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A detailed historical overview of academic research into video games looking at virtual worlds, economics, and media studies, with a reccurring focus on sustainability and social justice [OC / Research].

Gamingtodaynews1b - A detailed historical overview of academic research into video games looking at virtual worlds, economics, and media studies, with a reccurring focus on sustainability and social justice [OC / Research].
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Part 1 – Exploring the research potential of video games: Influential papers from a generation ago, and a snapshot of the research landscape today.

Around 13 years ago the American sociologist William Bainbridge wrote a paper on The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds (2007). The paper argued that virtual worlds warranted serious attention from the academic community, primarily because they offer new and powerful ways to study human behaviour.

Drawing insight from the largest and most successful virtual worlds around at the time, the paper focused on the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, and the virtual world of Second Life. Although 13 years is a lifetime in terms of video game development – much of the video gaming landscape has changed since the paper was published in 2007 – most of the observations made then are still useful today. Bainbridge identified features of virtual worlds that make them ideal for scientific use, and those same features exist in almost all virtual worlds today: every interaction and event can be systematically tracked, the environment is modifiable and controllable, and players or inhabitants exhibit behaviours that approximate or even emulate real-world social behaviour. These and other factors, he argued, made them an attractive proposition for a wide range of academic study from economics to sociology.

Bainbridge himself was evidently aware that the landscape he observed back then was about to undergo dramatic change, presciently describing the transition of gaming into a broader cultural and economic movement:

'The present moment marks a major historical transition. Video games and computer games are in the process of evolving into something much richer, namely virtual worlds, at the same time that electronic games are surpassing the motion picture industry in dollar terms and beginning to cut into television.' (Bainbridge, The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds, 2007, p. 472)

Today, the games industry generates around US$150 billion annually, over three times as much as the film industry (approximately US$42.5 billion annually) (Stewart, 2019). The economic dominance predicted in 2007 has clearly come to pass in the intervening years. But what of the other claim about the evolution of gaming into “something much richer, namely virtual worlds”? Since this cannot be quantifiably tracked like the other claim it is more difficult to verify or disprove, but there is an argument that can be made to support it.

Internet bandwidth and access is increasing at the same that computer technology continues to improve in capability. Meanwhile, the games industry and the titles it creates continue to grow in diversity and sophistication. Against this backdrop of associated increases in computational power, software capabilities, and IT/Telecom infrastructure, the concept of multiplayer gaming has become mainstream, a common feature to video games. In many cases, this multiplayer element has expanded to include online spaces that could be considered virtual worlds with comparable features to those Bainbridge studied.

Although many of these virtual worlds lack the scope, sophistication, and player freedom that purpose-built creations like Second Life and World of Warcraft offer, they are still roughly comparable, and most importantly, they share many of the same features that would make them ideal for academic study.

As a quick aside some might consider interesting: the apparent decline of the popularity of MMORPGs has occurred in this same time period. One could argue that as regular games have increasingly added multiplayer features and transitioned to providing virtual world experiences, they have cannibalised the player base that previously sought these features out in MMORPGs. The trend of providing “MMO-lite” experiences in these games could be one factor in the apparent declining popularity of MMORGPGs. In a way then, Bainbridge’s prediction was both wrong and right: virtual worlds have indeed proliferated, but not through the growth of the MMORPG genre, as he seems to have expected – or at least not yet. Instead, virtual worlds have proliferated so far through the growing ubiquity of online gameplay elements that increasingly have similar features to the larger-scale virtual worlds he studied in 2007.

Like most academics, Bainbridge was building on previous work. He is not alone in seeing games and virtual worlds as fertile ground for academic study. Two years prior, the American economist Edward Castronova published an influential and widely cited book Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (2005). In his 2007 paper, Bainbridge summarized the book in support of his own argument:

'Economist Edward Castronova argues that an increasing fraction of human life, economy, and culture will take place in these novel environments, so they need to be studied as important phenomena in their own right.' (Bainbridge, The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds, 2007, p. 474)

Academic interest in games and virtual worlds has certainly flourished since the time these works were published, and interest seems to be growing further still today. Bainbridge’s original paper on the research potential of virtual worlds has been cited an impressive number of times (over 1,200) and tracking through on all of those citations reveals a diverse range of research from the social sciences, to education, to public health, and beyond.

