Reflecting on ICA 2007

I just got back from a very long trip, visiting family and then attending the International Communication Association’s 2007 Conference in San Francisco. I spent most of the weekend attending panels in the Game Studies interest group, where I met a number of friendly people whose work I admire. Many of the panels gave me food for thought, so I thought I would write some specific notes here to get a dialog going (or at least remind myself of things to write about more in depth later).

The Future of Academic (Book) Publishing. Over the last several years, the most established, must-have science journals have boosted their prices out of proportion with the rate of inflation. Libraries, the biggest market for academic publishing, have thus reallocated funds away from monographs, and publishers have thus published far fewer monographs. How do we get away from this? The only actual suggestions I remember hearing were from an editor at Blackwell who said academics need to write more accessibly so it’s easier to sell more books, and from from Larry Gross, former Penn Annenberg professor and current USC Annenberg director, who said that academic book publishing should not be expected to turn a profit (much like educating PhD students). I have nothing to add to this, but I found it interesting.

Why Do We Play? New Perspectives on Motivations to Play Video Games? and Dimensions and Determinants of Video Game Enjoyment. Game studies is very concerned now with explaining why people play and enjoy games. I’m pretty interested in this topic myself, and it was one of the driving concerns behind my own paper at ICA. I’ll admit, though, that I find this area of inquiry somewhat confusing: there are so many ways of conceptualizing what is basically the same question (e.g., conscious motivation to play vs. subconscious function of play), and focusing on “enjoyment” seems not much better than focusing on “fun.” Gambling is also called “gaming,” after all, and that might not be “enjoyable.” Watching a really emotionally challenging movie is not necessarily “enjoyable,” but you want to keep watching and are hopefully glad that you did. Just some food for thought; I need to go download the papers from these panels before generating any more specific commentary.

One specific facet of enjoyment worth teasing out for a moment here is social connection. One presentation I saw noted that players enjoyed an MMO more simply knowing that the avatar of their ally was controlled by another person. I wonder if the effect on game enjoyment is greater when you can actually interact with another person face-to-face, or if the effect is less because you’re enjoying the person’s company more than enjoying the game itself.

Also of note: one of the papers here, about suspense, inspired a discussion in the audience about whether suspense in video games works differently from suspense in movies. Peter Vorderer suggested that perhaps game suspense feels best when the odds of surviving a situation seem 50/50, whereas the odds feel best in movies when they’re closer (but not equal to) to certain doom. Art Raney replied that we need to be careful about claiming such a thing, though, because then we may run the risk of saying that playing games is like watching live sports. I didn’t want to get us off onto too much of a tangent, but I do think that playing games is like watching sports (or games for that matter), and I think spectatorship of video games (even by the “backseat driver” on the couch next to you) is an important aspect of game appeal that has been pretty much ignored in the literature.

The Causes and Consequences of Video Game Play. This panel was co-sponsored by Mass Communication and Game Studies. The paper on game addiction was interesting but problematic, as DSM-IV still refers to “addiction” as being related to substances, and addictive gaming (or shopping, etc.) referred to as “compulsions.” (But presenter Nick Bowman is a clever guy and fun to have lunch with, and you should hire him to build a maze on top of your garage—for research purposes, of course.)

A paper on the effect of (graphic) realism on aggression noted that there was no significant difference between the “no game” group and the “low realism” group. I’d take this to suggest that graphically unrealistic games have no effect on aggression (whatever that word means), but someone in the audience basically asked how you can argue to the game industry that there is still an effect for such games. That question concerned me a bit; shouldn’t we be thinking about what the data implies and how to take these questions further, not trying to figure out how to massage the data for our political agenda? I really hope I misunderstood that question.

The biggest take-away for me from that panel, however, was just from an offhand comment Marina Krcmar made about how they handled their control group. Her experiment had three groups: a low-realism group, a high-realism group, and a control group. Normally the control group in such experiments would not get a game at all, but her control group got to play the game after being tested for aggression, just to keep them happy. When you call people in for a video game study, she said, and then don’t let them play video games, their aggression scores can be even higher than those of the people who play the video games. People laughed, but I was kind of shocked that this doesn’t seem relevant to anybody. If resentful demoralization, as they call it, is making people more “aggressive” than violent media, how harmful could violent media really be? Or should we really concerned with the harmful effects of control group participation among college students? (Yes, that question is supposed to sound ridiculous.)

