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.

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