Win:Loss Ratio

A very big win for Australian gamers this week, with the news that NSW Attorney General, Greg Smith, had announced in-principle support for the inclusion of an R18 + classification for games. The good news however has been tempered by the closure of two Australian games development studios: THQ Brisbane and the Melbourne-based Blue Tongue (a THQ subsidiary).

Even the dropping Australian dollar this week wasn’t enough to keep the doors open. It’s a real watershed moment for the Australian industry, the previous advantage of the local worksforce as a cheaper option for US investment is gone and the focus on work-for-hire production of game licenses is proving to be unsustainable. While social, casual and mobile games are cheaper to make, require smaller teams, and provide new oppotuntieis to develop original IP and innovative game play they are already croweded markets, with big comapnies like THQ looking to focus there also.

Gamification – Round Two

The two results from my interviews with Australian games developers that have surprised me the most, are the negatives responses to the suggestion that there is a need for more women to be working in the local industry (but more on that in a later post) and gamificiation.

Long before I’d heard the term and considered the rhetorical magnitude of the word, I had wondered idly about what it might mean to bring the types of experiences I’d enjoyed in terms of learning through social connections and communities ties in World of Warcraft (in what they call the ‘vanilla’ or pre expansion times) to the higher ed classroom.

I once asked my first years would they be interested in a system that showed their progress in character levels rather than percentage grades, rewarded their participation with loot and avatar characteristic upgrades for their student accounts rather than just the mundane text and links that filled their online experience of dealing with institution.

In turns out that gamification is a polarising concept; half the students enjoyed the idea and suggested possibilities, while the other half derided the idea as childish, silly and waste of time. Higher Education in my mind was already ‘gamified’, with some students simply playing to pass, and others maximising their high scores, or at least attempting to maintain high batting averages, but to many the concept of introducing game-like mechanics (if not play) was appalling.

My own objections to gamification are naive. The gamification of education, would not be about play-based learning, or introduced elements of play to encourage greater degrees of collaboration in learning (the experience I had with World of Warcraft in learning how to play my character, manage an online community, ensure equity in groups etc). Gamification (as it currently stands) in education would mean swapping out grades for levels, achievements and badges and just another form of accounting  with glossier graphics. It would mean giving up on the last vestiges of the intrinsic drive to learn of students, the innate desire to acquire and produce knowledge, to accomplish personal goals and develop critical and practical skills,  in exchange for purely extrinsic rewards. It means making the carrot bigger, probably just enough to distract from the increasingly large stick.

Two of gamifications most well reasoned and elegant critics, Ian Bogost and Christian McCrea provided a new round of criqute this week. Bogost focuses on the rhetoric of the snake oil merchants of gamification, calling them out on counts of “bullshit“, but McCrea’s analysis goes deeper and asked more fundemantal questions of gamification:

“As a whole, if our criticisms are coherent, then we are a whole. We can begin to ask some very interesting questions if we share more that a simple distaste:

One, why do we presume that ‘games’ and entrepreneurship culture share their agendas? This cozy relationship requires examination.

Two, a reinvestment in the concept of play as a force which both grows and diminishes power – a spectrum we used to call design, before they took away that word as well.

Three, a total war without end on the infantilisation of the consumer. On the assumption of his or her inexorable fate, most of all.”

The reponses from Australian developers come back to me time and time again, when thinking about gamification. So far there hasn’t been a negative response, the games developers I’ve spoken with all like the basic idea, but most agree the pointsification approach of marketeers has been underwhelming.

Only two developers have said to me that they need to be the ones involved, that the marketing departments and advertising agencies, setting up the interactive and gamified layers of the campaigns, need to work with more developers to figure out how they can introduce actually more engaging play elements of design and not just glorified (and cheaper) frequent flyer clubs.

Perhaps we might add a fourth question to McCrea’s list, how might critics work with developers to produce an alternative?

Australian Games Industry Study: Working Conditions

One of the recurring themes arising out of the interviews with Australian games developers is the issue of ‘crunch’ time, the period in the development of a game – usually towards the end of a project – when overtime (often unpaid) becomes mandatory. Crunch time is often necessary, as one interview participant in my current study reported, becuase “there just isn’t enough hours in the day to get everything done”.

The occurrence of crunch time is not unique to the Australian industry, it has been a standard practice in software development internationally for decades. Many development studios in Australia and internationally operate under perpetual crunch time (Japanese games development studios are well known for the practice). In one interview a managing director of an Australian games studio reported operating under perpetual crunch for many years before acquiring the experience in production planning and management necessary to limit the crunch time until the very end of their product’s development cycle.

The games industry is not alone in the amount of unpaid overtime it extracts from its workforce. From my own experience, and as my family will attest, the life of an academic is one of perpetual crunch. It is nothing to work ten hour days, six if not seven days a week and during peak assessment periods it requires up to 14 and occasionally 16 hours a day just to get through the work load. Part of the issue for the academic is the nature of the work, like Boyle’s observation of gasses, the work expands to fill the available container. The problem is compounded by the contractual nature of temporary academic positions, especially research only positions where there is an end date and a requirement of productivity and an absence of a defined period of work hours.

