Are games more like artichokes or like cherries?

One of the first outputs of Gaming Horizons is a literature review on games and gamification. As reviews go, this one is a bit unconventional, in that it draws both on academic sources and on gaming community contributions gleaned from authoritative developer expertise. Given the broad scope of the project, we were not surprised to find that a very large body of games-related knowledge has been produced by researchers studying the educational, psychological and ethical dimension of games (the three disciplinary lenses we adopted). We are talking about over 10,000 journal papers listed on two databases alone!

Luckily, this hoard included a number of literature reviews and meta-analysis, which provided us with a comprehensive picture of the state of the art.  This allowed us to concentrate on a reasonably selective sample of representative papers for analysis.

The report we produced (Gaming Horizons D2.1) is pretty large, so I won’t even attempt to summarize it here. If you want to get an idea, take a look at the executive summary and then check the table of contents for themes of interest.

However, there are a few thoughts I’d like to share at this point.

Firstly, terminology about gaming and gamification is still far from being consolidated and agreed upon in research circles. Different and sometimes contradictory definitions can be found for gamification, game mechanics, serious games – even for games themselves! Take a look at appendix 7.1 and you’ll see what I mean. This, of course, did make life rather difficult while analysing the papers, but what’s worse, it hinders communication among researchers.

Secondly, it’s interesting to see what topics and issues attract researchers’ attention. The ones that emerged most prominently in the review were the relationship between games and the psychological development of individuals, including the influence of violent games on aggressive behaviour; the relationship between immersion, motivation and engagement, and the potential of games for learning; the risk of addiction, on one side, and positive impacts on health, on the other; and the way different games lend themselves to learning different disciplines and skills. Finally, a less thoroughly explored area, yet one extremely important for a project investigating the potential of gaming for societal change – is the intertwining of game research and development with ethical issues and values concerning identity (gender, race, inclusion of individuals with special needs, etc.).

Individual studies and significant research results abound, yet it appears that research in this area is still not mature enough to yield conclusive answers to some of the questions addressed, such as “do games have a potential for learning?” or even to some of the more specific ones, such as “does playing violent games increase aggressive behaviour?”. As a matter of fact, it appears that the landscape of gaming and gamification is so broad and dynamic that such questions will probably never be answered by any single research study, simply because they are ill-defined.

So, you might ask, what does this all have to do with the cherries and artichokes mentioned in the title? Well, before I explain the metaphor, let me first say that I love both cherries and artichokes.  Actually, cherries are what gets me through the gastronomical crisis that besets me when the artichoke season finishes.

But let’s start with games as cherries. First, the fruit:

  • cherries are soft, sweet, and juicy;
  • once you start eating them, it can be very hard to stop;
  • they contain vitamins, but they’re not nutritious enough to be a meal in themselves;
  • they have a hard kernel that shouldn’t be swallowed, and certainly not chomped on – that could be hard on the teeth;
  • the kernel that remains can originate a whole new tree;
  • eating cherries in good company is even more pleasant than eating them alone, but you have to be ready to share;
  • too many cherries can, alas, have undesirable effects!

Games can be seen in a similar way:

  • they can be appealing, , challenging, and even moving;
  • games are often engaging – the more you play, the more you want to carry on;
  • they can nurture positive values, behaviours and skills but more is generally needed – especially in education, where teacher support and guidance is crucial;
  • There’s often something ‘hard’ inside that you’d best look out for, like, say, in-game purchases or less-than-ethical content;
  • however, what remains of a game after you have played it is often enough to make you feel like playing another game;
  • playing with friends is often more enjoyable than playing alone, as long as you’re prepared to share the fun;
  • If you overdo it, game play can have some nasty side effects, such as addiction.

Now let’s move on to (not onto!) artichokes:

  • to the uninitiated they can seem like a pretty tough and threatening proposition, with all those aggressive-looking spikes and thorns. But when the layers are peeled back, they usually win you over with their unique savoury flavour;
  • there are many different varieties of artichoke but fresh, locally-grown ones can be the very best of all, and certainly the most nutritious;
  • you can eat them raw or cook them in a variety of ways. However, fresh top-quality artichokes are best eaten raw, simply dressed with a little olive oil and salt;
  • finally, despite my passion for them, I have to admit that I’ve had some really bad ones in my time – practically inedible – so I understand why some people who’ve not managed to try a decent one would turn up their noses.

Similarly:

  • some people, especially adults and educators, are not particularly attracted to games, they are very cautious and hesitate before they make up their mind to use them, fearing that their mechanics and engaging dynamics can distract them from their priorities or even harm their students;
  • there is a whole wide range of video games, all quite different from one another and with special qualities that meet the preferences of different gamers. When it comes to ‘nutritional value’, however, some see game making (home-grown gaming, if you like) as the richest avenue of all;
  • you can play in myriad ways – indoors or out, at home, out and about, in cyberspace, by yourself, together with friends, online with anyone at all. What counts most, in the end, is the quality of the game play itself, not how it’s ‘served up’;
  • finally, while it is true that games are, in general, entertaining, there are some boring ones, and some people do not engage with games just because they never tried a good one.

In conclusion, the literature review of gaming and gamification carried out at the outset of Gaming Horizons has revealed the different veins of research in this area: the psychological dimension, mostly concerned with the effects of games on the development, psychological and physical health of the individuals; the educational dimension, focusing on the potential for learning and how this can best be put to use, and the ethical dimension, concerned with social equity and ethical game development. All of these themes can be seen and are approached by researchers under one of the two lights: games like cherries or games like artichokes. In both cases, there are benefits and downsides of games and the former often outweigh the latter, while the latter can be contained, especially thanks to the awareness that research can promote. And it is precisely for this reason that our literature review devotes special attention to the concrete recommendations that can be distilled from the large body of knowledge available. In its subsequent activities, Gaming Horizons will strive to build on these recommendations in a participatory effort involving and addressing different project stakeholder groups.