Unfurling the expanded Self: How Aspirational Identification + Avatars Can = Hyper-Real You

        Have you ever heard a recording of yourself and thought “oh my god who is that?, there is no way that’s me; my voice is way deeper.” I always cringe when I hear my recorded voice, a pale echo of myself; a lighter, higher doppelganger voice which lacks all the base tones I hear reverberating in my head. This disagreement of the internally recognized self with the socially realized self is a point of conflict for many people and a key motivation to pursue a “higher fidelity” version of oneself in virtual reality (VR).


In real life (RL) it is not always possible to bring our internal conceptions of who we are into agreement with how people perceive us. Whether it is a disparity between the gender role we identify with or wish to explore vs. our socially recognized one, or simply a disagreement between how intelligent or witty we feel we are vs. how we are assessed based on your conversational skills, self-image in RL can be difficult to mediate. In this respect VR allows the mindful construction of digital representations of self which agree with our self-perceptions. As Boellstorff illustrates in her book “Coming of Age in Second Life”, the intentionality which is possible in designing an Avatar can lead to visible signs of aspirational identification. Boellstorff notes that the dynamic that people have control over their personal appearance in second life allows the keen observer to deduce a great deal of information about the person controlling an avatar. In RL you can work out, dress up, and stand strait but to a large extent what you’re born with is what you got; If you’re a 5’11’’ish brown-haired lightweight such as myself there is just no reasonable way to aspire yourself into being a 6’3’’ blond Conan the barbarian clone, let alone an southeast Asian woman or something more exotic like a tiger.


Because of this, RL appearance is often a poor indicator of peoples’ desires, self-perception, and proclivities. This is not true of VR; in second life you can be anything you like, and because everyone knows this, how you choose to look offers a window into your desires, tastes, and aspiration. This can, of course, take the form of people creating avatars which are inconsistent with their self-perceptions (i.e a heterosexual-identifying male creating a female avatar).

Boellstorff comments, within the second life community avatars that are stereotypically beautiful are often perceived as being false representations of their owners and an outward expression of vanity or insecurity. So does the possibility to align your avatar’s physical appearance to your self-perception present to people a truer self that is not obscured by the trappings or RL? It depends of course on how you define “true” but I would strongly argue that, if not purposefully used to misrepresent who we perceive ourselves to be, avatars do in fact allow us to unfurl a hyper-real version of ourselves unhampered by RL limitations. Assuming your avatar accurately reflects your self-perception, whether it is more beautiful or engaging in VR than you are in RL is irrelevant; the individual you are in VR is the person people interact with in that world. If I am an intelligent human being and a quick typist, but have a speech impediment which negatively impacts peoples’ perception of my intelligence in RL, is the fact that I am witty, talkative, and engaging in VR but shy in RL mean my talkative intelligent VR-self is a lie? The desire to inescapably tie your RL body to your VR avatar is unfounded; if your VR-self behaves consistently within that realm then I would argue that it is a true you, in fact perhaps a truer you.

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Sarkeesian in a TEDx talking about the Kickstarter incident and how it ended etc


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Gamification: How Game Dynamics Alter the Behavior of Scientist, Workers, and Terrorists: FINAL BLOG POST

This blog post looks at gamification, or the use of game mechanics and dynamics to drive game-like engagement in largely non-game contexts. Of particular interest is how gamification is implemented by science, businesses, and social media sites to foster greater engagement, participation, and investment within these realms. We will explore examples of how gamification is being implemented to alter behavior and how this can lead to both greater productivity as well as radicalized behavior.

Word Cloud "Gamification"        NOT       gamification-at-the-office-with-stick

A brief definition of gamification: While the use of the term gamification can be traced back as far as 2008, widespread use of the term clearly begins around 2010.


Gamification is a concept bandied about by businesses, scientists, and social media scholars alike, and the definition used is often strongly influenced by the context in which it is being considered. In fact, the ways in which gamification is defined are nearly as numerous as the ways in which it is implemented. The wiki page dedicated to gamification defines it as “the concept of applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging”. For the sake of clarity and brevity, one might alternatively define gamification as the use of game attributes such as game mechanics, dynamics, storytelling, gaming psychology, and other aspects of games to drive game-like player behavior such as engagement, interaction, addiction, competition, collaboration, and learning in a non-game context such as work, fitness, community and social participation, and scientific investigation. Did I say brevity? I meant verbosity. While that doozy of a sentence is a grammarian’s nightmare, it makes comically clear that gamification is both complex and broadly applicable. Businesses tend to emphasize the use of game mechanics to reap tangible business benefits, such as increased customer loyalty, or greater worker productivity, Scientists and social media scholars on the other hand, tend to emphasize the incorporation of game structures and dynamics to encourage problem solving, or the use of fun and reward to reinforce and influence behavior. Much research is currently going focused on trying to define gamification to make it a rigorous term and to distinguish it from a host of related ideas such as gamefulness, gameful interaction, and gameful design. Gamefulness (a term coined by Jane McGonigal) denotes the general quality of gaming, gameful interaction is interaction which results in gamefulness, and finally gameful design is designing for gamefulness, typically through the incorporation of game elements. Gamification is perhaps most strongly related to the process of gameful design specifically for non-game purposes, and this is the sense in which we will largely be discussing gamification in this blog post. We will specifically  focus our attention on the ways in which gamification is used to alter behavior in such diverse fields as science, business, and online social media.


Within the realm of science, great emphasis is placed on the process of problem solving and the mindful pursuit of unambiguous truth. Comparing this to the common association of games with diversion, relaxation, and make-believe, it might not be immediately apparent that games can play a large role in the realm of scientific research. However, the gamification of science is not only becoming increasingly common, but has already been implemented to solve immensely complex scientific problems. In the realms of biology and biochemistry alone large scale crowdsourcing games, often called serious games, such as Phylo, Foldit, and eteRNA, have proven successful in solving problems such as genomic analysis, protein folding, and RNA folding, respectively. This form of gamification focuses on problem solving and relies on three key aspects. First, it takes a complex problem that traditionally requires specialized training and immense amounts of time to solve, and translates it into a simplified and well-defined structural puzzle which relies on only a very small number of simple rules. Secondly, it makes these puzzles accessible to a large number of people. Thirdly, it leverages reward and reputation to create engagement, investment, and participation in scientific gameplay. In short, the primary focus of the gamification of science is to convert a largely non-scientist community from non-scientifically engaged citizens into citizen scientists. For instance, in only three weeks, non-scientists playing Foldit were able to unlock the structure of an AIDS related enzyme in monkeys that had baffled scientists and specialists for nearly a decade, bringing the scientific community closer to a potential cure for HIV and other retroactive viruses.


It is amazing that games such as Foldit can take a problem such as solving for the ideal folded shape of a protein, a problem which induces painful flashbacks of chemistry 101 for most people, and convinces non-scientists to dedicate large amounts of time to solving it. How is gamification being used to convince people that solving biochemistry problems is a game, not a chore?

Looking at the three aspects of gamification within science it is worth noting that the first is not something new to science. Scientific disciplines such as chemistry and have long taken complex problems such as the electronic nature of chemical bonding and constructed simplified models to explain observations. The VSEPR model of chemical bonding for example invoke a few simple rules such as:  two electrons form a single bond, bonds move but don’t break, and bonds will try to get as far away from each other as possible, to explain the shape of molecules.


While this model is very simple and was first proposed in the 1940s, it remains foundational to how chemists determine molecular structures, a problem that in reality can only be approximately solved by the most powerful of modern supercomputers. So it is not this first aspect of the gamification of science that is unique, but rather the combination of making these simplified models of scientific problems readily accessible to large numbers of people and then engineering game structures and dynamics to encourage participation.

Games such as Foldit for example are free to download and therefore can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. As one of the co-developers of Foldit, Adrien Treville points out: “Games allow us to identify people who are good at a task and let them to do it.” Games like Foldit can connect people who are non-scientists but are extremely good at solving puzzles with problems such as protein folding, which they might never normally seek to solve but for which they are ideally suited.

Science games like Foldit, eteRNA and Phylo foster player engagement through a variety of means including awarding points for working on puzzles, providing rankings via public leaderboards to honor success with public recognition and build a constructively competitive community. Projects such as Foldit also offer a sense of epic meaning by allowing players to contribute to solving world-scale problems such as finding the cure for AIDS, as mentioned above. Foldit also fosters participation by offering social elements common to many MMORPGs ( WOW, EQ,..etc) such as discussion boards, blogs and  other forms of community participation.  As game designer and researcher Dr. McGonigal claims in her 2010 TED talk (see below)

elements such as epic meaning and blissful productivity can be harnessed to solve humanitarian problems.

However, while the promise of harnessing the power of games to solve scientific problems is an attractive one, there exists the very real question of how player productivity is being utilized. Is it acceptable for researchers and companies to take the work that players of science games produce and capitalize on it by patenting new drugs or more efficient computer algorithms? These questions are at the forefront of the current debate surrounding issues of ownership of player productivity that we have discussed in class. With researchers such as Sherry Turkle warning about the dangerous and exploitative nature of gamification, as a stark counterpoint to the exuberant “gamification is going to save the world” attitude adopted by McGonigal, this question remains at the forefront of scholarship about gamification as well as the debate over the application of gamification to solve traditionally non-game related problems.

Businesses and Online Social Media:

While scientific games such as Foldit appropriate game structures and dynamics to solve scientific problems, it is important to note that gamification is a much broader trend and does not necessarily have to involve games, in the more traditional sense, at all. Increasingly, companies are utilizing gamification strategies in an attempt to increase worker productivity, as well as to retain customer loyalty and maximize customer engagement. In short, companies are utilizing gamification strategies to target and maximize quantifiable business advantages in productivity and levels of consumption. The focus of gamification in the productive side of business is not on problem solving so much as it is on reinforcing positive productive behavior in employees. How do companies gamify something without actually making it into a game and how do they manipulate worker and consumer behavior to maximize efficiency and productivity? As the online gamification company, Actionable, sees it, gamification in business is not about turning things that are not games into games, but rather it is about providing feedback to customers and workers about how well they are doing/contributing to a business or community and providing concrete goals for employees and consumers to work towards. For instance, a company might break up large and vague goals such as “improve the number of sales in your department” or “decrease the average call time in your call center” to small, targeted goals such as asking each worker to increase their personal sales numbers by 5 percent or decrease their average call time by ten seconds. Providing prizes and rewards for reaching these manageable goals further helps reinforce productive behavior. Thus, feedback is also seen as key in the gamificaton of businesses as it allows workers to see progress and creates positive feedback loops or alternatively provides an early warning of decreased performance.

Gamification of businesses can also be very influential in terms of consumer engagement. Loyalty programs and specific websites and apps gamify consumer participation with a particular company. For instance, Nike’s running app for iPhone and Android, Nike+, not only encourages fitness and regular exercise, but it provides a forum for competition with friends, as well as charts and graphs to visualize progress, and recordings of famous Nike-sponsored athletes to provide encouragement at given points throughout a workout. Specific products that couple with Nike+, such as FuelBand, Nike+ GPS watches, and specific Nike shoes, promise greater involvement and more accurate measurements of workout results. In this way, Nike encourages consumer loyalty through the coupling of products with the gamification of running.


As gamification becomes more widespread, companies look to the new industry of gamification consultant companies, which has emerged to capitalize on the increasing popularity of gamification, for assistance in developing business-specific gamification techniques. Companies such as Bunchball, The Game Agency, BadgVille, Actionable, and TechTarget specialize in offering “gamification solutions” for businesses as well-known as Warner Bros., Comcast, NBC Universal, ABC Television, Stella & Dot and LiveOps. Indeed, according to Gartner, the percentage of companies that gamify innovation processes is likely to reach fifty percent by the year 2015.

Companies that advertise on social media sites such as Facebook are also interested in using elements of gamification to increase the number of clicks, visits, and retention time on their facebook ads and pages. Some strategies proposed by gamification consultant companies for businesses to improve their Facebook ads and pages, include providing points for engagement and participation on their page, allowing points to be redeemed for real prizes, and providing users with contests and challenges. Facebook lends itself easily to this sort of tactic since it already has built into it elements such as the “like” button, tags, sharing, and messaging, all of which are designed to foster user involvement. Indeed, Gabe Zichermann, the chair of Gamification Summit, describes these elements as the basis for gamification of facebook business pages since they represent different levels of consumer engagement through actions that have already been standardized and accepted as part of the functions of facebook.

Social Media:

Facebook itself is perhaps one of the best and most complex examples of the gamification in business. Not only does it reach a vast number of people, but it is both a publically traded company and a global phenomenon in its role as an online social media website. On September 14th 2012 Facebook announced that it had reached 1.01 billion users monthly. And how did facebook get so popular you might ask; gamification likely has played an important part. Facebook uses an enormous number of gamification elements to promote engagement and active participation from its users. Looking at the interactive options available to facebook users alone there are “like” buttons, tagging, messaging, sharing, and commenting which allow users to constructively reinforce community participation by rewarding engagement on Facebook with social recognition. Users can also play games together on facebook introducing competitive or cooperative gameplay elements which help to prolong and extend user engagement on the site.The timeline feature of Facebook allows users to view the progress of their participation on the website and track the positive content and feedback they receive and create.

Events and competitions on facebook also serve to incentivize participation on the website. Users can send each other invitations to real or virtual events and, as mentioned previously, there are many opportunites for facebook users to win prizes for visiting and participating on the facebook pages of businesses.

Facebook also incorporates several structural features which promote positive feedback loops and allow users to discard negative content, thereby serving to create aspirational identity and lower the stakes of participation on facebook, serving effectively as the “extra lives feature” that is so popular in games at large. The timeline feature of Facebook allows users to view the progress of their participation on the website and track the positive content and feedback they receive. Having a visual representation of content and participation over time can serve to create personal investment and prevent people from leaving facebook. The ability of facebook users to rank their top friends also incentivises participation so as to maintain status with friends.

While facebook is one of the largest businesses/online social media communities in the world, other online social media websites utilize elements of gamification to garner participation as well. Interestingly the use of gamification to encourage participation in radicalized special interest groups such as websites dedicated to terrorism have received increasing amounts of interest in the last few years. In 2011 NPR aired a news piece entitled “The Gamification of Jihad” in which anchor Brooke Gladstone interviewed Alix Levine, of the security consulting firm Cronus Global on the use of gamification to incentivize participation in terrorist activity.

As Mr. Levin puts it, terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda as well as neo-nazi groups such as StormFront are increasingly awarding point and reputation power for participation on their websites. These gamified extremist websites reward members for the frequency and quality of their posts by allowing them to increase the size of their avatars, change the color of their user name or any number of small prizes. What the news piece highlights is that while the incentives are small the effect on engagement is huge. When asked why this should worry us, Mr. Levin indicated that we are only at the very forefront of this gamification movement of extremist groups so there is little concrete data to be had but the use of game dynamics such as are already common on sites such as foursquare and farmville hold the potential to create greater engagement and brand loyalty for terrorist groups and that is might translate into real world acts of terrorism.


