Reframing and refocusing the rhetoric of play

“The very act of playing […] assumes certain privileges and how we interact with others […] just the kind of social and financial and cultural capitals that people need to play […] I think we don’t necessarily think about those people that don’t sit within the same paradigms”-  Quote from an interview with a researcher. R09.

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Description

As one of the multiple ethical considerations raised by our participants, a notion of ‘play as privilege’ was posed by one researcher during our interviews, highlighting a specific ethical concern around the assumptions made about the use of video games and gamification techniques in particular contexts.  This suggests the need for a consideration of ethics around video games that is highly contextualised and dependent on the particular experiences of those involved in gameplay. Here, ethics is positioned as being contingent on social factors, rather than necessarily being an inherent feature of the game itself. Moreover, it suggests that any ethical agenda around video game scholarship should include a careful critique of the context in which the game in situated and the privileges that are being assumed (or otherwise) by the researcher.

This scenario, therefore, is about reframing and refocusing the rhetoric of play in social research. Instead of taking a top-down approach, where a gamified strategy is viewed as a universal  ‘magic bullet’ for improving an educational experience, the researcher adopts a ‘bottom-up’ mindset, involving the participants in the design of the project.

Meet Iain, a digital media researcher and Ruby (aged 8) a school pupil

Iain has designed a project to look at the affordances and constraints of using a video game in a geography lesson, with a particular focus on the attitudes and experiences of the participants involved. Rather than focussing purely on the educational outcomes of the planned intervention, Iain is careful to explore with the children their perceptions of the task. Moreover, working alongside the children, rather than dictating the approach he tentatively designed, he encourages them to explore their own usage of the game. Taking advice from the children, he adapts the approach to suit their needs. He ensures, for instance, that the intervention allows for independent work, as well as group work as some of the children express their anxiety at being made to play alongside others. Some children also explain that they feel that they need access to more conventional learning materials, such as books and on-screen texts, in order to help them make sense of the learning task.

By the end of the intervention, Iain has developed a complex and multi-layered approach to incorporating a video game into a particular educational context which is perhaps much more nuanced than the original top-down approach he had in mind. While this approach could not necessarily be adopted in every context, Iain’s final research output makes a number of valuable methodological recommendations for researchers and educators looking to make use of video games in a range of contexts.

In a nutshell

Play can be powerful, enjoyable, exciting and empowering. However, play does not suit everyone, all the time.

We need to take a critical approach to game play in order to consider more about the context in which it may and may not be most appropriate.

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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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Funding and supporting games as culture

“I think any entertainment game can be defined an applied or serious game the moment they can touch somebody’s feeling, so, I don’t know, I feel […]  that there should not be that much separation between entertainment games and serious games, to be honest” – quote from an interview with a developer. LSD2879

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Who decides what is serious and what isn’t? Nowhere more than in the gaming industry does this question cause frustration and confusion. The contested and arbitrary nature of such a label has been noted by others before. Gaming Horizons simply confirmed it. It is perhaps understandable that, when it comes to taxpayer money, many worry that funding should be highly selective and not go to projects that may be perceived by the general public to be frivolous.

At the same time, our research on European funding highlighted some unclear strategies in relation to serious and applied gaming. It was difficult to tell if Europe wants to support serious gaming because it is right and ethically justified (according to criteria of social value), or because it is viewed as a promising sector that will contribute to economic growth and more jobs.

The contradiction at the heart of this tension should not be underestimated. Some argue that criteria of social utility, value and worth are best negotiated in the context of citizenship and democratic dialogue, while prioritising the market and economic benefits over everything else will ultimately lead to cultural impoverishment and trivialisation.

Meet Sanna, an EU Policy Advisor and Kim, a game critic

Sanna is a policy advisor who has been working with the EU for more than 10 years trying to bring a multidisciplinary perspective into the EU Research & Development (R&D) agenda. Such multidisciplinarity is reflected in her own background in philosophy and engineering. Sanna is very much interested in matters of social responsibility and ethical design – she has focused on the grand socio-technical challenges such as AI, big data and automation. Recently, she was assigned to a working group who will help shape the European agenda on serious gaming and gamification. The overarching objective of all R&D strategies in Europe is to create favourable conditions for innovation, market growth and employment, and this applies also to serious gaming. Quickly, however, Sanna becomes aware of a contradiction: while market growth and a self-sustaining business model may be the aspiration, the European serious games sector relies heavily on public funding. Sanna is struck by the contrast between the dynamism of the ‘entertainment’ gaming industry,  in touch with the trends, debates and the cultural tastes of modern society, and a serious games industry that exists in a rather insulated space, where academic research and small or medium-sized companies depend on institutional support to survive. As part of her new role, she organises a consultation workshop to gather views from a wide range of stakeholders, beyond the traditional EU-funded networks. Participants include independent game developers, representatives from game publishing companies, and a video game critic called Kim. Kim is an outspoken advocate of independent games and digital arts, and quickly makes a thought-provoking observation about cultural value, commercial viability and ‘seriousness’. She claims it is possible to create games which wouldn’t necessarily be called ‘serious’, but which nonetheless are important and have cultural, artistic and societal relevance. Most importantly, she suggests that cultural and artistic relevance are not commercial constraints, but can in fact ensure forms of market viability which are perfectly suited to small and medium sized companies. Kim proceeds to illustrate several examples of small, culturally important games that managed to be profitable. She also emphasises the importance to engage with those mediation and curation channels (online communities, digital distribution platforms, games journalists, YouTube content creators) who can enhance the visibility of games and, thus, their commercial success.

In a nutshell

Criteria of social, artistic and cultural value can be part of an effective business model for games ‘with a conscience’, beyond restrictive labels such as ‘serious’ or ‘recreational’.

Artistic and cultural relevance are not barriers to commercial viability but can in fact enhance market appeal in some cases. Public funding is still needed to support game developers or researchers that seek not only commercial success but also positive social impacts. However, criteria of social, artistic and cultural value should have more weight than they currently do in funding strategies. These criteria should not be viewed as fixed but can be negotiated through regular consultations with relevant stakeholders.

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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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