The Value of Conferences & Blogs for Ph.D researchers


Picking appropriate conferences for your papers is super important too- I’ve had a couple of right changers in this regard- met some good interesting and kind people but got the impression they were totally disinterested in the work I was doing.

Originally posted on plasticdollheads:


I explain to first year theory students that sociological theory is like lego blocks. We use them to build our knowledge. These blocks are our foundation, and also our tool for building our ideas and presenting them.

Well, being a Ph.D student is no different. We have to be the complete package, market ourselves as independent researchers. We need to collect and know how to use different blocks in different formations. We have to build ourselves. I have written on the value of conferences here, and list my papers and experience here. (Shameless plug for guest lecturing opportunities and other chances to boost my CV).

I also recommend Dr Nadine Muller’s blog on academia for excellent advice and tips on the academic world.


Tonight I have been reading tweets from We Are Humanities and it inspired this post. I sent a few tweets myself on conferences which I will…

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TGA’S 2nd Anniversary: a Journey of Anthropology Blogging


Happy birthday to TGA!!!

Originally posted on The Geek Anthropologist:

On September 12th, 2012, I decided to act on an idea I had been reflecting upon for a long time: creating a blog where I could share my anthropological reflexions on all the geek things I love and geek culture itself. I explained my intention in my very first post, The Geek Anthropologist: What and Why?

My project was humble. I had no blogging skills, barely knew what the anthropology blogging scene was like, and rarely used social media.

One of the first things I learned when I started blogging is that it demands a lot of work.

Especially if one wants to do it well. There are many things to consider: the frequency of posting, the visual layout of the blog, the visual aspect of posts themselves, connecting with readers on different platforms, respecting copyright laws, backing up the contents of the blog, etc. and etc. and etc.


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Playthroughs vs Sessions – Re: Replayable Narratives

“… I’ve been thinking about how you make narrative replayable. And that’s not a simple problem. It’s fairly complex. The combination of content and technology – I’ve been thinking about that.”

So I saw this Ken Levine quote pop up on a couple of articles and I think I’ve got a very ham-fisted response that involves a couple of design ideas I’ve had for a while. I don’t really want to spend ages defining narrative, because I think we all have a vague idea of what Levine means when he says narrative games. I personally love a lot of narrative-heavy games, and them not being re-playable isn’t really a big deal. Where replay-ability matters more, I think, are games like Dishonored, or Deus Ex, or any of the Bethesda action-RPGs, where you’re given the opportunity to build different types of characters. I think Fallout: New Vegas did a good job of providing really meaningful narrative branches that made starting again not just a matter of playing through the same story with a different set of skills.  Elder Scrolls games, on the other hand, are infamous for not constraining players enough; allowing them to join every faction and learn every skill in a single play-through.

One obstacle is that a lot of RPGs and action adventure games don’t differentiate between finishing “a game” (session) and finishing “the game”. One way to combat this is to drastically reduce the intended playthrough time and to only allow players to see a small portion of the game-world each time. The first Dragon Age’s “origins” stories where a great innovation, but can you imagine if the rest of the game followed a similar pattern? Imagine a DA:O with identical content, but where the narrative only allowed time to visit one of the allied races/cities and maybe one or two side-quests before the endgame? Shorter, yes, but with lots more replay value.

Permadeath is another way to differentiate between completing a game and finishing a game session. Spelunky would be a drastically different game if it saved at the start of every section (i.e. Mario Bros.) and having such a feature would make the procedural generation of levels unnoticeable and redundant. Similarly, in Levine’s hypothetical game, the more time a player spends in one session, the less likely they are to appreciate how different the game is each time they play it, and I think that same thinking can be applied to either the procedural generation of terrain, or to the random or semi-random branching of a story.

My ideal open-world RPG sort of fits the bill for what Levine is describing. Firstly, imagine an Elder Scrolls or Fallout game. Now, add permadeath. Lock the player out of the quests for all but one guild, and use a morality system like Mass Effect to prevent them from making wildly out-of-character choices. Make the end-quest for each guild feel like some sort of epic, world-changing event. Now (and here’s the clincher) you create a historical timeline where each character’s actions affect the world inhabited by the next (completed quests are unavailable to all future characters). That way you cut out a lot of repetition and draw a line between finishing “a game” and finishing “the game”.

