I Hate Social Scientists

My research involves ethnography and my PhD minor is Anthropology. As such, I’ve sent a lot of time in classes talking about the role of the researcher and how the researcher brings biases and assumptions to the study. Apparently, this type of self searching and introspection doesn’t seem as evident for many people doing social science “experiments” especially our friends who seem convinced that videogames are bad. Even if the evidence doesn’t support their hypothesis, it doesn’t seem to stop them from finding a reason why even not finding anything wrong is a problem. The most recent case in point comes from a Washington Post article Students See Video Games As Harmless, Study Finds (registration required, but the story has since been picked up by other papers). Now, certainly, I can’t be too hasty in condemning the research because after all, this is being filtered through the newspaper writer’s writing and, therefore, might not accurately represent the findings or beliefs of the researcher. Additionally, I have my own agenda. I think I have made that clear. All that being said, the article paints a picture that is not very rosy.

The article talks about a research study conducted by University of Maryland professor Melanie Killen in which:

Researchers showed them images from a pair of over-the-top video games, one an “extreme” golf outing with strippers as caddies, the other a blood-and-entrails affair. Then, they were asked if what they had seen could be harmful.

First of all, they weren’t really from videogames.

Killen and fellow researchers at the University of Maryland’s Human Development Department interviewed more than 100 college students, whose average age was 19, for 45 minutes each. They showed them images from a series of imaginary video games, each one modeled on a familiar genre in the gaming industry.

Unfortunately, this little detail isn’t mentioned until halfway through the article. Even so, “most subjects understood that the two over-the-top games depicted negative themes and harmful stereotypes.”

One would think, great, this study proves that games know that there are negative stereotypes in games. Wrong. The very next sentence makes this abundantly clear, “But they failed to see how that content could harm them.” The article ends with: “It’s not like they were in denial about stereotypes,” Killen said. “But they for some reason think it’s not going to affect them.” So there it is, the assumption that exposure to stereotypes, even if you know that they are negative stereotypes is harmful. Gamers can’t win. Period. And it isn’t like any other form of media has stereotypes or anything…

Of course, the article in and of itself is horrible and it is entirely possible that the biases that seem to come from Killen’s research are from Daniel de Vise the article’s author. In just one article, in addition to the findings of Killen and her team, de Vise manages to bring up Columbine, make a drive-by swipe at Grand Theft Auto, talk about how “photorealistic” the graphics have become, and quote Craig A. Anderson who has spent much of his academic career rehashing the same arguments that media and videogames in particular are evil and make you go crazy and kill people. Wow! All that is missing is a quote from Grossman and Thompson (either Jack or Robert)!

Super Bowl Sunday!

While I don’t really care about the Super Bowl, with the news that EA has exclusive rights to make NFL games, it will be kind of sad that the sports shows will only be able to have Madden as the computer game to predict the winner instead of running all the football games.

I’m in the midst of taking classes and don’t have much time for gaming myself, but am managing to find some time to play Dope Wars and was thinking about the differences between these little “time waster” games and the longer games that can take days to play. I don’t think that there has been much investigation between the different geneologies and purposes that they games have. Why don’t you go work on that and get back to me, ok?

Real world ethics and gaming?

It is often debated whether videogames are ruining the morals and ethics of youth, however, I have a different dilemma in mind. The question at hand is, “Is it acceptable to buy a game or other form of entertainment if you know that one of the people who created it holds views that you strongly disagree with?”

This is not a hypothetical situation, but rather one based firmly in our modern world for it seems that noted science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, who wrote a column for Compute magazine for many years, has a few things in the works that are of interest to me. He is working on the Advent trilogy of games, the makers of A Tale in the Desert have just just announced a MMORPG based on one of his stories, and he is going to write Ultimate Iron Man for Marvel comics. And he is also an outspoken critic of homosexuality and gay marriage.

