onsdag 22 februari 2012

Beyond sports vs games - my take-home lessons

When I wrote my Games vs sports workshop proposal back in November, the short text/proposal was at the same time the blueprint for a (then-future) study. The call for papers for the workshop actually made the study come into being, and it it wouldn't have been for the workshop, the study might possibly not have happened (definitely not right now anyway).

I have since interviewed 10 persons (in average ≈1.5 hours each) and I have collected wonderful material. I would have wanted to come a lot further in terms of working on (analyzing) that material, but that didn't happen before the Sports vs games workshop I attended last week. I just don't know where time flies, but it does. Not that I didn't have a lot to present and talk about anyway, but I have to admit I hadn't come as far as I had expected before attending the workshop. But leaving that aside, what did I get out of the workshop, and what help was the workshop in understanding what I have and what I can do with my study and with the material I have collected?

Out of the 10 workshop participants, six were primarily interested in sports games, three (me and organizers T.L. Taylor and Emma Witkowski - see previous blog post) were interested in competitive computer gaming (e-sports) and one person had more general (non-digital) games interests. By reading the other participants' abstracts as well as some participant-selected academic papers, I could better orient myself and got a better understanding of what I am interested as well as what I am not interested in (pursuing) in the sports-vs-games-field.

My primary reason for attending the workshop was to gather suggestions for theories and academic papers that could help me understand and interpret my data, as well as concrete suggestions for conferences or academics journals that I could aim for. It's good to know the direction of your goal as early as possible (preferably already before you start to analyze and write long chunks of text).

In preparation for the workshop, I tried to apply Guttman's criteria for "sportification" (i.e. the defining characteristics of modern sports - which also describe how an activity goes from a pre-modern pastime to a modern sport) to the practices I have studied (competitive programming). While I have read Guttman's book, I used an article by sports researchers Jonassson and Thiborg (available online) as a shortcut, because they have done the exact same thing but applied to e-sports instead of competitive programming (in a 2010 article that was published in the journal Sports in Society). I thought it would be a piece of cake, but as soon as I started to work on it I found (many) complications. Which could be seen as a problem, or as an opportunity (more work, but also more analytically fruitful if I can crack this nut). The difficulties I encountered was a surprise though, and I wonder if the application of Guttman to e-sports really was as clear-cut and simple as it looks like when you read Jonasson and Thiborg's article?

A large part of what I got out of the workshop happened already before the workshop, and in preparation for the workshop. Being forced to present your stuff forces you to think it through. My most important conclusion was that I could find no less than five different directions in which I could develop and write up my material:

1 Into games and game studies.

The best-case scenario would be to write five distinctly different papers (based on the same material) and send them out in five different directions. Since that isn't really realistic, the question instead becomes what I can do with less-rather-than-more effort, but even more importantly, in which direction(s) I would like to move from a strategical point of view (taking into account other, non-competitive programming interests of mine and the direction in which I would like to take my research "career"). I haven't really been this goal-directed before, but I just can't read up on a new area/discipline for each new study and for every new article I want to write...

I have thus decided to not put a lot of effort into developing this material in the games (1) or the sociology of sports (3) direction, nor into the education (5) direction either. At least not on my own. I think the sports direction is really really interesting, but the problem is that I don't have the background for writing such a paper (e.g. I just don't know enough about the area to be able to do a good job without spending a lot of time reading up). Worse, I don't really want to spend a lot of time reading up on that area because that is not the direction I am heading in. I have a limited amount of time and have to ask myself how to spend it wisely.

I would however love to team up with someone in each of those three areas and write something together - are there any takers out there reading this? I could even hand such a writing "project" over to another person and settle for a slightly withdrawn, second-author role. Especially if my partner had empirical material/case studies of his/her own that would be relevant and that would make the paper better and more interesting compared to "only" using my material. The alternative is to team up with someone who doesn't have material of his/her own, but who can still help "frame" the material (connect it to the discipline/area and relate it to current issues and discussions) and write up a great article. All of this would of course have to be preceded by lengthy discussions, but that's not "work" but rather just "fun". Lively intellectual discussions are a joy, but reading up and writing an actual article is hard work and a lot of effort.

