Videogame Cultures and the Future of Interactive Entertainment (July 7-9 2010)

Posted by steven on Sunday September 26th 2010 at 16:11

Through the years the ‘Inter-disciplinary.net’ meetings have built a reputation of being a somewhat exotic breed among the numerous conferences in the field of media and culture studies. Paper submissions and practical questions are received very warmly (mailings usually start with a phrase like “Hi folks, I hope this mail finds you in good spirits”) and the interdisciplinary team has adopted a no-nonsense approach that values oppenness and debate, clarity and commitment. While the rules of the conference are strict (no powerpoint presentations! presence and participation in all sessions required! Oxford Style references are a must!) the atmosphere is very personal and informal, even cosy some might say. Quite different from what the academic researcher has grown accustomed to, but a very good recipe for a fruitful exchange of ideas.

The 2010 Interdisciplinary Conference on Videogame Cultures took place in Oxford, a scenery that suited the philosophy of the Interdisciplinary network very well: a city that breathes the academic tradition, calm and easygoing and above all very British. The conference included an international selection of researchers with backgrounds in -no surprise- a lot of different disciplines. In a group of 30 researchers approximately 25 papers were presented and debated in a span of 3 days. No need to say that this accounted for a very intensive program.

Most presentations on the first day focused on game theory and adopted a cultural approach. As my research interests have recently been drawn away from that domain, it was a good opportunity to catch up with new trends and new points of debate. I recall interesting discussions on the constructs of virtual embodiment -is it the same as ‘real’ embodiment, should it be considered completely virtual, or is it something in the middle?- and on the usefulness of constructs derived from game design or tabletop gaming. Many discussions evolved around the question ‘what is a game (or a good game)?’ and on the best practices to assess the social characteristics of digital gaming. Randall Nichols closed the day with a thorough analysis of the power relationships involved in the production of digital games. A different note to end the day, providing a lot of food for thought!

The second day had a lot of ‘work’ in store for me. My presentation was scheduled in the first session, along with those of colleagues Marlin Bates and Tim Christopher. We each took a different approach to answer a similar question dealing with the rhetorics of game play. In my opinion our insights complemented one another very well – proof of this was the collective discussion afterwards. The comments I received on our analysis of America’s Army opened doors for further research – more specifically regarding the fact that I analysed the responses of Flemish students to the game, and that in order to completement my insights a comparative analysis with a US sample might be useful. A collaborative research effort has already been planned!

The second and third sessions of the day were also of great relevance to me, as these sessions focused on moral and ethical aspects of digital gaming – a subject on which I am currently editing a book (with Karolien Poels). We had already contacted four presenters of that day to contribute to the book, and their lectures painted a very clear picture. Their current research fits perfectly in todays trends towards studying moral involvement and proved very solid. Discussions allowed me to make suggestions for the book chapter they are preparing. Later on, over coffee, we all got along pretty well.

In between Simon Goodson and Sarah Pearson presented the results of a series of experiments they performed on the effects of game play on violence. Their results were striking to say the least: based upon a solid and valid research instrument they didn’t find any connection between game play and post-game aggression – findings that are in contrast with most published research on the subject, and that present a number of challenges for upcoming research in video game psychology. To end the day I chaired a session on digital games and art. Again an approach that is somewhat new to me, but again an approach that provided a lot of good ideas!

During the final day I participated in the session that was centred around two books on serious gaming that have been edited by Rick Van Eck (a first book on cognitive processes, and a second book on interdisciplinary models and tools) and to which I had contributed a chapter (together with Hans Martens). While my presentation did focus on the interdiciplinary approach we took, I also got the chance to debate the main results of our investigation. It was good to see that researchers involved in game design found the model we constructed a useful tool to enhance player motivations during game play. It was also fun to meet in person these colleagues that I had been mailing around with a lot over the past months. During the evening it appeared that communicating IRL (with beers!) has a significant additional value! The final day included a number of close readings of social games, as well as a number of very interesting insights from the game developer point of view. It would have been fun to discuss some of the games they have made afterwards (or play them, why not?), but I had to catch a train to London right after the conference ended…

But that’s a different story!

Finally, a week ago I was informed that the Interdisciplinary press will edit a book that highlights the main insights that were gained during the conference. The paper that I wrote (with Tom Thysen and Karolien Poels) has been selected to be included in the book, which of course is very good news. The book, named ‘Critical Game Studies: Theory, Ideology, Methodology’, will be edited by Ewan Kirkland, Monica Evans and Adam Ruch, and will appear in the spring of 2011.

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