Global gaming networks are heterogenous collectives of localized practices, not unified commercial products. Shifting the analysis of digital games to local specificities that build and perform the global and general, Gaming Rhythms employs ethnographic work conducted in Venezuela and Australia to account for the material experiences of actual game players.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Getting Stuck on Level One: Designing a Research Methodology Appropriate to Xbox

Work in Progress

The title of this paper “Getting Stuck on Level One: Designing a Research Method Appropriate to X-box” reflects my current mental state about my progress in my PhD research. Although the process of PhD research and gaming in general have few intersections, I feel that Espen Aarseth’s use of the notions of aporia and epiphany to describe the progress of the player through the game has certain resonances with the process of ‘writing’ a PhD [1,2]. Aporia describes the repetitious action of wandering through the previously explored, and often empty space of the game, looking for the object or combinations of objects that allows either an escape into new space, or a re-contextualization of the space that renders it transformed. This moment is coined epiphany by Aarseth. In my own research I long simultaneously to escape from the current media/literary paradigms for understanding games and to design a research paradigm that encapsulates the transformations that computer games wreak upon the emergent ‘new’ media-scape. My concern in this study of x-box gaming is not only the transformation that the player is able to elicit within the text, but also the possible transformations that the technology elicits within the gamers themselves. Walter Benjamin in the ‘Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ speaking of the potential that cinema had for allowing new perceptions, knowledges and understandings to emerge, states: “then came film and burst our prison world asunder with the dynamite of the one-tenth of a second” [3]. I begin my research with a similar incendiary assumption regarding x-box and my basic research question seeks to test this assumption by investigating the way that games are incorporated into everyday life. This inquiry begin by asking how do people contextualise x-box games within their lives, and reciprocally how do games contextualise people own experiences? In order to answer this question I suggest that the computer game text be understood not simply as a as a text alone but also as an intersection of discourses, practices, and technologies.

I will elaborate each of these issues in turn, but wish to highlight now that what I see as the chief advantage of conceiving the computer game text in this way, as a text residing at a particular nexus of discourses, practices and technology is that this acknowledges their complex, hybrid and polysemous potentials.

General discourse about games in the popular media, as opposed to the discourse of the gamers’ themselves is dominated by conception of the industry as highly profitable, the gamers themselves as a subordinate sub-cultural group and the games themselves as violent (or in the case of Australia overtly sexually orientated) [4]. These issues are echoed in the entertainment media, with gamers and games often being used as a symbol for the collapse of reality and fantasy, for example David Croenenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Boyle’s The Beach (2000). However recently more interesting uses have been made of gaming aesthetics in other media to invoke feelings of alienation in Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) or identification in Eminem’s White America, and 50cent’s Heat for example [5].

Academic inquiry into games reflects the concerns of popular media. Media effects studies of the violence in computer games are mind-numbingly common; the issue of games and gaming as masculine pleasures and practices is dealt with more interestingly. While many scholars locate gaming as another domain of masculine hegemony and use luminaries such as Lacan and Deleuze to contextualize games as oedipal or sadomasochistic and dismiss them as masculine power fantasies. Other scholars such as Schott and Morris have traced the role that women gamers have played within the development of game culture and in producing their own libratory understanding of the activity [6,7]. In terms of the critical understanding of the flows of aesthetic borrowings from games in popular culture, much has been written on the convergence of cinema and computer games. The best of this material acknowledges that such a comparison is beneficial to the discipline of film studies as it offers them new insight into the understanding of film [8], while the most objectionable conceptualizes games in a procrustean manner as interactive cinema [9]. In opposition to this intellectual colonization of computer games by film and literary scholars a small group of scholars known as ludologists have deliberately eschewed conceptual borrowings from other disciplines in order to understand games as games [10]. While this position has some merit, this position often requires the reinvention of the wheel, as it reworks issues that have been dealt with in other disciplines. Here is where film studies I believe becomes useful, as within the last 40 years this discipline has grown from within other more establish traditions within the academy and faced similar challenges in proving its own legitimacy. For example in order to understand my own inquiry into game genres I looked at the historical development of the use of genre in film studies. The concept was borrowed from literature, but quickly developed certain nuances borrowed from art history to cope with the visual aspects of cinema that literature obviously lacked. This makes it entirely appropriate to understand computer game genres in a completely new light, in order to cope with the differences between them and cinema or literature. In my mind the genres should be based on categories of ‘physical’ interaction, the key feature that they have that both cinema and literature lack. While the popular genre categories developed for games function in a similar role to those in cinema in that they acts as an implied consensus between the consumers and producers over the contents of the text. I believe that these categories lack sufficiently critical qualities to be of use to a scholar.

