Classified: How I got funding for my research (the interview)

As an honest exercise in transparency, as well as a part of the project's history, I will write about the presentation I made during the interview to obtain funding for my research. In this kind of application processes, the jury barely give you five minutes to show them why your research is important and why they should recommend your project to be funded. Thus, you must be convincing and compelling in a very concise way. I organised my presentation in three parts: the main topic, why we should study that subject, and how I plan to carry out that research. The interview was conducted in Spanish, that's why this can be considered a rough translation of the presentation. The important thing here is to see if you agree with the research premises.

Main topic
In the last three decades social theorists have largely discussed the crisis of modernity and its institutions, which implies the assumption that the modern models for social meaning and identity construction have faded away. Taking those diagnoses into account, it is possible to conclude that modern identities have, if not disappeared, at least been de-centred: we witness then the emergence of new kinds of identities and new ways of constructing social universes of meaning.

Therefore, the main aim of this project is to study the contemporary identities (subjectivities) and the processes through which they are produced in an specific case: the identity of the video gamer and the social worlds where they dwell as part of a digital culture. This encompasses the virtual, networks, and an economy of consumption, leisure, social practices and discourses linked to the logic of the digital.

Why? (justification)
Firstly, because one of the defining characteristics attributed to contemporary societies is the existence of a noticeable digital culture, which makes the study of the universe of video games a plausible approach in order to understand that reality. 

Secondly, because the video game industry is a growing cultural industry (economically surpassing those of music, film, performing arts...) and its tendency is to become hegemonic. Statistics tell us that video games are played in the 70 per cent of households, of which 40 per cent are women, 25 per cent are 50 years old or more, and the average age of gamers is 35 (I took this data from the last years ESA reports).  

Thirdly, because video game exhibitions and museums, along with conferences, festivals and all sorts of events on video games, have proliferated in the last years. In the same sense, multitude of courses, masters, and grades focused on the development and design of video games have emerged in the sector of education. Not only have the specialised magazines on video games increased in size, but also the traditional press already includes sections dedicated to video games. A video game culture is being established and consolidated, which makes it socially relevant (video games become part of the mainstream, and their colonisation of other areas is obvious: serious games, gammification). 

Finally, because it's a purely contemporary reality. If I seek to study the emergence of identities and subjectivities in the contemporaneity, the universe of video games is an excellent field to carry out that research. The phenomenon of video games is only relevant since the 1980s. From there onwards, its growth has been almost exponential, especially in the last decade, with the so called casual revolution and the expansion of video gaming to mobile devices, social networks and the Internet.  

How? (tools to achieve the main objective)
Two dimensions of analysis:

On the one hand, the expert dimension. Unlike other cultural products, video games require an active individual to interact with them as a sine qua non condition. For these reasons, the developers who design and produce video games have always implicit and explicit ideas about what kind of person will play with their games and how those games will influence them, the possibilities that will be made available to them and the conditions that will be imposed on them.

On the other hand, the social dimension. Video gamers do not receive the expertly-designed object in a manner that is devoid of criticism, but interact with it, forming social worlds with specific meanings, whilst also interacting with other identities and subjective and collective constructions in their environment.

All in all, I seek to undertake a line of research on the construction of identities and subjectivities in the contemporary society, centred in the context of a digital culture and, more precisely, in the field of video games.

Compare what I've just written with my other entry in which I introduce my research project. There are probably a lot of similarities. Both of them are part of the (pre)history of the research project. I like to keep track of these documents and actions because it allows me to realise how mutable the activity of researching is. In the future I would like to highlight the differences between what I thought about the subject at the beginning of the process and what I think in every stage. Actually, re-reading this entry makes me understand how much I've changed some of my previous assumptions. But as I said, that will be a task for the future.

Videogames and Sociology: Twitter's pic of the day summary (1-5)

I've been posting screenshots of videogames on Twitter under the motto Pic of the day in #videogames and #sociology. They all include a sentence extracted from the game as well. I really don't know why I've been doing this. I guess I thought it could be fun and help me to spread the word about the sociological potentiality inside video games. Video games as powerful tools to unleash our sociological imagination. 

