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Making Sense of Games: A Methodology for Humanistic Game Analysis

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - MSG (Making Sense of Games: A Methodology for Humanistic Game Analysis)

Reporting period: 2021-05-01 to 2022-04-30

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 has aimed 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. While this is a never-ending task, the project has developed relevant tools and methods that hopefully will make a useful difference to future research.
MSG - Making Sense of Games has 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, four PhD dissertations (on game ontology, representation in games, game characters, and game-player communication) are available online, as are two special issues in academic journals, one on game analysis and one on the study of characters. A monograph on games and storytelling, and a third special issue on the relation between games, fiction and reality all well on their way. The four PhD dissertations have been completed on time, and successfully defended, each addressing a different aspect of game analysis.

Major results:

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). It has also laid parts of the foundation for the PhD dissertations in the project.

The in-game phenomenon known as loot boxes (Random Reward Mechanisms - RRMs - 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 Rune Nielsen and Pawel Grabarczyk (“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. The paper was used as the foundational framework for the 2020 report on loot boxes commissioned by the EU Parliament. The paper was also central to the legal case that reversed the legal standing of loot boxes in The Netherlands.

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 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.

Another highly successful workshop was held in the Fall of 2019, just before the pandemic, gathering experts from many fields on the study of characters (mediated representations of people, whether fictional, historical or contemporary). The papers were published in a special issue of the journal Narrative, available as open access (May 2022). One hopes by this initiative to have furthered the new interdisciplinary area of Character studies, thus showing how the relatively young field of game studies can itself spawn new research fields. Furthermore, Joleen Blom's dissertation on game characters is under contract for publication by Amsterdam University Press.

The project has also produced a number of methods and concepts for game analysis, as well as critiques of popular concepts which are too vague and imprecise to be of analytical value. One example of the latter is Nina Houe's critique of empathy as used on games and players, showing that the concept, despite over a hundred different definitions, does not have a solid meaning when it is used to describe players' response. Michael Debus has assembled the to date most comprehensive survey and only synthesis of previous game taxonomies, thus providing a unified toolbox of descriptive terms and concepts. Ida Jørgensen has contributed an analysis method combining formal, representational and material aspects, which goes further than current aesthetic game analysis methods. Miruna Vozaru has created a formal method to identify the active components of particular game situations, which can be used by for example psychologists trying to measure game effects. Whether these tools, methods and concepts will find fruitful use is too early to conclude, but they are now at the disposal of the game research communities, and beyond.
The Encyclopedia of Ludic Terms (see a growing collection of encyclopedic articles framing key terms for game analysis, modeled after the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, was launched in April 2022, with 26 initial entries and many more to come. 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.
David Chalmers presenting at our workshop on games, reality and fiction, Copenhagen, 24 June 2018.