Video Game Round Up #2

I did a previous round up on gaming, which covered some basics on gaming, criticisms of the activity, some funny stuff, games as art, some anthropological work, and games and learning.

Here’s another round up, where I have focused on more traditional social science/anthropological themes, as well as related articles and blogging about game design.


Sande Chen, Towards More Meaningful Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach
“how to ratchet up emotional intensity – through narrative design, visuals, and music – to create more meaningful games”

The Brainy Gamer, The Elusiveness of Meaning
“Ueda’s process begins with an image and grows from that place, informing the way the game plays, how it feels, and what it means… The meaning of the image is conveyed through a beautiful weave of gameplay and narrative.”

Kyle Stallock, Diablo Fans Petition Against III’s Artistic Direction
New game demo with brighter environments and more color creates a fan backlash: they want a visual style for Diable III “coherent with the universe it belongs to”. See the video report here

The Escapist, The Age of World Builders
“That’s when it really hit me: This wasn’t just some level in a game. This was my vacation home in a digital environment.”

Ian Bogost, The End of Gamers
Gaming matures as a medium, and takes myriad forms

Owen Good, Can a Game Be a Tearjerker?
A journalist asks, and online readers respond about their saddest gaming experiences.

The Brainy Gamer, Narrative Manifesto
Video games and delivering “genuinely interactive narrative experiences to the player”


Brent Ellison, Defining Dialogue Systems
Dialogue as interaction, and how to build that into a game

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Video Game Round Up

On Games

Tom Chatfield, Rage Against the Machines
Do games stunt minds and create addictions? Good overview of what people really do when they sit down to play. “Games are human products, and lie within our control.” See readers’ comments here.

Eric Sofge, Video Games (Finally) Grow Up
Esquire article covers how video games have matured—storytelling, moral complexity, artistry and more

Rob Fahey, It’s Inevitable: Soon We Will All Be Gamers
Video games out of teenagers’ rooms and into everyday life

Louis Bedigian, Professor James Paul Gee Shows the World the Importance of Video Games
Learning doesn’t just happen in school, and that’s a good thing. Or, trying to understand why people put so much effort into mastering a game

Vaio at VG Chartz, Why We Game
Worth it for the starting photo alone. Illuminating discussion by gamers about why they do it


Susan Greenfield, Modern Technology Is Changing The Way Our Brains Work
Neuroscientist presents a critical take—games and pharmaceuticals are changing brain function and creating unhealthy dependencies. For more on Greenfield and her views, click here.

Etelmik, Self-Abuse in Game Play
“We talk about games being therapeutic, educational, beautiful, aesthetic, or enlightening. We also talk of them as being cheap, derivative, or boring. But it occurred to me in the last two weeks that sometimes they can be devastating, depressing, destructive and discouraging.”

Stephen Totilo, Are Games Our Fantasies?
“Let’s talk, finally, about what that means.” Racial imagery, murderous violence, and the debate between “it shouldn’t matter” and “it does matter”

Mike Smith, New Startup Tackles Stereotypes
Gaming just for boys? Here’s a company run by women! “Worldwide Biggies spans the gender gap”

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Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City

Grand Theft Auto IV comes out tomorrow. Looks like it might be the best in the series, certainly one of the best games of the year. The early reviews gathered at Metacritic have an average score of 99 out of 100 as I write this. Rockstar Games, the gaming company that has made Grand Theft Auto, estimates a pre-order demand around $400 million. So it’s big. Huge.

But why?

I will make a simple argument. It is the combination of creative anthropology, sophisticated game design and game play, and the right brain hooks that makes video games like Grand Theft Auto work so well.

And the reviews show it. In the rest of the piece, I will draw excerpts from three places, the IGN review, the New York Times review, and the highlight quotes from Metacritic.

Creative Anthropology

Take creative fiction, and add world-building and a do-it-yourself story, and then you have what I mean by creative anthropology. Some Geek Love through role playing and fantasy, mixed with narrative to get the cultural buy-in.

So here’s GameSpy: “The very nature of the American Dream is the central theme in Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV, a gaming masterpiece that is a picture-perfect snapshot of the underworld of today’s big cities.”

The New York Times gushes, “The real star of the game is the city itself. It looks like New York. It sounds like New York. It feels like New York. Liberty City has been so meticulously created it almost even smells like New York.”

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Play and Embodiment

In yesterday’s post, Play and Culture, I discussed how the neurobiological and behavioral aspects of play feed into the production of culture.  Play helps integrate the processing and coordination of different brain systems and to produce skilled social and physical engagement with other individuals in the environment.  By being able to draw on these evolutionary and embodied precursors, play also helps with the formation of cultural patterns, particularly among children.  These cultural patterns—say, a game of Cowboys and Indians—then feedback to shape the coordinated behavior of the individuals involved, from everything to guns vs. arrows and good vs. bad to cultural valuations of indigenous people and gender roles. 

