February 16, 2007

Weekend of February 16, 2007

*Editor's Note

*Opening Note: Stacy L. Wood Says You Are What You Play

*Glancing at the C3 Blog

*Closing Note: Doris C. Rusch Writes About Sense-Making in Digital Games

--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------

Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. As usual, this week's update includes links to all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog. Also, the site now features tools to favorite the blog on Technorati, so be sure to do so if you read on a regular basis.

This week's update features an opening note from C3 Affiliated Faculty Stacy L. Wood, who writes about games, self, and symbolic consumption. The closing note from C3 Affiliated Faculty Doris C. Rusch examines sense-making in digital games.

If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at samford@mit.edu.

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

You Are What You Play: Games, Self, and Symbolic Consumption

By: Stacy L. Wood

Many consumer behavior researchers have studied the latent symbolism of consumption (for example, check out the work of Russ Belk) and found that the old "You are what you eat" adage is largely true. While we all acknowledge the complexity of the human self and agree that having a Mac rather than a PC doesn't really make you cooler, consumption choices are self-relevant.

Whether we like it or not, the things we buy, wear, use, and play communicate something about who we are. Thus, we learn to recognize and expect consistent consumption constellations (for example, if you tell me that you do yoga twice a week and are a green tea fanatic, I might be surprised to find that you drive a Hummer).

One very interesting part of self-relevant consumption is the importance of social interaction in constructing the self. The lens through which we see ourselves is often the eyes of others. The concept that our self-identity is constructed through the projection of self to others is not new (thanks, George Herbert Mead!) but is worth repeating. In remembering how others help us understand ourselves, we gain two insights into consumer adoption of products and technologies.

The first is that consumers are aware that products communicate something about identity (e.g., the tenor of the "I'm a Mac" ads) and automatically (and, even, nonconsciously) manage the impressions that they send.

This theory is called impression management (also, "self presentation theory") and was first described in 1959 by Erving Goffman in his seminal book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In this work, Goffman uses a dramaturgical metaphor to explain social interaction.

An "actor" utilizes props, scripts, and characteristics to communicate his or her salient role to an appropriate audience. Imagine a young professional in a power suit who carries a Blackberry and a double Starbucks espresso into an important meeting. She may be happy to convey ambition (the suit), competence (the PDA) and a "24/7" work-style (the caffeine). She may have wanted a frozen "Perky Peppermint Swirl" frappaccino but sensed that the frivolous drink might somehow make her seem less credible.

In this way, at low levels of consciousness or high, consumers are motivated to avoid products that communicate negative messages to important audiences. For example, I've found that MBA students are frequently reluctant to discuss videogame examples that I bring up in class, but will often discuss (in enlightening detail) games in the papers that they turn in to me. Privately, they play. In public, they are wary. What does a love of The Sims say about you? What about Gears of War or Grand Theft Auto?

This raises the second important lesson: since audiences matter, the social norms that develop around technology products matter as well. Coke's Superbowl ad, Videogame, illustrates the social norms that depict Grand Theft Auto as a breeding ground for criminal sociopaths--Coke uses our normative expectations of the GTA environment and then transforms the wasteland with an infusion of carbonated love. After such an ad, are certain consumers constrained from publicly expressing that they play GTA?

In a different technological genre, recent findings from some of my own research show that job recruiters unknowingly rate job candidates who use technology products (one study showed a candidate making a quick note on a PalmPilot) as better prospects with better leadership potential. Social norms suggest that people who are savvy about technology are, perhaps, smarter or quicker than the rest of us and this implicit belief colors even serious evaluations like job recommendations. Thus, for good and bad images alike, marketers should understand, and perhaps even attempt to influence, how society depicts or characterizes certain technologies or brands.

Stacy L. Wood is an affiliated faculty member with the Convergence Culture Consortium and the Moore Research Fellow and Association Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina. Her research focuses on how consumers react and adapt to change, individuals' processing of new product information, drivers of individual innovativeness, and consumers' emotional reactions to new innovations, media, trends, and rituals.

