Games at home: inclusion & special needs

“I had a student on the autistic spectrum [who] really struggled … you put him in front of that video game and … he became the person everybody wanted to work with… he became the superhero in that classroom.”- Quote from interview participant. EE01

Description

Considering the immensity and cultural relevance of videogames, the area of inclusion drew relatively little attention from the stakeholders that Gaming Horizons engaged. The exception is in education, an area in which inclusion is quite keenly felt.

A number of teachers see digital gaming as a chance to reach and engage learners with Special Education Needs (SEN). They also consider it a way towards integrating those students better, and thus make classes more inclusive, especially where there are marked differences in students’ cognitive skills. At the same time, interviewees cautioned that care is required to harness gaming successfully for inclusive purposes.  

When it comes to players and gamers with sensory impairments, the question of game accessibility becomes critical. This is “a big tent issue” affecting millions now and millions more as playing populations age. While digital games certainly pose a number of barriers, significant gains can be made for all – as some Gaming Horizons participants pointed out- from greater attention to the needs of the full user spectrum. More awareness of design-for-all principles could lessen barriers and in doing so improve everyone’s experience, just like with our streets and buildings. Indeed, advocates point to how type, telephony and email – the backbone of modern communications – emerged from the efforts of inventors to tackle special needs. Certainly, with video games and the various technology platforms they employ, the risk of exacerbating the digital divide is ever present. In this sense, accessibility is not just a matter of interactivity levels but about making sure everyone gets a reasonable chance to play.

Of course special needs is just one facet of inclusion in games, an issue that touches on many questions, like gender bias, stereotyped representation of identities, the accommodation of minorities etc. These are tackled more specifically in other scenarios.

Meet Keisha (aged 16), Marco (aged 13), and the grown-ups: Kerry and Keisha’s Dad

Keisha’s a gamer. When she was younger, other kids would say she was ‘nerdy’ like some of the boys, but she doesn’t get that much anymore. Just about everyone she knows plays some sort of game, if only on the bus or the train. Keisha herself mostly goes for fantasy MMOs – her current favourite is Aion. When she started getting into games, she wanted to find other girls like herself online. The hardcore gamers she came across on the forum boards and chats then could be pretty mean, especially to girls. But she didn’t let it get to her and anyway it’s not so big a problem now – and you can report anyone who gets really out of line.

A while back, Keisha and her dad relocated, moving in with her dad’s partner Kerry, who has a son called Marco. Marco’s three years younger than Keisha and he’s the only blind person Keisha’s ever known. The two of them are very different in character and tastes, but as it happens they both share a long-held passion for video games.

Marco has always loved mysteries and adventures. That’s what started him off playing story-based computer games, like A Dark Room, using Text To Speech (TTS) applications. Then he started playing Terraformers, an old hybrid audio and video game, and he was totally hooked. It’s remained one of his all-time favourites. He played it on a PC at home that’s connected to an audio system which reproduces 3D positional sound; the position and direction of the sounds, together with sound qualities and audio cues, form a sort of 3D audio gamespace that Marco navigates and interacts in.

When Keisha moved in, Marco got her to try a few audio games. She found them kind of intriguing but none of them really grabbed her enough to play them right through. Then Kerry got her this artistic sort of game called Beyond Eyes, which gives you an idea about what it’s like to be blind. It wasn’t much like anything Keisha had played before but she was really glad she’d had the chance to try it. And playing together with Dad was special too.

For a while now Marco’s been having a go at FPS and combat games like Quake and Bayonetta 2  using the 3D positional audio. Keisha’s amazed at how well he plays using sound only; she’s tried and found it really hard. She says maybe one day Marco might get as good as the youtubers he’s started following, like True Blind, Sightless Kombat and the others. Marco’s hoping that one day he’ll get to play games that go ultra mega popular, like World of Warcraft. His dad thinks he should try joining the AbleGamers Player Panel to become a game accessibility tester and Marco’s giving it some thought.

Kerry’s just bought a cool party game suite called 1-2 Switch for the new Nintendo Switch console they got. It’s a bit like Wii Sports but with some funny touch and sound based mini games that you don’t actually need to be sighted to play. Keisha and Marco have a real laugh playing together (well, against each other) and they’ve started thinking of ways you could use the touch and sound combination in other sorts of games. Keisha might even make a study project out of it.

In a nutshell

Due recognition of design-for-all principles, and sincere efforts to fulfil them, can reap concrete gains for everyone: for players who, for some reason, are underserved or excluded; for player-consumers desiring more immersive and diverse game experiences; for the game industry growing markets. Here, video games – considered by many as a pariah – could be seen instead as a standard-bearer.

