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.