As well as the popular and academic discourse on gaming, the gamers themselves generate a large amount of discourse. Gamers meet on the Internet to discuss particular games in bulletin boards and chat rooms. This discussion of the games generates further extra-textual practices, when for example shared tactics are written in document form to create an overarching guide or walkthrough for the game. Furthermore, these spaces often involve the exchange of ‘mod’ files that alter or customise one or more aspects of the game. This practice may also become documented, creating a guide for anyone who wishes to alter or customize that particular game. Games also generate intense creative products of a more traditional cultural studies conception of the fan, fan literature, art and practices such as cosplay [11]. Beyond the interests that gamers may have in particular games, there are sites and newsgroups developed of interest to the community as a whole were illegal pirate versions of games and semi-legal mods such as no-cd cracks or quasi-pornographic patches are exchanged. More traditional sites review games software and hardware in much the same way as other cultural products are evaluated, although significantly many of these sites lack a strong editorial presence and the editorial voice of the site is often effectively drowned out by advertising material and opinion pieces.

Games are also a particular technology, or rather intersection of technologies. While I do not believe entirely that the medium is the message, I wish to mark the medium of the x-box as introducing new and unique ways to recreate and socialize. While on one hand the x-box is a fusion or convergence of new technologies, modem, computer, mp3 player and DVD it also makes use of long established technologies like stereos televisions and telephone lines inscribing them with new contexts. I believe that the technology of the x-box is significant in that it represents the beginning of ubiquitous networked entertainment computing in the living rooms of the first world. This significance stems from the beginning in late 2003 of ‘x-box live’ which enabled x-box users to play against each other online. Console gaming need no longer be considered a symptom of telecity, but rather a social practice. This social practice has the potential to link players with thousands of others. However, it is important to note that currently these games are agonistic, characterised by competition. X-box claims however to this year be releasing two Massive Multiplayer Online Role-playing games (MMORPG’s). This potential for interactive co-operative play that links people across the imagined boundaries of nation is of particular interest to me as this form of play encourages the bulding of communities within the game that I presume will extend into other online forums and possibly even into ‘real-life’ relationships.

The technology and practices associated with gaming encourages a new model of commodification and consumption. The transmedia intertextual commodity: here I am refering to the current ubiquitous trend in the mass media to remediate the same content across all media platforms. The Book/Film/Game/Happy Meal phenomena that is associated with most contemporary mass media products. While I believe on one hand this is a calculated marketing tool in the sense of a product reaching all kinds of demographics, to put it crudely a shotgun effect. On the other hand this form of commodification encourages a deliberate process of intertextual assemblage during the audiences production of meaning, which allows the audience to experience a sense that each product is a part of a wider mediated universe that is largely constructed in the minds of the audience through the process of assemblage of the disparate medias. An explicit example of this interweaving of transmedia intertextuality into a large mediated universe (or ‘Buffyverse’), is seen in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer games. Both the x-box games Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds (2003) are located within the narrative of the television series as lost episodes that explain or contextualise inconsistent events within the series themselves. This tactic is also deployed in the relationship between the film The Matrix: Reloaded (Wachowski, 2003), The Animatrix (Jones etal., 2003) and the x-box game Enter the Matrix (2003). In this case the game fulfils a minor, but crucial, side story in the greater narrative of the film. I wish to investigate the way that this phenomena impacts on the players understanding of the game and reciprocally how the game affects their understanding of the wider transmedia forms. Furthermore, I wish to understand the mass media transmedia intertextuality in relation to the game players own intertextual productions. Marsha Kinder in her book Playing with Power locates computer games at the cutting edge of the phenomenon of the transmedia intertextual commodity. Implicitly she connects the playful engagement of the game, and the expansive worlds of the game text with the practice of assemblage of transmedia intertextual commodities into ‘metatexts’ [12]. In my mind the growth of the phenomena in the thirteen years since the publication of Kinder’s book represents an attempt by media producers to colonize the creative space of fandom, located by such theorists and Henry Jenkins, and turn it into not only a commodified practice. In short I will argue that media texts in general and computer games in particular are designed with this form of transmedia commodification in mind.

