University of Auckland research about how participants in multiplayer video games create and negotiate their experiences of narrative through online communities is not just a niche interest for game developers and programmers.

Dr Lawrence May, manager of the Digital Learning Team at the University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work, who conducted the research for his PhD thesis, says:

“Digital learning is a growing area, and a lot of what’s yet to come will be from these kinds of social media practices, and from communities of people who play games. Children are now arriving into schools and universities really digitally literate – because of a whole tapestry of digital practices in their lives, often including video games.”

“So, looking at digital culture and the ways that people interact within online communities is important to our understanding of both today’s and tomorrow’s students.”

May’s thesis forays into the under-explored research territory of multiplayer games and their storytelling. For his thesis, he conducted an analysis of three case study video games and a digital ethnography of their associated online player communities, based on data gathered over three years.

One of the important outcomes of May’s work is an understanding of the way players individually and communally experience, and help construct, emergent narrative experiences. These experiences develop organically during play sessions and are not anticipated or deliberately programmed by developers. This is captured in a framework he calls “the rules for emergence”, which identifies the layers of rules (coding, narrative, art design, etc.) that we should look at in a game to understand what may combine to generate emergent story.

May says that, while such experiences “feel like second nature” to players, it’s important to be able to “go back and unpack why things are happening and build rock-solid understandings that can be tested and reused”. Another result of May’s research has been the development of a view of how video games function as “texts” – as something that stretches beyond the game and into the game community itself.

“When you look at these online communities, you see users constantly negotiating the meaning of play experiences. They don’t just post one thing they did and then move on. People are commenting to one another, because they’re on social media or online forums, and continuing to develop the narrative meaning of that experience, and that game overall, for days and weeks after the original experience has happened and been shared.

“When players encounter a game for the 2nd, 3rd or 200th time, they’re not coming in cold, they’re coming in with all their previous experiences – but also everything they’ve engaged with online. We start to see the video game text, with emergence at the heart, as a cyclical process, with its meaning constantly shifting. That excites me!”

The Interactive Games and Entertainment Association report, Digital New Zealand 2018, confirms that games continue to rise in popularity throughout New Zealand: 96 percent of New Zealanders play video games and the average age of video game players is 34. Further, according to the report, “most players (72 percent) celebrate their enjoyment of games through others in the community by reading or watching the strategies of others through wikis, videos and walkthroughs (72%). Others extend their gameplay further by creating content for the enjoyment of those who want to read and watch.”

“When we talk about games in totalising terms, or we subscribe to media moral panics about what games are ‘doing’ to our kids, we’re losing out on looking at the really rich, varied and surprising experiences of gaming. We also risk missing out on the fact that kids from really young ages now, all the way through to adults, are developing all sorts of interesting kinds of knowledge and practices in these environments.”

May says that in an increasingly digitally engaged society, we can’t afford to not know what’s happening in online game spaces.

“The whole complex learning environment that people are in is growing and it’s way more informal and ad hoc than we maybe are aware of, so it’s important as educators to keep our eye on what kinds of practice are growing in those communities.”

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