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Mass Effect 3, Marketing, and a Magic Bullet: Emily Wong Reporting

On October 30, 1938, Mercury Theatre of the Air performed H.G.Wells’ War of the Worlds, which was broadcasted over the Columbia Broadcast System radio network.  Orson Welles directed and narrated this now-infamous production.  Because many listeners missed the first few minutes, which included the disclaimer that the performance was only fiction, many believed that an actual invasion was taking place.  This event is often cited as an example of the Magic Bullet (or Hypodermic Needle) theory that states that media have swift and powerful effects on consumers because they believe the entire message.  You don’t hear too much about Magic Bullet nowadays but then a strange thing happened on the way to the release of Mass Effect 3. The 21st century version of War of the Worlds appeared via Twitter.

Emily Wong from Mass Effect.

It all started out with a simple retweet from an Alliance News Network message.  I didn’t pay much attention, but it said something about a mysterious object in the sky.  Another retweet revealed that reporter Emily Wong, from Mass Effect 1, was reporting that Earth communications were down just as this object descended from the clouds.  My interest piqued, I began to follow the Alliance News Network (ANN) so I could get all the tweets as they posted.  What followed was a brilliant re-enactment of War of the Worlds with the Reapers now taking the place of Martians.  Of course I did not realize this at first, but as I read tweet after tweet, I remembered listening to recordings of War of the Worlds and reading about the ensuing panic.

Soon I started following the hashtag connected to the tweets and found that many others were commenting on the messages.  Some even took to role-playing as they pretended to “panic” and in doing so began to “re-enact” the real panic of 1938. I began to see some slight similarities between the mayhem used to support an antiquated theory and the reach of social media.  Of course the reach of ANN is nowhere near the panic of 1938.  Some estimates run as high as 1.7 million people who thought the production was real.  I don’t believe anyone thinks the Reapers are really coming of course and only 8,000 people were on the receiving end of those Tweets, but my guess is that the “magic bullet” BioWare is looking for is an uptick in sales.  Is it a stretch to think that those consumers who are still undecided about buying Mass Effect 3 would do so because of this modern-day War of the Worlds? Or do these message simply reinforce the idea that this is a must-have game for those who have already decided to purchase Mass Effect 3?

As I sit here and read the messages from Emily Wong, I wonder if I will see her in the actual game. Or does her story end before the game begins?  Her frantic messages serve to heighten anticipation of the invasion of course, but they also reveal how quickly messages spread through social media thanks to retweeting and hashtags.  One of the aspects of the classic magic bullet theory is that mass media quickly effect those who consume them. A marketing magic bullet, in this case, might be powered by social media.

The Fractured State of Social Media in Gaming

It seems that social media is all the rage these days.  Facebook. Twitter.  Blogging. Linkedin. Four square. And so on. The mass communication field is no different.  As researchers and teachers we are searching for ways to examine and incorporate social media into more traditional mass media.  For video games this presents an especially tough challenge, which is ironic since video games were social media years before Facebook arrived. And yet while console games have carried an online component for the past ten years, in many ways the explosion of other social media has left gaming behind.  There is certainly no need (and this is not the space) to recount how popular Facebook and Twitter are, but before these two social behemoths became popular Xbox Live had friends lists that allowed gamers to interact with their peers from around the world. Yet today the bulk of “social” in online gaming is adversarial multiplayer matches or cooperative games.  Two recent releases that showcase these features, and more, are Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit and Call of Duty Black Ops.

EA's Need For Speed Hot Pursuit

Criterion’s Need For Speed Hot Pursuit (NFSHP) contains a feature called autolog that immediately presents your friends records and accomplishments for a race or challenge you just completed.  In addition, it allows you to jump right into a race so you can attempt to beat your friend’s time. This shameless adaptation of Facebook game score announcements has been hailed as a shot in the arm for the racing genre and arguably so since it encourages racers to compete for the best times even if they cannot race head-to-head.

