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8:07pm on Monday, 17th June, 2013:



I went to the 63rd annual International Communication Association conference today, which was being held in London. Actually, it was a pre-conference event on the Power of Play, ie. Games Studies. I was Special Guest, which meant I had to give my thoughts on the pre-conference to wrap it up.

Wrapping up a conference when you haven't been to all the sessions is tough, because you can criticise people for not doing things that they have actually done. As there were parallel sessions, I couldn't attend it all so ran this risk (and did indeed fall foul of it in one instance). Anyway, I said I was a games designer in a department where "communications" meant routers and TCP/IP, and I'm interested in communications studies because I want better games, not because I want better communications. I also said I useually go to one Communications conference a year but this was the second one I'd been to in a month, so it's great that it's gathering momentum.

None of that went down as well as I hoped...

OK, so just for you, here's the summary.

Communications Studies, in terms of its relationship to games, used to be entirely about aggression, addiction and "think of the children" — but no longer! It's now also about learning.

It's quite a hard topic, because to study people playing games you have to have them play in a lab, but people don't play games in labs. You can't let them play for long (45 minutes of play is about the maximum) and you can't test the long-term efffects (sure, people might like a product in an advergame 5 minutes after playing it, but how about a week later?). Survey samples are either very small and don't contain the people you want to sample, or they're very large and don't result in any findings. People don't tell the truth in them, especially with regard to playing time, and they're very good at post-facto justification.

Not only do researchers have all this to contend with, but they have the frustration of knowing that games developers have all these data sets in vast quantities but they won't hand them over. They say it's so as not to affect the share price, but actually it's because when they did their own data sets were used against them to show that children will grow up addicted to serial killing. They will hand this over if they get sufficient guarantees, but you really need to get to know a developer and be trusted by them before they'll do that.

I didn't see much comparison with other media (ie. do games make you violent more than movies do), but I did see more of it than previously, which is encouraging. Some of it was even pro-game, in that they found that gamers were more relaxed after playing any game they were good at, regardless of genre, than they were before playing it. Interesting stuff.

I did find some things odd as a designer. "The players" are treated as if they were a single object, rather than a disparate mass of individuals. Likewise, research often talks about "games" not realising that there are step changes between them, it's not a continuum (in fact MMOs are places, not games). The fact that games are designed is rarely considered, to the extent that researchers find social effects in them that they may not realise were put in deliberately by the designer.

I didn't tell them that none of them knew a jot about game design, partly because I knew that one or two of them did and partly because I could say the same about many game designers, too... However, studying games academically without having an appreciation of game design makes it more difficult to see solutions that might be obvious to a designer. I'm not suggesting that you need to be a designer or a player to study games, any more than I'd suggest you need to be a dealer or junkie to study drug abuse, but you do need to be aware of your limitations and I don't think enough Communications Studies people are. I didn't say any of this, though, because it would have been rather churlish to do so as their guest.

I ended by saying that what I as a designer would like to know is what the people at the pre-conference would tell game designers to do to improve games (using their own individual definition of "improve"). This isn't something they're obligned to do — they're not studying games for the benefit of designers — but nevertheless much of what they say does have applications and it would be great if it could be identified. I even picked up some useful research that I'll be employing in my next consultancy gig (next month).

Overall, I like this kind of conference. The talks are short, so people have to get to the point quickly and cut the flab. The discussion sessions are informative, as everyone tries to tell everyone else what their own research is. I didn't attend the game design workshop (because I would have ended up shouting) but it was apparently well-received. I met a lot of new people and a surprising number of people I already knew, several of whom are very sharp cookies. I particularly like Thorsten Quandt's group, as they seem to "get" games.

That's more than I get Communications Studies, for sure...

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Copyright © 2013 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).