Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Boy Who Played

Did you ever read Anne McCaffrey's book: The Ship Sho Sang? Technology is now making some of this possible, if not by having human brains direct ships, then at least by having them play games.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Gaming and time

I just finished answering a lot of questions about WoW. Very few of them were about research, most were about the fear of addiction, and the fear of misspent time.

Time is a big deal for those who care about a player who is not able to control his or her own time in relation to the game. Time spent ingame is time spent not interacting with those non-players you live with. This is however not a problem that is limited to people playing WoW. Academics know it well - one of the most dangerous periods for an academic marriage is when one of the spouses is doing their PhD. The work takes so much time and so much mental energy that you neglect the people who are not involved in te topic. It is also very easy to become infatuated with somebody who really understand what you are trying to do, and can help out.

While gaming isn't the same as a PhD, there are similarities between games and other challenges. What we all need to learn, often the hard way, is to prioritise our time. In group based play, such as the level 60 or endgame play in WoW, your use of time influences not just the people around you in the physical world, but also people on computers all over the world. Drop out of a raid, and 39 other people are influenced by it.

To deal with the dual demands of the partners in the flesh world and partners in the game world, players need to learn to be extremely disciplined. To make it work well they have to establish routines to maintain all spheres, and not let the use of time blur too much. Some just can't do it, raiding and work and their loved ones and their health - the fact that there are only 24 hours and some of those must be spent sleeping doesn't add up. And if it is a choice between spending your precious time helping 39 people who think you are a great main tank get through Black Wing Lair, or spend it doing dishes, laundry and other chores... Well, I know what I think is more fun. And those dishes will wait, right?

A lot of what is mistaken for addiction is this kind of prioritising between conflicting demands. I grew up with a mother who loved her garden over everything. From spring to fall, she was outdoors planting, weeding, tending, picking. She left cooking, doing dishes and cleaning to her children, including tending to each other. She hated to have to make dinner at a certain time, so she made us do it. My patient father ate endless amounts of burned fish pudding and badly cooked potatoes, while the garden was an amazing jungle of flowers, herbs, vegetables and berries. Was my mother addicted to her garden? She ignored her children, she let the work in the garden come before participating in our lives, before other chores and the health of others (all that burned fish pudding can't have been healthy), and she was mentally and socially absent. But who would use the word "addiction" about this activity? She just thought having a nice garden was important, and anyway, we learned to cook, clean and do dishes early, and became very independent.

Prioritising time isn't easy, and time is probably the real currency available to individuals today. Money is a way to buy or swap time. The other big hard currency is energy, but individuals only trade in energy when we swap time (money) for it. So when somebody spends a lot of time on an activity we don't share, we think it is wasted - wasted as it would be if the person spent all their hard earned money on fancy clothing or a big powertool that's never used, to use some examples I suspect some of the worried parents may recognize... And so time becomes a field fraught with conflict and a source of power-struggles in all kinds of relationships. When gaming adds to all the other things which use time, of course gaming will cause problems for kids, teens, adults, partners and everybody else who share time. Until we have worked ways to negotiate this into the daily set of etiquette it will continue to be an issue.

When my kids were younger, the meetings at their school were about how many hours the kids in their class should be allowed to watch television. Now parents of kids that age discuss how many hours their children should be allowed to play games. The need to help kids administrate their time is real. The activities that needs to be negotiated are interchangeable.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Gold, status and twinking

Like all players who can't spend hours grinding, I have had a peek at the gold selling pages. The prices are not unreasonable at all, and I understand why people buy. For me to make 1000 gold takes at least a month of ingame collecting. I can buy it for $38,99, which is half an hour in real life work. The conversion rate of time is fabulous.

Why don't I just do it? The interviews I have been listening to this weeks explains why. There is a very strong disapproval among large groups of players against gold buying. Social pressure and fear of losing face is an important barrier to buying gold.

There is of course a logic to this disapproval. The real value in multi-player games is your reputation. Such reputation is spread virally through social intercation, but it has no visual or other more explisitt expression. Your reputation - if it is a good one - will however often be reflected in your access to groups and raids: your path through the complex areas of the game will be easier and you will have more access to gear. For those who are not "in" on the social rumour circle, the fancy gear appears to be what infuses respect, and they assume that getting the same gear means getting the same respect. Since they don't have access to the same pool of raiding partners, they have to gain what expressions of status they can through the auction house. At the auction house a particular item can run up to several hundreds, if not thousands of gold. The price of a certain dagger obtained in Molten Core is currently 1500 gold at the ingame auction house (prices wary between servers and factions). For a player with no or limited access to raid groups this object will either mean months of grinding for gold, or a trip to the gold sellers.

