Friday, March 07, 2008

The Focus of My Research

I received an e-mail from a student I met at Aalborg University in November asking me about input on their game development process. I realised that many of the things that I've written in papers and presentations for conferences etc are not really on this blog and that the short description in my profile is not really enough to give any real information of what I do. Writing my response to Morten, I realised that I probably ought to post (a slightly edited version of) it here as well, so here it comes.

I'm not really a "gamer," which shows in my research of course. I mainly focus on social games such as Second Life, Kaneva and Twinity, simply because they are more open to creative input from the residents/gamers. Since there is no game narrative, people have to decide on why they are in that environment and come up with their own context and that is what interests me. What I've seen is that there are still group narratives emerging in different communities (with their own rules) and that is also something I explore, as well as how game developer choices influence the game in ways they might not have anticipated. The power relations I mention in my profile really has to do with authority and definition. Who has the power to define the rules, and what do they do with that power?

An example: In Second Life, Linden Lab (LL) initially decided to develop a system of land ownership. Somebody owns this land/sim, which means that they can define the rules in that area. LL has in this case defined the boundaries for the sim/land owners, and within those boundaries the sim/land owners can in turn define boundaries for the avatars who come there, limit what they can have access to and how they can act. However, some residents (usually called griefers) can also stand on a neighbouring piece of land and shoot particles etc into the other land without the land owner being able to do anything about it. Nothing is damaged, it's basically just annoying and makes the lag (and subsequently the inworld experience) worse.

The possibility of griefing is also, although probably unintended, a design choice of the developers, the Lindens, and one that is usually seen as very frustrating by the individual land owner. The next step might be to try to get an agreement with the neighbour who can ban the griefers as well, making it more difficult for the griefer to get to your land. It's all about social rules/politics, really. But... perhaps the neighbour is in league with the griefers. What happens then? If you translate this scenario, and you think about it as a piece of land in northern Jutland where you suddenly get new neighbours that turns out to be wannabe Hells Angels. They don't do anything to you physically (or to your land), but you feel ill at ease just to have them in the vicinity. What can you do? Call the police? In SL you "call the Lindens," but the question is what kind of result you will get. In the Jutland case, as well as in the SL version, you will probably get the answer that nothing has happened, which means that "the authorities" can't or won't do anything. Will you do something on your own to get rid of them or will you wait for something to happen (that you can report and make the authorities act for you)? Are the griefers those who violate the rules or are you (if you act) the one who violates the rules? Another complication, in SL, is that a griefer can easily create an alternative avatar, come back under another name and attack again, which is also a choice of the Lindens. They've built that possibility into the system, and that might, for so many reasons, be a good solution. It just happens to have this side effect. Again, who defines the rules and who has input to "law making"?

What I'm interested in is thus the social system, the digital microcosm that has developed, and, as you can see, I usually look at things that have evolved for a while at least - otherwise there is not much to study. In short, I'm interested in how the people behind the avatars see boundaries, and how they respond to them. Do they accept them or do they try to transgress them, constantly looking for loopholes? And what happens if they find those loopholes?

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