How gold farming ruined research…

April 15, 2008

the singer/he had long hair/and the drummer/he knew restraint…
-Pavement

Okay, my friend Jeff says I owe five posts today (curses, flu! my stomach needs to come back to me so I can do my work!), so I’m going to try a few shorter ones. I’m working on a side-paper about gaming research as an addendum to my ethics of researching online article.  I learned something new this weekend.

On message boards, World of Warcraft gold farmers have ruined the concept of research. They’ve impersonated researchers so often that my attempt to do research was outright snapped at. In a few cases in violent ways. It was… sort of sad.

Not that I don’t have thick enough skin. I’ve taken more than one insult to the side of the head in my life.

It was sad because it illustrated the first discussion I ever had with anyone about researching gaming is STILL of critical importance. IRBs need to understand that to solicit a community you have to speak like/look like the community. I AM a gamer. I can talk like a gamer and post like a gamer and walk like a gamer. But the rigid language the IRB demands to see and stamp for approval (which I agree we need, legally, for consent forms) makes any attempts to solicit look weird.

There’s no way around it, unless we can teach IRBs to understand that we have to solicit a certain way to get real results. My post looked like (to quote someone) “some tool-ass gold farmer trying to get market research.” It was, in actuality, very “form letterish” and exactly what an IRB wants.

So let’s start a revolution, folks. If you research gaming, write your solicitation in gamer language and tell your friendly neighborhood IRB you don’t want to look like “Some tool-ass gold farmer.” I’ll be right there with you, pwning noobs.


Virtual presentation/virtual A to virtual Q

April 7, 2008

In my room/on a pad/is written a letter/return addressed to you…
-For Squirrels

Me and my peeps got some pub! http://www.vitia.org/wordpress/2008/04/06/cccc08-a25-reading-and-writing-virtual-realities/ (warning: if you click here, you’ll see my full name and might get beyond the thin disguise of me not identifying where I’m a student, so read at your own risk).

First of all, a sincere thanks to Mike for giving the panel some attention, and again a thanks to Doug for toting my video around New Orleans. I wish I’d been there to see everyone.

But Mike asked a good question. Allow me to quote:

The point of contention, I guess, is over reasons for bringing it into the classroom. I can see a games studies course as a cultural studies course, certainly. But what is the compelling argument for the connection between games studies and composition? What does game studies as an area of scholarly inquiry help us teach writing students to do that other areas of scholarly inquiry cannot do? There was some discussion of this in the Q&A, particularly in the concerns expressed about colonizing our students’ culture and appropriating it into a school genre, but I’d be curious to hear from the game scholars out there: why are games important to writing?

This is a familiar question for me, coming from an MA program where I faced a fair amount of skepticism. My first response is always this: we’re in a new moment. We now accept that it’s fine to subject a student to Moby Dick or The Dubliners, but there was no doubt a time when someone said “wait, is it fair to ask writing students to read this?” During my MA, the most popular text taught in first year comp was Fight Club; there would SURELY have been a moment when someone would ask if we should be teaching that.

So my first argument is that assigned texts don’t really “define” a writing course (unless someone’s assigning something like Stephen King’s On Writing, in which case I think that person is doing it wrong). Texts in a composition classroom open the discussion and provide a place where the class can have a common experience and see a common discourse. But the writing course is about the students writing first and foremost, and not nearly so much about what we have them read so that we can then ask them to write. If anyone wants to see what this sort of gaming comp class would look like, I’m going to present one of my syllabi with some notes at the upcoming Computers and Writing conference. I’d love to see anyone/everyone in the audience.

My second argument would be that while “reading” a game, students are much more active than they are while reading a book. *Phill ducks the lit scholars throwing things*. While I’m a fond, fond reader (I think all of us have to be in order to survive in this field), I think we can all agree that the agency for a reader in most of the texts that would be used in a composition class is limited, at least during the initial reading.  In a gaming environment– at least the multi-player games I personally promote and study– the reader/player must interact and make choices from the very beginning. In that sense, I believe the student has more agency and hence experiences something more robust than just leafing through a standard text. Students are starting to write as they read a game; I’m not sure we can claim that in the same way about most other texts.

