Sunday, March 31, 2013

New Media - Gaming

PW, you are more the expert at this than I am, I think.

The reading for this final week is available here.

The prevalent attitude regardint the "third place" of games is that “media are displacing crucial civic and social institutions.” That is, the Internet allows connection over time and space (good) but the Internet also enables “pseudo comunities” (bad). But not all Internet use is the same, something which the above claims suggest

The notion of “Third place”
Relationships are fostered at home, and at the workplace (2 places); relationships are also fostered at a new “third place” for informal sociability (pubs, coffee shops) - there has been a decline in participating in “Third place” sociability. MMOs or Massively Multiplayer Online Games are a place for increasing social capital, and a new “Third place.”

Such places are neutral ground: individuals are free to come and go with little obligation to interact with others. These places are levellers: an individual’s rank and status outside are not important. Conversation is main activity: playfulness and wit are collectively valued. There is the notion that these places are accessible and accommodating: they are easy to access and accommodating to those visiting (not sure this is exactly true). There are regulars (people who frequent the place, inviting newcomers and provide a mood), and the place has a low profile (that is, the place is not pretentious). The mood is playful: frivolity and wit abound. It is like a home away from home: home-like - rootedness, feelings of possession, spiritual regeneration, feelings of being at ease, and warmth.

So is an MMO a “third place”? Consider what the authors suggest: an MMO is a “third place” in all areas except accessibility (it costs to have access) and low profile (although it works in terms of conversation, but not in terms of “physical” settings). Are virtual communities really communities, or is physical proximity necessary? (This seems like an age-old question.)

Social Capital (again): this is like financial capital, but for social and personal gains rather than financial. Bridging social capital is inclusive; individuals from different backgrounds make connections between social networks (large, weak networks). Bonding social capital is exclusive; strongly tied individuals provide support to one another (small, strong networks). Bonding social capital was much rarer than bridging social capital.

“MMOs are new (albeit virtual) ‘third places’ for informal sociability that are particularly well suited to the formation of bridging social capital.”

“Perhaps it is not that contemporary media use has led to a decline in civic and social engagement, but rather that a decline in civic and social engagement has led to retribalization through contemporary media.”

The lack of bridging relationships, the opportunity to expand the social structures of which one might be a part, can be looked at as extremely negative. From this point of view, any technology which suggests greater bridging social capital might be seen as extremely worthwhile and perhaps beneficial: “Without bridging relationships, individuals remain sheltered from alternative viewpoints and cultures and largely ignorant of opportunities and information beyond their own closely bound social network.”

Is there a Christian view of games? Christians have often weighed in with medieval and early modern critiques of games: evils of games of chance; slothfulness attributed to gaming; addictive nature of games; avoid leisure and do work instead (“idle hands do evil deeds”). At one point, Dungeons & Dragons was considered a game which opened one up to devilish influences. Once this died down (ironically coinciding with the decline in the popularity of the game), Christians became concerned with video games.

Do we really need a "Christian" game industry? What do you think of this statement, that "gaming is a God-given potential"?*

*Citation: Quentin J. Schultze and Robert H. Woods Jr., eds., Understanding Evangelical Media: The Changing Face of Christian Communication (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2008), 208.


Phil Wiebe said...

As an adherent of the 'catalyst' view of media, I disagree with the idea that media can actively displace anything. People displace things of their own will (if not always consciously informed); direct action isn't really part of the tetrad of media effects. Anyway, that was more of Putnam's thing rather than the essays' authors, so, on to the article.

While Steinkuehler and co. make a convincing case, I am not sure that MMOs really qualify as a third place, or if third places really exist at all (in terms of Oldenburg's eight characteristic definition).

Neutral ground: While a place without obligation is conceivable, is it culturally practiceable? If we use a bar as our real world third place, it is considered uncouth to enter one and stay for a significant amount of time without purchasing anything. This is not a written rule (so no technical obligation to engage with anyone), but part of community expectations, to the point that if someone chooses to engage with such a community, they are expected to conform to its standards and practices. The same goes for games - Mark Jensen argued towards video games as teleological objects in his presentation at the CISPCR symposium, and by choosing to play a game, there is an expectation from other players that your desires for the game coincide with its design and features. Thus, someone who enters the game but does 'not' play the game or even interact with other participants could be said to be missing the point (and this person probably does not even exist, since buying the game and paying the subscriber fee suggests an interest in playing it in a meaningful way) and will probably be treated in a negative way by the greater community (ignored, marginalized, derided, kicked, etc).