As to the Internet/hacker culture and leisure studies directions, the first would be the easiest to figure out for me. I am considering submitting something to the Internet Research 13.0 conference (March 1 deadline for a 600-800 words abstract - not a piece of cake but totally do-able). Leisure studies would be tougher, I don't know enough about the area, but as apart from sociology of sports, it is a strategically more interesting area for me to read up on. I have been interested in leisure studies before, but didn't plunge into it at that time. I do have a "package" of ten or half a dozen interesting articles (somewhere) that is the result of searching for literature - but I never came around to reading it and would have to spend some time just finding where I put it (some five years ago or so...).

As to my study of competitive programming in itself, the world finals will be held in Warsaw, Poland in May. I am considering going there to collect more/different material - and to see a competition with my own eyes instead of just interviewing people who have been at numerous competitions (sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?). Now, after the Copenhagen ITU workshop, I have two different ideas about what what study I would like to conduct and what materials to collect in Warsaw (should I go there). I might get back to that later in a blog post later during the spring.

As to topics 1 and 3 above, T.L. Taylor has put together an online reading list with resources about e-sports.

This has been a pretty long blog post. I don't how interesting it is for the regular reader of this blog, but it was a good way for me to think through and work through the workshop. Here are some other more or less random thoughts that the workshop arose and that I don't want to loose:

- Advice from Emma: look a literature and studies of mountain climbers (about specialization within teams).

- Is my study really about games in the first place? Does the act of making a competition out of something automatically make it "games material" (potentially interesting for (computer) games conferences)?

- I have not really thought at all about the role of the body and of physicality, despite the inevitable comparisons between competitive programming with sports. Sports are usually physical, so what is the status of competitive programming in comparison to sports? Is competitive programming part of "science sports" (math olympics etc.) as one of my informants argue? Does the term "science sports" really make sense? What are the physical vs mental manifestations of the activities around the ICPC finals in Warsaw and what is the relative status of different (physical, mental) activities during that week?

- What is the role of gender and gender politics in competitive programming? This is something else I haven't spent much thought of at all. How are women programmers included or perhaps excluded through subtle and not-so-subtle hints (compare to e-sports).

- Are e-sports and competitive programming parts of a class of "digital sports" (or something)? Are there more/other members of such a class? Are these the new sports of an emerging post-modern information society - just as modern sports are intimately connected to the rise of modern industrial society?

- What's at stake during the ICPC world finals for different competitors (with different backgrounds, with different cultures and from different countries)?

- Pictures from ICPC looks a lot like a large computer conference (airy, light large conference rooms at hotels). E-sports events (can) instead look like a nightclub or a TV studio with "cool" light in a mostly dark, "edgy" spaces. E-sports looks like entertainment while programming competitions looks like (mimics?) an "adult", professional activity.

- The competition format at the ICPC finals is weird. You don't compete head-to-head against another team, but rather in parallel and against all other teams (in an abstract kind of way). You can't affect the performance of other teams directly. What can this be compared to? 100 meters sprinters running in parallel? A sailing competition where you can get cues about successful strategies from teams (boats) that are ahead of you?

- Back home, at KTH and at other academic institutions, is there a tension between being a good student (passing your courses and with good grades) and being a good (competitive) programmer? What do potential employers think, and what is most important for getting a good job? What is the role of a (technical) university; educating professionals to fulfill industry needs, or encouraging free-ranging programming virtuosos? Is there a conflict/tension between different goals of academic institutions that participate in the ICPC competition or do they all pull in the same direction?

- As apart from many other "sportsmen", ICPC competitors don't have problems "leveraging" their competition skills into rewarding jobs and concrete material success in mainstream society. There are no qualms about what to do after "retiring" from a (hopefully successful) career. This differs from many sportsmen (both successful and less so). What are the implications?

- What is the role of commercialization of ICPC/programming competitions? Are there inherent obstacles, i.e. ICPC as a (more) commercial enterprise would at the same time doom the competition? Would money and the promise of monetary gains destroy the competition?

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