My third reason for thinking gaming is valid in the composition classroom is that the idea that we’re “colonizing” a student genre to make it a school genre– which I know many use as an argument against it– doesn’t work IF certain criteria are met. For one, I think you really should be a gamer if you’re going to teach with games. That’s not to say you have to be a lifer (though many in my generation are); but you shouldn’t be someone who just started playing two weeks before the course. In that sense, you’re not “colonizing” the student’s discursive space– you’re visiting. The second thing is that moreso than with traditional texts (though I think we should all be open to this when we teach anything) one has to allow for the students to be better/smarter in the area. Let them own it. And if we’re not worried that we’re “colonizing” a space, we suddenly have an intricate digital media space that allows us to quickly move to video, to audio, to visual rhetorics, to digital identity or simply identity studies. Gaming is a rather solid hub for issues that can lead to unique and interesting writing.

And the last reason I’ll offer here, for now (I have many more justifications :)), is that gaming is fun, and all too often we squeeze the fun from academia, particularly for our first year students who we bombard with grammar rules and MLA/APA citation formats and invention and revision and “don’t write the five paragraph essay” and “this is a good source/this is a bad source.” I’d like to think that most of us came to writing because we love it, and we had fun doing it when we were younger (there are better way to inflict torture), so why should we allow our classes to become stale, boring places? I want mine to be fun, and students tend to respond well to it.

So… there’s a bit of an answer. 🙂 I could go on, but it’s almost 1:30 in the morning and I have a full day o’ classes tomorrow. More later, if anyone wants me to keep ranting.

🙂


I have to pepper in a few short ones…

April 6, 2008

Lump sat alone in a boggy marsh/totally (e)motionless except for her heart…

-The Presidents of the United States of America

Sticking with the theme but leaning toward one of my current projects: Race in World of Warcraft.

The humans, who look human, sound like they have US “recieved prounciation.”
The blood elves, who look like sexy elf people, sound vaguely British
The Orcs, who are big green monsters, sound gutteral

The lanky, tusked, lumbering trolls… sound like islanders (most stereotypically Jamacian).

Hmmm.

The Tauren don’t SOUND specifically Native American, but those teepees, totem poles and dreamcatchers tell a different story.

Hmmm…

*told you, a short one*


Ritualistic Gaming… the start of a line of thought

March 21, 2008

Ever since I could talk/I was ordered to listen…

-Cat Stevens 

Today in community literacy class we had a special guest. I guess the fact that she was a special guest isn’t such a big deal.

What is important is that she’s a mixed-blood Cherokee (like myself) and in the middle of a presentation I was making on gaming literacies and group formation, something interesting was said.

A classmate, who I think is well-versed in gaming, made a point that some gaming guilds behave on a ritualistic fashion, using the “raid” as a ritual behavior. The special guest chimed in to point out how interesting this was. And I agree, the idea of clans/guilds/etc. becoming “tribal” or adhering to ritualistic behavior IS fascinating.

 I can think of a few examples.

But I don’t think a raid is one. Allow me to elaborate. When our guest—and native scholars—talked about ritual, she was talking about activities that are repeated in ceremonial ways due to the will of the tribe (group). These are usually traditional and in many cases are sacred acts.

This is not to say we can’t extrapolate the “raid” construction over. In fact my theoretical framework would actually push us to do so (I don’t think we can let ideology collide with theory in these cases, so “sacred” as an elevation of status vs. what a group of gamers might consider ritual is an unfair/unwise theoretical move).

The reason I claim we cannot look at a raid in this way is that raids are a software/developer construction. What I mean is this: if a guild’s tradition—their ritual behavior—was to attack a specific town at a specific time, that might fit the construction. But in a game like World of Warcraft (which is what we were discussing—that style of MMORPG), Blizzard Inc. establishes what can be raided, when, and sets a small pool of rewards.The tendency to behave as “raid” teams, then, is not classically “ritualistic.” It is following the lead of the software/game rule set.

I am fascinated by the idea of gamers being ritualistic, however. It warrants pursuit. I’ll dig into this deeper in the coming days. For now, though, sleep calls.