Black Ops takes a different approach.  When the player enters the multiplayer suite, he/she is treated to a crawler at the bottom of the screen which displays challenges his/her friends have completed or new ranks earned.  I admit those messages are mildly interesting, but they don’t really mean much to me.  Black Ops also contains a file share system much like the one Bungie has been using for Halo games since 2007.  Recent multiplayer matches can be viewed and saved for friends or the entire Black Ops community to see.

These two models work better than say, a web application like dynasty anywhere in NCAA Football 11 because they exist in-game.  And while web extensions like Bungie.com have been quite successful, the ability of gamers to interact with other players or information about those players is certainly more organic when it is contained to game world, first, and then to other, extra-game media.

The problem with console games application of social media is that they are limited and inconsistent across the gaming medium.  Right now, gamers using Xbox Live can watch movies together via Netflix or watch a sporting event together using the ESPN app.  There is also the new video chat via Kinect. And of course gamers can play together in real time across many games in different genres. However, while the concept of playing together is as social as social can get (at least online), the options that exist outside of real-time interaction are extremely sparse.  What the medium needs is a way to generate social interaction outside of the standard multiplayer, co-op, or movie-watching sessions without asking users to create either text-based or out-of-game media. That is the problem with dynasty anywhere: it requires users to sit down and write about their games ala a sports journalists. That brings a limited response because it is so far outside the realm of virtual football as to be foreign to most of the participants.  Game related social media should a) occur inside the game and b) be restricted to the simple creation of media such as film clips, challenges to best friends, and announcements of scores and so on.

Activision's Call of Duty Black Ops

For example, suppose I finish a multiplayer session in Black Ops where I record 25 kills on a certain map.  I could choose to have that match uploaded into my file for my friends to see.  If they log onto Black Ops within, say, 24 hours, they will have an opportunity to play the same match type on the same map to see if they can beat my score.  If they do that, oh, 20 times, they could get a reward (think achievement or trophy).  The objectives could change daily or weekly.  Today it might be kills, but next week you may have call in more helicopter strikes on a certain map than I did.

A second approach could be to create the feel of having friends playing even when they are far from their consoles. Your friends’ play styles could be incorporated into gaming sessions. Black Ops has a game mode called combat training.  In this mode, the player (and friends if desired) fight against computer controlled bots.  This is nothing new of course though Black Ops developer Treyarch did add the nice touch of allowing the bots to display names from the gamer’s friends list. Shooting bots “disguised” as your friends is a nice middle ground between plain vanilla bots and actually having your friends in the match.  It makes things more personal.

However if the game took information from those friends such as favorite weapon, kill-to-death ratio, and accuracy (that information is already recorded and displayed elsewhere in the game) and incorporated those stats into bot play, it adds another dimension to the game play.  Now, not only is my success important to me, but it also factors into how well my friends do when they play that particular mode. If the idea of helping your neighbor (in this case fellow gamer) is not the epitome of community and social, I don’t know what is.  This next step in social gaming seems, at least to me, like a natural evolution of the shared gaming experience.  After all, video games are a unique medium and that should be reflected in how gamers interact with each other.

Categories: Social Media

Since When Did Playing Games Become Work?

Dragon Age Origins: I bought it not so much for the fun as for studying the morality system.

I ordered Dragon Age Origins from Amazon last week.  Now I am not a real big role-playing fan but I do play them from time to time.  In fact I usually buy one role-playing game (RPG) per year.  I played Oblivion in 2006 and Mass Effect in 07.  I never finished Fallout 3, so I stayed away from the genre until Mass Effect 2 came out earlier this year.  I guess Dragon Age could be my RPG for 09. Whatever.

Somewhere in the midst of checking the US Postal Service website for the status of my package, I began to wonder why I was so intent on playing this game.  I then realized that while the game only mildly appeals to me (I prefer sci-fi RPGs), I am fascinated by the morality system and the choices presented in the game.  I know if I can get my hands on it I can probably use the content as the basis for a study, a paper, or at the very least some good blogging. That’s when it dawned on me: I play games for research and not for fun.

So then I started debating with myself, thinking “surely I play other games just for fun.” What about NCAA Football 11? I play that game every day, but it is also research.  I’ve already blogged about dynasty wire and social media.  I sent some tweets about the power of the press in that game. In fact I started tweeting about the social aspect of the game before I even picked it up from Gamestop. And while eating breakfast this morning I tossed about an idea about getting users to create more stories to increase the hype and tension before big games and therefore make online dynasties more realistic. That would make for a fascinating study.

Well then perhaps I play Mass Effect 2 just for fun. That’s no better.  After all that adventure provided inspiration about death in games, cultural hegemony and racism.  I even thought about blogging on how the game treats the disabled in the “Overlord” DLC.  So much for that.

Worse still, I bought Red Dead Redemption to see how Rockstar went about developing the narrative.  Fable II was only an exercise in studying the morality system and how NPCs would react to my in-game decisions.  I got great information, but never finished either game.

I think something is wrong with me.

I see more than Tomb Raider's Lara Croft. I see body image and media effects.

It finally dawned on me that my gaming only serves as a platform for my research.  Even when I think I am just having fun or relaxing, I suspect that somewhere in the back of my mind I am taking mental notes for my next project.  I would not be surprised if the gaming I’ve been doing these past few years (Mass Effect 1& 2, NCAA Football, Dragon Age, Tomb Raider Underworld, Gears of War, GTA, Modern Warfare 2) will provide a wealth of potential projects to work on after my dissertation.   And so here I sit with research ideas about male body image and the use of drama in video games floating around in my head.  Even now I have a blog draft about the perseverance of hyper-masculine heroes in games such as Gears of War. In an age where Lara Croft looks more like a women and less like an adolescent fantasy we still have Marcus Fenix who exemplifies the typical ultra-macho, super-aggressive male role model.

And so my brief self-reflection has led me to the conclusion that my days of gaming just for fun are gone and they aren’t coming back.  That pastime has been replaced with the need to explore game content for hegemonic messages, changing player identity in the face of moral choices, and genre-blending trends in the industry.  I used to joke that studying games gave me an excuse to play them.  Now I think studying games is my sole reason for playing. How my (gaming) world has changed.

Bridging the Gap Between Games and User Content

A friend came over to my house the other day. He wanted to play a game of NCAA Football 11 online against another member of my online dynasty and so he came over after work.  After he “recovered” his Xbox Live gamertag, he hopped online and played his dynasty game while I watched.  It was a great game and in the end my buddy lost in a close match.  Well the next morning I log onto dynasty anywhere to read what the guy on the other end of the Internet wrote. It was a good retelling of the game, but from a completely different perspective. It reminded me of the blog I posted last week or so about how framing theory and user-generated content makes for interesting research.

This story I read told the game narrative from a completely different perspective.  Though the writer did take the time to include both sides of the story, I was amazed at how his perspective differed from my own.  That started me thinking about a content or textual analysis of dynasty wire might produce some interesting results.  From there I expanded into other area that might be ripe for study.

Internet discussion boards were one of the earliest places for gamers to express their opinions about their love for gaming and write about game-related topics. I spent time exploring gamer forums in my dissertation but that was limited to the rather modest subset of Christian gamers.  There are many types of gamers who post their thoughts, ideas, and reactions on a variety of sites.  A more expansive look into gamer discussions could easily become a longitudinal study spanning weeks, months, or longer. It seems that gamers spend a fair amount of time writing about their games.  From the forums on Xbox.com to those of major publishers such as EA and Ubisoft there is no shortage of material.

Of course gamers also have discussions on a variety of topics as they play and so a researcher who explores the transcripts of cooperative and competitive play is sure to find rich texts. Now I know Xbox Live is the notorious playground of racists, sexists, and homophobes, but, surprisingly, there are also intelligent conversations taking place. With millions of users logging in and gaming every day, the amount of content produced is truly staggering, but what an addition it is to all the “social media” buzz going around these days.

Web Extensions

Some game publishers take the extra step and allow users to generate content on official game websites. Bungie does a wonderful job in giving users a place to store game content as well as create new images and movies from gameplay. No doubt they will only expand on what users can do for the upcoming game Halo: Reach, which due out this September.  Whereas websites used to be all about forums, now users can manipulate and upload game content for all to enjoy.  Aside from the obvious application of Uses & Gratification Theory, we might also find new areas of application for the Gatekeeping, Framing, and Priming Theories.