I'd like to clarify that all the pictures come from my own gameplays. They have not been manipulated in any way. I'm not a Photoshop lover. Not that I would be able to do anything with it even if I could.

I will regularly recap the pics tweeted (in groups of 5) and dropping some cryptic lines on why I chose those particular screenshots and sentences. I leave to the reader the freedom of making deep sociological connections with their quotidian realities.

First round (1-5)!

1 - Deadly Premonition: Zach, everyone has their own sanctuary

Because we all have that special place in which we think we are safe. Or maybe it's just a place we have turned into a delusional sacred space full of ritualistic performances. Zach is nothing else than our objectified identity

2 - A New Beginning: And the world keeps turning without me

The fabric of social reality may seem to be strong and long-lasting. We experience institutions and social actors as finite, solid and perfectly bounded. But their apparent strength is only an effective illusion that stems from the permanent succession of intertwined agencies. You being in or out is irrelevant, the world (and the agencies that maintain it) will keep turning.

3 - Zeno Clash: I hope the reason nobody ever comes back from the desert is because they find something better at the other side

At the other side of the desert is what we don't know and might never know. The desert is sometimes a metaphor of the long way ahead, sometimes is an actual desert with sand, sun and its mirages. My hypothesis is that there is no such a thing as the other side of the desert. There is only more desert, either a real or a metaphorical one.

4 - Gabriel Knight 3: Oh Yeah? Ya got a theory? Lemme hear it

Gabriel Knight represents the social structure that mocks us and our understanding of things. It can take the shape of fate, of one of your colleagues, of your neighbour, of a Prime Minister, of a scientific journal referee, of your love life. It doesn't matter. You have a theory and, want it or not, society will judge it with painful and profound sarcasm. 

5 - Alan Wake: How does it feel to die by the hands of your own creation?

Defeated by your own creation. To die of success. It happens all the time. We all live in our particular version of the (post)modern Prometheus. PhD theses, world championships, androids and indie video games are the usual suspects. But there are others, many others. What those creations probably don't know is they will eventually die by their own creations. And the world will keep turning without them as well.


Competitive gaming from Pac-Man to League of Legends: What happened in the middle?

Can someone explain to me how competitive gaming got from here...

...to here?

I've already written about pro gaming in other entries, but it still amazes me the heights that competitive gaming has reached. From the quiet emptiness of the Milwaukee County Stadium, only disturbed by the monotonous echo of Pac-Man's tune, to the roaring masses gathered to watch League of Legends' Season 3 World Finals at the Staples Center in LA. 

It makes me shiver the current prize pool of The International Dota 2 Championships to be held at Seattle Center's Keyarena: $6,457,455 (and still growing). Yes, almost 6 millions and a half. That was the last time I checked. If you look now, it will be probably higher. 

Seriously, what happened in the middle?


The magic rectangle of Twitch and the rear windows to what goes beyond the act of gaming

In the last post I launched an hypothesis on the magic circle theory, an important issue within games studies. I basically said that what makes possible the magic circle as a bounded experience is the same thing that traverses it and, up to certain extent, breaks it. This entry will approach that subject using an emerging phenomenon: Twitch

If you happen not to know anything about Twitch, just visit the site and wander around its several channels. Basically, it's just people broadcasting their gameplay while they're speaking about what's happening on the screen or any other issue that might be, or not, completely unrelated to it. There's a chat where viewers are able to speak their minds to the broadcaster or other people on the chat. These players can be followed by thousands, hundreds or just a few guys. Some of the most popular gamers (and that doesn't mean to be necessarily followed by too many) have set up ways in which people can make donations to their 'cause' or subscribe to their channels for a monthly amount of money. On this kind of 'professional gaming', see my former entry on how video gaming is becoming a serious thing. 

Somehow Twitch manages to confirm the existence of the magic circle in the most unexpected way: using a rectangle. How is that? On the screen, we can watch the actual gameplay of the player in the shape of a big rectangle. We can even go fullscreen. It's marvellous, the self-content reality of the video game accessible from all around the world. You can see and feel it as a finite experience. You are able to focus exclusively on the gameplay. An open window that perfectly frames the magic circle. But, wait, that's not the only window on the screen. There are more. The rear ones.

