Level Up conference program online

The program for the DiGRA games conference in Utrecht November 4-6th is now available.
In something as new as game studies, there is always an open question on whether it will suddenly dry up or whether we will continue to see more in-depth and more interesting research. Fortunately things are looking good, and everybody does seem to get more savvy and clever all the time. Makes me happy.

Yours truly will be speaking on The game, the player, the world: looking for a heart of gameness.

The Price of ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’: A Hedonic Pricing Model of Avatar Attributes in a Synthethic World

Edward Castronova has a new paper online about the real-world (EBay) pricing of avatars in EverQuest based on various factors such as sex.

This paper explores a unique new source of social valuation: a market for bodies. The internet hosts a number of large synthetic worlds which users can visit by piloting a computergenerated body, known as an avatar. Avatars can have an asset value, in that users can spend time to increase their skills; these asset values can be directly observed in online markets. Auction data for avatars from the synthetic fantasy world of EverQuest are used here to explore a number of questions, especially those involving the relative value of male and female avatars. In EverQuest, about 20 percent of the avatar population is female, and there are no sex-based differences in avatar capabilities. Many avatars (about one-fourth to onefifth of the population) are cross-gendered, being piloted by a person of the opposite sex. Nonetheless, relations between avatars are gender-based, and include chivalry, dating, and sex. Female avatars tend to be concentrated in highly sexualized Human and Elven races, with very few being present among such aesthetically-challenged races as Ogres and Trolls. Hedonic analysis of the auction price data suggests that gender labels are a less important determinant of avatar values than the “level,” a game-design metric that indicates the overall capabilities of the avatar. Thus, ability seems more important than sex in determining the value of a body. Nonetheless, among comparable avatars, females do sell at a significant price discount. The average avatar price is 333 dollar; the price discount for females is 40 to 55 dollar, depending on methods. The discount may stem from a number of causes, including discrimination in Earth society, the maleness of the EverQuest player base, or differences in well-being related to male and female courtship roles. We do know, however, that these differences cannot be caused by sex-based differences in the abilities of the body, since in the fantasy world of Norrath, there are none.

Rebuilding Iraq using games

Slate has an enlightening piece on using games to rebuild Iraq.
Lord British suggests applying the lessons from Ultima Online where the original anarchy turned into a social structure (tip: communicate clearly to the users that you’ve heard their complaints).
Edward Castronova suggest remaking an old board game called KingMaker to reflect the muddled political conflicts in present-day Iraq.

While the word “game” can make everybody uncomfortable, it does make sense: Iraq (and the real world in general) is the kind of place where clear-cut ideologies fail because they think that reality can be reduced to a simple root cause (economics, power structures, language, the joy of being liberated, national pride, god) whereas it in actuality is complex and packed with emergent and unpredictable events. Games, however simplistic their models, can be a soothing reminder that the world is full of emergent “gameplay” and events that we can’t master or fix with a simple sleight of hand.

Moral standard weirdness: Violence ok but no sex VS. sex ok but no violence; Puritan Norway

The L.A. Times has an interesting article on the standards of game censorship in different countries: How sex in video games is off-limits in the US but violence is OK, whereas sex is OK in Germany but violence is not. (Famously, the human soldiers in StarCraft became androids in the German version and their red blood became some kind of green guck.) Germany of course has a special history, but there is a general tendency (exception below) where sex in Northern [Protestant] Europe is seen as less awful than violence, whereas in the US it’s the other way around. Which is one of those situations where Northern Europe is clearly right. (Thanks to Zhan Li for the link.)

In related news, the Norwegian department of culture wants NRK, the Norwegian state television network, to remove two, well, sexually oriented & wildly ironic games from their web site. (Norwegian language article,
short English article.) Feel free to see for yourself, the language barrier shouldn’t pose a problem: 1 and 2.
Here in Boston, everything bad (bars closing early and such) gets blamed on the Puritans, and people tend to assume that Scandinavia is this wildly free and progressive place, but Norway clearly has its own kind of puritanism.

