Big data and parent panic

Don’t pay too much attention to big data claims because the truth is, if you draw enough circles you can prove pretty much anything. In 2008, the much quoted PEW Internet research into teens, games and (strangely fuzzy) civics in American life proclaimed 97% of all American teens play video games. The web lit up, as the big-number was scribed onto corporate websites such as the Entertainment Software Association  and even academic blogs as well known media, game and culture celebrities welcomed a new era – one which enabled the now infamous “gamification” industry. 2008  saw the first documented use of the term gameification  a blog post by Bret Terrill. A round of applause for all concerned, as since then this single report was sufficient to catapult several now high profile writers and public figures into a new ecosphere which is literally worth billions of dollars. I’m writing this post today to review this seminal research and let you consider the depths and agenda of the gamification foundations.

Gartner (who added gamification to the hype cycle in 2011) says it will fall in a pile by 2014, unable to return revenue or show significant productivity increases across industries. The reason for this they say is bad design and in-ability of senior leaders to understand the underlying principle of gamification and how to apply it within the IT organization. This seems strangely familiar from my own efforts to introduce an ethnographic, exploration of an imaginative use of Minecraft into primary school in the same time period. It almost didn’t matter what theoretical basis that came from, it wasn’t labelled “edu” so was never going to understood to a point it could compete with simplistic purchasing of tablets and “edu” apps. So why then, if 97% of teens were playing video games at the very moment ‘gamification’ appeared on the corporate landscape are games still considered a counter-narrative to mainstream educational methods and practice?

What is interesting about looking back at this research is that 95% of the games reported in the top 10 have vanished from view, ported to mobile phones or updated in series. To some, it would suggests that games have a short-life-span and/or that gamers have a short attention-span. This would seem common-sense. Like television, the writers and producers need to keep the story moving if the audience is to keep watching. Amazingly, the number one game they found wasn’t The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) which is widely considered by gamers to be the number on game ever, nor was it Mass Effect 2 or Half-Life 2 or any of the MMOs which academics such as Yee proposed are the apex of high-game culture such as Eve Online or Warcraft. Nope, it was Guitar Hero. And why not. It’s safe, conservative and won’t draw any attention. Seriously? If your parents (who pay little attention to your gaming) ask what you’re playing – say Guitar Hero. My point here is that kids might not tell you want they are playing for plenty of reasons.

Interestingly, Tetris made in the top ten without comment by the researchers. How could they not comment about TETRIS, released in 1984 on PC and Commodore 64. This suggests to me, that those being interviewed didn’t understand the question – I would put forward that Tetris made it simply because the adult answering the phone in the house was more likely to remember TETRIS that Ocarina of Time or any other game.

Really great games, like great books, movies, music and television have an ongoing audience, but they also require people to know of them (in culture) in order to respond with more than a guess or deep memory grab. In the case of Tetris, I suggest it’s there simply because it is a cornerstone of popular cultural knowledge towards video games and invalidates the method.

In terms of sales, in 2008 this was the top 10 list (on consoles) according to Kotaku which most gamers believe to be closer to reality than say the NYT.

01. Wii Play (Wii) – 5,280,000
02. Mario Kart Wii (Wii) – 5,000,000
03. Wii Fit (Wii) – 4,530,000
04. Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii) – 4,170,000
05. Grand Theft Auto IV (Xbox 360) – 3,290,000
06. Call of Duty: World at War (Xbox 360) – 2,750,000
07. Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360) – 2,310,000
08. Grand Theft Auto IV (PS3) – 1,890,000
09. Madden NFL 09 (XBox 360) – 1,870,000
10. Mario Kart DS (DS) – 1,650,000

Having said that, scroll down to the comments and you’ll see plenty of in-culture controversy of both the list and the platforms. You see, even gamers (which make up big numbers) don’t agree on their own big numbers and they actually play games.

This disconnect between sales figures, in-game knowledge and research methods points to the need for researchers to abandon the ‘broad brush’ approach. We can’t discuss film as though all films are the same, or can be represented with the same characteristics, so why do it with games?