I’m not here to debate if he is right or wrong. I can’t change your mind and you can’t change mine. I also think he has every right to say and think whatever he wants. The question is, just because he is involved in something that sounds interesting, should I support him by giving him my money? I don’t think I will, but I’m interested in what others think.

The end of IU’s EA University???

With EA buying out everything, I was interested to see some local news about EA. I’ve previously discussed EA’s viral marketing and attempt to turn my school into EA University, well it seems that this is in danger of coming to an end! According to the Indiana Daily Student, the guy who puts up all those stickers (and there are new ones up, but my camera is in the shop so I can’t take pictures of them) is going “to leave void in campus program.”

While there is no doubt the guy does a great job and deserves every penny he gets paid, it seems odd that the article doesn’t seem to question the mixing of academics and consumerism. You would at least think it would mention all the damn stickers!

Whoever fills the “void” on campus, it will be very interesting to follow the how gaming companies continue to spend money on advertising on college campuses.

Games as Texts…

In between playing Thief 3, I got a couple books in the mail the other day and I’ve started reading Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar and The Making of Doom 3. Both books are visually amazing, but they are interesting in comparison to each other. The Doom 3 book is full of suitably scary and gothy fonts and layout, while the Half-Life 2 book is more slick and streamlined. The Doom 3 paperback, Half-Life 2 hardback. It is obvious that they meant the Half-Life 2 book to be more of a coffetable book. So far the Half-Life book is much more informative than the Doom one, at least in terms of background info. The Doom book is much more concerned with the technical things, while the Half-Life one is a more historical book.

The biggest thing though is that the Doom book has an author, Steven Kent, while the Half-Life book is simply “by Valve.” Who knew that beside making games, the folks at Valve wrote books? Seriously though, while the book is full of lots of quotes, almost like a commentary track on a DVD, there still had to be someone who sat down and interviewed these people and put all this into some shape. Since I tend to spend a lot of time interviewing people and putting those interviews into some sort of order, I’d like to see the person who did that get some sort of credit besides contributing editor or manager. It is interesting that a company like Valve that has had issues with people stealing their work, would put out a book without attributing it to someone. There’s all kinds of theft in the world. Just because some of it is legal doesn’t mean it is any more right…

On another note this is my 101st post on movable type (ok, sure there might have been a couple test posts in there, but still!) Of course before I used movable type, I had a site on geocities that I put up sometime back in 2001, and then started using blogger in April of 2002. I finally moved to my own dot com site in January of 2004 where I will be for a long time to come. 101 posts in a little over a year, not so bad, if I do say so myself. Thanks for reading!

Different (Red) Factions, Different Experiences

In my continuing marathon of gaming before classes start again, I’ve completed Deus Ex 2 and have finished playing Red Faction 2. Notice I didn’t say I completed it. I couldn’t force myself to make it through the final boss battle but other than that, both games were fun in their own way. I must admit that after playing Doom 3, Half-Life 2 and Deus Ex 2, to start up Red Faction 2 was quite a shock. I have written before that the graphics of the new games were pretty naturalized for me and I didn’t really notice them. However, when I saw Red Faction 2’s two year old graphics, I suddenly did appreciate the prettiness of the other games, especially when I jumped into Counter-Strike:Source or HL2 Deathmatch.

Because I went from Deus Ex 2 to Red Faction 2, in addition to comparing their graphics, I also couldn’t help myself from comparing other aspects. The first thing I noticed was that both games betray their console heritage. I played both of them on my l33t computer, rather than the x-box and while both played find with keyboard and mouse, there were obvious consessions made for the consoles. The most talked about console feature in Deus Ex 2 was the small levels and the frequent loading. Interestingly, Red Faction 2 had small levels too, but they weren’t nearly as frustrating as Deus Ex 2’s — and in fact, because Red Faction 2 doesn’t feature any in game saves — another console carry over — the short levels were actually welcome. That I found myself hoping to end the level in Red Faction 2, and thus automatically save my progress, and yet dreading loading a level in Deus Ex 2 was interesting. Constant backtracking was the reason why the small levels in Deus Ex stuck out so much. I especially dreaded settings like Cairo where you had to backtrack through one level just to get to the other level you wanted to go to. I found myself longing for the little lightening bolt thingys that Riven had where you could just zip past things and skip the stuff in between. Red Faction 2, on the other hand, is purely linear with no backtracking through levels.

