions in GamerGate

Jenny Goodchild has put together a page where she  addresses the most common misconceptions (and the occasional lies) profiles tagged with #GamerGate keep spreading on Twitter. If you have proof of more in the same vein, let her know. If you make a collection of similar misconceptions spread about persons tagged with #GamerGate and related to #GamerGate, Jenni will be happy to link to it in her post.

Jenny also posts this breakdown of the "10 articles in the same day all saying gamers are dead, so it must be a conspiracy" claim.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Frequently asked questions from GamerGate

Over the last few weeks, I have engaged in a few conversations on Twitter as a gamescholar and a DiGRA member. All ask me the same questions. Here is the FAQ:

1: Are you against peer-reviewing?
No, I am not. But I think it's not the only tool to support transparency, innovation and precision in an academic debate. Particularly for conferences, peer-reviewing can be more of a problem than a help, as it can stop new ideas and thoughts from entering into arenas where they can be discussed. For journals peer-reviewing is a good tool to make certain publications maintain a minimum of quality.

2: Are your DiGRA mates against peer-reviewing?
Not that I know of. Some may have the same stance as me, that it's sometimes good, sometimes bad, but I don't think any want to get rid of peer-reviewing all together. If you however reference the famous transcripts (people who were at the fishbowl have pointed out that this is not a transcript, but two peoples' notes, and did not cover all interaction or nuances), please also note that Mia Consalvo says:
(Transcript one) Mia:  One benefit of peer review is that work can be critiqued in a way that we might not do to a person’s face in a manner that drives our work to be better.  The way the system values peer review is bullshit, as the money accrues in the hands of private corporations.  How can we do the work and have it benefit us?
(Transcript two) Consalvo: One benefit of peer review – My work can be critiqued, and you can still call my work bullshit. But people can't actually say that to my face. Peer review is bullshit when our institutions overvalue it. And we don't want to start another journal. But if we can get it so Wiley isn't getting obscenely rich on our stuff.
As you see, Consalvo speaks out in favour or peer-reviews. What she criticises is how it is being overvalued by academic institutions, in that they only accept peer-reviewed work. This is problematic for instance because of the negative influences it has on the dissemination of new and controversial ideas. (See answer 1.) Another established game scholar, T. L. Taylor, says this about peer-review in the same transcript:
(Transcript one) TL: One good thing peer review can do is that it can push people to historicize and put things into context and address to the politics of citation. In the best sense, there’s a collectiveness to the mode of review that we can lean on.

(Transcript two) Taylor: Peer review can actually help people to historicize, contextualize and engage in politics of citation. How do you figure out the way to show lineages?
As you see, if you understand the economics of academic publishing, they are really criticising how the demand for peer-reviewing feeds the corporations that keep research articles behind pay-walls, same as Harvard University is protesting. That is not the same as saying peer-reviewing is always bullshit, or wanting to get rid of it altogether.

3: Are you against #GamerGate and #OperationDiggingDigra peer-reviewing your articles?
First, peer-review means it is reviewed by peers. I have my material reviewed all the time. Whether the peers reviewing are #GamerGater or #OperationDiggingDigra followers really doesn't matter. I expect them to live up to the standards of academic reviewing. This is why peer-reviewing is mostly double-blind: neither author nor reviewer know each other. So if that's what is meant by peer-reviewing, I am fine with it.

Second, let's say it's just fact checking. A lot of the work I do includes in-depth interviews with gamers who want to be anonymous. I am not giving out their names and other information to a group of random readers in order to let them "check" those facts. If there is a university-led review challenging my results, I will submit the data, given these reviewers are also bound by confidentiality. Until then, #OperationDiggingDigra will just have to trust that I am aware of what a breach of my academic integrity it would be, if I made up and lied about my data. As for checking references and citations - please, by all means! It would be really embarassing if I made errors there (made at least one I know of, years ago), but I am human, and I strive to become better, so please check and send me the list of errors.

Third, if gamers are actually reading through the DiGRA library, looking at the research presented there, I am thrilled. We publish in order to be read.

However, if #OperationDiggingDigra is about reading a few gender-related articles in order to find keywords to use to make angry videos on youtube, yelling abuse at researchers, then no, that is not cool. I can't keep people from doing that, though, I can just ask others to look at the DiGRA library and make up their own minds.

4: Why do you study digital games?
I study games because I believe they are vital to understanding what we can do with computers. They demonstrate new ways of creating texts, organising communities, expressing identity and co-creating stories. This is fascinating, and has held my attention since the late eighties. I started systematically analysing games in 1995.

5: What do you think about the aggression research on games?
A lot of it starts out with research questions that aim at confirming a link between games and aggression. However, like most effect studies in all media, the results are inconclusive. It is likely that games have the same effects as other media, in that they confirm already held beliefs, ex: if you think violence can solve your problems, you enjoy games that confirm that belief, and use them to learn new ways of using violence.

6: But why do people become influenced by gender, and not violence in games?
This has actually been answered pretty well here. Look at around 5.50, where L0G1C B0MB points out the differences between sexism and murder. Now, look at answer 5 in this FAQ. The thing is that sexism is a lot more common than violence and murder. We disapprove of violence, and we know it isn't a good problem solver. Sexism, on the other hand, is just moderately disapproved of, and in many subcultures it's encouraged. This means that you are much more likely to have your misogyny confirmed by the media than your psychotic plans to commit murder. Also, in a lot of games the narrative disapprove of murder, and the players' avatar's murder spree is justified as protection and self-defence. Sexism, on the other hand, is rarely punished nor called out in games. There are no gender consciousness raising sprees in games, to strike back at the misogynists. In the light of this, asking for games which have a more varied and not so single-minded representation of gender is not unreasonable.
Update May 2015: A study by Breuer, Kowert, Festl and Quandt shows that they have not been able to observe any increased sexism in players as a result of sexist games. Note however that first, they are not saying it can't happen, just that they haven't observed it. They also don't say whether the players were sexist at the beginning of the period and had their opinions confirmed or cemented. The study is very limited in its claims. And for those who have been using this study to say "take that, DiGRA": I know both Kowert and Quandt have been to DiGRA conferences and presented research there, obviously without being particularly influenced by the presence of potential gender scholars at the same conference.

7: Do you want to control and change the content of games?
No, not at all. But I would love to see more diverse games, games that my gay friends, my black friends and my female friends can play without having to keep ignoring slurs against them. I would like to see games that use more inventive means to express evil than to kill a few innocent women, or express heroism in other manners than to save a helpless princess.

