Friday, May 22, 2015

There's a difference between asking new questions and hating players

Dear new readers and commenters. This post will have a slow response rate to comments and the usual strict moderation. I will try to respond, but if it becomes repetitive or overwhelms me, I will close the comments.

tl, dr: Researchers shouldn't believe all games are designed to make people be nice to each other. 

Let us look at the sentences that people dislike so strongly in my previous post.
Perhaps it is time, after years of thinking of games as an almost universally good thing and a medium to be defended, to question that truth. Perhaps games, design and gamers aren't so special after all, and need to be studied more as hostile objects resulting from a hostile culture, than as the labour of love it has been to so many of us.
I have to admit, those were hard lines to write. I love games and I love gamers. Over the years, this love has been viewed by peers as a lack of critical distance to research. I have, however, deliberately chosen to err on the side of the positive because I have had so many good experiences with gamers since I first published on games 19 years ago. Also, when people resisted this understanding of games as a positive thing, it made me want to ask the questions that were criticized for almost 20 years: Do games give people valuable experiences? Is there something to be said in favour of MMORPGs? Are players really just lazy and nasty, as people said at the time, or can they also be funny, smart, interesting and deeply engaged with a challenging pastime? Those were controversial questions when I started, and I have been asking them in different variations since. Most of the time, the answers I have found have confirmed my original hypothesis that there has to be something good, fun and interesting about games, but I came to that conclusion only by asking the - at the time - unpopular questions.

However, the last months have emphasized a side of gamers that I didn't expect to see. There is a group of gamers where the individuals are hostile, and who like to take this hostility to a wider audience through social media. Several of these use the #Gamergate tag when they do so. I know the arguments about this being third party trolls, but it is very hard to see the difference, particularly as #Gamergate finds anonymity to be more of a virtue than excluding said trolls. On that discussion: #Gamergate has made a decision about anonymity and no leadership, which I respect. But that means I and others have to accept that all who claim to be #Gamergate are #Gamergate.

Most of the time I have claimed that the most aggressive expressions are a matter of individuals with other problems, such as the recent example of the young man who was exposed as a "serial swatter". But as the evidence of hostile acts from gamers towards other gamers and others involved in the game community mounts, I have had to ask the questions I kept resisting. Is there something about games that encourages this, or is it society that is changing? My opinion leans towards the society changing, recognized in other game-related aggression, such as for instance hooliganism, but this is still a hypothesis, and if I want to find out, I have to ask a lot of questions.

To follow up on the hooligan hypothesis. As a game researcher, I realise that I have seen the equivalent of hooligans in games before. They are the griefers, the corpse-campers, the ninja-looters, the spammers on the different channels, the pick-up groups that keeps trashing the other players until they are too intimidated to participate, the players who go outside of games to attack the game companies and individuals in them with exaggerated aggression. I have just not focused on them. My question is whether I should study this hostility. Perhaps it's time to stop being so in love with the object we research and the people involved, and look at it differently. And that is what those last sentences say. A hostile object is an object that invites aggression and hostility. There are a lot of games out there whose design favour players with a hostile play style.

A not particularly original example, but hopefully one that illustrates the meaning of games as hostile objects: Let's look at instancing in World of Warcraft. When the game changed to include a cross-realm mechanism for inviting players into instances, the aggression in instance runs rose. The trash-talk and the unfriendliness increased.Why was that? Was it because gamers were hostile people, or because something in the game encouraged this behaviour? Now if you were grinding for materials, reputations or currency, there was a set number of instances you could run each day. Several players would run these instances every day on several characters. The last thing you wanted to do was to run it with a crew that slowed you down. If you were in a quick group, you encouraged this group to stay together, if you were in a slow group, you tried to speed them up or just break them up, so you could get into a group with players more to your liking. Language is one way to do this, and so the impatient player would act as unpleasant as possible without making themselves the jerk everybody would agree to kick. My question to this would then be: Is this hostility a result of the player being a jerk, or the game being designed to reward hostility? I'd say a bit of both. There are great players who manage to make their group move quicker simply through being kind, friendly and good. But that particular mechanism invites aggression, and since groups are formed cross-realm, there are no repercussions for being unpleasant. Next time, you start all over again with strangers, and perhaps another character.

