Discuss recent developments in new gaming platforms. Analyse trends in online gaming, mobile and casual gaming.
As Dovey and Kennedy argue in Game Cultures, “the post-Playstation era has seen the game console become a ubiquitous part of the Western domestic media economy” (Dovey and Kennedy 2006: 2). Recent developments in gaming platforms have seen the console play an increasingly important role in, for example, formations of identity, concepts of space and sociality. In this essay, I will focus firstly on trends in mobile gaming, considering issues such as mobile networking, media convergence and the increase in casual gaming. I then turn my attention to online gaming, looking at trends such as increasing professionalisation. Finally, I conclude by suggesting what is at stake in these technical developments is a shift in what Dovey and Kennedy call ‘technicity’ or how our identity is formed in relation to technology.
One major development in recent gaming is the rise of mobile platforms. As Parikka and Suominen argue:
The gaming industry as well as the mobile phone business has been pushing mobile games as the next bestseller in digital culture with a rhetorical combination of technological evolution and revolution. (Parikka and Suominen 2006: 1)
According to their argument, while game manufacturers propose this rhetoric of newness, “mobile games are claimed to provide a completely different experience from any previous experiences” (1), developments in mobile gaming technologies can actually be traced back to 19th Century origins and models such as the reading of books on long train journeys (7). On one hand, I can share their scepticism in the revolutionary claims of mobile game marketing and understand their argument that such obsessive focus on the new can lead to the forgetting of history or what they call “amnesiac modernism” (2). On the other hand however, Parikka and Sumoninen’s approach can be seen to be equally reductive. In a determination to prove that all new technology can be traced back in its historical origins, they make the mistake of falling into easy equivalences, which don’t account for the possibility of anything new actually happening. They argue for example that, “the boy and girl are immersed in a space war game they are playing, just like their grandparents were immersed in the written mobile entertainment of the nineteenth century” (11). This is clearly not the case however. While there may be similarities, to suggest that new mobile technology is just like the nineteenth century telegraph misses the point. In more practical terms, it is an interesting development of other forms of the gaming experience, engaging with trends such as networking, hybridisation, convergence, ‘episodisation’ and market fluidity, which I will consider in my essay.
The European Commission financed MGAIN project defined mobile entertainment as:
Any leisure activity undertaken via a personal technology which is, or has the potential to be, networked and facilitates transfer of data over geographic distance
(MGAIN 2003: 10).
It is this ‘networking’ potential of mobile entertainment, which is also given as one of the “recent market trends” in the IGDA Mobile Games White Paper (IGDA 2005: 7). Here “improved network capability” (8) is given as a reason for the success of mobile gaming, allowing the improvement of games, driven by improvements in technology. Some effects of these developments in networking technologies are wide-ranging. Timo Kopomaa, for example, has argued that the mobile phone offers a new experience of space, “a new place, a third place, between the private and the public” (cited in Parikka and Suominen 2006: 9). Mobiles use networking capabilities to explore different conceptions of space to conventional home gaming experiences. If the user is mobile and connected to other mobile users, then there is potential for games that exploit this overlap between virtual and actual spaces. Botfighters (2001), a game where users have to retrieve information from real-life locations, is an example of a trend in ‘pervasive gaming’ or games which use urban space as part of their gameworld, serving both to challenge the definition of conventional ‘game-space’ and to effect the way users experience the urban space around them. Conventionally, mobile gaming experiences have been based on the private experience of filling time when users have no access to other games, “mobile gaming remedies moments of boredom” (Seppanen, cited in Parikka and Suominen 2006: 9). Developments in networking capabilities on the other hand, allow mobile games to use their portability more fully as an advantage, connecting users in a mobile, fluid community whose points are always shifting and interacting.
Mobile gaming offers new challenges, and potential new revenue, for the games industry, but it also offers many problems for new innovative products. As Steve Palley lists:
Poor merchandising on mobile decks throws the commercial advantage to big brands; the mobile audience overwhelmingly prefers familiar gameplay styles; and carrier representatives are naturally skeptical of new ideas (Palley 2008: 1)
As the IGDA white paper shows, some trends in the mobile market, such as “traditional video game publishers jump in” (IGDA 2005: 7) and the “increased availability of games” (7) have made it difficult for original IP to succeed on the mobile platform. Palley gives the case study of the Surviving High School series as a rare example of a game that does succeed. To achieve this it had to understand a lot about trends in the industry. There is a different market for example from console games, “[the mobile game market] skews toward non-gamers and women” (Palley 2008: 2). For Surviving High School, a change in title addressed this market difference. The shift towards non-gamers suggests the importance of casual gaming, or more simple games aimed at a mass audience, in the mobile game industry. Another innovation was to introduce new content in episodic form, which became a major success, “If CentreScore got players hooked on the main scenario, the supplementary episodes would help the game retain subscribers for longer periods of time” (4). Surviving High School was the product of long processes of experimentation and hybridization, eventually combining some RPG elements with other factors, which were more directed towards the mass market. Another factor of the game’s success suggests another important trend – that of convergence with other media forms, in this case social networking sites. The game writers hosted and managed a MySpace page and according to Palley, “the page became so popular with SHS fans that it turned into a permanent hub for content and discussion; CentreScore still consults it on a regular basis for fan feedback” (6).
