Saturday, 29 September 2007

Weird, but I can't say why...

[Apologies for the quality of the photo, but that is a game of rock, paper, scissors embedded in Excel, played out at the banquet laid on by DiGRA Japan to give away freebie books to the winners.]

Still trying to work out my reaction to this. There was a little cultural cross confusion at the Banquet, some of which makes me a little embarassed in retrospect (and thanks to Bob Appleman for getting just a lttle hush before we totally got out of hand) but I couldn't quite work out why I found this weird. Maybe it seemed to chime with where I got the impression Japanese academic interest in games rests at the moment -- closer to Excel than to the planet of sophisticated and nuanced language use (cough) where I like to think I hang out. And I have no problem with that. Each to their own and stuff. And I have never bothered before to find out if the story of the flight sim in Excel were true, but I am quite prepared to believe it. And there is always Championship Manager. But this was odd -- maybe because it was making what I might dare to suggest is a mistake people sometimes make in other contexts of using digital delivery for a form of game that doesn't really need it? Or maybe I am being all pretentious and academic and seeing a metaphor here for the way poor little games are embedded inside the tools and frameworks of consumer capitalism. What really surprised me was how gripping the Noh play excerpt we were treated to was. For the first couple of minutes it felt incredibly alien, but there was something quite compelling about what unfolded. I have no idea what it meant, of course...

Nice place, Japan. And not just because I spent a few hours today shopping for the coolest toys I have ever seen.

Time Please

Personal academic highlights of the last week included listening to stuff about time and games, and an MMO paper I enjoyed, despite my refusal to get with the C21st and go grind for myself.

I was presenting on games and temporality myself (can't seem to find the abstracts for any of the papers online, but I'll edit when I stop being stupid) only to find out (as if I shouldn’t have already known) that others are doing great work in the area. Actually I needed to get some things off my chest about the difference between academic and industry understandings of time, so I suppose it was the least academic presentation of my career to date. Then again, I have been known to skirt dangerously close to a rant before. I was therefore a little nervous seeing some of the scholars I have most personal time for in the audience when I was due to speak. I had thought timing (8.30 am last day) would have meant a more limited audience. Ho ho.

DiGRA is certainly good for reminding you that you work inside a talented community and not in isolation, and earlier in the conference I had listened to the work of José Zagal and Michael Mateas ('Temporal Frames: A Unifying Framework for the Analysis of Game Temporality') and Michael Nitsche ('Mapping Time in Video Games')and it rang all sorts of bells that would seem to connect it usefully with my own work. Now, I am aware that this is problematic, as I might be listening tuned to ‘me’ (that strange internal channel where everything connects with my own research and writing) while they are speaking about something only tangentially related. But there is enough of a connection in the attention to time and games to make me think I need to read the full papers properly. All that I heard was certainly good, useful scholarship.

The MMO paper was David Myers' contribution ('Self and selfishness in online social play'), which cheered me up, oddly, in its calm analysis (from what I understood as a visitor from distant planet Singleplayer) of PVP play that might be viewed as griefing by some.

And the keynote from the Japanese 'Gaming Gods', as they were characterised by the Conference Chair, was delightful. I would do a disservice to them to claim to be able to paraphrase their comments on the heady days of yore, but I think they managed to say both that videogames need to come out of an understanding of games and toys and leisure practice going back into the mists of time, and that they need to be understood in relation to other entertainment media. I am prepared to bow to the words of the gods there.

I can imagine I missed loads (and have just thoughtlessly excluded words of absolute genius uttered by others where I wasn't listening properly) and I wasn't able to go to everything I wanted, but I tried...

DiGRA Deja Vu

Yay, I only skipped one session of the entire conference. Having been lagged all through the week I am a husk of the man I once was (despite the photographic evidence that may pop up via the evil surveillance tool that is Flickr). I even went to the karoake (which will surprise almost anyone who knows me), although I arrived a little late having spent a while in the Irish bar next door talking games and film with Grethe Mitchell. Ah the joys of drinking in fake european surroundings when in Tokyo.