The issue of the ‘quality of life’ working conditions in game development studios was brought to the public attention in 2004 when ‘EA Spouse’ posted a revealing account of the working conditions for EA programmers. Other big games studios are equally guilty of exploiting their staff mercilessly, including RockStar, who was outed most recently in 2010, by a group of programmers’ spouses threatening legal action over the treatment of staff at Rockstar Sandiago.

It is not unsurprising then that Team Bondi, the studio responsible for L.A.Noire (link), which was published by Rockstar, has been highly criticised recently for its culture of long hours, abusive and dysfunctional management, following anonymous and not so-anonymous public comment. Team Bondi’s treatment of its staff has led to calls for a boycotting of the game and other games by studios with poor quality of life working conditions.
This coverage from IGN on Team Bondi and the seven years Team Bondi spent working on L.A. Noire, is a must read. I saw the director of Team Bondi, Brendan McNamara calling for greater federal government support for the games industry back in May (it is a long standing discrimination against the industry) and at the time I recalled industry gossip about how bad conditions were at Team Bondi, but I had no idea of the extent of the situation. (The massive attrition rate at Team Bondi, a sure sign of bad management and unethical working conditions).

McNamara believes that it is ok that employees “be “killing themselves” in the line of duty making games. He believes that is simply what it takes to get a game like L.A. Noire made in Australia. Of course, these types of unfair working conditions are not unique to the games industry, and McNamara is not alone in his approach, teachers, nurses, journalists, among many others, all get accused of ‘not pulling their weight’ if they don’t work longer hours than they are supposed to by their managers, but like those in other entertainment and media sectors, there is the insidious view that the creativity, passion and ‘fun’ involved in developing games makes up for the exploitation of workers.

I love doing research, and I love teaching, it enriches my life, but the ridiculous hours of marking, content preparation for courses and lectures, and the endless demand for more research output, make the job just another occupation trying to cram work into the limited amount of time in the day. I’m sure I could work more productively, more efficiently and better manage my workload but the expectation to deliver doesn’t come from me alone, and the love of the job doesn’t diminish the fact that other parts of my ‘life’ suffer.

As one interview respondent commented, playing games for a living is fun, but the endless hours of testing and Quality Assurance involved in ensuring that a product does what it is supposed to do takes the shine of ‘play’ making it a highly intensive (if immaterial) labour like any other.

One of the outcomes of the EA Spouse’s outing of Electronics Arts, is, and some studios have attempted to create a profitable and productive ‘no crunch’ working conditions  but the politics of labour in the model of networked production are unlikely to shift positively. One interview respondent suggested that things are probably only get to worse as companies like Rockstar use their multiple studio locations around the world to enforce a constant 24 hour production cycle, rolling out crunch time across all locations.

An ethical games industry would have to be backed up by an ethical games journalism industry, which is far from the case at the moment (see the Games Journos Tumblr blog – , previously know as called Games Journos Are Complete Fuckwits) in order to hit studios where it hurts the most – their Metacritic ratings. Ethical games reviews, would by written by journalists not so complicit with baiting practices and marketing ploys of publishers, and reviews of games would also take into account the quality of life of employees of the studio as much as the quality of the games themselves.

What is Gamification

Gamification is the application of secondary game mechanics to non-game experiences. Gamification, despite the name, does not involve play or primary game structures, but those devices associated with measuring progress and encouraging players to maintain their involvement, such as points, scores, leaderboards, levels and progression meters, achievements, badges, virtual currency, and other rewards that acknowledge intangible labour with intangible rewards.

Key examples of gamification include apps like Foursquare and the MyCoke rewards scheme, which is an extension of traditional Frequent Flyer approach, rewarding consumers over time for participating in desired activities. Chore Wars seems like a less insidious interation of the concept.

The term ‘gamification’ is not new, but “decades old” (Bartle, 2011) and it has resurfaced as its proponents argued that it makes non-game tasks more engaging, interesting and fun (Zicherman, 2010). Critics (Bogost, 2011, McCrea, 2011, Doust, 2001) take issue with the term, starting with its semantic turgidity. The power of the word, gamification, is undeniable, as McCrea (2011) suggests it is a hype train that is too big to stop rolling. The power of the term, argues Bogost (2011) has nothing to do with games, and everything to do with rhetoric. The ‘game‘ part of the term is is entirely ambiguous. Ludologists, play theorists and games scholars have frequently attempted to categorise and define what makes a game. Wittengenstein, Huizinga, Caillois, Crawford, Salen and Zimmerman and Juul (see Juul 2003) for a comparison of games definitions), all provided different perspectives for thinking about and classifying games.