Despite this, much of the research since has also often been quite narrowly focused. Within the field of economics, for example, much of the literature is focused on consumer behaviour as it relates to virtual goods economies. This issue is highlighted and explained in a much more recent 2019 paper, From the Hands of an Early Adopter’s Avatar to Virtual Junkyards: Analysis of Virtual Goods’ Lifetime Survival, by computer scientist Kamil Bortko, and other authors from the game-focused Finnish multidisciplinary research outfit Gamification Group (GG):

‘Virtual worlds and games have been postulated to provide unprecedented possibilities for research in general, but especially for the study of economics due to their ability to systematically track every event in that reality, but also due to the possibility of creating controllable environments while having people exhibit natural behaviours.'

'Perhaps one of the most prominent veins of study related to virtual economies has been the study of consumer behaviour related to adopting and purchasing virtual goods in virtual worlds and games. This has especially been the case since games and virtual world operators have been the forerunners in implementing the so-called freemium or free-to-play business model, where playing or using the virtual environment is free of charge, but the operator generates revenue through different manifold marketing strategies combining classical sales tactics imbued with platform design that further encourages virtual-goods purchases.’ (Bortko, Pazura, Hamari, Bartków, & Jankowski, 2019, p. 1)

The scenery painted here is one I recognize. I have spent the past few months trawling through journal databases searching for academic journal articles on virtual goods, and the vast majority of them seem to be focused largely on economic issues. Further narrowing the literature, the analysis is often focused internally on in-game (or in-world) socio-economic behaviour. It is easy to find any number of articles examining why people buy virtual goods, for example, but it is much harder to find articles examining what economic differences exist between virtual and physical goods consumption, let alone an article about the social or ecological implications of replacing physical product consumption with virtual goods sales.

Going further, it is far less common to find articles that attempt to extrapolate from studied behaviour in virtual worlds to say something about the real world beyond it. Similarly, it is difficult to find the sorts of studies Bainbridge and others envisaged all those years ago, where game environments themselves act as a kind of digital petri dish that can be used for a range of studies. It may be helpful to provide some examples of what this “other research” looks like. Firstly, a hypothetical example of games as a petri dish:

Examples of novel games research.

For decades now, the Centre for Disease Control could have been using gamers and other virtual world inhabitants as guinea pigs for epidemiological studies, quietly and harmlessly infecting them with digital viruses and studying how they spread across different virtual environments where they can be easily and systematically tracked, controlled, where experiments are easily reset, repeated, duplicated, and so on. In the current global pandemic, the relevance and utility of such studies is hopefully readily apparent, but hypotheticals like this are only so useful and easily conjured when one does not have to answer hard questions like where the research funding comes from. Facebook’s infamous psychology experiment with its userbase highlights other difficulties of using virtual environments as petri dishes for social science experiments – the ethics of invisible experimentation that has negative real-world consequences being a key concern in this instance (Gibbs, 2014).

Although there is a seeming scarcity of research that pushes beyond internal analysis of virtual goods consumption, the papers that do are illuminating and can provide concrete examples of what I imagine the broader academic discourse around video games could provide.

Returning first to Bainbridge, he published another important paper three years after the one previously discussed. His 2010 paper, Virtual Sustainability, provides convincing arguments for further academic study into the potential sustainability benefits of virtual worlds. One of the four main arguments he makes I have already touched on briefly:

'First, by moving conspicuous consumption and other usually costly status competitions into virtual environments, these virtual worlds might reduce the need for physical resources.' (Bainbridge, Virtual Sustainability, 2010, p. 3195)

Replacing physical goods with virtual goods is a relatively simple concept to understand and study, yet the potential ecological benefits of this behaviour – which is already occurring on an economically and culturally significant scale – remain largely unknown. An area of interest identified by an influential academic a decade ago, and one of pertinence in an era of growing environmental concerns, has not received all that much attention since.