I figure I should note down my immediate impressions before I forget, not in the interests of completeness or accuracy, but because I wish I had done the same after Utrecht and Vancouver.

Should anyone read this, please note that it was great, Tokyo was fantastic, and I would send the conference an invitation to be my Facebook friend or whatever if I could and if I had a Facebook account. I cannot thank everyone enough etc. etc. I moan only because I am a curmudgeonly git.

So, in no particular order:

1. DiGRA is a bunch of really nice passionate people and getting to see them once every two years is worth a little grief. This supportive little community is something I both need and adore.

2. Is DiGRA an academic research association, as its name sort of implies? If so I would question a couple of things about the conference, starting with some of the more prominent stuff. A clue -- More than once I would have loved to have been a Japanese speaker with a broken translation set.

3. Why had I sat through exactly the same papers that I had heard in 2003 and 2005? I figure the authors had changed, but I swear the papers were identical. Maybe WoW had replaced EQ, but otherwise they were the same...

4. Note to self. Programming has the potential to break a conference. Thematic days and not tracks make no sense, unless you are selling this as a conference to dip in and out of.

5. Question. Will I get thrown out of DiGRA because I don't carry a picture of my WoW avatar in my wallet alongside snaps of my kids?

6. Related. I wonder what the WoW equivalent will be in 2009? I have a thousand yen left to bet it isn't still WoW...

7. Nicest and scariest surprise was how many astute and careful scholars are working bang in the same area as myself. I almost dread rereading my dated and imminent PoP essay on time now.

8. Work out whether writing blog entries while still lagged and stuck in a hotel room smaller than your suitcase is really a good idea.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

DiGRA 2007 Tokyo

Now that I wasn't expecting. My Vaio makes it all the way to Japan with me, and I finally get an internet connection in my hotel room so I log on to Blogger and it has learned Japanese. Unfortunately I haven't, so this will be posted by dumb luck only.

And this isn't going to be an in depth post on how fantastic the food is, how fantastic the place is, or how fantastic the people are (as ever), but just a memo to self to record the URL of the IGJA Videogame Style Guide, put together by the fantastic David Thomas (and a couple of other probably fantastic people I don't know personally) which will be featuring in the research methods section of the undergraduate programme.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Trigger Happy

I have just noticed that the archive of Steven Poole's Trigger Happy column from Edge is up online here. Poole was an astute commentator on games, although not exactly the greatest fan of academic writing on the subject. These are definitely worth a (re)read, however.

Actually, I begin to worry. Jessica Mulligan was pretty negative about academics in her keynote in Edinburgh, and to a large degree I agreed with her, if not in matters of detail. Similarly, what I remember Steven Poole saying about some academic wriitng rang pretty true (at least from memory -- not sure how I would trawl until I find it). Maybe there is something wrong with me.

Friday, 7 September 2007

The Phony War is Over

Time to put away the toys of summer. I notice that all I have posted is text lately, so two not very colourful prototype screenshots that will now get filed away and probably never emerge again. Not that the world will be the poorer for the absence of a gecko wallpaper minigame...

Hardcore (the DiGRA column, not either of the other kinds)

Friday. Too hot. The weather is close and oppressive. Emerge from a sweaty and tedious meeting about the death to intellectual activity that is the UK RAE only to remember I have a big presentation to finish for next week, am months overdue for an abstract I owe a very patient colleague, have all the preparations for a new term to finish, need to crunch staffing numbers into another format demanded by the university etc. etc. So nice to see something online to distract me while I get my other thoughts in order – a new Hardcore column out of DiGRA, this time authored by Jose Zagal. Intelligent, thoughtful, nicely argued. Strange how the same issues crop up again and again, though – this reminded me of a debate immediately after DiGRA in Vancouver (assisted by Tanya Krzywinska’s call for game studies academics to play games in an early Hardcore column) about who/what game studies academics are/should be/should do. And this was ground, as Jose notes, that Espen Aarseth had covered fairly solidly before. So far so conventional.

