Videogames and Australians

It would be incorrect to assume Australians have responded to the phenomenon of videogames in the same way other nations have. In a sense today’s contemporary gameplay is a global network of servers and players whom preference certain games or genres. However, despite the ease of access to international information about videogames, childhood, parenting and school, very little information is based on national evidence and is not one single progression of discussion, study or debate – but a multitude which often have little in common aside from the term videogames.

I argue that videogames are essentially grouped into three periods of study and interest. Each period of study has seen increasing diversity and technological advancements of videogames and gameplay. I make a point of also separating videogames and gameplay because they evoke quite different conceptions and emotional reactions in both adults and children.

The first period is pre-2001. I realise that between the mid 1970s and 2002 videogames made many technological and cultural advances, but in terms of study, this period was concerned mostly with what games are, what play is and the effects of video games on society. It followed a long tradition of viewing media with suspicion and conducting experiments with small groups of participants to try and guage how playing certain games (mostly violent and sexualised) altered the behaviour of the sample subjects. As numerous scholars have argued, the methods used to do this are suspect and they made many assumptions, demonised and simplified games to the point of being little more than an erant-interactive film. Despite the claims from clinical science, it has not been shown to lead to real-life violence in any predictable way.

The second period is between 2001 and 2009. This is essentially because this period of scholarly interest and research began to look more deeply at the assumptions being made about videogames. In the literature, you will find many respected media, sociology, game and educational academics began to write about and discuss new dimensions of games and critically appraise the ongoing claims about aggressive and habitual behaviour in real-life. People like Marc Prensky, Jasper Juul, James Gee, Henry Jenkins and James Seeley Brown expanded the field of research (and potential research) well beyond the realms of science, economics and mathematics. This era also is the foundation of the majority of ongoing debate about videogames in popular culture. It plays out in newspaper, magazines, television and websites on a daily basis.

The essential question is usually: Are videogames bad for childhood development (and therefore society) and what should be done about it.

The answers probably lie in the third period of research and study of videogames, which can best be described as beginning. In Australia and prior to 2008, videogames were treated in national studies as a leisure activity. In that regard a videogame was treated like a trip to the movies, playing a game of soccer, listening to music or reading a book. It was not treated as a media-text with unique properties. It was not investigated in the public domain in association with or in preference to the kind of media-choices that families take in their stride in 2014. Most significantly, it was not treated as a form of literature nor something which was used in education or the workplace.

We therefore know very little about videogames and Australians right now. We have seen reports of statistics, but these often focus on simple demographics and size of the market. This is unsurprising given the close association some scholars now have with the games industry — and how secretive the game industry is about their data and their customers players.

In 2008 we knew that most parents were not overly concerned about aggression, violence or so called addictive qualities of video games. We also know that those parents with children aged 12 and over we considered to be the first generation of children to have grow up with access to video games and that over half had played video games as a child and continued to do so using a computer. Again, no specific details on the type of computer or game and even less about consoles and handhelds.

We can’t compare todays figures with older figures because there have been significant revisions to how videogames have been classified and how questions have been asked at the national level. For example, videogames are now considered part of children’s ‘screen-time’ use, but as most parents know — that use varies as does children’s access and the type of games they can play at any given available time. No data is being collected on the use of screen time or games in education, despite the billions of dollars of educational technology funding lavished on teachers and school systems since (weirdly) 2008.

What we do know is that the media presents videogames in ways intended to gain the attention of parents: either as customers or to perpetuate the same ‘media effects’ panic which has been rolling though popular media since the 1930s. We do know that all children and the vast proportion of adults play video games of one sort or another in the home, where as the vast majority of teachers and students (identity switch) do not. It strikes me as bizarre that some teachers are now expressing new interest in game-based-learning as though our culture has not already embraced it as media entertainment and used it to make sense of the world from the inside out for a very long time.

Videogames are a prolific and much enjoyed form of media entertainment in Australia. Despite ongoing media panic, Australians have not had the level of negative emotional reaction to videogames as might have occurred in other nations. We can’t assume that data and facts from PEW (American Life) can be generalised to Australia in the way the Aussie Dollar is a bit like the US Dollar.

We don’t need to hide from teaching and studying games, and games don’t have any excuses to make. The fact that Australians are highly likely to engage with complex, computational problem solving from pre-school onwards despite un-ambitious and media-conservative educators and narrow media ownership whos dislike of games is obvious — is quite remarkable.

So if anyone questions why you’d want to use videogames in school or home it is fair to say that as a media-text we see far more value in them than media reports broadly admit and far less danger than they claim.

How hard is being a game-kids parent?