Converting a perceived win-win to an actual won-won demands concerted – and orchestrated – efforts across the board, especially from policy makers and the game industry. Game on.

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Arts and entertainment games research

‘[Interviewer] You say you’ve tried to get your games to academics to test, how has that worked out?  Has it actually happened?

[Developer] No, it has not.  […]  Maybe it’s a money issue, maybe it’s the time, […].  I think the resources are probably pretty limited for people’ – Quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28828.

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Description

During Gaming Horizons’research, it emerged that opportunities for applied and fundamental research into serious/applied games differed sharply from those for arts/entertainment games. Games research was most commonly situated in instrumentalist contexts, focusing mostly on direct and measurable impact on learning or antisocial behaviour, and rarely in the context of their creative, expressive, or artistic possibilities. From an industrial perspective, there was no sense of established collaboration with researchers, nor any sense that a change was impending in this relationship. The work of academic researchers appears to be entirely out of touch with the arts and entertainment games sector. The analysis of EU funding policies showed a strong emphasis on viewing the video game industry as an engineering sector, with research entirely focused on tools development and generally directed towards the serious/applied sector. Interviewees strongly criticised both the relevance and effectiveness of this research funding strategy to support the political, economic, and cultural needs of the EU. Researchers (and any developers that wish to work with them) are currently heavily restricted to working in the framing of the serious/applied sector, despite the widespread doubts about this sector’s effectiveness shown by the Gaming Horizons interviewees.

Meet Silvia, a game developer, and Juana, a researcher

Silvia’s studio has some immediate questions they need to examine in the context of the whole experience that they are trying to create. Trying out the systems in another game might give them a clue, but an educational game is aiming for a different player experience so the results wouldn’t be easy to apply to Silvia’s work. The length of time for results would be a big problem for them too: Silvia’s studio wants to get results in a matter of months, not years. If Juana could be funded to work directly with the studio and on their immediate problems then she would be able to help, but at the moment nothing can be done.

Unfortunately, after this disappointment, Silvia is unlikely to bother asking again and she is left feeling like researchers have nothing to offer her industry.

In a nutshell

Current funding for research into the arts and entertainment video game industry is entirely inadequate to the needs of the artists and developers.

  • Removing arbitrary delineations between serious/applied games funding and arts/entertainment funding would allow more interchange of knowledge and creative approaches to the use of gaming technologies.
  • Showing recognition in research funding calls for the cultural impact of games (beyond only technological and economic impacts) will open avenues of both applied and fundamental research into video game development.
  • Fundamental aspects of video game development beyond ‘tech’ (i.e. visual arts, animation, audio, production, storytelling methods and technologies, etc.) need to be explicitly supported to enhance the creative range and strength of the industry. This is a necessary long-term investment to supporting the future competitiveness of European games development when compared with other global regions.
  • Applied collaborations of research with industry partners need to be done on game-production timescales, not academic/administrative ones, and so funding calls must reflect the fast-changing and unpredictable nature of creative industry requirements – year long application and review processes are entirely inadequate for the needs of the video game industry.

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Gambling and dark design

“The problem is a lot of the [free-to-play] games do use the gambling style mechanics to generate an addiction to try and maximise the revenue from those players. So done well with the right game, I don’t think free-to-play is a problem at all. But like anything it can be used irresponsibly.” –  quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28783.

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Description

While academic research demonstrated a bias towards studies of violence, developer and player stakeholders in particular were more concerned about the manipulative application of psychological principles linked to dopamine triggers in the brain. These were referred to broadly as ‘dark design patterns’ and commonly tied to paid activities, such as compulsive buying of in-game goods or creating gambling-related reward systems. These systems frequently exist in legal grey-areas. For example, under British law the purchase of ‘loot crates’ (random collections of in-game items that may significantly improve the player’s performance) is not considered gambling because the player cannot ‘cash out’ their winnings (i.e. sell the in-game items), but other countries have varying legal perspectives on this. Regardless of perspective, many competitive games rely on small loot-crate-esque purchases to bring in the only source of revenue that the developers get, so changing the legal status of loot crates may have a profound impact on many game developers; however, the methods of stimulating purchases can be done in a variety of ways, on a scale from fair to manipulative. When implemented unfairly, these systems can result in heavy financial burdens for vulnerable players. The loot crate idea, and other systems like them, are not a priori manipulative, but the presentation and surrounding systems may make them socially problematic. Careful evaluation and tracking of such systems is likely to be a much more urgent concern for the future ethical status of video games than scare-mongering stories about violence.

