A research project to explore and expand the role of gaming in society

Who really understands video games?

Is it the overworked video game developers in the mainstream industry toiling over very specific sub-components of large AAA projects (so-called because they have expensive high standards of ‘Art Audio and Animation’), which involve hundreds of individuals and several interlocking systems and mechanics?

Is it the committees of marketing executives and production managers of those AAA projects, who are responsible for budgets often in excess of $60mil and, understandably, worry about profitability, monetisation and player retention?  

Is the bright ‘reserve army‘ of young aspiring developers who spend their waking hours, in some cases even dropping out of school, modifying (‘modding’) games to add new visuals or play activities? Or the ones learning to make their own games in an effort to work at their dream AAA studio?

Or is it the idealistic independent game developer, effectively portrayed in the documentary ‘Indie Game: The Movie‘? Someone fiercely committed to her, his, or their creative vision and integrity, pursuing ideals of authorship, originality, and art?

Is it the ‘gamification’ advocates who, a few years ago, told the world that ‘there is something about games deeply tied to motivation‘, and then tried to turn this and other ‘ground-breaking’ insights into practical advice for business and education, somewhat underestimating the costs and the ingenuity required to make good games, regardless of their purpose?

Is it the critics and commentators, writing and talking about games in growing numbers, concerned with cultural validation and critical analysis, some of them trying to ‘elevate games writing to something more erudite and worthy’, and others building on the tradition of progressive, liberal arts academia?

Is it the ‘gamers’ – an amorphous social category comprising several identities and values that could, figuratively and perhaps even literally, be mapped on a very broad and not necessarily coherent landscape? This landscape would include, in no particular order, subjectivity-defining things such as gender, consumerism, emotional investment in technological artefacts, and embraced or resisted notions of distinctiveness (being a ‘nerd’ or a ‘geek’).

Is it the researchers and scholars trying to figure out the ‘effects’ of games on behaviour, educational performance and cognition, publishing their studies in peer-reviewed journals and fuelling debates which, for the most part, won’t go beyond the confines of academia, but when they do get picked up by mainstream media, often getting trivialised in the process, inevitably lead to periodic ‘scares’?  

In fact, each of the above provides an important perspective from which we can begin to make sense of this hypermodern expressive medium. The Gaming Horizons project was borne out of a simple, if ambitious, idea: to open up the dialogue between those voices and perspectives, mapping out the rather confused epistemic landscape of contemporary gaming: the different things people know and prioritise, the implicit and explicit understandings and viewpoints, the discourses currently unfolding.

We have our own loose interpretation of gaming, not a particularly innovative one and by no means a fully-fledged definition – mainly a synthesis of existing themes and features. Our intention is to use this as a platform to engage with a range of experts and informants:

Gaming , as a broad phenomenon, recalls an assemblage of technical features, people, professional practices, consumption and culture – some of these aspects are deeply characteristic, such as the technologies and design conventions that have become associated with games: computation, consoles and gaming rigs, controllers, screens (including VR which, for now at least, is largely an evolution of screen technology), graphical fidelity and so on. In addition to these ‘constants’ there are a vast collection of features which, depending on how they are organised together and realised through design and artistic prowess, provide originality and, sometimes, commercial success. These aspects are much harder to categorise but they may include things such as: highly distinctive mechanics (e.g. combat, exploration, progression, competitive or cooperative social interactions), an authorial focus, an interest in representation and responsible characterisation, or a quest for cultural and educational relevance.

Our ultimate objective is to unpack, challenge and ‘expand’ this interpretation considerably, to try and inform how gaming is framed as a topic of economic, social, cultural, or educational interest.

The project is coordinated by the University of Leeds, with partners from Italy (ITD /CNR) and the Netherlands (NHTV Breda). We are supported by the European Commission through Horizon 2020: a progressive funding programme that aims to ignite ‘socially responsible’ research and innovation by establishing a productive dialogue between science and technology on one side, and the social sciences and the humanities on the other.

During the course of the project (which will last approximately a year) we will examine the contradictions and tensions that surround gaming, but also the growing interest in cultural relevance, social inclusion, and the rise of experimental design approaches at the fringes of mainstream video-game development – approaches that straddle traditional boundaries between entertainment, the arts and the humanities. The methodology will involve data collection activities and consultations with experts, developers, educators, and gamers. Ultimately, we aim to identify future directions at the intersection of ethics, social research, and both the digital entertainment and ‘serious’ games industries, potentially revealing the entertainment games address many themes of social consequence in ways that are more engaging than their deliberately educational and serious siblings.