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Digital Games and Sociology Research

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  1. Digital Games and Sociology Research Alex Burns ( Smart Internet Technology CRC 13 September 2005

  2. Industry & Government Partners • Industry Partners • Telstra • Westpac • Legalco • Infoysys • Tenix • Pacific Knowledge Systems • SME Consortium Partners • ACT (The Distillery, Catalyst Interactive, Wizard & Epicorp) • NSW, Vic, Tas, Qld in progress • Government Partners • NSW State Government Digital Games and Sociology

  3. University Partners • University of New South Wales • University of Sydney • University of Wollongong • Australian Graduate School of Management • Australian National University • Swinburne University • Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology • University of Melbourne • University of Adelaide • Griffith University • University of Tasmania Digital Games and Sociology

  4. Agenda • Computer Game History • Global and Australian Industry Context • Auteurs and Independents • Digital Game-Based Learning • Game Studies Digital Games and Sociology

  5. Computer Game History 1 • First videogame developed in 1958 • DEC’s SpaceWar! (1961) and Atari’s Pong (1972) • ‘Golden Age’ of videogame arcades: • Space Invaders (1978), Asteroids (1979), Pac-Man (1980) • 1983 bubble due to over-supply in console market • Console industry: • 6-to-8 year technological cycle of new consoles • 32-bit (early 1990s) and 64-bit (late 1990s) machines • Sony and Microsoft emerged as key manufacturers in 2001 Digital Games and Sociology

  6. Computer Game History 2 • Online market: • Has often overstated its market share (Stephen Poole) • Older audience and diverse demographics than youth market • Currently provides a niche for ‘hybrid’ games • ‘Retro’ games: • Archive the early history of videogames • ‘Abandonware’ and console ‘emulators’ solve digital continuity • May be bundled with mobile phones but are unlikely to be a profitable subscription-based revenue model Digital Games and Sociology

  7. Global Context 1 • Global industry revenues of $US30 billion annually • Four major markets: • Arcade, PC (IBM compatible, Apple), Handhelds Nintendo, Sony, mobiles) and Console (Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation) • Two tiers: game publishers and developers • Doom 3 sold 300,000 units in first week (August 2004) • New sales cycle in 2005: • Microsoft Xbox 360 (2005) and Sony PlayStation 3 (2006) Digital Games and Sociology

  8. Global Context 2 • Barriers To Entry • Dominated by large firms • Low profit margin: Of 3,000 games released in 2001, 100 were profitable, and 50 were mega-hits • Console industry controlled by licensing, publishing and software development kits (SDKs) • High cost of games development • Inter-firm competition for talent • Threat of government regulation (violent games debate) • Entertainment as threat of substitute products Digital Games and Sociology

  9. Digital Homes • Rich Media school of thought • Digital Hollywood’s preferred vision • New Broadband-enabled entertainment console (Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3) • ‘Always connected, always personalized, and always in high-definition’ (Microsoft, GDCA, 2005) • Broader gamer demographics than ‘youthful’ stereotype Digital Games and Sociology

  10. Australian Industry Context • Generated $A100 million in exports (2002) • Game Developers’ Association forecasts: • $A500 million (2005) and $A1 billion (2010) • Potential for Digital Media/Games clusters • Victoria’s GamePlan (Multimedia Victoria) • QUT’s Creative Industries program • Australian firms have won international contracts for game development Digital Games and Sociology

  11. Auteurs • Auteur’ coined by French New Wave theorists to honour Hollywood Studio System’s distinctive directors • Used by games publishers to describe influential designers: • Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros.) • Sid Meier (Civilization series) • John Carmack and John Romero (Doom 1 and 2) • Auteurs can be a risky strategy: • May create brand recognition and long-term franchises • Intensely personal vision may derail projects (Romero’s Daikatana project nearly bankrupted Eidos Interactive) Digital Games and Sociology

  12. Independents 1 • May take many different forms: • Hobbyists, amateur designers and political activists • Mainstream designers working on projects • Independent sector in Australia • Operates outside Government cluster models • Represented by Free Play conference (2004) • Training ground for designers and innovative projects • Potential entrepreneurial start-ups and new game publishers Digital Games and Sociology