A hostile gamer is a gamer that acts aggressively towards others. I conflated that with objects because I still think people are good, and being aggressive is not a deliberate choice of "Now I am going to screw these idiots over!" When they act hostile towards others it's because the structure of the game invites hostility. Researchers study this structure as procedurality, and it is an example of how games restrict and lead gamers to certain actions. I understand if some people read that as objectifying gamers. To return to the World of Warcraft example: the game offers many ways to play, but some are more rewarding than others, and these then become the accepted or standard way of playing. The game gives the player just a few options, and the player tries to do the best within these frames, hence being to a greater or lesser extent controlled by the game, made into an object of the game mechanics.

Do I want to change games? No, I, personally, want to understand games. If a journalist, developer or modder want to use what I learn about games and play, that is up to them. My job is to keep asking questions, preferably the difficult ones that others want to silence.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

DiGRA 2015 aftermath, the hashtag anger

Edit May 22nd: Tonight, at 20.00 Central European Time, I will close the comments on this blogpost. The discussion has been interesting, and it has provided more data on the opinions and viewpoints of Gamergate. For that I thank those who have participated and who may participate over the next 12 hours.

DiGRA 2015 was a great event for those who participated. The keynote speakers were great, even the ones I disagree with. Actually, I find that disagreeing with well informed and thoughtful keynotes is at least as useful as finding my inner fan girl.

I was part of a panel that has been described by Frans Mäyrä, with a fantastic lineup of researchers. I always feel like it's an out of body experience when I find myself with these people whose books I buy, read and obsess over, and this was no different. The transgressive aesthetics workshop was incredibly useful, to open up for new angles and discuss and challenge old ideas about what "transgressive" means, and how it can be a useful tool to gain a deeper understanding of games and game strategies.

During the event the twitter hashtag #Digra2015 was in use, although with the very clear knowledge that it would be watched and very likely flooded by the movement Gamergate, which has been targeting DiGRA for several months. Their main argument was that radical feminists run DiGRA, that DiGRA is a think tank that does not operate by regular academic standards, that it has an agenda of making gamers politically correct, a plan which is financed by DARPA (summary of claims here), and they have been blaming DiGRA for being the source of the many articles they claim are all about "the death of the gamers". We have seen a lot of examples of charts that "prove" how DiGRA is connected to and influence the game industry, and they have been using the informal notes from a fishbowl at DiGRA 2014 to "prove" their claims. Through the months since then there have been a few eager twitter accounts arguing that DiGRA should be burned to the ground, combined with several doxings and threats to game scholars on 8chans boards, both on the Gamergate boards and the related boards.  So most researchers took to Twitter very carefully, with a strong awareness of the public nature of the feed.

Oddly, the hashtag remained civil until Saturday afternoon, the third day of the conference. Then one account started spamming it with memes, mainly funny and humorous images ridiculing the readers. That night, as the researchers went out to party, the Gamergate members decided to flood the hashtag. Obviously, the people who flooded the hashtag were not in the same time zone as the conference, because next morning the tag was again fairly calm. But over the night it had been flooded with anime, porn, and retweets of the tweets from DiGRA ridiculing the discussions over the previous three days. The main theme of the people flooding it, beyond general "fuck academia", "leave gamers alone" and "raze DiGRA to the ground" was a sense of glee that they had managed to turn the hashtag toxic. This was, apparently, a victory.

Over the next few days, Gamergate kept up the flooding. A few scholars, me among those, invited the more reasonable of the spammers to conversation. Very few wanted to engage beyond defending their actions. This was mainly a defense based on the assumption that DiGRA articles are  judgmental of gamers and game culture. Disregarding the very strong bias of DiGRA academia in favour of research being conducted by people who are also players and gamers, Gamergate was claiming the right to control research on games, censoring the topics and dictating the results, while also accusing DiGRA of being unethical and dictating research results.