Hot Hoof Action

February 15, 2008

Spoonman/come together with you hands/save me…

-Soundgarden

bigd.jpg

The above image is from: http://www.theirisnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/figure7.jpg . I cropped it because all I wanted to use for this entry is the Draenei. It is part of a fascinating paper by Andrea Rubenstein (http://www.theirisnetwork.org/archives/12) that says many of the same things I’m about to say in different ways.

So here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks. When I started playing World of Warcraft, I chose to play on the Horde side (longstanding tradition of going with the villain :)). As such, I’ve done a great deal of thinking about the Horde races (see my article—hopefully one day forthcoming—on male blood elves and homophobia), but not nearly as much thinking about the Alliance races, other than noticing that all of them are either super buff (humans, night elves, Draenei) or fantasy dwarf/gnome style small.

Then my girlfriend (yes, my girlfriend plays WoW—she’s awesome, and no, I don’t think there’s another like her so step back, Jack) created a Draenei paladin and showed her off.

I know as a researcher and an adult and someone who lambasted an icon in the field of gaming studies for NOT talking about the problems of objectifying women, who wrote a sustained argument about the ever-changing figure of Lara Croft, I should not have had this initial reaction, and I’m going to attribute it to carry-over from the fact that she was sitting in front of the laptop while she showed me her character so I might have been reacting to my girlfriend herself… but the toon was… as embarrassing as it is to say this… sort of “hot.” In the Paris Hilton use of the word, though not at all like Paris Hilton who is sort of repulsive.

So instantly I had to re-think Draenei lore. For some odd reason, there are really no PVP female Draenei on the two servers I frequent, so it isn’t often that we encounter one. The males of their race are—as you can see in the image above—hypermasculine to the extreme. They basically look like someone sat 300 pounds of solid muscle on a pair of upright goat legs then gave it a weird sci-fi head. The women… look like Victoria’s Secret’s newest accessory is “barely there hooves.”

This fascinates me based on the discourse analysis I did while studying the blood elves. The prevailing pressures on the game’s design are the expectations of a very specific discourse community (one that is hyper-male and has a penchant for fantasy) and the genre expectations of fantasy gaming in general. Knowing this, I’m not so shocked that the Draenei are presented so that both male and female are “attractive.”

What shocks me is that they do NOT look as if they “go” together. The Horde has two races which feature hulking males (truly hulking males, anyway). The Orcs and the Tauren. Both races have females that are significantly less hulking but still seem as if they are based on the same anatomy.  The Draenei female and male appear to be the sort of zenith point for WoW’s alterations of how physical form is idealized (and it is someone’s ideal, though it might not be the average user’s ideal—that’s a place where we’d need more research). There is a massive size/build difference, but even the odd tentacle-like facial/hair protrusions that characterize the males (some have ridges akin to the Klingons of Star Trek lore) do not appear on the females.

What I want to research later, based on these musings, is how these differences shape the game play experience. I noted, anecdotally, that I don’t see many female Draenei on my server(s). That could be coincidence. But if there’s a chasm between what seems “right” in the gaming genre and what gamers see in practice, the design of the characters could have something to do with that.

We shall see. More research is needed.


Reflections on spaces and virtual places

February 8, 2008

you belong among the wildflowers/in a boat out at sea/you belong with your love on your arm/you belong somewhere you’ll feel free…

-Tom Petty

Note: I switched order a little this week bccause I wanted to do another anti-Brady photo. I also had a long run in with a butter-tongued biscuit.

This is only sort of game-related, but it’s something I’m working on and would love to hear some thoughts on. It’s abridged from a different piece of writing:

                I am currently mulling over this issue: how does “land” or “place” work in our current reality. This is something I’ve identified as a personal problem I have with current Native/Indigenous scholarship, if it isn’t, in fact, a problem for the field in general. Part of my problem is that thinking about “land” as the origin point or birthplace of a culture is difficult and fragmented for someone of mixed blood like myself.  The other problem is that my primary research focus is digital environments/networked worlds. And as I consider what has become of “land” or of “place,” I can make moves an intonations (for example the virtual “inn” in Orgrimmar, the orc  town in World of Warcraft that my character calls home, is in many ways a “place,” but no one can physically visit), 

I cannot justify these virtual spaces as “places” in the way that most Indigenous scholars talk about places. This dilemma is compounded by a discussion I had recently with my girlfriend. She came to the realization that she needs to feel close to where she was born and raised. As she shared this, I thought about the fact that there has only been one time in my life where a “place” really felt like home (to the point that I actually longed for the physical space): the one time that me and my family lived in/around a wooded area. I also thought about my mother’s almost primal, reactionary need to have “a home” and “a yard” (land), and I feel a disconnect. 

