Synthetic cooperation and learning. A study of knowledge-production and sharing in online computer games.
My project is seeking to understand the role of knowledge in MMOs. At a first glance the pairing of games and knowledge might seem odd, but the tasks completed by MMO players requires a high degree of cooperation, skill and plain “know how”. This “know how” is based on experience in game as well as information gathered through the many sites existing around the game itself; databases keeping track of in game items, guides on how to make money, movie tutorials that shows how difficult monsters can be dealt with, to animated discussions on forums about the game’s future. I am fascinated by this aspect of gaming, as producing and sharing knowledge seem to have so little in common with the idea of “playing”, while at the same time its intrinsically linked to the gaming experience.
So, why care about what gamers knows about playing games? Well, apart from the obvious answer of wanting to better understand an emergent gaming culture and its many related practices, these gamers are also gaining skills that are highly sought. Being able to cooperate across continents with the help of video conferences, messaging tools and phones is something businesses have dreamt of for a long time, but we are starting to realize that fruitful mediated cooperation requires more then a technology that enables it: it requires skills and methods of using these technologies and overcome their limitations. Gamers seem to have this skill, as otherwise they would not be able to perform their tasks, so what is it they are actually doing?
Another part of my project that have developed during the last year, is that of knowledge and design. While studying MMO players, it’s obvious that knowledge is central part of the culture and their practices. Further more: its central to the play experience, and how they construct it. That realization sparked an interest for seeing the other side of things: what role does knowledge have in the creation of games? How does it relate to the knowledge used to play them?
With those questions in mind, its becoming more obvious that I need to talk to designers…
Framework aka A mouthful of Science and Technology Studies (STS)
As a field STS concerns itself with the construction and appropriation of facts and artifacts. Since I am studying online culture and computer games, I have focused on the technology side of things – though most of its theoretical framework has been developed in tandem. As a baseline concept it has a goal to include the technology in analysis of socio-technical networks. Too often technology is seen as the cause of change with notions such as “With the introduction of the Internet, people related to each other in a new way” which gives technology agency, but at the same time grants some kind of mystical power over humans to make them behave in a certain way. Then, going away from a determinist approach, the other end of the scale offers explanations where the users have centre stage and explain everything as a result of social interaction. Here, the technologies is overlooked, they becomes missing masses when excluded from analysis and their role is overlooked. STS aims to strike some kind of middle ground. Technology is not without power as understandings of use and users are embedded into its design, at the same time as users are not forced to follow these scripts and give the artifacts meaning in everyday life through their own practices.
Using STS to investigate games and online culture is exiting because it is practices that exist within the technology itself, and the technologies are intrinsically linked to how people communicate, play and experience these cultures.
Finding a home for my findings
Most scholars who today are studying computer games, had to adapt and redevelop existing theoretical framework from their own discipline to explain what they were finding when playing. I am no different, as one of my main goals is to show how valuable the STS perspective is when studying gameculture. The change however, is that I am among the first generation of games researchers that are growing into a existing field. The Game Studies field have journals, organisations, conferances. Perhaps the pioneer phase is over?
As a field Game Studies grasps wide, and in many ways it is defined by the fact that it has contributions from everywhere; media, psychology, ethnography, sociology, theater and economics. We are all in our own way trying to understand what computer games are about, and to unravel the part that we understand. Such a kaleidoscopic approach is valuable with a case such as computer games, as it is complex, multi-situated and filled with opposing practices. At the same time it creates and need for trading zones where our findings translate to an audience unfamiliar with our own background. My great challenge is to convey my findings so that they are appreciated by the game studies field, without loosing the analytical edge I bring from STS.
Beeing between fields it not unique. And when I get used to it I am sure I will enjoy this shared parenthood.
Research interests – some keywords
Specific to games: knowledge in games, hardcore gamers, machinima as practice, children and MMOs
General: online culture, morality of technologies, social media, user/producer relations