Digital Humanities

I have been watching some of the HUMlab seminars and reading about the Digital Humanities and the work of Dr Patrik Svensson. From what I have read so far, Dr Svensson (2010) contributes to the conceptual mapping of the Digital Humanities (especially the shift of the Computing Humanities). He recognises Professor McPherson’s (2008,) typology of the Digital Humanities where the Computing Humanities (and its focus on building tools, infrastructure, standards and collections) is separated from the Blogging Humanities who – it is said – are more concerned with the production of networked media and peer-to-peer writing. McPherson (2008) also outlines a third a sphere of digital humanities, a multimodal domain for scholarly  tools, databases, networked writing and peer-to-peer commentary, while also leveraging the potential of the visual and aural media arts that are part of contemporary life.

Presner et al (2010) dates the first wave of Digital Humanities between the 1990s until the mid 2000s, noting a focus on the quantitative, automating, digitizing, and projects of infrastructure. The second wave expanded the field with a qualitative focus that involved critical and interpretive interaction in digital contexts to produce  new convergent fields, as well as hybrid methodologies of old and new models of analysis, curation, research and publication. Berry (2011) suggests a third wave of digital humanities, concentrated around the underlying computationality of the forms held within a computational medium, such as Software Studies and Ian Bogost’s Platforms Studies. The study I want to present at HUMlab, (I hope) will follow in these lines. The culture of players, of gamers, is well established, as is the academic field of games studies, but the analysis of the culture of video game production is less well attended. Bogost’s Platform Studies draws attention to the role of hardware alongside that of software, in the history of video games, but the network is not complete without the actors with access to the means of production, the programmers, developers, engineers. I’m not so interested in the political economy of the industry, or at least that isn’t my primary interest but a necessary part of the picture.

What I am interested in is the cultures of production, and what those who make video games think about their work, and how that translates in the use of social media. Berry (2011) considers the way digital technologies are already part of everyday research practices, influencing and being shaped by that use. Students access to mobile and highly convergent technologies, that have changed the nature of study, attending university and doing their own research. Similarly, in the culture of video game production at a very local level, digital games technologies are transformed by the use of social media, from Facebook, to Skype,  Forums, Twitter, even Wikipedia, Podcasts, etc. Hardware also had its role in the reshaping of the industry, especially with the success of the iPhone and iPad as mobile games devices. Understanding the intersections of play and production, means better understanding the relationships between those involved in the production of the digital and physical objects of games and the conditions of their play.

 

Berry, David, 2011. ‘The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities’, Culture Machine, Vol 12.

McPherson, Tara 2008. ‘Dynamic Vernaculars: Emergent Digital Forms in Contemporary Scholarship’,  Lecture presented to HUMLab Seminar, Umeå University, 4 March 2008. http://stream.humlab.umu.se/index.php?streamName=dynamicVernaculars.

Svenson, Patrik,  2010. ‘The Landscape of Digital Humanities’, Digital humanities quarterly, Summer, vol. 4, no. 1. http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/4/1/000080/000080.html

Presner, Todd, et al. 2010. “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0”. UCLA Mellon Seminar in Digital Humanities. http://www.humanitiesblast.com/manifesto/Manifesto_V2.pdf.

Presner, Todd, 2010. Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.  Connexions, June  8, 2010. http://cnx.org/content/m34246/1.6/

Sweden is real

Sweden is suddenly very real and I’ve been invited to give a seminar at the HUMlab at Umeå University on the 28th of September, following the two day Social Media Cultures Workshop.

‘Indie’ and Independent Games and Culture in the Australian Video Game Industry
The global financial crisis has brought the Australian video games industry to the end of an era. The survivors emerging from the independent sectors are now competing directly with the older studio system whose ongoing survival is reliant on an industrial work-for-hire production and distribution model. New independent studios, partnerships, and collectives have responded to the opportunities of online and mobile games, and their successes have reaffirmed the relationship between the cultural production of games in Australia and their globalized mainstream audiences. This seminar examines these changes and considers their effect on the synonymous relationship between the terms, ‘indie’ and independent. It argues that if ‘indie’ culture is to maintain its ideological relevance and critical creativity it must be active in the overlapping spheres of operation between itself, the independents and ‘big gaming’ culture in order to better address issues of identity, gender, sexuality and intellectual property in the content and context of making games.