Typically, although I think mistakenly, games have been defined in opposition to work, as entertainments, pursuits of leisure and recreation, most commonly games are defined in terms of their governance, rules of fixed and negotiated consequences and of course games are a form of competition. I have a preference for Malaby’s (2007, p, 96) ‘processual’ definition that a game “… is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes”. Unlike Malaby, Salen and Zimmerman (2004) and others who see the domain of games as being apart from the ‘regular’ activities of life, I argue that games are part of everyday life, whose internal meanings and logic set aside and activity (Moore, 2011, forthcoming). Games, as result of technological convergence, digital distribution, the development of participatory media cultures (Raessens, 2003), and the infiltration of social networks (and the co-colonisation of social networking within games) have gained a new degrees of mobility.

The boundaries between what counts as being in a game and everything outside of it have diminished, for example World of Warcraft is a good example of this, Blizzard continue to produce apps like the Mobile Armory and Mobile Auction House and the WoW remote  that allows a subscriber to interact with the game, and others plays, via mobile devices. What it even means to ‘play’ WoW in terms of the actions a character can do no longer holds any central referent. Gamification is an inevitable progression of this process, although it is only the most mobile elements of game structures, those that do not involve ‘play’ or the creative negotiation of rules, that have so far been adopted. Only those elements which mark off involvement and investment in the system, those functions that regulate and quantify comparative performance with others have been adopted.

Like blogger and game designer Margaret Roberson (2010) in her criticism that gamification – so far – is really only “pointsification”. Gamified interfaces are mostly instances of loyalty programs with game-like language, including experience points (XP), that are not playful because there is nothing to lose and there is very little player choice involved in the participation. Rather than ludifying experience by providing games structures for us to navigate, interact with or making things ‘playful’ within a game environment, gamification introduces those mechanics known as ‘operant condition chambers’, or more derogatorily referred to as ‘Skinnerbox’ techniques. The core concept is a kind Pavlovian training, rewarding the player for the exhibition of ‘correct’ behaviours through positive reinforcement. It relies on the enjoyment humans find in recognising and completing patterns complex and layered patterns, and the extrinsic motivation of the virtual carrot, coupled with the intrinsic desire of the completionist, to get to the next level, to accomplish the next badge or content unlock.


Bartle, Richard, (2011), ‘Gamification: Too Much of a Good Thing?’, Digital Shoreditch Festival, May 3- 7 2011, Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, [accessed June 7, 2011].

Bogost, Ian, (2011), ‘ Persuasive Games: Expoitationware’, Gamasutra, [accessed May 22, 2011].

Doust, Sam, (2011), ‘Why ‘Gamification’ is as stupid as it sounds, The Drum, [accessed May 22, 2011].

Jesper, Juul (2003), “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness”. In Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, edited by Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens, 30-45. Utrecht: Utrecht University, [accessed July 1, 2011].

McCrea, Christian 2011, What We Would Gain by Losing the Word ‘Gamification’, [accessed May 22, 2011].

Malaby, T. (2007), ‘Beyond Play: A New Approach To Games’, Games and Culture 2(2): 95-113. Raessens, Joost. 2005. Computer Games as Participatory Media Culture’, in Joost Reassens and Jeffrey Goldstein (eds.) Handbook of Computer Game Studies, Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp. 373-88. Robertson, Margaret 2010, ‘Can’t play, won’t play’ [accessed May 22, 2011].

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play Game Design Fundamentals. London: The MIT Press. Zickerman, Gabe 2010 ‘Fun is the Future: Mastering Gamification’ GoogleTech Talks, October 26, 2010 [accessed May 22, 2011].

Zickerman, Gabe 2010 ‘Fun is the Future: Mastering Gamification’ GoogleTech Talks, October 26, 2010 [accessed May 22, 2011].

No game buying (update)

Six months in and won’t lie, it’s been hard. Portal 2 was the biggest the challenge. The trouble with the social networking features of the digital distribution platform Steam, is the system’s affective marketing. Each time a player on your friends list loads a game a notification pops up in the in the lower right hand corner of the screen telling you so. It’s a very panoptic experience. Each night for about 10 days after the launch of Portal 2, half a dozen notifications would urge me to simply move the cursor along to the Steam store tab and click the purchase button. After about two weeks, however, there was no one left playing the game, which suggested at $49AU Portal was reasonably good entertainment-per-dollar value compared to a trip to the cinema for two, but it wasn’t something that people were replaying or even making the most of the new multiplayer.

The best thing about not buying games is watching the cost of games that I do want to purchase drop. For example, in another six months, games like Fallout3 New Vegas will have dropped to less than half there price at launch. It doesn’t mean I haven’t spent any money on games. I’ve bought a couple of items in TF2, and I purchased Minecraft (a game I bought in October in 2010 and played extensively during my no buying challenge) as a gift for two others. I also purchased the DLC for Call of Duty: Black Ops while researching my chapter on FPS games. I’ve bought a number of games on the iPad from Australian developers but these too are aiding in my research on the Australian games industry, and cost between $2 and $6AU.

Even after this challenge, I won’t be buying games on launch day, going back to play games like Civilisation 5 is a much better experience after all the patching has sorted out the diplomacy and ironed out all the bugs. I have many other games in my Steam library that I haven’t played or haven’t finished, that I picked up on in Sale packs on Steam last year and I’ve been gifted a couple of games like Dirt2 and Terraria, that are high on my to-play list. So many games to play and never enough time.