Technology is produced faster — and with less ‘need’ than society can resolve what to do with it — beyond what marketing companies tell them. We are bomarded with media messages. Whether parents like it or not, the largest form of media which makes more money today than last week is the game-entertainment industry – and it’s made it very easy to purchase and keep purchasing it’s products (also called games).

Teachers who “like” technology have bought into the marketing circus with such enthusiasm for the same reason. Those “selling the future” online via Twitter — for profit — tell them what to buy and make it easy for them to buy it.

Let me be really clear about why this is a growing problem for parents. Educational technology is saturated with brands, and people seeking to improve their status though brands. To do that they need your children. Most of them operate on dogma and rhetoric, few know the first thing about games as a media form.

As parents, we know the BIGGEST area of  anxiety and conflict in the home is VIDEO GAME USE. At school – the solution is to ban them. This is what I’m calling “the Vegas solution” — you simply move things you don’t like off the strip. The main aim is to keep teachers buying into the same crap that people have peddling for a decade — which has no evidentiary positive impact on kids or society so far. But it keeps the Casino boss happy.

So back to games. Why are they more of a problem now that a few years ago?

No longer stuck with the burden of physical delivery or tethered to permanent power-outlets, the game-entertainment industry (don’t separate them) — has worked out not only what people like to do most with technology — interact with media socially using romantic fantasy — but how to keep them paying attention, and spending money. If they are not doing that, they are watching NetFlix or YouTube according to the statistics.

Game-kids do a tremendous amount of emotional work both in the game as a player, and in the home as consumer being bombarded with messages to consume more. When many parents themselves lack the kind of mental executive function to PUT THE SMARTPHONE AWAY for more than a few minutes (they certainly can’t ride a bus or train without one) why on earth would they think kids can manage it? When kids see one rule for them and another for adults — then lines are drawn and the war begins.

It is hard being a game-kid parent because we don’t have mental models of what to do (from their parents). We have media models of what good and bad parents are, related to commercial interests. Our friends are also conflicted on what to do — leaving mass media tell us don’t use that, but this!

Then there is the false journalism which tells them they are bad parent. For example, the ABC News yesterday said “video games were named as a factor in the Sandy Hook Shootings” … then moved on with no explanation — to another story. In case you missed the actual report, video games were explicitly ruled OUT as a factor — and indeed the shooter played Dance Dance Revolution for 4 plus hours a day when and if he could play games. When the main public-funded news can’t bother to fact check, it’s no shock that parents get false messages, and no real advice.

Games are hard to live with if you treat them as though they are akin to TV or watching a DVD. But when going for a bike ride involves putting 4 bikes the Toyota, driving 30 miles to find a decent parkway … then there’s something wrong with how we live which can’t be solved by trying to work out which are the good and bad games — they good and bad kids — or how to extract the games-entertainment agenda from our media saturated society.

How hard is it — VERY hard. What is happening in public education — nothing, unless you could the dubious claims of clinical psychologists that games are addictive – which is also a marketing message.

Making sense of media reports about games.

I happen to believe video games are an essential media-element in the lives of Australian families, because they are pervasive in our culture. They are on mobiles, computers, tablets and in classrooms.  In the decade that saw teacher-endorsement of Web2.0, and equal amount of time, effort and millions was spent trying to protect society (which includes children) from video games – and the DER vanished into history as school leaders try to ignore the past and talk this afternoons trope.

Parents are not idiots and everyone uses a mobile these days.

Firstly, games has a classification system. Given 97% of adults have played a game and 85% are present when games are purchased, media panics over game producers pushing horror an violence on the public (which includes children) is wrong. But then, as a thinking adult, I’m sure you know that media, especially when owned by Murdoch and friends, is both selective and biased. In addition, traditional media (which includes journalism) has nothing to gain (status or economic) from people playing video games and not giving them the attention they assume they warrant, despite social media being far more open and accessible than they are. But I digress.

Schools don’t believe in video games at all – ask why.

Video games are educational.  By saying that I mean — of themselves. They are as worthy of children freely exploring them as they are given silent reading time, free play in the school yard or put on the ‘edu-game’ in the library.

Games and game players are subjected to more academic scrutiny that 99% of technology that is now assumed to be “the norm” in classrooms — yet no significant studies suggest “Web2.0” makes any difference in the lives of children — or that games would be worse. That’s the tragedy of Web2.0 in education for me, it quickly became an unambitious trope, full of commercial dogma pretending to be scholarship in order for a few to create a conference-circus lifestyle, in the traditions of American Fairground Shows. Web2.0 is introduced at will because it’s popular – and because brands are great at getting your attention. Schools systematically and selectively represent media that they think politicians and bishops ‘like’, especially if they get to crow about it at a conference. If a game is allowed in, then it will be sanitised. The teacher must be the celebrated innovator and leader in the story — and the students emancipated from otherwise ‘dull’ teaching methods. Again, no evidence that this has any positive effects at all — where as there is plenty that a few hours alone with a game works wonders on kids – especially boys who clash with school. It works even better if adults are helping them. Kids are as BORED with mini-laptops and ‘apps’ as they are with listening to Bueller, Bueller — Beuller.