What can we see through those rear windows? Precisely what happens during the act of playing. Or at least a tiny but significant part of it. We are invited to peep at the gamer's face and context of play. We are able to see how they look like, hearing the tone of their voices, how they express themselves, how they are dressed, what their room's colour is, if there are other people or animals next to them and so on. We even are in the position to start judging them: Are they tidy and clean people? Do they care about their appearance? Are they ugly, handsome, attractive, disgusting...? Do they have an exciting life or is it more likely to be sad and dull? No matter what our assumptions are, the important thing is the fact that we have the possibility of witnessing what is beyond the magic rectangle of the gameplay thanks to another 'magic rectangle' (or square, depending on the gamer's cam configuration). If the bigger rectangle may be described as the main window to the magic circle of gaming, the smaller one can be regarded as the rear window to what happens around and beyond the very act of gaming. I could have said that is a window to what happens off the screen, but in fact we are watching it on our own screens, so it would have not been completely correct. And what happens when you sneak a glance at that rear window? You observe the mundane ordinariness of everyday life. Let's have a look.

In this case, while she is playing and broadcasting her gameplay through Twitch, she's also having a casual conversation with the people on the chat and with unknown (for us) people using her mobile phone. The chat is another rear window opened to those who are watching the broadcast. That obviously goes beyond what is just happening in the game itself. Who knows what else they are doing at their homes while watching her on Twitch (watching TV, browsing the Internet, reading a book, speaking with their friends or family, having a drink...). At times, or maybe often, the gameplay is the less important thing in the process. It's amazing how frequently they 'speak' about topics completely alien to the games played. Windows to everyday life issues. There's nothing extraordinary in it. No magnificent worlds of fantasy and promising adventures. The magic of the circle (or rectangle, it doesn't matter) is broken.

Therefore, this is an example of part of the different things that might happen beyond the act of playing a video game. An example of the limited scope of the magic circle theory and its drawbacks. Nevertheless, and according to the other part of my hypothesis, the superimposed collage of different windows in and out the gameplay are making more evident and explicit the boundaries of the magic circle-rectangle. It is highlighting the weirdness among the ordinary of everyday life. Gaming is odd and mundane at the same time. Again, what is breaking the experience of the isolated magic circle, is helping to make it possible at the same time. Of course this must be confirmed by more empirical evidence but I will keep this line of thought for a while.

The magic circle: a hypothesis

The magic circle is a subject which I will keep coming back to several times in this blog. Its definition is well known among game studies companions and I won't dig deep in the matter. However, the magic circle being a key notion in game studies main debates, I will briefly summarise what I think are its most important features (take this as a very simple outline of the theory, almost a caricature):
  • The act of play sets boundaries to every game. This means that the experience of playing a video game is bounded, perfectly framed.
  • The game has its own well delimited space-time. The magic circle is where the game takes place. You enter in and get out of it. You're in the game or not.
  • As no liminality seems to be possible, the reality of the game is self-contained and bound to rules. Rules that only apply to that particular game and make sense inside the magic circle (or at least they have a particular meaning that is not necessarily shared when they're invoked outside). 
  • Obviously the experience of play is not completely detached from the social context in which takes place, but the magic circle works as if it were an exception or interruption in the general norms and rules that govern the regular social relationships.
The magic circle theory has been equally praised and criticised. Some have completely refused it while others have accepted it almost without criticism. Most academics have probably taken pieces of it and have developed it in different directions (either closer to its negation or its appraisal). Although I stand closer to those who criticise it fiercely, I would like to launch a hypothesis that could explain its resilience and partially accept it. Let me elaborate the hypothesis a little.

On the one hand, it is almost absurd to consider that any activity, experience or interaction happens in some sort of social void. Even if we consider that games and the act of play are bound to special (social) rules, it would be almost equally absurd to think that doesn't apply to the rest of social interactions: a wedding, a lecture in a classroom, a visit to our doctor, a meeting with friends, standing in a queue in the supermarket and so on. The reality is full of mediations. Everything is mediated by the actions of other actors (human or not). In a way, there is no thing which doesn't depend on other things. There can't be a magic circle independent from the social reality where it dwells. In fact, it's part of that social reality, shaping it and being shaped by it. 