Meet Karen and Davide, players of an online multiplayer warfare game

Karen and Davide have been playing online together for a few years. They both have two jobs to try and make ends meet, so playing a free game online in the evenings is a cheap way of relaxing. Characters in the game can be slowly made stronger, but there’s a random chance of getting a big boost to your character if you pay for a loot crate. Most of the crates have only minor improvements in them, but occasionally a bigger benefit will be in there and many players want to accelerate their characters’ growth to win more fights.

While some players may have enough money to spare to invest in virtual in-game goods, not everyone does. Some games are purposely balanced to entice players to buy a random loot crate in the hope that the reward will enhance their overall enjoyment of the game. However, each purchase is a gamble that might pay off, and if it doesn’t players can feel like it is worth spending more to have another chance of success. Various social mechanisms, variable-ratio schedule reward systems, game design choices, balancing of league competitions, and other techniques can be applied to push players to spend their money. These psychological techniques are linked to both gambling and addiction, and may affect players differently. Without sufficient current research, it is hard to say whether vulnerable players may particularly be negatively impacted, or if there are appropriate precautions that game developers could take to maintain their livelihoods without the risk of damaging or exploiting their players.

In a nutshell

The ethical spotlight in video game research is often pointed at violent games, but other aspects of game design would benefit from ethical study. Dark design patterns that exploit or manipulate players need to be closely examined with a balanced review that can guide developers away from using them either intentionally or accidentally.

Studies into past and present systems of monetisation and compulsion-inducing gameplay should be conducted. Great care needs to be taken to recognise the complexity of game systems and balancing: loot crates and many similar aspects of game design are not automatically unethical, and neither are free-to-play games, but aspects of their content and context may lead them to be exploitative or manipulative. Such studies will need to be conducted with the assistance of industry professionals who can assess and the multiple subtle ways in which such systems are implemented across the whole game experience, not only as an isolated systems. Such an isolation would result in flawed or binary moral/immoral judgement that does not match the nuance with which such systems can be integrated into games; such an outcome would not benefit the industry, nor would it contribute to potential guidelines.

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Representations of race, and ethnicity: supporting inclusion in the social landscape

“[After making all the characters in a popular sports video game black] people value being represented.  I think that’s a very powerful thing to be the default and so I think the reaction was one of empowerment for people who were the default for the first time, and there was one of curiosity for people who weren’t the default for the first time.  Like, uh, why would you make this choice not to make me the default?” – quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28788

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Description

With video games becoming increasingly an everyday presence in the lives of all ages of Europeans, especially people below the age of 30, they can play an important role in signifying a group’s inclusion and integration within society. The few studies of race and ethnicity in games have shown an unrepresentative dominance of white people as lead characters, with other ethnicities (if present) typically included as minor enemy characters. The research of these statistics is scarce, which does not assist in getting a full and current picture of both the present state of this issue or trends in development (i.e. whether this has begun to change in recent years, if there are types of games or developers that are performing better than others, what influences developers to include a diverse cast, etc.); the impact on players of such varied social contexts is both challenging to study and important to approach. Developers that were interviewed for Gaming Horizons acknowledged the importance of this topic (alongside other issues of inclusion), but players made few comments on race or ethnicity specifically, suggesting that racial and ethnic inclusion is an industry concern that has currently not reached the player-base to the same extent. Further research is necessary in this area to understand it more fully.

Meet Luuk, a social arts funding officer, and Naija, an artist and second-generation immigrant who makes video games

Naija would love to make a game inspired by the traditions of her Nigerian grandparents. She knows that it is a financial risk to make something different from mainstream Western or Eastern mythologies, but thinks this source material could inspire something unique. Arts funding would really help her get the project off the ground and would give it credibility to help her explore other funding options too. She is an artist and her work is inspired by being a European whose life is framed by a place where she has never lived: she hopes that it will inspire players and developers to learn about Nigerian culture. Luuk has money to distribute, but he doesn’t see the evidence that games will inspire others. He comes from a traditional arts background and secretly feels very uncomfortable with looking at video games as a medium with cultural worth.

Without many precedents or research into the social impact of artistic games, Niaja has to try and convince Luuk by herself that games can be both expressive and inspire curiosity in players’s actual lives.

In a nutshell

There is great potential for video games to assist in the visibility of racial and ethnic minorities in European culture, encouraging variety and inclusion as well as potentially increasing the expressive range and themes of the medium.