The method matters when reading about video games, not the metaphor.

When reading about what games,it’s really useful to look for the method by which the authors come to their conclusions. In academia, methods matter — and offering opinions over evidence doesn’t get you too far. Its like saying people drive cars, cars kill people therefore people are cars. It just doesn’t make sense.

In many cases the method is neither obvious or  mentioned in the popular press articles. In some domains, particularly clinical psychology it’s the wrong method, used to validate a theory — not to generate new theory of games. Rarely do they address the rich evidence available. For example, neuro-science shows video game play has numerous benefits to humans, but not all humans. Again, not all humans like TV, walking the dog or writing blog posts. Each of those need methods of approach, which can be from many angles.

Clinical psychologists turned ‘game addiction’ into a multi-million dollar business.

In this research domain, ideas in which data fits the theory “games are adductive” are commonly echoed. Somewhere they will state — less than clearly — that hundreds of studies show games are addictive and refer back to gambling addiction. Most famously, is Kimberley Young declared in 1999 that internet addiction was “akin” to gambling addiction, and has since tacked on mobile phone and video games, which she also connects with moral decay and loss of innocence. Young’s declaration has less to millions of dollars in therapy sessions to drive out the human enjoyment of interactive media. On the basis of these studies 97% of Australians are pathologically addicted to the Internet, mobile phones, computers and video games. However, try asking your health insurance if that is covered or apply for workers compensation for over use of technology at work. You see, as much as they want it to be true — it remains little more than ‘something to work on’ as far as the World Heath Association is concerned. Game addiction is right up there with Scientology when it comes to it.

Playing Black Flag: A pirate game, where feeling like a pirate allows a scarf to be a hat, and a dog to keep you company.

More cowbell

While it may be true that hundreds of studies repeat and reaffirm this negative position, there is also hundreds of academic counter positions which generate and offer better theory of games – and how to mediate them in the lives of children. You might have seen James Gee talk about this on PBS or conferences. There is significant other social research which rejects this need to validate and vilify electronic media on the basis of false theory and popular journalistic interest in whipping up parent anxiety. Why is this person saying this? What’s is they want? Why now? Mostly – what the hell to these people play?

For parents, it’s useful to remember when you read about how terrible games are that the data presented in most often there to verify and keep afloat continued assertions of clinical psychologists who’s business is — treating internet, game and mobile phone addiction — which is not a recognised pathology by any stretch of the imagination. They might as well treat you for TV addiction — which of course prior to 1999 was their previous gold mine among nervous parents. I like this quote attributed to Rod Sterling (1924 – 1975), best known as the creator of The Twilight Zone, was a seminal figure in the Golden Age of Television and became a cultural icon of the 20th century.

It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.

Today, you can’t have a serious conversation about video games without 12 dancing clinicians waving toilet paper at you – In the mean time, peoplewatch TV and play.

There no such thing as video games!

The best research generates theories of games which can be seen in examples in the real world, not simply small laboratory experiments or citing previous studies which agree with your view. This is where better understanding and approaches to social gaming emerges from. Sadly though, many educational games are not based on this research either, but on avoiding the wrath of clinicians our casing in on popular culture and parent fears. Having said that, clinicians and educators use a very broad brush when it comes to which video games hurt or help. Which games? Where are they used? What for? By whom? What did they say? How was this conclusion arrived at?

Video games are not a leap of faith. They are the most significant media firm used in society to date and part of cultural literacy.

Over 97% of people in western countries have played them. They it’s no evidence to suggest those people have any long term behavioural issues. With parent mediation, along with any other media, they are of themselves a valid media text which your child with both enjoy and learn from. They will not learn more from an educational game, though they may be able to repeat facts or patterns. They certainly won’t learn from our about them in school, which has historically done everything it could to ban and demonise them. The leap of faith comes when parents and schools recognise that playing them is healthier when they step back and don’t overlay it with their own agenda. Only then can they start to see the theories being featured in social research as game related media studies.

Let them play, learn what they play, learn how to predict and prepare kids for media. I’m sure my theory that a few hours a week of video gaming at school for the sole purpose of playing (enabling alert, orientation and executive brain networks) won’t be seen as academic, unlike copying from the board or one prison telling you about how the world is. But that’s because I have unicorn blood and I’m a parent as concerned about media as another.

