You’re No Rock N’ Roll Fun, Stephen

Both Jacob Smith and Kiri Miller present a theory about rhythm gaming that is more often than not ignored by, for lack of a better term, pop culture elitists: These games a form of entertainment, not in that respect that people play them and are entertained by the gameplay, but that those who observe other playing the game are entertained.  Those playing the game are performing for an audience.  It’s a wonderful way to think about it.

The above video has been a curiosity to me since before I even ended my work as an undergrad.  There is obviously something awfully exploitative about it, as I’m fairly certain that of the 6,000,000+ views this video has gotten on YouTube, the vast majority of the viewership has come out of a desire to ridicule and laugh at the kid (or grown man, as it were…the poor quality of the video makes it difficult to determine an age range).  The video has been up for nearly 6 years and mockery in the comments section continues to pour in at a consistent rate.  What I believe many viewers probably fail to do when viewing this video is to see it as something rather fascinating.  The kid in this video fits the bill of what many probably view as a version of a stereotypical “gamer”: he’s overweight, not particularly fashionable, and he has this certain nerd/couch potato hybrid quality.  Yet beyond the superficial appearance, he exhibits gazelle-like quickness and has the grace of a swan as he “dances” his heart out for DDR.  The roles of gender, race, class, weight, etc. all vanish for the mere seconds he spends dominating the gameplay.  Let’s ignore the fact that he collapses at the end of his impressive run…I take that back, let’s not ignore that and address the fact that his collapse was an example of him suffering for his art: this guy was committed to not only playing the game at an expert level, but also to give his audience a performance they would talk about for years to come, or, for better or worse, post onto YouTube.

It would have been interesting to get Smith’s take on this specific video, as the DDR fan community seems like a pretty cutthroat collective.  In spite of the all-inclusive nature of the online forums, there’s still the issues of masculinity and athleticism that prevail in the gameplay.  Moreover, his discussion on issues of race and gender in the DDR community were quite striking.  There is perhaps a naiveté amongst casual observers such as myself that people just play the games and there’s no social implications.  It had never crossed my mind that a game like DDR has a feminine quality, based purely of the social constructs of dancing. I was also surprised when Smith revealed the issues of race that seem prevalent in the DDR fan culture.  There’s perhaps a whole new study that can be done on racial identity in the DDR community alone.

I was happy to see Kiri Miller address the views that the professional Rock community has on those games.  The indie-hipster doofus in me cringes at the fact that one my musical heroes, Carrie Brownstein, and somebody whose watered-down Blues/Rock makes me weep, John Mayer*, actually share something in common: a disdain for the implied apathy towards playing real instruments that games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band provide for the kids.  Miller’s article knocks that stereotype down through her surveys and observations, pointing out that at least two-thirds of the prolific gamers she interviewed are actually accomplished musicians.  Granted, something can be said about how the rhythm of playing the games makes one listen to songs differently, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it certainly wouldn’t discourage some youngster to pick up an actual guitar and learn to play.

A quick aside, for the benefit of those who have not seen this yet:

Miller addresses some of the same cultural issues that Smith tackles in her study on DDR.  There’s still this prevailing, ultra-heterosexual masculinity that prevails in the gaming culture:

“…Freddie offers an irony-drenched, doth-protest-too-much defense of his heterosexual prowess, exhorting viewers to click on a link that will provide ‘video proof . . . that I hang out with hot chicks all day, all the time.’ The guitar performance that follows is a campy extravaganza, laden with as many rock clich´es and fetishistic fretboard close-ups as the “YYZ” production. At the end, Freddie looks straight into the camera and asks, ‘Who’s a faggot now?'”

Making those who play these rhythm based games feel like real performers and stars in a society where they are ignored on the streets can be viewed as something positive.  But progress still needs to be made when a confidence boost comes at the cost of even minor bigotry.  Obviously, I’m drawing on small examples from larger studies, but even this little bit of information shines a light on a bigger issue that faces the gaming community.

