Gamers unite in academia

When trying out an early version of her “Play the Knave” video game project, UC Davis English professor Gina Bloom noted that when using the Kinect, it was difficult to make the avatars in the game appear as if they were holding hands.

This relationship between gamers and games is a common theme in the ongoing video game-focused work at UC Davis, which includes research into both the social and technological aspects of games, classes in multiple departments, and even projects to develop new game software.

Working with others from the UC Davis ModLab, Bloom is currently developing a game based on Shakespearean theater. Using the Kinect, a video game camera system, players will be able to design, act out and record scenes from Shakespeare plays.

“For me, the game is about helping to educate a generation of gamers about theater — fusing some gaming back into theater, and theater into gaming,” Bloom said. “There’s a long history of theaters using games to educate their audiences about playgoing. Now that we’ve moved into a digital generation, theaters are seeing some decrease in audience numbers; a lot of young people aren’t going to theater anymore.”

Bloom believes that video games are more popular among younger audiences because they are more interactive than a theater performance.

“[There’s] a real missed opportunity for theaters to bring a gamer audience to their productions and to teach them something about theater through the act of gameplay,” she said.

Bloom’s research on the use of games in early commercial theater led her to start looking at modern games and whether or not they could play a similar role. She was disappointed in what she found, noting the dearth of games available which taught users about theater.

UC Davis had resources available to take on such a project, according to Bloom.

“The great thing about doing collaborative work is that we are all drawing on each other’s expertise,” she said. “I was interested in a game that would give people a chance to make theater. It just so happens that there are a lot of researchers at UC Davis who are working on the Kinect camera and motion capture animation. These two things came together in a really fruitful way.”

She adds that those involved in the game’s creation envision it as a community project. It will be open source to allow anyone to contribute their own set designs, avatars, texts, etc. They hope players will be able to record and share their performances and even mash them with other people’s. Potentially, performances could be viewed from any seat in a virtual theater modeled after real-life theaters, giving users greater insight into theater production. They also hope that it can be used as an educational tool in theaters or even classrooms.

“I’m really interested in how people playing the game could feel like they’re in a theater production,” Bloom said.

This is the same kind of relationship looked at by Jorge Peña, a communication professor at UC Davis. A focus of his research includes the effects of the virtual environment on the player.

“Most of what I do comes from the idea of primal effects,” Peña said. “You are presented with a virtual stereotype that reminds you of something else and that would cue memories and behavioral patterns. I mostly look at manipulating the features of the virtual environment – namely what the environment looks like, what it involves, and the appearance of avatars – as a way of getting people to act differently.”

Peña has previously done studies involving how the appearance of avatars affected players’ physical activity in sports games, which he talked about at TEDxUCDavis in May 2014.

“I had a couple of recent studies where I would have people play exercise games like Wii Tennis. And I would put accelerometers on them and make their avatars thin or obese and their opponents thin or obese, and would measure people’s physical movements in the real world as they were playing the game that they see on screen,” Peña said. “The findings there would imply that for both men and women people moved more in the real world when their avatar was thin as opposed to obese, regardless of their own body size. It appears people get so immersed in the video game that their digital body, their avatar, becomes more salient than their own body.”

Peña teaches a class on video games, Communication 76, which looks at this relationship as well as other social and cognitive effects of and the motivations behind playing games.

“The class is really into uses and effects of video games from a more social science/quantitative standpoint,” Peña said. “We look at research connected to video games in cognitive psychology, communication and social psychology. We don’t really look at it from a critical standpoint, in terms of whether games are literature or anything like that.”

Peña pointed out that this quantitative approach is necessary for evidence in support or against the various arguments surrounding video games, such as their relationship with real-life violence, the representation of women and minorities in video games, and their effectiveness as practice for real-life skills.

“Whether we believe it or not is one thing, but [by] having students actually put numbers [in] and analyze the games and realize that they have a point, it becomes a little bit more powerful because you have this experience and you have numbers to prove your point,” Peña said. “It’s important to quantify some of these issues and try to come up with conclusions beyond your opinion.”

Peña commented that he has noticed a growing interest in video game classes at universities.

“From a student standpoint, I found that there was a bit of a hunger for taking classes and getting involved in research that would speak to their reality, to the things that they grew up with or the things that they connect with,” Peña said. “I see a lot of enthusiasm around campus in terms of studying the effects of video games, social media and the things that we employ on a daily basis.”

IMMERSE is a multi-campus research network, focused specifically on video game research, which funds much of the game-related research at the university. UC Davis is currently the only affiliated campus in the United States.

Amanda Phillips a postdoctoral researcher who joined UC Davis through an IMMERSE fellowship said that there is a larger shift being placed on videogames in universities and the practicality of classes which focus on video games.

“You are getting more game studies classes in universities across the country, you have more people taking it seriously on an intellectual level,” Phillips said. “There was more access to more video games in our generation than in generations before it. A lot of us now sort of inherently understand how meaningful games can be, so we do take them seriously. And the technology has advanced to such a level where you can create more sophisticated stories, more sophisticated characters — you’re not limited so much by data or graphics capabilities.”

Phillips hosts weekly gameplay sessions with her colleagues to play and discuss games that have been released, and is currently running a series of workshops where students can work toward developing games.

“The idea is to get students, particularly students who don’t have a lot of tech skills, interested in game design and [show] them that you don’t really need to be a programmer to design games,” Phillips said.

Phillips also noticed a trend in student’s interest in video games — that they are becoming more interested in video game creation on top of studying games critically, both of which are currently happening at UC Davis.

“We have a lot of expertise on this campus that is involved in the technology that creates video games or even game development directly,” Phillips said. “We’re trying to merge those with those of us that are critics and analysts and trying to think together, ‘How can we produce scholarship that looks at all of these different angles of game development?’”