Maybe I’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick about what a “replayable narrative” is. But I’m part of a growing population of aging, time-poor core gamers who would probably throw lots of money at the sort of game described above. And I think the key to making any game replayable is making each playthrough short enough so that replaying doesn’t feel like a massive effort of geekdom. Also:


- Joe

Gamers vs. Academics: Was GTA: San Andreas Racist?

David J. Leonard has written about the issues surrounding a predominantly white industry producing games like GTA, which he claims re-inscribe stereotypes of African American males as criminal and violent (e.g. Leonard, 2003). Paul Barrett (2006) is similarly critical of “ghettocentric” imagery in video-games. One of the main criticisms of gangsta rap was that, from the outside, it looked like it was produced by black artists as a reflection of the black American experience, but it was disproportionately owned/funded by white record labels and often consumed by white fans. Critics of San Andreas (and any other GTA title, although SA had a particularly strong focus on black/Latino communities) suggest that presumed white players are going to have any existing racial prejudices reinforced. This is the sort of media-centric reading which still seems to get trotted out when academics write only about games/music/movies without ever speaking to the audiences who are playing/listening/watching. Authors like Leonard and Barrett, who write as if the game’s “meaning” is inherent to it, tucked away inside the story and characters themselves, don’t leave much room to discuss what % of players actually take in that version of the game’s “meaning”. There’s also a really problematic assumption that these young, impressionable “gamers” are disproportionately white suburban kids who don’t know any poor, black kids and are therefore going to base their entire view of impoverished black males on a collage of videogames and other media representations. The whiteness of the “gamer” might have some truth about it if we’re talking about the geekier end of the spectrum – MMOs and MOBAs and stuff you play on a PC and read wikis about – but it’s certainly not true of the vast proportion of kids who play console games (citation needed, I guess).


On the other hand, DeVane and Squire (2008) interviewed different groups of American boys about their experiences with the same game, finding that Black youth from poorer backgrounds generally had less access and thus tended to play in groups. Those who did enjoy enough access to play the story were likely to see it as a sympathetic representation of Black street culture, where the police were [accurately] portrayed as racist and corrupt (GTA:SA even contains a fictionalised reinterpretation of the events surrounding the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles in 1992). DeVan and Squire’s white, suburban participants saw the game more as a pastiche of gangsta rap and Hollywood movies like Boys In Da Hood – a media text referencing other media texts – whereas the black boys from poorer neighbourhoods were more likely to view it in relation to their own community’s real relationships (or lack of) with the police etc. In addition, only a few of them had the level of access required to play the game through, meaning that only these few had interpreted the games protagonist as justly fighting a deeply corrupt and racist police force. Different levels of income mean different levels of access to the tech, leading to drastically different “readings” of the games, and those who were poorer tended to play the game communally and spend more time messing about, showing off to eachother, causing sandbox carnage in the city as opposed to following the story. Jesper Juul (2010) has in fact described the GTA games as “hardcore games with a casual audience” for exactly these reasons – they present a challenging series of missions alongside a narrative but many folks can easily play for hours without even touching these. As the authors put it:

“For the most part, then, game play for the Casuals was social, competitive, and performative. They were most interested in exploring and expanding the boundaries of the game’s possibility space in front of their peers. Such ambiguity of play is what problematizes attempts to assign singular “effects” and meanings to games.” (ibid, p276)


The meanings surrounding expressions of race within Western videogame culture are complex. Is there a singular, “correct reading” of the game as racist or otherwise, and if so, does it lie in the hands of some academic expert or the expert audience? Just googling “is GTA San Andreas racist?” brings up a ton of discussion on the same subject without any academic interjection whatsoever. We live in an age where everyone and their nana has a cultural studies degree and an opinion on whether Media Text X is -ist. At what point do researchers whose main shtick is the tricky task of “decoding” these -isms become redundant? At least five years ago, IMHO.