Deciding on the pitch for the abstract was difficult. I could be talking about machinima, affect, mobile play and first person shooter games. I am going to be talking about persona and social media, but as I am hoping to conduct research interviews while in Sweden to find out more about the industry there, I felt I ought to tell people about the industry and the culture of making games in Australia.

Ever since #Freeplay11, I have been preoccupied with the tension in the usually synonymous treatment of the terms “indie” and independent. The post GFC changes to the local games industry serves as a microcosm for the larger global patterns, and the independent games festival functioned as a lense for the study of the actors of the small but significant network of games Australian development.

The biggest thing to come out of the independent games festival publicly was the explosion of blog commentary, twittering and blog activity following the unexpected tension over gender issues that bubbled over in the panel – the words we use

The issue of gender is central, but also take note of the diferent media spheres the discussion has crossed, from the live conference panel, to twitter, facebook, podcasts, blogs.

Ben Abraham   at  Gamasutra

BRKeogh

Searing Scarlet here and here

Topy Twitter coverage of the festival

The blog coverage represents what is left of the overlap between indie and indepdendent. Can we call academics independent, or journalists and critics unbiased, similarly is it possible to make games outside the dominant systems for their production?

I was already aware of the great disparity between the number of men and women working in the industry: only one in the 15 respondents so far have been female and only two considered the lack of women working in the industry to be a problem. Instead, at Freeplay11 I saw the resistance, a challenge that I understood to represent the qualities of ‘indie’ culture.

The ‘indie’ position, is one from which to criticise dominant operations of the mainstream, it is an oppositional culture. Indie cinema, says Newman (2009, 20) shares a common principle with other kinds of ‘indie’ culture, in that the attempt to appeal to a mass audience on its own terms entails an unacceptable compromise.  I don’t think that is necessarily true or possibly in game design.

In the seminar I will be asking if the success of independent studios post GFC, in Australia is an environment capable of sustaining the oppositional perspectives and frameworks from outside the mainstream, particular on issues of gender, race, sexuality and age that are central to the operations of indie cultures in other entertainment mediums. I intend to  map out where I think the independent and the indie have spilt, and how that split has a lot to do with social media, and the importance of the digital persona in games culture and developer culture.

Newman, M. 2009. Indie Culture: In Pursuit of te Authentic Autonomous Alternative. Cinema Journal, vol. 48, no. 3., 16-34.

Edit: Apologies to  SearingScarlet for posting the wrong link to her blog.

#Freeplay11

Freeplay, the independent games festival at the State Library of Victoria over the weekend was excellent. The conference presentations and panels were lively and informative, the workshops were varied and interesting and the Twitter coverage was on fire and on the giant twitter wall in the Experimedia section of the festival which also housed the the awesome Winnitron AU indie arcade cabinet and a range of hands-on examples of games in development by local and indie talent. The event couldn’t have come at a better time and it helped me get a closer look at the relationship between ‘indie’ and ‘independent’ in the local games industry, and the wider operation of an Australian game culture that is not centered purely in the act of playing or producing , but an intersection of the two.

Independent game design in the Australian industry

Freeplay is an Independent Games Festival this weekend in Melbourne. The festival includes a free arcade and expo in the Experimedia room of the State Library of Victoria. The conference program over the weekend at the Library’s conference centre has two stream of speakers, from whom I am hoping to find out more about the lifecycle of the local games industry and what it means to be ‘indie’ and ‘independent’ to video games developer in Australia.
I think the winnitron AU will be popular, and going to treat the event like a practice run for the research trip to Sweden. I am only going to have couple of days I have in Stockholm and Umea and I am going to have to cram as much into them as possible. Freeplay will provide a very timely chance to observe the local industry and its public reception. The festival first ran in 2004, and seems pretty well known in Melbourne.

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 GameWatch.org, 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.