Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Super Ultimate End-of-Course Assignment of Doom

Chemistry Cat is from the wrong academic tradition, but I'll let that slide for now. The point is, it's science time! (And also, no way am I going to organize an online course without posting at least one cat picture. This is the internet, after all.)
Surprise! Welcome to the end-of-course assignment! I was going to make you do one last weekly assignment, but that would've left you with very little time to do this one. We'll cover the last weekly assignment in one way or another, but for now we'll focus on the final assignment (of doom!).

This time things are a little different. Instead of having a week to email your answers to me, this is an assignment you'll present in person at our last meeting on Friday 14.12., 12:00–14:00.


Formulating and presenting research ideas is one of the basic skills you pick up at the university. It is a skill that will come in handy regardless of what you end up doing after you finish your Master's Degree. Coming up with research plans and examining topics analytically is a great way to review what you've learned so far, and it also helps you organise your thoughts. As students on the Master's level, I trust you already have experience of formulating and pitching research plans, so this shouldn't be too hard for you.

The study of digital culture obviously has a wealth of methodologies and theories of its own. However, often an interesting way to approach digital culture is via a lens of another academic tradition. One such approach was Henton's article you read during the previous assignment.

To get a hands-on experience of studying digital culture, your task is to create a brief plan on studying something related to digital games – such as the game itself, the players, the playing situation, or some cultural phenomenon attached to games – using any and all methodological and academic knowledge you have learned in your prior studies, regardless of the subject. Points are awarded for creativity, so don't hesitate to try outlandish things. It doesn't matter how well your prior academic knowledge meshes with the study of digital culture. What I want to see is you being able to adapt that knowledge to work in a new environment.

You can use Gere's book and what you've learned on the course, but focus on how you could use your prior strengths in the study of digital culture in general and games in particular. Naturally your study idea can be related to your master's thesis. Be prepared to present your plan when we meet 14.12. Your presentation should last around five minutes. (But certainly not much more, or we'll be in that seminar room for ages.)

Focus on topics such as your research question, the way you plan to gather data and what that data would consist of, what you hope to achieve with the study and what your hypothesis is on the likely outcome of the study. Feel free to use any methodologies you are familiar with, and do elaborate on the theoretical backgrounds if you wish to.

Oh, and please keep in mind that this is meant to be a rather laid-back exercise. No need to go into deep research details, construct long any bibliographies or in any way fret over this too much. You don't need to do the actual research or gather any information; concentrate on the research plan, not the research itself. The real boss battle of this course is, of course, the book exam. Focus most of your time and energy on that.

And, as always, if you have any questions, don't hesitate to mail me. I've mostly recovered from my dreadful flu :)

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Weekly assignment in progress

This week's assignment is almost ready but due to a nasty flu making my head swim, I'll publish it on Monday rather than right now at midnight. Until then, you can keep an eye on that Yoshi's egg up there and wait for the assignment to hatch.

(This delay is taken into consideration with the deadlines, have no fear.)

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Weekly assignment 4: Games, online archives and the value of approaching research from unexpected angles

Dragon Age: Origins
This week we take a look at online archives as research tools, and also go a bit meta as we examine an example of how unexpected research ideas can yield interesting results – or at least how they can make for refreshingly unique articles and arguments.

Dragon Age: Origins is a digital role-playing game by BioWare, published in 2009. In many ways it is a good example of a digital RPG, characterized by rules inspired by old tabletop RPGs and a plot owing very much to the traditions and tropes of fantasy literature. Despite leaning on such traditions, Dragon Age: Origins also introduced fresher takes on its genre. For example, the deep relationship system in the game allowed players to become attached to their characters in ways many felt unprecedented. Being a complex game with inspiring game design, Dragon Age: Origins has been frequently touched upon in digital culture research.

One shared aspect of the studies made of the game is that there really seems to be no fixed methodological, thematic or theoretical angle from which the game is approached. Dragon Age: Origins has been studied by a wide variety academics with various backgrounds and research interests. As such, it is an interesting game to use in examining, how games – and digital culture in general – can be studied from unexpected viewpoints. The key to doing research isn’t always what you study but how you study it.

You do know Monty Python, don't you? Otherwise this photo will make absolutely no sense to you at all.
One of the more surprising, but also interesting, approaches to Dragon Age: Origins is Alice Henton's article Game and Narrative in Dragon Age: Origins: Playing the Archive in Digital RPGs, in which Henton approaches Dragon Age: Origins as a playable archive, a game with a digital database at its heart, and constructs an argument about how the game leans heavily on archives, both in its game mechanics and in its narrative elements. Henton also mentions "external archives", stores of data created outside the game, such as online help files, strategy guides and lore collections, that lend further credibility for her argument that digital games are inherently archival.

The article might be a bit arduous to read for all its abstractness but it's certainly worth it, if only for the way Henton uses an unexpected research angle to offer a unique way of looking at Dragon Age: Origins.

1) Read Henton’s article Game and Narrative in Dragon Age: Origins: Playing the Archive in Digital RPGs. You'll find it from the email I sent you.