Dynasty Anywhere (and similar applications)

There are some online dynasties in NCAA 11 where all users are required to write stories for their games.  An online dynasty can run 60 seasons.  There are 12 games per season (plus bowl games).  With a full dynasty of 12 players, there could be at least 144 stories per season and possibly 8640 stories over the life of the dynasty.  Imagine how rich the content would be from such diligent publishing.

Indeed user content really does add another dimension to the video game experience. Yes, I do think the term “social media” is now overused almost the point of cliché, but I also believe this is a rich and virtually untapped area of study. Our use of entertainment media in general and video games in particular continues to evolve and academic researchers must strive to keep pace.

Framing My Online Game Experience Using Dynasty Wire

I’ve been playing college football video games for a long time, but from my memorable moments with Bill Walsh College Football (1994) until now, there has never been anything like Dynasty Wire.  Why am I so amped about this feature?  Simply put, it adds a new layer of depth to an already deep game.  It publishes the results of your online dynasty games (complete with stats, pictures, and video) on the web for others to see, but it also allows you to frame the events any way you want. That first part excites the gamer in me.  The second intrigues me as a media researcher.

For those who don’t know, Dynasty Wire (DW) is a new feature in EA Sports’ NCAA Football 11.  It connects your online dynasty with the EA Sports website thereby empowering you to tweak and fiddle with your dynasty whenever you can get to your computer, iphone, or ipad. Players now have the freedom to manage their online dynasty teams on the console, the website, or both. However not only can you recruit players, check your schedule, and see the results from all your games, but DW also grants you the ability to create stories from scratch or edit the existing stories automatically generated from your games.  It’s pretty good stuff, even if the website still has some hiccups and tends to give out too many error messages.

Now the researcher in me finds this fascinating.  For example, let’s look at my first game of the season. My team, the Texas El Paso (UTEP) Miners, lost a close game to rival New Mexico.  The story feature in DW allowed me to frame the game so that NM didn’t beat me so much as I beat myself.  Notice the language I used in the recap: founds ways to stumble, allowed them to win, place themselves in tough situations, and so on.  I gave no credit to the other team. With framing, I can downplay certain perspectives while encouraging others.  Now I have tools to slant the events in a way that benefits my team.

In addition, everyone else in my dynasty can read and comment on my game.  Add to that the ability to link to my Facebook and Twitter accounts and the connectivity between different media sky-rocket.  But let me return to my discussion about social media.  Gone are the days when you would play in solitude (or with someone else sitting on the couch) and could only reminisce about your glorious victories.  We have even moved past the days where you could upload an image or video to a website for a few people to see.  Now we participate in simulations where not only do you play, manage, and recruit, but you can now create and edit your own media as you see fit (provided you can get past EA’s nit-picky language filters).

Let’s think about that for a moment. Not only am I changing my game play experience, but I can also alter someone else’s view of the game (possibly) by writing a biased report on the event.  The site encourages you to “tell everyone  your side of the story.” There is no pretense of balanced journalism here.  Pure trash talking.  And while the games may not involve real players, the competition is most certainly real and the marriage of console and website only enhances the experience.  I get the same feeling looking at my dynasty sports page as I do from reading CNNSI on the web. My heart races as the page loads and I wait to see what’s new since the last time I visited my page.  To me, dynasty wire feels just as real as CNN or ESPN and provides the same inspiration to start a conversation or a debate as the mainstream sports outlets.

That’s the beauty of this new feature. In dynasty wire, you have the fanaticism of fantasy football and the connectivity of Facebook now combined to produce a service that is just too darn easy to access and obsess over.  For those gamers who love to tell a good yarn, the temptation can be too great to ignore.  I have already penned three or four trash-talking stories and the dynasty is only three weeks old (in game time that is).  Imagine when I have access to stories, images, video, and statistics from four or five seasons.  I may just become something like a sports journalist after all.  At least in the world of my online dynasty.

Categories: Social Media, Sports