*- My Personal Shame- Shows I’ve been to featuring Sleater-Kinney: 0  vs. Shows I’ve been to featuring John Mayer: 1


Trains were the scariest thing ever

“A player might approach a Druid and say ‘Kind sir, can I ask you please for a SoW?’” This statement from Taylor convinced me of her ability to detail the cultural events of the virtual world of Everquest. SoW, the spirit of wolf spell, is unique to Everquest, and without fully understanding the community of Everquest, one wouldn’t understand this social norm. Later, Taylor describes the process of “porting,” teleporting via Druid or Wizard, and the in-game economy. She talks about how the community on her server, and coincidently my server when I played, structured a bazaar in the East Commonlands for various reasons. Because of the way the game was designed, these social norms formed, and I am interested in the design process behind a game’s developer deciding to change how a virtual world works.

Taylor speaks of the disappearance of “porting” and the bazaar as a shift in social norms. “Porting” and the bazaar disappeared when the game’s designers decided to update the game. Without judging the decisions of the game designers, Taylor states that changing the mechanics of a game like Everquest will have social consequences. The game designers saw fit to introduce convenient and accessible game mechanics. “Porting” changed from being a unique socializing process when the designers created a centralized, computer controlled teleportation center. The designers did the same thing with the bazaar, they created a centralized and game controlled auction house. These acts of convenience completely transform the experience of Everquest. The designers sacrifice a certain type of socialization in order to create a more accessible and convenient experience (perhaps to draw in newer players or to keep more casual players around). As we saw on Monday with World of Warcraft, a similar process had happened. The dungeon finder enables players to hook up easily with other players in order to raid a dungeon, but this new process of convenience erases what existed before. A process of socialization happened where players would communicate with each in order to form groups to raid. In the name of accessibility and convenience, the designers have changed cultural norms. Taylor quotes a designer of Everquest in which he says that the game was designed with cooperation in mind. In a way, the designers of these MMORPGs are continually trying to enable cooperation through the changing of in-game mechanics. As people will naturally cooperate in these types of experiences and form social norms, this programmed cooperation will alter the social norms and seemingly erase what had developed naturally. I find these ideas to be incredibly interesting, and I want to know more about the production processes behind these decisions. Is it mostly out of a desire to get more people to play and stay around longer?

Taylor’s chapter on gender is not entirely surprising, but it sums up, using Everquest as a case study, many of the issues surrounding video gaming and gender. Throughout the book, Taylor talks about how there are many different types of pleasure to be found in a game like Everquest, and the chapter on women talks about the various ways that women find pleasure in Everquest. However, in that chapter Taylor mentions some research about MMORPG designers that states that they envision a single typical user during creation of a game (she doesn’t seem totally convinced by this data, though). This seems like an oversight. The enjoyment of MMORPGs is complex, and it seems games like Everquest and World of Warcraft that attempt to address both genders through mechanics and fiction seem to succeed. World of Warcraft seems to be incredibly similar to Everquest in regards to this dual gender appeal. If it is true that some designers identify only a single audience for a MMORPG when they have the potential to address a variety of people, I would be surprised.

Also, I was happy to see Taylor mention the “trains” of Everquest. I tried to find a video to illustrate this event, but they are hard to come by.

National Lampoon Vacation Scene from class

This Was Almost 500 Words on an Episode of Perry Mason

I’ve never been interested or gotten much out of media studies that focuses on domestic space so I was not delighted when I read Bernadette Flynn’s central question start with “How have histories of the living room…”

Despite my overwhelming bad luck in choosing this week to provide a response to the readings and intense desire to give up and watch Perry Mason, I read on.  Flynn mostly gives a history of media entering the domestic space.  She mentions radio and maybe briefly gives the telephone as an example, but she mostly focuses on television and video game consoles.  Flynn often juxtaposes these media to the fireplace.  She never gives a clear explanation of what the fireplace represents, but I took it as a place where the family would gather to talk about their days.  Perhaps she means to link the idea of family communication around a fireplace to some people’s perception of the interruption of that bonding time by the new media.