With applications as broad as solving scientific problems, increasing productivity, efficiency and loyalty in businesses, and even emerging as a new model of incentivizing terrorist activity gamification looks like it will become increasingly important in the years to come. Given all these diverse examples of the implementation of gamification one thing is clear: gamification shows the distinct potential to manipulate human behavior. What its influence will be in the future remains unclear.


  1. Deterding, Sebastian, Dan Dixon, Rilla Khaled, and Lennart Nacke. “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification’.” In Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments, 9–15. MindTrek  ’11. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2011. doi:10.1145/2181037.2181040.
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  1. “Who We Are.” Accessed March 14, 2013. http://www.bunchball.com/about.
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  1. “Phylo.” Phylo | DNA Puzzles. Accessed March 16, 2013. http://phylo.cs.mcgill.ca.
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  1. “eteRNA” eteRNA- Played by Humans Scored by Nature. Accessed March 15, 2013 http://eterna.cmu.edu/web/
  1. Anon. “Video Gamers Crack Code on AIDS-causing Monkey Virus.” BetaNews. http://betanews.com/2011/09/20/video-gamers-crack-code-on-aids-causing-monkey-virus/.
  1. “Games That Solve Real Problems: Crowdsourcing Biochemistry – Forbes.” Forbes. Accessed March 17, 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/techonomy/2011/10/27/games-that-solve-real-problems-crowdsourcing-biochemistry/.
  1. Sidgwick, N. V., and H. M. Powell. “Bakerian Lecture. Stereochemical Types and Valency Groups.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A. Mathematical and Physical Sciences 176, no. 965 (October 9, 1940): 153–180. doi:10.1098/rspa.1940.0084
  1. Jane McGonigal: Gaming Can Make a Better World | Video on TED.com. Accessed March 18, 2013. http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html.
  1. “What is Gamification.” Accessed March 14, 2013. http://iactionable.com/gamification/what-is-gamification/.
  1. Turkle, Sherry. “alone together – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.” In Alone Together, 1–17. Basic Books.https://chcgamestudies.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/turkle_2011.pdf.
  1. Anon. “Ice, Lycra and Nike Plus –  Getting Gamification and Engagement Right.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/kent-valentine/ice-lycra-and-nike-plus-g_b_2344144.html.
  1. “Gartner Says By 2015, More Than 50 Percent of Organizations That Manage Innovation Processes Will Gamify Those Processes.” gartner.com, last modified April 12, 2011, http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/1629214
  1. Vance, Ashlee. “Facebook: The Making of 1 Billion Users.” BusinessWeek: Technology, October 4, 2012. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-10-04/facebook-the-making-of-1-billion-users.\
  1. “6 Ways to Gamify Your Facebook Marketing.” Mashable. Accessed February 7, 2013. http://mashable.com/2012/06/20/gamification-facebook-marketing/.
  1. Lampe, Cliff, Nicole B. Ellison, and Charles Steinfield. “Changes in Use and Perception of Facebook.” 721. ACM Press, 2008. doi:10.1145/1460563.1460675.
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  1. “The Gamification of Jihad Transcript.” Onthemedia. Accessed February 7, 2013. http://www.onthemedia.org/2011/may/06/the-gamification-of-jihad/transcript/?utm_source=sharedUrl&utm_media=metatag&utm_campaign=sharedUrl.
  1. Brachman, Jarret, and Alix Levine. “The World of Holy Warcraft.” Foreign Policy, April 13, 2011. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/13/the_world_of_holy_warcraft.
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Video Games in Education: Final Blog Post

Educational Video Game Use So Far

There are a multitude of teaching styles implemented in k-12 school across the United States, varying from public schools that tie curriculum to the test, private Montessori schools that try to develop experiential learning models, and private religious schools that bring a faith-based educational environment. What seems to be standard among all these institutions is that school remains boring for almost everyone. We know this from many of our personal experiences, but also from studies. One Indiana University study, which took responses from 81,000 high school students from 26 states, found that 75% of students are bored in class due to uninteresting material. I’m sure that most teachers are used to seeing this look from their students as they lecture from the chalk board-

Probably not inspiring the teacher, either.

Although school has always been a sources of boredom for students, the current environment for a child or teen-aged individual has dramatically changed in the last twenty years with the introduction of large steps forward in technology. Both the nature of social interaction and human to human play were revolutionized by things like email, texting, and game console systems. According to one study by Pew Research cited in the New York Times, 90% of teachers believe digital technology has created “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

The response from the school systems and computer industry has been slow and proved itself incapable thus far of competing with the  cell phone, computer, and video game industry for the attention spans of students. A great example of this is the downfall of ‘The Learning Company’ which produced many educational video games meant to teach elementary school students classroom curriculum in a fun way that kept students motivated and focused. The company was founded in 1980, produced many educational games for all levels of elementary education, and did quite well for a span of about 19 years until it was sold to Mattel for $3.8 billion in 1999. However, this became known as one of the worst corporate acquisitions in history as the stock price turned out to be highly inflated. Mattel re-sold the company for just $122 million.

When one looks at the games that were produced by The Learning Company, they were not too bad for their time period. Although the music was not very good at all, the graphics were enough for a young child to appreciate and the educational quality of the game seems decent. Here is an example-

The Learning Company also developed the ‘Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego’ series, which was spun off into a TV show. We are much more critical of this game for its awful representation of foreign lands, including blonde haired ‘barbie looking’ women in Saudi Arabia and red-haired Irish looking people in Mexico City, which looks more like a set of Aztec Ruins.

No matter the rise and fall of The Learning Company, the future of video game use in the classroom will look completely dissimilar in the future. The Learning Company relied on schools that usually had only one computer lab for the entire school, making marginal usage per student an issue, with actual usage time per student limited to the number of computers the school had available. We also could not find any examples of video games produced for high school learning.

With every change in technology, it is becoming ever more possible that this technological limitation will be a thing of the past. Access to the technology necessary to provide video game based learning will no longer be limited, and some school districts are already supplying iPads for every student. This incredible advance of technology in the classroom will provide schools and teachers with a new opportunity to dramatically change that boredom statistic provided above, help teachers combat increasing attention deficiencies, and hopefully further develop the learning potential of curriculum taught in the classroom.

We must begin re-inventing the educational video game, now.


An evaluation of the educational merit of video games ought to begin with one simple question: Why video games?  Let’s get past the obvious; video games are more exciting than textbooks.  No classroom full of middle school students is going to turn down the opportunity to play a video game if the alternative is reading through (and trying to remember) lots of densely presented information.  In fact, a 2004 study conducted by Michigan State University found that 8th grade boys played video games for an average of 23 hours per week and 8th grade girls played video games for an average of 12 hours per week (Simpson 5), so gender isn’t an issue.  The kids are on board with gaming in the classroom.  However, the collective preference of a bunch of twelve year olds doesn’t dictate school curriculum.  Video games only belong in the classroom if they can teach as effectively as other established, and more traditional, methods… So can they?

The short answer is yes (especially in theory).

The Right Medium for the Right Generation

One common theme in the literature about education and video games is that today’s children constitute a new generation, often labeled the “Net generation.”  Members of this so-called Net generation are distinguished by the fact that they grew up in the digital age (we sometimes forget that our parents didn’t have the Internet when they were our age).  Not surprisingly, this unlimited access to information has produced a slightly different style of learner.

Firstly, members of the Net generation are more autonomous in their quest for information (Simpson 4).  If Net generation kids desire to know the answer to any question, they can Google it.  However, if they don’t find a question to be interesting or significant, they won’t.  They have more control over what they learn than any other generation in the history of the world.

Secondly, members of the Net generation generally process information much faster than members of previous generations (Simpson 4).  This isn’t to say that they’re smarter than members of previous generations.  Rather, they’re less reflective, determining whether or not information is useful in a matter of seconds.  Lastly, they prefer to learn things through doing, even if it means failing (Simpson 4,5).

There are other observed learning differences that distinguish the Net generation from previous generations, but we chose to highlight these three.  Why?  Because they highlight the underlying reasons as to why video games can be effective teachers in the modern classroom.  Video games allow for an incredible amount of autonomy: “When you log into a new virtual world, you never know what the goal is right away.  So you learn how to explore… and how to deal with overcoming challenges” (Maxmen 203).  Video games provide gamers with objectives, but it is the gamer’s job to develop the skills and knowledge required to meet those objectives.  This is a task that the typical Net generation learner would likely embrace.

Also, unlike quizzes or papers, and other traditional forms of actually testing students’ knowledge, video games provide instant feedback (Bavelier 767).  All actions made within video games instantly trigger some sort of response.  This immediacy should appeal to the speedy information processing tendencies of the Net generation.  In fact, the existence of instant feedback, specifically positive feedback, is one of Jane McGonigal’s core reasons as to why humans are better at gaming than we are at real life.  If gaming could be used to encourage people to examine and solve complex world issues, as McGonigal suggests, then it should certainly be capable of encouraging students to learn about a variety subjects.

Lastly, video games are all about doing/ playing.  While the word “play” has connotations that don’t entirely mesh well with the idea of learning, this isn’t actually the case.  In 1898 Karl Groos’ developed a theory of play as pre-exercise, the idea being that youth (the stage of life) exists only because humans need time to play in order to practice/ develop skills: “Play systematically presents the child with a learning situation” (Annetta 232).  The great thing about video games is that they allow gamers to play, and therefore learn, in environments that are otherwise entirely inaccessible to the gamer.

While video games certainly have the potential to be effective teachers, it’s important to understand that potential doesn’t always translate to actual success.  There are definitely foreseeable issues that could stem from using video games in educational settings.  One commonly cited issue is the effect that video games have on increasing academic dishonesty.  In a survey study of 113 children and adults, Karla Hamlen found that increased video game play was significantly related to cheating in school (Hamlen 1148).  She also found that gamers who frequently use cheat codes in order to bypass difficult levels were more likely to cheat in school (Hamlen 1149).  These are issues that need to be addressed in the actual practice of using video games to teach.

(something about this screenshot just doesn’t seem right)

Current Educational Games and Where We Are Headed

The educational games created by The Learning Company were largely assessment style games. For example, the Reader Rabbit game shown previously on this post is based on a students understanding of math. The student has already been taught that 11 + 33 = 44, and the game simply asks that the student answer a series of questions to unlock game levels. The game is really just a fun way to test a student on what they have learned from a lecture. Although past educational games have been a fun and motivating way for students to learn subjects such as math, such games are really just a means of testing students.

Educational video games being produced now focus largely on what Professor James Paul Gee calls ‘Situated and Embodied Learning’ which means that students solve problems using what they learn and know from advancing through the game, not by simply memorizing and regurgitating factual information. Gee uses the example of a student taking a test at the end of a semester, versus an individual playing ‘Halo’ on a difficult setting. A teacher would not need to test the Halo player because the game was the learning and the test in and of itself. Essentially, educational video games will use the same practices Montessori schools have used for many years.

A great example of this that we have studied in class was the protein folding game experiment called Foldit developed by researchers at the University of Washington. Although far more complicated than games implemented in the k-12 classroom, the principles are still the same. The researches that designed the game did not have the solution to the problem. The game provided the building blocks necessary for success, but the process of learning, discovery, and solution was left up to the players.

Games such as Immune Attack, developed by the Federation of American Scientists and Escape Hatch Entertainment, offer students the building blocks to explore the human immune system, learn about bodily functions, and solve disease related immune problems. The player floats around a human artery and blood vessel system in a microscopic ‘nanobot’ zapping bacteria and viruses. Everything the student sees can be clicked on for information which helps the student complete the game and learn about the human body.

With the dawning of classroom tablet use, such as the iPad, games such as Immune Attack will have to be adapted to that platform. As noted previously, a problem with The Learning Company’s strategy was that there were only so many computers per student at a school, making it very difficult to have a large technological learning impact per student.

A fantastic example of educational video games being adapted for the classroom is Sid Meier’s Civilization. Although this game has had large amounts of commercial success, the game has been widely used in classrooms on PC platforms with great results,but has now been reformatted of the iPad. One study from the University of Wisconsin noted that students who successfully used Civilization in their studies “developed conceptual understandings across world history, geography, and politics.” The National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education also holds high the use of Civilization for classroom purposes in high esteem. Here is an example of the game-

Looking into the future, we might find more schools that resemble Quest to Learn, which is a New York City public school that enhances children’s learning through the use of technology, including the use of game play and game design. It makes school more interesting for the children, enhances their ability to learn, and incorporates the ever changing technology in the world. Take this quote from one middle school teacher at Quest to Learn in a 2010 New York Times Article, “Now I show them GarageBand” — a digital audio sequencer produced by Apple — “and five minutes later they’re recording and editing sound” (Corbett).  Students are taking technological building blocks, in this example a music video game, and are literally using it to make music.

Commercial Games in the Classroom

Even though almost all commercial video games were created for entertainment purposes, many still have intellectual challenges and educational value, specifically real-time strategy games like SimCity, Age of Empires, Civilization III (as mentioned in the previous section), and Railroad Tycoon (Charsky 38).  Popular consensus is that successful integration of commercial video games into middle school and high school classrooms is highly dependent on three main factors: the teacher’s expertise (Charsky 39), a clear set of standards surrounding gameplay (Simpson 9,10), and the existence of complementary assignments (Charsky 40; Simpson 10).

The significance of a teacher’s expertise surrounding the game and related educational content is pretty obvious.  A teacher who cannot help guide students through difficult sections of a game is about as credible and useful as the man featured in this tutorial video.

The standards that teachers set surrounding gameplay is a more interesting topic, though.  If video games do encourage academic dishonesty, as Karla Hamlen found, this is where teachers can combat that trend.  There are so many resources that a gamer can use to advance through games more quickly or achieve higher scores, such as cheat codes, video walkthroughs, collaboration and glitching (Hamlen 1147).  Teachers must clearly establish which methods of information gathering are acceptable.  The standards and expectations shouldn’t end there, though.  One recurring theme that we’ve discussed in class over this past term is the prevalence of hate speech and hostile climates in video games.  Integrating commercial games into the classroom could help to curb this issue by introducing some mature, adult supervision into the world of video games.  Also, because all students (of all gender, racial and sexual backgrounds) would participate in the gaming activities, this integration of commercial video games into middle school and high school classrooms could help to challenge the widely held misconception that video games are a space created by and for white heterosexual males.

Lastly, no commercial video games are perfectly accurate from a historical or real-life perspective.  It is essential that teachers provide students with complementary assignments to enhance their understanding of the curriculum.  In one example from Dennis Charsky and Clif Mims’ article “Integrating Commercial Off-the-Shelf Video Games into School Curriculums,” a high school class played the game Civilization III and were later asked to write a response to the following prompt: “Describe how the underlying simulation model in Civilization III determined whether or not civilizations rose or fell? In addition, critique your description offering alternative models or theories that would better align with real history” (Charsky 42).  Asking students to compare and contrast a video game’s mechanics with actual historical knowledge forces them to understand concepts from a more reflective and analytical perspective than a textbook could ever provide.  Prompts like these are essential to maximizing the educational value of commercial video games.