After a few days of flooding the hashtag, a game developer got heavily engaged. Mark Kern, who has worked on the team creating World of Warcraft, decided to join the mob flooding the #digra hashtag. World of Warcraft is a solidly studied game, to the point that we can almost talk about World of Warcraft studies as a genre of its own. I was part of the process of writing the first anthology on WoW, and have both played and studied the game since. This book was published after Kern left WoW, as is most of the later WoW research. Digital Culture, Play and Identity is still perhaps the book that most closely addresses the game as it was when Kern knew it.

As far as I know though, Mark Kern has not read this book, nor any other articles on game research, until he started tweeting about the stupidity of game research.

Not only does he not like the research DiGRA does, he also claims that the tweets are libelous. Now, if a research association, or members of a research association, actually circulated libelous slides, that would be a bad thing. However, if they happen to be making slides with a funny, ironic or even quite correct text that somehow responds to a campaign heavy with  misrepresentation, lies, harassment and threats, that isn't libel. Claiming they are libel, if they aren't - now that can be libel, if the speaker has credibility to the point of being able to harm the person or organization being attacked. Which leads us into a very funny little paradox, and if we go too far down that path, lawyers will take over the world.

The important part is how Mark Kern feels that he, like many other performers or creators of cultural objects, knows better than the critics. This is a very common position to take. Nobody likes to hear anything but praise, so when faced with criticism, no matter how good or well grounded, film-makers, authors, actors, painters, sculptors, journalists, and just about every other person who has dared to create something which then is criticized, respond with the same knee-jerk response: let's see you do it better. Which is why, when Gamergate wanted to "peer-review" the DiGRA articles, the scholars - me among them - responding were consciously suppressing that response and offered support for the process. Kern does not suppress the knee-jerk response though, as one researcher responds to his criticism of DiGRA by asking what Kern actually knows of the research.

Mark Kern is an example of the type of push-back against criticism which is both expected and common when anybody, scholars, amateurs or professional critics, start looking systematically at any cultural expression and ask more of it than just superficial entertainment. This reaction proves, just as the entire Gamergate affair does, that game criticism and research is growing up. It is no longer simply scratching at the surfaces of description, as we did in the first few years, at which time we tried to understand what was actually going on, creating a language of academic discourse, and fighting for the value of a thrashed and disrespected medium. The anger, the shouts of "don't criticize if you can't do the same as me", the misunderstandings and the deep fear that Gamergate expresses, demonstrates that the research has touched a nerve, has come too close for comfort.

I am not going to say game research is "winning", as that is Gamergate terminology. There is no victory to be had here. Reacting too much to the aggression will skew research, and make it certain that we start having a bias against a subgroup of people who claim the tag "gamer" for themselves. It will give Gamergate influence in a detrimental manner, as they are working very hard to make game researchers hate "gamers". However, it proves the relevance of game research. Games are deeply entrenched in modern culture, and understanding game culture combined with the social media ecology may be more important now than it has ever been. It also forces researchers to reflect on terminology, on user models and pre-conceptions, and on the value of games, which we so far have mainly taken for granted. Perhaps it is time, after years of thinking of games as an almost universally good thing and a medium to be defended, to question that truth. Perhaps games, design and gamers aren't so special after all, and need to be studied more as hostile objects resulting from a hostile culture, than as the labour of love it has been to so many of us.

Edit: I found the tweet that pronounced the twitter feed toxic, and added it above.
Note: I have always moderated the comments on this blog heavily, and I will keep doing that.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Academic writing, Torill's take on it.

There's a blogpost making the rounds in social media about the "psychology" of common writing advice. I actually quite like most of the tips in the article, and some of the reasons, but I am not sure if I would claim the reasons are all that psychological. But let's have a peek at the advice.
"Write shorter" is always a good idea, even with patient readers. Of course, "short" is relative, and the problem isn't really that it's easier to type words than to delete them. I can delete a whole document in one go. The problem is to prioritize. When cutting, what can I cut without removing a vital piece of information? With the disastrous memory of removing a chapter my supervisor felt was redundant, just to have the examiner ask for exactly the topic covered in that chapter, I don't take "make this shorter" advice from just any odd editor, thank you very much. So if I was to rewrite "why you fail" I'd say: Because you don't know what is important in your own text. And in "how to fix" I'd ask you to look at your initial reasoning for writing this at all, your hypothesis, your question, your topic line. If it isn't clarifying your original goal, throw it out. Or change your goal and throw out the rest.

"Shorten your sentences." This is solid advice for academic writers in particular, and quite a few non-academic. I'll point to advice one, reason one, and stop this paragraph now.

"Rewrite passive voice." Absolutely, but not because of your insecurity. Or, in a way, but it comes by way of power structures. We believe that if we can make it look like something happens "naturally", without human agency, it appears inevitable. At the same time - sometimes it is absolutely vital to be able to use the English (or other language) passive, and if you are less than passive about that, here's an interesting article for you.

"Eliminate weasel words." Obviously not an academic writing this. While I am in favour of reducing the amount of "maybe", "perhaps" and "under the right circumstance we can understand this as", there are cases when these words are not weak, but true. This isn't a bad science article, even if it has a few sensationalist phrases, but it downplays a few of the important aspects of the more expansive report. The main thing is the usual problem: correlation is not causation. In the study they have found that expert gamers have more activity in certain parts of the brain than more casual gamers. Now they are building on theories and previous studies on brain development to assume that this is a result of gaming, and they are doing a longitudinal study to see if that is true. This in order to test if the truth is that you need an active and well developed brain in order to compete at the top level of gaming. That won't snag the readers though. "You need to be really smart in order to do well in gaming" isn't exactly news, considering that you need to be really smart to do well anywhere. So the "weasel words" get eliminated, and the message becomes something along the line of "you will be smarter if you play games, says research" - which isn't what they are saying.  I think I'll keep that room for error in my writing until I am absolutely certain I am right. Then I'll say it in a short, active sentence in a clear, compressed abstract.

"Replace jargon with clarity." This is eternal truth. However - pick your audience. Sometimes jargon is clarity. If you had read Eco's The role of the reader you know the distinction between the model reader and the empirical reader. We can replace that term with "try to make your model reader and empirical reader overlap." Of course, to do so I use jargon, but this is a jargon that, combined with (Eco 1979:7), allows my model reader to quickly grasp what Eco used a book to express. I'd need to write a few books myself to make my students grasp the distinction if I couldn't point them at Eco. However, don't mess around with the Eco understanding of readers if you want to tell the PR department to identify your target audience though.

"Cite numbers effectively." Yes. Totally agree here.

"Use I, we and you." This one is tricky. Not because I disagree, but because removing the first person is an exercise in taking on another point of view, and positioning the reasons for the argument beyond "me". "I said so, now believe me" is not a good argument, unless I have asked you how you feel about something. But I do land on the side of using the first person, because it underlines that there is no neutral, objective machine that produces this text - I do so, and I take responsibility for it, errors and all. Here, have a reference to somebody who discusses this more in depth, ironically anonymously from of Duke University writing studio.

"Move key insights up." This is journalism 101, and the opposite of clickbait. Great advice for introductions, and why the introduction should be written last. I don't think we ignore it because we are trained to write deductively, but because it is through writing we actually do the work of deduction. It happens because the writing process is when we think through the material, and so the revelation at the end is a reflection of the process.

"Cite examples". OK, this one made me giggle. Academic writing is more "CITE EVERYTHING". Also "spend half your time on research." Nah, it's more like "spend your life on research and teaching, then put everything on hold while you hide out in a secret parallel universe because if you used actual time on the writing, you could do some more research." If casual writing is research low, academic writing is a matter of cramming enough research in there.

"Give us some signposts" - yeah, I am fine with that. It's what you should do in the introduction.

Now it's time to offer you Torill's revised ten tips. It's a result of thinking about this through writing, not the goal of my writing. Here, on this blog, I am the model reader.