Levelers: MMOs are this, even more than so-called third places in the real world. At a bar you can still make judgments of rank and status based on how a person carries themself, what they wear, who they are with, and what they drink. In an online game, insofar as these details are either unimportant or can be lied about, the playing field is level. That said, MMOs still have their own tokens of membership and belonging recognized either in gameplay proficiency, mastery of the game's particular idioms, or knowledge of the online community's culture. This is seen in the negative in the form of the sometimes friendly, sometimes malicious term "noob/newb" which is universal to MMOs.

Conversation: This aspect is a bit elusive. In bars and MMOs, conversation certainly is a prevalent activity - however, it is entirely optional, even in a way that other aspects of attendance are not. You can still fulfill the primary functions of an MMO (questing, trading, etc) or a bar (drinking, eating) without entering into conversation with anyone. Even if conversation is a legitimate third space criteria, playfulness and wit seem fairly subjective: while wit is almost universally admired, playfulness/whimsy is often irritating to some. We see this in the 'hardcore' gamer - the one who is most interested in actually performing the competetive/challenging acts of the game with maximum skill, often at the expense of engaging in the game's optional, social aspects, who scorns players who don't take the game seriously.

Accessibility & Accommodation: This is fairly uncontroversial on the surface, but with inspection I think they kind of fall apart. What is the metric of accessibility? For bars - how near or far is accessible, and relative to what mode of transportation? For online games, internet is obvious - but what speed of internet, and at how much cost? I'm not sure how accomodations would be defined either.

Phil Wiebe said...

The Regulars: They may be partially responsible for the mood, but unless they are celebrities, I think they are either neutral or unattractive to newcomers. Most people searching for a true third place would be repelled by some kind of in-group that arbitrates aspects of this supposedly open, equal place.

A Low Profile: This applies to physical places more than games. Most bars that could serve as an example of a third place are unsophisticated and unpretentious, but video games, especially online ones, are very sophisticated and can be pretentious by very design.

The Mood is Playful: Bars typically have a lighthearted atmosphere and so do video games, but MMOs often have a strong contingent of hardcore, powergamers to whom the game is 'serious business' and are often humourless.

A Home Away from Home: While certain details about bars and video games may appeal to some cultural experience of the home, there is nothing inherent about the five attributes of home to either. Home is a personal, subjective experience which means that people will imbue bars and video games with home-like meanings depending on how they resonate with their particular ideas and experiences of home. One has to make a choice to make a home in the world, whether real or virtual.

I would conclude that the idea of third spaces is an unrealized ideal, and that even if we take its aspects at face-value, MMOs do not qualify as a proper third space. That, however, does not stop people from using them as one. I don't think online communities are any less valid than physical ones, but I am dubious about how effective they are in comparison. If people want to use MMOs to enhance their social capital, that's great - a friend of mine married someone who she met playing WoW. That said, I think it is worth remembering that increased social capital and improved bridging relationships are not the necessary consequents of playing an online game; they are merely potential byproducts. Like I opined at the beginning of this post, media does not commit direction actions, it is a catalyst - what you get out of it is based on what you put into it.

I don't think there is a catholic Christian view of games, just like there isn't a universal Christian view of film, television, or literature. I think right now the best that can be hoped for is that Christians recognize video games as a legitimate medium with potential for communication and artistic value. There are many competing Christian voices on the merits of video games, and most of them are favourable. Most reasonable people have realized that video games, like Dungeons and Dragons or heavy metal music, are not inherently evil or Satanic (although, just today I had to explain to my parents how the whole dark/evil/pagan thing in metal was more of an image marketing thing and that on the genre level metal is comparable with romanticism in its fascination with the supernatural, exotic, imaginative, individualistic, emotive, and natural, often from a political or historical bent [which in turn explains Michael Gilmour's fascination with Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden]). Nowadays your average youth pastor is probably more capable of fragging his flock at Halo or Call of Duty than explaining the doctrine of the Trinity to them without resorting to a metaphor that inevitably ends up confessing some ancient heresy.

Do we need a Christian game industry? No, not anymore than we need Christian popular film, music, or literature industries. We need Christians to make good games. I think play is a God-ordained activity, and therefore those who would enhance the nature of playing should address it with excellence rather than tacked-on theology (which is what the Christian game industry is now).