The Surviving High School and Botfighters examples can be seen as illustrative of many trends in mobile gaming. However, these trends aren’t limited to the mobile sector, and can also apply to other forms of gaming. Networking has of course been massively important in online games, allowing players to connect across space and engage in multiplayer gaming experiences. Research by Jeppe Bo Pedersen finds that, in his survey group, multiplayers are the most popular form of game, “84% [of his sample of professional gamers] prefer to play games in multiplayer environments and they seem to be more focused on the act of multiplayer gaming than who they play with” (Pedersen 2006: 3). This suggests that multiplayer games don’t necessarily have to be marketed in terms of a way for social groups to get together, as people will network with and compete with strangers. There are problems with this however, as is pointed out in the IGDA White Paper on Online and Downloadable Games, “skill-based game tournament providers still have to address player concerns about competing in tournaments against other game players they don’t know” (IGDA 2004: 21). Problems such as matching up skill levels become more of an issue for casual gamers, away from Pedersen’s focus on professional gamers. As the White Paper asks, “Will casual skill-based gaming move from a niche audience to mainstream? (20)” and its answer is uncertain. This intersection between casual and more serious gamers is another trend evident in both mobile and online sectors.
Pedersen’s research focuses more on the converse trend to casual gaming – the professionalisation of online gaming. According to his figures, many gamers are driven to put in the hours playing in order to improve their skills and compete in professional competitions, “98% [of his sample] want to become professionals” (5). It must be noted here that he takes his data from a survey hosted by Framfab, “seeking to characterise a possible new breed of sport stars” (1), and as he points out this focus on ‘professional gamers’ skews his data towards younger and dedicated multiplayer gamers. Within this sample however, there are interesting trends that emerge, 80% of people meet online (rather than in real-life) suggesting that perhaps marketing should focus more on online environments. The most popular game-genre is the ‘first-person shooter’ such as Quake or Counterstrike. They offer varying opinions on the increasing professionalisation of online gaming ranging from excitement at prize money, to worries over commercialization and sponsorship.
It becomes increasingly hard to separate gaming into categories, home-console, mobile, casual and online for example, as there are increasing areas of overlap. As I discussed in relation to mobile games, recent advertising for home consoles such as the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS has also taken into account the fluidity and expansion of the console market by aiming products specifically at older and female gamers. Emerging platforms suggest the possibility of fewer barriers between different types of console, promoting areas of convergence not only between online, casual and mobile gaming, but also other media forms and technologies. Apple’s iphone for example may offer the potential for mobile online gaming, aimed at the casual gamer as well as the more ‘professionalised’. It could then combine these features with, say, photo or video technology, which is not generally used exclusively for gaming purposes. These constant processes of hybridisation can be seen as part of a broader shift in how we move and relate to technology and the world around us. Dovey and Kennedy introduce the concept of ‘technicity’:
Technicity refers to that part of our identity formed and expressed through our relationships with, and competencies in, technology. To be subjects within the privileged twenty first century is to be increasingly caught up in a network of technically and mechanically mediated relationships with others who share the same tastes/attitudes, pleasures and preferences. Technicity is thus an important site of cultural hegemony in the 21st Century through which new formations of dominance and alterity are generated. (Dovey and Kennedy 2006:17)
According to this concept, the way we relate to technology is vital in the formation of our identity, and in contesting power relations that shape and define us. This illustrates what is at stake in developments in gaming technologies. Trends I have analysed in this essay, including the development of networking, shifts in concepts of space and sociality, are all part of the way identity is shifting and forming. If, as Dovey and Kennedy argue, it is a site of dominance, then it must also be a site of contestation, as we can also use gaming technologies to define ourselves against dominant norms. All of this suggests, that as gaming is a vital element in new media, then there needs to be a specifity of language in order to analyse and create a new field of study:
Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonizing attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again. And again, until computer game studies emerges as a clearly self-sustained academic field. (Espen Aarseth, cited in Merrin 2007: 6)
One potential way for this field to develop is, as I have done here, to look at trends in the gaming sectors themselves, analyse developments of gaming platforms, and develop concepts appropriate for understanding the rapid shifts in technicity occurring all around us now.
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