8: Do you want to take our games away?
No, by all means, keep your games. Just let people from different demographics with different preferences have games they like, too, and accept that diversity in games is a good thing, as it means more fun for more people.

9: Why doesn't DiGRA make a better game then?
DiGRA is an association of researchers. The aim of DiGRA isn't to make games, although some researchers in DiGRA also make games.

10: What does DiGRA want?
Support researchers who study games, gamers, and developers, write about it, and help the public understand games and game culture better. This way it may be possible to avoid further misunderstanding about what games are and what gamers are.

11: But DiGRA is funded by DARPA!
OK, that's not a question, but I keep getting it, so here goes. No, DiGRA is not funded by DARPA. DiGRA posted a job ad where the University of Santa Cruz looked for a senior technician. Some of the researchers in Santa Cruz are also DiGRA members. DiGRA does not get any money from DARPA.

12: But DiGRA has influence!
Now we are down to the "shouting statements from YouTube videos and fictional images of networks with red arrows on them" part. Perhaps DiGRA has a certain influence, in that game researchers consider it an interesting conference to attend, in order to present their material for other researchers, to have it criticised and discussed by people who understand what they are talking about. Perhaps the occasional developer or journalist thinks it's interesting to follow up on what DiGRA members are studying, to see if there's something that could be useful in order to integrate in a future game, or write about. DiGRA certainly represents a repository of relevant resarch, along with the many journals aimed at games. This is research developers and journalists can access and use for free (except for when some of it's printed in journals which are ridiculously expensive. Neither DiGRA nor the researchers writing those articles get a single penny of that money though.)

So if DiGRA has influence, it's because people see the conference papers and go "oh, that was actually a really good point." Beyond that DiGRA is just interesting to the game scholars. Over the 11 years since the first conference, game scholarship has exploded though, from the small community where everybody knew each other, to the larger community where it takes a real effort to keep somewhat updated on the development of the field, or even notice all the books. By now it's quite likely that some DiGRA member will write something that some journalist or developer reads and likes. It still doesn't mean DiGRA has changed its agenda, it just means that new aspects of its research is interesting to others.

13: Has DiGRA changed to be dominated by radical feminists instead of academics? (update)
 First thing first, it's possible to be a feminist and an academic. That is pretty common, and a lot of scholars who don't do gender research are still feminists. Also, over the years DiGRA has grown from being a group of obscure researchers who all knew each other, to a community that's big enough that we now need those name-tags. Even if the percentage of feminist papers just remained the same, there should be an increase in feminist papers. Instead, this is the ratio of feminist vs other articles in the DiGRA archive:

As you can see, there is nothing that indicates that gender is becoming more prominent up until 2014. Thanks to Petri Lankoski for doing the break-down and posting the image.

That's it for today - I'll probably update this when/if there are more questions that need to be answered. Feel free to ask your own in the comment field, but be aware that I moderate ruthlessly, and if I don't like the question, the language or your links to other sites where you want to boost traffic, I'll not publish the comments.

This just in, October 29th:
In a skype interview with the title "DARPA Now Seeks to Control Children Through Videogames", on the question from the interviewer: "this is an attempt by individuals to implant social engineering in videogames, and basically brainwashing messages, explain how that emerged" a Syrian girl claims the following:
There's collusion between media and DiGRA.
DiGRA is supported by DARPA.
DiGRA is a think-tank.
DiGRA is specialising in injecting social engineering into videogames to influence children towards social justice.
DiGRA tries to apply multiple genders, and are social justice warriors with a fake feminist stance.
DiGRA cooperates with among others Zoe Quinn to design games containing social engineering.
These are all the same, incorrect accusations which have been presented earlier. Old responses to this above.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Community channels

When I started blogging, I saw a lot of concern from journalists that blogging would ruin journalism. I wasn't too concerned, because journalism as a practice does not become ruined by diversity - but that was before I considered that while the best practice of journalism might not be changed, the general understanding of journalism might change.

Today we see a lot of "community journalists". Some are quite good and deliver an important service, reporting on topics that are overlooked, ignored or not accessible to others. The P2P net running in China to spread information off the internet about the protests is one example of this. But some are basically just spokesmen for a movement, and should rather adopt the terms "community press agents" or "community PR agents". This because they choose to represent rather than report, and they enter into the dissemination of ideas in order to convince, not to find the truth.

Often these community channels believe they are representing the truth. That is the problem with conviction, it is hard to see beyond it. Traditional journalism is aware of this problem, which is why balanced reporting is such an important concept. This basically means that in order to call something journalism, it needs to represent more than one view. The opposing side must have a chance to respond, or it isn't journalism, it's just channeling one side of an argument.

It is often difficult to get the opposing side to join in a community channel broadcast though, because the other side knows they are entering into a hostile environment. This has nothing to do with knowing they will meet disagreement, and everything to do with knowing they will be called names, ridiculed, and anger the audience of that broadcast. In present-day community activism, that includes, and is not limited to, being investigated by hostile investigators looking to grasp at anything that looks like an error, misrepresented in chat-rooms and on blogs, called names, having their emails attacked and their accounts hacked, and receiving threats starting with vague "making life unpleasant" going through phases of "we will ruin their lives and take away their careers" and up to rape- and death threats. These are very efficient silencing techniques, and journalists who work with areas where this can happen need to be very smart and very trustworthy.

This is the reason why traditional journalism contains the idea of "protecting the sources". Journalists have gone to jail in order to protect their sources, and that is why they can break open some astounding cases. The source needs to feel it is safe to offer up information.

The source also needs to believe that the information they offer up will be treated fairly. If the journalist cherrypicks the few items in the information that suits their angle, and is not ready to acknowledge when either side has a fair point, then the journalist will become a microphone stand for the loudest and most popular voices in his or her community, and not an investigative fair reporter. This (treating the opposition fairly) is rarely happening in community channels, because they are economically and socially tied to their audience. When they live directly off donations or clicks on their shows, allowing topics that will unsettle or perhaps even disperse the audience will not happen.

Quite the opposite, the community channel sees itself as defending, protecting, and fighting the good fight for their followers. The hosts of these channels may even feel that their cause loses if they have to admit that they may have been wrong, and so they will fight bitterly to the very end to support their cause. That is quite all right, as long as we agree on what that actually is. It is not journalism, it is PR, or even more frequently, propaganda, when the fact checking is flawed and they keep searching only for confirmation of their own idea.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What is an academic association?

Let’s start with “what is an academic?” The word is a circle definition, because to be an academic means to be within an academic institution, such as a school, college or university, to pursue the learning that is offered there, also the theory, not just the practice, and eventually to do research, teach, or do both.

