Professor, Student Collaborate on Video Game Research

By Purnell T. Cropper | March 3, 2014

At a certain point, the discussion thread ends, and the occasionally bleary-eyed researchers stop cataloging moments of disappointment, rage, and longing. Another data set in an Arcadia team’s anthropological research has been documented.

Dr. Jonathan Church, professor of cultural anthropology at Arcadia, teamed up with Michael Klein ’14 to explore how gamers interact with one another in online discussion forums surrounding newly released video games, specifically when those games fall short of expectations.

“When you’re disappointed, you’ve got to talk a lot about it,” explained Church, who with Klein read and catalogued hundreds of online forum threads on the 2012 release of Assassin’s Creed III. “It was just received in such a conflicted way.”

These public forums, which include Twitter and Facebook, record reactions that can be examined—and therefore provide a new venue for anthropological research.

Examining these forum threads through the lens of anthropology, Church and Klein set out to explore how gamers were constructing identities for themselves in electronic forums. The gaming communities discussed past and current games, their hopes for the future, and what constitutes something looking dated. Fundamentally, they were comparing new games to a variety of past and potential experiences and in the process were creating in-groups with different sets of values or different levels of knowledge or experience, Klein added.

In the process of examining the discussions on video game forums such as GameSpot and Giant Bomb, Church and Klein also played the games under discussion to compare and contrast what was on the forums with their own experiences.

As they reached the second or third week of Assassin’s Creed III reviews, the team hit upon a thread that ran throughout their research: The gamers were reflecting on how the game had failed and why.

“We called it the aesthetics of disappointment,” Church said. “We discovered that when everybody is angry that disappointment is generative… you have to answer the question of why you’re disappointed. It’s about taking a position and ‘gaming capital,’” or how gamers assert their level of expertise and experience with gaming, effectively arguing for why their tastes are better than another’s. It’s one way that people can create an identity for themselves.

As they researched, Church trained Klein on anthropological methods, saying “When you let people behind the curtain, anthropological research is messy. Students think it isn’t. It was interesting to let someone see the mess and share some of the concerns, like ‘Wow, we have a lot of data. I wonder what this means.’”

The endeavor generated three conference presentations and two publications. Their paper, “Assassin’s Creed III and the Aesthetics of Disappointment” was presented at the Digital Games Research Association Conference in Atlanta this past August, and Church traveled to Austria in September to present his paper, “Constructing a Neoliberal Archive: Spreadable Media, Video Games, and a Culture of History,” which addressed how commercialization does not in fact drain identity from gamers participating in company-sponsored forums. Both were published  in the conference proceedings. Finally, Church presented “Gaming, Algorithm and Digital Personhood” in Chicago in November.

All told, their research allows a much more sophisticated take on video games than 10 years ago, when it focused mostly on violence and depictions of women. Church believes that video games deserve sustained study due to their growing popularity and the fact that people are choosing to spend sometimes seven or eight hours a day in these imaginary worlds.

“Video game playing and production has become one of the largest entertainment exports in the world, larger than film,” Klein said. “What we’re seeing is culture in the making here.”