Wednesday, December 10, 2008


And what will I take away from my immersion into game studies this semester? Let me count the ways . . .

1. I was introduced to the emerging field of game studies and to the basic conversation between ludologists and narratologists.

2. My interest was thus sparked to conduct additional research for my own paper, through which I explored an emering literature on games from sociocultural and media studies perspectives.

3. These explorations convinced me that, while I may not be drawn to ludology or narratology, game studies offer a fertile new field into which I can apply my existing interests in communication studies.

For example, my paper was entitled "Avatars and Immigrants" and applied theories of cross-cultural adaptation (a subfield of intercultural communication studies) to the problem of new player adaptation to MMOG worlds. The topic also allowed me to apply theories of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and uses-and-gratifications theory (a key perspective in media studies) to the phenomenon of gameworlds.

4. Along these lines, I believe my introduction to game studies may have opened for me a new avenue for publication. At an NCA panel I attended last month I was encouraged to keep exploring the intersection between comm studies and game studies.

Not much has been done in this area but, because of the growing MMOG phenomenon, comm scholars seem interested and ready for articles on the subject. Meanwhile, game studies scholars may be ready to consider what comm-related sociocultural perspectives can bring to their table.

5. This is just the sort of interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary approach that interests me and through which I have found some success in getting articles published.

6. Perhaps you may be waiting to hear the word "rhetoric"? Last semester I enjoyed digging deeper on my own into the literature on visual rhetorics for RCID 804. So many topics I want to explore, and so little time! Yet I'd like in the future to do some writing and publishing on visual rhetorics.

Thus our readings on Bogost's proposal regarding "procedural rhetoric" gave me a thought. As I've blogged, before declaring the discovery of an entirely new rhetorical domain, I would prefer to see how theories developed in the established fields of visual (and digital) rhetorics might be applied to the problem of videogames.

But I also agree with Bogost that visual rhetorics tend to privilege static and filmic images, and digital rhetorics tend to privilege digitized texts.

So the introduction to videogames which I've gotten this semester may have given me the tools to write articles about games for journals in the field of visual rhetoric/visual communication/visual studies. In other words, I would be "partnering" in a sense with Bogost. But while he is arguing that games constitute a new domain, I would be arguing that games should receive more attention in visual studies scholarship.

7. Further, through our Video Games course I have been introduced to the gameworlds themselves by playing World of Warcraft and building a project in Second Life. Though I cannot say that I am minded to continue WoW or SL as personal hobbies, I readily affirm that:

a. For the writing I have done in our class, and the writing I hope to do on game studies in the future, it is vital that I be familiarized firsthand with the dynamics of MMOG gameplay and culture.

b. I can better understand the literature on games, and participate in scholarly conversations about games, by having gained firsthand experience.

c. I am interested in the possibilities for using MMOGs in my pedagogy, namely as a way to teach principles about culture and communication to my future students, or (via Second Life) as a means for virtual interaction with my students.

8. My design project for RCID 813 (Video Games), taken together with a similar assignment for RCID 811 (Perspectives on Information Design), challenged me to consider how 3D spaces should be designed to facilitate user experience and interaction.

At the same time, our design document assignment challenged me to think of UX design in terms of mechanics (what users can do), artificial intelligence (how the space reacts), elements (items and objects in the space), story (what the experience says), and progression (how users move through the space).

These impress me as good principles not only for designing games but also for designing the layout of websites, classrooms, and even 2D documents. And in my future teaching career I expect to design lots of course websites, classrooms, and documents!

9. Finally, from a very practical standpoint, I am hopeful that our coursework--and in particular, the paper I wrote--will have given me another conference presentation and another published article which can been added to my CV.

In conclusion: I remember last spring when Jason Helms excitedly emailed everyone about the possibility of an RCID course emerging from the Serious Games Colloquium. He was polling students to find out who would attend such a class. I replied that a course on Video Games would not be my first choice for a cognate seminar.