  13. Independents 2 • Small ‘indie’ firms: • Likely to use Internet distribution rather than sell-through • Operate on an ‘arthouse’ model (parallels Miramax ‘four-wall’ distribution in mid-1970s) and • Small teams that echo games development in early 1980s • Goes beyond binary-oppositional model (Eric Zimmerman) • Wild Cards: • ‘Indie’ designers may innovate features for future best-sellers • Unorthodox R&D practices (Hacking the Xbox) which drives technological innovation in consoles market Digital Games and Sociology

  14. Digital Game-Based Learning • Precursors: • AI cognition, LOGO, Seymour Papert’s exploration of microworlds • Studies of Generation X (1965-82) and computers in education • Digital Game Based Learning: • Draws on collaborative action learning and knowledge management • Simulations with non-linearity to teach about uncertainty • Marc Prensky’s Digital Game-Based Learning (2001) • Applications in custom-based training and higher education • Mark Pesce’s Playful World (2000) surveys consumer applications Digital Games and Sociology

  15. Sherry Turkle • Director, MIT Initiative on the Self • Paralleled Howard Rheingold’s research on ‘virtual communities’ • The Second Self (1984) examines user identities via Freudian psychoanalysis and sociology • Life On The Screen (1995) investigated MOOs and MUDs • Dotcom era example of ‘immersive’ field research • Attacked by critics as ‘postmodern’ Digital Games and Sociology

  16. Mark Dery • Cultural critic and Professor at New York University • Popularised ‘culture jamming’ (1992) • Escape Velocity (1995) was an important study of subcultures: industrial and cyberculture • The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium (1999) examined pre-millennialist and conspiracy subcultures online Digital Games and Sociology

  17. Siva Vaidhyanathan • Associate Professor at New York University • Author of The Anarchist In The Library (2004) • Influenced by political philosopher Robert Nozick • Coevolutionary model of technology and users • Warns of ‘bleed-through’ when online debates have serious ‘offline’ implications (legal precedents, social norms) • Useful to understand post-Dotcom era debates Digital Games and Sociology

  18. Games Studies 1 • A new academic discipline in Cultural/Media Studies: • Draws on Cinema Studies and Literary Theory • ‘Year Zero’ was 2001: emergence of ‘Ludology’ school • Game Studies journal • Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play (2004), James Newman’s Videogames (2004), Michael J.P. Wolf’s Videogame Reader (2004) • Game development courses are creating industry links: • Swinburne University BA in Games course • Postgraduate research in Games Studies • Focus on game physics and programming skills Digital Games and Sociology

  19. Games Studies 2 • Emerging academic discipline that studies videogames on their own terms • Provides rich insights and design philosophies for games developers • ‘Year One’ was 2001 • Key theorists: Michael J.P. Wolf, Eric Zimmerman, Katie Salen, Espen Aarseth • Some theorists write for Games Studies journal ( • Perspectives include aesthetics, narratology, ludology (the study of game-play), political economy and user centred design Digital Games and Sociology

  20. Games Studies and Sociology • Game Studies scholars have a potential role to play: • Game Studies counter-balances the techno-determinist School of Thought with alternate viewpoints • Game designers (Chris Crawford, Andrew Rollings, Ernest Adams) document their insights, philosophy and post-mortems • Academic researchers can provide strategic advice about the epistemology, frameworks and worldviews used to construct game characters and worlds • Socially legitimates videogames as a medium rather than its media portrayal as mindless youth entertainment • Can provide public testimony to counter the ‘moral panics’ Digital Games and Sociology

  21. Regulation 1: The ‘Violent Videogames’ Debate • Censorship began with the arcade game Death Race (1976) • Parallels the cyclical emergence of ‘moral panics’: • ‘Video nasties’ in Great Britain (early 1980s) • PMRC music hearings in United States (mid-1980s) • Key themes: Juvenile delinquency, poor IQ scores, gang violence • 1998 Australian Government study found: • Differences along gender development lines • Interviewees were self-critical of videogame violence • Videogames perceived differently to film and television violence Digital Games and Sociology