Works Cited

Alexander, Bryan. “Teaching with a Video Game: the Case for Civilization.” National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, 6 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 March 2013.

“An IPad for Every Student in Hamilton County Schools?” Timesfreepress.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Annetta, Leonard A. “Video Games in Education: Why They Should Be Used and How They Are Being Used.” Theory into Practice 47.3 (2008): 229-239. Web. 11 March 2013.

Bavelier, D., et. al. “Brains on Video Games.” Nature Reviews 12.12 (2011): 763-768. Web. 12 March 2013.

“California; Mattel Settles Shareholders Lawsuit For $122 Million The El Segundo-Based Toy Maker Closes The Books On Itsill-Fated $3.5-Billion Purchase Of Learning Co. – 12/06/2002.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Charsky, Dennis, and Clif Mims. “Integrating Commercial Off-the-Shelf Video Games into School Curriculums.” TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning 52.5 (2008): 38-44. Web. 10 March 2013.

Corbett, Sarah. “Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom.” New York Times 15 Sept 2010. Web. 16 March 2013.

“Games and Education Scholar James Paul Gee on Video Games, Learning, and Literacy.”YouTube. YouTube, 04 Aug. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Hamlen, Karla R. “Academic Dishonesty and Video Game Play: Is New Media Use Changing Conceptions of Cheating?” Computers & Education 59.4 (2012): 1145-1152. Web. 14 March 2013.

“IU Study: Students Are Bored in High School; Seek Attention.” Latest Headlines RSS. N.p., n.d.   Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Markoff, John. “In a Video Game, Tackling the Complexities of Protein Folding.” New York Times 9 Aug 2010. Web. 15 March 2013.

Maxmen, Amy. “Video Games and the Second Life of Science Class.” Cell 141.2 (2010): 201-203. Web. 10 March 2013.

McGonigal, Jane. “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” TED Talk. February 2010.

Richtel, Matt. “Technology Is Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say.” New York Times RSS. November 2010. Accessed March 2013.

Simpson, Elizabeth, and Frances A Clem. “Video Games in the Middle School Classroom.” Middle School Journal 39.4 (2008): 4-11. Web. 11 March 2013.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Final Blog Post: Roosterteeth, Red vs Blue, and Machinima


Video media has undergone radical change in the course of twenty years from being a phenomenon only mass distributed on television to something that can be efficiently dispensed to home computers via the internet.  With the invention of the internet, any individual with a personal computer, camera, and appropriate video editing software can create videos and upload them to the internet whereas, an entire studio would be needed to make a television show.  With the ease of access to the process of video creation, new genres of videos began to emerge that were not previously seen on television.  One of these genres has been dubbed as “Machinima.”  Machinima is a style of videos where the medium used is a video game.  The video creators will use in-game models of characters and landscapes to create a story setting and then overlay voices and sounds to give the impression of dialogue and interaction.  One of the most renowned pioneers of this genre is a company known as Roosterteeth, the creators of the acclaimed internet series Red vs Blue and several other video projects.  The aim of this article is to give a brief history of Roosterteeth’s development and that of Red vs Blue, some of Roosterteeth’s other projects, and Roosterteeth’s influence on the Machinima genre, the Halo franchise, and internet culture.

A Brief History of Red vs Blue

    When asked in an interview about the idea that sparked the creation of Red vs Blue, Gus Sorola, one of the founding members of Roosterteeth, stated, “Booze and videogames. The original idea for RvB came back in the summer of 2002 when we were working on a website we used to run called Drunk Gamers.” (‘@anime! Ionfuse’)  Another one of the founding members, Burnie Burns, ran the website and uploaded humorous reviews of gaming videos; these reviews were often made while the reviewers were intoxicated.  Burns eventually got the idea to to write a comedic script for the Xbox game Halo: Combat Evolved, and to capture video from the perspective of one of the Spartan warriors in the game.  In order to make it appear more cinematic, Burns had the idea to cover some of the HUD with black bars as can be seen in figure 1 to hide the health bar information, the pistol, and so forth.  In January of 2003, the would be cast of Red vs Blue quit work on the Drunk Gamers website, as they received an email from Computer Gaming World Magazine “asking for permission to put another video [they] had worked on (an Apple Switch commercial parody) on the CD that they distributed with their magazine” (‘@anime! Ionfuse’).   When the would-be Roosterteeth members found out that the CD would be distributed to over five-hundred-thousand people, they decided to re-encode ending of the Apple Switch video to direct people to a new website with their Red vs Blue videos.  Gus stated, “The [Red vs Blue] site launched in April 2003 and much to our surprise it seemed like people liked it” (‘@anime! Ionfuse’).

The Red vs Blue series is set on the Halo: Combat Evolved map named “Blood Gulch.”  Most of the characters in the series are Spartan soldiers who are differentiated by the color of their armor.  As introduced in the first episode, there are two opposing teams located at two separate bases in the “boxed canyon” of Blood Gulch (See Episode 1 video). It is implied that there is no rational reason as to why the reds and blues are fighting, which gives rise to the comedic dialogue between the bored and dysfunctional Spartan soldiers assigned to each team.  The plot of the series begins in a following episode when the rookie on the red team accidentally steals the the blue flag from the blue base, which leads to a chain reaction of comedic events between both teams.

Red vs Blue Episode 1

A major concern that existed among the makers of Red vs Blue was the copyright being owned by Microsoft.  It was within Microsoft’s legal rights to claim Halo as their intellectual property and ask that the makers of Red vs Blue cease and desist.  So Roosterteeth attempted to “fly under the radar” and hope Microsoft wouldn’t contact them (‘@anime! Ionfuse’).  This plan did not last past Episode 2, as Microsoft contacted the Roosterteeth members shortly after its release.  However, Microsoft did not ask them to stop making their videos.  To the contrary, Microsoft demonstrated their support by informing how to properly cite them as the owners of the Halo series and then asked the Roosterteeth members to make videos for them (‘@anime! Ionfuse’).  This was a critical moment in the formation of the Machinima genre, as it has set a precedent for a vast majority of other video companies not to interfere with the making of Machinima unless there is an extensive use of copyrighted material without permission or citation.

As mentioned before, the red and blue teams consist of Spartans close in hue to the said color of their team.  The Red Team in season 1 consists of following characters:

The Red Team

  • Sarge (Red Armor): the long winded and ranking officer of the Red team, who has a distinctive Southern accent.  Voiced by Matt Hulum
  • Grif  (Orange Armor): soldier on the red team who is lazy, often dodges his assigned tasks, and  eats more than his fair share of the food.  He is almost always the target of Sarge’s ridiculing.  Voiced by Geoff Ramsey.
  • Simmons (Maroon Armor): The nerdy soldier on the red team, who frequently flatters Sarge.  Simmons likes to present himself as overachieving and intelligent.  Voiced by Gus Sorola.
  • Donut (Red Armor, then Pink Armor): The rookie on red team, who is given pink armor midway through season one.  Constantly insists the pink armor is “lightish red.” He has a tendency to annoy the other members of the Red team with his conversation topics.  Voiced by Dan Godwin.
  • Lopez (Brown Armor): The robot built by Sarge.  His voice chip malfunctions midway through season one such that he can only speak Spanish, which most of the characters do not understand.  Voiced by Burnie Burns.

The blue team in season 1 consists of the following characters:


  • Church (Light Blue Armor): The leader of the blue team.  He is often annoyed by the antics of his other two Spartan teammates; he is not afraid to tell them that he dislikes them.  Voiced by Burnie Burns.
  • Tucker (Turquoise Armor): Soldier on the blue team who consistently makes sexual references or jokes in conversation (more so in later seasons).  He thinks of himself as attractive to women.  Voiced by Jason Saldaña.
  • Caboose (Dark Blue Armor): Rookie on the blue team who does not seem to be in touch with reality and has a child-like personality.  He eventually develops an obsession with becoming Church’s best friend.  Voiced by Joel Heyman.
  • Sheila (Tank):  The A.I. in control of the blue team’s Tank.  Her personality is mostly kind and calm; this is ironic as most of the other characters are nervous around her. Voiced by Yomary Cruz.
  • Tex (Black Armor):  An aggressive and deadly freelancer hired by the blue team as reinforcements.  Voiced by Burnie Burns and Kathleen Zuelch.

(Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles)

During season 1 of Red vs Blue and in all the following seasons, Roosterteeth began releasing satirical public safety announcements.  Each announcement involved some of the Red vs Blue cast addressing the audience directly about some cause for concern in real life.  The first of these PSAs was about weapons of mass destruction, where the characters Grif and Simmons attempted to talk to the audience about the dangers of nuclear weaponry while the character Church kept trying to shoot them with a sniper rifle (see following video).  The topics ranged from how to keep ahead of the out-dating of technology,  moviegoer stereotypes, Mother’s day advice, Thanksgiving day tips, and so on (Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles).

The First Public Safety Announcement on W.M.D.s

In 2004, Halo 2 was released onto Xbox live.  During this time, Red vs Blue was on its third season.  This created a quandary for the writers of the season, since the Spartan soldier armor in Halo 2 was different and newer than the armor in Halo 1.  In order to transition to Halo 2 with a plausible reason in the plot, episode 5 in season 3 had the characters time travel into the future (Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles).  The characters eventually transferred to the map “Coagulation” in Halo 2,  which was very similar to “Blood Gulch” from Halo 1.  The Red vs Blue series remained in Halo 2 through season five until episode 100 (‘Episode 100’).


The Halo 2 Map “Coagulation”

The Red vs Blue seasons 6 and 7 took a different plot turn following the release of Halo 3 in 2007.  Season 6 was dubbed “Red vs Blue: Reconstruction”, as the cast of characters was split up among several different maps in Halo 3 and the plot involved re-uniting the different members of the cast together. During this season, the plot began to take a less comedic approach and a more serious one as a clearer, more sinister antagonist was revealed (Red vs. Blue: Season 6).  Season 7 was named “Red vs Blue: Recreation” as it followed the continuing story of how the cast was reunited (Red vs. Blue: Season 7).

In 2010, “Red vs Blue: Revelation,” also called season 8, was released.  This season was filmed in Halo 3, but was the first season to begin using pre-rendered character animation with the Halo engine.  This enabled the models of the characters to do things that were normally not possible within the normal Halo 3 multiplayer.  Some of these effects include Spartans performing martial arts combat, characters being punched into map walls, and so on (Red vs. Blue: Season 8).

An example of the CGI used in Red vs Blue season 8

Red vs Blue seasons 9 and 10 introduced a dual-plot with a plot that followed the character Church while the other followed that of an organization named Project Freelancer, which was revealed to have been the organization responsible for nearly all of the conflicts that occurred in the previous seasons.  The plot following Church was filmed mostly in the Halo: Reach Engine, while the plot following Project Freelancer was completely CGI animated (Red vs Blue: Seasons 9 & 10).

Season 10 Trailer

Other Projects by Roosterteeth

    Roosterteeth did not restrict themselves to making movies only in the Halo series.  In 2005, Roosterteeth released a short series called “P.A.N.I.C.S.”, which stands for “People acting normal in crazy-ass situations.”  The series was filmed in the game F.E.A.R. and was about a squad of phony ghost-busters who have never encountered a real ghost before until the events of the first episode.  The series lasted for four episodes (‘Panics’).

P.A.N.I.C.S. Episode 1

Roosterteeth also made a Machinima in The Sims 2 in 2004.  They called this series “The Strangerhood,” which was about a group of random strangers waking up together in a neighborhood with no idea how they got there.  The series lasted for a season with several special episodes until the series ended in 2006 (‘Strangerhood’).

The Strangerhood Episode 1

In 2009, Roosterteeth began to create short films made in actual life called “Roosterteeth Shorts.”  Most of the topics of each short are often random and bizarre events that occur around the office at Roosterteeth involving the various members of the company.  The topics range from Geoff Ramsey failing a drug test, to cryogenically freezing another employee, a computer virus on Joel Heyman’s computer taking over the world network, and so forth (‘RT Shorts’).  The series has is currently on its third season, which continues until the present day.

RT shorts Episode 1

The series, “Immersion,” was released in 2010 by Roosterteeth.  “Immersion” was a series where members of Roosterteeth, including Burnie Burns, Geoff Ramsey, and Gus Sorola, would test certain video game scenarios in actual life.  Some of the topics of each episode included driving a real car in third-person, re-enacting stages from Super Mario Bros, testing how well clothing stays on while re-enacting Soul Calibur style fights, and so on.  The series was styled similar to that of the “Mythbusters.”  “Immersion” lasted for seven episodes as the series ended in 2011 (‘Immersion’).

Immersion Episode 1

The Influence of Red vs Blue on other Machinima and Halo

Red vs Blue as the pioneer of the Machinima genre has had influences on other Machinimas.  An example of this is a series called Arby N Chief by Jon Graham.  The series is a hybrid between Machinima and real-life filming as the series follows two figurine characters from Halo 2: the Arbiter and Masterchief respectively.  In a Toy Story-esque style, the figurines come to life when their owner, Jon, leaves his house; the figurines proceed to play Jon’s video games together (‘Arby N Chief’).  The series began in 2007, and still continues to the present.

Arby ‘n’ Chief Episode 1

The influence of Red vs Blue has reached into the Halo series itself.  Some of the characters from Red vs Blue have made special appearances in Halo 3 and Halo 4. In the Halo 3 campaign, there is a hidden “Easter egg” where there is a marine asking for a secure door to be open; the marine and the guard in charge of opening the door are voiced by a pair of characters from Red vs Blue.  The pair of voices changes depending on the difficulty level chosen for the campaign.  The Halo 4 campaign continued the practice of putting in such “Easter eggs.”  The campaign contains several boxes hidden around various levels, which, when shot, would play dialogue between some of the Red vs Blue characters (‘Halo 4 Red vs Blue Easter Egg’).

Halo 3 Red vs Blue Easter eggs

Apart from the Easter Eggs, the Red vs Blue characters have made PSAs, demo-ing upcoming content to be released into the Halo games.  In 2008, Bungie released “The Legendary Map Pack;” the Red vs Blue cast created a demo for the pack for the sake of publicity (See below video).

Red vs Blue Legendary Map Pack Demo

In 2008, Red vs Blue released a public safety announcement about a custom game type that roosterteeth created for Halo 3: Grif Ball.  The rules of the game are similar to that of basketball.  There are two different teams that appear on separate ends of a simple rectangular map.  The goal is to grab the bomb from the middle and charge it down to the opposing team’s small circular platform at the back.  Each term, however, is armed with swords and gravity hammers to repel the enemy team.  The person who is holding the bomb turns orange, like the character Grif from Red vs Blue.  The “Grif” also gains more movement speed and shield strength to help mitigate the focused damage from the opposing team (See below video).  The game type become popular enough in the Halo community that it was included as a matchmade (official) game type in Halo 4 (‘Grifball Comes to Halo 4 Matchmaking on January 28!’).