Three approaches would contribute to progress in this area:

  • further research to understand the current, past, and possible future states of race and ethnicity in video games, particularly in a European cultural context;
  • training and workshops aimed at minority groups specifically intended to give participants game development skills;
  • targeted arts funding for creative video games that specifies inclusivity (either in theme, individual/team, or both) as a metric of consideration.

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Games and inclusion: gender, minorities, and society

“[In] Dragon Age there’s a transexual character, which is something really important because if a transsex person […] sees themselves represented in a positive way, it can give them hope.”– quote from an interview with a player. PI06.

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Description

For all ages, video games are an expressive medium that is increasingly diversifying both the identities of the protagonists and the events and interactions presented in them. Issues addressed by video games include gender identity, treatment of cultural and ethnic minorities, refugees and war survivors, grief, love, sexual health, domestic violence, religion and faith, socialism, capitalism and neoliberalism, and, in a notable example from 2017, a playable interpretation of the work of the philosopher of Alan Watts (Everything). Such games can be used in a classroom context, but they are also commercial and non-commercial entertainment products that are already being played by millions of Europeans. The expansion is not restricted to content, but also includes a wide range of people that are becoming involved with, or more visible in, the development and communities of video games.

However, this increased visibility is not occurring without challenges and, like in society more broadly, there has been populist opposition to progressive inclusivity. Such opposition has included threats or murder, rape, assault, financial and legal implications, and even ‘swatting’ (the making of fake reports to the police of gunshots at their target’s house, with the hope to provoking an armed law-enforcement ‘SWAT’ response). As seen in many parts of society, moving beyond the past and present systemic prejudices against women and minorities is making bumpy progress, but the determination to do this successfully was supported by every game developer stakeholder interviewed during  the Gaming Horizons research and aligns with the goal of increasing RRI presence in EU funding policies beyond only ethics compliance.

Meet Pierre, a gamer who is heterosexual, and his friend David, a gamer who is gay.

Pierre feels like there’s too much fuss over minority groups saying that they are not visible in cultural artefacts, like video games and television. He thinks there’s nothing wrong with the way games reflect society, and he sees a lot of characters in games that he can relate to: white, male, cisgender, and heterosexual, and he’s never really thought about how it would feel for others to see themselves so rarely. Rather than engage with the lack of representation, Pierre makes jokes about others who are asking for equality. David is Pierre’s friend, but he would like to see different communities represented in games.

Although David laughs at Pierre’s joke, ‘dragons don’t exist?’, David secretly wishes that Pierre would take him seriously, but as a member of a minority group he knows that objecting puts him in danger: at the least he would change the nature of their friendship, but at worst he could be attacked verbally or physically. David has friends who have been attacked for being gay and he’s nervous about being too forthright about wanting equal treatment.

In a nutshell

Encouraging entertainment and artistic games developers to use women and minorities in their games will help build visibility for these communities as participants in everyday life and society. The wide reach of video games into European society allows them to function as a key asset in improving cultural understanding, relationships, and community. It is also likely to stimulate creativity in the industry, presenting new gameplay scenarios and inspiring new interactions.

Three approaches would contribute to progress in this area:

  • further research to understand the current, past, and possible future states of women and minority gender and sexualities in video games, particularly in a European cultural context;
  • training and workshops aimed at minority groups specifically intended to give participants game development skills;
  • targeted arts funding for creative video games that specifies inclusivity (either in theme, individual/team, or both) as a metric of consideration.

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Games conferences and new media as academic publishing

“I feel like we can move faster at conferences than you can with writing and reading papers and books.” –  quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28824.

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Description

Instead of using traditional academic resources, games industry conferences were framed as ‘nexus points’ of knowledge sharing within the game development community. However, industry conferences are not always amenable to academic contributions because of perceived/actual problems of accessibility of academic language, data presentation, timeliness, or the lack of immediate practical implications from the research.

In addition to industry conferences for knowledge sharing, developers have responded positively to webinars, online videos, and blog-posts on industry websites such as Gamastura.com or GamesIndustry.biz.  In the Gaming Horizons project, the ten webinars on a variety of research topics (such as cultural sensitivity, educational contexts for game usage, and the importance of realism in video games) have been seen by over 6000 viewers on the Facebook Live system. This demonstrates a reach significantly larger than most academic research activities and traditional dissemination methods. These views came through actively involving professional game developers and publishing directly to developer communities rather than to academia.