To my mind, researcher interested in young people’s use of new media has to include games alongside other media which combine to cause parent anxiety in equal measure to media which might promote learning, creativity or improved civic behaviour. Right now, that list would clearly include Minecraft, League of Legends, Skylanders, Call of Duty and Angry Birds. Grand Theft Auto has become the poster-child of ‘violence’ and Warcraft is the ugly addicted cousin somewhat ‘uncool’ to write about in objective journalism right now. We can’t separate these games from popular culture however, which has been a district trend in the past – resulting in sensational ‘big data’ headlines such as 97% of teens are gamers (read: rebels without a clue).

I believe the next trend in mainstream journalism with further raise media-panic about geo-location devices, sharing childrens data and of course consoles which are sending live data feeds to the NSA and Russian Mafia. For many kids, society is disconnected from their reality, and games are hardly responsible for, or an anti-dote to political and economic greed which is disenfranchising young people from the ‘norms’ of neo-conversative politic and billionaire greed. Games, won’t save the world – nor is reality broken. In fact if you’re made it on TED, written a best seller and regularly appearing at red carpet events, you’ve mostly managed to create your own, rather sumptuous reality I guess. The need for introducing debutant media-studies courses into a robust, contemporary high school curriculum just isn’t as sexy as big numbers or big ideas worth schlocking. There’s a problem with media, game, culture and educational researchers who reach for the sensationalist headline over the ongoing argument that media-studies is needed in school- age education and has been for years. But how do you design a curriculum for media-studies that effectively excludes popular cultural media-texts which are too complex for exams? – Simply, you just ignore it and use big data to prove whatever your are doing is correct. Even better, fund groups who appear on the surface to represent you’re progressive intent. It’s a scene from Yes Minister really.

In the design of the PEW research, it is unclear what is meant by ‘video-games’. This also true of media reports about video-games (in society) as cultural literature. The most critical flaw for me in the design is that it omitted to consider the style of parenting in the household that might allow ‘video-games’ in the first place. Without have some underpinning familie profile to draw upon, the term family is too simplistic – does it relate to single parents, same-sex couples or the modernist nuclear family? For research, these problems are complex and so most media-studies is looking for rich data, subjectivity and the user voice, rather than “the audience”.

Big data research (esp, quantitative) is also fleeting it seems. In 2013, PEW says 15% of Americans don’t use the Internet at all. I find that bizarre given almost all games in the top 10 mobile, console and computer sales chart all use the Internet, and presumably, some of the 97% of gamers have now abandoned their games and the internet. This analysis conflicts with numerous ‘industry’ reports which suggests most people are not simply online, but using two or three devices at the same time!

There’s also a problem with the method of data collection. In 2008 it was on the cusp of ‘really?’ and now its most definitely in ‘quaint’. Just over 1000 households, randomly sampled were given a telephone call and over the phone interview. From this, the method claimed to be representative of American life and gaming. In Australia, as around the world, households have been abandoning fixed line telephones for years in favour of mobile. This 2008 method today would not capture the American, UK or Australian life. Firstly most people who switched, switched to smart-phones (which play games) and secondly any telephone random sample would miss a significant proportion of families which are media-rich.

Big data claims are synonymous with the technological and economic determinism being touted as ‘online culture’. From hook-up culture to gaming culture, various commercial, political, economic, religious and academic interests find great value in flinging big data at us to push us in one direction or another – and most of their assertions are based on simplistic binary oppositions such as good parents and bad parents, safe internet and dangerous internet. It’s a 24/7 parade of what James Gee calls “dangerous experts”.

On the 5th of November, it might be worth pointing out that millions of people are under the gaze of technological surveillance and that researches with un-clear agendas don’t need to call the public for their opinion. They can gather plenty of data from the hyper-connected landscape or simply buy it from technology giants. Today would be as good a day as any to buy yourself a VPN subscription, to learn how to tunnel your mobile or use an anonymous browser. It would also be a good day to decide – the next time I hear an sensational claim about the Internet though objective journalism – I will ask for the data and think critically about why I am being told this here and now.