Xbox one installing help.

Plenty of social media reports have said how problematic Xbox one installs have been. I’ve picked mine up and fought with it most of the afternoon. Here’s my advice … I’m two frustrating hours into ownership at the time I tapped this out.  There’s seemed no real help online, just trolls in forums … So if your here because you googled for help … this is just me, telling you what I did to get playing.

First of all, don’t freak out when it demand you type in your Wi-Fi name. If it can’t find it … then it shows you those it can see. Yeah I know right? So off the bat, connect the Wi-Fi, so i can do it’s Xbox Live thing.

1. Let it install the 500mb system patch after you connect to your Wi-Fi. It’s pretty slow and took me about 30 mins (given I’m on a crappy 2mbps link).

2. Turn off your Wi-Fi before installing your game. You can’t play off the disc like you can on the 360. I don’t know why – probably because I haven’t been following all the Mashable tidbits.

Let it install the game from the disc you paid for. Feroza wanted 6gig update, Black Flag 500mb. Either way, with the Wi-Fi on, it will sit at 1% seemingly forever.

Note that the install progress can only be seen from the tiny green line that grows vertically from the “you games and apps page”. It’s tiny!. After a while, maybe 12% it will say you can play the game and the install bar now runs horizontally. It is slow. Like really slow.

3. If you turn on the Wi-Fi, you can’t do anything other than wait for the patch. Welcome to the future, there is no other option. So if you want to play, and why not as most of us handed over $800 to play … keep that Wi-Fi disconnected, while you install the discs. Of course you can’t go online at the same time.

Other issues.

Really long boot time. Yes. Especially when first running the system. Limited information. Minimal options and system feedback is annoying. As the update window is simply a numeral, it’s hard to know if it’s doing anything. If you are getting no where. Remove the game from the my games and apps list, turn of fir ten seconds, re boot and disconnect the Wi-Fi. Once it starts, it wants to pause the download and will refuse to move on.

Curriculum designed for self-regulation

I read some interesting research by Postner, Rothbart & Tang (2013) about ‘Developing self-regulation in early childhood’ . I confess to having Googled several neuro-scientific terms in their paper, however what interested me about it was a potential correlation to commercial games in schools – and more importantly why curriculum design is key.

Firstly, I use two domains to talk about games. This helps me differentiate between scholarship and commerce. The first type are those developed as a result of, and in partnership with academic input. Example: ABC Splash’s games like this one. The other are commercial games developed for the popular game market, which claim to have educational value.

For me, an educational game has constructive alignment to the curriculum. This isn’ to say I believe the current curriculum doesn’t fail children and parents, or that educational games are better for children. This caveat stems from my general position that “ed-tech culture” is often based on dangerous assumptions that: kids don’t learn important stuff elsewhere; that they offer unique insight; that school teachers and parents are in an equitable biarchical agreement about media and how best to educate children and that they understand media. All of which are pompous, self-indulgent tropes that result in poor curriculum design and integration of technology – the ‘no significant different problem’.

So onto the paper, and how I think it connects to educational games.

ALERTING networks

The authors reinforce that to be a successful school-learner depends on the efficiency of the ALERTING network in their brain. Enter the world of controversy at this point, and take a seat. One of the central arguments for carefully regulating media with young children is that they are pre-wired to respond to these alerts — exciting or bored — Not all children develop these in the same way, and  have their own preferences and influencers. Young children are less able to control this than older children or adults. It’s one of the reasons media-critics have been putting the boot into television, not least non-realist content like the Teletubbies and Iggle Piggle.

Video games, introduced into any classroom with trigger alert-networks in the brain. In some kids it will be excitement and others, concern. For example, kids whose parents are concerned about media might not declare their feelings at all, or respond with compliance in the face of authority (as they do at home). In this study they did test kids to see if they could train kids towards better self-regulation, which is also similar to how NASA trained space monkeys. What it showed is that kids could be trained to a point they could self-regulate at the same level as un-trained adults, measured by a further test.

What this means is, there is VALUE in simply playing a game which allows for conflict though sensory events. This leads to them developing connections to orienting networks and executive networks – and doesn’t need to have ‘educational content’ added to it at all. Kids who play, will do better in the future – even if that means reading course notes and taking a test. It’s pretty much what Derek Robinson has been saying for a long time about using Nintendo DS or other games. In themselves – games have unique power. Derek to me was seminal when it comes to using out of the box games with both success and evidence which educational authorities could related to, even if they didn’t like what it spelled for their approach to design and technology. If you have not discovered his blog, do so. He’s an amazing leader in the field.