Two further examples of research that looks beyond internal economic analysis of virtual goods consumption are David Sheldon’s legal analysis of virtual goods in Claiming Ownership, but Getting Owned: Contractual Limitations on Asserting Property Interests in Virtual Goods (2007), and Edward Castronova’s Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier (2001).

Sheldon’s paper examines the legal status of virtual goods across different games and according to different national laws. He paints the picture of a broadly anti-consumer environment where virtual goods enjoy far less legal protections than comparable real-world items or property:

'Participants make sizable investments of social, human, and economic capital in these virtual worlds, often with the questionable expectation that the items they have collected and creations they have developed are their property… While there are some small differences from agreement to agreement in the commensurability of virtual goods and in the ability of participants to recognize profit from their virtual creations, the agreements consistently give providers the plenary ability to impose sanctions on participants and to change the terms of the agreements. This uncertainty severely curtails the ability of participants to enjoy the fruits of their investments.' (Sheldon, 2007, p. 751)

Sheldon’s research demonstrates the possibilities of academics contributing to a discourse that has significant implications for the future of virtual worlds – our legal rights within them specifically. Even if the focus remains fixed on virtual goods, as it is here, this work shows that there is clearly more to research here than just the economics and psychology of consumer behaviour. The legal status of virtual goods could easily become a critical issue in the coming decades as virtual worlds grow, and an ‘increasing fraction of human life’ occupies them, as Castronova accurately predicted.

Speaking of which, Castronova’s 2001 paper Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier is another example of novel research. It provided an innovative comparative analysis of the economy in the MMORPG EverQuest with real-world economies. The in-game unit of currency was shown to have an exchange value higher than the Japanese Yen, with player’s nominal hourly wage based on in-game activity calculated at USD 3.42 an hour, higher than many countries around the world at the time (and to this day). This study, which extrapolated activity from the virtual world and applied it to the real one, has many implications. For one, can we provide inclusive and fair work for people in these virtual worlds? Sheldon’s work on the precarious legal status of virtual goods become even more relevant when asking such questions; if the product of labour in virtual worlds is not considered legal property of the creator, then what hope is there for a just economy in this brave new digital world? I feel as though there should be a wealth of literature seeking to answer such questions, but I have struggled to locate it so far.

Castronova’s comparative snapshot of real and virtual economies was taken in 1999, and his paper was widely cited and influential. Despite this, there does not seem to be a great wealth of research that continued in this vein in the decades since. The role of virtual world economies within the larger global economy remains an under-discussed point, somewhat paradoxically, despite growing technological and cultural interconnectedness, growing wealth and income inequality, and explosive growth in virtual world economies. As Castronova described in 2001, virtual world economies were predicted to generate US$1.5 billion by 2004. Today, the virtual economy generates US$100 billion annually, and involves 2.5 billion people. At the time of writing this, the virtual economy is acting as a much-welcomed safe haven during a global pandemic that forces social isolation, and for this reason its growth is likely to accelerate even further as we rethink our approaches to remote work and telecommuting (Daniel, 2020).

The role the virtual economy can, and does, play in creating a more sustainable world represents another area that appears to be under-researched. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals include poverty elimination, sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and sustainable consumption and production. These focal points of the global sustainable development agenda can likely be helped by research into a virtual goods economy that continues to grow in economic and cultural importance, while also offering virtual environments that can facilitate unique experimental methodologies. So far, I’ve struggled to find many sustainability scholars tying together the various dots I’ve been laying out before you that are begging for connection: the legal problems Sheldon described, into the socio-cultural movement Castronova predicted, the research opportunities Bainbridge identified so long ago. It seems there is a lot of work to be done academically when it comes to games and sustainability, or that I have more work to do finding the relevant research. Perhaps it is a bit of both.

