Academics study the avatar life and like what they see
By John Wenzel
The Denver Post
POSTED: 02/11/2011 03:59:23 PM MST
UPDATED: 02/14/2011 10:51:12 AM MST
Top, a fire-breathing foe from World of Warcraft. Above, fans gather at a launch party for World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. (Blizzard Entertainment )
Who wouldn't want to hack away at a dragon, bust up a village or fly through the air after a brain-melting day at work?
Video games provide their players with unique multimedia forms of release, whisking them into magical worlds where they can come and go anytime and as anyone they please.
But for the tens of millions of people who play so-called massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft and Second Life, these virtual worlds can be every bit as meaningful and complex as the real one.
And their social value is gaining newfound legitimacy from a surprising place: the academic world.
Dozens of scholarly studies have popped up in recent years with evidence of how video games can strengthen social bonds online and off, or fulfill the same roles in many peoples' lives as religion, meditation and psychotherapy. We're also learning that we tend to choose narrowly when defining ourselves online — despite the unlimited possibilities of virtual worlds.
In other words, the larger conversation about video games is starting to move past simplistic ideas of addiction vs. entertainment.
"For anthropologists it's very exciting, as we kind of ran out of the traditional cultures to study," said Jeffrey G. Snodgrass, an associate professor of anthropology at Colorado State University. "Some people are very, very critical of these games, and I have to remind them these are elaborate, cathedral-like works of art. So much thought and intelligence has gone into building these amazing worlds."
Indeed, critics often deride video games as juvenile, mindless diversions that can, at worst, spur people to violence. The male-centric, often brutal imagery that defines many fantasy games does little to dispel these notions.
Think World of Warcraft, the online sword-and-sorcery game that boasts about 12 million users worldwide. Warcraft has courted controversy over the past few years with reports
Is the virtual world of Second Life a glorified bar scene? It's that and so much more, according to an increasing number of researchers. (Linden Lab )
of its highly addictive game play and life-sucking effects (like sitting in front of a computer screen for hours at a time, eschewing food and bathroom breaks).
Even more neutral games like Second Life, where hundreds of thousands of "residents" create alternate lives amid customized environments, get dismissed as wastes of time — or at least the only real social option for people with no first lives.
And these MMORPGs are only proliferating as franchises from "Star Wars" to "Lord of the Rings" and DC Comics have entered the realm.
That makes them catnip for academics, since contemporary video games are unprecedented in their sheer size, complexity and levels of interactivity — all within a self-contained, programmed space ideal for data mining.
"It's kind of like a really great bar scene for a lot of players," said Rosa Mikeal Martey, an assistant professor of communication at CSU. "But I'm really interested in how people come up with ideas of what's right and wrong in those spaces, and how they see themselves and others."
Second Life users tracked
Martey won $400,000 in funding from a variety of federal sources for the CSU portion of the national "S.C.R.I.B.E." study. Along with researchers in New York and Ohio, she has tracked hundreds of users through Second Life. A customized game on a virtual private island provided the backdrop to analyze every users' interaction, click and comment.
Up to a half-dozen graduate students assisted her at different times in the project, in which participants were given 5,000 Linden dollars (the in-game currency) to take part.
The project, supervised by a pair of Lockheed Martin employees in Pennsylvania, is considered high-risk in that it's OK if it fails to yield any real-world applications.
But Martey and others are already seeing results.
"It's important to understand how things that used to draw boundaries are shifting, like geography. But is the same true for gender? Does it matter that I'm female?" Martey asked.
"In my experience, hell yes. To see how those things manifest in the virtual world, it says a lot about how much we assumed that the body was the marker. If I can be treated like a slut and a stupid person without even having a female body present, that says something really important about how we understand gender."
In contrast to traditional niche cultures, which have always fascinated scholarly types, virtual worlds are highly dynamic and communicative. The stakes are only getting higher as people invest more of their time, money and mental bandwidth.
"Player psychology is a huge, extremely important part of our game design," said Alex Afrasiabi, lead world designer for World of Warcraft, which is published by Blizzard Entertainment. "We're very sensitive to it and how a player will react to it. We've been developing (different versions of) the game for 10 years now, so at this point we're pretty good at gauging and understanding our players' reactions."
Of course, no one needs to argue for the built-in entertainment value or massive popularity of video games. They were a $60 billion industry in 2009, according to market research firm DFC Intelligence.
But there's fantastic intellectual complexity there too. As immersed as we get in our favorite books, TV shows, movies and comics, we're still not actively participating in their story lines or character development.
In World of Warcraft and Second Life, there are humans on the other end of those digital avatars — no matter how exotic they may look and sound on the screen.
"In the same way some people spend a lot of time on the phone talking to people all over the place, other people spend that time moving a little cow or a troll around," said Martey, who will soon expand her S.C.R.I.B.E. project to World of Warcraft and even a Spanish version of the Second Life study. "As such, here's a bunch of cultures and communities joining together. It's so pervasive and easy and so much a part of people's day-to-day."
That prevalence is making online gaming a less exotic topic these days, but each game is ultimately its own copyrighted entertainment product. That helps dictate the unique culture that develops in it and the cyber-anthropology that follows.
"The online form of gaming creates this idea of a persistent world and the illusion that everything you do matters, especially when you excel at it," said Brian Crecente, the Denver-based editor in chief of gaming blog Kotaku. "You leave footprints."
Fighting for respectability is a constant problem in this world, as the public, and even other academics, frequently question the logic of pouring hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into tracking how people play video games.
"Worth thinking about"
It's a common issue for pop-culture studies in general.
"I always find it a little humorous that people who study English do not have this problem," Martey said. "How is it the case that studying 'American Idol' is less legit than studying Jane Austen? I mean, which do you think has had more of an impact on the people alive today? I want to be part of the voice that says, 'This is worth thinking about.' "
The ritualistic devotion many players have to these games is often compared to religious fervor, so it makes sense that Snodgrass is studying them. His academic focus has often been in spirit possession and shamanic states, and his mental health and anthropology research has taken him all over the world, including months-long stints in rural India.
"If something's engrossing and popular, it means first of all it probably reveals something about ourselves, and secondly it's probably working on us in certain ways," he said. "We all do this with movies and books, and that's a healthy thing.
"That's why I'm so excited about this research. These are the imagined, playful, fun things that make life worth living — and that we as adults sometimes forget is so great. These wonderful 3-D technologies are doing some of the same things that drumming, chanting and music do in other ritual contexts."
The published results of all these studies are forthcoming in various academic journals, but conclusions are already emerging.
Snodgrass' research shows that video games can be a healthy form of relaxation for many users, chipping away at the stereotype that all Warcraft players are hopelessly disassociated from the real world. In fact, these "technologies of absorption" have the potential to put us into trancelike states that have enormous implications for learning and therapy.
Martey's research has shown, surprisingly, that even in virtual environments (where we're tied only to our imaginations, not our bodies) we tend to carry much of our real-world baggage. That holds immediate applications for business and leadership training, not to mention philosophical debates about the design of games in which millions of people spend the majority of their free time.
Right now, the general trend of "game-ification" is already proving to be an asset to Snodgrass and Martey, who have used their studies to get students excited about things like anthropology and gender studies — real world or otherwise.
"We're really interested in incorporating game play and new media into learning, especially from observing kids who will spend seven hours glued to very difficult problems in a video game," Martey said. "We're like, 'Why can't they do that with Nietzsche?' If we can make it into a game, maybe they will."
John Wenzel: 303-954-1642 or firstname.lastname@example.org