PSA on Grif ball


Roosterteeth still continues to make Red vs Blue and other videos to this day.  As of March 18, 2013, their youtube channel has 3,702,394 subscribers and 1,890,578,060 views (‘Roosterteeth Youtube Channel’).  The Roosterteeth forums has a registered number of 1,431,665 members who actively post (‘Roosterteeth Community Stats’).  When Roosterteeth first launched Roosterteeth Exposition (RTX) in 2012, the tickets for the event sold so fast as Gus Sorola responded, “Ok you fuckers destroyed our ticketing system. We intended to sell only 200 tickets to the inaugural RTX but you guys managed to purchase over 500 tickets in about 2 or 3 minutes” (RTX Tickets (UPDATE)).  As such, Roosterteeth started as an unknown group of individuals who would post “drunk game reviews,” to an extremely popular and successful phenomena on the internet.  Their influence has extended into one of the largest video game franchises and to the Machinima genre.  They are the pioneers and, arguably, the leaders of the Machinima genre, which is now a significant part of internet culture and an evolution of past filmmaking techniques.

A ten year retrospective look on the past 10 years by the Roosterteeth cast


  1. ‘@anime! Ionfuse | V7i1 | Red Vs. Blue Q&A’<http://www.atanime.com/v7i1/09_redvsblue.html&gt; [accessed 2 February 2013]
  2. ‘Arby N Chief’ <http://www.youtube.com/channel/SWH4Z8Vj7XZOc&gt; [accessed 6 March 2013]
  3. Episode 100 <http://roosterteeth.com/archive/?id=261&gt; [accessed 12 March 2013]
  4. ‘Grifball Comes to Halo 4 Matchmaking on January 28!’ <http://www.grifballhub.com/grifball-comes-to-halo-4-matchmaking-on-january-28/&gt; [accessed 5 March 2013]
  5. ‘Halo 4 Red vs Blue Easter Egg’ <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0XGEvUBE7o&gt; [accessed 5 March 2013]
  6. ‘Immerision’ <http://roosterteeth.com/archive/?sid=immersion&gt; [accessed 6 March 2013]
  7. ‘Panics’ <http://roosterteeth.com/archive/?sid=panics&v=more&gt; [accessed 5 March 2013]
  8. Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles, 2003-2006
  9. Red vs Blue: Season 6, 2007
  10. Red vs Blue: Season 7, 2008
  11. Red vs Blue: Season 8, 2010
  12. Red vs Blue: Season 9, 2011
  13. Red vs Blue: Season 10, 2012
  14. ‘Roosterteeth Youtube Channel’ <https://www.youtube.com/user/RoosterTeeth&gt; [accessed 18 March 2013]
  15. ‘RT Shorts’ <http://roosterteeth.com/archive/?sid=shorts&v=more&gt; [accessed 12 March 2013]
  16. ‘RTX Tickets (UPDATE)’, Rooster Teeth <http://roosterteeth.com/viewEntry.php?id=3171&gt; [accessed 2 February 2013]
  17. ‘Strangerhood’ <http://roosterteeth.com/archive/?sid=sh&gt; [accessed 5 March 2013]

Posted in Final blog post, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Final Blog Post: TETRIS and Other Videogames’ Effects on PTSD

PTSD words on skull_101982913love_for_tetris_by_cookiemagik

Early in the term we watched Jane McGonigal’s TED talk entitled “Gaming Can Make a Better World” (2010). Her presentation focused on harnessing gamers’ inherent cooperative and decision making skills in order to solve the problems of the world, arguing that games can have an a beneficial impact on society. Others in the class have blogged about the role games play in advancing scientific research supporting McGonigal’s idea, but no one has yet to mention how games themselves can be therapeutic. Casual games such as Bejeweled have been found to decrease levels of depression and now research suggests that Tetris, the beloved king of the causal gaming industry, may be able to intervene in the earliest stages of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Holmes, James, Coode-Bates, & Deeprose, 2009; Russoniello, O’Brien, & Parks, 2009).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric anxiety disorder where patients often develop unwanted and intrusive flashbacks of a traumatic event (Holmes et al., 2009). Unfortunately, the disorder cannot be clinically diagnosed until at least a month after the trauma occurs at which point the frequency of the flashbacks may already be tremendously high. Patients have no control over when these horrible memories will replay in their minds and are often forced to mentally relive the worst moments of a traumatizing event over and over.

Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, Director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at the Emory University School of Medicine, gives a brief overview of PTSD.

Dr. Emily Holmes, currently a visiting professor in clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, has been working over the years to develop a “cognitive vaccine” that could be used as an early intervention tool to minimize the build-up of flashbacks (Holmes et al., 2009; Lilley, Andrade, Turpin, Sabin-Farrell, & Holmes, 2009; Holmes, James, Kilford, & Deeprose, 2010). Her treatment of choice? Tetris.

Clinical Psychology who studied the effect of Tetris on PTSD

Fig 1. Emily Holmes. Clinical Psychology who studied the effect of Tetris on PTSD.

Alexey Pajtnov is recognized as a renowned game designer for creating Tetris on the Electronica 60 in 1984. Tetris quickly spread across the Soviet Union once it became available on the PC. In 1988 Henk Rogers discovered the game at a Las Vegas trade show and fell instantly in love with the game. He soon released Tetris for both PC and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in Japan through his company, Bullet-Proof Software (Tetris ®, 2013). After gaining the rights to Tetris, Rogers licensed the game to Nintendo. This was a major step in how Tetris became a world renowned game. Because of the popularity of the game many different versions for various gaming platforms were created as well as imitations by amateur developers. In order to ensure that the quality of the Tetris experience remains consistent and pleasurable the Tetris Guidelines were created which includes the game’s distinctive logo, modeled after the tetrominos, or blocks, used to play the game.

In 1994, before Holmes et al. (2009) began studying the effects of Tetris on PTSD, the game was already being recognized for cognitively affecting its players. In fact, Wired writer Jeffrey Goldsmith asked Pajitnov point blank if the game actually was a pharmatronic, a software which produces drug like effects in the mind. Pajitnov said no, but recognized how addicting the game is saying, “For me, Tetris is some song which you sing and sing inside yourself and can’t stop” (Goldsmith, 1994).

The game Tetris has an interesting effect on players. First of all it is addicting as Pajitnov stated.  There are endless stories of people who play for hours before realizing what has happened to the time. In a particular article, A Metaphor for Life, the author bought the game for her children, but ended up playing the game for five hours straight (Coffin 1990). However, often times the game does not end when it is powered off and the Tetris Effect takes over. This is when a person’s brain continues to play Tetris even though they are no longer physically playing it. There can be many different versions of this effect. For instance, a person can imagine the tetrominos continually falling from the sky, simulating the actual playing field. The Tetris Effect can also spill out into the real world as people will convert everything from cars to cereal boxes into blocks that need to be grouped and organized after extended hours of play. It is not known if people feel the need to physically alter the items on the shelves or if it is simply in their minds. The Tetris Effect has never really been studied, but when talking to anyone that has played Tetris before, it is known to be present.

Tetris also has other effects that have been observed by players. Similar to other games, Tetris brings out one’s competitive side. However, this competition is solely within the player. This is because players feel the need to succeed, but to what degree this need is and what success means is dependent on the player. The game itself sets goals for each level, but a player may also set a separate individual goal, such as getting past level ten or creating a “tetris.” A tetris is achieved when a player is able to clear four lines all at once. This is only achievable with the one-by-four unit straight tetromino. With that in mind, Tetris is a not a very forgiving game. It is a decision-based game where a single mistake will be costly. Only with the right series of decisions can the mistake be fixed because one is limited to using the seven distinctly shaped tetrominos. Banking on getting a certain block can be detrimental to your play. As media reviewer, Deborah Coffin states, in “Tetris there is no opportunity to dwell on misfortune. It is a game that demands constant decision-making” (1990).


The pressure demanding characteristics of the game eats up the brain’s glucose supply, the brain’s currency for getting work done. Interestingly, players become more efficient at playing the game over time as cortical thickness increases and their cerebral glucose metabolic rate returns back to normal (Goldsmith, 1994; Haier, Karama, Leyba, & Jung, 2009). As Dr. Richard Haier, one of the principal investigators on a Tetris study measuring increased cortex in adolescent girls, points out, “It requires many cognitive processes like attention, hand/eye co-ordination, memory and visual spatial problem solving all working together very quickly. It’s not surprising that we see changes throughout the brain” (The Mind Research Network, 2009).

Given these effects, Tetris makes a great intervention game when it comes to PTSD because it competes for cognitive resources such as attention and information processing. When competition for resources occurs, a patient cannot focus to the same degree on traumatic scenes whilst playing the game, minimizing the intensity of a traumatic memory.

After trauma occurs there is a six hour window to disrupt memory consolidation from short term memory to long term memory (Holmes et al., 2009). This process is facilitated by what is known as working memory, which is the capacity to hold and manipulate multiple bits of information in one’s head at a given time. By overloading working memory with competing information, one minimizes the chances for traumatic scenes to be strongly transferred into long term memory. Weaker images in long term memory means that the frequency of traumatic flashbacks may decrease because it is harder to retrieve the information. Additionally, the memories themselves may be less intense in terms of vividness and emotion due to degraded encoding of the traumatic images. For this to work, the competing information must be of the same medium as the traumatic information to disrupt the consolidation process (Holmes, James, Kilford, & Deeprose, 2010; Kemps & Tiggemann, 2007; Stuart, Holmes, Brewin, 2004). In other words, traumatic images can be displaced with other visuals such as falling tetriminos and auditory information can be dislodged by the Tetris theme song.

Participants in Holmes et al.’s (2009) study who played Tetris as opposed to sitting quietly not only reported fewer flashbacks of a traumatic film watched 30 minutes prior to testing, they also reported significantly less flashbacks over the course of a week. This means that playing Tetris was successful in disrupting post-traumatic memories and limited the number of flashbacks participants had even up to a week later. While obviously more testing needs to be done to see how long the effects last, and if the same results will hold for a clinical population, the study opens up the doors to a potentially widespread and affordable “cognitive vaccine” as per Holmes et al.’s (2009) hope.

Previous research suggests that following visual objects with one’s eyes, counting aloud, or playing with clay during traumatic events can decrease vividness and emotionality of the events when they are later recalled (Stuart, Holmes, Brewin, 2004; Kemps & Tiggemann, 2007; Lilley, Andrade, Turpin, Sabin-Farrell, & Holmes, 2009). In comparison to participants who visually followed a single letter around a computer screen, playing Tetris leads to decreased emotionality, but not vividness of negative images which may help patients better process and come to terms with their trauma (Engelhard, van Uijen, & van den Hout, 2010). This shows that Tetris can hold its own against current intervention methods.

As noted before, it is important that the intervention tool be of the same modality as the information it is trying to compete against. If modalities are not matched, flashback frequencies can be made even worse (Holmes et al., 2010). In other words, Tetris works not just because it is an engaging game, but because it is a challenging visual game that requires players’ constant attention. Games that are word based, such as Pub Quiz, have been found to actually increase the frequency of flashbacks within the course of a week after a traumatic film (Holmes et al., 2010).

Holmes et al. (2010) results

Holmes et al. (2010) result

Given these results, and due to the high occurrence of PTSD within soldiers, it is not surprising that the Pentagon has been looking at ways to use videogames in diagnosing and treating PTSD. While it is not known if they have been utilizing Holmes et al.’s results, it is not surprising that they would look towards technology as a possible solution because of the wide range of remedies they have previously used to treat PTSD, such as medical marijuana and Reiki.

While not looking directly at Tetris, the Pentagon has begun research on how to use the brain’s gray matter, or neural cell bodies, to control videogames and subsequently treat PTSD (Drummond, 2012). Known as neurofeedback (NF), electrodes are attached to patients’ heads so that brain waves can be monitored as they play a particular game. In these specially designed games, on-screen movements are controlled by the type of activity that is happening in the brain. Calm and steady brain activity results in an “enhanced performance” where in a racing game for instance, the car is able to move smoothly and quickly (Drummond, 2012). Whereas less controlled brain activity due to anxiety, panic, etc. would cause uncontrollable movements and potentially a car crash. Dr. Siegfried explains how this works by stating, “When the brain sees itself interacting with the world, it becomes interested in that,” and this in turn allows patients to learn how to control their anxiety as they retrain their brains.

Racing gam

Another avenue of research the Pentagon is pursuing is the use of virtual worlds. As we have discussed multiple times through Tom Boellstorff’s chapter Coming of Age in Second Life in the book Personhood, there are many benefits of virtual realities. Second Life offers a space for players to create a life that is entirely different than their actual real world one. This is possible because of the anonymity that is present within the game. With this key element in mind, the T2 Virtual PTSD Experience was unveiled by the Department of Defense in January 2011 (Ashton, 2011). Developed by Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the project allows “users [to] explore the causes and symptoms of combat trauma.” In this virtual space, players are able to access mental health services which are typically shied away from because of the “fear of social and professional repercussions.” Not only is there an emphasis on utilizing mental health services, there is also interactions within the game that help encourage soldiers to return to civilian life such as walking through a mall.

Second Life

Second Life

This past example is a more positive route to help soldiers with PTSD as opposed to using virtual realities that stimulate experiences that can occur in a war zone (Moore, 2010).  These experiences are “used as a means to facilitate a highly effective treatment for PTSD called exposure therapy.”  Exposure therapy is when soldiers are re-exposed to an event that is associated with either trauma or stress. The purpose is to desensitize the individual to the “emotional and physical distress that is associated with the event.” This method is only as effective as participants make it to be.

In taking a step towards new developments, it has been reported that the Army has invested sums around $100,000 each into three different private companies (Vista Life Sciences, Empirical Technologies, and Aptima Inc.) to develop an app that can be downloaded onto smartphones (Plackett, 2012). Ideally the app would be available for soldier before deployment so that the mental state of an individual can be charted and monitored from the beginning. The challenge is for the game to be engaging enough for soldiers to want to continue to play it throughout their deployment. This, however, is a lofty goal since we have all experienced becoming bored of a game within a couple of weeks. Because PTSD is such a serious disorder you can’t help but want to hope for this game to be effective.

The Army’s heavy investment and the scholarly work that is being done in using new technologies to aid treatment of PTSD demonstrates the influential role technology can play in our lives. While Pajitnov originally laughed when asked if his game was a pharmatronic, it has been found that games such as Tetris and others can effectively influence one’s psychological state. Videogames are no longer just for fun as they can produce serious effects that can help individuals combat very debilitating psychological disorders. No longer are patients solely reliant on brain altering chemicals to control their anxiety or depression. While some scholars like Sherry Turkle voice their fears that technology is tearing our society apart, this research proves, if anything, that technology can be used to actually better our lives. Through continued research and development of therapeutic games, we are moving towards a future where mental health care is affordable and non-stigmatized.

