Research on games and game design lacks dialogue between those who make games and those who study games and game design as a profession. I’m hardly the first researcher to make this observation, I’m sure, and I’m certain a similar disconnect is present for researchers within other areas of media studies, such film production and criticism. Still, it’s a big challenge to overcome, and one hurdle I hope to see diminish with time, for the academics who study games and hope to instill some kind of positive change.
It’s easy to see where this weak relationship stems. Since the introduction of violent games such as Mortal Kombat and Doom in the early 1990s the medium has stirred an ongoing debate about graphic interactive content and potential negative effects on players, particularly youths. Unsurprisingly, many industry professionals harbor a general distrust towards academics given the breadth of media effects research which links violent and aggressive outcomes to video game players. Additionally, communication, media, and gender scholars have investigated the prominence of sexualized female characters in games and the potential detrimental effects associated with exposure to such stereotypes within interactive and virtual environments. Industry professionals may perceive such scrutiny on video game effects as attacks on creative work and on the medium as a whole. Yet, both academics and professionals, I think, could benefit from investing more trust and understanding in one another.
Academics, in conversation with game designers and producers, could be made aware of the variety of constraints and other factors which influence creation of game content. For instance, studios may have a financial incentive to continue production of stereotypes in games over time if such representations have proven financially successfully in the past. This may also place some accountability on game consumers and not just the studios who market and make games, which might even be a source of frustration to some creatives who want to diversify content yet are limited by financial pressures to conform with money-making formulas. Additionally, game developers might reflect upon such constraints from a more critical context in conversation with researchers who are concerned about game content and advocate for more variety in design.
Academic publications on video game content and effects often end with a generic ‘call to action’ – that designers should make content less violent and more diverse; that the Entertainment Software Association should create more nuanced and varied ratings to inform families of inappropriate content. Such statements have the best intentions for players and families but, in the echo chamber that is a paper’s “Recommendations and Conclusion” section, somewhat lack sincerity and genuine passion. Games research which makes suggestions in consideration of designers, developers, and the industry as a business might actually have more impact than research that lacks the perspectives of designers and creatives.
Why this post, why now? Because I’m currently attempting such a study and I’m running into a few road blocks. I’m seeking interviews with professionals in the game industry who have worked on character design and, while I’ve had several fantastic and articulate people reach out and speak with me so far, I’ll need to hear from more voices in order to have a more representative collection of insights for the complete study. I hope that such a study, as well as others, might strengthen the dialogue between game researchers and academics and improve the quality and scope of games for all.
Please feel free to share the below study information.
Video Game Character Design Study
If you have worked on a video game development team you are invited to participate in a short interview that will investigate the process and decision-making behind character conceptualization and video game design. As you may be aware, video game content has been scrutinized by both the public and academics alike with little consideration of the industry’s perspective. This study seeks to understand the design process from the practical and economic considerations of the industry in order to balance out the academic research that has overlooked these factors.
The interviews will be conducted by Jessica Tompkins (Ph.D. student) and Dr. Nicole Martins of the Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington. Jessica and Nicole have previously conducted research on video games and Jess herself is an avid gamer. Participation involves a single interview via Skype or phone. All participants will be entered to win one $50 Amazon gift card, the odds of winning dependent on the total number of participants (about 1 in 20 or 1 in 25).
If you are at least 18 years old, have worked on character creation for games, and would like more information about participating, please contact: Jessica Tompkins at firstname.lastname@example.org or Nicole Martins at email@example.com.
Interviews will last approximately 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes. Participants will remain anonymous in any papers or presentations that may emerge from this study.