Can’t fault the logic of the latest Hardcore – how do we nurture a subject community without excluding some people? At least, I think that is what he is saying.

I used to joke that admitting to game studies was a bit like joining AA. ‘Hi, my name’s Barry and I am a gamer. I had my last game of Quake 2 hours and 14 minutes ago...’ It just doesn’t work in these enlightened times. Damn game studies for getting all respectable on me. Seems no one is surprised any more when I tell them what I do. Everyone is a gamer now, or knows a reasonably well adjusted gamer. I suppose we could thank Nintendo, or simply time and demographics.

But this Hardcore seems to be making an almost counter-intuitive claim that game studies courses need to accommodate those who don’t (or more significantly won’t) play games. An analogy springs to mind from my past life a s a literature specialist. As a student you were expected to read books if you took a lit course (expected to, but...) and I see no difference expecting students on a games course to play games. There are platform/ accessibility/economic problems with accessing everything, but we have a range of pragmatic solutions to most of those problems. My gut reaction would be to say ‘tough’ and force anyone on a course to play. You just can’t engage in productive analysis if you won’t look at the thing in front of you.

More intriguing, I suppose, is the implication that games courses should be the source of the next generation of games scholars. While there is a logic to this, and I have a few ex-students of mine now happily or not so happily grinding the treadmill of academia, I wonder if it is entirely a good idea. It will certainly be a consequence of all those programmes of study and the PhDs we supervise. But I do think we will lose something if game studies becomes its own subject area with defined entry paths, rather than something people come to with a training from somewhere else. I certainly don’t want to work out how much sociology we should have under our belts to be equipped for game studies, or have to change the habits of an academic lifetime and have to deal with empirical research, rather than its conclusions.

Having been one of those who would publicly admit (confess?) to being a gamer as well as an academic I am actually quite happy when non-gamers from other areas look at games. They certainly see them differently than I do with my gamer-goggles on. Just thought I’d better check that I had said so publicly, before and yep I even added to a blog discussion of this issue 2 years ago:

We all have something to say — including those who sit outside with a little more distance than gamers like me (and Tanya, and you, and William, and Espen, and [insert many others here]), and the more voices the better.

Which is good. Rather the babble of interdisciplinary babel than the tyranny of dull agreement. I do worry about us falling into orthodoxy by default, and agreeing to canons and rules and regulations.

From Jose Zagal’s column:

How do newcomers learn what Game Studies is, and what should newcomers to Game Studies know about games? Due to the youthfulness of our field, our members currently come from a diversity of backgrounds and our paths into game studies were haphazard and indirect.

I guess I just like the notion of the haphazard and the indirect because that is where the most interesting work seems to have come from, at least for me.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Play That Thing?

This looks interesting. Greg Costikyan, who has done something very good for distribution of Indie Games through his Manifesto Games site, has got a sister site up not only plugging the Manifesto wares, but offering freeware and demos that should form the core of a playing community. Good commercial sense, no doubt, but somewhere else to go looking for the more quirky games to relieve me from staring at space marines in shades of brown.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Working with clever people

Nice to see some of the people I know achieved something over the summer. Emma Westecott and Alex Mayhew are both members of our games research group Synergy, and have things I should link to.

Emma is an editor on a new games journal online:
Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture.

This new scientific, international, peer reviewed online journal deals with
everything ludic and looks at digital games from a multitude of
perspectives. Its approach is deliberately broad to accommodate the rapid
changes and constant growth of this highly trans-disciplinary field.

Looks interesting, and I know how much the band of game studies people like work to be available online, so it could be a nice addition to the established Game Studies.

Alex got a review of his Beethoven's Hair at Jay is Games, which is really quite positive, and actually declares that it is NOT "oh, another one of those 'New Media', self-smug clap-traps" which is good. Some nice comments in the thread as well, which is heartening.