To be fair, there is still a lot more trawling of databases ahead for me. I have only a snapshot myself of the academic literature in this field. As I search more, my opinions here may change. This is just a general feeling I have had while searching for and reading papers so far. Academic research on consumer behaviour is clearly useful in generating revenue for the creators of video games and virtual worlds, as well as guiding their financial and corporate strategies. This could help explain why much of the research I have encountered so far is focused in that area, and why it is only more recently – after this economy has become well and truly established – that we’re starting to see new avenues of inquiry reminiscent of the kind envisaged by people who predicted the trends we’re experiencing now over a decade ago.

Although the argument so far has largely focused on virtual goods and economics, the same pattern of narrowly targeted academic interest in video games can be seen in other fields, such as research into gaming and media. Outlining all of that is a separate essay in itself.


Part 2: An overview of academic interest in games as a form of media, an examination of the gaming “media ecology”, and a look at how games and gamification can be a positive influence.

Research into the impact of gaming and its relationship with society is still a relatively young field in academia, and is consequently lacking the depth, diversity, and sophistication of more established areas in communications research. The largest and most well-established area of games media analysis reflects the same historical trends as that of the first media effects studies, which originated at the turn of the century through to the 1930s (McQuail, 2009).

This earliest line of inquiry was typified by a focus on negative impacts, individual attitudes, and a scope of investigation limited to the short term. It was ultimately challenged; seen as lacking in sophistication of analysis and being generally unscientific in nature. Despite these lessons from the past, games media research has seemed intent on repeating that history during this last decade or so. Specifically, games media research (and indeed, games media) has traditionally limited itself to investigations that focus on negative, short-term, and simplistic cause-effect relationships, or what Balnaves et. al (2008) describe as ‘the one-step model of media influence’ (p. 60). McQuail (2009), in charting the broader history of academic research into media and communications, characterized this as the ‘first phase’ of media effects research, one that viewed the media as an all-powerful influencer of public opinion, belief, and action.

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There is, for example, an abundance of academic research and wider media coverage related to violence and video gaming, with various studies purporting to show (or conversely, disprove) a causal link between exposure to gaming and violent behaviour. Considine (2012) and Strausburger (2014) offer good overviews of the research. Yet even in this field – the most widely published area of all media effects studies into gaming – the research is quite limited. Commenting on the ongoing debate around these causal links, a recent attempt to summarize the body of research lamented the dearth of convincing data in the following way:

'Part of the problem may be that the video game research is neither as voluminous nor quite as convincing as the older media violence research. For example, there are very few studies on video games, particularly first-person shooters, and criminal behaviour.' (Strasburger & Donnerstein, 2014, p. 721)

Why is academic research repeating past histories in media effects analysis? Why is it, more broadly, so lacking in overall research volume? How can we reconcile this with the obvious economic and sociocultural importance of gaming media, and its globe-spanning reach and influence? Why is gaming’s relationship with society largely a story of delegitimization?

The war for relevance: Games as a serious topic of research and media coverage.

One obvious answer to this academic and media ‘lag’ relates to a new dichotomy outlined by Cameron and Carroll (2004) who describe games researchers as ‘an older generation of “digital immigrants”, forced to adapt to rapid changes in digital technology’ (p. 63).

An even larger part of the answer to these questions lies in the ongoing war that video games wage for relevance. Simply put, video games are not seen as a serious area of research for many in academia, nor as a serious topic for discussion and analysis by other elements of the media, including many ‘games journalists’ situated within the industry itself (Kain, 2013). The dominant, hegemonic narrative, both within academia and the wider media environment, is that games are purely an ‘entertainment product’. Keogh (2015) describes the narrative in this way:

‘…a popular connotation of “videogames” as “entertainment products” rather than “art form” persists even today. Whereas cinema, literature, dance, music, and theatre can all be either entertainment product or serious and political artwork (or both), videogames have historically struggled to be considered by a broader culture as capable of serious, political messages.’