Being a fan sometimes has its costs

I should be working on a book chapter, but the news today has me thinking in parallels. Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and the Sarah Jane Adventures has died due to cancer at age 63. It has been a bad year for fans with the passing of the great Nicholas Courtney in February, but as an acafan I’m wondering about the experience of loss for fans of the series, fans of the actors and fans of their characters.

I’m currently researching and writing about multiplayer First Person Shooter games and thinking about the role of ‘death’ in games, especially violent and militaristic means of dealing ‘death’ in games like Call of Duty: Black Ops and the disconnection between death and ‘death’. As a fan, but never having met Sladen, I’m wondering about what is has more emotional intensity for the fan, the passing of the actor or the knowledge that the character’s ‘story’ (at least in the ‘cannon’ of the television series) is now finished, even if they aren’t ‘dead’?

Death of a character is not an obstacle in science fiction and especially in shows like Doctor Who, where regeneration, paradox and deus ex machina and generally overcoming ‘death’ in the narrative are part of the experience of watching and participating in the fandom. Only rarely does ‘death’ of a character in Doctor Who have an ongoing significance or ‘meaning’ for fans in terms of the impact on the story and mythology of the series, as was the case with Adric.

A new season of Doctor Who will start in a couple of days, but it is due to people like Sladen and Courtney and their generosity towards fans over the years, and their own role as fans, that there is a future in the series. So the expectation of the new series, the gradual build-up on fansites, blogs, the trailers and teasers designed to increase the expectation and chatter between fans ‘looking forward’ to the new series takes on a new tenor.

For a non-fan, the news of the latest series, and the death of Elizabeth Sladen (and the loss of Sarah Jane), ‘matters’ in a very different way to that of the fan. It is this mattering, and not it’s significance (or meaning) that suggests an overlap with ‘death’ in FPS games. In games, and in Doctor Who for characters like Rory Pond and the Doctor, ‘death’ is a tabula rasa (Richard, 1999), a chance to do things over, where as death (or Death) is, as Tom Stoppard (1968) describes in Rosencrantz and Guildestern are Dead, the ultimate negative:

Rosencrantz: Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no… Death is “not.” Death isn’t. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no… What you’ve been is not on boats.

Lawrence Grossberg has been immensely helpful in thinking about how ‘death’ and military ideology is involved in the ‘mattering’ of FPS games. In writing on the subject of fandom, Grossberg explains that “a fan’s relation to cultural texts operate in the domain of affect” (Grossberg, 1992, p. 56). In this context, affect is not the same as emotion or feeling. Grossberg privileges the ‘pleasures’ of affect in the sensibility of fandom as having greater determination of what makes the popular popular than the ‘meaning’ of the cultural texts. Not denying that texts are embedded with discourse, but arguing that ideologies are maps of meaning, Grossberg suggests that affect is also embedded and provides an organising function.

Affect operates in tandem (and potentially in competition) with ideology, as it is involved in the production of maps of mattering that indicate with what intensities and degrees of investment texts become part of the make up our self-identification: I am a Doctor Who fan because Doctor Who matters to me, not because of what Doctor Who signifies to me or anyone else, although how I make meaning of the text is dependent on what matters or what degrees of investment are involved:

Affect plays a crucial role in organizing social life because affect is constantly constructing not only the possibility of difference, but the ways specific difference come to matter.  Both ideology and pleasure depend on defining and privileging particular terms within various relations of difference. But it is affect which enables some difference (for instance, race and gender) to matter as markers of identity rather than other (foot length, angle of ears, eye color) (Grossberg, 1992: p. 58).

For example both Sarah Jane and Elizabeth Sladen matter interms of my self-identity, and my social identity as a fan because she was the first female character in a show (that mattered to me) to demonstrate, discuss, and reveal qualities and statements that I would latter associated with feminism. It was less the discourse and unpacking of feminist ideology (however naive in execution and reception) that ‘mattered’ and more the intensity of investment in the series that became part of the experience of becoming a fan. What exists before and after signification is the intensity of investment in that experience.

The feelings I have now as a fan are not entirely a subjective experience:

[Feeling] … is a socially constructed domain of cultural effects. Some things feel different from others, some matter more or in different ways, than others … different affective relations inflect meanings and pleasure in very different ways. Affect is what gives  ‘color’, ‘tone’ or ‘texture’ to our experiences ” (Grossberg, 1992, p. 56).

Following Grossberg who defines affect qualitatively, by the ‘inflection’ of a particular investment, and quantitatively in the magnitude of that investment in experiences, practices, identities, meanings and pleasure (although both are difficult to measure) and difference, being a fan of a popular cultural text has its rewards (the anticipation of new content and the familiarity and enjoyment of older material) and its costs ( the feelings, emotions, associated with the death of this involved in the production of the text). The ‘mattering map’ of self-identity as a fan is then marked out by the an  intensity and excess, that has a bearing on “how to live within emotional and ideological histories” (Grossberg, 1992, p. 57). The news about Liz sladen’s death had a very different emotional register (puzzled sadness), tone or modulation, than news about a child’s death or suffering (horror and helplessness), for example, due to the mattering map of self-identity that is dominated by the intensities of identification as a ‘father’ compared to that of the ‘fan’.