So why would academics need associations? Let us look at how a university is organised. While the different departments may be big, very few universities hire people with the exact same specialities. This is counter-productive both for teaching and for research. For the staff, this means that while they are necessary to the institution, and so can depend on keeping their job, they don’t have many who understand their very specialised work in the immediate surroundings.

This is why they reach out to other academics in other institutions, countries, perhaps even on other continents, and decide to form an academic association. That is basically the main part: you need to decide to do it. And since there’s very little money to be made off academics talking to each other, you make it non-profit. Like all non-profit organisations, it needs a set of bylaws. Even if there’s no money in the organisation it needs a treasurer, if only to say to the auditor – because the organisation has to be audited – that you all met, brought your own lunch and paid 4€ each to the guy who made a run for coffee and snacks for the afternoon talk. It also needs a president, a vice-president, and some board members. The actual work of the board members will depend on what the association does – as it grows these roles may change. And that’s it; an academic association is born.

What the association does depends on the bylaws. Most academic associations are put together to organize conferences and/or publish journals. Some kind of knowledge exchange is what makes for better research: you are made accountable by presenting your work for others. It also offers a chance to ask questions, to get feedback, and weed out bad ideas, face to face.

The influence of academic associations depends on their size. A large one such as ICA has 4500 members. A small one such as DiGRA has a couple of hundred. Of course, a small one focusing on for instance the study of a rare, dead language can be 20 person big and comprise the entire community of researchers, and thus totally control all research on that topic. It’s all on what you consider “influence.”

Academic associations are normally funded by way of the membership fees, while some associations also get donations. Since there are some costs related to all organisations – postage, websites, coffee for the yearly meeting – there needs to be a fee. This fee for the most part comes out of the pocket of the members. Associations also don’t apply for research projects, or do research projects. It’s the members, through their institutions, who apply for research funding.

If academic associations organise conferences, some of the membership fees will be used towards the administration of the connection to the person(s) who take the responsibility for that conference. The association itself is rarely responsible for organising the conference, and doesn’t get much (if any) of the money from the conference. The academic association just brings their network of scholars, their knowledge and some support and know-how to the field. However, this differs from conference to conference; the huge ones that can be expected to generate a large income will have different ways to handle the economic side of this, and in some cases also have a professional conference staff, or buy the services of professional organisers.

So, to sum up:
Academic associations are collections of individuals with common interests.
The governments do not fund them.
They are non-profit.
Their main goal is to offer a place to meet others with similar skills and interests.
They are open to all who have this interest and have shown that they are specialists in their field (or, in the case of students – about to specialise).

Finally: “Association” is not a protected term. This means that there may be businesses that call themselves associations, but are for profit, or funded by private interests. It is not difficult to check if an organisation is a business or a non-profit, but it takes more than a quick look at the name. Reading the bylaws is a good place to start.

Some sources for academic articles on games

Journals specifically aiming at  games and virtual worlds:
Games and Culture
Journal of Virtual Worlds
Journal of Games Criticism
Eludamos: Journal for Computer Games Culture
Game: The Italian Journal of Game Studies
Journal of Computer Games and Communication
Journal of Virtual Worlds Research
Journal of Computer Games
Well Played Journal

Journals where you will find a lot of articles on games:
Computers in Entertainment
ADA; a journal of gender, new media and technology
Journal of Computer-mediated Communication
Computers in Human Behavior
European Journal of Communication
Cyberpsychology and behavior

Link to a website that has collected even more relevant links to journals.

What is a CfP?

First, the abbreviation CfP means Call for Paper.

When there's a conference on a topic, you want as many people as possible to submit papers and panels to this conference. The more people submit, the greater chance for a good conference, through competition and variety. So you send out a CfP - a Call for Paper. CfPs are also used by journals, when you want people to send in articles for review on particular topics, by book editors when they want to make an anthology, a collection of edited articles, or in other cases when you want to create a collection of material.

A CfP basically describes the subject area, the deadline for submission, the place where the conference will be, who are organising it, and when it will be. If you want to be updated on the research being done in a particular field, and perhaps be able to contribute, you keep an eye on the CfPs.

The CfP will then be sent to as many places as possible for distribution. The calls are distributed on email lists, on paper posters, in trade journals (really big conferences) and on the front of web pages for relevant research communities. Basically, a CfP is an advertisement, just like any ad in a newspaper, only that the agency sending out the CfP normally does not have to pay to have it posted (except in those trade journals).

This means that when a CfP appears in the stream of any random website, the owners of the CfP and the website don't necessarily have anything to do with each other, just like seeing an ad for a soft-drink on television does not mean your television station has started to produce soft-drinks. Even less so, because your television provider has been paid to display the ad. So basically a CfP is an announcement, and it's published as a service to the general public, as it is made available to a much wider audience than the members of any specific community.

The same happens with jobs, and with calls for applications for research projects. This is how for instance a large research institution can publish on the front page of an organisation, without contributing any kind of funding, not even the price of an advertisement, to that organisation. The process of evaluating the papers, panels or applications falls to the organisation that issued the call, as that is also where you send your work. This is how a CfP, a research application call and a job application call can all show up on several websites without having any connection nor contributing any funding to the website where it is publised.

Monday, September 29, 2014

What is peer-reviewing?

There are three basic types of peer-review: open, single blind and double blind. Open peer-review means everybody knows each others’ names. This is normally discouraged, since people tend to read with a bias, even if they don’t know they do. Good points by somebody you don’t like are disregarded, bad points by a friend are accepted. Single-blind protects one or the other group, depending: are the papers or the reviewers anonymised? If the authors are anonymous, then the reviewers don’t know who they grade, if the reviewers are anonymous, then the authors don’t know who evaluated them. The last is often done if the issue can be expected to be severely contested, and the repercussions become aggressive. That kind of single blind is very rarely used. Double blind is when the authors don’t know the reviewers, and vice versa. This is the most common type, and what most journals and conferences practice, including DiGRA. DiGRA has recently (2010) tightened the peer-review net, and on top of having a double blind process, there’s also a meta review, which means that there are reviewers whose only job is to read the reviews and look for problematic reviews. This means that DiGRA not only peer-reviews articles, but also the reviews.