So we have one game that features non-linear gameplay, which is supposed to be the hottness, and one that features linear gameplay, which is supposed to be lame and broke-down, and yet the linear gameplay is less frustrating. Now I’m not saying red Faction 2 is better than Deus Ex 2 because I don’t think that is the case at all. I’m saying that gameplay is meaningless if the technology behind it isn’t up to par. Deus Ex 2 looked pretty and had progressive gameplay, but the technology of the levels hindered the gameplay and made it frustrating. Red Faction 2, on the other hand, managed to somehow turn 3 liabilities – short levels, linear gameplay, and no in-game saves, which are both technological limits and non-progressive gameplay, and make it work.

Red Faction 2 had a lot of other problems, losing the Mars setting, continued underuse of their Geo-Mod technology, stupid cut scenes, and lame characters just to name a few, but they managed to make an OK game. Playing these two games back to back made me stop and rethink the relationship between gameplay and technology and how gameplay needs to work with the limits of the game engines to hide the limitations of the engine. For the most part Red Faction 2 managed to hide the limitations of their engine, while Deus Ex 2’s gameplay unfortunately highlighted the limitations of its engine.

Stupid is as Stupid Does…

I bought myself a settop DVD recorder for Christmas and on my Christmas break I’ve been copying over to DVD all the videogame stuff I’ve recorded on VHS. Yesterday I watched some of the videogames are evil/moral panic stuff including First-Person Shooter (the internet archive has a cached copy of the site which seems to have gone offline, but because it was all fancy flash, not much is left of it) which details the story of the filmmaker and his attempt to understand his son who is obsessed with Counter-Strike. I know when I become a parent my first impulse will be to make a movie about my son rather than to try to actual join in and play the game myself.

I also watched PBS’s The Video Game Revolution which, while a history and not nearly as moral panic-y as First Person Shooter, contains segments with a psychologist who closely monitors his son’s videogame playing. That isn’t a problem, because any responsible parent should do that. However, instead of actually, you know, turning off the game and controlling the situation, the father repeatedly tells the kid to turn it off while the kid whines and moans — but continues to keep playing.

Now I’m not a parent, and it is certainly easy to gel like an expert when you aren’t one yourself, but it seems odd that these two examples, in which both fathers have some sort of credibility lent to them by their profession, filmmaker and psychologist, both seem so clueless not only about videogames but how to parent. Is it any wonder then that people who seem so clueless about their children also seem so clueless about what they children are doing? I guess that is why we need people like Jack Thompson to try and save us from ourselves…

kids and games and fears

Just before Christmas, on my drive to my parents’ house, I was listening to AM talk radio and ran across a station discussion kids playing poker. There were specifically discussing a 12/20/2004 story by Marco R. della Cava that appeared in USA Today under the title, “Poker at an early age: Not just another teen fad.” According to the article:

Now kids as young as 10 are being dealt hands, often with parents’ approval. Poker paraphernalia is being hawked everywhere from supermarkets to kiddie emporiums such as Toys R Us. All of which rings alarm bells for gambling addiction experts who warn that poker could be a slippery slope into other high-risk activities.

To those of use that play videogames, this sounds awfully familiar. From my experiences with teaching college undergrads, I can attest that among the men Texas Hold ‘Em is very popular, almost as popular as videogames. As someone who worked in a casino for a little over 2 years, I’ve seen first hand the dangers of gambling. (Of course the fact that the article talks about the dangers of gambling doesn’t stop at least the online version from linking to a page on how to play!)