ORIENTING networks

Moving along, children also use ORIENTING networks for regulatory control. While game-heads often talk about ‘flow’ and being in the zone, there’s a case to argue that kids who are less able to manage their ORIENTING networks cannot regulate levels of distraction or amplify their choices towards tasks adults believe relevant at the time. As kids see and experience the world very differently to adults, when mum asks her to get off Minecraft, she simply isn’t able to regulate her alert and orienting networks to do so. The game throws up new alerts (events) and she’s orientated towards what she sees as most important.

Yelling wont change her mind or behaviour, only learning how to regulate her orientation networks will. Kids are pre-wired to orientate to play – which in many ways is functionally removed at the place they spend the bulk of their waking hours inside. Schools talk about kids being off-task, distracted and unable focus. In fact, their developmental inability to amplify input the teacher (or adult) is providing – such as “calculate this” or “get your shoes on” is the problem.  Games are not the culprits of this, but clearly modern society – and media rich homes provide more alerts than at any time in history – and now they are in the classroom and in their pockets.

EXECUTIVE networks

Stand on a busy train. Everyone is wired into their screens, zomg’d into their own half-realities. Regulating media is something that most adults cannot do. It’s ridiculous to expect young children to do a better job – or respond to adult authoritarian demands when they get it ‘wrong’. The EXECUTIVE network, which is involved with regulating conflict, the authors say, is important for self-regulation, emotion, cognition and behaviour. Again, most adults cannot manage this when given a phone and Facebook, which again make the moralistic ‘cyber safety’ chats at school a functional process, not a successful one. Kids will get onto these channels because they’ve seen adults do it, and as soon as its THEIR phone, then any parent who isn’t concept orientated will drive themselves insane trying to micro-regulate use.

Discussion

What the authors outline is a need to consider how conflict tasks, working memory and executive function CAN be used to improve self-regulation. When you think about this, video games provide a potential (but dangerous) place to work on this. I say dangerous, because games come with cultural interpretations and constructions – heavily influenced by parents and siblings – not schools or teachers. Curriculums are not designed to improve executive function, nor to strengthen connections between these networks (Alert, Orientation, Executive). Play isn’t the foundation of school routine. Content, wrapped in conventions and testing. Using the alerts network is a way to get attention, but I’m sure we’ve all been in a class where using our orientation networks is regulated by threats rather than interest. I’m pretty sure it’s the same at teacher conferences, too many alerts, not enough orientation.

The authors point out that self-regulation is more important to success in school than many other factors such as IQ for example, and that it’s positively related to income, health and parenting style. One problem for using commercial games in school is that teachers (and game sellers) make no account for parenting style at all – as though it doesn’t have a huge impact on how kids see media. For example, the best research shows that at home, parents who generally allow games are permissive when it comes to using media, and see it as a way of children self-regulating. But they are authorative when it comes to education of their children. Conflict which games comes when the family schedule runs into children’s self-regulation flaws – even in homes where parent themselves have played video games (which is 85% of homes with kids these days).

In school, skills towards self-regulation of video games will be at odds with school regime itself and cannot be disregarded when it comes to what kids may or may not say they learn or enjoy verses their results – from a particular regime’s idea of evaluation.

A curriculum design for these ways of learning (in young people) would also allow educational games be developed towards common goals of society – better self-regulation when it comes to using media to learn – and expand skills and knowledge. On this basis there is an argument that allow kids to play a commercial game, without any teacher interference or ‘existing curriculum’ pressure is better than trying to integrate the two things. Ideally, games build from the ground up with use self-regulation to drive curriculum would be better. It also means that the need to use ‘edu-versions’ is based almost entirely on school-culture and what is more or less likely to be purchased — closely related to a teachers own enjoyment — of the game. Rather than help build greater self-regulation, this kind of activity might simply cause broader problems out of school, in which students feel playing at school is can be used to argue with parents that gaming is good at home — which to me crosses a significant border about the rights of parents.

Ref:

Posner MI, et al. Developing self-regulation in early childhood. Trends in Neuroscience and Education (2013)

How important is enjoyment?

I play games because I enjoy them. I started playing more when I saw how much my kids did. Its only years later that I’ve come to wonder how as a family we’ve constructed numerous rituals, insider language and shared memories though playing them. It took me a few seconds to click on this paper when it appeared in my alerts this week.