Beauty in a car crash

Tried Burnout2 for the XBox the other day. While technically a racing game, it also contains a crash mode, the object of which is simply to cause maximum mayhem by crashing your car into traffic. There is a strange kind of beauty in the slow motion movement of busses crashing into cars, drivers failing to stop in time and huge pileups of wrecked vehicles:
Burnout2 crash

Similarly, there’s a 9-11 simulator coming out [link now broken apparently]. Gonzalo Frasca is quite sceptical because he would have preferred it to be about economics in the Middle East, but I think Burnout 2 and this simulator are both about facing something terrible not by watching someone else go through it as in a movie, but experiencing it in the sort-of-first-hand mode that is called a game.
The flying arcs of crashing cars are fascinating stuff because we worry about road accidents but seldomly see them as they happen. Likewise, I am pretty sure that most people tried imagining how they would have escaped from the WTC. In that perspective games as well as storytelling can be about facing and surviving death …

P.S. Videos of Burnout2 crashes here.

Gameplay is not free speech!

It had to happen, and I’m glad it did: The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit overturned a previous ruling and determined video games to be protected speech under the U.S. constitution. (Article here,
actual court order.) It’s not every day you see courts dealing with basic research questions about games, but this one is not stupid at all and touches on some interesting issues. First of all, the court points out that the freedom of speech covers a rather broad range of expressions:

If the first amendment is versatile enough to "shield [the] painting of Jackson Pollock, music of Arnold Schoenberg, or Jabberwocky verse of Lewis Carroll," Hurley, 515 U.S. at 569, we see no reason why the pictures, graphic design, concept art, sounds, music, stories, and narrative present in video games are not entitled to a similar protection.

What is missing from this list? Yep, gameplay. The things protected are the ones we find in traditional media, but the dynamical aspect of games are missing. It does open a somewhat hypothetical loophole in which a game might be banned due to its ruleset, independent of its graphics. Would somebody want to ban Tetris or the underlying ruleset of Age of Mythology? Stranger things have happened.

Up till around 2 years ago, I would be making the case that the graphics and back-story of any given game was subordinate to the all-important gameplay (hey, I was young then). Having since thought better of this, I think it is rather the case that graphics have varying degrees of importance in different games, but that their importance typically fades in multiplayer games. The ruling goes for this directly and points to the fact that you can’t have it both ways: You can’t claim that games don’t contain any "content" while claiming that this content is important:

Our review of the record convinces us that these "violent" video games contain stories, imagery, "age old themes of literature,? and messages, ?even an ?ideology,? just as books and movies do." See American Amusement Mach. Ass’n v. Kendrick, 244 F.3d 572, 577-78 (7th Cir. 2001), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 994 (2001). Indeed, we find it telling that the County seeks to restrict access to these video games precisely because their content purportedly affects the thought or behavior of those who play them.

Some people would frame this as a "ludology vs. narratology" conflict, but in actuality ludology means "the study of games" which can include content, and narratology means "storytelling" which is only one kind of fiction and content.

The only major flaw in the court’s reasoning is that ancient mistake of thinking that "everything is interactive":

We note, moreover, that there is no justification for disqualifying video games as speech simply because they are constructed to be interactive; indeed, literature is most successful when it "draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own,"

Interpretation (processing the signs that you are presented with) is not the same as interactivity (you get different signs in reaction to your actions), no matter how clever it makes you sound, OK?

Still, a good day for games, and the first time I’ve seen reasonable arguments about computer games in court.