According to Henton, an archive is a good concept for examining games both metaphorically and concretely. But just as games have archives in them (as underlying databases and diegetic journals and diaries written by the player character), there are also vast fan-made archives made of games. These collections of information are often important for players but scholars can utilize them as well. To study how game mechanics work, and from what sort of single objects the game is made of, fan-made archives offer a good source of information to access even if you don’t have the game at hand.

2) Find a fan-made archive of a game (or choose one from the links below), pick a single page from it and write a short description of what you picked and what its relation to the game is.

The page you pick can be anything; a snippet of in-game fiction, a description of a single game mechanic, or an item or other such single element of the game. After choosing, navigate the archive long enough to learn as much as you can about your chosen topic and how it relates to the larger context of the game.

For example, if you chose a monster from a game, I expect you to know how difficult it is to best, whether there are any preferred strategies for beating it and so forth. I want to see you have some level of understanding of how the element you picked relates to the game. Also, I’m interested to hear if you managed to find enough information by using only the single archive site, or if you needed to look up information elsewhere.

3) As a purely optional bonus assignment in case you find the first part trivially easy or merely want to reflect on the topic while trawling through the archives: While doing the assignment, keep in mind what Henton wrote. After you’ve finished your archive run, use your hands-on experience to briefly examine Henton’s argument about games and archives.

As per the usual instructions, try to stay somewhere around 500 words but feel free to write more if you like, and email your answers to me by 3.12.

You can choose the archive freely but here’s a list of some well-known places if you don't want to spend time looking for one.

A good example of a fan-made archive is WoWWiki – The almost 100,000-page wiki of the online role-playing game World of Warcraft, and one of the largest wiki projects aside from Wikipedia itself. The Dragon Age wiki is also a good place to start, especially after having learned a bit about the game fron Henton's article. Other good places to look are the Demon’s Souls wiki, the Ace Attorney wiki and the Elder Scrolls wiki. Usually the wikis have a “random article” link you can peruse if you want the fates to decide what element of a game to investigate.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Passage in 10 seconds

I have a terrible nagging feeling that this week's assignment is nowhere near as interesting as last week's. As consolation I offer you Passage in 10 seconds, a rather good satire of the game we played last week.

Hang on, you've done well so far!

Weekly assignment 3: Supernatural ambassadors of agency

If last week was about players and their interpretations of games, this week is all about interacting with game characters. Just as last week, the focus is still on players engaging with games, but this time we'll concentrate on a specific part of that engagement: In the very centre of studying games and human interaction is the dilemma of the player character as something that is part of the game and part of the player.

Bob Rehak has eloquently summarized the weird binary role game characters have between the game and the player:
"[The avatar's] behaviour is tied to the player's through an interface: its literal motion, as well as its figurative triumphs and defeats, result from the player's actions. At the same time, avatars are unequivocally other. Both limited and freed by difference from the place, they can accomplish more than the player alone; they are supernatural ambassadors of agency." (Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar, 2003)
And indeed, it's difficult to say how much of our actions in games are dictated by the rules and limitations imposed on us by our characters. But it's just as difficult to say to what extent our characters are independent from us, instead of being merely our representations and tools in a digital world.

For example, the original Super Mario never spoke, thus emphasising action instead of dialogue, so you might argue that Mario encouraged the player towards an action-oriented approach to the game. Yet I remember several occasions when players abandoned the action in favour of a more relaxed and action-free exploration to see what the creatures of Mushroom Kingdom were doing, making Mario more of a laid-back pacifist than anything else. Which is the real Mario, and does it even matter?

In his article Telepresence, cinema, role-playing. The structure of player identity in 3D action-adventure games [PDF] Rune Klevjer sketches a theory of three kinds of identities at play in action-adventure games. Likewise, In his book My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role-Playing Games Zach Waggoner posits a three-point identity model for digital role-playing games, based on the work of James Gee. [PDF] (Read the little chapter titled Gee's Virtual, Real-World and Projective Identities)

Read both texts and compare the models and, naturally, feel free to comment on the other points raised especially by Klevjer. Which of the models do you think explains the interaction between the player and the character better, or do you think they complement each other? The models are for specific genres of games, but do you think they are applicable to other games as well?

If you wish to ponder about your relationship to game characters in practical terms, you can try One Chance, a game about what choices you would make if the world was ending, and see how you relate to the protagonist. Or you can draw from your experience with Passage. They're not ideal platforms for this topic (these short games rarely allow much characterization), but they might give you some ideas anyway.

And though I hope it's obvious, I'll nevertheless state it here: I expect no knowledge of games or of game-related theories from you. I'm interested in what you get from the two aforementioend texts, and how that relates to what you already know of games, regardless of the depth of that knowledge. So, read the texts and tell me what thoughts they raised.

As you already know, stay somewhere around 500 words and email your answers to me by 26.11.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Exam date

Hark, a vagrant is a web comic everyone interested in contemporary digital art should check out. It has nothing to do with the exam except that it happens to conveniently portray my delight in having the date finally settled.
As none of you voiced a complaint at the announced exam date, I assume it works for you. Brilliant!

The exam is on Thursday 13th of December, from 12.00 to 14.00 at seminar room Virkkunen (E104). No need to register. Just be there on time, and there will be someone there to hand you your question sheets.

Email me if you have any questions regarding the exam.