This kind of inquiry locates the specific questions I have about games in the understanding of everyday life, to broader questions on the role of global media networks. The emergence of such a network in the contemporary era has been linked by scholars to various overarching theories such as globalization, postmodernism, telecity, and capitalism. Each of these theories and without doubt many others offer a particular context for understanding the role of gaming in everyday life, and I also believe are made sense of by players in light of their experiences through play.

There is always a danger when addressing the larger issues that the x-box games, my original object of inquiry will become lost, merely used as an example to illustrate my theories. My concern is that by imposing an academic grid upon people’s everyday knowledge I will be obfuscating and consequently undervaluing that knowledge in favour of a particular academic point that I wish to use computer games to prove. As an aside I will state that this practice is endemic in so called scholarship on computer games [13]. This is why I intend to invest in a rigorous practice of play, to conduct my research primarily as media ethnography and secondarily as a textual analysis. To borrow a turn of phrase from de Certeau I wish to know the practice of gaming as a tour rather than a map [14]. To many of the academic writings on computer games are conducted with the respectable distance that is appropriate for other texts, but completely inappropriate for understanding the particularities of play. Part of the academic reluctance to engage fully with games, may come from the sheer size of the texts, I have spent over 60 hours playing the x-box game Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic (2003), spent another 25 taking notes as a secondary player (or spectator), with the end of the game only just coming in sight. I proudly completed my first ever x-box game Beyond Good and Evil (2003) in about 20 hours to discover that it was regarded as a ‘short’ game. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), another short game, took me about eighteen hours to complete. The only reason I was able to complete it in this time was that I had the game set to ‘easy’, a setting that is, unfortunately, unavailable to PhD students that are having difficultly meeting deadlines.

In negotiating this disjuncture between the ‘commonsense’ understanding of everyday life and the complex critical enquiry demanded by academia I will turn to the tools of anthropology. One of the tasks of the anthropologist is to utilise the categories that are meaningful to the informants. This is called an emic perspective, and is contrasted with the etic perspective where the categories are defined by the researcher [15]. The role of the ethnographer is to build on the emic perspectives an etic understanding, that while acknowledging the validity of the informant’s categories is able to create a critical perspective. With this notion in mind I wish to return to my research on computer game genres.

Gamers understanding of genre categories can become quite nuanced, but I will argue here that they come back to four broad categories. The categories are action, role-playing, simulation and strategy. In order to clarify these genres in my head I embarked on a two-week project to play as many x-box games, from as many genres as I could. Writing up my notes from this extravaganza was informative. By playing several simulations I started to see a variance in the genre that resonated throughout the medium, some games required constant maintenance, they were performative, others operated through a combination of surveillance and intervention. For example, the activities involved in a driving simulation like Project Gotham Racing 2, are characterized by detailed attention to the game-screen and constant interaction with the controller during play. In games of this type the player has to constantly perform kinaesthetic actions, manipulate the controller, following the visual cues supplied by the screen. How well they integrate these activities and are able to contextualize them within the physical rules of the game world determines their eventual success or failure at the game. However, the activities involved in playing Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis are of a different kind, in this game the player must integrate information from, and make calibrations on, several screens in order to make effective interventions on a process of development that is already underway. The player has to manipulate the simulation as it progresses through time in order to get the result with the most utility. This may involve long periods of surveillance, where no direct interventions are made by the player, as they accumulate funds, or anticipate the success or failure of a particular decision that can only be revealed in the process of time. While ostensively these practices are similar, I believe that they can be divided usefully into two non-exclusive categories of games, the first group are characterised by the players crucial role in performing the text, while the second group are characterised by the interventions the player must make to bring the ergodic process to the desired end.