Affect does not explain, what the death of Elizabeth Sladen or Sarah Janes formative feminism means to fans, but does help to explain why these and not other events and ideologies matter. I was watching The Sontaran Experiment, just the other day and it occurred to me that watching the episode for the first time when I was 5 or 6, Sarah’s interaction with Harry didn’t really mean much:

Harry: OK, old thing?
Sarah Jane: Harry, I am not a thing.

This exchange didn’t feature, as far as I remember, in what Doctor Who meant to me as a child, but it certainly expanded my investment in the show as an adolescent and as an adult and why it continues to matter.  This history of an intensity of investment, the “ideology of excess” (Grossberg , p. 61) became part in some sense of my own identity, and the relationship between the ideology of excess and the ideology of feminism registers on the mattering map of that fandom and self-identity and intersects with how I enfold characters like Ace, and the new sexual politics of Amy, Rory and the Doctor into my understanding of what the series means and how I understand the competing discourses of that show to be limited or expanded.

The ideology of excess, what can be said and interpreted as part of my own identity that includes being a Doctor Who fan, governs the types of conversations I have with other fans and non-fans and the patterns of meaning and mattering that can occur, it does not suggest that I take on the significance of Sarah’s feminism in its entirety, only that it marks a point on the mattering map of my identity.

Similarly, to get to my long winded point, the ‘death’ in FPS games does not register in the same way that the death of Elizabeth Sladen, or the Death of someone more personally known to me, or news about civilian or military personnel deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, does. Rather, the less something ‘matters’ as part of the my self-identity the more strongly the ideological component seems to mean: the military discourse of violence, fetishism of weapons, and ‘death’ in FPS games are no less ideological, than the ways the game is organised into a quasi-sports matches, and the way gender or race are portrayed but matter to a different degree, register with a different affective intensity, than the social experiences, trials of competition, achievements in victory and defeat that matter personally to my self-identity as a gamer.  So the gamer self, the political self that abhors the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, is conflicted about the US and NATO role in Libya, and the fanself saddened by both the prospect of no more Sarah Jane and the significance of an individual’s death, are all part of the assembly of  identity, that is composed out of the relations of differences that are being constantly reordered and made sense of:

It is in their affective lives that fans constantly struggle to care about something, and to find the energy to survive, to find the passion necessary to imagine and enact their own projects and possibilities (Grossberg, 1992, p. 59).

Sarah Jane [In The Monster of Peladon]: Now just a minute. There’s nothing “only” about being a girl, Your Majesty.

Sarah Jane [In Arks in Space, about the Doctor]: He talks to himself sometimes because he’s the only one who understands what he’s talking about.

I would have liked to have seen Sarah Jane go on to be a batty old woman too.

Farewell Sarah Jane and thank you Elizabeth Sladen.

Grossberg, Lawrence (1992). Is there a Fan in the House?: The Affective Sensibility of Fandom, in Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, Lewis, Lisa A (ed.), pp. 50 -65. Florence: Routledge.

Richard, Birgit (1998). Norn Attacks and Marine Doom, in Ars Electronica: Facing the Future, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Finish It! – Mortal Kombat and the missing R18+

The banning of Mortal Kombat in Australia this week is pushing all the right buttons. By ‘refusing classification’ for Mortal Kombat 8, the Classification Board has reignited an already well flambeyed interest in the missing R18+ rating for video games.

Australia’s National Classification System (NCS) is without an R18+ classification for video games, making us as the only Western democracy without an 18+ rating for game content (Brand et al, 2009). Unlike film and television, material that is considered by the Classification Board to be unsuitable for those under the age of 15 cannot be given a rating and is effectively ‘banned’ – it is not illegal to own, but the game is not permitted to be sold or distributed in Australia.

The current classification system forces games publishers to self-censor games that have been ‘refused classification’ (I’m actually quite taken with the deliciously Orwellian and recursive paradox of a classification that refuses classification). The result is that while games like Left4Dead2 and Fallout are subjected to arbitrary changes, games like the Grand Theft Auto series, which are rated for players over the age of 17 or 18 in the US and Europe, are released as MA15+ in Australia. Some elements of the game may be censored but others are not; you might not be able to beat up prostitutes in the Australian version of Grand Theft Auto, but you can still commit vehicular manslaughter on a genocidal level if you want to.

The current situation is a result of the moral panic in the early 1990s over games with violent graphics and sexual themes. Following a Senate inquiry, the Commonwealth, State and Territory ‘Censorship’ Ministers implemented a computer games classification scheme without an R18+ category. Games were considered to be a juvenile medium, sophisticated and technical toys meant for children. Very little research had been conducted on the issue at the time, and there was a good deal of confusion over the “community standards in regard to computer games and their potential impact” (Durkin and Aisbett, 1999). In 2006 the Office of Film and Literature Classification was replaced in its administrative capacity by the Attorney-General’s Department which now oversees the Classification Board and the Classification Review Board – to whom the appeals over classifications are considered.

