IQ, Environment & Anthropology

It might come as a surprise to some people that intelligence is not as hard-wired as some of our teachers made us think back in grade school. 

Richard Nisbett, the long-time director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan, wrote a recent editorial in the New York Times entitled, “All Brains Are the Same Color  Nisbett ably goes about dismantling the idea that the IQ differences between blacks and whites are genetic.  He notes that decades of research have not supported the assertion that one of our social races in the United States (for that’s really the only way to define them) is biologically inferior in terms of innate intelligence.  Rather, he argues, intelligence is a matter of environment (the impact of development and access to good education) and a matter of the biased standards that praise a certain type of “intelligence” (success on standardized tests) over another. 
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Have & Have-Nots in Gaming: Linking Back

For those of you who think that there is no connection between my posts on video games and my posts on stress and inequality, I beg to differ.  Clive Thompson’s commentary, “Suicide Bombing Makes Sick Sense in Halo 3” helps us see how.  First he writes: 

The structure of Xbox Live creates a world composed of two classes — haves and have-nots. And, just as in the real world, some of the disgruntled have-nots are all too willing to toss their lives away — just for the satisfaction of momentarily halting the progress of the haves. Since the game instantly resurrects me, I have no real dread of death in Halo 3.

 Here we have a direct connection to being in the “wrong” class mentioned by Sapolsky, in this case, the have-nots who get killed so quickly it makes their head spin.  But Clive found his revenge by blowing himself and his enemy up with a plasma grenade—and believe me, the elite players hate to die needlessly.   Clive then makes a further point: 

Even though I’ve read scores of articles, white papers and books on the psychology of terrorists in recent years, and even though I have (I think) a strong intellectual grasp of the roots of suicide terrorism, something about playing the game gave me an “aha” moment that I’d never had before: an ability to feel, in whatever tiny fashion, the strategic logic and emotional calculus behind the act.

 Understanding that moment in the aha fashion, the feel of it for the player, is central to our understanding.  And there’s the link to the American Dream post, for Bob Herbert highlights the combined effect of the person caught without a dream in an increasingly difficult American reality.

MMORPG Anthropology: Video Games and Morphing Our Discipline

By Daniel Lende

World of Warcraft is a MMORPG.  And what is that, you ask?  A  massively multiplayer online role-playing game, in this case the most successful one in existence.  It is run by Blizzard Entertainment, based on fantasy role-playing (i.e., swords and sorcery), and has more than 9 million subscribers worldwide.  These subscribers pay a monthly fee (currently $14.99 if you pay month-to-month) and for that, Blizzard says, “thousands of players adventure together in an enormous, persistent game world, forming friendships, slaying monsters, and engaging in epic quests that can span days or weeks” in the realm of Azeroth. 

Blizzard has built a game that appeals to both causal and persistent players, though most of its monthly income is derived from people who put in lots of hours (Ducheneaut et al. 2006;  It relies in part on an underground economy, including Chinese “gold farmers” ( to help create some of the in-game wealth that rich players can then utilize in achieving higher and higher levels and better and better items and spells.  Besides the joys of “leveling up” and coordinating massive attacks on either mythical monsters that no one hero can slay alone or on other “guilds” of human players in Azeroth, research has shown that “in keeping with current Internet research findings, players were found to use the game to extend real-life relationships, meet new people, form relationships of varying strength, and also use others merely as a backdrop (Williams et al. 2006; ).” 

They also piss each other off.  One of the main draws of Wow is PvP, person versus person play.  Just as with first person shooters, there is plenty of fun in the single-player game, the mastering of a particular level or killing a “boss” (a hard monster or enemy), but a lot of the persistent fun is in making those rag dolls fly—in winning “the game” when playing against others.  A new art form has developing in filming these encounters: “the proliferation of players, clans, Web sites, and community forums for creating, consuming, and commenting on WoW movies is remarkable” (Lowood 2006; ).  The one I will talk about today has been seen over two million times on YouTube. 
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Video Games and Cultural Perception

First, a shout out to all the faithful readers in cyberspace on the Eve of Christmas.  (Yes, yes, I know, my first post went up a week ago.)  Have a great Holiday! 

Now let me get on with gaming and culture.  Today I want to talk about how gaming illustrates the need to rethink what we mean by the concept “culture.”  The traditional concept of culture is generally seen as something all around us, shaping our every move—Geertz’s system of symbols, where humans are caught up in webs of cultural meaning.  Even in the wake of 1980s and 1990s post-modern critique, we are still left with rather homogeneous and causal views—for example, Bourdieu’s habitus, derived from class and used an explanation for the differing tastes and behaviors of different groups of people; or the emphasis on discourses or ideologies that people cannot escape, so that discourses on gender and race seemingly define who we are and, in making that definition, provide others with power over us. 