This trend has recently seen something of a reversal. Describing the growing seriousness of political messages in games, and the diversity of reception these games have received, Eurogamer discusses Why we now talk about politics in games so much (Hetfeld, 2019):

Games now seem pretty intertwined with politics, but they always were. Often when we think politics, we think politicians – from discussions about game addiction, especially during the height of the WoW boom, to loot boxes and the sheer endless back-and-forth on the topic of whether or not shooters cause real-world violence, politicians have taken an interest in games whenever it became obvious that games are a large force in people's lives.

And that is also exactly what makes politics an important aspect of games; the general awareness that many of us play them, causing video games to grow to a billion dollar industry, and the fact that when people create stories, any kind of stories, they extrapolate from human experience. Politics as a term is multifaceted and applies to any construct that aids or governs how people live with each other. Games too, even if they're not about the French Revolution or shouting "Objection!" in a courtroom, are about the fundamental rights of and duties to people we want politics to achieve: we want to live together. What cultural products like games do is to look at why this is difficult, even if they often suggest that shooting someone in the face is a viable solution.

…Games have reached a level of graphical and overall technical realism so high it's only natural to tell relevant stories with the virtual characters who look so much like us. That's a great thing – it's a way to chart not only how games have changed, but how the perception of games is changing, too: the people who play games make a larger percentage of the overall population than ever before. Gaming is part of the larger cultural fabric. (Hetfeld, 2019)

In a sense, the saying “demographics is destiny” might apply here – as games increasingly become an economic and cultural force, they will come to reflect political and other discourse with increasing sophistication. Although there is perhaps a growing trend towards games as more serious political or social commentaries (or as cultural expressions with their own values), there are nonetheless still barriers to games being taken seriously, and by extension, to academic interest in this field. Indeed, the growing acceptance of gaming and its inclusion in the mainstream can itself be problematic.

O’Shaughnessy & Stadler’s (2008) work on the concept of ‘incorporation’ offers a helpful lens through which to view and understand the delegitimization of gaming as a serious body of research, work of art, political expression, social commentary, etc. Games represent a radical challenge to traditional forms of narrative construction and storytelling; they provide a level of interactivity impossible in other mediums and empower their audience in ways that ‘old-world’ media cannot. The games industry as a whole embraces equally radical innovations and disruptions, such as consumer-driven publication models (crowdfunding), and consumer-created content (‘modding’ and player-driven ‘sandbox’ gameplay).

Despite the radical nature of games media, it is ‘allowed some space in the media and thus made acceptable … in other words accommodated, or incorporated within society in such a way as to defuse radical potential’ (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008, pp. 204-5). This analysis helps us understand how, despite gaming media’s increasing dominance, it often remains only trivially discussed in mainstream mass media, and largely under-researched in academic fields.

This also helps explain why it is most commonly within ‘new media’ – online platforms like YouTube and Twitch that operate independently from the traditional mainstream – where serious games journalism thrives, and sophisticated analyses and representations of gaming can be found in abundance. Finally, it informs an understanding of why it is these relatively younger, more progressive media organizations, typically from the nascent Fifth Estate, that take most seriously the idea of critical commentary and research.

As an example of this, it is difficult to imagine something like Joseph Anderson’s body of work emerging from any place other than YouTube, a platform that caters perfectly to his goal of providing extended, in-depth analysis of game narrative and design. His commentary videos often run longer than most feature films (his most recent is over four hours long), but with almost 500,000 subscribers and millions of views of his videos, he has clearly demonstrated, like many others, a demand for a new kind of media featuring extended commentary and analysis.

It bears mentioning, briefly, the implications for education and academia here. Academic research is largely drawn from peer-reviewed studies, published in academic journals. That process is competitive, slow, arduous, and at times subverted by conflicting political and economic interests that arise from a ‘publish or perish’ culture. When academics at universities are themselves required (and also require their own students) to draw almost exclusively from the apparently optimal academic pool of knowledge in their own work on games research, they impose a problematically narrow constraint that places primacy on a still growing and still largely impoverished area, while effectively delegitimizing the vast amounts of excellent analyses within the broader media ecology. This is an example of how ‘other’ media is ‘incorporated’, and only ‘allowed some space’ (emphasis added) (O'Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2008, pp. 204-5). Within this context, gaming analysis exists at the fringe of media, and would likely be considered unacceptable as a reference for many types of academic publication. This kind of institutionalized indifference (if not hostility) may also help to account for the dearth of academic progress in video games studies more generally.