This distinction I found repeated in the strategy genre, although more explicitly acknowledged in the original genre categories by the division between real-time and turn-based strategy games. My examination of the action genre uncovered what I would call a hyper-performative sub-category that involves the player performing the desired action by selecting combinations of inputs. For example, in the action game The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) in order to attack a foe the character must manoeuvre their avatar in range of the selected foe and then select an attack based on a combination of buttons, the effectiveness of the combination will vary according to the type of foe faced, the more powerful the foe, the increased difficulty in performing the attack that is most useful against them. To slay an orc champion, the player could use the combination Y, Y, B, Y, called the ‘Shield Cleaver’ which will first smash the foe shield, then knock them to the ground, and they strike them while they are vulnerable. However, failure to follow the sequence with the precise order and timing will result in a less effective, or even ineffective attack. This is in contrast to many other games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), where the player selects a target and the selects an attack, the computer then determines whether the attack fails of succeeds based on the skill and abilities of the character the avatar represents rather than the skill of the player. This type of action game, exemplified by The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is hyper-performativ; the abilities possessed by the avatar of the player must be activated by a technical performance by the player that is based on a strategic decision. This type of performance, of game-play virtuosity, represents a considerable effort, and furthermore, this effort suggests a type of ‘textual’ mastery that represents a significant break with prior media.

Finally my examination of the role-playing genre highlighted to me that a rather predominant form of epiphany within all genres of gaming, but most explicitly in roleplaying games is epiphany that occurs rather than through a passage into previously unexplored space, but an epiphany which transforms the abilities of the character or avatar that transforms the characters relationship to an already explored environment. For example, the player of Beyond Good and Evil (2003) is initially bound by rather strict parameters, but these parameters are expanded and the space within the parameters transformed during the process of the game. Early in the game the players’ avatar modifies her hovercraft so it can jump, which allows access to new islands and also to new spaces within the already explored spaces, later the she finds a space ship which enables the player to fly first around the game area, exploring areas inaccessible without flight and then for the games climax allows her to leave the planet for its satellite.

This initial inquiry into computer game genres is an exercise that may have nothing to do with my final dissertation. However, I am satisfied that my analysis has foreshadowed the problems I may have in discussing with gamers their experiences of gaming. This encourages me not only to carefully think about how to address the issues I wish to address when speaking with game players, but also how to approach the ethnography in a manner that allows the gamer to speak their own understandings of their experiences [7]. Thus I propose a method of triangulation, in addition to the traditional media ethnography, I will conduct interviews with the gamers themselves, do textual analysis of the games and discursive analysis of the online communities. In addition to this my ethnography will combine the traditional media ethnography, with a virtual ethnography of both the online play and the online communication between players [16].