On the other hand, we still experience some activities, like video gaming, as being enclosed, attached to their particular rules, meanings and interactions. A finite experience. One in which people put all their senses. How often do we hear video gamers saying how they lose all sense of time when they're playing and how they feel the immersive experience of gaming as though they were in another world? Should we ignore and discard these discourses and experiences? But if there are an almost infinite number of events that happen before, after and during gaming, interactions that are not related to the game itself (though they might help to make it work), how can we sustain the magic circle theory? And if we get rid of the magic circle, how can we explain the common experience of video gamers of being immersed in a particular world almost detached from the rest of their social context?

And here it goes the hypothesis. In my opinion, we should not think about the magic circle as a starting point but as what needs to be explained: how the experience of being in a magic circle detached from the rest of the social reality emerges, even if we know there is no social interaction - formal or not - that can exist on its own. Furthermore, my hypothesis states that what 'breaks' the magic circle is precisely what helps to construct its boundaries. It sounds paradoxical, but it makes sense. Keep an eye on future posts and you'll see. I promise.

I was the typical parent or how video gaming is becoming a serious thing

No, I don't have children. So I cannot be the typical parent, neither now nor in the past. Not even an atypical one. I'm not going to write about 'serious games' either. The very label 'serious games' is an interesting and controversial one in game studies. Maybe I'll have the chance to drop some lines on that subject some day (about serious games, not parenthood... well who knows). I would like to draw your attention to how serious video gaming is starting to become. A new dimension to the notion of being a 'player'. A big one.

Have you had the opportunity of watching Valve's film 'Free to play'? I know, there are a lot of comments about the indulgent self-promotion of Dota 2 by the company of the steam relief. Good (or bad!) for them, but they have a point. Video gaming is becoming serious. Serious as in big, important and socially recognised. I may not share their blissfully excessive prognosis on how e-sports will be the new spectacle that will be followed by multitudes, surpassing football, basketball and whatever other massive event - sports or not - you are able to imagine, but there is truth in their elated discourse. Video gaming as a job is incipiently appearing in the horizon. Not only is a video game related job (in the game industry for instance) a real possibility nowadays, but also the very practice of playing video games. And I'm not referring to beta testing, also an important part of the issue, but to the simple fact of being paid for excelling in playing a video game, that is, to be a professional gamer. 

Of course, there are different levels in professional gaming careers (yes, we can speak now in terms of having a career in video gaming). The Olympus is, obviously, for the chosen, who are just a few. However there is still space for day labourers of the joystick, the keyboard and the mouse. There are also team managers, commentators, coaches, broadcasters and much more. Even beyond the competitive video gaming scene there are very profitable and interesting opportunities to work playing. You only need to check those Youtube and Twicht channels followed by millions or just a few pals in which there is a guy or a group of guys broadcasting their gameplay while commenting on their everyday life miseries and achievements. Economies based on advertising, subscriptions and donations. Some of them are probably millionaires by now (like PewDiePie or Syndicate), others are just surviving. 

If labour is and area that is starting to be colonised by video games, education does not play second fiddle to it. I'm aware that the last years have witnessed an increasing creation and demand of video game design and production courses, grades and masters, as well as the inclusion of programming within schools curricula, but more surprising is the introduction of activities in the schools oriented to encourage children and teenagers to play video games. And, again, not necessarily the so called 'serious games'. Have a look at thisthis and this pieces of news. I also encourage you to visit Paul Darvasi's site, an interesting blog on education and video games with some insightful posts on the subject (I specially like the one dedicated to overcoming the stigma of using video games at schools).

There is a moment in Valve's 'Free to play' film that one of the professional gamer's mother starts her sentence saying "I was the typical parent..." followed by a "You're spending too much time playing computer games". She was right. But it was for a reason. He still spends too much time playing video games but she seems not to be a typical parent any more. Or maybe what is typical today is to encourage your children to play.

No more contradiction between work and play, between studying and gaming. No more 'you have to focus on your studies', 'get a job' or 'you should start to think about what you want to do with your life'. They already know. They're on it. 

They PLAY hard for the money.