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Game “Set-Ups,” Rule Systems and Residues: Examining the texts, contents, UIs, structures and “stuff” of online games and virtual worlds

OII Summer Doctoral Programme 2013 (July 9, 13:30)

Sara Grimes

on 9 July 2013

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Transcript of Game “Set-Ups,” Rule Systems and Residues: Examining the texts, contents, UIs, structures and “stuff” of online games and virtual worlds

As Main Method
As part of the data analysis
Content analysis of the open-ended answers on a survey;
Discourse analysis of interview transcript;
Artifact analysis of objects observed or collecting during ethnography;
Text analysis
Artifact analysis
(Critical) Discourse analysis
Image-based research
Visual research methods
Media analysis
Document analysis
Idea that the "social" includes more than individual (and/or observable) experiences, behaviours and testimonials;
Design analysis
Historical analysis
Interpretation as research & theory-building tool (or instrument). Subject to same reflexiveness, same rigorous questioning as other instruments.
Social = people and things (e.g. institutions, laws, textbooks, technologies, objects, animals, environments, buildings, cultural artifacts, materials...)
Discourses (popular, public, legal, etc.): circulate widely, become articulated in explicit and implicit ways, in various forms.
Digital/virtual "residues"
Method to the Madness
Content analysis (quantitative & qualitative) - as method that systematizes the process, enhances reliability (i.e. others can reproduce) through tools and protocols (e.g. coding protocol, inter-coder reliability)

Objectivity vs. Transparency
Fundamentally, issue of "fit" between the question asked & method used; + method used & findings/conclusions produced.
Cultures, groups, societies hold various shared beliefs, ideologies, norms (van Dijk's "social cognition") - hard to describe, difficult to grasp, experienced in fragments.

These "things" have properties, functions, authority, value, meanings, life cycles - all of which need to be understood
Key is in being transparent about interpretive frame - "bias" - not as limitation, so much as an instrument/guiding principle
Yet, we also express these things in various ways, every day, in the texts we produce: the diaries we keep, the emails we write, the songs we sing, the mash-ups we edit together....
Danger (esp. in quantitative content analysis) to forget about the interpretive part of the process - identifying categories - and get lulled into the seeming objectivity of numbers.
Play, Games and Rules
Rule Systems
Design Rules:
Safety Mechanisms
Narrative and Game Lore
Plot lines and themes
Performatives and make-believe
Genre and thematic conventions
Play scripts
Market Rules:
Emphasis on (Cross-)Promotion
Viral Marketing
Velvet Rope Marketing
Transmedia intertextuality
Community Norms (& Family Rules):
Player-driven social norms/hierarchies
Expectations re: behaviour
Emergent play
"Real world" household rules
Legal Rules:
Privacy Policies
Terms of Use
Case Study Selection
*Club Penguin: over 12 million
*BarbieGirls: over 10 million
Safe Chat Systems
1) A comprehensive mapping of the emerging phenomenon of “UGC games” within children’s digital culture, which will document and analyze the UGC tools and affordances provided within a number of commercial titles; document and analyze the content that children (aged 6-12) have created using these tools; as well as observe some of the social and material contexts within which UGC gaming practices unfold. Among the contexts to be examined are the liminal, in-between, transitory contexts (backyards, backseats, playgrounds, etc.) likely associated with UGC gaming on mobile devices.
Document tools, affordances...social and material contexts: Content Analysis of game, its design tools/affordances, and online player community (e.g. most popular UGC levels, etc.).
How will I know if the content was produced by a child?
Survey players to identify child-creators + child-created content.
Ethics approval. Permission of forum administrators.
Advertise survey on key forums (self-selected groups not likely generalizable). Secure parental consent & informed consent to include game levels in analysis.
Survey Tool: Opens up new possibilities for directions, research questions, demographics, and stakeholders (e.g. industry, policy, educators, kids). Follow-up interviews? Focus groups?
Q: can we look at a level you've created and published?
If yes - name of level....
Content Analysis
Critical textual/design analysis
Grimes and Fields (2012: 43) define as traces of one’s presence, performance and "social connections to other users on a site” which serve to “establish and reify connections” between players in visible ways, foster a sense of “copresence” (see Zhao, 2003), shared experienced and collaborative interaction.
Implications for identity, creativity, citizenship, cultural participation.
UGC Games Project
Virtual Worlds