As I have studied embodiment, I have come to the realization that like so many of the scholars I have met who are obsessed with theory, I have in some ways divorced myself from my sense of my surroundings. I think in some ways my sense that my life, and my reality, is highly portable and constituted in my head/in a social web that technology allows to grow ever larger is partly indicative of the way society is changing. But I also think it creates a bit of a blind spot as I try to understand the importance of place. I am writing this précis lying on my bed, in my apartment in Okemos. But beyond the fact that I have configured this space for my needs, it is no more or less comforting to me than my office on campus, my bedroom in my mother’s apartment in Richmond, IN, the guest room of a friend’s house. The value of place is a concept I can understand, but it is more difficult for me to embody.

While reflecting on all of this, a quote got stuck in my head: “The land is always stalking people. The land makes people live right. The land looks after us. The land looks after people” (p. Basso’s Wisdon Sits in Places, p. 38). There’s something both sinister (in stalking) and comforting (“looks after”) in this statement, but it also brings back into sharp relief the issue I am grappling with. I believe that people DO feel this connection to their land. It makes perfect sense, and I’ve seen people who feel that way. But what does that leave for those of us who do not know our land, or who aren’t—as self-loathing as this sounds—pure blooded enough to have A specific land? How then does the mixed blood, or the radically displaced, ever reconnect with this sense of belonging?

I sense that there’s a Neitzsche-esque response that would claim that such a person—displaced without hope of finding a tangible straight line to the past—is simply lost. But a more positive turn would be to look at the sort of work Basso does in this book as a way of bridging the gap. Basso talks of history, and of mapping, and of locations in at times highly concrete ways, but “place” can also be conceived in a more hypothetical way.

One of my colleagues has a close friend from graduate school who always dreamed of having a huge yard  to decorate with flowers and other plants. Because of the reality of academia, that person—now a fairly respected scholar at a major urban university—couldn’t afford a house with a yard in her geographical space. She instead bought a plot of “virtual” land in the online simulation Second Life, built a house, and maintains a virtual garden, which she tends to in her free time. In one sense, this could be seen as incalculably sad: a person dreams so deeply of land and of connection to nature that she must simulate it through a game. But on another hand, it speaks to a rhetoric of survival and to a solid attempt to connect to something. It speaks to the desire for connection and for a translated form of what is needed (and I would argue that this woman NEEDS her garden—this goes beyond simply wanting it).

There’s a song by the band Keane called “Somewhere Only We Know.” The first time I heard the line “I came across/a fallen tree/I felt the branches of it looking at me/is this the place/we used to love/is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?” triggered a memory deep in the recesses of my mind. I could clearly see the clearing in the trees where I used to sit in the woods behind our house. I could hear the wind in the leaves overhead, could feel the humidity of an Indiana summer day. That place is gone. It was plowed under so that a house could be built (they paved paradise/and put up a parking lot, to keep my pop culture motif going here).

Is that place still real? Can I still connect with it, even if it’s physically gone? If I build a virtual model of it, and it reminds me of something that now exists only in my memory, is  that virtual space any less real than the memory? Is the memory/virtual space any less real than the place once was? And here’s the cliché book-title-invoking kicker: if “wisdom” or memory or some element of the soul or of culture can indeed inhabit a place, can that same intangible quality adhere to a virtual place?


Curses, Comcast, Curses

February 1, 2008
I'm not that dumb/I can pretend/the sun is gone/but I have a light...  -Kurt Cobain

So last night Comcast decided, in it’s infinite Comcasticness, to drop my signal right as I was about to post. Sigh. Pwned. Epicfail. It’s all for the best, I suppose, as this isn’t nearly as good as my last gaming post, so it being a little late adds to the joy of it all.

