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  • The Problems Facing Video Game Academia

    [07.14.11]
    - David McClure
  •  [In this article, David McLure points out the major flaws in essays and books written about games, and offers solutions to make video game academia more interesting, accurate, and meaningful.]

    "Two games were selected for the study, Project Gotham Racing 3 and the game with the most violent and gory content available at the time, Gears of War 2. ... As with previous research (Goodson & Pearson, 2009) the EEG data showed that the participants who, regardless of experience, played the driving game had a significant increase in activity in brain regions associated with the expression of aggression." (Goodson, Pearson & Gavin, 2010)

    "Responses were collected from testers aged 18 and older. The testers were 64.62% male and 35.38% female... I discovered several things about my characters from the survey results. There was a very positive reaction to both of the characters, overall. The majority of testers felt that both the Medic and the Heavy fit the style of the game, maintained a good distinctiveness of their body types and silhouette, and would be interested in playing video games with female characters similar to these." (Hamm, 2009)

    "By comparing the average game ratings with the performance of the players, we can see an indication that winning isn't everything: the most positive players were the ones that failed some, and then completed the game. Completing the game without failing was followed by a lower rating of the game (the statistical significance was the slightly weak p<0.06 for all three categories of player performance combined)." (Juul, 2009)

    Notice the common thread? All three pieces present evidence derived from primary research in favour of a position, while challenging, what is, in some parts, accepted wisdom. However, while much of it is compelling, as exemplified by the work of Juul, Hamm and Goodson, Pearson & Gavin, a good deal of the academic literature about video games seems to fall prey to the same, small number of problems:

    • Academics writing about games without playing them for an appropriate length of time
    • An over reliance on subjective work and inferences, with an absence of evidence
    • A lack of understanding of the technology underlying video games
    • A tendency to write papers that are, effectively, platitudes

    As common as these points are, they could all be avoided and prevented by following the solutions given below. It is important to avoid these problems for two reasons. First, inaccurate work should not be left unrecognised. It may lead to more inaccurate work being produced, as those who draw upon it make erroneous conclusions and propagate myths. Second, when inaccurate work is recognised, it is likely that readers will dismiss the rest of the work out of hand, and thus miss useful information and conclusions.

    As we will see, even extremely good scholars do, at times, make mistakes. Adopting the solutions given might catch some of these mistakes before they reach the printing press.

    Problem: Academics writing about games without playing them for an appropriate length of time

    "In Counter-Strike, players enjoy fanciful tweaks like tunable gravity, unlimited ammunition and extraordinary environments. Strategy in Counter-Strike is grounded in free-for-all: players often use "bunny hopping," or continuous jumping, to avoid fire; they respawn immediately when killed; they can fire effectively while running or jumping... Whereas Counter-Strike encourages the player to log as many kills as possible, America's Army players collaborate in short missions, such as rescuing a prisoner of war, capturing an enemy building or assaulting an enemy installation (Bogost, 2007:75-76)"

    There are a number of errors with the statement above, which is unusual in a book as fascinating and well written as Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games. To clarify, a normal match of Counter-Strike does not involve unlimited ammunition or unusual levels of gravity. Play consists of one team attempting to accomplish an objective, while another tries to prevent them from doing so. The majority of the environments in which play takes place are representations of fairly quotidian surroundings. Immediate respawns are not a default feature in Counter-Strike, an easy way to find this out being to test just how effectively it is possible to fire while running and jumping.

    Although it may be possible to set a Counter-Strike server up to involve a number of the features mentioned, they are not what are commonly thought of as the characteristic elements of the game. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that anyone who would describe Counter-Strike in such a fashion has not played it sufficiently to be capable of commenting on it accurately.

    Solution

    This is perhaps the easiest problem of all to solve. Academics should not write about games they have not played for a long enough period of time to understand them at a basic level. In the interests of accuracy and accountability, it would be a good idea to go further than this. Where possible, academics should play games via services like Steam, PSN and Xbox Live, which will allow them to make their trophies, statistics and achievements public.

    If this information was made publicly available then it would allow audiences to assess sources much more accurately. Academics do not have to be good at games in order to study them, but the way in which skill alters play sessions will inevitably make its way into any subjective work. Again, audiences will be able to better judge the value of an academics work about a specific game or genre if they know how competently they play it.

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