---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------

King of the Hill Aspect Ratio Controversy Leaves Fans Asking What HD Really Is. The Fox cartoon recently aired an episode in "HD" but at a 4:3 aspect ratio, leading to intense fan and industry debate.

NBA 3D HD Viewing Parties in Las Vegas Tries to Popularize Public 3D Viewings. The National Basketball Association is hoping to popularize the idea of coming to theaters to watch games in 3D high-definition, leaving some to question whether public sports viewing will catch on.

Formation of CBS Mobile a Further Indication of a Commitment to Mobile Media Extensions. The new CBS division comes from the CBS Interactive branch of the company, as the network continues to innovate into emerging platforms.

Nielsen/DirecTV Deal to Give Nielsen More Valuable Data for Set Top Boxes. The new round of data from the DirecTV boxes helps bolster Nielsen's aggressive efforts at creating new streams of data for television viewing.

NBC Nightly News the First Network Evening News Show in HD. While the major networks have competed throughout the past year to launch several new transmedia news initiatives, NBC is the first to air its evening news broadcast in high-definition.

Move Over Henry--Clay-mation Gumby is the New "Great Compromiser." The Digital Music Group (DGMI) has come to an agreement with YouTube for its music and distribution of some of its television properties.

Google Hands Over Names to Fox in 24 Piracy Controversy. The controversy with Google ends in handing over the names of the pirates, as people continue to debate the ethics surrounding the events.

Veoh's Revamped Site, Improved Syndication System Unveiled. The new version of the video service has been getting strong reviews from many users as Veoh positions itself as a major video service provider.

A Soap Spins Off Into Primetime. ABC's General Hospital will launch a primetime show on SoapNet.

Ubisoft Blurs Distinction Between Films and Games by Branching into CGI. The video game company will be creating short films as extension of its games properties.

Access vs. Censorship, Part VI: Final Thoughts. This concluding section of the six-part series examines the struggle between issues of access and issues of restriction and how the Congress is/should balance these two roles.

Access vs. Censorship, Part V: What Does the Debate on Net Neutrality Mean? The fifth of this six-part series looks at the larger issues behind the debate on net neutrality.

Access vs. Censorship, Part IV: Net Neutrality. The fourth of this six-part series looks at net neutrality as an example of issues of access currently before Congress.

--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------

Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/.

--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------

Baring the Device: Sense-Making in Digital Games

By: Doris C. Rusch
Those who fear the possible dangers of games and those who see games as a way to better society have one thing in common: a severe lack of knowledge about how games convey meaning and express ideas. I have been writing about this before in this newsletter, focusing on what I have called the "reality-clash" between rules and fiction and introducing the concept of dynamic meaning generation as a means to successfully integrate these two game components.

I have not stopped thinking about the problem of meaning generation in games and here are some more thoughts on the matter, dealing more specifically with the medial characteristics of games and how they might influence sense-making. Again, this article is quite explorative, aimed at inspiring discussion rather than providing answers.

One obstacle digital games are facing at the moment on the way to become more meaningful is the trend to camouflage their game-ness. Across many genres (genre-based design as such hindering innovation) physical immersion seems to be key, the feeling of walking in the shoes of the hero, seeing through the eyes of the heroine. But games are media, thus the interaction with the game-world can never be immediate. Also, the development of artificial intelligence still has to go a long way before e.g. talking to a non-player character (NPC) can create the illusion of a talking to another real person. There is and always will be a gap between game and player and trying to deny it is problematic, because it limits the thematic and experiential scope of games. Why?

Because to create the feeling of presence, games focus on the feeling of immediacy rather than their reflective potential. Thinking about the wii, the new trick seems to be not to draw the player into the world but to get the game into the living room. Still the goal is the same: to blur the boundary between real and virtual space. The way to achieve this is a controller that enables a strong and wide variety of physical analogies between real-world input and on-screen action. This sort of interaction category is the most intuitive, but since it is based on physical analogies, it can only refer to physical actions.