I also think that criticising ghetto-centric portrayals in games can push too far. In recent years we’ve started to see another phenomena in gaming when race comes into the discussion, and that’s the celebration of the black nerd. Go on any forum discussion about the characterization of black guys in games and you’ll usually see a lot of posts praising the makers of Walking Dead (Telltale) or Left 4 Dead (Valve) for having black male characters that don’t fit the loud, muscular, slang-talking “stereotype”. Of course, one persons idea of a “stereotype” is another’s actual way of life. It’s this sort of attitude to ghetto blackness that brought us the “hilarious” Bed Intruder Song (whose whole purpose is to poke fun at the way a group of actual people actually speak and present themselves). I call this the Uncle Phil / Bill Will dichotomy: the idea that black American men have to either be loud, egocentric gansta/athlete hybrids, or they have to lose some of that identity and be middle-class guys who wear ties. There’s very little space for ambiguity in the middle. This is perhaps why there are so many rappers who went to college but rarely talk about it in their music. It’s fine to criticise games made by white guys which portray black guys in a negative light, but recognize that there’s more than one reading, and don’t call for the total erasure of all representations of poor people just because it hurts your sensibilities or makes you feel guilty. Another useful concept might be “liquid racism”. Simon Weaver (2011) applies this concept to the British “urban” comedy character to Ali G to refer to the multiplicity of available readings of the character – is Ali G a “wigga” (his full name is Alistair in the movies) or is he a representation of an Asian boy affecting a black British identity, or is he an autobiographical self-parody of a young Baron-Cohen doing the same? “Liquid racism” is a useful concept because it means a media representation can simultaneously be racist in several ways and not racist in several others, without having the problems I’ve outlined with Leonard and co.’s reading of GTA as categorically racist.


References (apologies for any pay-walls)

Barrett, P. (2006) ‘White Thumbs, Black Bodies: Race, Violence, and Neoliberal Fantasies in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas‘ in Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies‘. Vol. 28. No. 1. pp95-119.

DeVane, B. and Squire, K. (2008) ‘The Meaning of Race and Violence in GTA: San Andreas’ in Games and Culture. Vol. 3. No. 3-4. pp264-285

Juul, J. (2010) A Casual Revolution. MIT Press.

Leonard, D. (2003). “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other. Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education, Vol 3. No. 4..pp1-9

Ritsema, J. and Thakore, B. K. (2012) ‘Sincere Fictions of Whiteness in Virtual Worlds: How Fantasy Massively Multiplayer Online Games Perpetuate Color-blind, White Supremacist Ideology’ in Embrick, D. G. Talmadge Wright, J. and Lukacs, A. (eds) Social Exclusion, Power, and Video Game Play. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.

Weaver, S. (2011) “Liquid Racism and the Ambiguity of Ali G” in European Journal of Cultural Studies. Vol. 14. No. 3. pp249-264

Some Strengths and Weaknesses of Stencyl for Game Development

4 years ago when I was supporting classes in an IT department we started using Scratch to teach basic game-programming stuff to kids aged 11-16. Some of them took to it, some of them didn’t. This rekindled a love of making game-like-things (I won’t called them “games” because none of them ever reached a state of playability) during my teenage years. I would spend hours make environments in HalfLife’s editor, and bending Warcraft 3’s engine to try and make genres it wasn’t really intended to make – a practice that gave us the MOBA genre and the (re?)birth of tower defence. Scratch was particularly easy to pick up because the “coding” involved simply involves clicking together blocks of logic into a sort of flow-chart structure. It’s cheating, and its severely limiting, but it’s a nifty shortcut to get to grips with the basics.

About 18 months ago I started playing around with Stencyl. Stencyl is ostensibly a “grown up” version of Scratch. Whereas Scratch games were (last time I checked) only playable in Scratch, Stencyl can export to Flash and various other file formats. It can make iOS or Android or native PC games (with a reasonable additional upgrade fee for these formats). Stencyl is still essentially “cheating”, allowing me to make my game-like-objects without having to learn to program.

Below there’s a short video of something I started making back before I was confident in my own art assets – probably my most accomplished Stencyl project. The planet is procedurally generated from a solid wall of tiles plus a script which digs out various winding caves and tunnels and places ores at different depths. The player’s ship controls in a “floaty” way similar to the older Lander and Thrust games and has an elemental damage system lifted straight out of Borderlands.  This is the sort of game where Stencyl’s built in box2d physics system really comes into its own. Rogue-likes (where the game environment is generated in-game rather than authored) are do-able, and having planets you can only visit once was both a nod to rogue-like conventions and also a response to limitations in the system. Unlike RPG Maker, Stencyl has no built-in functionality for remembering what the player did last time they were in the current room.

The strengths of the program are very much a case of “the proof is in the pudding”. People thought you couldn’t make decent stuff in GM:S until people started doing it. One of the more bizarre things I’ve seen trotted out in Stencyl vs Gamemaker debates is that you can’t code in Stencyl. This simply isn’t true. I’ve looked at both programs, both have a “drag and drop” lego-brick style kiddie language like this one, and both also allow you to code from scratch, it’s simply that Stencyl has been marketed along the same bright, simplistic, kiddy-friendly lines as Scratch whereas GM:Studio looks a lot sleeker. Any “proper” game developer will tell you that working without code is severely limiting in a lot of ways but, to be honest, that isn’t my main bugbear with the program. You sort of expect ease-of-use to have some sort of cost. The main issues which stand out to me are more related to general usability and workflow. There are so many keyboard shortcuts that are generally thought of as universal to anyone who uses Adobe or Office which simply aren’t there. Stencyl is also programmed to assume that you’re making a physics-enabled sideview action game. Want to make something top-down? Something turn-based? Something like a board game or which is heavily dependent on GUI? Have fun de-checking all those default boxes that ensure every object you create initially behaves like a bouncy ball!

I might go back to my StarBastards game one day and have a crack at some pixel-art for it. At the same time, I’m slightly wary of using Stencyl for something like a PC indie game because it currently doesn’t handle console controllers (which is sort of a must) and I’m also wary of how it handles resolution changes. In the long run I would love to see its developers concentrate a little bit less on the “get rich quick by making a small iphone game” and to see some Stencyl made games breaking the misconceptions that people have about the engine (in the same way that Hotline Miami and Spelunky did for GameMaker). I think the developers have tried to portray Impossible Pixel in this light but it seems very similar to Super Meat Boy. Personally, the most impressive Stencyl game I’ve played so far would probably be something like Quantum Corps which has some genuinely fresh mechanics and not a whiff of Stencyl’s frankly overused platformer template.

Some of my Stencyl Projects

G315T! was an attempt at a sandbox physics game where you play a poltergeist. I didn’t get very far with it. The first Stencyl project I made which actually started to look like a game.


Next came Beatopia, which was an attempt at a minimalist, squad-based puzzle platformer. You click the guys and then use the arrow keys to move them. I wanted to make music integral to the game but wasn’t sure how, might revisit it at some point.


the Brewdem Bar-o-matic was an attempt at creating a generator of random battle raps. The things it produces contain a lot of British slang and are usually nonsensical, scatological or otherwise offensive. You have been warned.

VR Tycoon (shown below) was another recent project I built in Stencyl with a friend providing graphics and helping design the actual gameplay. I learnt a little bit about pathfinding through this project. I also learnt that Stencyl is a bit of a pain in the ass when it comes to text-heavy genres of game.screenshot1

Where Are The (Mainstream) Games Where You Program Stuff?

Every couple of months I have to do a quick nose to see if there’s much new stuff on games and learning. We’ve got a load of material on how you could use this or that particular game in education (e.g. Kirriemuir & Mcfarlane, 2004). It’s argued that gameplay can be a useful way of introducing young minds to knowledge which is otherwise too abstract(Ceci and Roazzi, 1994; Gee, 2003; Arnseth, 2004). We’ve also got an underlying trend towards using kids’ enthusiasm for making games as a way of sneaking in computing concepts (although, surprisingly, most studies I’ve read on game design with kids tend to focus on areas like narrative etc. with the acquisition of programming skills usually being a secondary goal).

I’ve been thinking about whether there are any good examples of commercial, mainstream games which require the application of some sort of programming concepts, but which aren’t necessarily bundled as edutainment products (ruling out software like Kodu Game Lab, for example). There is a pretty extensive list of freeware games like RoboWar (1992) where players compete by programming in-game actors. There’s also a great list over here of “games in which one competes by writing code and and having the programs then compete against each other”. As you’d expect, games fitting this description are pretty rare in the flashy ‘splosions space of mainstream console gaming. And I think it’s important to focus on consoles sometimes, because for a lot of kids, that’s their main thing.

carnage heartcarnage screen

Carnage Heart: A Weird Little Japanese Gem

My big brother bought Carnage Heart (1997) for the PlayStation in the late 1990s when I was small-ish. The cover art indicates a Japanese game about big robots, possibly featuring at least one explosion. No points for originality there. But this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill game about directly piloting said robots. Oh no. You had to program them, using the flow-diagram style system shown above to create series of conditions and actions which will hopefully (but probably not) result in victory. Probably the closest you’ll get to one of those aforementioned games on a mainstream console. There’s a PSP/Vita version out too, which is seriously making me consider eventually getting a Vita.


Any Other, More Recent Examples?

Could you go as far as saying that the tactics screen in DragonAge 2 (arguably the only improvement on the first game) involved some entry-level programming concepts? What most squad-based games do is have a series of sets of AI behaviours which you might trigger with a button (e.g. up for attack point, down for cover/back, etc.) But what happens in DA2 is a much closer defining of the parameters of the characters’ actions. I think it’s interesting because it’s unusual for a mainstream, cross-platform release to have this level of “under the hood” involvement. LittleBigPlanet incorporates AI-programming nicely, too, and gets away with it because a. it’s a game about creativity and b. it’s a non-essential advanced feature that a lot of players won’t touch, not a core part of the game as with Carnage Heart. (Also, here’s a pretty good tutorial for LittleBigPlanet, where the author explains how program a sackbot to emote using the game’s inbuilt logic boards.)


It’s Not The Real Thing (Well, Duh)

I’ve used a lot of visual game-making software like RPGMaker and Stencyl over the years. I’m fully aware that there’s a limit to what you can do without actually writing in a programming language. I’m just interested in whether we can find examples of games that kids already know or love, which can get them started on the first couple of steps toward coding.




Ceci, S. J. & Roazzi, A. (1994). The effects of context on cognition: postcards from Brazil. In R. J. Sternberg & R. K. Wagner (Eds.), Mind in context. Interactionist perspectives on human intelligence. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kirriemuir, J. & McFarlane, A. (2004). Literature Review in Games and Learning. Bristol: Nesta Futurelab series, report 8.


Benefits of Using Indie Games in Education (as Opposed to AAA)

Just finished reading a great post over at about the benefits of using indie games in educational settings. Paul Davarsi notes that the Fullbright Company, makers of Gone Home were really helpful and accommodating regarding getting 50+ educational copies of their game as a classroom text. I also think he makes a really good argument in favour of using commercially available games as opposed to edutainment – we already do this with every other medium:

It’s also worth remembering that in high school English land, few, if any, of the texts we teach were written specifically for educational purposes. Shakespeare and Salinger didn’t write for high school classes, they wrote free standing works of literature that were eventually adopted for educational purposes. Similarly, I believe that many of the games that will find their way into literature and communication classes will not necessarily be designed with a classroom in mind. They will be works of art first and foremost whose innate value as such will make them suitable to study.


You can read the rest of the article over here.

how to hang out with computer scientists

Originally posted on

I’ve recently argued that sociology has an amazing opportunity. The emergence of data science means that you should have people who really understand research design and social behavior. It doesn’t mean that sociology will automatically reap the benefits. Rather, we’ll have to work at it. My suggestions:

  • Sociology programs should now make basic programming a standard feature of the undergrad and graduate degree.
  • We have to have an internal discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of Internet generated data, much in the same way that there is a literature on the pros and cons of surveys, experiments, and ethnography.

We should also reach out to our colleagues:

  • Start cross-over workshops.
  • Reach out to faculty who already work with behavioral data by offering to help with grants
  • Personally, I’ve found it hard to work with CS graduate students. They have the normal level of grad student instability + six figure paychecks…

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Deficit Models of Gender in Gaming & Tech Research

I’m trying to work through something which has been bugging me – gender deficit theories (i.e. the idea that male/female attitudes or behaviors are based on a lack of something). It’s hard to know how much to adopt defecit models when talking about gaming and questions of who plays what. There’s lots of literature in this post, but I’ve tried to use hyperlinks to non-paywalled sources where-ever possible. I’ll get into two main types of gendered deficit models I’ve seen, in relation to games, after a little bit of personal context.

The doctoral thesis I’m working on is based mainly around testing an idea present in a lot of the feminist lit. on games – that playing certain types of games has, over the years, given certain types of people (hint hint; the type with external genitalia) a sort of head-start in learning about and becoming enthusiastic about technology, programming etc. (for examples see: Kerr, 2003; de Castell and Jenson, 2007; 2008; Beavis and Charles, 2007; Taylor et al, 2009). I’m still very wary of industry reports claiming that there’s no gender imbalance in play. I’d like it to be true, but I think groups like the ESA tend to bundle all types of digital gaming together (that’s not to say that casual/mobile games aren’t “real” games – more that they’re not necessarily the type which will get someone interested in technology at a higher level). There’s also a reluctance amongst girl gamers to openly admit to playing when in the presence of female peers (Kerr, 2003; de Castell and Jenson, 2008; Cruea and Park, 2012) even though we know they do (and one of the great things about t’internet is that increased level of visibility that removes some of the anxiety about this kind of identification which might not be accepted by our geographically-close peers; see also Bronies).