While researchers need to be more adaptive in how they distribute their work, governments and universities need to acknowledge that their systems and standards of measurement may be outdated. Researchers are typically judged on the impact of their work, and conference presentations and new media are typically rated as being of lower impact than a journal publication, regardless of the readership. Developers have a highly practical mindset, they desire knowledge that will assist them in improving the games that they are making, and so changes in researcher assessment, and publication style, content, and dissemination methods are necessary to bring the academic publishing closer to the needs of the industry.

Meet Yana, a games conference organiser and Ebba, a video game researcher.

Ebba has been working hard to find new ways of signifying potential interactions in video games, but she hasn’t had backing from her university to fully demonstrate this working in a game, only journal publications. Yana is interested in getting speakers for her conference with proven, applicable results – academic theory isn’t enough to impress her practically-minded attendees.

There are many challenges regarding making academic research appealing to industry professionals. Academic research needs to remember that interests of practical applicability and approachability are foremost for many professionals. If the mode of expression and the content can be framed correctly, many of the Gaming Horizons developer stakeholders were positive about the prospect of getting researchers involved in their work but didn’t currently feel that there was communication in a way that was meaningful to them.

Governments and their academic bodies will also need to give adequate recognition and status to applied research. While the split in ‘fundamental’ versus ‘applied’ research is also seen as a split between ‘real’ and ‘low quality’ research, academics who are desiring a strong career will be pushed away from creating research with the practical implications that professionals demand.

Likewise, national and EU funding bodies will need to support researchers working towards practical outcomes for games developers, and recognise in funding calls that industry conferences and new media outputs (for example YouTube demonstrations and tutorials) are much more desirable and potentially impactful than journal publications. Conference attendance for delivering research results and other new media dissemination methods must be supported financially.

In a nutshell

If academic research is to enter a discourse with professional contexts, it will need to adopt the methods and media that the industry uses.

This approach must also be supported by governmental and academic institutions understanding that industry conferences and other media are more impactful than traditional models (such as journal publications) in this domain.

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The discourse around games

“We have this silly word ‘game’ and it just sort of encompasses everything […] in a sense there isn’t necessarily a lot similar, you know, if you have to actually make parallels between ‘Uncharted 313’ and ‘Candy Crush 14’, it is a completely different kind of experience, […] the interactions are completely different and the experience is completely different, and where you might play that is completely different”. Quote from an interview with a researcher. R03.

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Description

During the project, participants talked of the need to understand games as complex and multiple, rather than acting as if there is anything like a ‘generic’ video game. One participant even suggested that it was the responsibility of researchers and other professionals to re-write the canon by turning the focus of their gaze towards games that were less commercial or less readily written about.

The view of gaming as a complex medium assumes that under the broad umbrella of gaming there is a multitude of different themes, mechanics and content, in the same way as ‘film’ is a medium that incorporates anything from video art, to documentary, to Hollywood blockbuster.  This view is  increasingly accepted but still faces some resistance which, perhaps unwittingly, seems to originate in the so-called ‘gamer’ cultures. Here, rather arbitrary distinctions seem to exist between real games, usually focusing on player mastery, competition and clearly defined win/lose states,  and ‘non-games’ or ‘artistic games’ which experiment with and sometimes subvert those categories.    

The identities and professional profiles of those who make games are also changing, reflecting a diverse range of personal, educational and technical backgrounds, and different design priorities are not necessarily aligned with those of large commercial publishers and the so-called ‘mainstream’ industry.  

Meet Steven, a journalist and Daisy, a game developer

Daisy is an independent game developer. Her trajectory started while she was still at university, studying in a game development course. She put her studies on hold when she got a job in a large development studio as a junior animator.  Nonetheless, Daisy thinks her university experience is a valuable source of inspiration and cultural diversity. She fondly remembers attending extracurricular seminars in the sociology department, meeting and conversing with students and lecturers about different topics and interests.  Over the past five years Daisy has worked on many games, but always felt that the focus on specific tasks within large projects was too narrow.  This year, Daisy decided to ‘go indie’, setting up a small studio with a couple of trusted friends. Her first project is based on a personal exploration of issues that matter to her personally – she wants to create an interactive experience that challenges expectations of what a game can do. They are conscious that such a game wouldn’t necessarily have mass appeal, and they are ok with it. With her friends and colleagues, she decides that crowdfunding offers the best chance to ensure creative independence and a direct connection with their intended audience. They hope to make a small profit to support their livelihoods and continue doing what really interests them. Days starts by tapping into her networks to do some marketing and raise the profile of the studio and the first game. After some time she lands an interview with Steven, a freelance journalist who writes about technology and games for a number of online and printed outlets. Steven is a keen technology enthusiast and a gamer. Immediately, the interview takes a slightly disappointing turn for Daisy…

 A more mature approach towards gaming, coupled with an acknowledgment of the complexity and multifaceted nature of this medium, could boost efforts to develop, understand, research and use video games in new, innovative, exciting and relevant ways. Dominant ways of understanding video games, and what they are, need challenging at all levels in order to generate more generous and nuanced understandings of the medium and its possibilities, in relation to education, culture and society.