  22. Regulation 2: The ‘Violent Videogames’ Debate • Columbine ‘massacre’ (1999): • Killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were Doom players • id Software and Marilyn Manson blamed by Republicans • US Army Lt. Col. (ret) Dave Grossman becomes prominent critic, after he compares videogames to desensitization training • Charles Tilly counter-argues that violence is a socialized act • Implications for Australia: • OFLC has not issued ‘R’ classification for overseas games • Players use Internet downloads to bypass national censorship • Lobby groups may have regulatory impact on Australian industry Digital Games and Sociology

  23. Regulation 3: The ‘Violent Videogames’ Debate • Criticisms of the debate and sociological research: • Usually relies on a Functionalist interpretation • Media will frame the debate as a ‘moral panic’ • Definition and labelling problems • Methodological problems in online research • Research can influence policymaking networks unexpectedly • Researchers can be used for political agendas • Steven Johnson’s counter-argument in Everything Bad Is Good For You (2005) about Digital Culture’s positive impacts Digital Games and Sociology

  24. Social Networks 1 • Crucial to the early success of ADVENT and SpaceWar! • Underpins the growth of RPG and MMRPGs • Doom pioneered user-created levels and features (‘mods’) • South Korea’s Counter-Strike became one of the most highly successful games due to player communities • Innovative designers in player communities are often hired by game publishers/developers Digital Games and Sociology

  25. Social Networks 2 • The ‘cultural infrastructure’ for MMOGs (Sony) • Many MMOGs feature ‘clans’ of regular players • The challenge of developing a sustainable culture for an MMOG remains ‘uncharted territory’ • ‘Virtual economies’ are an unforeseen effect • Insights from anthroplogy (Clifford Geertz), sociology (Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck) and complexity (Duncan Watts) may provide solutions for MMOGs Digital Games and Sociology

  26. Future Games: Hybrid Games • Influenced by cross-genre experiments and films • Underpins the success of MMRPGs • Strategy to create diverse and loyal audience • ‘Stealth-Action’ games: • Thief (2004) and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (2003) • ‘Action Role-Playing’ games: • Deus Ex Machina (2002) • Ultima Online (2002) and Everquest (2002) Digital Games and Sociology

  27. Multi-Civilizational Games 1 • Many computer games have a Cold War logic: • Missile Command (1980) evokes Mutually Assured Destruction • Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series uses mercenaries and spies • Full Spectrum Warrior (2004) based on US Army simulation • These games are part of a broader culture: • ‘keeps alive the idea of the Cold War whilst avoiding its reality’ (Mary Kaldor) • ‘entailed vast covert operations and nuclear weapons systems’ (Robert Kaplan) Digital Games and Sociology

  28. Multi-Civilizational Games 2 • Multi-Civilizational Games posits an alternate future: • Recognizes the civilization (Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Indian, Sinic) as a post-Cold War unit of analysis • Disagrees with Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis • A ‘multi-civilizational’ world (Ziauddin Sardar): • Is a blueprint for the post-War on Terror • Goes beyond ethnic and nationalist identities • Shaped by epistemology, historiography and philosophy of life • Emerges from demographic, geopolitical and religious trends Digital Games and Sociology

  29. Multi-Civilizational Games 3 • Multi-Civilizational Games: • Forerunners in Japanese arcade hits and Russia’s Tetris • Makes explicit its assumptions, norms and values • Closer to ‘sub-altern’ narratives in post-colonial studies • Draws on Macrohistory (‘study of the histories of social systems, along separate trajectories, in search of patterns’) • Case Study: Sid Meier’s Civilization III (2002) • Influenced by William MacLean’s Rise of the West (1965) • Can be ‘modded’ using writings by Jared Diamond, Howard Bloom Riane Eisler, Manuel De Landa and Robert Wright Digital Games and Sociology

  30. EA’s Majestic Experiment (2001) • Electronic Arts (EA) was an innovator in MMOGs • Majestic was a Live-Action Roleplay Gaming experiment • Altered players’ perceptions of what the Internet was: • AOL IM chats with game characters: ‘the game that plays you.’ • ‘Fake’ newscasts / Infiltrated online conspiracy subcultures • EA shutdown Majestic after the September 11 attacks • Lessons: • X-Files style plotline split the online subcultures and community • Many players not ready for ‘meta-fictional’ elements • Has influenced Doom 3 (2004) and Sociolotron (2004) Digital Games and Sociology

  31. Further Sources Digital Games and Sociology