(Shafer, 2013) investigates the notion of ‘enjoyment’ in console and mobile tablet games. This paper explores the differences in perceptions of enjoyment between playing first person shooter games on consoles and tablet computers. The main argument is that enjoyment has three predictors; interactivity, realism and spacial presence. The hypothesis was that was that console games exceed tablets in relation to enjoyment. The method was a randomised experiment with 257 players. This paper contributes to the debates on player motivation, convergence, literacy and human behaviour. It concluded that “perceptions of interactivity, reality and spacial presence as well as evaluations of skill, all blend to produce enjoyment” and that “console games are perceived as more interactive and more realistic, which increases enjoyment of them beyond their mobile counterparts” (p.153).

This is one of the few studies that has sought to introduce ‘enjoyment’ as a key element of effort towards labour. The study showed that perceived interactivity, perceived reality, spacial presence and skill significantly and positively predicted enjoyment. In regard to potential application towards education, these factors could be aligned to the nature of computer activity (some devices are perceived more enjoyable), whether the activity has a observable outcome related to the task, the classroom environment (and the student place in that space) and their perception of their skill towards the activity.

There are some limitations with the study which the author acknowledges; the differences in interface control, the use of sample students and the limitations of the variable used due to this being an exploratory study. However previous studies of this type have been broadly seen as representative of game-player demographics (at this age). Furthermore, this method cannot reliably account for the choice of games children play at home – nor explain how they come to know about and want to play certain games and not others. In summary, what the study did show was a preference towards consoles for enjoyment of FPS games.

Stepping outside my research-head for a second, FPS are popular games, and so students might be keen to play them (especially when rewarded with credit points). However, anyone who’s every played a FPS would wince at the idea of playing it on a tablet, if the alternative was console. If a further alternative was a PC then I would hypothesise that would be the most enjoyable. This illustrate how complex it is to try and measure human behaviour and emotions around video games. Having said that, the introduction of ‘enjoyment’ as a variable into play (and learning is part of play) is one of the first I’ve seen.

In the short history of ‘gamification’, which emerged after PEW announce 97% of teens play games (2008) no work has focused on the ‘enjoyment’ of learning using games. Games are used towards what (Juul, 2005) describes as concerned with using games to study human matters, and that insight into games themselves has been incidental to this research.

It would be interesting to use adapt this study towards methods of teaching with technology such as ‘flipped classrooms’ to discover whether of not students found them more enjoyable. It seems to me that joy is critical influencer on my learning and strange that ‘being enjoyable’ is a factor missing from much of the assertions being made about “better than” debates among online-discursive educators.

Refs:

Juul J. (2005). Half-real : video games between real rules and fictional worlds. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.

Shafer, D. M. (2013). An Integrative Model of Predictors of Enjoyment in Console versus Mobile Video Games. PsychNology Journal.

Who the heck is Ralf Baer?

One of the numerous misconceptions people have about techology is the power of Internet. Few realise store fronts and downloadable content (DLC) were available via home video consoles in the late 70s well before Tim Berner’s Lee tuned it into a static book by coming up with a few data-transfer protocols. Even by 2005, there was more access to the Internet via games consoles than computers or mobile phone. In fact many researchers at the time, described consoles as a place rather than a device. In terms of game-engineering, turning on static text and images in a window was a simple task in comparison to global networking of game play and user subscriptions.

Today, Internet users take store-fronts and e-commerce for granted. Everyone just assumes you can buy anything online and where it’s made from data, delivery is instant. One problem with educations quaint depictions of media literacy (sorry, I mean DIGITAL literacy) is that they are parochial and significantly under-estimates the sophistication and complexity of games when it comes to micro-transactions, DLC and motivation to spend real money on virtual goods.

In children, especially younger children the line between a ‘real toy’ and a ‘virtual toy’ is at best a dinner conversation for adults. In addition, I’m going to start using the term Home Entertainment Video Gaming Console (HEVGC) more, partly to honour the brilliance of Ralf H. Baer’s ‘Odessey’ and to remind myself of the deep legacy in the world of online entertainment that can be attributed – not to Tim Berners Lee, but to Baer and some madcap rivalry in the mid 70s.

In fact, it was because of Baer we now have Smart-TVs and home computers and access to the Internet on more than computers. Up until then, everyone assumed computers were for Universities and big industry. It was his brilliant idea to make standard TV sets display games (and therefore act as computer monitors). It was also his idea to patent it, and licence it to Magnavox (a one time giant of home electronics). It is thanks to Baer that society saw another use for TV-sets, and decades on have voted with their feet away from consuming television, as TV-set manufacturers and content producers did to film, radio and magazines. Now TV-sets were dialogic –  able to inform media and is continually informed by the previous media work. It is, if you like, the spawn-point of remediation itself – the reason Lord of the Rings influenced more than print-readers. Baer turned play into reading – and I think needs much more cultural credit that he ever gets.