In a nutshell

Although we often talk about video games as a singular entity, they are, in reality, diverse and complex. As a medium they offer a range of different features, experiences and opportunities to players in a varied range of contexts.

By considering games as singular, however, we are potentially simplifying debates and maybe even lowering our expectations. Funders, researchers, educators and developers are all responsible for advocating a more diverse and multifaceted notion of what a game can be or do. Funding Social Science and Humanities (SSH) research projects that survey the representation of cultural themes would allow the development of video games studies in curriculums at all educational levels, and increase their future relevance.

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Research on technology, education and games: disciplinary divisions and their discontents

“Unlike some of the games research that I tend to come across, where researchers are really interested in ‘does a game increase this, does a game lead to more motivation or better outcomes’, what I’m more interested in (…) is really looking more closely at the role of interactions, social interactions that are happening around games” – quote from an interview with a researcher. R13.

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Description

In our own research, we found that academic researchers and game developers rarely communicate with each other. However, it soon became clear that deep divisions also exist within the academic world itself, in particular between:

  • a psychological or social scientific perspective still vigorously seeking to confirm or debunk the causation argument (‘video games cause x‘), focusing mainly on commercial, off-the-shelf games;
  • an outcome-oriented, engineering and computer-science perspective working mainly with applied or serious games, often with an educational focus;
  • An emerging, fluid ‘game studies’ perspective interested in a variety of issues, ranging from the technical aspects of game design to the cultural practices, identities and politics associated with games.  

These distinctions are leading to bodies of knowledge that do not interact; the respective proponents often treat each other with suspicion due to ingrained theoretical and methodological differences. This problem runs deep in the entire academic world and is compounded by the fact that small and large scholarly communities tend to gravitate around highly selective journals and specialised conferences. In a field so practically (and commercially) oriented like game development, this is particularly confusing and unhelpful. How are developers – established or aspiring – hungry for knowledge and advice about the cultural and educational ramifications of this medium supposed to engage with such a fractured landscape?

Meet Jane and Deka, two researchers

Jane is an internationally established psychologist and computer scientist who published extensively about video games and human behaviour. She is an affirmed university professor and the editor in chief of a top-ranking scientific journal that often features research involving video games. Recently, Jane’s university launched a new, experimental undergraduate course in video game design. The course was designed through consultations with industry veterans and most of the staff have little academic experience, but plenty in game development. One faculty member is Deka, who shifted to academia after several years working as level designer for a successful game studio. She is now trying to develop her own original research agenda, drawing on her professional experience and her personal views as a woman of African descent. During the time spent in the industry, she came to realise that game development is influenced by a multitude of cultural factors. In particular, she grew increasingly dissatisfied with the high-powered, ‘macho’ culture that dominates the sector and with the unhealthy working practices (the so-called ‘crunch’) that burn out many talented developers. She is finding it very difficult to secure funding to do some research. So far, she has only managed to publish a conceptual article in a cultural studies journal that examines how her personal trajectory in the industry, and her personal heritage, influenced her professional output as a level designer.

One day, Deka and Jane meet at an internal networking event, which is part of a mentoring scheme that connects early career academics with more senior colleagues. Although they have been paired as ‘video game researchers’ at different career stages, it quickly becomes apparent that Deka and Jane have rather different views on this medium, the type of  research needed, and who should be the audience for such research. From Jane’s perspective as a psychologist, research on effects, influences and risk factors is relevant and highly valued in the scholarly community. From Deka’s industry-centric perspective, research should focus on how to make gaming a better medium: more responsible, accepting, diverse, deep, complex, culturally relevant and so on.  Jane and Deka meet several times after their first meeting and, gradually, what began as a traditional mentor-mentee relationship evolves into a mutual learning experience. Thanks to Jane’s guidance, Deka becomes more familiar with the complexities of funding applications and peer review. Jane, on the other hand, gains a valuable insight into the changing cultures and values of video games and game development, beyond the confines of her academic community. After some time, they decide to write an article together, focused on the need for more interdisciplinary research that reflects the changing nature of video games and their growing cultural relevance.

In a nutshell

The tendency of academic research to operate in ‘silos’ has been accused many times before of being counterproductive and not conducive to the sort of social impacts funders increasingly seek. The situation is unlikely to change until the current system of specialised journals and conferences is challenged. This state of affairs is particularly unhelpful in emerging multidisciplinary fields such as ‘gaming research’.  

Universities, journal editors and conference organising committees in the area of gaming research should focus more on establishing mechanisms and platforms for researchers from different backgrounds and with different research interests to collaborate.

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Bridging the research-development gap

“I must admit I don’t read academic papers on games. To be honest, I’m not sure where I’d go to find them if I did”- Quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28830. 

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Description

Game development and social sciences research on games seem to run on parallel tracks, and rarely inform each other. Our understanding of games is weakened by the disconnect that exists between the people who study games and those who create and sell them. While a perfect alignment of priorities between industry and academia may not always be possible, or even desirable, both worlds can benefit from sharing expertise and resources with each other.

In our own research, this disconnect was more acutely felt by developers, who overwhelmingly reported feeling very distant from academic social sciences research on games. They found it difficult to access findings because of unfamiliarity with both the dissemination channels (i.e. scientific papers and academic conferences) and for the technical language used in the contributions themselves. They also reported dissatisfaction with the pace of academic research, seen as too slow in the face of a constantly-changing industry. Lastly, they told us of a mismatch between their priorities and those of researchers: the kind of questions investigated by social research often focus on the educational outcomes of serious games and offer fewer insights that could be used for commercializing entertainment games. On the other hand, the developers interviewed wished for more psychological and humanities research on games, especially on the narrative aspects, and were keenly interested in the discussion of game-related findings in non-academic contexts.

In this scenario, we sketch some possibilities for fostering closer collaboration between academic researchers and entertainment game developers. These forms of collaboration should respect the differences in priorities between the different stakeholders: the goal is finding a way to adapt academic research to a particular context without compromising on its values, and possibly making it more efficient and incisive. On the other hand, the need for developers to gain clear and applicable findings should be understood and taken into consideration.

In the wake of the Open Science Movement, we propose a form of industry-academia collaboration that can generate benefits for both parties and push forward research on entertainment games by embracing the most challenging aspects of studying a widespread, rapidly-changing phenomenon.

Meet Emily, a researcher and Robert, a game developer

Emily is a social psychologist in the US, especially interested in studying factors related to discrimination of outside groups. She believes her studies have applicability to real-world problems, such as finding ways to dampen factors contributing to racial prejudice.

Her work is mainly based on lab experiments, in which participants are randomly assigned to groups that compete in tackling several tasks. In her studies, she explores how modifying different contextual variables (such as group size and composition, level of competition, difficulty and type of tasks to be completed) influences verbal aggression between different groups. However, she worries that the laboratory setting is negatively impacting the validity of her results. Her participants mainly comprise highly-educated psychology students, who tend to be self-conscious about their behaviour during social science experiments. Additionally, engagement in the tasks to be completed is sometimes low: some of the subjects participate as a personal favour, but find the activities boring and find it difficult to enter in a competitive mindset.

After discussing her concerns with some colleagues, Emily identifies multiplayer games as a possible way to obtain ecological data on group-based competition and discrimination. In a game, participants would be highly engaged in the activity itself. Furthermore, since many players conceptualize games as a ‘free space’ in which they can behave naturally, they are less likely to restrain themselves for social concerns. However, in order to obtain the data she needs, Emily has to have access to the game code itself.

Emily contacts Robert, who works for a game company that developed a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA), proposing a partnership between the company and her university. They are a large company and have some capacity for investigating new approaches to improving their game without interrupting their core business model and production cycles, a possibility that a smaller company is unlikely to have. While discussing the proposition with the developers, however, it becomes clear to Emily that Robert expects his company to get something in return for their collaboration. One possibility would be to directly pay for access to the data, but that would take up a significant proportion of Emily’s research budget . She proposes instead to offer her expertise and labour in return, by helping design a system for reducing in-game verbal aggression.

Robert is interested in her proposition, because it would help increase player retention in his game. However, he is worried about access to research results, and he informs Emily that the company will want exclusive access to findings obtained through the data. Emily’s priority, in contrast, is to disseminate her findings as widely as possible, by publishing them in Open Access papers and presenting them at international conferences.

In order to make the collaboration successful, Emily writes and proposes an agreement that goes into great detail about the issues she most cares about: what kind of data should be collected, which of the data and analyses should be made publicly accessible, which kind of findings will be her own intellectual property, and how players are to be informed of the research conducted on their behaviour (and be clearly given the option to opt-out at any time). Robert and his coworkers add their clauses to the agreement, specifying what kind of analyses they expect in return, the terms of Emily’s consulting tasks within the company, and what information about the game should be considered confidential.

