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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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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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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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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