In many ways, it sounds like a fairly neat story, at least to me (well, I wrote it, didn’t I?).  But the process of cultural production and the ability of cultural forms to then re-engage with people still seems a bit of a black box to me.  Biology and behavior don’t quite get us to culture, even if I invoke emotional and motor processing in conjunction with social relationships.  It’s too far a jump, because it assumes that all these things just “naturally” come together and somehow produce culture.  It also relinquishes too much of “meaning” to culture.  Anthropologists have traditionally been quite happy to accept that deal in the mind-body split—we talk about meaning, you guys about neurotransmitters. 

Greg and I have both pushed embodiment and practices as a central way to mediate between meaning and neural function.  Bringing body, behavior, and organism-environment interactions into the picture certainly is a big help.  But in writing the posts on play, I realized that all the talk of “embodied cognition” suffers from the same problem that I talked about in the first post on play.  Researchers often assume that the integration of different brain systems happens naturally, without help, without any “outside” process to help it along.  I see the same thing happening with embodied cognition. 
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Play and Culture

Two earlier posts on The Neurobiology of Play and Taking Play Seriously examined play as the neurobiological and behavioral levels.  Together, they present an argument for play as one primary way that animals with large brains achieve neurological integration through play’s role in skilled behavioral engagement and the building of social relationships. The last post ended by discussing the role of play in joint coordination and reciprocal fair play, and the first post by saying that play helps combine sensory information, emotional states, cognitive framing, bodily movement, and decision making. 

Today I want to argue that together, these processes help promote the production of culture.  Without the integration of basic neurological processing and social relationships into culture, culture is, in effect, an empty shell of forms and roles and symbols.  Play connects us into cultural forms, helps recreate them anew for developing individuals and even create new forms.  In other words, I see play as part of how we get cultural creole, which I discussed in an early post, Avatars and Cultural Creole, on the challenge persistent on-line communities present to anthropology’s theory of culture. 

But first a mini-ethnographic moment.  I went sledding with my kids the other day.  My eldest son’s best friend joined us, along with his older sister.  At first I was sledding with my little daughter as the boys zipped and at times tumbled down the hill on their own.  They started to create a game out of it, imagining they were space ships in battle.  Arguments began to break out over who beat whom and what type of ship each one could be.  A new game quickly evolved as I started to race down on my sled after them—suddenly I became the enemy, trying to torpedo them, hands outstretched as they tried to squirm away.  (To note, the combined rough-and-tumble/Space Wars held no interest for the older sister and was a bit too dangerous for my daughter, so they started hanging out and doing things together.  Play and gender…)  Then the game evolved more, as I went up the other side of the run-off pond where we sled.  First I was a dangerous battleship attacking them.  Tiring more quickly than they did, I finally simply lay there on the flat bottom of the pond and became a battlestar which they could ram with fierce joy. 
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Taking Play Seriously

When I lived in Nigeria, I used to cross the city of Calabar to visit the defunct zoo, taking food for the animals—a constrictor snake, some crocodiles, a male drill monkey—still trapped in cages.  Jacob, a large juvenile chimpanzee, lived in that zoo in a cage roughly ten feet by ten feet.  As I walked onto the zoo grounds, Jacob would greet me with an exuberant pant-hoot and I would respond back (my Intro to Anthro students are endlessly amused when I demonstrate my pant-hooting skills).  Though I carried food for him, what Jacob most wanted to do was play with me. 

Jacob loved to play tag first, swinging back and forth across the front of his thickly barred cage, sticking a hand out to see if I could catch it.  We would rush back and forth together, Jacob generally favoring the role of being chased.  Then we’d settle down for some tickling.  Believe me, being tickled by a chimpanzee is, I am sure, rather what my boys feel when I get overly excited about tickling them. 

Jacob’s fingers were powerful, and his arms more so, but I made myself laugh in the chortling sound of chimpanzees.  If he got too strong, I could simply let out a sound of pain and he’d stop.  Then we’d get started again, because of course I loved to tickle him back.  I remember times, our heads together, pressed against the bars, his hand at the back of my neck, my fingers digging into his ribs.  It was such fun, yet I never could quite shake the thought in that moment that he could crush my head so easily against the bars. 
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The Neurobiology of Play

Taking Play Seriously, by Robin Marantz Henig, appears today in the New York Times Magazine.  Henig draws on ethology, neuroscience, and developmental psychology to highlight advances in research on play.  Play strikes many of us as deeply essential, but what the heck is it for?  It’s not precisely clear. 

Today I’ll cover some of the interesting developments about the neurobiology of play mentioned in Taking Play Seriously.  So John Byers first.  Byers is a zoologist at the University of Idaho who noticed that the developmental trajectory of play looks like an inverted U across many species, increasing during the juvenile period and dropping off during puberty.  This pattern corresponded quite well with the growth curve of the cerebellum.  The article summarizes the implications: 

The synchrony suggested a few things to Byers: that play might be related to growth of the cerebellum, since they both peak at about the same time; that there is a sensitive period in brain growth, during which time it’s important for an animal to get the brain-growth stimulation of play; and that the cerebellum needs the whole-body movements of play to achieve its ultimate configuration.

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