If your goal is to produce deeply moving, thought provoking experiences, how far do you get with this interaction category alone? Especially when the enormous immediacy of the game-play tends to shove context-material aside, turning game-play activities into abstract problems. As King and Krzywinska have observed that in heightened states of play "contextual background is likely to be reduced to the more distant background, the gameplay situation taking the shape of an abstract problem to be overcome rather than one that retains much in the way of contextual depth." (King & Krzywinska 2006, p. 68).

To make more aspects of the game-world tangible to the player, not only its physical qualities, other translation processes have to be explored. Interesting game design is the art of abstraction, of identifying the characteristic elements of an experience or process and translating these elements to the player, so they can be understood and felt.

This translation process has a huge and game-specific potential for generating meaning. Experiencing how a persuasive dialogue can be translated into a strategic card game as done in the diplomacy game in the new MMPORG Vanguard teaches us something about the "metaphors we live by," to quote Lakoff. There is not a physical analogy between the real-world input and on-screen action, but there is an analogy on a cognitive and emotional level.

The process of crafting items in Everquest 2 is another example of how a game can make us reflect about the nature of things. Since adventurers have to eat to keep up their strength, it is important to always have food in your inventory. Really good food (in the sense of providing faster power regeneration) is player-made, not bought from an NPC provisioner.

This rule has a double function: encouraging the player to make use of the crafting possibilities in the game and conveying the moral concept that home-made food is better for you than what you can buy on the street. But cooking is challenging and just as in real life, one has to carefully balance seasoning, heating and stirring in order to produce a high quality meal.

The way the cooking process is translated into metaphors, represented audio-visually to the player via a variety of information modes (visual icons for the buffs, audio feedback when a new buff is activated, two parallel status bars that signify the progress, how much time one has left before the food is cooked to rags and the quality of the food at any given moment etc.) and how meaning is dynamically generated by interpreting the signs on the screen, taking action, reinterpreting the changed state and adapting ones strategy according to the result of this reinterpretation is a terrific example of how complex meaning generation in games can be and what sorts of questions we have to tackle in order to understand it better.

I am just beginning to explore the media specific possibilities of digital games and the way they can be used to produce meaningful and emotionally satisfying experiences. The questions I am most interested in at the moment, as the above examples might have indicated is

• how meaning is dynamically generated across a variety of information and interaction modes,

• how rules and contextual information are integrated in current games and

• how sense-making processes change over a longer period of playing.
To answer these questions I will mainly draw on semantic discourse analysis as well as multimedia semiotic analysis, adapting these methods to the affordances of the interactive subject. My focus will be on comparative analysis of more or less "self-conscious" games as well as an empirical study that investigates the sense-making processes of players.

My goal is to come up with a theoretical model of semiotic game analysis that shall help to identify design strategies to produce more meaningful games. Some of my current hypothesis include that

• games should not be afraid to bare their devices - maximum "realism" might prevent games from becoming truly meaningful at least as long as there is no satisfying AI available;

• interpreting translation processes can provide valuable insights about the nature of things and the human condition, fostering more meaningful games, given that games continue to expand their vocabulary. As Mary Flanagan said at the Nordic Games conference last year, diversity is key to innovation and this is not only true for the designer's backgrounds but also for the themes games tackle. The art of abstraction has to be exercised!

King, Geoff / Krzywinska, Tanya (2006): Tomb Raiders & Space Invaders. London, UK: IB Tauris.

Vanguard: SOE, 2006

Everquest II: SOE, 2004

Doris C. Rusch is an affiliated researcher with the Convergence Culture Consortium and is currently a postdoctorate fellow at the Institute for Design and Assessment of Technology at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria.


Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (samford@mit.edu)

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