Observations of
aggregate users
(Van Dijk, T.A. (1993). Principles of Critical Discourse Analysis. Discourse and Society, 4(2), 249-283.)
Digital game studies: lots of emphasis on players (fascinating social dimensions, meaning making, questions about educational potential, etc. etc.)
While a combination of both
is ideal and often recommended, there remain numerous instances and research questions where emphasis on these latter elements is required.
Key examples:
Drew Davidson’s “close reading” approach (see Well Played series, etc press)
T.L. Taylor’s (2006) analysis of the ways in which game EULAs “formulate” their players
Consalvo and Dutton’s (2006) content analysis of game items and contents.
Parallels in STS/critical technology studies, e.g. Van Oost's work on gender scripts in electric shavers, Arisaka's work on the "stuff" of technology.
Within game studies, scholars such as Steinkuehler (2006) and Taylor (2009) outline a similar framework in their respective investigations of the “mangle” and “assemblage” of play.
Among other things, examining a game’s associated texts (such as privacy policies and EULAs), its design structures and mechanics, or its visual and narrative elements, can all provide important entry points for revealing some of the underlying politics, power relations and discourses embedded within these artifacts.
Show and tell/Play date approach

David Gauntlett's "ArtLab" approach:
"The ArtLab studies represent a new type of research in which media consumers' own creativity, reflexivity and knowingness is harnessed, rather than ignored. In these studies, individuals are asked to produce media or visual material themselves, as a way of exploring their relationship with particular issues or dimensions of media."
Document content produced by children specifically
Interpretive research methodology that combines elements of critical analysis with design analysis, qualitative content analysis, discourse analysis, semiotic analysis and ideological criticism, in order to apply relevant concepts drawn from social constructivist and critical technology theories, supplemented by political economy of communication theory, to the phenomenon of child-specific, commercial, online digital games or virtual worlds.

Data is then interpreted according to a number of theories and concepts used in critical technology studies & other bodies of work that I engage with, n order to uncover the underlying political, social, cultural, economic and ideological dimensions of the artifacts in question.

Key concepts used as "analytic tools" - provide framework for analysis..
e.g. STS concept of "configuring the user" (Oudshoorn, Rommes & Stienstra, 2004).
e.g. Andrew Feenberg's concept of "technical code"
e.g. Feminist emphasis on embedded gender/power

Enter into and play the game (enter game, multiple options if avail., or long periods of time if req'd)
observe and note contents, events, features, menu items, objects, places, etc. encountered during play
read & analyze any associated documentation, policies and other texts, incl. data on corporate ownership, business processes and revenue models, industry publications and corporate communications (incl. press releases and annual reports), media coverage of the virtual worlds, and reviewing governmental policies, legislation and industry self-regulatory guidelines
Research on game designs, contents and infrastructures just as important.
Provides unique insight into structural, material, discursive and semiotic dimensions.
We can learn a lot about games from paying closer attention to their "textual" "structural" and "material". Key: Doesn't tell us about player experience, opinion, relationships.
Close Reading
In my work: approach a game (or other tech) as a "digital artifact". A “particular configuration of patterns of actual stuff, an engineering design, a project, a budget, planners, users, a series of decisions, location, cultural milieu, and so on" (Arisaka, 2001).

•The “material” features of the game's GUI design, gameplay mechanics, action opportunities, affordances and limitations;
•The thematic and semiotic contents contained in the game's designed environment, as well as in its narrative structures;
•The legal documents, terms of use, privacy policies and ground rules that serve as overt articulations of the game's governance and the management strategies of the worlds’ owners and operators;
•The “packaging,” promotional content and marketing discourses that both surround and permeate the game (and associated tie-in products, if any).
What Do I Look At?
Where Do I Get It?
How Do I Describe It?
What Do I Do With It?
Game Jam-inspired, participatory data collection event
Sara M. Grimes, PhD
Faculty of Information, University of Toronto
Sara M. Grimes, PhD
Faculty of Information, University of Toronto
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