In a nutshell

The general disconnect between academia and industry is real, and it is particularly acute between those who research video games, and those who develop and sell them.

Researchers and developers can find ways to establish meaningful and mutually beneficial industry-academia collaborations. A degree of negotiation and compromising may be needed, and the terms of the collaboration can be formalised in simple, easily drafted agreements inspired by the principles of Open Science.

Resources

  • The Open Science Framework provides free and open source project management support for researchers. As suggested in the scenarios, it can assist developers and academics in establishing  a common platform and collaboration.
  • Several video game publishers are interested in research, but this is exclusively (narrowly) marketing research.


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Reframing ethics in gaming R&D: beyond compliance

“You can only do that if you go beyond compliance. So it is not just ticking the box […] but to think […] about how we can be responsible and mainstream Social Sciences and Humanities meaningfully, not just as a cherry (on the cake) or an add-on stuff” – quote from an interview with a policy maker.  P14

Description

The notion of what is ethical in research and development is currently rather limited. Our own work focused on gaming and gamification in the European context, but the implications are broader. We talked to many experts and carried out an in-depth analysis of how research and development are framed as priorities in the European flagship funding programme: Horizon 2020. We found that ethics in R&D are almost exclusively focused on compliance, where compliance refers to the need to abide by ethical requirements and conditions. These requirements and conditions are concerned exclusively with the process of research, for instance in terms of ensuring informed consent or equal gender representation in R&D teams, rather than with its outcomes, or with the design principles that inform the process from the outset.

In this scenario, we describe a situation in which a more complex, nuanced and positive idea of ethics informs the design and development of video games.  Rather than being narrowly framed as a collection of requirements that may constrain innovation and creativity, ethics becomes a positive mindset that puts the entire R&D process in a different light. Ethics, in other words, becomes synonymous with aspirations for social and cultural relevance – something aligned with the humanistic, democratic and egalitarian values that underpin the European project. In this alternative scenario (and in its ‘child’ scenarios), policy makers, developers and researchers also begin to challenge strict accountability criteria that revolve exclusively around utilitarian goals and measurable outcomes. Alternative definitions of cultural and technological value, this time more negotiated and dialogic, begin to be explored.  

Meet Michel (an EU policy maker), Simone (a social researcher), and Rita (a game developer)

Michel, Simone and Rita have been invited to an international round table to discuss the future of the gaming industry in Europe. The event is sponsored by the EU Commission and the focus is, predominantly, on the role of institutional support and public funding. The EU Commission is worried that its R&D strategies are beginning to be out of touch with the concerns and priorities of the various EU publics. Games are viewed as a profoundly ‘social’ and pervasive technology and they receive a significant amount of funding. As such, they are an area where concerns for cultural relevance and impact are particularly pressing.

The event provides an interdisciplinary forum to discuss games ‘for good’, which therefore have a distinctly ethical dimension. The event also provides concrete opportunities to examine examples of best practice, focusing on the experiences of developers (and users too) whose games don’t fit into pre-existing categories such as ‘serious’ or ‘educational’ but still have recognisable cultural and educational value, and at the same time manage to operate in the market conditions of the leisure-oriented gaming industry. 

During the event, Michel, Simone, and Rita begin to outline a number of alternative cultural dimensions associated with games: narrative poignancy, appropriate representation, responsible usage, and so forth. They also begin to explore alternative ways to evaluate the cultural and social impact of games. One approach is forming citizen panels collectively recruited through social media; these examine, through a form of ‘crowd-sourced’ evaluation, the social of cultural impact of games developed under the patronage of the EU Commission.

In a nutshell

Ethics in research and development are often viewed as a restrictive set of requirements simply to be complied with. In our project, we often came across this limited interpretation, but we also saw signs of a different position where ethics are part of a more positive mindset, and where notions of what is good, decent, and worth pursuing are grounded in the priorities and concerns of society.  

Funders and key institutional actors like the EU Commission could make more efforts to establish platforms  (including face to face events and social media initiatives) to explore definitions of responsible research and innovation in a dialogic and democratic fashion.

Resources

Our own analysis of EU Funding offers a critical perspective on how ethics and social responsibility are accounted for in the flagship EU R&D programme: https://www.gaminghorizons.eu/wp-content/uploads/sites/18/2017/05/D2.2_critical-analysis-of-H2020-sources.pdf    


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