But it’s hard to approach gaming and gender without having to wrestle with these deficit models of masculinity and femininity. They permeate the sort of commonsense understanding of gaming’s gender politics and a whole lot of academic research. You can also see them at work in actual gameworlds, particularly in environments like MMOs where boys are expected to tank and girls are expected to heal.

"slugs and snails and l33t ganking ftw"

“slugs and snails and l33t ganking ftw”


Deficit Models of Female Aggression/Competitiveness, or “Girls Hate Games Because Beheading Orcs is Gross”

Jenson and de Castell (2007; 2008) have argued that most existing research into “what girls want” from gaming has tended to reaffirm stereotypes about girls, such as some sort of natural preference for cooperation over competition. These sort of assumptions are examples of what Glick and Fiske (1997) term “benevolent sexism”; when a statement about the assumed natural “strengths” of either gender serves as a sort of double-edged, backhanded compliment (if you’re nurturing you’re probably weak; if you’re logical you’re probably insensitive, etc.). Benevolent sexism can describe any of those cases where someone thinks they’re saying or doing something nice, but actually making potentially harmful assumptions about what another can or can’t do based on their gender (the guy who once assumed my now-wife couldn’t put her own spare tyre on and then acted like she should be grateful when he insisted on doing it – you’re a good example).

The type of research which sees girls are fundamentally different tends to work on a sort of deficit model of femininity – i.e. one in which girls lack something. So you get – as Jenson and de Castell note – the repetition of statements like “well, girls don’t like games because most games are designed for boys to be violent and competitive”. In this model, girls lack some sort of attribute which boys have, and this deficit prevents them from engaging with what are seen as fundamentally masculine forms of play. The idea that boys are inherently more aggressive hasn’t gone unchallenged; popular associations between male physiology and aggression have been challenged even within evolutionary biology (e.g. Ramirez, 2003) and social psychology (Ostroy et al, 2006; Campbell, 2006; Wood and Eagly, 2002). One of the things I found incredibly irritating about the book From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, originally published in 1998, is that half of its essays are full of this kind of “girls like x, boys like y”, despite the fact that its closing chapter is dedicated to the testimonials of girls who clearly like y, and who think that competitiveness is an attribute that should be cultivated in girls and young women, rather than seen as the natural providence of penis-owners.


Deficit Models of Male Sociability, or “Guys Love Games Because Directly Interacting With People is Scary”

But what about teh menz? Media psychologists Cruea and Park (2012) make the point that most studies of gaming and gender do work on a sort of deficit model of femininity – the question is usually framed in terms of “why aren’t some girls playing?” instead of asking “why do some guys play so much?” Although this is just a passing comment in their essay, they argue that, because males are socialized to be less people-oriented (and more thing-oriented) they tend to structure their social interactions more around hobbies. It’s a gut-feeling but I do feel there’s some truth in this; you’re a guy, you feel lonely, you’re more like to say “hey, do you wanna come over and <do activity>” than just “hey I miss you let’s talk about our feelings”. This approach to understanding gendered relations with technology goes waaay back to Sherry Turkle’s work. For example, in Computational Reticence (1986) Turkle draws on the writings of feminist psychoanalysts from the 1970s and 80s (Chodorow, Gilligan and Keller) to make the following argument:

“Women are raised by women. Unlike men, they do not need to undergo a radical break to define their sexual identity. Unlike men, they are allowed, even encouraged to maintain a close relationship with the woman, the mother with whom they had an early experience of the closest bonding. Girls grow up defining their identity through social interactions: boys, through separation… They boy’s experience of early separation and loss is traumatic. It leads to a strong desire to control his environment”. (Turkle, 1986, pp50-51)

For Turkle, the boys’ “desire to control his environment” manifests itself quite clearly in what seems like a more obsessive relationship with computers and videogames. People are an unknown quantity – unpredictable – while everything about a program or a game happens as a result of the player. Success, failure (at least in fairly-designed games) are all a result of the player’s action; something which isn’t always guaranteed in social interactions. This theory interests me, because we do tend to focus on why girls/women aren’t engaging with this or that field of study/work, but I think it’s incredibly important to focus on the earliest years and to look at how particular types of activity come to be associated with pleasure.