Mortal Kombat was first published in 1992 and available in Australia in 1993 on the Super Nes and the Sega Megadrive – the vivid 16bit (and later 32bit versions) graphics and hyperviolent ‘finishing moves’ were the center of attention in the United States and Australia. The controversy over Mortal Kombat, and other games, lead directly to the formation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in the US, a self-regulating system with not only the Adult (18+) category, but a Mature (17+) rating as well as Teen (13-16) and Everyone (10+) classifications. The rise of consoles like the Super NES meant that Mortal Kombat and other gamers were emerging from the arcades and entering the living rooms of many families for the first time. The sophistication of the graphics of these systems, for their time, contributed to media fuelled fears and moral panics about the potential for negative effects of playing games. The uproar this week is evidence of the continued “distrust” of new media (Brand and Finn, 2009) and until a new entertainment media technology – something like holograms or Matrix style direct neural interfaces – video games are going to persist in the tradition of paper back novels, comic books, movies and television, that is the technology attracting the most misunderstanding and fear of the day. After all we are still have the video games are not art debate.

Before an R18+ classification can be introduced, the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General must arrive at a consensus on the issue, but the AG’s have been dragging their heels on the matter since 2006 (probably too busy playing Mafia Wars and Farmville on their Facebook profiles). Both the research and the public consultation on the issue show overwhelming support for the inclusion of an R18+. We know that the average Australian gamer is over 30 and almost as likely to be female as male (Brand (2009) indicates that 43% of gamers are now female) and more than 88% percent of Australian households have a device for playing games (Brand et al 2008).

The Attorney-General’s Department published a discussion papers on the NCS and called for public submissions on the issue in 2009. When submissions closed in February 2010 the department received more that 59,000 responses, but opponents to the R18 in and outside of the government cried foul as many of these submissions were collected from the retailer EB Games and the ‘Grow Up Australia’ organisation. More than 98% percent of the submissions supported the introduction of an R18+ classification, but it’s not an electorally significant issue (it just pisses gamers off) so the results was sidelined .

What counts as ‘realistic’ violence is also highly contested. The Classification Board typically refers to the ‘impact’ that games may have, yet these rulings are not based on evidence or on playing the games (as far as I am aware the games are demonstrated for the Board) but on a perception of ‘community standards’. From the Classification Board’s report on MK:

“Despite the exaggerated conceptual nature of the fatalities and their context within a fighting game set in a fantasy realm, impact is heightened by the use of graphics which are realistically rendered and very detailed. In the opinion of the Board, the game contains violence that exceeds strong in impact and is unsuitable for a minor to see or play.”

Let’s explore that confusing statement a little. What is “realistic rendering” if not detail (assuming the statement isn’t tautological). If “realistic” is a reference to the blood and gore produced by the finishing move, then why add “very detailed”? It’s doubtful that realism in this instance refers to the representation of activity in the game as it adheres to the laws of gravity, physics and biology – the game’s mechanics – because there is very little ‘reality’ in the Mortal Kombat; the humans leap, kick, shoot energy waves from their body in highly stylistic and ‘unrealistic’ ways well beyond what any human could achieve. Most of the actions in the game are not at all physically possible, including the dismemberment, disembowelment and decapitation (the three D’s of Mortal Kombat’s gameplay) objected to in the classification report – and the adults the game is intended for can distinguish this.

I’m also going to assume that even those aged between 10 and 15 would be able to make this judgement. As a parent I certainly wouldn’t want my children to be playing games like MK (again it is made for adults) but I’d have more issues if they attempted to play games like Grand Theft Auto, which are rated MA15+. I do, however, remember playing my first games as a minor – games like Wolfenstein 3D and the notorious Leisure Suit Larry series – and how much I enjoyed them (and the extensive time I put into playing them with my friends) so this is a tough call to make.

More worryingly embedded in the statement by the Review Board is the suggestion that by participating in the act of gameplay that a ‘real’ effect is occurring on, or to the player. This would include desensitising the player to ‘actual’ violence, or making them more likely to commit acts of violence and be aggressive outside of the game? Is the reference to “realistic rendering” a suggestion that the representation and viewing of the fantasy violence is as ‘real’ for a young audience as ‘watching an actual violent assault on a physical person? If the realism, referred to, is not the preparation or readying for a ‘real’ act (via its affect) then it’s ‘impact’ is interpreted be a occurring as an effect on the player’s brain, meaning the rendering of the act is as ‘real’, or as ‘actual’ as a physical violent assault.

A substantial literature review on the impact of playing violent video games on aggression was published by the Attorney-Genera’s Department in September 2010, which summarises research into the effects of violent games on aggression as being contested and inconclusive. The report concluded that while some evidence showed some short-term effects on levels of aggression, games with cartoonish violence had just as much an effect of video games with ‘realistic’ violence and there was little evidence on any effect in the long term (Attorney-General’s Department, 2010).

If there is no consensus on the ‘effects’ of playing video games, the Classification Board’s findings is an interpretation of the history of classification and the application of ‘community standards’ that as already mentioned is based on fear, paranoia and confusion. This interpretation leaves very little room for the review board and the majority of games released should be ‘refused classification’. If games like Bulletstorm, where the rendering of blood spatter, gore, ballistics (also not realistic) of the effects is vivid, colourful, and highly detailed, are permitted a rating then so should Mortal Kombat.

Two possibilities remain, either the banning of the MK indicates the board are not doing there job properly – (Bulletstorm got Fox news all hot and bothered) or, and this my cynical optimism showing through, MK is a historically significant game and perhaps the Classification Board is using MK to send a message to the Attorney Generals to get their act into gear and find the missing R18+ classification down the back of the couch so that everyone can back on with doing their jobs properly and Australian gamers can get back to enjoy the entertainment designed for them.

Earlier this week The Escapist’s video series Extra Credit called out Electronic Arts (EA) marketing campaigns for orchestrating duplicitious and immature market strategies for violent games, like the fake Dante’s Inferno protests and the Your-Mum-Won’t-Llike-It approach to Dead Space 2, effectively marketing games meant for adults to minors. Ultimately the banning of MK is good news for the game’s publisher in Australia, Warner Brothers; the games publishers are likely to succeed on appeal and they benefit from the increased publicity for the game. I’m very interested to read the Classification Review Board’s decision one the appeal.

If the ban is uphel the result is going to make the game highly a downloaded commodity (by adults and minors alike) and imported by the very adult market the game is intended for. Rather than spend our times kicking this issue about every time the Classification Board flexes its censorious clout, we should be paying far more attention to a helping parents figure out what games are suitable to play with a internationally standardised content rating system and working on developing public information about healthy approaches to playing games. The issue should no longer be content, but context.

Durkin, Kevin and Aisbett, Kate, 1999. Computer Games and Australian Today, Officel of Film and Literature Classification, Sydney.

Brand, Jeffrey, Borchard, Jill, and Holmes, Kym, 2008. Interactive Austrlia 2009, Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia, available: accessed March 3, 2011.

Brand, Jeffrey, Borchard, Jill, and Holmes, Kym, 2009. Case Study: Australia’s Compter Games Audiences and Restrive Ratings Syste,m, Communications & Strategies, no. 73., p. 67.

Realism and Immersion

(I’ve posted on this previously but this is an updated version, as part of some reflections on the topic for the chapter mentioned in the previous post)

My issue with the use of the terms ‘realistic’ and ‘realism’ to talk about texts like movies and games started when I first went to the cinema to see Saving Private Ryan, a film the entertainment news media readily claimed as ‘realistic’, and I recall a newspaper article that had interview with Second World War and Vietnam veterans, who after seeing the film spoke about how how ‘accurate’ the portrayal of the battle scenes were, including how ‘real’ the Omaha Beach scene was. I remembered the odd sense of dislocation at the time of watching, wondering how anyone could compare the comfortable and entertaining experience of viewing a film in a cinema with surround sound and bag of Maltesers with the horrible, brutal and ‘actual’ experience of war. I felt a great disservice being done to the text and the those involved in the historical events and I recalled those thoughts years later later playing Call of Duty: Allied Assault game, the first PC game of the series, which featured ‘Operation Overlord’ a mission to survive the Omaha Beach scene.

Lights down, a comfortable seat, tasty snacks and a decent sound setup once again for the experience but this time something else occurred, responses that were totally unlike those of the cinema event. As I directed my character out of the landing boat, the pelting of bullets decimating my virtual squad members I ‘died’ immediately and sank beneath the bloodied waters only to instantly reload the scene and try again. As reloaded, died, and reloaded again and again, I slowly pieced together the tactics necessary to survive. Hiding behind the large metal anti-landing placements, but only for a second as the briefest hesitation would mean an enemy volley of machine gun fire would find me, I began too look around, to take in and explore scene, putting together an overall strategy in response to the visual and audible clues as to how to solve the puzzle of the game, while directing my avatar with enough speed and accuracy to perform accordingly to the code’s mechanics. I witnessed a scene of a medic attempting to pull wounded soldiers to the forward position – and wondered if they were subject to the same rules of the game or did they exist at a different point in the uncanny valley, and at no point did I confuse the trajectory of the simulated bullets with the effects of ‘actual ones. My elation of making it to safety against a sand bank was ironically ripped from me as the Captain ordered me back into the surf to retrieve weapons from the fallen, not because I’d survived, but because the overlooked the now standard component of game design that it is cheaper to force players to go over the same area twice than it is to design and build more areas in total.