Why use meta reviews? Because a double blind peer-review process means that every review is weighted equally. This means that if you happen to hate one particular type of research, you can hide behind this process and downvote all that kind of research without being questioned. This tends to happen to new, challenging and very critical research. So if you have a brilliant new idea, peer-reviewing may destroy that idea rather than give it a chance, because most of the reviewers on any list will be dominated by who has the most common ideas about what is important. This is particularly visible when you want to introduce a challenging idea into a research community, for instance the idea that ethnography is as valid for collecting knowledge about society as surveys – if you visit a conference normally run by hard-data sociologists. The ethnographer is not likely to have a paper accepted. The same happens to a hard-data sociologist who feels that running books through a statistical program to see how many times certain phrases show up is a good idea , and then write about the quality of the book from counting, rather than reading – and then try to submit the results to a literature theory conference. It is very likely to be stopped in the peer-review process. This means that a regular, double-blind peer-review process is very good at maintaining a status quo, but bad at inviting innovation. Using meta reviews is a way to try to counter this. By reading through the reviews looking for methodological or theoretical bias, it gives a second chance to those articles that have been voted down because of the bias of the readers. Meta review is not used to remove already accepted papers, unless the process uncovers hints at collaborations.

How can one think to criticise a peer-review process? First of all, peer-reviewing is a way to restrict and control what can be published. It maintains the quality, but at the same time it frequently stops fresh, original and unusual ideas. Next, peer-reviewing is extremely costly, and makes it difficult to organise conferences on original, unusual topics. This means that scholars who want to study innovative topics – such as games – are punished in the academic system just because there are very few relevant conferences to go to, and few places to publish articles. No matter how good they are as scholars, they are handicapped in the general contest, just because they don’t have the same options for scoring academic points as other scholars. If let’s say a literature scholar can submit to a 100 potentially relevant conferences a year, and a game scholar can submit to five, getting the four accepted papers each year you need to impress your hiring board becomes very, very hard. And since Universities currently are focusing more on academic ”points” than on academic innovation, it means a game scholar will need to work a lot harder for the same recognition than the literature scholar. This is of course true of all new fields trying to gain traction in Academia.

This means that if a conference wants to be open to a wide range of ideas, it needs to go easy on the peer-reviewing. Many conferences do this by accepting abstracts, rather than full papers. This is risky, because you then don’t know what the quality will be, but at the same time it makes it easier for scholars who research actual new things to be heard. And since academia also is about actually learning new things, it is very important to keep some of these very open and welcoming conferences running, they are vital hubs for mixing the new and the old. Sadly, Universities tend to refuse funding to scholars that wish to go to the less rigidly reviewed conferences, which is another obstacle to innovation.

DiGRA currently has two types of paper submissions: full papers and abstracts. Full papers are very rigidly peer-reviewed, with two-three reviewers and then meta-reviewers. Abstracts are reviewed along the same lines, but the final full papers written from the accepted abstracts are not reviewed unless they are submitted to the journal, at which point they are reviewed again. This is to allow a mixture of traditional and new.

But all of this comes at a cost. A conference like DiGRA receives 2-300 papers each year. This means that scholars need to do from 600-900 reviews. Each reviewer can be expected to review 10 papers at the most – nobody gets paid to do this kind of work, so it’s all done on spare time next to very full schedules. This means that DiGRA each year needs 60-90 reviewers, and 10- 20 meta reviewers at least. These reviewers need to be scholars who know what they are talking about, which means preferably assistant- associate- and full professors. In a new field where there have not been all that many hires, finding 60 reviewers is not all that easy, particularly since you can’t expect more than a fraction of the existing professors to participate at any given time. It would be easier of there were 500 professors to choose from, harder if there are 100. This means that the double-blind peer-reviewing process itself becomes a huge bottle-neck for new fields of research, while it at the same time is absolutely vital to ensure academic quality and integrity. A dilemma well worth discussing.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Methods between text and player

I promised I would write something about method, and since I won't be able to write an academic article on it for quite a while, I'll just put some of the more immediate points about how I study games in here.

I predominantly work with reader-response theory, which is a theory concerning how the text and the reader interact. I started using this actively back in 1994, for the work on my first academic report on a game. This was a game designed by the Norwegian department of health, to teach young men about safe and consensual sex. It was never published, partly due to the very long and halting production process. For my first game analysis, I used reader response theory because it was one of the few literary theories that actually talked about interaction between the text and the user, as well as one of the few theories that put the user (reader, audience, player) in an active role of co-creator rather than just consumer. I found both of these to be relevant and important in order to understand what a game is and how they invite play. For this report I played the game myself, studied the textual structure, looking for nodes and kernels referencing Chatman, I interviewed the project manager in the Health-department, and I had several players test the game and then discuss it with me. My initial question had been whether this would be an efficient way to teach values, and my conclusion was that no, complex role-playing games are not particularly good teaching tools. This mainly because they are too unpredictable, and they invite transgressive or counter-productive play.

This way of researching a text is related to cultural studies, and it was a result of a drive towards more tolerance of and curiosity towards popular media. The main argument was that just because something was popular didn't mean it had to be bad, which is pretty much the opposite of the argument of the theorists Adorno and Horkheimer. This is also why I wanted to study games at a time when nobody really took games seriously - and if they did it was to discuss how they could be stopped, controlled and censored - because I believed that a medium that attracts so many wo are that enthusiastic about them can not be all bad. There has to be something attractive, stimulating and fascinating about them.

For the next major work I did on games, I used the same structure, but this time heavier on the player side of the research. I played two MUDs - this was back in the text-based multi-user games - and interviewed the players. This became my modus operandi for most digital media research: use the medium, analyse the text, collect user data. This was what later became my Ph D dissertation Pleasures of the Player; Flow and Control in Online Games. I played for months, late nights and early mornings. I'd stay at work, because playing from a modem would have ruined me, and so often stayed in the office until well past midnight in order to understand the flow and the process of play. At the same time I was reading up on ethnography. I had been leaning on ethnography for my master's thesis on a totally different topic, and so it was easy to get back in there to try and understand what I was trying to produce. I feel that I can claim that I at certain points in my analysis of the gaming practice achieved a thick description. I then went to visit and interview face to face the players I had been playing with the most. For the field studies I leaned heavily on the ethnography classic by Hammersley and Atkinson, and for the interviews I had a lot of use of Learning from strangers.

I spent almost five years on my dissertation, three of which were full time. For the interviews I travelled from Norway to the US, and was on my way for three months, interviewing players both on the east and the west coast, in order to understand the process, the flow of role-playing online. I later went back to the US, to New York, and did some additional interviews while I was a visiting scholar at New York University. The research was funded by the Norwegian Research Council and Volda College, where I worked.

What I learned from this process was that my first instincts for game scholarship; to use a mix of methods and also of analytical paradigms, were pretty good. Games are objects constantly in a process of being created - even single-user games become different depending on who plays them. This means that in order to understand a game you have to play games for yourself - no, you don't need to love them, but you need to be sufficiently curious that you want to spend a lot of time understanding how they are put together and how they work - but you also need to learn about the gaming experience of others. Other scholars will disagree - disagreement is what makes academia go around, after all. There are game-scholars who only look at structures, and game-scholars who are actually more gamer-scholars, as they mainly study the gamers as they play. I find that both these positions leaves something to be desired, you can't understand what gamers react, dislike or like, without knowing the game, while only looking at the structure leads to a too narrow point of view that limits the understanding of how a structure leads to a practice.

Once I was done with my doctorate and had a chance to look outside of my own work, I watched  a whole field of cyber ethnography come into its own. T. L. Taylor, Celia Pearce, Bonnie Nardi and Tom Boellstorff have collected some of the experiences on game ethnography in their book, while Annette Markhams book from 1998 was one of the ones I had already been using, a very important work at a time where we were mainly making methods up as we explored, building on the experiences of other scholars in other arenas, looking for a way to address the new problems of researching online environments.

But I still feel there is something more that needs to be explored. While online ethnography has acknowledged that the mediacity of the environment in which the research is done changes the research situation, it still doesn't take the step all the way towards the sensitivity to interpretation that the more textual analysis and cultural criticism offers. I don't have the language to express this just yet, it is all waiting to take shape. Which is of course why this is a blogpost, and not an article on it's way to a peer-reviewed journal near you.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

I am still a gamer

Being a game scholar who also plays, who studies gamers and play from the inside and the outside at the same time (one of these days I promise to write a methodology paper), I am not going to give up the "gamer" label. Neither, I hope, are my many gamer friends and gamer research subjects. But the last few weeks have definitely made me rethink the culture a couple of times.

The consistent attacks on Anita Sarkeesian for her Tropes VS Women series at Youtube is really horrifying in a "can't look away from the disaster" kind of way. While I might have gone a little easier on the moral preaching at the end of her otherwise really good latest installment, Women as Background Decoration: part II, in general I am impressed with the thorough work and solid research she has done for each movie. The attacks on her, resuming as regularly as her publishing, is like what happens when you drop a stone in an ant's nest - a thousand agressive little bastards swarming blindly to attack as venomously as they can.

Then another stone drops - as Zoe Quinn - a game designer - is attacked by her ex boyfriend. Now ex boyfriends are not the most reliable sources for information about anybody's love lives, but it was gobbled up and then used to attack Quinn for having an active sex life. Now, there are a lot of stories online about this. If you try to figure the story out, you will find one camp that is busy claiming that it's not about sex, but about ethics in game journalism, (or if it is about sex, it's for a good reason) while another camp claims the whole sex angle is a cover-up from the games press.Then somebody launches a twitter campaign with the hastag not your shield. Having spent years as a meat-shield (a bad one, though), I tried to figure that one out, but never managed to understand what it was about. OK, I did get that there were a lot of different people saying they were not shields in this discussion but - not what shields? Whose? Not the misogonysts' shield? Not Quinn's shield? Sarkeesian's? The game journalists' shield? The tweets under this label were as confusing as the rest of this disussion. Which may not be surprising, as it may be coming out of 4chan - at least according to Reddit.

For a while there, I was really annoyed. Why throw your voice in with either party there? Yes, journalism should always be read critically. It's my job to teach people to do so. But if you read the attacks and how they kept twisting back and forth and also reeling under the attacks on 4chan and reddit coming with the Celebgate or the Fappening, I have surprisingly little trust left. After having seen girls and women being treated as not real gamers for so many years - why would anybody worry about what happened to the gamer tag?

That's when a student walks into my office, and wants to study gamers. He hasn't read about any of this, he has a serious question about a fun and interesting activity, and he wants to have a female supervisor because he expects me to know what I am talking about. And he's a gamer.

That's why it matters. To be a gamer isn't to be one or the other. To be a gamer is to be a person who enjoys playing games. Some of these gamers will be jerks, just like some men beat their wives, and some women beat their husbands. Being a woman doesn't make me an abusive wife, just because some women are. Being a gamer doesn't make me neither a fake last-minute addition to a fading fad, nor a ranting maniac who gets a hard-on from abusing women online. (For those who speak German, a special little treat about trolls here.) Being a gamer is about wanting to play. The attackers who spend more time planning how to ruin Anita Sarkeesian's day than playing games are not gamers. They are trollers. So are the ones who really worry about Zoe Quinn's sex life. Just add voyeurs to that.

As for the boob-plate - I don't think we need to worry that it will ever be extinct. Feminist criticism of film has not made the Bond-girls dress up - it has just given some of them more interesting, and hotter, roles. Feminist criticism of games will not make babes, boobs or naked waists disappear, but it may lead to more alternatives for those players who don't play mainly to sit around being sexually tittilated. It may also double the market for games, by including women. And with a doubled market there will be more production, and so more variety and more competition. We could get back innovation, and see whole new fields of game production open up. But like with films - the boob-heavy (literally) segment will survive.

And hopefully, the gamers will remain. Because I love them, I love the spontaneous rants about impossible bossfights, the detailed descriptions of gaming systems, the light in their eyes as they talk about the latest achievement, the desire for new adventures.


And as a special mention - I find myself surrounded by Frankfurter school followers, radical scholars all, in the very suspicious DiGRA. (Note, reddit thread has been linked in reddit to r/conspiratard.) Feminist professors and bloggers are out to get their games. And they are fighting oppressive systems, criticising the structure of peer-reviewing. Yep, that will really hurt the gaming industry... *facepalm*

I guess I should study trolls next.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The swing of the pendulum

Do you think these girls worried about getting likes to their Facebook updates?

 I can hardly read anything about women and social media, without seeing somebody complain about the peer pressure on over-performing housewives through social media. Psychologists talk about tripple pressure (norwegian link) - where women are not just responsible for a perfect home and a perfect career, but also are supposed to entertain and engage the children in their free time. This leads to women being 60% more on sick leave than men.

Normally, I just look past this issue, and shrug. I can bake when I want to, and leave it be when I want that. I played with the kids, but also yelled at them until they cleaned their own rooms and helped making dinner. And while I did finish a Ph D, I went a bit over on the time, and I guess there were a few typos in the script. "Good enough" has been one of my refrains, the other is "better luck next time."

But today I read an article in a Danish newspaper about "saying pyt" - which means "don't worry." Scandinavian has a few good words. English speakers know about "uff" or "uff uff" - which means "oh no, that is bad" - to varying degrees of badness. Now I want to point towards "pytt" or "pytt pytt", which means "it's nothing to worry about, it's not really important, just let it go."


I am old enough that digitally communicated peer pressure was never a problem. I never worried about seeing somebody else's cupcakes online, just to realise that mine looked like a lump of dusty coal in comparison. I did however not grow up without pressure on behaviour, performance, display and manners. Everything I did became a source of careful scrutiny and commentary, no, not online, but from the neighbours, or from the imaginary neighbours in my mother's mind. What "they" would say ran most of my childhood, and kept haunting me whenever I spoke with my mother until she died.

The sixties and seventies in a suburban neighbourhood was all about performance. The houses were showcases for the success of the families living in them, outside and inside. The size of the cars, the size of the garage, the price of the new tile on the roof, the quality of the lawn. Children's parties were a competition of cakes and entertainment, not to mention dress and manners. We were ruthlessly drilled in how to greet the hosts and how to say goodbye, carefully reciting the correct litany. We were always representatives of the family, constantly judged. And we, the kids, got off easy.

The women would host "clubs" - social meetings at each others' places, where it was all about dressing up, serving something fashionable and delicious, and then talking about what was going on. This was as much a display of perfection as any mommy blog. My mother said carefully thank you, and went out to spend the afternoon in the greenhouse. She knew very well that she could never match their fashionable clothing nor the elegant interior design. That didn't mean she didn't care. Every contact with the world outside the garden fence was scrutinised with the aim to decipher the one thing important to her: "What would the neighbours say."

Growing up in the seventies was a great way to learn to say "I don't care." The norms of society were blasted wide open by women entering new areas of society. The elegant housewives who kept the houses spotless and refused us entrance to most of the building if we wanted to play (mostly they ordered us to play outside, no matter the weather), were replaced by hippies with ecological gardens and busy working women. Divorces ceased being disasters we read about in the papers, and children born out of wedlock were no longer "uekte" - bastards born to eternal shame. My mother's "what will the neighbours say" could be fended off with a reference to how oldfashioned and intolerant that was. Who cared about a gaggle of old women anyway, life was here, now, rapidly changing and unfolding before our eyes!

And then I am suddenly older than those housewives were, and I realise that the pendulum has swung back. It may look different, because the acceptance today's young women seek is from an online circle, not from a knitting club organised every week in a new home. The perfect cupcake (which, I just want to mention, my mother would have baked in the late hours of the night, to have them waiting to tempt us into thoughtless indulgence in the morning with their perfect texture and intense tastes - my mother could bake the aprons off any online perfectionist, if we managed to drag her in from the garden) is just the same as the perfect snack for the club, and the pictures of the lovely garden are just a new mediation of the garden which used to be the showcase. It has swung back to the point that we again actually care about what the neighbours may say.

A few points in favour of today though:
  • It's ok to be queer. Actually, in many of those neighbourhoods it's now fashionable.
  • It's ok to be divorced, single mother, or just living together.
  • It's ok to have a job, and send the kids in daycare, kindergarden or pre-school.
  • It's ok to not have a car.
  • And kids get to come inside when it's raining or snowing. I like that part.
As for the rest: Try to learn something from the seventies. Perhaps you don't need to emulate all the ideas about drugs, sex, spitting in public, innovative use of safety pins and pretty bad social realist provocative literature and film, but learn to say: "It's a trap the system has constructed, and it's more important to find my own path than to satisfy the system." That should take care of most situations where you feel like you are about to drown in "what the neighbours might say." Or in concerns about Facebook likes. If needed, substitute that cute button you were about to take a picture of with a safety pin or some duct tape.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Procrastination: thinking about methods and gender

I have to finish one article, make a presentation, and edit another article. I also need to write a litt. review, and start outlining an application and an agenda. All of it has to happen now, there are people waiting, eagerly.

So of course, I can't work. That is exactly how it works.

Instead I keep thinking about all these other issues. For instance the question of method, discipline and the production of knowledge. I was recently at the conference Multi.player 2, in Münster, organised by the overly active Thorsten Quandt. Thorsten Quandt is a well known name among those who do quantitative media research, and he is now looking at games. Luckily for the rest of us, his mind isn't just organised and running at high speed, it's also pretty open for the fact that research isn't just numbers. However, the Multi-player conference was a trip into a very different discipline, and hence, also into conversations that felt very, very old school.

One thing is the idea that you can measure your way to understanding qualitative questions. Perhaps the most annoying example was one study looking at pro-social and anti-social behaviour in players. Players played, then reported their behaviour, and asked if they had fun. Prosocial players had, according to the study, more fun. The problem was not the results, I am convinced that having helpful friends and being helpful yourself is vital for multiplayer fun. The problem was the lack of definition of anti-social. Since anti-social was so diffcult to define, it had just been ignored. And so we don't know what anti-social is, who the anti-social players are, nor whether they have fun to.

From our work on the Dark Side of Play (soon to be published at Routledge), I know that there are popular games where the players are deliberately very nasty. Eve Online is one of the best known games for scams, double-crossings, and general ruthlessness. So, when you enter a game like that and do everything you can to gain resources, double-crossing your friends, cheating your guild and robbing innocent newbies, are you pro- or anti-social? The game, as it is being played now, is interesting because of the high level of risk playing it offers to the players. It wouldn't be the same game if all the players were helpful. And people still have fun while playing.

So how can you quantify anti-social, when it may actually be pro-social? And what does the first finding mean, when you can go to the next game, and find that the same behaviour gets a very different result? No smart suggestions to that problem were presented.

Next came the gender session, and for once I was able to pinpoint a moment of serious mansplaining while it was going on! I felt I unlocked an achievement or something. Here we are, listening to research - quite good and thorough research as well - on how carefully games are designed to give a very small demography what the designers think they want, which means hypersexualised female figures. It was more same-old same-old, but with a few new twists. That's when the mansplaining starts. Here's this male researcer who has never studied gender and design, carefully explaining to the young woman at the podium why the designers choose to do it this way. On behalf of all male designers, of whom he was not one, he felt the need to educate us on what men want and why give it to them.

I think what surprised me the most was the combination of overwhelmingly data heavy research, and extremely uninformed responses to other peoples' research. One should expect all these quantitative researchers to at least qualify their statemens with an "from this point of view". But no.

That doesn't mean Multi.player 2 was a bad conference. The keynotes were brilliant (I am a Chris Ferguson fan now), and a lot of the presentations were good too.

And now I need to stand up, breathe and stretch. No, not all of these. But we-who-sit-in-chairs should make some of these stretches every hour, and all of them once a day, as I was carefully told this morning. Have fun!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Lessons from an Italian beach

The Internet keeps bringing these alarming stories about the scrutiny and control women's bodies are under, and this summer brought great stories like this about how 38 year old celebrities feel it's time to stop wearing a bikini. This is something I keep seeing repeated online, particularly from the US - how important it is to have an absolutely perfect bikini body in order to wear a bikini.

