Following on from my post last week about CHI 2015 in Seoul, in this post I reflect on the Conference of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), which I attended last month in Lüneburg, Germany.
As mentioned, the two conferences vastly differ in scale – CHI is a spectacle, with thousands of attendees. Massive banners welcome you to CHI, where DiGRA, a tenth of the size, has just arrows chalked onto the pavement.
This is not to say that they differ in quality, just tone – they are very different conferences that appeal to different audiences and different kinds of contributions.
Tom Feltwell and I were delivering a presentation on some ongoing work on superstition as a design resource. The paper and talk looked at the commercial games Football Manager and UnrealWorld RPG, exploring how those games use complex systems and intentionally poor feedback to foster superstitious behaviour in their players.
We followed this up discussing two games we made on this theme – Non-League Football Supporter is a game where you play a fan following your team as they grimly battle the odds in low-level English football. Sacred Harvest is a cooperative game of Celtic mysticism, where players develop and revise physical prayers to pagan gods in order to improve yearly harvests.
Ben Kirman, Tom Feltwell and Conor Linehan (2015) Player Superstition as a Design Resource. In Proceedings of Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) Conference 2015, Lüneburg, Germany
The talk went well, and it led to some interesting discussions around “theorycrafting” – where game players systematically expose game systems – and some thoughtful conversation on the psychology of gambling and religion (heavy!).
There was a bunch of really interesting talks at the conference. As with CHI I felt constantly exhausted yet exhilarated by the powerful work on show. Highlights were Jaroslav Švelch’s fantastic tour of 1980s Czechoslovakian protest games, including my favourite game title ever: “The Adventures of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square in Prague on January 16 1989” and William Robinson’s critical code reading of Jason Rohrer’s Passage (what does your code say about your values?), which is especially interesting in the context of the questionable ideology of Rohrer’s more recent title The Castle Doctrine.
Of everything at DiGRA it was the board game related work that I liked the best. The last time I was at DiGRA, José Zagal and I organised a fantastic panel including the world’s most published game designer Reiner Knizia, so it was good to see the work on tabletop games still going strong. This included a great talk from Piotr Sterczewski
on themes of social conflict in Polish history-themed board games (Poland has emerged as a powerhouse of European-style board game design in the past 5 years) and a couple of presentations from both Melissa Rogerson and the collection of Staffan Björk, José Zagal, Joris Dormens and Sebastian Deterding on transmedial aspects of board games. Where Melissa’s work focuses on the digital translations of board games such as Agricola, the others focussed on the increasingly blurry edges. Interesting cases like Star Realms (“a transmedia mess”) which is available in both digital and physical formats, and reference to classic early digital augmented wargame Tanktics.
A particularly thoughtful moment was when Staffan pointed out a curious aspect of Hanabi, a collaborative deduction game where players cannot see their own hand of cards. The three different physical versions of the game (playing cards, square cards or mahjong tiles), although sharing an identical ruleset, have varying difficulty due to the way the pieces can be physically arranged by the player. The board game thread was rounded out by a popular panel by these five, again arguing for the association to be renamed to a more inclusive “GRA”.
This was the first DiGRA conference since #gamergate appeared last year, so I was especially interested in how the DiGRA community would address this ongoing palaver.
Somewhat bizarrely, DiGRA found itself thrust into the centre of this mess when it was implicated in a rather complicated conspiracy theory that involved DARPA funding marxist feminists to destroy all video games. Gamergate enthusiasts spent considerable effort gleefully tracing citations and collaborations to expose the sinister “ideologues” at the heart of this global conspiracy.
One night after the conference I found myself sharing a dinner table with several of the names mentioned in that video, and someone tried to explain “Operation Digging DiGRA” to some poor soul. The idea of #gamergate folk was to organise a massive investigation of the DiGRA digital library, where they were reading all papers written by members in search of evidence to support the conspiracy theory. You can imagine the laughter around the table – the idea of lay people choosing to closely read academic work is a total win! That’s what we wanted all along! In many ways, Operation Digging DiGRA typifies the entire anti-DiGRA movement in the utter ignorance of how or why academia works. The idea that a small research organisation like DiGRA has any real impact on, or even desire to impact, the AAA game industry is laughable enough, but the idea of collaboration and citation as evidence of conspiracy is side-splitting.
The problem is, this ignorance needs to be a topic of reflection within DiGRA (and academia in general, probably). From the outside, how and why academia works is somewhat opaque, and this is especially so in a subject like games, where the players often seem to consider themselves highly knowledgeable. The ridiculous misunderstandings are arguably a result of the failure of the community to present work in an accessible way. Although community members like Petri Lankoski, Torill Mortensen and Staffan Björk gamely engage with critics of DiGRA on Twitter, conversation has largely proven impossible, or at best unwise.
An example is the attempt to spam the #digra2015 hashtag with porn and memes during the conference with the aim of making conversation impossible between attendees. That kind of activity is clearly beyond reason. Hilariously, as Torill outlines on her blog, the hashtag only started being spammed when the conference was already almost over, and in any case was only spammed during the middle of the night, American gamergaters clearly ignorant of the fact that Germany is in a different time zone. As a result, this “operation” caused no disruption at all.
Frustrated with the “soft” humanities-led approach commonly taken by DiGRA, some gamergate folk have even suggested starting their own alternative version of game studies, “rooted in harder science”. This was an interesting and surprising development, since CHI, FDG, ACE, ICEC, CHI PLAY and many others already cater for generally “harder” (i.e. positivist) approaches to investigating games. However, new fans of positivist games research might be alarmed to read that this HCI-aligned perspective is currently in minor crises over validity and focus and seems to be increasingly embracing a richer variety of research methods, including those already in wide use by DiGRA. From the other direction, Chris Bateman’s excellent essay on “The Three Discourses of Games” talks of a similar maturation of game studies beyond criticism and design.
For me, and many others, this closing gap is excellent news – for several years the interdisciplinary approaches typical of LiSC often put us in academic no-mans land, where our work is “too soft” for some venues and “too hard” for others. Indeed, the group of researchers who attended both CHI and DiGRA this year includes about four people, by my count, so hopefully that number will only increase in the future. A fantastic start is this announcement:
— Brendan Keogh (@BRKeogh) May 17, 2015
For me, both conferences had enormous value. I feel invigourated and inspired by my experiences this spring. Although different in methods, there is a lot of stunning work and many great minds in current games research and I am very fortunate to be able to witness it.
Passing through Hamburg also gave me the opportunity (/justified the entire trip) to see the largest model train set in the world. I wonder if there is a paper in that?
Thanks Jonathan Barbara and Tom Feltwell for the photos and the great company!