So is this kind of “male deficit of sociability” explanation a biologically-essentialist one? I’m not sure. It’s not necessarily drawing on male or female biology to explain possible differences in worldviews and interests, and the wording “women are raised by women” does raise questions about, for example, would the archetypal boy/man be more people-oriented and less object-oriented if children were raised primarily by men?

As usual, I don’t have any answers.


Game-design and Ethical Thinking: Making Games with Teens

stock picture of men lookin' angry while doing a game

stock picture of men lookin’ angry while doing a game

I’m in the process of putting together a sort of bid to get a gamedev club at a local youth club. I already work there – and have done, on and off – doing songwriting (i.e. rap) and music-tech workshops. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve become re-interested in making games. Through my own research, and my time working in schools, I’ve found that it’s something a lot of teenagers want to do. And I’ve met a lot of IT teachers who are really supportive and try to dedicate lessons to app development, or using tools like Scratch etc. But I’m not sure how conducive the project-directed school environment is to the sort of learning that happens when you make a game. You set your own initial task and these problems emerge from them and, let’s face it, you need a lot of time to just follow it yourself.

But a project like this isn’t going to get support just as a sort of informal tech workshop. There has to be some other social substance to it (as there always has been with our songwriting work). So I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics and games, some of the ethical issues that arise from gaming with young people (violence, representation etc.) and how to engage young people with these issues. I’m really not interested in indoctrinating them in a particular way of viewing things, just getting them to think critically and for themselves about the sort of assumptions that are usually built into the games we play. So the idea is, maybe, to make sure that the young designers are encouraged to think about “consequences” as a key idea. Even if they want to make a game almost entirely about blowing people up – fine – but I want to see some active consideration of  negative consequences.

There were a number of papers from VG6 that got me thinking about this. Lindsey Joyce discussed how explicit morality systems are clumsy, and remove player agency by removing the need to think – a great criticism. What I really liked about Lindsey’s paper was that ultimately it was focussed on the fact that these sort of systems make for crappy player experiences (rather than the more divisive notion that morality systems “teach” players different things). – I’d love to get kids designing the simple karma systems we’re used to in RPGs, and then to later move on to critique (with the eventual aim, perhaps, of realizing that social reality is just too complex to model that way!) Catherine Bouko and Julian Alvarez from Belgium discussed serious gaming. Toward the end of the presentation, Julian was talking about a case study where the StarCraft 2 editor was used by young people, but they had to create a scenario involving messages of pacifism. This fascinates me, because violence is so enmeshed in the game mechanics (one could even argue that the violence in strategy games is even more distant, sterilized, dehumanizing than in ego-shooters). Julian inferred that the participants – despite favouring games with violence – were drawn in by the challenge of subverting this expectation of games.

Then there was Misha Myers’ account of designing educational games in India. One of the motives here was to attempt to increase empathy among young urban players for agricultural workers (which was difficult to achieve). This got me thinking about whether empathy can actually be fostered in games which are also fun, or whether this is inherently unachievable (I’m thinking of Dys4ia, which is about fostering frustration through deliberately unwinnable minigames). In terms of procedural rhetoric, if we design games involving socio-economics, which give players enough agency for the game to feel fair and fun (i.e. more based on judgement and skill than on luck) then aren’t we reinforcing the neo-liberal idea that poor people are poor because they tried and failed? (This privileging of individual agency over social structure is called an “epistemological fallacy” by some sociologists).

Dudey McWhiteBro from Silent Hill: Downpour, having what I like to think of as a "moral derp"

Dudey McWhiteBro from Silent Hill: Downpour, having what I like to think of as a “moral derp”

So here’s the angle that I’m taking in my proposal: For young people, making games provides a number of opportunities for social and emotional development, because game-design can be used to:

  • present and test models of existing real world systems (e.g. of morality and/or crime and punishment)
  • present and test models of alternative/speculative versions of these (e.g. “what do you think should happen to that thief?”)
  • present branching narratives which deal heavily with consequence
  • present opportunities for considering audiences, and the motivations of others (e.g. “but why might a player want to kill the prince?”)

As someone interested in sociology, I can’t help but think of the relationship between player agency in games and the agency of actual social agents. I’m less interested in how games’ teach/influence/affect peoples’ attitudes (the jury is still out on that) but, as a youth worker, hobbyist developer and researcher, I’m interesting in how critiquing game structures and systems might throw light on how they (in)accurately model real social systems.

[If you have any cool ideas feel free to throw them my way and I will merciless pillage them for my own ends]


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