This has created a new type of characters, what they call "Twinks". Twinks are characters which have not played the instances, but own the gear which can be bought at the auction house. A twink will not wear much of the gear that is "bind on pickup" - which means only the character that takes it off the body of the monster can use it - but instead have plenty of good "bind on equip" gear - things which can be bought.

Twinks are awarded the disgust of the noveau rich, the social climbers who want to have the status without the effort. But the strategy of twinking has one socially acceptable outlet: the twinking of level 19 characters solely for play in Warsong Gulch. A level 19 character has no access to the high level instances, and the cost of buying gear at that level is normally not higher than a level 60 main character can support easily. You don't need a raidgroup full of friends to run a level 19 character through an instance with correct gear for the level, all you need is a mate or two who agree to kill everything and let the lowbie loot the bosses. At the same time a twink can earn honour and reputation in the battleground far exeeding what the level 60 main character could make, and can through rank gain access to gear far better than the regular end-game dungeon sets.

These twinks do however have to work for it. They can be outfitted and assisted by a higher level character in order to gain access to otherwise very exclusive gear, but the very high activity level in one battleground is one thing WoW gold can not buy. In this context the derogatory concept "twink" becomes honorary, and while everybody hate meeting twinks in the battlegrounds, having them on our side is not a social stigma, but a nice convenience.

And this is why I blog. I was planning to write a blogpost about a blog reviewing goldbuyer sites and according to the writers affiliated with Blizzard, because I think it's really weird if Blizzard is an associate of a gold farmers' promotion site. Ended up somewhere entirely different though. And I put in the rel="nofollow" tag up there, here's to hoping it works. I am such a snob, I am not buying gold. Yet.

(Link fixed and NRK has, as far as I know, nothing to do with Blizzard, gold-farmers or the gaming industry in general.)

Net meeting at Schrødingers Katt

Tomorrow, Friday 27th of October between 11:00 and 12:00 I will be answering questions on computer game research in a "net meeting" organised by Schrødingers katt, the popular science program where I have been interviewed about The Truants, our game researchers' WoW guild. The program is on Norwegian broadcasting tonight, and you can find it online here. All in Norwegian, of course, but if you can figure out the interface I think I can deal with questions in English, too.


Somebody just had to do it, it is too good an opportunity for unlimited parody to let it pass: The Uncyclopedia wiki.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Torill on TV

Or is it my character who is the real main in that event?

Some weeks ago now, I spent a day with a television team from Schrødingers katt, a program on NRK mainly concerned with research. They were fascinated with the idea of The Truants, our guild of game researchers, and wanted to talk to me about game research and why somebody wanted to use a game as a base for academic networking, writing, lectures, discussions on methodology and ethics, and all the other stuff we do in between playing and studying the game.

They have edited the day down to a few minutes, and these minutes will be on this Thursday, 26th of October 19:30 at NRK1. According to Eivind Grimsby Harr, the journalist, I will be presented kindly, but he did admit it would look like I am a nerd who lives totally in Cyberspace. A nice nerd, though, according to him. I'll just have to accept that.

And to emphasize my nerdiness, I have agreed to be available for a net meeting Friday 27th, between 11:00 and 12:00. I don't have the link to that yet.

Update Oct 25th: the part of the program with me in it is already online.

Monday, October 23, 2006


When media studies entered the Universities in Norway, for some reason it was approached as a practical subject. To understand the media we had to learn to produce something. We made bad movies exploring suspense, cutting techniques and directions in conveying movement, we wrote journalistic articles and we ran around with recorders for radio programs. All of this within the confines of the University, the tower of theory.

The idea of media studies as a practical subject was possible to adjust to the confines of theoretical academia until we did our main thesis - hovedfag, today the master's thesis. Here the formal requirements were however so strong and so thorough that there was no more room. For anybody to pass you had to meet the formal requirements, do the thesis as well as anybody else who chose not to have a practical production as part of their work, and at the same time produce the work. It was - and is - a course for those too stubborn or too stupid to make the clever choice. Somebody like me.

This problem is still very present in media education at the higher levels. At the level I teach it's not as problematic, because we have developed systems to test for many different types of skills. A student who makes great productions and can talk about it will be rewarded at one exam, while the student who is more theoretically minded will be rewarded at the next. This way it's also easier for the students to emphasise one or the other side of their skill, and they don't have to show it all in one big thesis.

For the master students at the universities this is still a problem though. There is and can't be such a controlled system for testing their skills, because the final production/thesis is still close to all important.

In the years that have passed since 1990, when I finished my main subject, I have encountered this problem over and over again. Students need advice on how to write a practice-oriented thesis, and assessors need to learn how to assess them. The advice I would like to try out is not nice, friendly and all-understanding though. Quite the opposite: It's strict, demands a lot of discipline from the students and imposes guidelines and rules on the assessors. It also begins and ends with theory. On the upside: It is based on the experiment, which is very much an accepted academic discipline.