Works Cited

Ashton, A. (2011, Jan. 31). For post-traumatic stress victims, Pentagon video game may help healing. The Washington Post. Retrieved March 18, 2013, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/31/AR2011013101528.html

Boellstorff, T. (2008). Coming of Age in Second Life. Personhood. Princeton: Princeton             University Press.

Coffin, D. C. (1990). TETRIS. ETC: A Review of General Semantics Spring, 47(1), 72.

Drummond, K. (2012, July 3). Pentagon’s Brain-Powered Videogames Might Treat PTSD. Wired. Retrieved March 18, 2013, from http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/07/neurofeedback/

Engelhard, I. M., Van Uijen, S. L., & Van den Hout, M. A. (2010). The impact of taxing working memory on negative and positive memories. Journal of AESTHETICS & CULTURE, 1(0). doi:10.3402/ejpt.v1i0.5623

Goldsmith, J. (1994, May). This Is Your Brain on Tetris. Wired. Retrieved March 16, 2013, from http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.05/tetris.html

Haier, R. J., Karama, S., Leyba, L., & Jung, R. E. (2009). MRI assessment of cortical thickness and functional activity changes in adolescent girls following three months of practice on a visual-spatial task. BMC Research Notes, 2(1), 174. doi:10.1186/1756-0500-2-174

Hellerstein, J.D. (2012, March 27). Can TETRIS Prevent PTSD? Psychology Today. Retrieved February 2, 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/heal-your-brain/201203/can-tetris-prevent-ptsd-0

The History of Tetris. (2013). Retrieved February 2, 2013, from http://www.tetris.com/history/index.aspx

Holmes, E. A., James, E. L., Coode-Bate, T., & Deeprose, C. (2009). Can Playing the Computer Game “Tetris” Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science. PLoS ONE, 4(1), 1–6.

Holmes, E. A., James, E. L., Kilford, E. J., & Deeprose, C. (2010). Key Steps in Developing a Cognitive Vaccine against Traumatic Flashbacks: Visuospatial Tetris versus Verbal Pub Quiz. (K. Hashimoto, Ed.) PLoS ONE, 5(11), e13706. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013706

Holmes, E. A., & Mathews, A. (2010). Mental imagery in emotion and emotional disorders. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(3), 349–362. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.01.001

Kavanagh, D. J., Freese, S., Andrade, J., & May, J. (2001). Effects of visuospatial tasks on desensitization to emotive memories. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 40(3), 267–280. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1348/014466501163689/abstract

Lilley, S. A., Andrade, J., Turpin, G., Sabin-Farrell, R., & Holmes, E. A. (2009). Visuospatial working memory interference with recollections of trauma. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 48(3), 309–321. doi:10.1348/014466508X398943

McGonigal, J. (2010). Gaming Can Make a Better World. Ted Talk. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html

Moore, B.A. (2010, May 24). Video Game or Treatment for PTSD?. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 18, 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-camouflage-couch/201005/video-game-or-treatment-ptsd

Russoniello, C.V.,  O’Brien, K.,  & Parks, J.M. (2009). The effectiveness of casual video games in improving mood and decreasing stress. Journal of CyberTherapy & Rehabilitation, 2(1), 53-66. Retrieved from http://www.ecu.edu/cs-hhp/rcls/biofeedback/upload/The-Effectiveness-of-Casual-Video-Games-in-Improving-Mood-and-Decreasing-Stress.pdf

Stafford, T. (2012, Oct. 12). The psychology of Tetris. BBC. Retrieved February 2, 2013, from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20121022-the-psychology-of-tetris

Turkle, S. (2011). Introduction. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology   and Less from Each Other. 

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Video Games, Art, and the Interactive Spectacle

Van Gogh was an artist; I’m comfortable saying that.  So is Louise Bougeois.  The same goes for James Turrell.  I am pretty confident about Donald Judd, and absolutely positive about Mark Rothko.  I hope more than anything that my professors in the school of art are artists (I am pretty confident about the lot of them) and the MFA candidates are well on their way if they are not already.  Bruce Lee was a martial artist, and Richard Nixon was a con artist.  That being said, I do not know what to call game developers.  If everyone listed has anything in common, it is that they certainly gave the world a show, but I feel like it is more than just something to see.

Art is important.  What can be considered art is a question that can plague those of us who aspire to be artists and are still trying to build the confidence to fully pursue art.  I find my beliefs about what is art and who can be considered artists are likely more conservative than they ought to be.  I think that it is foolish to claim that anything can be called art and that everyone is an artist regardless of talent, effort, or craft.  However, had I been alive around the advent of photography I likely would have scoffed at the idea of such a thing being placed under the same umbrella as painting and sculpture, so I might be a little hesitant but please bear with me.

I do believe that there are some traits that seem to make certain pieces of art successful and enjoyable.  First and foremost, I hold that art must present something to the senses, namely something to look at, and if the art is good, this experience is worthwhile.  One of the other primary characteristics associated with art is a certain level of interactivity; this can manifest itself in numerous ways, such as direct, physical manipulation, or a more subtle dialogue between viewer and object.  Hence we have the interactive spectacle, and I posit that video games are, or strive to be, exactly that.

Prominent and not universally loved art critic Dave Hickey comments, as critics tend to do, about what art he finds fulfilling, and what he finds lacking.  In his collection of essays entitled The invisible dragon: essays on beauty, he details his thoughts on the difference between baroque painting and modern painting and how he believes one is more successful than the other.  Hickey praises the realism and utilization of illusionistic space in pre-modern painting.

For four centuries visual culture in the West possessed these options and exploited them.  Today we are content to slither through the flatland of Baudelairian modernity, trapped like cocker spaniels in the eternal, positive presentness of a terrain so visually impoverished that we cannot even lie to any effect in its language of images (Hickey 37).

Simply put, Hickey is frustrated by the rejection of the potential for interaction that was allowed by the use of illusionistic space.  For Hickey, the depiction of space allowed for exploration and subtlety.  He goes on to claim that modern painting eliminates a certain type of viewer, artist, and object relationship.  “The work-artist-beholder triangle is demobilized.  The bond of commonality between artist and beholder is dissolved.  The presumption that the two parties have equal insight into the mysteries of the work is dispensed with,” this change alters the balance of power between the artist and the viewer, “The bond of a work of art with its artist is now assessed in terms of ‘strength,’ its bond with the beholder in terms of ‘weakness’” (Hickey 40).  These changes, in Hickey’s eyes make a work difficult to interact with and enjoy due to a general lack of beauty and lofty conceptual inaccessibility.

I will readily admit that I have yet to discuss how the previous paragraph relates to video games.  The relationship is rather simple, modern video games tend to rely heavily on aesthetics, especially with regards to virtual or illusionistic space.  This, coupled with the inherent interactivity of games and the often exploratory nature of play as it relates to these games lines up rather nicely with what Dave Hickey would consider good or stimulating art.  Hickey may not think that it is entirely worthwhile, but the highly interactive performance art pieces as well as other art objects of the modern era can act as another parallel for video games.  Lygia Clark, “wanted spectators to ‘participate actively’ in her works, ‘to enter space organically’” (Harris 194).  This sort of more direct interaction with the art object can intensify the viewer’s experience in much the way illusionistic space sought to do.

Video games, in many ways, are just as multidimensional as art.  The pleasure of participation can have a tremendous range.  “While a film audience relates remotely to a film and takes pleasure and meaning from its exhibition without altering its form, the mastery of videogame play is central to unveiling multiple pleasure registers in the game, which are nested within one another like Russian dolls” (Surman 205).  There are simply so many things to enjoy with video games.  There is winning, exploring, collecting, viewing, fighting, and many others.  Central to all the enjoyment is the fact that you are at the helm.  “Moreover, they also give rise to other, more specific terms – among the most prominent being ‘control’, ‘mastery’, ‘game-play’, ‘real-time’, ‘simulation’, and ‘spectacle’ – all of which help us to get more of a handle on the aesthetic character and experience of the computer game” (Darley 150).  There is much the same dance occurring between the player, the developer, and the game, as there is between the viewer, artist, and object.  It does not take very much time in an art gallery or museum to realize that, generally speaking, most pieces of art get only a few seconds of attention before they are passed over for what hangs on the wall a few feet over.  I think that this has two reasons.  The first is that art is generally under appreciated (as an art major I think I have to have this opinion) and the second is that the art in question did not fully resonate with the individual in question.  I for one am not a huge fan of Rococo art, I think that it is gaudy, and on the verge of ugly.  I prefer instead contemporary minimalism.  The pared down aesthetics line up with that I feel is important in art, namely a purity of expression.  In the same way I was not so taken with puzzle games such as Myst, but knew from the moment I saw it being played for the first time that Age of Empires II was my jam (this is not to say that AOE II is akin to contemporary minimalism).  One blogger summed up the experience of trying to determine why he liked a game, and why it was successful.  He began by talking about aesthetics, and then about sound and soundtrack, then storytelling, finally ending his discussion on game play (Geek Studies).  As games have developed as a medium they have come to harness and manipulate certain facets of themselves in order to improve the experience they provide.  I would say that this is a somewhat unique balance and is not the same from game to game.

Art feeds on itself.  It does this in a number of ways but the most prominent is that art is largely a product of the art that came before it.  Simply put, Picasso would not look like Picasso if he had not spent so much time looking at Velazquez.  Video games have operated in much this same manner.  Games that are successful offer themselves as blueprints for future games to re-appropriate and remix.  As with all remixing, you are not limited to things within the medium in question but you can draw on anything that can be applied,

video games strive for cinematic photorealism—pushing processing resources towards rendering lush, immersive worlds that replicate cinematic devices down to camera angles, close-ups, and even lens flares.  Games themselves commonly contain non-   interactive animated movies called ‘cut-scenes’ that narratively frame the game play and serve as rewards for progress through the game levels (Chien 26).

Film has been a massively successful medium, even at its relatively young age. So it makes sense that another budding medium would look to borrow some tricks in order to fast track success.  As far as photorealism goes, most games do fall into this sort of category, which makes sense, as it is easily accessible and simple to interact with.  Even so, I feel that it is only a matter of time before games begin to explore the abstract, and the hyper-flat.  These sort of visual strategies help to create complex environments that are endlessly explorable, “creating a virtual environment in which those paths, and any in-between, could be explored was less about video game design and more about creating a rich world” (Ward).  Interactivity is paramount to maintaining interest.  Whether or not it is simple or complex, the agency of the player is crucial for the experience.  “Someone once said that video games were really just about cleaning, about finding the right tools to scrub enemies from a scene.  In Halo games the vacuum, mop and dust rag have been the gun, the grenade and the melee” (Totilo).  Often enough interaction is extremely simple, as is the case with first person shooters, even being as simple as a point and click interface.  The main point though is control.  It is interesting though how the environment created by game designers can amplify such a simple experience.  Cleaning my house is much more challenging and dynamic than playing Halo, and the game forces me to trade limitless possibility for a fairly rigid story arc, but I would still rather play the game.  This sort of skillful application of style and interactivity can determine which games stay on the shelf and which ones are enjoyed for years.

Video games have become such a part of our culture that they have begun to alter our perceptions of what is real.

For example, many journalists have commented that televised military operations in the Gulf war looked like scenes on a video-game screen.  In situations where the real looks like its simulated version and where the simulation approaches the real to the point of virtual reality, one’s perceptions of the real, of one’s actions and of their effects on others might be substantially altered (Gottschalk 15).

Many might look at this statement and consider how precarious and perilous the position is.  Such discussion is for another time.  For now I think that this statement stands as a testament to the ability of video games to create truly immersive and realistic worlds in which experiences can, at the very least, feel real.  I would claim that fine arts can function in much the same way.  A truly talented painter can capture the sensation of viewing so precisely that the sensation felt upon viewing the painting has nearly the same weight as the original subject matter might.  This being said, I do not think that video games ought to be negatively critiqued for their ability to alter perceptions of reality, because we would not critique a painter as harshly for achieving much the same end.

If you wont take my word for it, perhaps the Museum of Modern Art can convince you.  As was posted on the blog earlier, MoMA has put on an exhibit featuring video games.  “The defining feature of video games is interaction, the three-way conversation among designer, machine, and player” (Suellentrop).  If that sounds familiar to what Dave Hickey said about the artist-viewer-object relationship it is because I planned it that way.  The experience of the player mirrors that of the viewer in the gallery.  The exhibit is meant to, “make a case for the evolution of video games as a new art form that combined older forms like painting, sculpture and story telling” (Suellentrop).  Video games have behaved in much the same manner that the previously established arts do, namely through the systematic adoption of visual and conceptual strategies that were successful in the past.  The specific type of interactivity is very important when it comes to distinguishing video games from cinema and other such mediums, “remove interactivity, the ability of the player to communicate with the machine (and by extension the designer), and you no longer have a video game” (Suellentrop).  The ability of the player to communicate directly with the game firmly establishes the game as separate from cinema, and the relationship between the designer, player and machine provides the subtle interactivity that can be found in much of fine art.

So, does this mean that the game designers should stay on the list I started above?  I believe so.  Through artful remixing of the visual sources that predate themselves, and the establishment of direct and indirect interaction between the game, player, and designer, they have been able to construct the same complicated and fulfilling relationship that has been the cornerstone for much of art’s history.  I will admit that I am still hesitant to allow a new group into the art club (as if I have any actual say) but that is likely more a result of my jealousy that new, slickly packaged mediums can steal attention away from the tried and true methods of art making.

Works Cited

Chien, Irene. “Deviation / Red Vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles.” Film Quarterly 60, no. 4 (June 1, 2007): 24–29. doi:10.1525/fq.2007.60.4.24.

Darley, Andrew. Visual digital culture: surface play and spectacle in new media genres. London; New York: Routledge, 2000.

Gottschalk, Simon. “Videology: Video-Games as Postmodern Sites/Sights of Ideological Reproduction.” Symbolic Interaction 18, no. 1 (February 1, 1995): 1–18. doi:10.1525/si.1995.18.1.1.

Harris, Jonathan, and Tate Gallery Liverpool. Dead history, live art?: spectacle, subjectivity and subversion in visual culture since the 1960s. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007.

Hickey, Dave. 2009. The invisible dragon: essays on beauty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Totilo, Stephen. “Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Halo 4.” The New York Times, November 13, 2012, sec. Arts / Video Games. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/arts/video-games/call-of-duty-black-ops-ii-and-halo-4.html.

“Geek Studies » Video Games as Visual Narrative Spectacle.” Accessed January 31, 2013. http://www.geekstudies.org/2007/08/video-games-as-visual-narrative-spectacle.