This issue reminds me of another study from many years ago, and also another paper at this year’s ICA. The study from many years ago is one of the now generally discounted “catharsis” studies in which boys at a camp (or something—pardon me, I’m foggy on the details and will have to return to this later) were split up into two groups: those who got to watch what they wanted on TV, and those who were not allowed to watch violent programming. The ones who had no choice were more violent. The study is generally disregarded because it’s not really demonstrating that the group with choice was watching violent programming, or that the violent programming was negating the effects on their aggression. I wonder now, though, if what we should be taking from this is that having your media consumption habits visibly restricted is just more aggression-inducing than being able to decide for yourself what you do. If so, perhaps this should have some (negative) implications for media content regulation.

The other paper at ICA this reminds me of is a poster presentation by Rebecca Chory and others about the interaction between personality and violent gaming on aggression. They did indeed find an interaction with certain personalities, including conscientiousness and neuroticism (I’d give more specific info, but I can’t find the paper online right now). I asked why they thought conscientious people would show higher scores on aggression, considering that the definition they were working with was about having good impulse-control and personal attentiveness. Their conclusion suggested that conscientious people are just so attentive that they pay more attention to the violence, and are thus more affected by it. I suggested that conscientious people are better at impulse-control, so maybe they let their guard down in a safe context (a game), and only a tiny bit of that spills over when they need to fill in the blanks on an aggressive thinking test a minute later, or whatever measure they use to test for aggression.

Rebecca seemed interested in this, and wondered if it suggested catharsis; I think it suggests what catharsis should have meant in our field, rather than what it has come to mean. People have assumed that “catharsis” is about consuming violent media to negate effects on real-world violence; perhaps, though, it’s more about experiencing feelings from violent media for outcomes that have little or nothing to do with real-world violence at all.

Anyway, moving on…

Top Papers: Game Studies Interest Group. I must remember to cite Paul Skalski’s paper on “natural mapping” and video game controllers. He found that playing Need for Speed with a steering wheel led to greater perceptions of naturalness, which led to higher enjoyment. It also led to a greater sense of presence, but a greater sense of presence didn’t then necessarily lead to greater enjoyment, which is interesting. My guess is that it’s because Need for Speed is a non-narrative game, and you’d get more enjoyment associated with presence in a longer, more immersive narrative. (Must remember to look up the 2004 study he did with someone else on presence and narrative games…)

This paper also led to an interesting conversation in the audience. Alison Bryant from Nickelodeon noted that in their research, they’re letting pre-schoolers show them what feels like natural ways to use the Wii controller so they can make intuitive games for kids. Rene Weber noted that people laugh when using the Wii controller to strangle people in Godfather, but are somber about it on PS3. This is either the exact opposite of what I suggested at the end of an earlier post, or it is exactly the same. I said that strangling someone with a Wii controller could be more disturbing because you’re acting it out, and maybe players are laughing because it’s too disturbing—so much so that you need to conceive of it completely differently. Also, John Sherry points out that these players were playing together, and laughing is part of a social connection.

Kids as Cultural Producers. This was my all-around favorite panel of the weekend, despite that I don’t normally work with children’s media use. I think I was most fascinated by the idea of using ethnographic research to explore the uses of technology in a kids’ learning environment—not to mention that I’m always more impressed by kids’ media productions than I expected to be. Two presentations particularly stood out for me: Katynka Martinez’s presentation about what kind of Pac-man clone kids in an LA school would make when given the chance, and C.J. Pascoe’s presentation about a high school girl’s characters on play-by-post RPG (which I was surprised to find even still existed). Now I have to get my hands on C.J.’s book on masculinity in high school (Dude, You’re a Fag), which has a section titled “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Also… The paper I presented, by the way, was called “Arcadian Rhythms: Video Games, Public Space, and the Off-Screen Experience.” (Jeroen Jansz complimented the title, but Nicola Simpson really deserves credit for the clever part.) It’s only available on the ICA site to registered users, but here’s the in-progress version, the slides, and the presentation notes, for any who are interested.

As a sort of post script, I should note that my MiT5 paper about geek apparel is now available online (click here for more notes on MiT5). Please feel free to email or IM (Jason Tocci) with any comments about either.