Referring back to O’Shaughnessy & Stadler (2008), it is important to emphasize that these new media outlets are not part of the dominant ideology or narrative. What differentiates them is that they do not seek to ‘incorporate’ games media or its discourse, but rather, embrace it as a serious topic of conversation. This conflict, and the way that traditional media represents gaming, tells us a great deal about its uneasy status as a disruptive newcomer within the broader media discourse, and within society as a whole.

Games media and society: A story of disruption, innovation, and new media ecologies.

Despite emulating or “aping” traditional media at times, video game media is radically different in important ways to other forms of traditional mass media. One key to this difference relates to interactivity and the expectations of ‘control’ this has created. This difference is explored in-depth throughout the book The Ecology of Games (Bogost, et al., 2008). The book takes a broad scope: looking at games as ‘systems’ that exist within a wider ‘media ecology’. Within this ecology, users participate not only as gamers, but also as ‘producers and learners’. Their participation and engagement creates entirely new forms of social organization, thought, and interaction (Bogost, et al., 2008).

Underlying this analysis is the idea of games media as being uniquely different through the radical shifts it creates in consumer empowerment. In their forward to the book, Ito et al. (2008) provide a detailed overview of this difference:

‘The shift toward interactive media, peer-to-peer forms of media communication, and many-to-many forms of distribution relate to types of participation that are more bottom-up and driven by the “user” or “consumer” of media. Audiences have always had the opportunity to “talk back” to corporate media or to create their own local media forms. However, the growing dominance of gaming as a media format, the advent of low-cost digital production tools, and online distribution means a much more dynamic range in who participates and how they participate in the production and distribution of media. Gamers expect that media are subject to player control.’ (Ito, et al., p. viii)

The utilization of ‘low-cost digital production tools’ in the creation of novel types of games media is perfectly exemplified by Felix Kjellberg’s (aka PewDiePie’s) YouTube empire and the countless other “streamers” like him. Kjellberg is both gamer and producer. The notion of ‘producer’ here entails his role as an independent broadcaster with a direct connection to his audience. As a participant in games media, he not only takes control of the games he plays, but also of the broader media genre in which he operates. His audience is similarly empowered; the act of watching provides (via YouTube’s monetization scheme) funding to their chosen media provider and thus, to an extent, they exert control over the modes and types of production within the gaming media landscape.

In terms of a wider social impact – one affecting more than just YouTube viewers – what this analysis demonstrates is a newfound compatibility with consumerism, media and public problems. The problems of concentrated media ownership, as outlined by Murdock (1992) are cast in a new light:

‘Whilst the exercise of citizenship presupposes collective action in pursuit of equality and fraternity- as well as of individual liberty, the ideology of consumerism encourages people to seek private solutions to public problems by purchasing a commodity. It urges them to buy their way out of trouble rather than pressing for social change and improved social provision.’ (p. 19)

Murdock’s view is that a neoliberal, capitalist model of media is incompatible with social change and social provisions because it undermines citizenship and civic participation. In his view this is because it inevitably concentrates power in the hands of the few and creates economic and cultural hegemonies that subvert democratic values (framed in his essay as ‘national cultures’). He decries the emerging technology of his time (satellite and cable television) despite its promises of decentralization and plurality, claiming that ‘multiplicity does not guarantee diversity. More does not always mean different’ (Murdock, 1992, p. 20)

Murdock, of course, wrote in a ‘media ecology’ far less diverse than today’s. More recent academic research may to undermine his assertions, even as the neoliberal capitalist model continues to enjoy widespread global support. Senft (2013) describes the opportunities afforded to people like Kjellberg in the following way:

‘…whatever condition capitalism itself is in, opportunities to make and distribute media within capitalist markets exist as never before. Even more interesting, at the very same time that job markets appear to be shrinking and exclusionary, cultural notions about notoriety, celebrity and fame appear to be expanding and inclusive, thanks in part to the rise in relatively recent media formats such as … personalized broadcast “channels” on sites such as YouTube’ (p. 349).