Ward, Mark. “Looking into the Future of Fiction.” BBC, February 6, 2013, sec. Technology. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-21177737.

“Pleasure, Spectacle and Reward in Capcom’s Street Fighter Series | David Surman – Academia.edu.” Accessed January 31, 2013. http://www.academia.edu/168076/Pleasure_Spectacle_and_Reward_in_Capcoms_Street_Fighter_Series.

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Playing With Ourselves: Chasing Personal Pleasure through Video Games and Modern Porn



Today, if someone were to walk into a modern library and select from the shelves any volume claiming to pertain to the study of philosophical hedonism, they would almost undoubtedly encounter a disclaimer somewhere in the book’s introduction or first chapter that reads something like this: “Since its earliest days, hedonism has been in bad repute. Critics have dismissed it with scorn. They have presented a barrage of classic objections” (Feldman, 7). After announcing their awareness that such a philosophy has not proven to be most people’s proverbial cup of tea, authors of these books will then typically devote the rest of their text to defending the merits of a hedonic view of life, writing with the preconceived notion that their defense is going to be highly contested every inch along the way.


Clearly, there is something about the idea that the simple and unadulterated pursuit of pleasure could be the primary motivation for our actions that just doesn’t sit well with people. Consequently, our society has trained us to look negatively upon actions that openly exhibit such an ambition. To be ‘indulgent’ or ‘self-serving’ are acts widely considered to hold unfavorable connotations ever since the rise of Christianity. However, despite whatever moral objections that might arise around the analysis of pleasure seeking, it is impossible to deny its prevalence in contemporary culture. This essay looks exclusively at two of today’s most popular industries: those of video games and digital pornography, and how the products they yield perpetuate hedonistic behavior in the modern world. While each of these genres of modern entertainment are enormous in scale and diversity of merchandise, it all shares one commonality: the enjoyment and pleasure of the consumer is the single most important criteria for production. By this standard, porn and video games are a horse of the same wonderfully tawdry color. One just happens to have enormous, oiled-up breasts while the other features enormous, oiled-up guns. Head shots seem to be pretty prevalent in both. 


Before diving into the digital sex and gaming worlds, a quick note on what is meant here by hedonism. There has been an enormous amount of discussion conducted over what exactly the doctrine of hedony entails, but for the purposes of this blog, we are focusing on only one particular aspect and manifestation of the philosophy. Joseph Mendola, a professor at the University of Nebraska, describes it particularly well, explaining that “the pleasantness of physical pleasure is a kind of hedonic value, a single homogenous sensory property, differing merely in intensity as well as in extent and duration, which is yet a kind of goodness” (Mendola, 442). In other words, everything can be boiled down to its ‘hedonic value’ based off of how pleasurable it is, with things of highest pleasure being the best and thusly the most coveted and pursued. Mendola goes on to explain that pain and other negative repercussion operates on the same scale as a foil to the pleasure gained from something, and thus the pleasure of something must exceed the pain in order for it to be ‘good.’ It is on this scale that the employ of both video games and pornography ranks very highly, offering high quantities of pleasure in exchange for hardly any personal negative backlash. In comparison to other activities that provide a similar pleasurable thrill, such as using drugs that chemically force the release of endorphins, porn and gaming are pretty low-risk options. Therefore, as highly valuable resources for the achievement of hedonistic good, the enormous success of these two industries seems to expose the hedonism of our society as a whole, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. 


By merely following the model outlined in the previous paragraph concerning the higher the net pleasure something has the better it is, all manner of activities, not just watching porn and playing video games, would contribute to the alleged hedonistic tendencies of consumers. Anything could fall under this banner, even acts of altruism so long as the pleasure taken away from the experience exceeds the ‘pain,’ or in this case the sense of loss felt from donating resources. This general application of the hedonic scale to all aspects of life is, in fact, an excellent example of one of the models for hedonism that J.C.B. Gosling outlines in his novel Pleasure and Desire, which could be classified as motivational hedonism. However, what I believe pornography and video games demonstrates is how this sliding scale of pleasure plays out in egoistic hedonism, which hinges around self-indulgence, and focuses on the individual’s happiness with less regard to the happiness of others. 


Egoistic hedonism is not a new concept. It was first given definition in 1874 by the English philosopher Henry Sidgwick in his book The Methods of Ethics, but had been applied without name for centuries before that. Digital porn and video games are by no means the first or only activities to demonstrate this self-serving principal, but are rather perhaps the most relevant examples in the current era. Below are links to some remarkable stats about the porn and video game industries from 2006 and 2010 respectively. 



The popularity and widespread use of these two forms of entertainment is remarkable, easily rivaling any other mode of entertainment. So why? Why are they so popular now? In part, that can be explained by suitability to the popular medium. The content, after all, has always been popular. From the very first sentence of our very first reading from this class, the lasting importance of games, or more generally the act of play, has been iterated upon, with Huizinga making the claim that, “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always predisposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing” (Huizinga, 97). And as for sex, well, I think the mere fact that we are all here today stands as a pretty decent testament to its lasting appeal. Yes, the basic commodities that porn and video games are dealing in have always been proven sellers, it’s their current means of distribution that make them the powerhouses that they are today. 




The rise of digital porn and video games have been remarkably similar, due largely in part to their suitability to the technology that has been steadily developing over the past forty years. While both erotic film and video game arcades enjoyed earlier successes, the full potential of neither was realized until developing technology allowed for them to be available in the privacy of the consumer’s own home. At this point the markets for both completely exploded, beginning with the Atari’s Home Pong in 1974, and the slightly later boom of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) in 1975. Journalist Damon Brown devotes the first part of his book, Porn & Pong, to this critical time in these two industries’ history, summarizing that:

Both video game and porn producers began to realize that home audiences, not the arcade or theater audiences, were now the ones to target. Creating an arcade game could be a heavily orchestrated event with art designers, programmers and manual laborers to put together the 8 foot tall, 200 pound machine, while a home video game cartridge was usually done by one guy who did all the programming, graphics and level design … A straight-to-video movie had a fraction of the production cost a traditional film carried, not to mention fewer distribution problems and less film crew. A hit porn could be made by two guys, a woman and a camcorder. It was no longer about translating products to the home, but making products specifically for the home. (Brown, 28 – 29)


In his book, Brown focuses heavily upon the perks of cutting out the hassle and production costs of making erotic film and video games that would first be made for public presentation, which perhaps originally was one of the motivations for focusing exclusively upon the home market, but would eventually be one of the main reasons for their enormous success. This is perhaps best illustrated in looking specifically at pornography. In 1975, before entering the home market in any significant way, the total retail value of all American hardcore porn was only about five to ten million dollars (Amis, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/mar/17/society.martinamis1). As seen in the earlier statistics though, in 2006 the American porn industry’s revenue exceeded thirteen billion dollars for that year alone. Something clearly happened in that time to make people more willing to buy pornography, and I think it had to do with the neighbors next door. Public opinion always has and will continue to hold an unknowably huge sway over how an individual conducts them self when they think that they are being observed, especially when it comes to those things that society holds to be taboo. In an article he wrote for the National Review, author Rob Long comments that, “The only real curb to unfettered free expression is the look on the face of the person you’re expressing yourself to. But on the internet, there is no face looking back. You can say anything, ask for anything, watch anything” (Long, 49). This is a very valid point, one that we as a class had touched on in our discussions of anonymity while gaming online, and that can be used to explain a great deal of the appeal of consuming media in private opposed to in public. In the case of pornography, it might at least in part be a case of people not wanting to be publicly identified as someone who watches and enjoys what polite society would label as ‘smut,’ or ‘filth.’ However, I believe that the stigma of being watched goes beyond just that extreme. Take the example of video games. By removing the public aspect of the game, the player is then free to conduct themselves as they wish around it, no longer restricted by the specter of public opinion. If a player wishes to play all day and all night, they can do so without fearing judgmental eyes upon them, and should they wish to yell and scream obscenities at the screen when Mrs. Pacman fails to elude the red ghost, no one need be around to hold witness to such an instance of broken self-control. 


With the increase in privacy that gaming and watching pornography at home affords, there is also a rise in the degree to which these activities are purely self-serving. While a movie-goer or a gamer might not have had anyone else’s interest but their own in mind when they would go out to the sleazy movie theater or the video arcade, they were still providing others with the opportunity to observe them, a sort of relationship that still kept the public in mind. By eliminating the public element, the porn or game enthusiast is increasing their own level of pleasure along the hedonic scale (eliminating the uncomfortableness or ‘pain’ of being observed), but by doing so ensuring that this hedonistic action is purely egoistic, cutting out all consideration of the community outside. 

While perhaps not many would argue against the consumption of digital pornography being classified as an example of pleasuring only one’s own self, the act of playing video games should meet with a little bit more resistance before being similarly categorized as a purely egoistic form of hedonism. What about the case of online games, after all? Even though players of these games are surely participating in them for the pleasure that they gain from them, are they not at least in part contributing to the experience that other online players are receiving, whether that contribution be for the better or the worse? How about games like Foldit, which was one of the games demoed during class? In this example, players are, at least in theory, “solving puzzles for science,” as the game advertises in its very name. Is that not thinking beyond one’s own self? Maybe. It is impossible to know what every player’s motive for playing online / public games is, but I think it would be naive to assume that more than a very small minority of them are playing these games for any reason other than that they like them. That, after all, is one of the primary motivators as to why we play games. In a sociological study aimed at determining why children play video games, fun ranked as one of the major reasons middle school aged kids like to play games (Ferguson, 162). The same study also found that there was also a social motivation for engaging in video games (Ferguson, 162), which suggests that a consideration for other players did exist at least in some of the subjects polled. However, where wishing to enjoy an activity alone and away from the outside world is a purely self-serving gesture, the wish to play with others does not automatically imply that someone has the best interests of others in mind. Very often, in fact, we see quite the opposite happening, where players will play on public servers and ‘troll’ other players by making inflammatory / abusive comments to them, or even by singling a particular player out and repeatedly killing off their avatar. In Lisa Nakamura’s “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game,” this phenomenon is taken even farther to incorporate real world discriminations into the online world, with some World of Warcraft players seeking out other players that they think may be “Chinese gold farmers,” and, as Nakamura puts it, targets them out “for ill-treatment or even virtual death” (Nakamura, 133). In these situations, players are not playing in the public domain with the intent of furthering others’ play experience, but are actually hindering others to assumedly further the enjoyment they receive from taking part in this virtually sadistic behavior. While not all online players are trolls, neither are they all saints, making online and multiplayer gaming hold the possibility for players to ascend beyond a purely egoistic form of hedonism in their play, but not guaranteeing such action either. 


Egoistic or not, it is quite impossible to separate how our culture consumes video games and pornography from hedonism, when considering the pleasure we derive from them. Unlike the Chinese gold farmers that Nakamura discusses in her article, we do not rely on games and certainly not porn for anything other than our own enjoyment. While often different in content, video games and pornography represent two wildly successful ways in which modern technology appeals to our hedonistic tendencies, offering us indulgences most of us just cannot resist. To get biblical, what we are dealing with are two very sleek, persuasive, and computer-generated serpents, tempting us away from the Garden of Eden with seductive and gratifying apples. And honestly, who’s going to refuse? The garden’s gonna get pretty damn boring without porn and video games, and I bet the community’s not nearly as judgmental down in hell. 



Works Cited

Amis, Martin. “A Rough Trade: Martin Amis reports from the high-risk, increasingly violent world of the pornography industry”. The Guardian, March 16, 2001. Accessed March 15, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/mar/17/society.martinamis1.

Brown, Damon. Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2008.

Feldman, Fred. Pleasure and the Good Life: Concerning the Nature, Varieties, and Plausibility of Hedonism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.

Ferguson, Christopher J. and Cheryl K. Olson. “Friends, Fun, Frustration and Fantasy: Child Motivations for Video Game Play.” Motiv Emot 37 (2013): 154-164. Accessed March 15, 2013. doi: 10.1007/s11031-012-9284-7.

Gosling, J.C.B. Pleasure and Desire: The Case for Hedonism Reviewed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Huizinga, Johan. “Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon.” In The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, edited by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, 96-120. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006.

Long, Rob. “Porn on Demand.” National Review 51 (1999): 48-49. Accessed March 17, 2013. http://web.ebscohost.com.

Mendola, Joseph. “Intuitive Hedonism.” Philosophical Studies 128 (2006): 441-477. Accessed February 5, 2013. doi: 10.1007/s11098-004-7810-5.

Nakamura, Lisa. “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 26 (2009): 128-144.

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1874.

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Final Blog Post – Race and Culture in Grand Theft Auto


Jeff and Karlin

Racial elements in media forms such as literature, television, and movies are heavily scrutinized.  There are images of racial stereotypes and interactions between people of certain races that pander to society’s insecurities and face value judgments of ethnic communities.  However, video games seem to be immune from any critical discourse on their use of racial images.   What movies were to the past generation is what video games will be to the current generation and it is important to look at how people create video games, and how the video games are interpreted.  Grand Theft Auto is a prime case of a video game series that capitalizes on racial stereotypes, violence, and sexual images.  The creators of Grand Theft Auto create unique worlds filled with racial stereotypes satirical in nature and are more or less a reflection of white America’s interpretation of the underworld.

Grand Theft Auto is an open world, role-playing game where the player takes control of the protagonist and leads him from the bottom of the crime world to the top.  Games have taken place in locations inspired by Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City.  Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas takes place in a 1990’s, Compton-inspired, Los Angeles where a young black male is controlled.  The character, CJ, has to navigate basic errands for a gang, accumulating money, respect, and girls, and works his way to unimaginable wealth and power through missions that he can take at any point during his time in the game.  There is no set schedule of when missions have to be completed and with plenty of smaller, side missions the player has a lot of freedom in choosing his or her character’s narrative throughout the game.

The characters in the Grand Theft Auto series are stereotypes in their simplest and most well known forms.  All the gangs in Grand Theft Auto are based off the races of the group (Dymek 9). Mexican gangs wear bandanas, have heavy accents, and speak slowly.  Black gangs will always be playing hip-hop and have cars with huge rims.  Gangs of race will fit the definition of their stereotypes (Leonard). When women are seen in the games they are only used as props.  The women have no agency and are props or victims, especially the African-American women portrayed.  Race is systematically programmed into the game, to the point where certain neighborhoods will have only a certain amount of one race and some parts of the map won’t have any black people in it ever (Higgin). Different characters will also have their own theme music that they will play themselves (Miller). For example, the car of a black man will play rap music, a white’s car will play rock, and a Mexican’s car will play ranchero.  The racial stereotypes have largely gone unnoticed by lawmakers because the violence in the game was of much greater concern (Leonard). CJ was the first non-white character that Rockstar had ever put in a position to be the main character.  The player had control over CJ’s appearance and CJ could be dressed as a gangster with baggy clothes or wearing a suit.  Some believe that since CJ’s physical appearance was so easily adjustable Rockstar avoided criticism for creating a racial caricature (Miller).

