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Digital Games and Sociology Research Alex Burns ( [email protected] ) Smart Internet Technology CRC 13 September 2005 Industry & Government Partners Industry Partners Telstra Westpac Legalco Infoysys Tenix Pacific Knowledge Systems SME Consortium Partners

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Digital Games and Sociology Research

Alex Burns ([email protected])

Smart Internet Technology CRC

13 September 2005

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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

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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

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  • Computer Game History

  • Global and Australian Industry Context

  • Auteurs and Independents

  • Digital Game-Based Learning

  • Game Studies

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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  • 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)

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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’

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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

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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

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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)

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Further Sources

Digital Games and Sociology