While the internet would like me to believe that this industry (be it video games, be it journalism, or be it academia – take your pick) is a cut-throat place where everyone is a competitor willing to knife you in the back, VG6: Video Game Cultures & The Future of Interactive Entertainment, stands out as conference strongly fighting against such notions. The conference, held annually at Mansfield College in Oxford, is designed as a space in which to build community rather than one in which to build up personal egos and authority. For one thing, professional titles aren’t used at the conference, so no scholar is given rank over another. Additionally, each participant is present for the talks of all other participants; thus all ideas are heard and given equal time. Free from hierarchy, the assembled 25 scholars (representing 15 countries) were able to share ideas rather than simply speak at each other. Now that I am home, I don’t feel exhausted by the regular tedium experienced at conferences, but instead inspired by the wealth of ideas I was welcomed to consider. In the spirit of the conference, it seems only fair to perpetuate these ideas even further, so here’s a brief summary of what I learned.
Games Changing Cultures
Several scholars discussed the ways in which games were changing specific cultures. For instance, Daniel Guimaraes discussed the idea of “Flux-culture” in Japan and the ways in which Japanese gamers act as explorer-creators and thus care as deeply about content production as about consumption. Similarly, Giuseppina Zisa analyzed the ways in which Italian MMORPG players (specifically WoW) are acting as linguistic creators who, rather than adopting English words for game play or by translating those words into their Italian equivalent, have “transposed” the language, thus creating new words that are neither intrinsically Italian or English, and which are representative of the global environment in which they are formed. In a way, Lucia Siu’s ethnographic study is also one that explores the intersection of creation and destruction in exploratory game spaces like Ingress; by analyzing player behavior in Hong Kong, Lucia found that, though the game is about exploration and creation, players in Hong Kong were apt to chastise and punish other players who were scoring too liberally. Interestingly, Aleksander Adamus’s study of Polish players of America’s Army found that while playing the game did not improve Polish perceptions of America or American peoples, it did significantly improve their perceptions of its Army. Finally, Ignasi Meda offered his insights into how the addition of computers into households in Spain helped not only to promote the “Golden Age of Spanish Games,” but also the cultural concept that “knowledge was doing.”
Conversely to the study of country-specific games analysis, other scholars were investigating the cultural behaviors that emerge in-game, and shape and transform the act of play or how we conceive of games and play. For instance, Joshua Jarrett’s studies of MOBA’s are concerned with the distinction between emergent innovations versus exploitations by players in the game and how understandings of this distinction will, in turn, inform our understandings of what play is. moving from MOBA’s to sandbox games, Tero Pasanen studied Day Z from a Hobbesian lens to find that while “prevalent antisocial behavior is not imposed on players” they create it for themselves, thus altering styles of play in the game away from co-operative to intrinsically hostile. On the other hand, Rene Schallegger argues that games are helping to negotiate the movement from human to trans-human identities, stating that:
videogames, as transhumanist, cybernetic ludonarrative spaces emerge as attempts to address not only the increasingly blurred line between the human and the non-human on a psychological, cultural, and political level, but also the question of personal and collective responsibility.
Joe Baxter-Webb, although not studying game behavior specifically, analyzes how games journalism creates and – sometimes to the disadvantage of games and play – perpetuates conceptions about games that are in-congruent with actual game cultures; specifically, Joe argues that:
the tension between subcultural ‘geeky’ and mainstream ‘bro-ish’ game preferences is key to understanding the social dynamics at work in the faction of ‘gamer culture’ represented by popular games websites.
The analysis of game structures and systems, especially those containing narratives, was also a recurring subject at the conference. Issues in narrative and immersion. Adam Flamma, for example, analyzes the structure of interactive drama games like Beyond Two Souls to argue that the experience of play in such “games” is not only futile but non-immersive – both reasons why, Adam argues, the genre will ultimately fail to thrive. Piotr Kubinski extends the Ludology Vs. Narratology debate to analyze how, quite differently from traditional narrative texts, the unreliable narrator works in games to create “deeply post-modern situation[s] of play between the user of the text and the text itself.” My own paper also fits within this theme and examines how many current conventions and game systems employed in interactive narratives diminish rather than increase conceptions of player agency, especially in those games using morality systems. Finally, Dawn Stobbart examines how some games, such as Spec Ops: The Line can exploit established game conventions and expectations in order to inspire self-reflexivity in the player as well as criticism of the game’s content.
Serious Games/Serious Gaming
Serious games and/or serious gaming was also covered by several scholars at the conference. Creating a frame for these discussions, Catherine Bouko argued the difference between serious gaming and serious games. While serious games are developed with education in mind, serious gaming employs the use of commercial games for the purposes of learning. Brian Quinn discussed the development and learning outcomes from his creation of a serious game used to train volunteer firefighters in Australia. Similarly, Tommy Nilsson discussed how his developmental team overcame environmental limitations to create a mobile-based augmented reality game for museum exploration. Misha Myers also shared her developmental process for a tabletop game meant to teach urban Indian youth about the struggles of rural Indian farmers. Vincente M. Mastrocola, though not a developer himself, analyzed how brand experience functions in the purchase and use of exercise-tracking wrist bands such as the Nike+ Fuelband.
Though all the above represent themes into which I could easily group them, I am leaving out other great presentations that were less easily grouped. Juan F. Belmonte-Avila analyzed the use of non-humanoid avatars (such as in Flower) and how the use of such avatars alters the ideology of power in games. Gaspard Pelurson analyzed the character of the dandy in games arguing, “the dandies’ apparent asexuality and the significant threat it represents to hegemonic masculinity are the dandies’ most interesting characteristics in mainstream video games.” And finally, Louis Martin Guay argued why game developers need to move toward a more systemic method of game design.
As you can see, the conference welcomed a truly interdisciplinary approach to video games cultures and, as a result, opened pathways by which everyone can conceive of games and game cultures differently. While the above summarize to the best of my ability/memory all that I heard at the conference, I’d also like to point you to Joe Baxter-Webb’s blog with another point of view on the conference proceedings.