Barrett advocates that Grand Theft Auto 3 reduces African-Americans to a “blackness” that reduces them to merely a body and a victim.  50 Cent is a real life example that is cited by Barrett, because he advocates that violence, crime, and shooting makes one an “authentic” black (Barrett 106).  Barrett most aptly describes how Grand Theft Auto uses race and the effects of it on participants:

Both in the very structure of the game and within the subtext of San Andreas, there is a glamorizing, and even spectacularization of violence, a marking of young black bodies as disposable, an insistence on a culture of cynicism as well as a particular formation of African-American experience that is extremely problematic. Furthermore, there is a sense of the public sphere as a site of danger and a withdrawal from any commitment to political or collective social agency that runs throughout the game. Taken together, these undercurrents in the game’s environment and narrative serve to naturalize and reinforce (as well as justify) neoliberal policies that divest power from politics and collapse public concerns into private worries. Similarly, the ideology of the game provides, and operates in tandem with, the necessary ideological conditions for both the U.S. ‘‘war on terror’’ and the war against Iraq.

Barrett 98

 Of greatest concern is how Grand Theft Auto portrays black society to white America’s youth, whose playing of the game constitutes the vast majority if not all of their interaction with black, lower-class America (Barrett 98). The game shows African Americans as violent, disposable, and without agency in their communities.  However, this idea of blackness is not normal and is simply a lampoon (Higgin).  Grand Theft Auto embraces racist imagery and uses the bank of stereotypes to fill its games.  According to Leonard, the video game is, “A powerful medium in which racialized ideas, bodies, and structures are constructed, mediated, and presented through a safe medium” (Leonard 3). Higgins is quick to remind people that race does not function solely through representation, but also through behavior.  He cites Leeroy Jenkins as a blaxploitation and racial archetype because the behavior is the biggest giveaway of the player being black rather than the name Leeroy Jenkins (Higgin).  In the game blackness isn’t just seen through the races, but through the music played, the specific crimes committed, and the language used by the avatars.

Getting your gang together

Getting your gang together

One of the most damaging parts of race and its relation behaviors in the video game is how the society is uncontrollable and inescapable.  The state and its powers are entirely missing from the game except for when a crime is committed and police offers arrive to make arrests (Barrett 105). Leonard goes so far to say that Grand Theft Auto legitimizes white supremacy and patriarchy.  He views that the roles whites have in the game re-enforce an idea of privileged whiteness, maleness, and the need for law enforcement to control parts of society that aren’t white (Leonard 3). Furthermore, the society creates a sense that racism, sexism, and poverty appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable (Leonard 87). In focus groups on the game, it was found that people thought the game was more realistic because police officers were racist and corrupt (DeVane 277). Specifically with the case of CJ, there is no contextualizing of CJ’s community.  The community is bad and decaying, but the map shows no signs of improvement.  The map exists as a broken city with deep issues that is a place of violence (Barrett 102). Race matters in these situations because they can affirm the status quo, give tolerance for racial inequality, and show that the unequal distribution of resources and privileges is acceptable, if not validated (Leonard 2).

The cities created in the Grand Theft Auto series are based on the interpretations and impressions of the creators.  In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the city is based off a 1990’s Los Angeles seen in movies such as Boyz N the Hood.  The creators of the game are from Scotland and didn’t have any idea of what many of the communities they had to make looked like.  Spike Lee films, such as Do The Right Thing, were also used to create the games based in the New York City-inspired locations.  The realities created are a mix of fiction and realism without being over the top (Devane 265). In effect, the true citizens and mayors of the city are the team of designers, writers, actors, and culture consultants (Miller). Experts have been brought in, such as Ice Cube, to give direction to storylines and other aspects of the game, and the individuals who work on the project are the sole creators of the imagery.  The developers are what Dymek would call symbol creators, “GTA 3 is not simply ‘just a game’ but also a reflection of the authors, their beliefs, views and the discourses of their social context” (Dymek 3).

While the creators are able to make a world full of storylines and characters, each with their own baggage, it is up to the player to determine how these new symbols are interpreted.  When focus groups were done to analyze themes present in the video games, many different participants had different views on what was important and what wasn’t.  The players of Grand Theft Auto used their own knowledge gained from personal experiences to interpret the game (DeVane 264). This shows that the players are not simply viewing and accepting what is put in front of them, but are actively engaged in how they receive the information and interpret it.  Players also viewed the cities by thinking about other cities that they had visited (Miller). People from Chicago related to the Miami and New York inspired locations through the viewpoint of how it compared to Chicago, showing that there is no universal interpretation to how anyone views the game or what it means to them. Interestingly, many people who played the game saw traits present in films that both they, and the creators of the game, had seen before (DeVane 276). CJ was also very real to many of the people interviewed.  However, many of his issues that appeared comical to some, were too familiar to be funny to others Leonard 414). For example, there’s an achievement in the game when CJ buys his first house and there is a funny video that follows.  People from middle or upper class communities found it funny, while black players from the lower class commented on how hard it was for black people to buy homes with the unfair societal constraints in place.

Often times the players of the game are simply escaping to a world that is so foreign it might as well be considered fantasy, as if the players are simply tourists in another part of the world.  In the world of Grand Theft Auto white suburban kids can listen to rap, roll out on rims, and participate in gang related activities such as drive-by shootings and not be made fun of for fantasizing about it (Miller). It has been argued that the games allow for white fantasies while still keeping and affirming a feeling of white privilege during play (Leonard 86). Video games are more than just story and characters; they are a package of ideas that include race, nation of origin, and gender.  It takes people through imagination, ethnic sampling, and cross-dressing.  Leonard compares the video game series to white people going to Harlem during the jazz era.  At its core it allows a privileged community to go to a foreign land, and the video game now allows for previously forbidden behaviors (Leonard 5).  With the open world with no timetable for accomplishing anything, Grand Theft Auto allows for the tourist to do anything they want.

At the game’s core, and what probably makes it most threatening to people, is the amount of realism present in the game.  The dialogue is impeccable and the storylines are relatable to everyone interviewed.  People have experienced drive by shootings or delivering drugs in some facet, either through real life or film and television.  Any stereotypes and realities, even if misguided, are clearly present in Grand Theft Auto, sometimes painfully present.  Instead of just watching a drive by shooting take place, the player is now the one doing the shooting.  When it was released that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas would take place in a version of Los Angeles, local celebrities and rappers tried to lend their voice to any character they could.  The actors chosen complained about the lines being unrelated to Los Angeles, specifically with words like “rubbish” being in the script.  The developers brought in the writers of the hit film Friday to correct storylines and the dialogue (Kushner 167). The biggest factor of the realism is that it enables the comedy.  Through being real, it allows for the satire that Rockstar has claimed multiple times it tries to put in the games.

Rockstar has said that while Grand Theft Auto is very realistic, it is also meant to satirize America and the regions it shows (Kushner 163). All of the issues of violence and race are real.  The public outcry from lawmakers and other concerned parties are due to the over the top nature of some of the actions present in the game.  However, what could be interpreted as over the top by some may be interpreted by others as satire.  There was a level discovered in a game called “Hot Coffee” where the main character must seduce a woman at a club and then gain achievements through various sexual acts.  While not open to the public, it was buried in the program so as not to accidently break other parts of the game.  The level was discovered by hackers who then made a patch that released the level to everyone.  After lawsuits and an investigation, Rockstar had this to say about the situation, “It didn’t matter what was or wasn’t in the game because the controversies weren’t really about the game at all.  They were about the fears – first violence and now racism – that the games unleashed, and Rockstar had no choice but to respond” (Kushner 163). It has been established though that people interpret the game based off their own experiences.  Dymek argues that by presenting gross stereotypes as humorous in the video game, the player is given cues that will cause them to reflect and evaluate his or her own perspectives on issues of race (Dymek).

Issues of race present in the Grand Theft Auto series are now new.  The stereotypes currently exist in already present forms of media.  The images in the game constitute a small scope of the stereotypes and opinions present in modern America.  What the created means to players however, is dependent on the players themselves.  What is funny to some is serious to others, and what many find offensive or obscene, others will find as satire.  It is important to analyze all images and themes present in video games, because as Grand Theft Auto shows, video games are slowly beginning to outpace other forms of media and embed players in situations where they were previously bystanders.  Largely, Grand Theft Auto is loved by just as many as it is contested by, because of how honest and true the gameplay is.


Barrett, Paul. “White Thumbs, Black Bodies: Race, Violence, and Neoliberal Fantasies in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 28, no. 1 (August 19, 2006): 95-119. Accessed February 07, 2013.http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10714410600552902.

DeVane, Ben, and Kurt D. Squire. “The Meaning of Race and Violence in Grand Theft Auto.” Games and Culture 3, no. 3-3 (July 2008): 264-85. Accessed February 07, 2013.http://gac.sagepub.com/content/3/3-4/264.short.

Dymek, Mikolaj. “Among Pasta-loving Mafiosos, Drug-selling Columbians and Noodle-eating Triads – Race, Humour and Interactive Ethics in Grand Theft Auto III.” Among Pasta-loving Mafiosos, Drug-selling Columbians and Noodle-eating Triads – Race, Humour and Interactive Ethics in Grand Theft Auto III. May 28, 2005. Accessed February 07, 2013. http://summit.sfu.ca/item/206.

Higgin, Tanner. “Gaming the System.” How I Use Leeroy Jenkins to Teach Race in Videogames. September 17, 2009. Accessed February 07, 2013.http://www.tannerhiggin.com/how-i-use-leeroy-jenkins-to-teach-race-in-videogames/.

Higgin, Tanner. “Gaming the System.” Teaching Transcoded Race in Videogames. May 23, 2005. Accessed February 07, 2013. http://www.tannerhiggin.com/test/.

Higgin, Tanner. “Gaming the System.” Videogames as Critical Race Pedagogy. April 3, 2011. Accessed February 07, 2013. http://www.tannerhiggin.com/videogames-as-critical-race-pedagogy/.

Kushner, David. 2012. Jacked the outlaw story of Grand theft auto. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=439970.

Leonard, David J. “Not a Hater, Just Keepin’ It Real.” Games and Culture 1, no. 1 (January 2006): 83-88. Accessed February 07, 2013.http://gac.sagepub.com/content/1/1/83.

Leonard, David. “”Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other – SIMILE: Studies In Media & Information Literacy Education – Volume 3, Number 4 / November 2003 – University of Toronto Press.” SIMILE: Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education 3, no. 4 (November 2003): 1-9. Accessed February 07, 2013. http://utpjournals.metapress.com/content/p64ut85g663gr605/.

Miller, Kiri. “The Accidental Carjack: Ethnography, Gameworld Tourism, and Grand Theft Auto.” Game Studies 8, no. 1 (September 2008). Accessed February 07, 2013.http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/miller.

Miller, Kiri. “Jacking the Dial: Radio, Race, and Place in “Grand Theft Auto”” Ethnomusicology 51, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 402-38.

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(Extremely) Extended Blog Post: Why is there a “No Girls Allowed” Sign on this Video Game?

Video games are considered largely by society, and especially within the industry in general, as a “man’s world.” We have talked about this in class, and we have also talked about how, despite these conceptions, there are still almost as many women players as there are men – and the percentage is rising in areas of games like MMOs. We have talked about hostility towards women in such a masculine environment, talked about the effects that this has on women and girls wanting to enter the gaming world, and we have talked about ways to potentially fix these effects.

(This is one of the more ridiculous images from Fat, Ugly or Slutty, a blog where women pots their experiences online. Others are hurtful, hateful, and combative.)

We have talked about the effects of this ‘man-based’ gamer world, and have talked around the bush conspicuously labeled “gendered gamer world,” but despite our best efforts in class, a conclusive decision on the cause of this hyper-gendered atmosphere has yet to be determined. I do not think it is possible to point at three things and say, “These are the only reasons, and this is how to fix them,” and I do not think anyone can do that – presumably because they would have done it already. It is easy to point to numerous explanations for the hostility towards a realm of gaming that is not so traditionally masculine, but my goal is to expand on some ideas we have talked about in class, and add in some empirical data that we have been craving. The issues we have not discussed at great length, but that I think are the most important in understanding this ‘men’s club’ of a video game world, are hegemonic masculinity and competition, and how the interactions between men and women in place are constantly reaffirming the negative effects they produce.

I wanted to first address a common mistake that we make when discussing video games – and it is that we discuss ‘video games’ as an entity. We take a huge industry of game developers, consumers, and players, amateur and professional, and often try to claim sweeping generalities about them all. Ironically, it is that exact behavior that begins to contribute to the overall gendered problem, but I will come back to that idea later. I just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page, and we knew that there are different categories of games and different types of players. In this analysis, I will be focusing on multiplayer games and games that include some form of competition, because that is where the most prominent gender issues occur.

Let’s start with a definition of hegemonic masculinity:

Hegemony…is about the winning and holding of power and the formation (and destruction) of social groups in that process. In this sense, it is importantly about the ways in which the ruling class establishes and maintains its domination. The ability to impose a definition of the situation, to set the terms in which events are understood and issues discussed, to formulate ideals and define morality is an essential part of this process. Hegemony involves persuasion of the greater part of the population, particularly through the media, and the organization of social institutions in ways that appear ‘natural,’ ‘ordinary,’ ‘normal.’ The state, through punishment for non-conformity, is crucially involved in this negotiation and enforcement. Donaldson 645

Beginning with the first aspect of this definition, hegemonic masculinity asserts that domination and power are inherently male.  In society, these traits are affirmed as masculine, and often are not associated with women or femininity. This is an institution created from a young age, with things like ‘girl games’ and ‘boy games’ that include themes of conflict solving for girls and war/action themes for boys. A study was done on a group of fourth and fifth grades on their feelings towards video games, and the study concluded that “boys have heightened feelings of reward related to success in games” (Hamlen 304). This would indicate that, more so than girls, boys are expected to be more driven by achievement. Using T.L. Taylor’s work Play Between Worlds, another study looked at how “gender role theory suggests that women are encouraged to be social and caring, and to maintain relationships, but also to avoid activities portrayed as masculine. And from what we know of MMOs and video games, these spaces remain heavily focused on achievement and competition, and often have sexist imagery within them” (Williams et al. 703). The study also concluded “significant gender differences for both physical and verbal aggressiveness…males were significantly more physically aggressive than females…male players were almost more verbally aggressive than female players” (William et al. 712).

The second part of hegemonic masculinity is the other thing I want to focus on, which is this idea that deviating from a norm is bad or “punishable.” While it is not the specific focus of this essay, it is worth noting the struggle of gays in the video game world as well, and especially being a male who is not seen as that typical picture of masculinity.