In order to enrich my approach and to solve problems that I anticipate in my research I have taken on board two additional research paradigms that I believe are complimentary, both to each other and my chosen topic. For a start both paradigms complement my mixed methods approach, agreeing that triangulation is the best way to approach a particular text. The paradigm Multi-modal analysis is useful for two key reasons. First, multi-modal analysis approaches text with the assumption that meaning is produced by a synergy of modes [17]. For example x-box games operate to produce meaning through a combination of aural, visual and tactile modes. Importantly to the study of games and other multi-media, multi-modal analysis seeks to see the ways in which these modes operate together to produce meaning rather than assigning the various modes hierarchal ranks in the meaning producing process. In film, for example scholars such as David Bordwell assign the visual a privileged place in the meaning production to the visual, with sound taking an ancillary role [18]. Second, Multimodal analysis not only seeks to understand the way that a particular meaning(s) is produced by the text, but also how that meaning(s) is made sense of in terms of the wider discourse(s). Furthermore, this paradigm conceives the stages of design, production and distribution as key stages in the creation of meaning, and demands that each stage be placed under similar scrutiny as the text itself [17,19]. Again this is beneficial to games as certain gaming practices move from the purely discursive (discussing the game), to the design, production and distribution of websites, reviews, fictions and walkthroughs about games, the production and distribution of gaming mods, and the (re)distribution of pirated copies of the games themselves. For both these reasons I suggest that Multimodal analysis will prove useful in unravelling the transnational intertextual commodity. The other paradigm I wish to utilize is that of discursive realism, my attraction to this methodology rests on its commitment to a holistic approach in media based research. Taking the text as their central object of study this approach seeks to place the text within a frame that contextualize the text as a communication product that links producers to audiences. Thus it involves understanding the relationship of the organizational context of the media producer to the everyday life of the media audience. Following this the method of discursive realism argues that the communication processes should be contextualised and framed again within broader socio-cultural practices [15]. Thus the method is appropriate for the study I propose which involves contextualising the game players everyday understanding of the gaming process as a unique clustering of producer/consumers within the growing networks of global techno/capital.

From here, then where? Currently I am in the doldrums of aporia regarding the next step in the development of my method, which is establishing what kinds of questions to pose to informants that will allow them to speak about the issues that I am interested in without directing them toward the kinds of answers that I both desire and anticipate. I feel as though I must end this summary of my research process with an apology for having brought you here with the promise of explaining why x-box games are pedagogical ecologies. Unfortunately time constraints led me to drop this somewhat elaborate point from today’s discussion. However, out of a combined feeling of guilt and duty I will send a copy of my paper on genre to anyone who wishes to read this argument, with the proviso that they contextualize the paper as a work in progress.

[1] Aarseth, E. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives On Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
[2] Aarseth, E. (1999). ‘Aporia and Epiphany in Doom and The Speaking Clock: The Temporality of Ergodic Art’. In Marie-Laure Ryan (Ed.). Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
[3] Benjamin, W. (1968). ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ In Hannah Arendt (Ed.). Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
[4] Flew, T. (2002). New Media: An Introduction. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
[5] See for quicktime versions of both videos.
[6] Schott, G. and Horrell, K. (2000). ‘Girl Gamers and Their Relationship with the Gaming Culture.’ Convergence 6:4: 36-53.
[7] Morris, S. (2004). ‘Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: Ethnographic Research in an Online Computer gaming Community.’ Media International Australia 110: 31-41.
[8] King, G. and Kryzwinska, T. (Eds.). (2002). ScreenPlay: Cinema/Videogames/Interfaces. London: Wallflower Press.
[9] Bolter, J. D. and Grusin, R. A. (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.
[10] Frasca, G. (2003). ‘Narrative Versus Simulation: An Introduction to Ludology.’ Mark J. P. Wolf (Ed.). The Videogame Theory Reader. New York; London: Routledge.
[11] Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.
[12] Kinder, M (1991). Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley; London: University of California Press.
[13] The Game Studies Journal specifically asks for articles on games that are structure in this way not to be submitted to them.
[14] de Certeau, M. (1998). The Practice of Everyday Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
[15] Schroder, K., Drotner, K., Kline, S. and Murray, C. (2003). Researching Audiences. London: Arnold.
[16] Hine, C. (2001). Virtual Ethnography. London; Thousand Oak; New Delhi: Sage Publications.
[17] Burn, A and Parker, D. (2003). Analysing Media Texts. London; New York: Continuum.
[18] Bordwell, D and Thompson, K. (1997). Film Art: An Introduction. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies.
[19] Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. (2001). Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London, Arnold.

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About Me

This blog started as a PhD blog, for my project 'Global Rhythms: Video games and the Transformation of Play'. It finally become a book. This is a "historic" record of the trials a tribulations.