Greg has already started the critique.  Here’s what he writes in his post Mirror Effects in Neurons Learned?: 

“The evidence from the brain sciences does not support the assumption that all implicit learning has ideational foundations or backing, but most models of culture really do not allow for motor learning to exist on its own as a relevant category of culture. I know, some will try to call me out on this and argue that late Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus is really a motor learning theory, but the fact that he has to assume that there is either a sociological structure (class) or cultural structure (a kind of crypto-structuralist cognitive set of categories) behind all action suggests that it is, ultimately, either a sociological- or cognitive-determinist model, not one that allows motor realms any autonomy.”

So, how about some gaming autonomy?  Let me turn once again to my trusty Game Informer in its January 2008 edition.  In yesterday’s post, I talked about how games offer us an immersive and interactive experience.  I want to expand on that post by focusing specifically on how designers utilize something close to the concept of “culture” as one part of how to make games immersive and involving.  In the feature article on the first person shooter Tiberium, which builds off the real-time strategy franchise Command & Conquer, the article goes: 
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Video Games: The Neuroanthropology of Interaction

By Daniel Lende 

We’re getting near Christmas, so today I want to talk about something fun—video games.  I also want to make the case over today and tomorrow for video games as a great place to apply neuroanthropology.  Writing these two blogs will also be my lame gift to myself, a way to vicariously enjoy a genre that can be entirely too addictive for me.  No Bioshock for Daniel this Christmas.  I’ve sworn off games until the summer…  (You do know, of course, that addiction is generally characterized by relapse, so if I start writing about Bioshock, Crysis, or The Witcher in the near future, feel free to give me crap about that.) 

This week I read cover-to-cover the new Game Informer, “The World’s #1 Computer and Video Game Magazine.”  In the Connect Opinion piece, Geremy Mustard has written an article “Small is Beautiful” on developing small-sized games for the Xbox Live Arcade.  As he noted, the “development process for XBLA games is not all that different from making any other game—except it’s smaller.”  In particular, the games are capped at 50 megabytes.  “That is not very much space—it is about the same size as just a few minutes of compressed video.” 

Mustard then highlights what he sees as the crucial challenge that this limited size places on the game developer:  

“With smaller file sizes game designers are forced to focus on the true essence of a game. What makes it fun? What makes it unique? Why would I want to play this? These are questions that any design team needs to ask throughout production. When making games for more casual audiences, other questions may include: How fast does the game hook the player? Is it simple to pick up and play? Is it deep enough to play again and again? We found it very helpful to let various types of gamers play the game [Undertow] at different stages of production and watch their reactions. When were they frustrated? Obviously, the more times developers can iterate a game to reduce frustration and increase enjoyment, the more fun that game will be. The fact that everyone on our team still loves playing Undertow tells me that we may have found that elusive fun factor.”

 In other words, the developers are focused on the on-going interactive experience with the game—that is the crucial thing for them to both develop and understand.  They do that by asking themselves questions, having different types of people play to get feedback, and following a certain cultural script they surely have for “the true essence” of a particular type of game.  (On a side note, some companies are also turning to “neuromarketing” to get insight into this process.) 
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The American Reality versus the American Dream

By Daniel Lende 

Bob Herbert, in his editorial The Nightmare Before Christmas, highlights the growing inequality in the United States.  That’s what I want to talk about today.  Sapolsky emphasizes the biological effects of inequality, in particular being in the “wrong” rank.  The question then arises, what gets defined as “wrong”?  And how do people experience that? 

Bob Herbert’s piece offers us plenty of clues that a more sustained research program would surely substantiate (along with discovering the interesting surprises and twists that make all the difference, but that don’t always make it into newspaper editorials).  We can think about the problem in two ways.  Sapolsky pointed to psychosocial stress as mediating the impact of inequality on biology.  Blakey highlights the actual reality of inequality as also shaping biological outcomes.  Both are important. 

On the psychosocial side, Herbert mentions “Wall Streeters are high-fiving and ordering up record shipments of Champagne and caviar,” and normal people see this sort of stuff all the time—it’s on television, in magazines, part of our everyday gossip.  We know there are people who are enjoying these extraordinary “rich” lives, and we know that it’s not us. 

Herbert also writes, “[Working families’] belief in that mythical dream that has sustained so many generations for so long is fading faster than sunlight on a December afternoon.”  Based on a poll by Lake Research Partners, “nearly 50 percent held the exceedingly gloomy view that today’s children would be ‘worse off’ when the time comes for them to enter the world of work and raise their own families.”  Here we return to a theme explored in the post on Everyday Design, that not having a sense of control and that one can work to make a positive change is frustrating and stressful. 
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