Heterosexuality and homophobia are the bedrock of hegemonic masculinity and any understanding of its nature and meaning is predicated on the feminist insight that in general the relationship of men to women is oppressive. Indeed, the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ was invented and is used primarily to maintain this central focus in the critique of masculinity. A fundamental element of hegemonic masculinity, then, is that women exist as potential sexual objects for men while men are negated as sexual objects for men. Women provide heterosexual men with sexual validation, and men compete with each other for this. This does not necessarily involved men being particularly nasty to individual women. Women may feel as oppressed by non-hegemonic masculinities, may even find some expressions of the hegemonic pattern more familiar and manageable. Donaldson 645

Later, Donaldson goes on to write that “homosexuality is associated with effeminacy,” so it must be considered counter-hegemonic (648). These ideas of hegemonic masculinity are suggesting ideas of a sort of biology in men and boys, where they have these natural instincts and inclinations, and there have been multiple surveys over the past decade that demonstrate these core principles – sexualizing women is good, and non-masculine is bad.

During her talk “Athletes, Geeks, and Gamers: Exploring Gender and Professional E-sports” at the University of Oregon, T.L. Taylor spoke about difference types of masculinity and their representation in the video game world. ‘Geek’ and ‘jock’ type masculinities create an even greater hierarchy of hegemonic masculinity, because not only is the comparison on masculine and feminine, but how masculine a person can be. In the professional gaming world, this is particularly prevalent, and often leads to overcompensation in the interest of putting up a more dominant front. This in itself is also an issue worth long discussion, but I felt it should be mentioned here at least briefly.

Based on a 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation study, “girls aged 8-18 spent less time per day than boys with the combination of media surveyed. Boys spent more time with TV, video games, and computers than did girls who spent more time with music media and print materials (Sanford and Madill 288). Kaiser Family Foundation did another study in 2009 that showed an increase in media exposure all around, with boys “exposed to almost an hour more of media each day than girls, with most of the difference coming from console video games” (11). The most exposed demographic were 11-18 year olds, taking in up to 12 hours of media a day. With console gaming, boys were surveyed at spending almost an hour per day on average and girls were just under fifteen minutes (25). This might be stating the obvious, but that fact still holds true that men and boys are more inclined to play video games, and women are less likely to. As the demographic gets older, and in certain areas such as MMOs, gender distribution is almost even. But the demographic playing the most video games is on average a 13 or 14 year old boy, and this is an extremely important time for him developmentally, which means that any negative attitudes or behavior asserting at this time could stick for much longer afterward.

A study was done on sexual and gender related perceptions and attitudes among male players, and during the study it was acknowledged that “very little research has been conducted to test the effects of exposure to overtly sexual content in video games” (Yao et al. 79) To try and add information to that conversation, the study used the general learning model (the GLM) and self-reporting to see what affect sexually explicit video games would have on themes of female objectification.

In its most basic form, the GLM proposes that variables related to the person interact with variables related to a given situation to influence one’s internal state. Changes in internal state are then associated with changes in subsequent appraisals, decisions, and behaviors…in the present research we rely on the GLM and its sub-theories to examine the influence of playing sexually-explicit video games with female ‘objectification’ content (a situation variable) among male players (a person variable) on their short-term cognitions (an internal state variable). Yao et al. 80

The study was done on a group of 74 males age 18-47, and the empirical evidence from this study suggests that “players of sexually-explicit video games in so far as it portrayed women as sex objects would be primed with thoughts about women as sex objects…male players responded significantly faster to sexually-objectifying descriptions of women” (Yao et al. 85). Furthermore, another of their hypotheses “predicted that individuals who played a sexually-charged video game with female characters as sex objects would display an increased self-reporting tendency to sexually harass…scores revealed a significant effect” (Yao et al. 85).

This is an important idea to the hegemonic masculinity in the video game industry, because sexualizing women, harassing, and objectifying them is a form of dominance, and it is a form of dominance that simultaneously shuts women out or makes them less meaningful then men. If these are the types of images and exposure young men are getting, then it is creating a culture that excludes women pretty easily. Adding in other studies that show likeliness of aggressiveness in males, and that adds to the dominance of hegemonic masculine theme.

This kind of behavior is just the start of a self-fulfilling process of gendered games that create negative connotations with feminine characteristics, which then creates a greater lack of women in the video game world, and thus women are less likely to create games that could potentially change this atmosphere, and so on. A survey of young adults asked them to describe a typical male video game character and a typical video game character. For men, the most common characteristic was “muscular” and for women it was “big boobs” (Dill and Thill 860). Descriptors used for females but not males included, “helpless, victim, subservient, polite, pretty and bitchy,” while descriptors used for males but not females included, “warrior, superhero, rage, asshole, and cool” (860). Another study tried to determine the effects of characters and character identification on the gaming experience, and concluded that “identification could be described as ‘feeling like’ or as creating the illusion to ‘become’ a key person within a computer game’s universe; it is argued to be an essential element of game enjoyment” (Hefner et al. 40). The lack of available options for female characters could affect the enjoyment and desire of women to play video games, but I think the more effectual issue is that the male characters are positively affirming hegemonic masculine tendencies. Especially when relation to the game becomes such a large part of gameplay, these depictions make a difference.

Other studies are showing that people performed to their gender expectations when their gameplay was examined (Williams et al. 720). This study took the collective characters of a player’s one account and sort of combined them into one meta-character for statistical data, using EverQuest II as its game. While this is somewhat avoidable – there is no reason for women to feel ashamed because she likes to hone her baking skill in a game, or for a man to feel bad because he wants to be strong – it is something that nevertheless perpetuates these ideas that we should try to avoid. An almost impossible feat, but one that media stereotypes reinforce; “for example, few real men look or act like a prototypical muscle-bound, weapon-toting video game character – but rather construct a stylized view of masculinity and femininity that influences the beliefs, feelings and actions of members of the culture” (Dill et al. 1403).

(An example of the reinforcing of stereotypes by those in the industry themselves. Just like any other joke or parody, sometimes the desired effect isn’t quite reached.)

I do not know about anyone else, but I would much rather be even an asshole superhero than a bitchy, subservient victim. In our culture there is an underlying presence of these ideas, but often I think people are afraid to acknowledge the true problems we are experiencing because it seems like we should not be experiencing them. I imagine how easy it would be to respond to a study and say that, on average, the typical female character is much weaker than a male character, and use language that was unintentionally sexist. I also can imagine that some of the men who might be perpetuating these stereotypes in studies like this do not realize it – they might think they are feminists or that feminism is over, because we have solved the problem of gender equality. That is exactly the problem – we haven’t. According to Ambivalent Sexism Theory, “many societies view men as aggressive and self-serving, but ultimately as superior to women because the traditionally masculine characteristics of dominance and instrumentality are widely valued. Females, in contrast, are ‘wonderful but weak,’ in other words, women are more likeable, but clearly subordinate. Across a variety of cultures, being male is equated with social status, and this fact leads to real gender inequality” (Dill et al. 1403).

In our class we had a large discussion about where the problem of a gendered gaming world came from; something akin to our “chicken and the egg” dilemma. Many of my peers argued that the behavior being perpetuated was not inherent to the video game industry, but it was inherent to assholes. I would say I disagree, that the industry is to blame for this culture that is so accepting of such behavior, and that a lack of belief in that also contributes to the problem. Donaldson wrote that the most influential agents in making a masculinist sexual ideology are, “priests, journalists, advertisers, politicians, academics, coaches, and sportsmen. They are the ‘weavers of the fabric of hegemony’…its ‘organizing intellectuals.’ These people regulate and manage gender regimes; articulate experiences, fantasies, and perspectives; reflect on and interpret gender relations” (646). I would like to add the video game industry to this list, and challenge the assumption that it is something that will get better on its own.

The study mentioned above showed that exposure to specific types of media increased tolerance of sexual harassment, which would stand in the way of making real change (Dill et al. 1406). There are other incidents happening like this:

Penny Arcade, a webcomic and blog that has arisen as a dominant voice in video game culture, published a series of comics on rape that started a controversy. A rape survivor explained her intention to boycott the major gaming event Penny Arcade Expo because of the sale of ‘Dickwolves’ t-shirts. The comic creators responded by mocking the boycott, suggesting that the right of rape survivors to respond to the rhetoric of aggressive gendered discourse within the gaming community was itself laughable, and further inciting the community to try to silence the protest with threats created under a veil of anonymity. This furthered the othering of female participants in a male-dominated space and extended the discourse from the virtual to the physical world. Salter and Blodgett 401

The Sixth Slave
(The original ‘Dickwolves’ comic)

Breaking It Down
(Response to ‘Dickwolves’ criticism)

And in general, different studies are showing that players are learning and can learn stereotypes through game play (Downs and Smith 721). Studies like this determined something that we already know, and except as fact – women are more sexualized, and not included as often in a serious capacity. All of these factors put together creates a group of male video game players who have had numerous exposures to sexualized women and tolerance of sexual harassment, and it has created an environment in the video game world where such behavior isn’t challenged. In almost every multiplayer experience there is an overbearing attitude of sexism and discrimination, unless you purposefully seek out spaces that have been designated as resistant to that standard. It would pain me to say that these males do not know why it is so wrong, but I cannot take so much of the burden off their shoulders. I do think, however, that problem stems from a larger, industry problem, rather than the individuals themselves, because it is incredibly difficult to stand up to the majority in a world where dominance and power are so pertinent. That does not negate the fault of those who stand by or accept it through their own silence – you can be an accessory to a crime without intentionally being the perpetrator.

In Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat there are many women who share their experiences as developers in the game industry and who offer suggestions on how to fix some of the thing happening to gamers:

Why are boy games even necessary? They are violent. They chase an increasingly narrow demographic. They require a lot of energy, time, and skill to learn how to play and offer a limited range of emotions. They copy one another and hog shelf space, limiting new types of player experience. While they are enjoyed by millions of players around the globe and rival Hollywood for revenue and media attention, their narrow range of offerings attracts a smaller audience than possible. Lazzaro 199

Something interesting to me about this sentiment is that the idea is to not target gendered audiences, but in acknowledging this practice there has to be acknowledgement that there is a difference between ‘boy games’ and ‘girl games.’ Boy games, of course, include those that focus on action and fighting, while girl games are those that focus on relationships and emotions. Unfortunately, ideas like this can be well intentioned, but ultimately result in perpetuating that cycle of sexism and discrimination that I stated earlier, creating the male gender as the centerpiece of this larger community. And this idea behind target gender audiences is part of that cycle that fulfills itself in creating more negative attitudes, because the more games we determine are ‘for boys’ the more women and girls will be unwelcome. This attitude then travels up the assembly line to the development industry, where developers are making games they want to play, and most of them are male – with a lack of a base for ‘girl games’ or that sort of sentiment, there seems to be a correlation with lack of women game developers.

There are efforts to change these cultural norms that should not be ignored, and these efforts are not necessarily useless. “Change is always something that happens to sex roles, that impinges on them. It comes from outside, as in discussions of how technological and economic changes demand a shift to a ‘modern’ male role for men. Or it comes from inside the person, from the ‘real self’ that protests against the artificial restrictions of constraining roles. Sex role theory has no way of grasping change as a dialectic arising within gender relations themselves” (Connell 521). Change can happen and should happen, but it will happen over time and in order to make truly progressive gains we must accept the facts of the situation. Mia Consalvo wrote in her essay “Confronting toxic gamer culture: A challenge for feminist game studies scholars” that there is an increase in the frequency of ugliness in video games culture that our world is seeing (à la Fat, Ugly or Slutty or similar sites). Putting it out in the open is the first steps toward acknowledging this is a serious problem, and that there are reasons why men are dominating this space.

I will acknowledge again how difficult it is to pinpoint the exact issues at ‘play’ here. Any empirical data on video games is never completely up to date; the video game industry is something so dynamic things that were true even a year ago may not be true today. The problem of gender has persisted, however, and the problems that the empirical data demonstrate still exist. The ways to deal with it deal every day, but finding the root of this problem is where the process should start. The idea of hegemonic masculinity is a great explanation for a large part of the institutionalized sexism against women in the video game world, because the quest for dominance and power is an integral part of competitive gaming in this ‘men’s world.’

In terms of the issues with a male dominated video game world, that sums up the long of it. The short of it is this: we are capable of change, but we have to realize the institutionalized ideals that are creating such an environment. It will take persistent, little steps and eventually more temporary, monumental steps to create a new space that is inclusive and equal for all, regardless of gender identification. The psychology of a male mind to be predisposed to competition or to feed off of cultural indicators that suggest dominance is a necessary trait may never go away, but those types of ideas and barriers have been presented before and we have made progress despite it. That is the important thing to keep in mind, is that progress can be made, and that this is not the reality we have to accept. We will have work to do, but we can reject the premises of hegemonic masculinity to come to a conclusion that is more in alignment with the ideals we want to perpetuate in the future – we do not have to be held back by our past.


Connell, R. W. “Theorising Gender.” Sociology 19.2 (1985): 260–272. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Dill, Karen E., Brian P. Brown, and Michael A. Collins. “Effects of Exposure to Sex-stereotyped Video Game Characters on Tolerance of Sexual Harassment.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44.5 (2008): 1402–1408. Web. 7 Feb. 2013.

Dill, Karen E., and Kathryn P. Thill. “Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions.” Sex Roles 57.11-12 (2007): 851–864. Web. 7 Feb. 2013.

Donaldson, Mike. “What Is Hegemonic Masculinity?” Theory and Society 22.5 (1993): 643–657. Web. 7 Feb. 2013.

Downs, Edward, and Stacy Smith. “Keeping Abreast of Hypersexuality: A Video Game Character Content Analysis.” Sex Roles 62.11/12 (2010): 721–733. Print.

Hamlen, Karla R. “Re-Examining Gender Differences in Video Game Play: Time Spent and Feelings of Success.” Journal of Educational Computing Research 43.3 (2010): 293–308. Print.

Lazzaro, Nicole. “Are boy games even necessary.” eds YB Kafai, C. Heeter, J. Denner, & JY Sun, Beyond Barbie and Mortal Combat, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (2008): 199-230.

Salter, Anastasia, and Bridget Blodgett. “Hypermasculinity & Dickwolves: The Contentious Role of Women in the New Gaming Public.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56.3 (2012): 401–416. Print.

Sanford, Kathy, and Leanna Madill. “Resistance Through Video Game Play: It’s a Boy Thing.” Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadienne de l’éducation 29.1 (2006): 287–306. Web. 7 Feb. 2013.

Taylor, T. L. Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. MIT Press, 2006. Print.

Williams, Dmitri et al. “Looking for Gender: Gender Roles and Behaviors Among Online Gamers.” Journal of Communication 59.4 (2009): 700–725. Web. 7 Feb. 2013.

Yao, Mike, Chad Mahood, and Daniel Linz. “Sexual Priming, Gender Stereotyping, and Likelihood to Sexually Harass: Examining the Cognitive Effects of Playing a Sexually-Explicit Video Game.” Sex Roles 62.1/2 (2010): 77–88. Print.

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