Going to Italy was, in that context, amazingly liberating. At the beaches I found there, a bikini body was defined by a body wearing a bikini. Of course, we all know Italians know about style, about beauty, and worship the beautiful body shamelessly, so it might seem a bit odd that an Italian beach would be such a liberating experience. However, going to the beach there isn't mainly about the body. It's about the beach.

They will flock there in groups of the young and the beautiful, or in families with grandmothers and toddlers, they will slip in between lunch and work, or they will move down to the beach with everything from a full kitchen to the evening gown. They will swim, read, tan, talk, shop (you know all those vendors that walk the beaches? They get a lot of eager business.), and generally get on with their lives right there on the beach. And they will wear bikinis, and they will be nice to each other.

An Italian beach will be crowded, people will be carefully making their way to and from the water on the few free centimeters of unpopulated sand between the towels and chair. They will be engaging in their conversations and occasionally invite the neighbours in on them. And since so much of an Italian beach will be taken up by the commercial beach clubs with their organised chairs, and the locals prefer the narrow strip of communal beach, they will be surrounded by their local community, all the time, and know to keep it light and happy. Civility is the rule.

And in this delightfully diverse crowd, you put on your sunglasses and lean back to watch life walk by, because it will. On the firm strip by the water you will see them all: The ancient ones, moving with calm dignity and delight in their designer swimwear and dripping with gold, or in a cheap bikini and worn flip-flops. The young ones, sleek bodies and firm skin, like seals playing in the waves. The frustrated parents, watching over children, the tired mothers, pregnant or recovering, with a baby at the breast. The thin and the fat. The pale and the brown. The reader hiding under the umbrella with a book. The poser, perched on the only rock that will elevate him for display. And there will bikinis, everywhere. And if they don't like the one they are wearing, soon there will be a vendor with a huge bag of bikinis, and he will open it and offer his goods, and the women in all ages will sort through what he offers and add to their collections with colours, shapes, buckles, frills, patterns, a wonderful riot.

So next time you worry about the way you look in that bikini, just stop, and rather think about how to make yourself comfortable, the Italian way. Towel, parasol, book, water, sunscreen, snack, bikini. That's the only right thing to worry about anyway.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why I need feminism

The anti-feminism statements online are painful and disturbing, and since I can't really figure out if those girls are being set up by male friends, if they are paid to do it, or if they are for real (what's with all those references to Poland, for instance?), I can at least consider my own connection to feminism. So, today's blog-post is a long and rambling description of my own relationship to feminism, and how what I considered personal experiences grew into political awareness.

I never defined myself as a feminist. That was because I never joined the organisations, organised the 8th of March rallies, or spoke up for women's rights in public arenas. I did not, however, believe that my life would be better if there were no feminists. I was too painfully aware of the battles that gave me the rights I had. And when my students started arguing against feminism when it was on the curriculum, I chose to address, but not worry about their arguments, and rather teach them to question, to observe and to think. An observant, thinking woman with a varied experience will see what it's all about, was my logic. And while I can't speak of them all, enough of them did come back to tell me that they had realised I was right, that I now feel my choices were justified.

And that's when I realised that my lack of a feminist card didn't matter.

I suspect the girls on the "women against feminism" blog (if you want to find them, also take a peek at "cats against feminism". It makes as much sense.) would have claimed my life is not that of a feminist. I am married and have two children and a grandchild, I frequently cook for my husband and all the kids, I need men to help me with the heaviest stuff, I even prefer to let my husband do things like changing tires and fixing leaks. I worry about my hair, and, in my old age, I have started wearing a bra. It's just more comfortable. I don't attack men just because of their gender, I don't insist on having jobs I am not qualified for just because I am female, and I don't call for female supremacy. I guess according to the internet definition, I am not a feminist.

My husband cooks for me as often as I cook for him. We clean the house together, and whoever is the last to leave for work, or the first to return, does the dishes and gets the little tasks done. I am a bit better at remembering important maintenance details, I remember bills and savings and numbers, I update calendars and initiate changes. I have a better sense of space and distance, and I am more intuitively sensitive. He is better at researching, spends more time on getting the details right, remembers birthdays, is more polite and worried about what people will say, and is also physically stronger and able to go on after I have fallen asleep. When the children were small, he'd let me sleep in, after I had been up to breastfeed during the  night. He will do more dishes, but I will make sure we get all the laundry done, not just what's on top of the basket. He will take the car to the workshop, but I will notice the changes that makes it necessary. We complement each other in ways which have nothing to do with our genders, and everything to do with personal abilities. What does that have to do with feminism? Feminism permits it.

My background is a story of parents who wanted something different for their daughters. My father taught us that we could do what ever we wanted, from driving vans, steering boats and operating power tools to knitting and cooking. My mother taught us how important it was to have these skills, by exposing the ugly underbelly of expectations and limitations to us, how women were not the masters of their own bodies, their own education, their own employment, mainly through the example of her own struggles. Our father gave his daughters confidence to act, our mother gave us a strong sense of the importance of independence and the need for society to change in order to permit that independence.

With this background independence and equality wasn't an option, it was an imperative. Oh, I know the fears of every woman, and quite a bit about the harm we can expect. "#yeseverywoman" could have had my tweets right along the others. But I knew the trap of "traditional roles", of retreat into the safety of "normality" for what it is. This is why I today take such immense delight in the options I have. Living with hard-won options, in a society where I have at least a chance at employment at my level of skill, where my daughter can marry the woman she loves and my son can work in a pre-school during the summer term, and where nobody thinks it's odd when my husband cuddles our granddaughter - a society where there are nappy-changing tables in both male and female toilets - is something I am deeply grateful for.

Still, I don't initiate contact with strange men. I prefer to ride my bike, rather than walk home through empty streets. I speak to and try to support, advice and function as a reference for female scholars, nurturing their strength when I can. I grieve when I meet women who have been abused, and I know enough of fear to share their pain. I let myself be engaged in supporting the research on female health, as the research tends towards a heavy gender bias where the man is the model for the healthy human being , disregarding the very differences which are supposed to be "celebrated". I know we have come a long way, but until men can stay home with their kids if they want to, until women and men are paid the same for the same job, until girls can play video games without being shamed, and boys can wear pink and be a princess if that's what they want, I don't make the error of saying I don't need feminism. Every year makes me more of a feminist.