1) A very firm and strict topic for the subject, embedded in theory.
2) Clear methodology for self-observation, with heavy emphasis on reflexivity and the discipline of the research log.
3) Continuous logging of the process of the project, including decisions, problems and alternatives which have been rejected.
4) A presentation of the finished product, to an audience of for instance other students or a group of the target audience. I insist on this even if the chosen theory might not point towards audience research. Showing and being criticised can help achieving the necessary analytical distance to your baby, the produced material.
5) A written description of the product, short and to the point.
6) A return to theory: applying it again on the product as it now exists, going back to point 1 to see what happened to the original research questions.
7) Accepting that "no, that was not a good way to apply this theory" or "no, that didn't work at all" is a perfectly good answer, as long as it is clear what lead to this conclusion. Don't try to save the work by throwing in some theory or ideas you never thought of in advance, unless it really and very clearly explains what happened. This had better be good to be worth it!

A problem with this kind of advice is however that the students who want to do practical productions are like I was/am - they want to see something practical, something real, from their work. Those students don't like theory. And to work well, this kind of practical/theoretical work needs to depend on a very clear understanding of theory as well as an extremely sharp analytical eye. The challenge is huge, but the students should not be able to get away with second rate work just because it's such a large body of work. We really need to learn how to scale these productions in a way that makes the high demands to a good practical/theoretical production realistic.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Humans fighting spam

On another blog which I use for lecture material, I just made a post with a series of links to ads, examples for a lecture I am giving tomorrow. After several drafts I posted it and didn't think more about it, until I had to update the post. That's when I discovered that my blog had been registered as a potential spam blog.

I had to type in a word verification in order to post, in this way proving that I am human. I also submitted a request to have my blog read by a person in order to verify that it's not a spam blog. A real human being is obviously the best way to fight spam.

I am waiting, curious to see what happens. The blog is mostly in Norwegian, so who knows, it may all appear to be nonsense to the human eye of a non-Norwegian speaker. And if so, what will happen? Will my entire lecture blog be deleted, to avoid spam?

Retro race for space

By way of Dennis' blog, a link to retro ads. I particularly enjoyed this elegant drawing of solar-wind powered space-ships.

Update: looking through the ads I found this one. It includes several different techonologies: the television, the record-player, the radio and the camera, in dads hand as he takes pictures of the children happily absorbed in front of the multi media center.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Lost Time

It was a Love Story. Young man meets young woman, they fall in love, she dies from cancer. We have seen it on the movies, and it feels like a cliche. That is - until it brushes up against your life.

I was not a close friend of his, and I don't want to draw people to this site by using his name. It would feel wrong if my traffic went up because I write about him. Links will have to do - pagerank for his site, not mine. Why do I still write? Because he was a person who always gave me an insight or at least a better - or different - feeling about things when our paths crossed. Those people are important and should be cherished.

We studied the same subject for a while, shared a spot at the computer lab. His working hours and mine complemented each other - when I had dropped the kids off in the morning and came to work on my masters thesis he had left just a few hours ago. When he arrived in the afternoon I had just cleaned up and left. Occasionally we met at both ends - if either of us were late or really early. At parties he was not the rowdiest person there, but he was the person people wanted to be close to; brilliantly intelligent, creative, musical and a poet - and a nice person too, what was not to love about him? And we did love him, even those who, like me, only knew him in the casual way of people who like each other but live very different lives.

He loved a girl who also studied the same as I did at the time. I had to check the interview with him to remember her name, our encounters were not even conversations. But she was beautiful, and he shone when he looked at her, even I saw that past my veil of busy-ness. When she was pregnant he had this amazing smile when he talked about it.

Then she got cancer, and chose the child over chemotherapy. The doctors thought they had been able to remove the cancer through operation, but once the child was born the tumors were found to have spread and there was nothing more to be done. She died shortly after their daughter was born, leaving him a single father, leaving their child motherless. I met him once before she died. I had not talked to him or heard news since I had heard she was all better. My life was chaotic, I had been in a car accident and ruined my knee, tried to cope with my first real job and struggled to feed a small family while on sick leave. Yes, I felt very sorry for myself. He was waiting for his great love and the mother of his child to die. All my worries shrunk and withered into nothing right there.

Even today the memory of his calm description of her suffering makes me cry. Perhaps more so today. We were so young. In his grief he still spoke with wisdom and love. He was a father. It redefined his life.

