Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Video Games versus Porn

I came across an interesting article in my Google Alerts for World of Warcraft that says World of Warcraft is one of the five top reasons for a decline in the fortunes of the porn industry. Actually, the linked article links to another article but both are worth a look. The original article gives the "Top 5 reasons why it is harder than ever before to make a living selling porn" and reason number 4 is Online Gaming. Specifically it says "One of the strangest challenges porn faces is competition from online games like World of Warcraft". If you are sensitive to crude language, you may wish to just take my word for what the articles say. Nonetheless, the notion that online video games could threaten the porn industry economically while any number of other advocacy groups have failed to do so socially or legally is a thought provoking idea. Why is this the case?

First, I should say that this may not be the case or it may be. We just don't know. It is a claim made in an online newspaper. It is the opinion of a person who is involved in the industry. It is not a well know industry analyst with a reputation for accuracy in his reporting. And it does not cite numbers from a credible source. I do not mean to diminish the credibility of the source in any way. Nor do I wish to diminish the veracity of the claim. I am merely saying that more evidence would be required before we simply accept this claim. Nonetheless, it is, at least, plausible. And if it is true it bears explaining.

From a research perspective, this raises many interesting questions. Do all kinds of video games threaten all kinds of porn? Or is it limited to specific genres? For example, it is hard to imagine that Free Cell has enough pull to keep prospective visitors off of adult sites. And it is hard to imagine that Wii tennis provides senior citizens with an alternative to prurient browsing. Are all kinds of porn affected equally? I am not familiar enough with porn to discuss the genres and probably would not admit it if I were. But, you can see, intellectually, how the impact may be uneven. Are certain demographics more likely to be affected by the lure of video games? This seems likely as the demographic of males under 25 seems to be an important market for both industries.

Once we figure out who and what are affected, the next question is - why? Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing games such as World of Warcraft can be seen as Flow experiences as discussed earlier in this blog. But, they are also social experiences, learning experiences, and, for some, economically or professionally beneficial. Which of these or what combination of these draws the audience away from alternatives?

These are not frivolous questions. If video games can lure players away from porn, they can lure them away from school, work, family, and social engagements just to name a few. It may also be able to lure them away from anti-social activities such as gangs, petty crime, violence or just hanging out. Yes, this gives us much to think about.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some Thoughts on Casual Play

I finished reading and reviewing the book on Casual Play that I mentioned last week. The author argues his point well that casual players outnumber hard core gamers and that this may represent a revolution of sorts in video game design. However, despite the increasing use of casual games, I don't think hard core games are going anywhere. That is to say that I think this segment of the industry will continue to thrive and continue to grow. At the same time I would also acknowledge that the casual segment may well thrive more and grow faster. I think a couple of analogies are in order to explain this.

The first analogy which I used in the review said that you cannot judge the audience for performing art simply by considering those who attend Broadway plays. There is also an audience for shows like Everybody Loves Raymond and while the later audience may not be as lofty as the former it dwarfs the former in terms of numbers and revenue generation. One end of the market is where the art is advanced. The other end of the market is where it is exploited. Both ends are important to a vital industry. So designers who serve the hard core audience will continue to advance the state of the art while casual game designers will continue to broaden the audience.

The second analog which I mentioned in the review but did not explore was the comparison between hard core gamers versus casual players on one hand and command line users versus those who prefer graphical user interfaces. There is still a use for command line interfaces and there is stil a hard core audience who prefers them. However, graphical user interfaces expands the audience and makes computers available to a large number of people who would never use them if they had to learn how to use the command line. I think this comparison is apt because, overwhelmingly, most potential video game players will not invest the time and intellectual energy required to play hard core games. They will, however, play games that are effortless to play and represent diversion and entertainment.

On one hand it is exciting to see the field of video games grow and expand and become more complex. However, from a research perspective, it becomes increasing more difficult to make any statements that are true for all video games. We may get back to Wittgenstein's family resemblances and see video games as collection of overlapping concepts that do not have any attributes in common across all categories.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Casual Play

I am reviewing yet another book on video games for ACM Computing Reviews. This one is entitled A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players by Jesper Juul. I am only a bit into it. So I cannot comment in depth. But it did make me think about some of the problems that are emerging in video game research. The premise of the book is that the demographic characteristics of the 'typical' video game player are changing. Instead of the hard core gamer in their teens or early twenties, the typical video game player is beginning to look a lot like a normal person. This is largely because there is an endless variety of games available for free download, for phones or just for idle players such as solitaire games. And there are whole new genres of games such as the physically active games for Wii.

This is an interesting point and I am eager to see where the author takes it. However, it poses an interesting problem for video game research. Clearly, the game playing experience of a hard core gamer playing a massively multiplayer online role playing game and the gaming experience of someone idling time away on a cell phone game are very different. Both of these are different, in turn, from the physical experience of one playing a tennis or bowling game on Wii. Since the variety of games produces a variety of gaming experiences, can anything be said which is true of all video games? Or, does the variety of social, gaming, cognitive and physical experiences preclude that?

And, if the variety precludes this, can the variety be organized into genre for which general statements can be made? And if it can, what should those genre be? Shoud we group based upon price, demographics, social expereince, gaming experience, media, game design features or other criteria.

It is truly wonderful that such a wide variety of gaming options are being developed and enjoyed. But if we are ever going to be able to say anything intelligent about video games we are going to have to get our thoughts organized.