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Communication Theorists Enter Hardware and Software Studies at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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Communication Studies seems to be heading in the direction of hardware and software along the lines of software and console studies. Once recent study calls for more “advanced” games. Unfortunately, “advanced” seems best measured in pixels rather than story units. And so continues the negotiations between hard and soft sciences and the humanities.

In the latest Journal of Communication (September 2007), James D. Ivory and Sriram Kalyanaraman publish their investigation of “The Effects of Technological Advancement and Violent Content in Video Games on Players’ Feelings of Presence, Involvement, Physiological Arousal and Aggression.” Their interesting and timely study confirms their hypothesis that advancements in technology will increase qualitative and biological indicators of immersion (skin conductivity) [eerily similar to the test for Replicants].

ZombieRaid.jpgAccording to the authors, theirs is one of the first studies of video game reception to take technological advancement into account. Here we may be witnessing some of the first incursions of hardware and software studies in empirical communication research.

Specifically, the video games seemed to create a greater sense of presence “without varying the interface system at all” (547). Of course, the game console is the “interface” here, a determining factor in the study.

What is advancement?

house_of_the_dead2-thumb.jpg
Well, Ivory and Kalyanaraman offer one example, drawing upon (Schneider, lang, Shin, and Bradley 2004):

advances in game technology, such as whether a game is accompanied by a narrative storyline.

Needless to say, my heart-rate began to surge and my skin grow clammy at the thought of an empirical study on the effects of increased narrative in games on a sense of “presence.”

Their test games:

Violent Games: Zombie Raid (1995) (review), House of the Dead 2 (2001).

Although the latter features increased use of voice actors and more branching game play, the authors emphasize merely that “the newer game’s presentation is notably more advanced.” My pulse beginning to weaken and my skin growing cold, I read “presentation” as “visual interface,” but perhaps that was because I so hoped they would stress something else.

Nonviolent Games: Diamonds 3D (1996) and Arkout (2003).

And my heart-rate returns to my resting rhythm.

[Notably, the text-based IF Breakout 1991 was not included in the study.]

In the genre where story or character might have been more fundamental, here story does not seem to be a factor at all. (But then I remember that experimental film about the dot and the line). Moreover, when the players were asked how much they game made them feel like they were really “there,” the place was a three dimensional world of balls and diamonds. We might ask what does it mean to render that world more realistically?

Violence and Progress Narratives
Do “more advanced games” lead to increased violence?

The research did not find significant effects on the violence, which somewhat contradicts my own experience with very violent experiences with a virtual “rocks, paper, scissors” (using hands) and a more advanced “rocks, paper, scissors,” (using actual rocks, paper, and scissors).

In both these cases, increased visual detail seems to be the dominant criterion for “advancement.” Although the authors end the article with a note about the subjectivity involved (examining “what is meant by better” when reflecting on games) they do not pursue at length the question of what is meant by “advancement,” admittedly as part of their quest to keep most variables constant for their study. In their discussions of practical implications, however, they do seem to champion greater “sophistication” (549).

Such practical testing concerns demonstrate some of the challenges of the social science examinations of hardware and software studies. At the same time, they return us to the fundamental questions of what it means for games to advance, what it takes for games to immerse, and what significance signs of physiological arousal hold for our examinations.

The relationship between the humanistic, the scientific, and the social examinations of media have always been a bit uneasy, as the questions and methods of one often become encroaching zombie hordes to the others. Or perhaps the better image is of three children playing. Two kids are tying a third kid to a tree for asking too many questions. The first kid keeps polling, “Are you gonna stop asking questions?” The second one, on the other hand, is at least content in the knowledge that she has bought sufficient rope.

* The authors site several similar studies on other media by Bracken 2005, Detenber et al. 1998, Lombard et al. 2000 and Reeves et al. 1999.




1 Response to “Communication Theorists Enter Hardware and Software Studies”

  1. 1 James D. Ivory

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    Dr. Marino,

    I enjoyed reading your interesting discussion of the article Dr. Kalyanaraman and I published earlier this year. I heartily agree with a lot of your points, though I also want to clarify a few things about our study’s intent and implications.

    I very much share your opinion that games’ content factors such as narrative are a great influence on the extent to which video game players (and users of other media) find a game experience immersive and exciting. As your post mentions, the Schneider et al. study (published in Human Communication Research in 2004) shows empirical evidence that inclusion of a narrative story in a game can increase players’ physiological arousal and feelings of presence. Your frustration with our own manipulation of only technological advancement while (instead of content-based advancement variables such as narrative, etc.) suggests that you might be more interested in the results of this study than the results of ours.

    Given that Schneider et al. had already explored the effects of narrative as a content advancement, though, our study was only focused on the effects of non-content technological advancement ( a”form”variable as opposed to a “content” variable) because we were interested in whether technological form variables would have an effect independent of content effects such as those found by Schneider et al. Further, we were interested to see whether these effects would be consistent across a couple of games with different content (a violent v. nonviolent game). They were, in that players of the newer games were more excited (both in terms of their skin conductance and their self-reported excitement) and felt more involved and “present” in the game. We didn’t find that the newer games exacerbated any effects the games might have on aggressive thoughts or feelings (which is not to say definitely that this does not or cannot happen).

    You are very much correct that we did not make story “a factor at all” in our study, because we were interested in the effects of non-content variables. Other studies, such as the one from Schneider et al., do look at story as a factor, and we hope that our research compliments that by exploring other non-content factors. One study, of course, can’t explore all of the myriad factors in the game experience. Experiments are, by design, focused on isolating the effects one (or a very limited number) of variables at a time while holding others constant. In our case, we manipulated only technological advancement by varying “newness” of essentially identical games. In the case of Schneider et al., narrative was manipulated. Hopefully, future studies will continue to manipulate both form and content variables to further flesh out their effects, and with different types of games.

    In short, it is tough for scholarship to sort out all the factors in the video game experience, and each study contributes in its own way. Experiments such as ours are extremely limited in scope by exploring a variable at a time, but can also show causal relationships very clearly within this focus. Other methods are also strong at exploring a lot of aspects of media that experiments are not so good at exploring, so I find that humanistic and scientific approaches complement each other very well. Studies such as the one reported in my article with Dr. Kalyanaraman can’t answer all questions in the complicated question of the video game experience, which is why I am glad here are a lot of other scholars, such as yourself, looking at things in a lot of different ways than I am. I hope that we can all help each other out as we go, though, and to that end I hope that the strengths and weaknesses of our investigation can inform other investigations from across disciplines.

    Thanks again for an interesting discussion of our article,

    Jimmy Ivory

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