I like Flynn’s observation of how video game consoles brought the “visceral nature” of arcades into the suburban living room.  The struggle for video game advertising to sell its product as a thing to have in the living room interests me.  Flynn follows the trail of the video game industry’s efforts to sell this idea all the way to the modern day marketing of Microsoft’s X-Box as a “futuristic machine for the living room,” and Sony’s Playstation as a “digital entertainment hub.”  As with the other readings for this week, her most important point is the additional functionality of these newer consoles—they now not only play games, they are also DVD players, they access the Internet, etc.  Flynn chooses mostly to pit television vs. the video game console, but I don’t agree with this approach.  How, I wonder, would she explain one’s ability to watch a season of their favorite TV show through Netflix accessed through his or her X-Box?

I believe Mike Newman’s choice to think of video game consoles as an extension of television is a more practical line of study. I especially like how he links video game consoles in a line of television’s evolution and the “empowerment of audiences.”  Newman writes that cable gave people more options so they did not have to rely on a few major networks, then how the VCR gave people the convenience of watching things whenever they want, and then how video game consoles gave people the agency to actually control what happens on the television.  I have never thought of video games as part of this evolution of television that erupted in the 1970s.  Newman gives a logical, convincing explanation that puts video games in the same category as cable television and VCRs as things that give television users more agency.  This step makes sense as a way to legitimize video games for an author who just co-wrote the book Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status.

Newman gets into some detail about the passivity of watching television (feminine) and the activity that video game consoles bring (masculine) to the television set.  I thought this was the most interesting observation that Sheila C. Murphy made in her essay; however, she did not explore this observation.  Her findings about how video game consoles were advertised similarly to early television advertising as uniting families instead of dividing them was predictable and not very enlightening.

What is Video Game Culture: A Critique

To figure out what gaming culture is, Shaw juxtaposed a number of definitions of culture in general. For some scholars, “culture is the best that has been thought and said in the world.” For others, it is “the body of intellectual and imaginative work, which, in a detailed way, human thought and experience are variously recorded.”  For yet another group of scholars, culture is the combination of norms, values, beliefs ad expressive symbols. For Shaw, video game culture is not the collection of text (games), but the combination of who plays the games, what games are played and how are those games played. Shaw chooses to concentrate on the third aspect of the culture – how is this culture seen from the outside.

Shaw searches the popular press for interviews with people who play and create video games. Her idea is not so much to figure out how these participants in the culture define the culture, but to understand how the media frame the video game culture. I agree with her that an anthropological study will be “worthwhile.” An anthropological study would have avoided some of the problems of the article and made a more persuasive argument, though I assume she rejected this option due to lack of time and/or resources. Nevertheless, I think she might be forgetting that the press, as a gatekeeper of the information she is using, might filter out certain views and put unnecessary emphasis on others. There is nothing malevolent here (or so I hope). Instead, what I am concerned is that the nature of the different organizations or writers might be creating a misleading picture of the phenomenon Shaw studies.

Shaw studies a very limited number of articles, 32, from only four newspapers. The sample size, while probably appropriate for textual analysis, is just too limited to present a coherent picture of how the popular press frames video game culture. First, 32 articles leads to little statistical significance. Second, the study uses only four newspapers that all fall in the category of “national newspapers with large circulation.” There is no representation of local media outlets, TV, online or niche publications. Indeed, few people (if any) rely solely on national media outlets for information and this is particularly true in the case of video games. Finally, the very limited number of articles that Shaw uses from some of the outlets (only 4 from USA Today and Los Angeles Times) might suggest that those outlets are not interested in the topic or that they use a writer who is either freelancing or is drawn from another area and, thus, unfamiliar with the topic.

However, even though Shaw’s methodology might be imperfect she makes a number of good points. Rather than establishing or modifying a theory of how video game culture is portrayed or understood, she suggests that video game studies should not study so much the culture in the games, but how the video game culture is constructed. For Shaw, games are not so much texts. Instead, playing video games is a media practice.

Midwest Gaming Classic Pictures

This link should work.

Interview with Ralph Baer

I saw this short interview with Ralph Baer on Twitter a few days ago and remembered I was going to post it here: