Friday, December 05, 2008

Crosswords/Crossroads/Crossed Fingers

The morning sessions I attended at the second full day of ACE 2008 addressed a range of social interactions structured by computational media in games, virtual worlds, and mobile computing applications. Although it wasn't part of the theory track, there were some interesting theoretical implications for advocates of open platform technologies and are concerned about the proprietary encoding of assets that compose the world of Second Life would have been interested in Sebastian Ullrich's presentation about OpenSim, which like the COLLADA initiative must grapple with the difficult process of creating a common computational lexicon for 3-D modeling and animation applications.

My talk "In Polite Company: Rules of Play in Five Facebook Games" started off the theory sessions by examining lessons learned from playing Scrabulous, Zombies, Parking Wars, PackRat, and (Lil) Green Patch on the popular social network site. Because several interesting user revolts took place since I first drafted the paper, which initially focused on how concepts of politeness and face were important for these types of online social interaction, my actual talk and slides had a somewhat different emphasis, since I also thought there were useful lessons for developers about the risks of creating an application for a platform in which players could form user groups to complain about your games design features. In the case of Facebook games, disputes about copyright and real money trades have energized particularly militant groups of players.

Karthikeya Acharya noted the contrast between U.S. and North American norms about social computing and those in the developing world. Acharya examined the needs of the Indian neighborhood user and the challenges of designing for the mobile Internet, since his Nokia group is working with a population in which only 3% of residents have the Internet while 23% have access to a mobile phone. Although the project was based in Bangalore, Archarya's group used ethnographic techniques to examine patterns of use in seven cities and what he called "variation in the urban fabric."

Like many theory panels, there was an obligatory WoW research presentation, but this one actually contained some interesting observations about how social groups are reconstituted when there are changes made by the game's developers. Given the massive scale of the game and its architectures of control, unlike in the case of Facebook, there are few opportunities for large-scale user revolts if WoW makes its players unhappy. Thus the game company makes changes that players can not change.

Specifically, when World of Warcraft researchers like Vivian Hsueh-Hua Chen talk about "pre-BC" and "post-BC" social dynamics, they aren't discussing ancient civilizations at the cusp of the Christian era; they are talking about Warcraft's Burning Crusade, which may seem like an odd title, since there are a billion Muslims in the world who don't consider "crusade" to be a neutral term in their Internet discourse. Chen discussed the game's expansion and the effects on social interaction with lower raid sizes in a talk that spoke to some of the same issues that I raised about trust and "facework" management, since the highly experienced level 70 players in her study had adapted to smaller community sizes, where they vetted members first in a way that produced an "equalizing effect" in actual game play.

Shingo Hattahara
attempted to rebut Akio Mori's findings of atrophied "game brain" among videogame players, a finding that has also been expedient for political opponents of gaming who would like to see games regulated more stringently among young children in the United States. Hattahara actually found higher brain activity among expert users and that novice users could achieve more brain activity as they were involved in more training in game play. Unfortunately a language barrier made it difficult for Hattahara to explain his ideas about how cognitive and motor functions were linked to muscle memory in the players' experiences with shooting games and musical rhythm games.

Fans of Scrabulous should at least be pleased that Hasbro has dropped its lawsuit against its maker RJ Software, although online imitators Lexulous and Wordscraper are playable on the site.

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