One of the things I’m fascinated by is how gamers form in-game identities that sometimes don’t bleed out-of-game. When I did my major thesis research (almost a year and a half ago– seems like so long), I had one participant– who will remain nameless and protected by IRB protocol– who had “gaming dates” on an MMORPG with his wife. I considered this perhaps the sweetest thing ever, as I was, at the time, a lonely nerd who couldn’t imagine that he’d ever have a significant other who would game with him (what a difference a year or so can make. Nerds, everywhere, rejoice! There’s hope for all of us!).

But there was an interesting little quirk to this gaming interaction between the couple. They would play the same game, together (so that they had “virtual” physical proximity) while sitting in the same room, and they would converse within the room (giving them another semiotic channel that wasn’t available to others in the game), but they wouldn’t look at each other in the room while playing in the virtual world.

At the time I wrote it off as quirky. When I present in the company of friends, I can’t look from any notes I might have to my friend, or when I look back I remember that I’m reading and get unnerved. I can’t walk full speed on ice because I’ve fallen down a few times walking full speed. These are quirks. And not looking at someone in the same room while you are looking at their virtual self seems to fit that mold, sort of like the time-travel fiction caveat that if you travel into the past or the future and see yourself you will cease to exist.

I think I should have pushed more, though, to investigate that dynamic. The more I look at digital identities and what it means to adopt a digital persona, the more I think I understand it. I came to this realization in an odd way. My girlfriend has a Simpsonize Me image as her buddy icon. I realized, in a weird, embodied way, that her buddy icon looks enough like her that I instantly recognize it as her (and hence can recognize her IM messages as being from her during the AOL lag before the text pops onto my screen). The icon is a representation of her, an extension of her identity into the digital realm (just as, to a lesser degree, the South Parkized Phill on my Facebook profile is at times startlingly like me).

But both Julie and myself have WoW toons. They aren’t meant, specifically, to be us (though I do have one named Phyll, and he does sort of act like me. “We don’t need to kill that guy. He’s just questing. Come on, let’s head on down the path!”). As such when I see Julie’s Blood Elf, I don’t instantly think “that’s Julie!” just as I wouldn’t think anyone who has seen me and seen Lyon (my BE hunter) would think “dude, that’s Phill!” And while I won’t presume without asking her to know Julie’s intent, I know that I didn’t create Lyon thinking he was going to be virtual Blood Elf Phill.

So back to the couple I mentioned and away from the couple I’m part of. I know, from the interviews I did and the gaming experiences I shared with him, that the male part of that couple (I didn’t study his wife– in retrospect I should have asked her to join the study, but my IRB approval didn’t allow for me to solicit people by word-of-mouth, a mistake I’ll never make again) was very, very into role-playing. From my own anecdotal experience with pen-and-paper RPGs, and from my other interviews in that study, I know that people who role-play seriously make every attempt to stay “in character.” If the participant’s wife agreed with the idea that part of the joy of role-playing was to maintain the character, it would make sense that seeing each other in the room, as embodied people, would create a disconnect between the image on the screen and the identity of the person.

 In short I can pretend I’m Lyon all I want. If you know me, and you can see me pulling his virtual strings, you’re going to realize Lyon is nothing but a rhetorical construction. I have no problem with people realizing that, but if I were RPing, and the joy of the RP was assuming Lyon’s identity within the space of a few hours, it would be counter to my enjoyment to RP him in the same room as a person who would, by the nature of our relationship to each other, address Phill.

Of course all of this is wild theoretical speculation. I don’t know that this guess is at all right about my participant. I also realize that in a world where we fetishize everything it would be in some ways a logical deduction to assume that a “MMORPG date” could be entirely related to romantic/sexual ritualization (though from how he participant talked it wasn’t; I’m not sure he would have told me if it were). It just makes sense to me that such a relationship between online identity in a gaming space and real identity could exist. It’s something I’d love to study, if I can find enough people who play online from the same physical space.