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!

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