The problem now is that games can become “skinner boxes”, which is the term used to describe games which plead for micropayments. As games engineers came up with better ways to get users to buy and download content, now they are just as adept at offering free or what look almost free games – then slug parents for items. Some games should not be tarred with the brush I’d slap Activision or Zanga with willingly. Some actually make make in-game micro-gets part of the overall culture of the games. Team Fortress for example occupies my 8 year old for hours when it comes to earning, trading and negotiating keys for unlock-able crates. It’s amazing how many cars he’ll wash for the equivalent of Mars Bar in an economic sense. It’s also a great way for me to talk to him about gaming – how they work, what to expect and how to avoid getting ripped off.

I’ve also come to realise that micro-payment management is a parenting skill that generally becomes critical after your kids has gone ape with the credit card that has attached itself to their parents mobile phone. The debate rages over the ethics, legality and morality of opt-out micropayment games … but be assured, because it works, because it’s worth billions (not millions) there will be newer and more frustrating traps for the unaware. Micro-transactions are not however unique to games – plenty of short-cuts (life hacks) appear to be on offer online; from getting tickets to a show earlier; getting the answers to a term paper or discounts of luxury goods. I don’t think Ralf Baer saw much of this when he called up every TV-set maker in America with his revolutionary idea about box that could play tennis (sort of) – and that really is my point – the dangerous experts out there, whom tell parents especially what the future will be – actually can’t see much past a year or so. Most of them live in the near past, hoping you’re behind them as they amaze audiences with their knowledge. Nope, parents needs bottom-line help in mediating, regulating and managing games. Games are part of electronic media (and pre-date most other forms) – yet most parents know relatively little about how they work.

Blip – thanks for your payment.

Advice from PC Gamer: Item stores that sell objects that affect your in-game performance are risky. If a game sells guns/cars that can’t be earned any other way then treat that as a big alarm bell. Even if those items can be earned through progress, it helps to favour games with good matchmaking services and large player bases, which can smooth out balance issues.

Why Cultural Literature has to include games

One of my frustrations with educational leadership is the behavioral preference to only remediate media which has an obvious chain back through their own career. Not only that, but the type of device and materials believed to be transformative are exactly the things which are observed and engaged with at formulaic educational conferences with known peers and edutainers.

Even a casual eye on Twitter reveals: leaders who issue emotive rhetorical statements (and rarely bother to respond to anyone they don’t already know); would-be-leaders aspiring to be in the actual leaders field of vision and independent operators who canvas the crowd with buzzword-theories in order to meet the leaders (to earn contracts).

This market, which orbits a particular leadership preference and viewpoint doesn’t help move ‘what could be used’ forward at all. It doesn’t take media for what it is and consider how best to use it. Instead, we see and hear subjective terms such as “integrator” and “integration” – into the curriculum. After a couple of decades, this cycle has worn a well trodden path around leadership belief. Leaders like to build hotel-like receptions, buy IWBs, mount big TVs on the wall – and tell everyone how they are going to be BYOD soon. In Russia, leaders have been pumping oxygen into nuclear submarines since the end of the cold war, simply to keep them afloat as the cost of actually decommissioning is economically prohibitive.

Cultural literature, which includes digital-objects cannot ignore the largest segment of media that children use – and honestly say that their strategy for techno-pedagocial-content based learning is using ‘the best’ research or ‘best’ theory – if really they are talking about three things: Blooms; SAMR and TPACK. There are numerous theories that exist beyond this comfortable technological garden being created which simply doesn’t reflect the extent of today’s cultural literature. If they did, they’d be talking about new faculties, not new iFads.

Games, Developers and Development

According the the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)

  • Digital game development is all aspects of digital game development and production (e.g. concept and art design, animation, audio, programming etc.), online game development services and post-production, digital and visual effects (PDV) work on digital games.
  • Digital games developers are businesses that generate income predominantly from the development of digital games for a range of formats (major consoles, handheld consoles, personal computers and mobile phones).
  • Digital games are Interactive software products made for the consumer entertainment market, involving a gameplay feature. Excludes products primarily designed for the purposes of training or advertising (these should be treated as other software applications).

It should be remembered when looking at statistics about the size of games in society that areas of ‘games’ overlap and rather subjective. For example, a game developer must be a business and therefore for profit, and that games for training are excluded from their analysis.

