söndag 17 augusti 2014

MULTI.PLAYER 2 (computer games conference)

I just came back from the conference "MULTI.PLAYER 2: Compete - Cooperate - Communicate" in Münster, Germany. It's a conference about computer games and the focus was social aspects of computer gaming. The first MULTI.PLAYER conference was organised 3 year ago. This was the first conference about computer games that I have attended for a very long time.

I was very enthusiastic about the conference when mine and Per Nygren's extended abstract was accepted for presentation. Per wrote a very good master's thesis - good enough to rework into a "real" article (or book chapter). I also very much liked the fact that one of the outcomes of the first MULTI.PLAYER conference was an an edited book.

Conference organisation
Having stayed in the US for six months, I found the eminently walkabe city of Münster charming and the conference organisation was excellent (as to be expected by the well-organised Germans!). This was a small conference (70 persons) and it was sponsored by a EU research project so all participants got a lot of value for their money and the conference fee was very modest. Most of everything was included; coffee breaks, lunch, dinner and an excellent conference venue - the Münster palace (schloss). The format of the conference was very traditional with a single track sometimes branching out in parallell tracks (conference program as pdf file). The conference was chaired by professor of communication studies Thorsten Quant. I hadn't met or even heard about him before - but then I haven't been to a games conference for a very long time (see further below).

Our contribution
As to our presentation, it could have been a problem that Per's empirical material was collected four years ago, but the research question itself is relatively "timeless" (cheating in online games), making it possible to shape a paper with the thesis as a starting point. When rolling up my sleeves to actually write the paper, two problems have appeared though. The first is that it wasn't as easy to "convert" the master's thesis into an academic paper as I initially thought. The conclusions, while good enough for a master's thesis, have to be sharpened and taken a bit further, and the same goes for the theoretical framework. The second problem is that I haven't had as much time available to write the paper as I thought I would have. I thus only brought a half-finshed paper to the conference. This is slightly embarrassing but not an insurmountable problem since a finished paper strictly speaking was not required (but of course preferred). In fact, no one asked about the paper and I realise that other presenters did not disseminate papers of their own. I hope they get in touch with us should the conference become the stepping stone for another book.

The conference
Senior Finnish games researcher Frans Mäyrä (university homepage, private blog) opened up the conference with a keynote speech where he talked about games and social games as well as game studies (games research) and the role of games and game studies in society. He was good at delivering an overview of the area, having been central to computer games studies since its inception more than a decade ago. Another highlight was again meeting up with and listening to Richard Bartle's closing keynote (there were four keynotes speakers all in all). I also met a few more people that I knew, including three Norwegians of which one was Torill Mortenson. She was great company at the farewell dinner and she has also been blogging academically since 2001 - publishing hundreds of blog posts per year during the first five years! My blog turns four years at the end of the month - a baby in comparison to her blog.

People told me that compared to the first MULTI.PLAYER conference, this conference was more focused and less diverse (for good and for bad). In practice that meant that a substantial proportion of all presentations at the conference came from (only) two research environments; Thorsten Quant's in Münster and Jan van Looy's in Ghent, Belgium.

Quite a few presentations presented research with a quantitative focus, posing questions or using methods from psychology or quantitative social science sciences (surveys etc.) with a concordant emphasis on verifying results through statistical analyses. A typical research question could thus be something along the line of "is there a correlation between X and Y?". I personally feel that questions that can be answered unambiguously by using such methods have been narrowed down to such an extent that I for the most part am not very interested in the results (even before the actual research has been conducted). It's possible to (for example) conduct yet another study on the link (or not) between violence and violent computer games, or on computer game addiction, but since the discussion to a high extent will concern methods, samples, correlations - and there are of course other contradictory results out there - I tend to personally not be very interested in such studies. I'm more interested in studies that raise other types of more open-ended questions, for example having to do with computer game culture, gamer habits or how to understand what games are, how they are used, what they do to/with us as individuals and as a society and so on. I unfortunately didn't get a whole lot of that at the conference.

In the end, that didn't much matter though. Already when I arrived to Münster - before the conference started - I noticed that I for the most part have been disenchanted with the whole field of computer games and game studies. Arriving to Münster, I realised I was not very excited when I thought about the upcoming conference. My current research interests focus on sustainability and there are few overlaps between sustainability and computer games. Also, I care about sustainability in a way I never really cared about computer games either as a researcher or in my non-professional life. I'm a more passionate environmentalist that I ever was a gamer. While sustainability and computer games can overlap (for example games about sustainability), the focus of MULTI.PLAYER 2 was of course very different. People who go to a conference such as this are for the most part intensely interested in computer games (as I was 10 and perhaps still 5 years ago). Many have played games (oftentimes a lot) for the major part of their lives and a jazz trio played video game tunes at the farewell party.

In the end I thus had a hard time engaging in and feel enthusiastic about the topics that were treated at the conference. Even though I like to socialise and go to conferences, the focus of this conference represents something that I for the most have behind me. The path I'm currently walking leads away from computer games and as far as I can see, there is little place for computer games in my future. I won't close the door to writing articles about games if the right opportunity arises, but going to a conference is different. You go to a conference to meet people - but if these are people you will not cross paths with and who won't affect my future in any way, I realised it becomes difficult to enjoy such a conference. When Frans talked about the woes of establishing game studies as an academic discipline, I realised I didn't much care about the answer to that questions one way or another - it just didn't feel very important to me. I believe no less than seven years have passed since I went to a pure computer games/game studies conference the last time - and I strongly suspect this conference might very well be the last such conference I ever attend. Games can be a track at other conferences I will attend in the future (for example the CHI conference or perhaps Mindtrek), but I hardly think I will ever again travel to a conference that is only about computer games. Perhaps I actually needed to go to this conference to reach that conclusion...?

Final "random" reflections
- Compared to other conferences about computer games I've gone to, I got the feeling there has been a lot of progress in terms of theoretical grounding. It seems it is now for the most part not enough to just "do something" and then publish a paper without having read up and grounded your study in related non-games research in "ordinary" academic disciplines (e.g psychology, sociology, media studies, performance studies etc.). That is a welcome development.
- Richard Bartle has some interesting thoughts about designing for emergence and designing for subversion. Clever, devious game designers can design for encompassing the potential for subversion in the very design of the game, thereby fooling players into believing they are subversive while they actually just enacting pre-designed possibilities that are already encoded in the game. This can thus constitute a strategy for "containing" (some) players' subversive tendencies. This touches on some of the things me and Per write about in our paper - sometimes it's hard to know if an opportunity for "cheating" in a game is a bug or a feature. Players may think they are breaking the rules while they are just inside a bigger maze (of the designers' making).
- Mäyrä mentioned a paper in his keynote that me and Per should already have read and that we will have to work into our paper: Stenros, J. (2010). "Playing the system: using frame analysis to understand online play". In Proceedings of the International Academic Conference on the Future of Game Design and Technology. ACM.

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