Later, of course, the Video Games class was approved and, as it turned out, was my only choice for a third cognate seminar this fall. But I've always believed that, oftentimes, the most pleasing and interesting results come from serendipity and simply playing the hand you're dealt.

So I remember last May and our final S3S gathering for the 2007-08 academic year. It was at Randy's house and I chanced to sit on the comfy sofa near Jan Holmevik. So I asked Jan about his thoughts for our upcoming Video Games class. At the time he was thinking that students would actually construct a game with levels and all the bells and whistles.

Then I told Jan that I was interested in the idea that MMOGs constitute cultures of their own and, in microcosm, could be seen as laboratories for studying the dynamics of culture. Jan replied that if such was my interest then, certainly, the class could accommodate it.

Looking back now, after having taken the course, I'm glad this proved to be the case. Because it has broadened my horizons and, serendipitously, given me a new field of interest with which to combine my existing academic interests, thus opening up new transdisciplinary possibilities for research and writing.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

SL Project and Final Thoughts

As we wrap up our course on Video Games it seems appropriate to share some final thoughts by framing them in terms of my Second Life construction project.

Rhetorical Perspective

For our class I built an RCID Welcome Center (RWC), and for another RCID class I built an Information Design Hall of Fame & Interpretive Center (IDHOF). Though the two projects each standalone, I put them on a shared campus since they seem to share some synergies.

Yet the architecture of the two structures reflect, deliberately, two very different rhetorical choices . . .

> RWC is built on the seacoast and designed as a beach resort. So, why not construct a Classical building (say, something that resembles the Pantheon) to represent a program grounded in rhetoric?

The reasons I chose a seacoast location and beach resort architecture is because RCID is not a formal disciplinary program but, rather, invites open exploration of many perspectives. Thus the RWC setting and architecture are intended, rhetorically, to reflect this ethos.

Even the information for prospective RCID students is presented as a 3D boardwalk that takes visitors out over the ocean--indeed, at the very edge of the SL world--and allows them stroll and explore, in the open, at their own pace.

> IDHOF, by contrast, was designed with a decidedly Modernist architecture. Why? The discipline of informaiton design is strongly rooted in modernist sensibilities of efficiency, effectiveness, and clarity.

Thus the interior space is designed according to the conventions of a traditional museum where the visitor's path is prescribed, the experience is controlled, the information is presented with directness and clarity, and text is used to mediate and interpret the information.

Nevertheless, toward the second half of the tour I incorporate a "crack" in the modernist perspective by inviting visitors to reflect on the social and ethical implications of information design and the potential problems of a purely instrumental view of its practice.

Symbolically, the tour ends with an invitation for the visitor to teleport to the roof observation deck of IDHOF, which affords a stunning panoramic 360-degree view of the ocean and the Clemson Development Island.

But is it "Procedural" Rhetoric?

By instantiating these rhetorics in the designs of RWC and IDHOF, have I practiced "procedural rhetoric"? I must confess that I'm having trouble seeing how my rhetorical choices are "procedural."

Granted, Second Life is not a "game" and so I did not design an experience circumscribed by rule-based procedures. On the other hand, users must experience RWC and IDHOF in the settings I designed. Still, as a Second Life designer I feel the programming assisted rather than constituted my rhetoric.

Ludology, Narratology, Sociology

In our class readings we became acquainted with the conversation (or more accurately, debate) within game studies between ludologists and narratologists. At the same time (and as I blogged a couple weeks ago) my own research led to me into the emerging literature on the sociological aspects of MMOGs.

Ludology and narratology have at least this much in common: both perspectives view games are cultural artifacts. However, I found myself drawn to the sociological literature because it treats MMOGs not as artifacts but as constituting cultures of their own. (A fourth area of game research is in the media effects tradition and studies how gameplay may stimulate aggressive behaviors.)

A ludologist might explain my RWC and IDHOF in terms of their play value. For example, recall Bogost's (pp. 52-54) discussion of Sutton-Smith and his seven rhetorics of play: progress, fate, power, identity, the imaginary, the self, and frivolity. Perhaps from this perspective, RWC instantiates identity and self, while IDHOF instantiates progress and power.