In other worlds when you hear people cite numbers or un-referenced figures about games, consider that games are a media form and have co-operative and linked facets to forms of work, and objects produced. This is problematic as non-gamers tend to only think of games they have heard about in the media – the usual ‘this game is bad because’ beat up. The common and ignorant excuse I hear school leaders talk about is “yes, but games need integrating into the curriculum”. This is laughable. Culture does not emerge from your curriculum or from savant teachers claiming their version of the future on Twitter is the apex of digital learning. So no, the world won’t neatly follow on from your version of the how it should be. It’s your job to notice the world – and clearly if you think games means video games, and not a medium … take another look.

In the world of media, one which Australia is actually very good at – it’s totally ridiculous that school curriculum omits ‘games’ completely as a distinct, unique and probably very attractive future for kids. Go back an re-read the things that fall under games again – now ask yourself honestly – is learning for format text in Word anything more than functional. Is your literacy limited to one step past this – ie from Word to Blog … I do hope not … the future of media is brighter than that.

But of course, as school MUST have a maths, geography, english … teacher. But a media teacher who knows about games, and the things involved in creating media around them … a media teacher … a games teacher? No, what school need are teachers who can make Prezi’s and Blogs. That is where the digital revolution went to die in my opinion.

I can’t think of a single school in Australia who has a teacher which specialises in media-studies that encompasses games, as it does film, television, radio, magazines and books. Not one teacher who has the freedom to survey, use and develop virtual worlds and games with students. And that is just dumb.

Questioning the “emergent narrative” claim in games

I have some problems with Salen and Zimmerman’s view that games are an emergent narrative, outlined is their book “Rules of Play”. Firstly, emergent narratives are not created by games, but by players. This important difference draws a clear division between some types of games compared to others. Personally, I’m not at all interested in trying to catagorise games or to shoe horn this or that game into a niche from which to discuss it in a more convenient manner.

I argue that games are simply remediation of two long established themes in literature itself, which brings me to the much quoted Salen and Zimmerman idea of games having emergent narratives.

The idea of emergent narratives is that as you wander though the game, the story emerges to the player though their interaction with other players and game-upheld rules which can release elements of the story to the player(s). Some games, such as Minecraft and Second Life, have emergent narratives (but not because a player clicks on an NPC for a sound-bite. These games are almost entirely autotelic in nature). However Minecraft and Second Life are also realist games in the tradition of realist literature., rather than Romantic. I believe kids love Minecraft because its a realist game, and one where by the narrative is often added later – for example, kids explaining a build on YouTube. Kids find it really useful because they are learning how to manipulate a fantasy in order to make sense of it, and explain it. Sadly, some teachers don’t get this and insist on bolting on their own narration (look at how my kids do math in Minecraft) and miss the point of WHY kids want to play it completely.

Realist games (like novels) tend to focus on a few actual characters, in relatively small locations where they symbolism of the world around is intended to be realistic. Within that, the player can explore their own identity, create a world of their imagination and so on. But, as a realist game, which incidentally I might place ‘educational games’, this functions more like Pac-Man or Street Fighter, not a TRUE game such as Skyrim or Tombraider Reboot.

And here is the crux of my problem with Salen/Zimmerman’s ’emergent’ idea. These games are predominantly Romantic in nature. I’m going to talk about these types of games as TRUE games, as these are the kind of game which specialise in alternative worlds where players engage in episodic romance. This is because bringing a willingness and joy of these themes to play sets them apart from realist games. For example, Skyrim is a True game as it is a romantic, whereas Street Fighter is a realist game. If you like, Lord Of The Rings is a romantic movie, whereas Breaking Bad is a realist TV show.

The key criteria of a TRUE game is that it revolves around a grand episodic plot as a central feature. It’s also easy to get lost in these games (mentally and actually) as you wander vast open worlds in which the environment changes, but limits movement, and the hero (you) is often beset by problems and characters both flat (NPCs) and round (NPCs who hold some story). I can see why Salen/Zimmerman would say the story emerges from interaction with these NPCs (together with narration from the camera view and overlays) but the romantic theme (the heroes journey) cannot be broken by the player refusing to engage with it. Games which set out to allow players to skip parts, pay their way to success should be excluded from TRUE games, however some TRUE games (The Secret World, World or Warcraft and so on) offer players the choice of buying objects and weapons as part of their over all economy. This is similar to the idea of the Romantic novel using Realist situations and characters from time to time, to engage the reader.

So to me, having a new classification – the emergent narrative – isn’t required in order to discuss games or rules – when approaching games as cultural literature, rather than attempting to divide them in to narratology or ludology. My preference is to take the viewpoint that games are simply a remediation of literature, and better understood from that point, rather than making cases for them to be seen as a new sensation, and therefore useful for those with that belief to dream up new terms for them. To me, true games are based in romantic traditions and simply being remediated, like many other forms of media.