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Making Sense of Games: A Methodology for Humanistic Game Analysis

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MSG (Making Sense of Games: A Methodology for Humanistic Game Analysis)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2021-04-30

In the 21st century, computer and video games are a massive pastime, especially for the younger generations, easily competing with literature, TV and sport. Vital cultural literacies (history, geography, foreign languages, national and regional popular cultures) will have their most influential interface through games. Esport is fast becoming a major arena of competition, rivaling the most popular sports. On the one hand, the Hollywood-like productions of the so-called AAA game industry are costing more and creating more revenue than their film equivalents, while on a much smaller scale, independent game makers are creating short but poignant game productions that tackle difficult personal questions like illness, depression, queer identities or bullying. Finally, games made for entertainment purposes are making their way into the classroom, and being used like other teaching materials like literature or film.

In this cultural climate, getting a better grasp of what games are and how they become part of central political, educational, psychological and journalistic discourses is vital both in order to understand how to harness games for civic and cultural purposes, evaluate potential beneficial or harmful effects, and most importantly, to give the players themselves a critical language to discuss the activities and implications of their pervasive and popular hobby or passion.

MSG - Making Sense of Games is trying to create a critical language (concepts, models, theories, tools for analysis) to help foster a nuanced and diversified perspective on the cultural phenomenon of games and gaming. What is the message of games? How can games have specific effects, if people are using them differently? Is playing too much harmful, or just a symptom of an underlying mental or social problem? Do psychologists, teachers, law-makers, parents and carers have sufficient insight into the practices and technologies of games to make informed decisions on behalf of their wards?
In the first 2,5 years, MSG - Making Sense of Games have produced a number of scholarly articles, arranged public talks and a conference and several seminars, as well as conducted a large number of interviews in radio, TV and newspapers, both in Denmark and internationally. Since most of the research is monograph-based, the major results will be made available in the second part of the project, with five PhD dissertations (on game ontology, representation in games, and game characters, empathy, and game-player communication), a monograph on games and storytelling, and an anthology on the relation between games, fiction and reality all well on their way.

Major results so far are:

We have developed a theoretical meta-model for describing and comparing game ontologies. A game ontology is a structural description of a game or of games in general. Several of these exist, from Caillois (1958) forward, but they seldom or never relate to each other and it can be hard to see how they relate or differ, or if they are describing the same structures and phenomena. Our meta-model (Aarseth & Grabarczyk 2018) by segregating the conceptual components of a complex phenomenon into four different main strata (the mental, the communicational, the structural and the physical) makes it possible to see how the various ontological models differ and potentially what aspects they are lacking. Our model also functions as an ontological model in its own right, and has been used successfully in several research efforts, such as Aarseth (2017) and Grabarczyk & Aarseth (2019).

The in-game phenomenon known as lootboxes (buying randomized gameplay-enhancing objects for real money) has generated much discussion and public worry, with regard to its possible status as gambling and the potential negative effects on children. A paper by project members Nielsen and Grabarczyk & Nielsen (“Are Lootboxes Gambling? Random Reward Mechanisms in Video Games" 2018) which clarifies which specific situations regarding lootboxes makes them instruments of gambling and which not. This work was the focus of a discussion between lawmakers, journalists and researchers, open to the public and streamed on Facebook 26th April 2018, and the paper and model has also been used in a report on lootboxes by the Australian Government.

A highly successful workshop and public talk featuring David Chalmers was held in June 2018, on the relation between games, reality and fiction. The question of whether objects, actions and events in digital games are real or fictional has been debated in game studies for several decades, and MSG managed to gather leading philosophers and media theorists championing both sides of the question, to pinpoint what the crucial differences are. While no consensus has been reached yet, the forthcoming publication, featuring papers from the workshop, will have sharpened the arguments and will provide answers beyond the current state of the art. Chalmers' public lecture drew an audience of 250 people from Copenhagen, Sweden and the larger Danish academic community. The question of how to understand the reality/fictionality of games and in-game phenomena is crucial with respect to how to interpret game-players' personal experience of the importance of their activity. When parents wonder about their child's attachment to a specific game, they may interpret as fictional what the child will see as an important aspect of their reality, thus creating an easily avoidable family tension/conflict. By recognizing which game experiences should be categorized as fictional and which as nonfictional reality, parents and other guardians/caretakers will have a better perspective on a vital aspect of the daily lives of their wards.
MSG's work on improving analytical tools, conceptual models and terms for game analysis is steadily progressing through the ongoing work with the PhD dissertations, monographs and anthologies. We are making excellent progress in recruiting and including key focus groups for the deployment of our methods, such as teachers who use off-the-shelf games in the classroom. A webside with encyclopedic articles framing key terms for game analysis, modeled after the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and with consulting support from its editor, will be launched near the end of the project. We expect such a resource to have significant impact on the game studies research community and beyond, e.g. students in other fields or in high school.