And it makes me want to cry to watch those girls claim they don't need feminism. They need feminists to fight for medication suited for women, they need feminists to fight for their rights when they hit their heads in the glass ceiling, they need feminists to support the shelters, they need feminists to fight for the rights of their husbands as well as their own. Feminists have, elsewhere, negotiated paid leave for new fathers, and that hated quota system? It doesn't bring the incapable into power, it ensures that the capable and educated have a chance.

I am still embarrassed by the extreme fanatics though. However, those are embarrassing no matter what you believe in. It's why I back off, quickly, when somebody talk about r-e-l-i-g-i-o-n. Or the advantages of Apple computers.

So why do I need feminism? I need feminism because I want a world where men and women have equal opportunities, without gender-based pressure or harassment. And it doesn't happen for neither women nor men without awareness and struggles.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Confessions of a research object

It wasn't an experiment. I don't know where I picked up the bug that started it all, but I had been unusually active that autumn, working out, studying hard, living in an old, cold building and eating cheaply and badly. I was a skinny, poor student in a cold rainy city, and while I considered it a good life, my body didn't have the resources needed to fight the bug when it reached me.

We were planning to go away for a few days, but we had to give up that thought, because I was throwing up and had a fever. When my boyfriend - now husband - came back from the university, I was weak, had fever fantasies and spots. I couldn't remember to have had measles, so we assumed that was it, and we settled down to wait for it to pass. At some point during the night, I got a headache that felt like it was about to kill me. I managed to make my boyfriend go call a doctor. This was before cell-phones, and even before it was common for a poor student to have a phone at home, so he walked to the nearest phone-booth and called a doctor.

The doctor was there almost before him, came in, looked at me, and immediately started banging on the neighbour's door to borrow their phone. Yes, doctors didn't have cellphones either. Three minutes later I was on a stretcher in an ambulance, on the way to the hospital. Eight minutes later they were hooking me up to just about everything. Fifteen minutes later I was in a coma.

I don't know what happened for the next two days. I am told I fought the doctors and nurses and had to be restrained, or I'd pull the needles out of my body. I am told they paraded entire classes of medical students past me to see and take note of my symptoms, threatening the students that if they ever ignored such, they could just hand in their licenses right then and there. They tapped as much blood from me as they safely could, for diagnosis and study. When I finally woke up I was in a strange room, black and blue and hurting from the amount of needles and the harsh medication that had hit my veins, and there was a nurse stationed by my side in case something happened. I was alive, but nobody really knew how alive I was yet.

I was not well. Mainly, I didn't notice what I was saying. I would think one thing and say another. To this day I have a slight case of aphasia, of not having the right word, of feeling language slip away from me. Or maybe I don't, perhaps I am just more aware of it now, after that experience. I can fake it well enough, it just means I have to double-check if I want to lecture. I overprepare, just to make sure all the words are there, and I know what they mean. They may be gone in a moment's notice, to return at odd times.

But I healed up, slowly. I was young, 22 years old, fit and strong after all. I did lose some hearing, but not enough to be a problem in everyday life. I did however get half a year worth of study wiped, which hit me hard during next term's exam. I hadn't known that it was lost, and so I hadn't known to go back and repeat it. For the first month after I was not allowed to focus. I couldn't read, watch television, listen to the radio. I went home to my parents, walked the dog, rested, learned to eat again, had involved and silly conversations with my boyfriend.

Most of all though, I was cherishing being alive. After I was out of isolation and moved to another room in the hospital, a doctor came in, sat down in the chair next to me and grinned. "You are born again," he told me. "You should be dead. But you live. This is a whole new life for you." That man was dr Alfred Halstensen, at the time working on his Ph D on meningococcal disease. For the next couple of years he kept tapping as much blood as he safely could when ever he summoned me to the hospital.

I was one of the few that autumn of 1983 who survived meningitis at Haukeland Hospital, and I was an adult who could describe carefully what had happened, and who had been strong enough to insist on medical attention before it was too late. I got a spot on his graph for his Ph. D. all to myself, as the 100% survivor of being admitted in the middle of the night, and his plan for all that blood was to use it in the effort to create a vaccine. Today there is a vaccine against some types of meningitis. It isn't one of the mandatory vaccines, but it is used to protect people in cases when epidemics are about to break out. With a disease that had, at the time, more than a 50% mortality rate, and which also tends to create mini-epidemics in otherwise healthy communities, you want that protection if there is a case at a pre-school or a military camp near you.

Now, a vaccine resister could use parts of my story to say that it's healthy for the body to battle disease. For years after that very close brush with death, I didn't even get a sore throath. My immune system was working overtime to keep me healthy, something dr Halstensen had said would happen. That vaccine resister can sadly not tell that to another Torill. At about the same time as I battled meningitis and kind of won, in another hospital another woman my age, with the same name, lost. The mortality rate was 50%. For once I was on the right side of those percentages.

This event changed my life in a myriad different ways, some to the better, some to the worse. I suspect quite a few health issues can be traced back to the enormous doses of antibiotics they used to save my life. They claimed to have "whitewashed" my body, killed all bacteria they could, to make sure they got the ones that were killing me. That is not only a good thing, no matter what a miracle modern antibiotics are. The alternative is much worse though. On the up side, I lost the fear of death. I am on my second life. How many people get a second chance? I walk through life with that as a backdrop: Every moment I have here is a miracle - a miracle of modern science. When things get dark and dreary, I consider the alternative, and enjoy the fact that I am actually here, feeling angry, frustrated or depressed. When things are bright they are twice as bright, just because I am here to experience it.

The people who resist vaccines can never have been on that side of life - over the line to death, and then dragged back by expertice and drugs. They can never have felt the extreme pain, the pain that made me wish I was dead, if the headache would just end, the pain that made me kick and fight and finally black out into a two-day coma. I don't ever want another person to feel that, to experience that. I would have given dr Halstensen and the research crew at the hospital all the blood he asked for, without much thought of personal safety, to make certain that no child would ever need to feel the pain I felt that night. Luckily he was a responsible professional, an ethical researcher, and I was protected, informed and educated through the process.

I am writing this story because of the anti-vaccination movement. They are using emotional arguments against rational arguments, using fear and pictures of babies to reach hearts, while the rational arguments of scientists aim for the heads. But where do the vaccines come from? From people like me, the blood of survivors of bitter battles, living despite the odds to become a lover, a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a scholar, a researcher. I am both heart and head, and both parts of me appreciate being alive, thanks to the doctors that work to develop vaccines to save the world from the pain I went through, the pain that made it possible for me to be of some, tiny little bit of help.