Date Archives September 2008

ACRL 2009: Seattle here were come!

My colleagues Serin, Carole and I had our presentation to ACRL 2009 accepted. I'm pretty excited, especially seeing as how national conferences are a real crap-shoot (gaming reference) and there are a LOT of quality ideas that don't get the chance to be voiced at these. Well, we got lucky this time. Here is what we'll be presenting:

We're not playing around: Gaming literate librarians = information literate students

Concerned with reaching the newest generation of college students? Try increasing your gaming and new media literacy. Perhaps you’ve heard that new college students’ learning preferences have been influenced by playing video games, this presentation will present serious adult professionals with tips on increasing their new media literacy without sacrificing their dignity or academic rigor.

There is no denying that video games are all the buzz, but how just much attention should academic librarians pay to them? With all the competing demands on our time and attention, can we justify keeping up with what amounts to a frivolous pastime? We can, because good games are successful at teaching skills that we would like to see our students apply to information literacy. Librarians who understand how a well designed game engages and teaches students are better able to apply those lessons to their own instruction.

The key to isolating the pedagogically useful information in video games is to separate the underlying design and structure of games from their content. When we look beyond the admittedly childish content of many video games, we see that our students are learning how to think actively and critically while they play. They remain committed to the learning process and persistently build new skill sets to achieve success. Librarians striving to engage students in active and critical research processes can learn much from observing how games teach. This session will explain why games are important, draw connections between good video game design and good pedagogy, and present librarians with information and techniques for becoming literate in the new media.

The presentation will be framed for an audience not already familiar with history and culture that surround video games. We will open with an introduction to video games as a media and present the effect this media has had on the shared culture and learning preferences of college students. Next, we explore how good game designers teach their players. This will reveal both the learning preferences of the gamer generation and highlight innovative pedagogies we can adapt for our own instruction. Finally we will present practical tips for librarians to increase their gaming literacy and to use that literacy to engage their students in serious academic research.

Games as an excuse to think about ethics

I don't find all conversations about ethics and games interesting. Controversies surrounding the effects of violent games on juvenile behavior or restrictiing access to content that challanges the dominant cultural mores in general bore me. It isn't so much that there aren't interesting things to say about these issues, but the public discourse is too polarized to be very interesting.

There are, happily, some topics that do make for scintilating conversation. Say, the ethics of cooperating with strangers in an online game, how intellectual property and DRM work in online game transactions,  or culture affects in-game and real-world decision making. Still, when it comes to analysing ethics I feel pretty strongly that talking about ethical conclusions before we talk about ethical methods is a dead end. Contrary to what the polemicists and demagogues would have us believe, very few ethical disagreements are conflicts between good and evil. Rather, they are conflicts between competing sets of priorities or competing ethical methodologies. This is not to say that there is no such thing as a poor ethical choice, there is a wealth of prima facia evidence for that! Instead I'm just pointing out that when someone disagrees with my strongly held ethical position, automatically assuming that they are motivated by evil isn't the most thoughtful response. So, in order to give our conversations about ethics more depth than what we'd find in a drunken confrontation between Bears and Packers fans, I'm going to try to focus on the underlying methods that lead to certain ethical choices rather than comparing the choices themselves apart from their various contexts.

A Series:

In order to examine some of these lines of thinking, I'm planning on a series of posts that examine particular aspects or controversies in games and ethics. In separate posts I'll try to examine a few areas that hopefully with shed some light on how we think about ethics in our games.

  • Violence: This certainly is an issue that gets a lot of press. For whatever reason, there are a lot of violent games consumed by our culture. Examining games that I've played and enjoyed, I'll try to discover different approaches for explaining, justifying, and portraying violence as a theme in computer games. I want to look at how the games themselves justify the simulated violence and
  • Sexuality and Gender: These are two very distinct topics. However, western video games portray an adolescent view towards sexuality and gender portrayals, enough so that it seems fitting to talk about sexuality and gender roles together. In this post I'll try to answer why it is acceptable to simulate beheading in games but not orgasm. I'll also examine how games I've played deal with avatar appearance and starting stats with both male and female characters.
  • Ethics of Gamers: Many games are played online with other players. So, questions about how communities of gamers self-regulate, how certain behaviors and rewarded or stigmatized, and how these gamer ethics correspond to other social ethics will be investigated. Also: I'll look into John Gabriels Greater Internet F*ckwad Theory. (NSFW: Language, obviously. The theory posits that a normal person plus an audience plus anonymity equals bad behavior. Given how online gaming brings all those ingredients together, how do gamers regulate their environments and behaviors?

This is what information. games. has in store for the immediate future. Hopefully this will be more interesting than silence or nattering on about conference presentations. If not, blame Elizabeth and Matt who met me in a dive bar and asked me interesting ethical questions last week.



What is interesting about games?

I ask myself this question because after doing a lot of work (soon to be published!) on Portal I found myself in a bit of a lull when it comes to being reflective about my gaming experiences or doing games analysis. It might just be an understandable reaction to being done with an intensive project. It might also be a reflection of my gaming practices. I haven't been playing much and when I have I've been doing LOTRO quests with my partner. This is a lot of fun, but I've always felt that I don't really play MMO games "correctly". I'm not really interested in making friends or playing with others, I've used LOTRO basically as a chance to role play with a few select friends. The MMO phenomenon is such that there is interest in research about these games, but I can't really tie what researchers or librarians are interested in with the way I like to amuse myself in the game world. As a consequence, I haven't really come across any new parallels between what instruction librarians and game developers do or found any new perspectives on how teachers can use gaming culture to connect with students.

I did have my students read Gerald Graff's essay Hidden Intellectualism (versions of this essay that can be found in his books Clueless in Academe and They Say, I Say) and it reaffirmed my conviction that teachers who can get their gaming students to recognize the critical thinking that goes into their gameplay for what it is will have an great opportunity to transfer those skills to academic work. I think this is important, but there isn't anything new about games in this particular line of thinking.

So maybe I need to look at another approach. I've been analyzing the structure of games and how successful tutorials are designed. I've avoided, up to now, looking at narrative or storytelling in games. However, with the games I have lined up to play next: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky, Fallout 3, and The Witcher: Enhanced Edition narrative, interaction, and storytelling/creating are some of the things these games do best. I'm just not certain how that ties in with library instruction.

Another thought is ethics in games. This is another subject I've shied away from partially because the public discourse on the subject is banal and partially because I'm having trouble articulating my ethical framework these days. Still, I was invited to a departmental party the other day and had a brief, but interesting conversation with a digital ethics instructor who wanted to use Manhunt 2 as his example of ethics in games. I really struggled to find a way to communicate why I could think of almost nothing interesting to say about that particular game and ethics. (The game simulates a snuff-film reality show.) I settled on explaining that it just isn't a good game by any measure and he might want to look at a higher quality example of a game, such as Bioshock, when talking about ethics in games.

Thinking about this conversation, I realized that I'm not so much annoyed by the way we talk about gaming ethics as I'm annoyed by the way we talk about ethics in general. Listening to what a person or group has decided is good/bad is not interesting. Listing to how a person or group sets ethical priorities is interesting. Why is it that as a culture we don't seem to be able to do more than express our indignation and outrage at either the deplorable actions portrayed in Grand Theft Auto IV and/or the censors who want to legislate a lowest-common-denominator groupthink by restricting games that don't reinforce the values of the existing cultural hegemony? Surely we can do better.

What do you all, my valued readers, think? What is interesting about games? I'm not so much asking what makes you want to play a particular game, I'm asking what makes you want to talk or think about games.