The broader media landscape outlined above, the dizzying plurality and diversity of the games media ecology, and the empowerment of participants as both gamers and producers show that despite Murdock’s concerns, there are clearly social and other benefits to these new media formats, the gaming media ecology very much included. Going further, there is increasing academic interest in the way games can act as a driver of positive social outcomes, and even more broadly, how the mechanics of games can be applied to other areas that have nothing to do with games or playing, but still provide a desired outcome.

Games media as a vehicle for social good.

‘Gamification’ represents an exceptionally broad and promising areas of games media and academic study. It provides numerous examples of gaming extending far beyond its traditional representation. ‘Gamification’ is the application of gaming principles and mechanics to traditionally non-ludological areas. Although the focus of gamification is on “traditionally non-ludological areas” (i.e. not on video games or gaming), there has equally been a rise in the genre of “serious games” that have explicit educational, academic, or social good focuses. As the CEO of the America’s peak games industry body stated: ‘games that once purely entertained now solve pressing global challenges and push society in new, exciting directions’ (Entertainment Software Association, 2014, p. 3).

In 2008, scientists at the University of Washington developed an online multiplayer puzzle game (FoldIt) where players had to fold proteins and solve real-world problems. In her article covering the wider positive societal impacts of gaming, Marigo Raftopoulos (2014) described the profound breakthrough that gamification afforded:

‘The problem of how to configure the structure of an enzyme, M-PMV retroviral protease – a challenge that had stumped scientists for 15 years – was solved in just 10 days after it was presented to 240,000 FoldIt players in 2011. This has been a keystone example of how the combination of a multiplayer games, crowd-sourcing and distributed computing can be used as a new and innovative form of collaborative research and problem solving.’

Wider academic research into gamification and positive health outcomes is an emerging field. As Primack et al. (2012) outline: ‘there is potential promise for video games to improve health outcomes, particularly in the areas of psychological therapy and physical therapy’ (p. 2).

Gamification extends beyond public health, however. The application of gamification principles and design has been used in Sweden to encourage drivers to obey speed limits (NPR, 2011). The tremendously popular app Khan Academy has gamified the process of education and helped break down barriers to learning (Sinha, 2012). This gamification of learning presents a particularly promising approach to social problems. Meanwhile, mainstream games with broad commercial appeal also demonstrate educational capabilities. The game Kerbal Space Program uses gamification to teach its audience the intricacies of space travel, including orbital mechanics and astrophysics. Recognizing the opportunities for public outreach and education, NASA involved itself in the game’s development (White, 2014).

Even more broadly, gamification can be argued to represent a new approach to ‘positive framing’ within mass media. As McKay et al. (2011) argue:

‘Framing theory recognizes the role of news frames in directing attention of audiences to particular explanations and courses of action. Frames are seen as having a considerable influence on the way in which audiences understand and respond to issues and events. Framing theory suggests that media framing can impact how audiences feel about an issue’ (p. 612).

The subtle presence of gamification and positive framing can be seen within traditional mass media, in TV shows such as The Biggest Loser where the stigmatized issue of obesity is re-framed to be more socially acceptable through the gamification of weight loss. The ability of games and virtual worlds to directly situate players within specific environments, specific historical and social contexts, and do so in immersive, experiential ways, suggests that framing in games media could play an important role in affecting social change, for example by building acceptance of new ideas through new narrative experiences and virtual world designs.

The evidence of games media’s growing importance is clear. Communications research into games media will likely become increasingly important, and diversified, despite problematic historical trends in research and media coverage. Promising areas of research are emerging. Games and new media are increasingly promoting diversity and sophistication of discourse through novel methodologies, and that bodes well for this area.

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