Sunday, February 19, 2012

Daniel Pargman's academic homepage: Beyond sports vs games


I attended the "Beyond sports vs games" workshop at the IT University of Copenhagen this week. The workshop was an attempt to get (sociology of) sports and computer games researchers to meet and discuss, but the sports researchers didn't show up.Knowing what I know about the organizer, T.L. Taylor (her new book is called "Raising the stakes: E-sports and the professionalization of computer gaming"), I thought the topic of the workshop would be competitive computer gaming and the "sportification" of computer games. My contribution was a "curveball" as it wasn't about competitive computer gaming, but about competitive programming (i.e. programming competitions) in relation to "electronic sports".

It turned out that my contribution was even more peripheral, as most of the participants were interested in sports computer games, i.e. for example (annually released - great for business!) football, american football and basketball computer games. The emphasis wasn't on "how computer games are turned into sports", but on "how sports are turned into videogames". Which is really really really big, but also situated straight in my dead angle. One of the papers we read in preparation for the workshop stated that:

"The sports gaming industry is the crown jewel of the video games world. It is a one billion dollar per year industry; sports games account for more than thirty percent of all video games sales."

I had no idea. To a large extent, we are talking about computer games for sports fans. I'm not a sports fan. Truth be told, I hardly play computer games anymore due to lack of time (except of course together with my children as a family activity).


There were a couple of presentations (Olli Sotamaa and Abe Stein) about sports fandom and fantasy sport games, i.e. putting together you football "dream team" (with players from many different real-world teams) and competing against other teams based on how well "your" players are doing in their real-life games. I thus learned that there is a massive group of people who spend a humongous amounts of time in the sports fandom-sports television-sports computer games nexus, speculating about future games and also simulating and replaying different imaginary pasts ("who would have won in a boxing match between Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson?"). I like the term "imaginative labor" which was used, it's such a charming combination (contradiction?) of work and play. Even sportsmen have apparently been known to do it, playing "themselves" in computer games and trying out things in the computer game that they later bring with them to the real-world sports games.There were some interesting musings about how the "tribal" factor of sports is on the decline because of the ascent of fantasy sports games (which apparently is really big in the States). Your allegiance to your favorite team is weakened because you can also cheer for one (or several) players in the opposing team (because you've recruited them to your fantasy team). There were also plenty of references to the movie "Moneyball" (based on a book by one of my favorite journalists, Michael Lewis). To some sports fans, the focus has now shifted from the actual weekly games to the statistics that these games generate (and that is immediately inputted in to the fantasy league circus).


Another interesting talk (by Chris Paul) was about how sports game revenue is changing from the game (a physical disc) to charging (also) for online access. The world's largest publisher, Electronic Arts (EA) is leading the way with their sports games. It's in the nature of things that last year's sports game is less interesting than this year's, but when the focus shifts to online, new ways of decreasing the value of the game you bought last year appear; when others fans/gamers shift to the new game, you're not where the action is anymore unless you too buy the game, and EA can find ways to further decrease the value of your "old" game, for example by not updating or supporting it - thereby implicitly forcing you to move on and buy (also) the latest annual ($60) edition of the game. My personal question was if/how the economic recession and youth unemployment has affected gaming revenues (youth - under 25 - unemployment in Greece and Spain is almost at 50% according to 3rd quarter 2011 Eurostat figures). Do people nowadays play more (since they have more time) or less (since they have less money)? More generally, is gaming (considered) expensive or inexpensive compared to other expenses? Is it recession-proof or does it suffer from harsh economic times? The answer was apparently that gaming has been perceived to be recession-proof - up until the most recent (2008-) recession. So, what would happen to the gaming industry if/when the economic cake doesn't grow anymore? How would a prolonged period of no/negative economic growth affect gaming and the gaming industry?


Ren Reynolds' "Sports law and digital play" started from a perspective of sports law before moving to games. Sports have become an arena where some (violent) behaviors are OK/permitted - even though the same behaviors aren't OK in the rest of society, i.e. it is permitted to hit each other hard (in boxing) and hitting others is tolerated (in American ice hockey). In-between play and non-play (ordinary life) is a zone where "shit that goes down" happens (fighting in ice-hockey) and that the law (lawyers, judges, courts) nowadays stay away from. The question becomes if this is what is happening in gaming right now - despite long and complicated End User License Agreements (EULAs) that supposedly or purportedly regulates gaming (but is increasingly dismissed by courts when game-related cases arrive there).


The two talks that were most interesting to me were two of the organizers' talks about pro-gaming and competitions, i.e. T.L. Taylor's talk about "institutional governance in e-sports" and Emma Witkowski's talk about "negotiations of hegemonic sporting masculinities at LANs".T.L. talked about the sometimes-fraught relationship between two very powerful actors (institutions) in the e-sports space; the influential game developer Blizzard and the Korean e-Sports Professional Association (KeSPA). They have very different views of authorship and ownership of "digital playing fields", so what happens when a "property" (a computer game) becomes an important cultural phenomenon (as Blizzard's "Starcraft" game is in Korea)?

Emma talked about what is and what isn't considered to be "real sporting skills" in e-sports, with plenty of references to non-gamer/athletic ideals and cultures. E-sports is a gendered space, rife with masculinity and sexism and where pro-gamers (and their fans) predominantly are young, white, straight, middle-class men. Emma's talked about a study of hers on how players from "the margins" (women, minorities, but primarily players of a marginalized game) navigate and rebel against these structures and practices.


I should also write something about my own contribution to the workshop, "Programming competitions as (e-)sports", as well as an analysis of what I personally got out of the workshop and in relation to my study. I won't do that in this particular blog post though (it is long enough already). I might write a follow-up blog post where I summarize my thoughts as well as implications and decision related to my ongoing study in a week or two.



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