Meanwhile, a narratologist would read RWC and IDHOF as "texts" to discern the stories they tell. Perhaps this narratologist would agree with my description above about the rhetorics instantiated by my respective architectural design choices.

Finally, a sociologist would be interested in how a virtual gathering place for RCIDers and friends might impact the culture of RCID. If students and faculty start using RWC for virtual meetings of our avatars, how would that impact our social relations? The same questions could be asked if IDHOF became a meeting place for information designers. Or in the same vein, how would a virtual encounter with IDHOF impact the culture of a future Perspectives in Information Designs class?

Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades

Earlier in the semester we read Bartle's proposal that online gamers can be typed as either Achievers, Socializers, Explorers, or Killers. Since then I have done other readings on my own which put a new twist on Bartle.

One researcher noted that Bartle relied simply on his own anecdotal experience to propose his four categories. This researcher instead did a scientific sampling of gamers, cranked the results through parametric statistics and factorial analyses, and came up with three first-order categories and seven second-order categories (or ten overall).

Another researcher used an alternate approach to Bartle, one that comes from the long tradition of uses and gratifications theory within media studies. Researchers from this perspective have studied why people use radio, television, music players, the Internet, etc. Now some attention is being paid to the uses and gratifications that draw people to MMOGs.

In designing RWC and IDHOF, I did consider these perspectives; namely, (a) how, according to a Bartlesque taxonomy, different types of Second Lifers might experience my constructions, and (b) what uses and gratifications might draw visitors to RWC and IDHOF.

RWC perhaps is most welcoming for Socializers (who have an indoor lounge and outdoor lanai at their disposal) and Explorers (who can stroll the boardwalk and access its information). And perhaps IDHOF is most welcoming to Achievers (who want to experience the whole museum) and Explorers (who want to see the various displays).

The Third Dimension

Finally, building RWC and IDHOF forced me to think about how best to design an experience that would (a) exist in three dimensions and (b) be governed by the mechanics of Second Life. For example:

> Should I have stairs when visitors can fly or teleport? In the end, I provided both stairs and teleportals.

> How much text is appropriate for information displays when visitors can click a prim and get a notecard? I decided the text on the prim itself could often be minimized, but also felt that notecard texts also had to be kept reasonably brief and with minimal scrolling needed.

> How true-to-life should the structures be when they don't really need foundations or support columns or roof trusses? I decided my constructions should resemble RL buildings, at least enough for people to suspend their disbelief and comprehend the rhetoric of my design. But in some cases--such as the RWC boardwalk invisibly cantilevered over the ocean, or my IDHOF stairway ramps that have no treads--I dispensed with "engineering" considerations.

> How would avatars not only eexperienc RWC and IDHOF in solo visits, but how would multiple avatars interact with each other in these spaces? When I was done with my projects, I was somewhat surprised at the amount of space and facilities given over for interaction.

RWC has a front porch with chairs, an indoor lounge with sofas, and a very large outdoor lanai with deck chairs, conversation benches, and a hot tub. IDHOF has two first-floor lounges, seating areas (beside panoramic windows) on the second and third floors, and an expansive roof garden/observation deck with bench seating and deck chairs. Further, I linked the RWC lanai and the IDHOF roof deck with teleportals so that partygoers could utilize both spaces in real time.

At the End of the Day . . .

Let me say that I enjoyed our class, particularly because it introduced me to a new conversation (game studies) that also provides an fascinating new context for exploring concepts (e.g., communication and rhetorical theory) which have always interested me.

For example, my paper "Avatars and Immigrants" for this class employs intercultural communication theories of cross-cultural adaptation as a framework to study the acculturation of new players into established MMOG cultures.

Since not a whole lot has been done in game studies from a sociocultural and communication point of view, I can take away from our class a lot of possibilities for publishable research and writing. This was confirmed last week when, at an NCA panel, I brought up the intersection of game studies and communication studies. Others attested this intersection hasn't been much explored and encouraged me to press on.