The feelings, emotions, responses I had during this game play were some of the most intense and rewarding of my FPS playing experience, comparable to early victories in Wolfenstein 3D against cyborg Hitler, and the terrifying experience of playing Doom in the dark. At no time did I feel the experience was a realistic simulation of the events, it wasn’t ‘immersive’: the endless reloading of my character, bathroom breaks, a spot of vacuuming and a walk to the shops during the time it took to finish the mission, meant that while I was ‘absorbed’ by the entertainment at no point did I confuse the ‘real’ experience of playing as anything else than a representation, a fictional and interactive account. The discourse of ‘realism’ is an elemental factor in the media effects response to the FPS genre, one that is contributed to in the marketing of games that focuses on pixels and polygon counts. The replication of ‘real’ world locations and ‘accurate’ sounds, models and textures are imagined to create a mythical status of immersion, drawing the player into the game experience through more and more detailed environments, and as such the ‘realism’ and the ‘effects’ of ‘realistic’ media violence has taken centre stage in the criticism of FPS games, and the moral, political and legal cases that have been against the genre in recent years. I will go into more detail on this in and I’ve been slowly putting my thoughts together on the notion of game play as being ‘absorbing’ rather than ‘immersive’ and I will explore some of the theory involved in the construction of ‘immersion’ and take a look at some of the  theory involved replacing the notion of ‘absorption’ over ‘immersion’ in the next post.

FPS Abstraction

An abstract I submitted last year to a call for contributions for a book on First Person Shooter (FPS) games (with the awesome title: Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: The First-Person Shooter) has been accepted for further peer-review. Now I have to get cracking and write the chapter. Here is the abstract:

Creativity, Contagion and Control: Affect in Online Multiplayer First Person Shooter Games

The FPS genre attracts attention to the degrees of ‘realism’, ‘interactivity’ and ‘immersion’ afforded to the player. Such terms, however, only communicate part of the FPS experience and are not adequate in fully accounting for the social and political scope of gamer culture. To be sure, the subjective view has served gamers well: a combination of diegetic and non-diegetic visual information and the appropriation of the screen language of cinema (Galloway, 2006), coupled with ever increasing polygon counts, photo realistic rendering and physical simulation result in a focus on the events represented on and by the screen. The discourse of ‘realism’ encourages the concern over ‘effects’ that pervades the news media, obliging the top-tier FPS games’ courting of controversy, but moral panics are the result of media, no longer mediating, but amplifying and modulating the negative affective dimensions of the genre, leading to louder calls for stronger State-enforced regulation of games content.

Game scholars have begun to map out new theoretical ground in a consideration of the role of  games ‘affects’, increasing the understanding of games as ‘real’ events that involve visceral and embodied experiences. These accounts, including Carr (2003, 2006), Shinkle (2005), and Shaw and Warf (2009) still tend to overstate the degree to which ‘realism’ and ‘immersion’ have a primacy in the experience of FPS games. With attention to Medal of Honor (2010) and Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010), this chapter considers the role of affect in the creative play, marketing and distribution of FPS games for the PC. It provides an analysis of three vectors of affect intersecting in these games.

First is a consideration of the presence and role of creativity in FPS game play: affect, according to Massumi (2002a, 2002b) is what remains of the body’s potential after each or everything a body says or does, it is a remainder of excess, a reserve of creativity. This account of creativity in FPS games is also grounded in the account of Silvan Tomkin’s (1965) affect of interest, which is the precursor for creative action.

Affect contagion, is the second vector to be considered, which involves sympathetic communication through linguistic, mimetic and memetic modes of communication. Contagion is considered in terms of the full spectrum of interaction, and biological capacities within online multiplayer environments: through the cybernetic interface to the dynamics of multiplayer action and the role of the voice in online games.

If affect is the politicisation of potential, then its methods of control are equally politicised and industrialised. Deleuze (1996) extended Foucault’s account of societies of discipline to consider societies of control, and in third vector of affect to be mapped through these FPS games, this chapter considers the games industry new means for control in terms of the affective marketing strategies enabled via digital

It seeks to contribute to the understanding of the means for which everyday practices of the gamer, including the formation of gamer personas, have become forms of value-producing labor and characterise the way power functions in the games industry around the play between representation, affect and access.

Carr, D. (2003). “Genre and Affect in Silent Hill and Planescape Torment.” Game Studies 3(2).
Carr, D. (2006). Space, Navigation and Affect. Computer Games Text, Narrative, Play. D. Carr,     K. Buckingham, A. Burn and G. Schott.
Cambridge, Polity Press: 59-71.
Deleuze, G. (1992). “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59(Winter): 3-7.
Galloway, A. R. (2006). Gaming, Essays on Algorithmic Culture. London, University of Minnesota Press.
Massumi, B. (2002a). Parables for the Virtual. Durham, London, Duke University Press.
Massumi, B. (2002b) ‘Navigating Moments: Interview with Brian
Massumi’, Hope: New Philosophies for Change, Annandale Pluto Press (available:, accessed
November 15, 2010).
Shaw, I. G. R. and B. Warf (2009). “Worlds of Affect: virtual geographies of video games.”  Environment and Planning A 41(6):
Shinkle, E. (2005). Feel It, Don’t Think: the significance of Affect in the Study of Digital Games, DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing
Views – Worlds in Play, Vancouver, Authors and Digital Games Research Association.
Tomkins, S. (1962). Affect, Imagery, Consciousness, Volume 1. New York, Springer Publishing Company.