I didn't see him much since. I left Bergen, and our paths crossed only a few times - a nod on the street, a quick "hello, how are you doing?" But I heard of him from mutual friends. I heard about his life with the child, his creativity and his achievements. He never promoted himself, but to those of us who knew about him the world was a little richer for his presence in it. The choices he made were not easy, not mainstream nor conventional. In this way he was a living reminder that it is possible to grow, develop and create outside of square boxes.

He died in September. The story of his life is powerful and touching, almost overwhelming, and he had accumulated a lot of friends: creative, active friends who took action once they heard he would die from cancer. They created a record with his music, to his tribute, and he sings on it himself. The money goes into a fund for the child.

I heard some of the music he wrote on the radio today. His words asked for the lost time, if he could have it back. The song was called "Madelen" - not his love's name, but I still guessed it had to be about her death. The lyric conveys a great loss without being specific, through imagery and tender poetry. I was never so close to him that I qualify as a grieving friend, but hearing his words I still grieve. What I grieve is the loss of the promise his aquaintance always was. As long as he was alive we could have happened to meet, gone for a coffee and had a long chat. Doing this I would have learned something new, gained a new insight or felt different about something unexpected. Now that is all lost time.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Norwegian role-play history

One of my colleagues, Torbjørn Lien, made role-play history with his game Imperium 3000 published in 1993. How do I know this? Torbjørn has a blog in comic strip form, and he writes about his own past (and present) as a gamer in the strip 7th of September. It's in Norwegian, but it might still be fun to see a blog in a different format.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Professor Kym

Kym Buchanan is a person I first met online, in Dragon Realms. Dragon Realms is the game where I found most of my material for my doctoral dissertation, and Kym was one of many great, helpful players. In August he started his job as an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin, and in Septemberhe defended his thesis successfully. Kym is, according to himself, an educator and a gamer. Already in 1999, when we met face to face, he had one of the most coherent visions of the connections between gaming, teaching and democracy which I have ever heard. It is not surprising that he continues to follow two of the great passions of his life, and I really hope this will make it easier for us to meet again.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Hilde and Jill in the media

The Bergen Newspaper BT has a case with Hilde and Jill about the study in World of Warcraft Hilde has initiated this year. I saw this days ago, I just forgot to link it, in the mess my head has been the last few days, I promise! But Jill reminded me, when I read her blog, and she also pointed to a nice interview with Hilde, in the University paper. Looking good, Hilde!


"We must, in the name of freedom of speach, accept that people have their opinions of what happens in a college."
Gunnar Bodahl-Johansen

This, of course, applies to all, and is also a pretty good rule for life outside of colleges.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Deer tracks

And to maintain the gender balance (Goddess forbid anybody think I am biased in any direction or that I should dare express any bias these days), also in Norwegian, a deer hunter's blog: [På hjortefot] bortenfor speilet.

Girl Economy

Sometimes I almost regret not writing this blog in Norwegian for a Norwegian audience. The Norwegian blog sphere is growing, and there are some great, intelligent and very entertaining Norwegian bloggers. Today I bring any Scandinavians out there, or others who understand Norwegian, a lesson in Girl Economy. Little Girl gives us two lessons, part one and part two on how girls think about costs, income, utility and savings. She explains things like why it's so important, as well as rational and sensible to have another green top or another pair of shoes (there can never be too many shoes). She also explains how it's possible to spend 1500 you were going to use for something else, and still earn 3500 which you never had and never see.

Blogging practice

Lilia Efimova is doing an interesting study which I will make certain to read: Crossing Boundaries: A Study of Employee Blogging. Lilia work with interesting and useful things, as always, and I will be waiting eagerly to see what she's been writing this time.

Gambling, not gaming

But it's still interesting to note that the US ban on online gambling potentially causes such huge drops in income for large companies.
LONDON (Reuters) - Online gambling firms faced their biggest-ever crisis on Monday after U.S. Congress passed legislation to end Internet gaming there, threatening jobs and wiping 3.5 billion pounds ($6.5 billion) off company values.
Yes, that's billions they are talking about. In the 90ies, the question was if the Internet would ever be a source of income, or just an academic and military experiment. Well, what can I say: Somebody have figured out how to make money online.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Poem and Plagiarism

Looking in at Dennis' blog, I noticed a poem that made me laugh, but also really want to figure out what was going on. Turns out that Mike of Vitia, Clancy of Culture Cat and several other agencies were discussing plagiarism and the way to catch it. The discussion is opinionated, thorough and very interesting, go have a look. I do recommend starting with Dennis' poem though, as the pages of arguments are packed with all those hard words that don't stick in my little head Sunday morning.

Important acronym in this discussion: PDS - Plagiarism Detection Service.

(Clancy's post has several links to Kairosnews on this, look there for more links, I have been unable to retrieve them for some reason.)