Theology, cuneiform, blogs, and games: Impressions from the Digital Genres Conference

Exit the Digital Genres conference in Chicago: An amazingly diverse set of perspectives that fit together in strange ways.
The game perspective was obviously the most important one:
Greg Costikyan gave a slightly pessimistic talk about the future of the games industry – production costs rocketing, lack of an “indie” game format, risk-averse publishers, end of innovation, some potential lights at the end of the tunnel in the form of online distribution, shareware, mobile games – but it seemed that Greg didn’t have too much faith in those. A version of the discussion can be found at Greg’s blog with replies by Warren Spector and others.
Edward Castronova presented some of his well-known work on EverQuest. In case you don’t know, he has done an interesting economical analysis of EverQuest based on the price at which characters and items are sold on EBay. This gives the famous statistic of EverQuest being the 72nd largest economy in the world with characters working for an hourly wage of $3.50. I had always assumed that this evaluation was slightly problematic, but it turns out that it follows the standard economical idea of subjective pricing – the value of something is what people are willing to pay for it. My feeling was that the evaluation was way too high since there would be no way that all characters and things in EverQuest could be sold at the current EBay price. But in fact this is just like stock markets, antiques, and original James Joyce manuscripts – if all stocks in a company were sold at the same time, the price would fall radically, so the pricing of anything is based on the relation between, yes, supply and demand. EverQuest is no different. Castronova presented new research on the pricing of characters based on their traits including gender. Of a comparable male and female character, which sells at the highest price? My guess was female, based on the assumption that they are rarer and the fact that female characters get more free stuff and help from other characters. But no, females are generally 10% cheaper.
My presentation was basically a presentation of a game definition (which I’ll post another day). The core argument is that there is something I call the classical [transmedial] game model which has been surprisingly stable from perhaps 5000 bc to somewhere in the 1960’s, having only really been challenged with the advent of pen and paper role-playing games and computer games. The promised thing about GTA3 became rather brief. Probably a lot of stuff in 15 minutes, but I think it went well enough.

It hadn’t dawned on me that contemporary theologists would be thinking about spirituality online, but obviously they do. Some experience of being dumped into a discussion that had been going on for some time – do blessings require a physical component or are they pure signs? And another reason to be happy about researching computer games – glad not to be a monotheistic theologist worried about using binary distinctions. (Not to offend anyone, but this seems like a philosophical take on the Tom Lehrer joke about feeling like a Christian scientist with appendicitis.)

For no apparent reason I managed to become the grumpy conference guy who always doubted that there was really anything new about all this digital stuff: The alfabet is basically digital. Non-physical communities and identities, writing under pseudonyms etc. were all there in the theological community in medieval Europe, writing being their internet and (cheesily) Latin being their equivalent of blogs. And road signs and name tags are augmented reality.

I can’t really do the conference justice in this space, but there were also inspiring presentations on clay tablets, on phonetic vs. pictorial writing, the emergence of alphabetization as a way of structuring information, on blogs, “real” vs. “virtual” identities, Slash, IRC compared to Puerto Rican street talk. Since this is my first blog conference report, I am suddenly acutely aware of the kind of social importance that we attach to being mentioned in other people’s conference reports. Hmm.

David Weinberger gave a talk on the importance of blogs – the draft-like quality of the posts helps building networks because you let other people into your less edited thinking. Likewise, the power of the web often hinges on the fact that you get to hear other people’s unedited voices. The linking obviously builds social networks, and the “blogs” of big corporations give themself away by not linking off the company site.
Discussed the unfeasibility of the Semantic Web project with him. And the amazing thing that Tim Berners-Lee who designed the World Wide Web which really has changed the world and really works because it isn’t structured or categorized is now engaged in an unworkable project that aims to do all the things wrong that were right in the first place.

The violence of categories: This post should also be in the “meta” category of my blog.

This was the first time I’d met Edward Castronova, with whom I discussed the possibility of making money on blogs – I offered to do his blog (he doesn’t have one) and online networking for a modest fee, but he declined.

Chicago is a surprisingly pleasant city, lake, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and all. Have failed to find that cool (deck?) caf? hangout with wireless and a dj playing minimal house all day though.