Reflecting on NCA 2007

I spent the better part of last week in Chicago for the National Communication Association 2007 conference. This was my first NCA, and I wasn’t sure how to approach it: It’s big, and, unlike ICA, there isn’t a dedicated group for people interested in game studies. Actually, there were a few gaming-related panels, but they were largely scheduled in conflict with other gaming-related panels, which was a little frustrating. I tried to make it to what I could, though, and I did see some interesting talks that I thought I might reflect on here briefly.

Examining Profanity and Hate Speech in Online Multiplayer Gaming. Jeffrey Kuznekoff and Michael Parsons presented what I think was the most impressive gaming study I saw all weekend. They played over 100 games of Halo 2 online, recorded in-game chatter, and then performed a content analysis to offer some basic stats on the types and amounts of various forms of offensive speech that come up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the F-word is the most frequently used imprecation, though often in moments of frustration rather than targeted abuse. What was a little more shocking was how much blatantly racist speech there was (appearing in about 13% of the games in their sample). The audience had a ton of questions for the presenters, and I wish I could remember more now about the back and forth on this, but I thought the paper was worth noting and perhaps following up on.

Emotion-based Traits as Moderators of the Violent Video Game Play-Aggression Relationship. Rebecca Chory presented on “affective orientation” and “empathy” as traits that might act as mediating or moderating variables in situations where video games appear to cause aggression. They got some unexpected results they were trying to puzzle through, but the details of this escape me now. What really stuck with me—as I’m often interested in hearing about—was the way they operationalized “aggression.” Perhaps this measure has been used elsewhere and I was simply unfamiliar with it, but they asked subjects to assess whether they would award funding to someone who was applying for it. Rebecca didn’t get into details on this, but it’s probably safe to assume that the response was coded as “aggressive” if the subject denied funding, and all subjects saw the exact same applicant—so any statistically significant difference between treatment groups probably has to do with what game they played, not the applicant’s qualifications.

I find this a fascinating measure because I feel like it actually measures something, even though I wonder whether “aggression” might be a misleading term for it. It shouldn’t take much to make a person cranky enough to deny funding to a hypothetical applicant, but it’s interesting that a violent game should cause this and when a non-violent game does not. I wonder if they controlled for difficulty/level of frustration with gameplay (or if any such game/aggression studies do this), but I wouldn’t be surprised if they got the same results using violent depictions on TV.

Anyway, an interesting finding—but when other researchers later conduct meta-analyses to see whether published research supports the claim that video games cause aggression, it does concern me somewhat that this study will be counted as evidence that games cause real-life violence. Given that such research is used as the basis for legislation proposed to restrict access to games (which happens to be what I presented on myself at NCA), I think it’s important to note that there’s a difference between being unkind and being violent; even if the former is an effect that should concern us, I’m not convinced it’s an effect we have the right to try to fix through legislation.

The Past, Present and Future Research on Human Communication and Technology. This was the stand-out panel of the week for me. Billed as a “conversation with leading scholars,” this brought together a number of interesting voices on where this subfield of communication has been and where it’s headed. I think that my favorite parts were when the panelists discussed what they don’t think is working in this research nowadays (probably in part because I had previously wondered whether my own, similar opinions were naive or unfashionable).

Among the highlights for me were when panelists spoke about how researchers should study how people use communication technologies with attention to the fact that no medium is used in a vacuum. Too much of communication research has focused on the relative merits or flaws of one medium versus another, proceeding under the assumption that we should use one and not the other. This suggests a pretty unrepresentative view of how people stay informed, entertain themselves, and live their lives more generally. I believe the first panelist to start this discussion was Nancy Baym, who directed the audience to an article she wrote which employs a more holistic analysis the communication processes involved in music fandom. Another presenter mentioned a paper on “multi-communicating” that addresses this as well. I felt at times like there was some conflation (perhaps more among audience members asking questions) between “multitasking” and simply making use of multiple media forms during the normal course of life, but overall it was very refreshing to hear.

Malcolm Parks also made a number of very insightful comments, I thought. He mentioned at one point that we tend to miss the light internet users in our research, which he hoped to address in a recent study about the massive numbers of people who join Facebook and then never do anything with it. He also mentioned that a huge percentage of those with broadband access aren’t really using it much, which I expect to return to in a post I’ve had sitting around as a draft for some weeks. And, in a potentially controversial move, he also suggested that dividing “technology” off into its own division may be part of the problem with how we study it. So many of the same moral panics and social processes that we see today were also apparent when old technologies were new, so it is worth asking what makes new media “new.”

Incidentally, Susan Barnes also mentioned at one point that her dissertation was a study of how the graphical user interface was developed and brought to market. I mention this because, happy though I am with my dissertation topic, that is such a neat idea and I’m kind of jealous she got to do it.

And as for me… I presented on a Sunday at 9:30 am, so I really didn’t expect anyone to show up besides the presenters and the chair (who is just there to keep us on track with time and announce our names to the audience). In fact, only three of the four of the panelists showed up in addition to the chair, and our audience consisted of two friends of panelists (one of them being Paul F. from Annenberg—thanks Paul!). It was nice and informal, though, and I actually had a pretty good time and got to field a couple questions from a fellow panelist.

Anyway, my presentation was on legislative proposals to regulate video game sales or ratings, titled “Rated M for Moral Panic.” I analyzed every bill proposed at the state and federal level between 1999 and 2006 that involed some kind of oversight or circumvention of the video game industry’s own self-regulation, including proposals to restrict minors’ access to games and proposals to require that games be played “in their entirety” in order to be rated. We didn’t have AV, so there’s no slideshow, but feel free to check out my notes if you want a rough summary. I’m going to hold off from linking to the full version of the paper right now because I’m working on a version for journal right now, and I hope to be able to link directly to a published version soon. Feel free to email me, though, if you are curious about the paper and would like to know more.

5 thoughts on “Reflecting on NCA 2007

  1. Nice. Some quick thoughts:

    “What was a little more shocking was how much blatantly racist speech there was (appearing in about 13% of the games in their sample).”

    That’s interesting, although I’m not suprised (and I’m not really a gamer, so I didn’t have any preconceptions there.) Internet trolls routinely use race in an attempt to be provocative.

    I’d be interested to see that in context. I’m sure some of it is just parroting phrases from rap, for example.

    “…they asked subjects to assess whether they would award funding to someone who was applying for it.”

    The denial of which was ‘aggression?’ Only an academic. I’m going to start calling the failure to collect your fonts “genocide.”

  2. Unless these were video games where the goal is to deny people funding, I see no connection whatsoever between “aggression” and funding denial.

    Though if the link exists, perhaps insurance companies will start mandating Halo lunch breaks…

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