On the radio show almost everyone agreed that there wasn’t much harm in kids playing poker, and I more or less agree. However, it is interesting that there isn’t more of an uproar about the evils of poker. There are a few stories, but I’ve yet to see anything about banning it or anything. It seems odd that a game where losing money is a built in part of the way the game works should raise fewer concerns in parents than a videogame which would have to have negative consequences when you weren’t even playing it to be a danger.

However, if you read the article closely, you will noticed that it places the blame on poker’s popularity squarely on television:

Why now? Flick on your TV. Expanding poker tournament coverage on ESPN, the Travel Channel and Bravo has had two compelling effects.

First, the slickly produced shows (ESPN employs more than 20 cameras, comparable to what’s used on major sporting events) have taught kids the fundamentals of a wildly popular version of the game known as Texas Hold ‘Em, which challenges players to incorporate face-up table cards into their hands.

Second, TV has granted quasi-celebrity status to a hip generation of poker stars who can lose tens of thousands with James Bond-like panache. Hey, why suffer through the indignities of Survivor when you can make a mint with a steely gaze and a bit of luck?

While no one can argue that TV is responsible for the current popularity of poker, it seems that rather than having some inherent appeal to it, poker is attractive because TV has made it that way. Now right or wrong, that is interesting because the subtext here seems to be that, once again, it is the media’s fault! Why else would it matter that the show was “slickly produced?” By including that “fact,” it seems that the author seems to hold an Adorno-esque opinion of television in that kids can be won over by the glitz and glamour of it, rather than having anything to do with the appeals of poker in and of itself.

The reason this is so interesting to me is that by discussing the effect of television, the author of the article, at least in part, makes this no so much that poker is evil, but that television is bad! So once again we have a subtext that implies that if it needs electricity, it is seductive and can manipulate us.

Last Post of the Year!!!

Winding down from the end of the semester rush, and getting reaquainted with my tv and computer.

Not specifically related to videogames, I found a few new tools invaluable for modern researchers.

The first, and everyone is talking about it, is Google Scholar. Sure, there are limitations to it, as some have noted, but when you are doing research on a topic like videogames but don’t care about violence, google’s quality sure cuts down the amount of time it takes to find stuff. And that, for me, is what I’ve been waiting for, is better quality in academic search, not quantity. Ebsco and jstor are cool and all, but sometimes they can be impossible to use effectively. Best of all, there is a search plugin for Firefox that lets you search just google scholar rather than have to go to the url to search it. I’ve found several articles that were in the traditional academic databases but didn’t turn up untill I used google scholar.

Another great tool for academic life is Abbyy’s PDF Transformer, which as one might imaging, turns PDF’s into text. There’s nothing that frustrates me more about writing papers than having to retype block quotes. With this, you just convert it to a .rtf file and cut and paste quotes to your heart’s content. Most classes use e-reserves now, which are just articles scanned into pdf files, and the converter makes it a lot easier. (most OCR software will do this as well, but the PDF Transformer is cheaper).

Amazon.com’s Look Inside the Book and Search Inside the Book feature which is great if you can’t remember where inside a book a certain quote was. If you are looking for a good quote, or a source for it, A9 is pretty good because is uses google’s database and also lets you use the “search inside the book” feature at the same time. There is also a Firefox search plugin for A9 too.

This next is kind of a dark tip, but related to PDF Transformer, at least in the way in which I use it is, because if you work at it a little, you can get access to page Amazon shows you (that file is on your computer somewhere if you look for it!) and using pdf transformer turn it into text. You can also look at more than just the 3 pages in a row that Amazon lets you by just “searching inside the book” for the page number. There is a limit to the total number of pages Amazon will let you see per day, however, as I found out when I tried to get a whole article from a book that way once…

LIke I said, none of those have much to do with videogames, but they certainly made my life easier and saved me a few trips to the library when I was writing about videogames