My name is Ken Rosenberg. I am entering the fourth year of my doctoral program in the Telecommunications department at Indiana University. This blog was created with the intent to organize my thoughts, as well as to encourage consistent content production. Like you, I have many places to post my writing: social media networks (both casual and professional), department websites and school newspapers, other established blogs and websites—and, of course, the copious amount of journals and conferences, where academic writing is most respected. However, journals are not the place for idle thoughts, and others’ blogs do not neatly aggregate the writing of just one contributor. I hope that many of my future posts serve as drafts for publications, but much of what you’ll read here is more of a storyboard-like sketch of my research trajectory, rather than completely polished nuggets of knowledge.
I also intend the other pages of this website to serve as a public collection of my research. It is difficult to successfully break into a niche area of academic research, especially in such a pan-departmental endeavor as videogame studies. Furthermore, when leveraging multiple disciplines, it can be difficult to make a cohesive argument. I will use this website to create and detail my viewpoint, which will become a repository for me and a blueprint for others with similar interests.
Briefly, my interests lie at the intersection of communication and media studies, psychology, education, cognitive science, and game design. My major is in communications and I am minoring in cognitive science, but I also have a background in journalism and I’ve taken several classes in the School of Education here at IU. Each of these disciplines brings something different to the field of videogame studies, and all of them are important for my research.
So, what exactly is “my research” and why does it matter?
In defense of a having a mission.
Social scientists are interested in how individuals and groups create, moderate, and maintain their psychosocial reality, and how the multiple realities from myriad individuals and groups interact to create, moderate, and maintain larger groups and cultures. Put simply, in the jargon of everyday social science research, we are interested in people’s attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors. We study things like attitude formation and persuasion techniques. Often, the only explicit goal is to increase our understanding of human cognition and behavior, but there is always an underlying purpose to social science.
Just as other sciences seek to report, analyze, and eventually predict natural phenomena, social science is also charged with the mission of better predicting social phenomena—but even the goal of prediction suggests another implicit goal, a more proactive mission. We are not merely trying to understand the world, we are trying to make it better. We don’t research climate change merely to craft more accurate models. The goal, of course, is to research the problem so that we can find solutions. Granted, not all research is so strongly normative. Ethnographic research, for example, is almost purely an endeavor directed solely at understanding. Ethnographers spend a great deal of time unpacking their identities and those of their subjects, in order to eschew biased judgment (while simultaneously embracing diversity of perspective). However, even this research is constructive and not merely descriptive. Logically, the goal of increasing our cultural understanding is to foster a society which values cultural diversity and seeks to remedy social inequality.
If knowledge is power, then academics spend their careers building power—and it would be foolish to think that we do not, at the very least, have some ideals concerning the application of our research. Often, it is those ideals which direct us toward a particular niche in the first place. Media effects studies tend to use public service announcements to test theories of attention and attitude change, a strongly normative decision. We researched propaganda so that we could nullify its impact. We research agenda setting because we value our democracy and its marketplace of ideas. Sometimes, we do research without benevolent aspirations. like when persuasion research is leveraged to make better advertising campaigns. Still, even then, research is applied to the constructive and proactive shaping of society.
My mission, justified and explained.
I spend most of my time considering the motivations and justifications behind people’s social behavior. I am both fascinated and disturbed by the decision-making models of game theory. The Prisoner’s Dilemma and other coordination problems handily illustrate that even rational beings who would optimally cooperate are often led toward conflict instead of compromise—and that’s when people are assumed to be acting rationally. Albert Bandura, the man behind social learning theory, has also written extensively on the disengagement of moral agency and how people use contextual cues to justify antisocial behavior. Similarly, Phillip Zimbardo, the primary researcher for the infamous Stanford prison ‘experiment,’ says that when people are placed in bad situations, they adjust their standards accordingly. There is hope, though, because Zimbardo also says “there are no bad apples. There are good apples placed into bad barrels.” The implicit solution, then, is to provide people with contextual cues which promote prosocial behavior.
One of the most prominent goals of social science research is the promotion of prosocial behavior. There is plenty of literature on aggression and empathy, because we want to respectively curb and foster their resultant thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. Until somewhat recently, most research on the psychological effects of videogames was focused on how violent gameplay might lead to aggression. In the past decade or so, people have started to research the possible prosocial impact of videogames, including the potential for games to teach or foster empathy, perspective-taking, and reflection on social identity.
Games and learning is a fledgling field, but it is rapidly growing. It includes researchers, teachers, and game designers who are interested in the use of videogames as a mechanism for the embodied learning of systems thinking and other procedurally-generated expertise.
Games have goals, which necessitates the definition and recognition of success and failure states. By evaluating outcomes, games have the capacity to either promote or punish different actions. Despite being abstract models at their core, most games feature some sort of narrative which situates the player in a world that resembles our own reality. And, by virtue of having a situated narrative with normative outcomes, most of a player’s experience can be described as ethical—that is, as having the capacity to build the player’s ethical subjectivity (Sicart, 2009). Games, as interactive narratives, can serve as guided playgrounds in which players can learn reflective practice of their moral agency.
There are still many questions to answer concerning the application of videogames as tools to teach ethical subjectivity, questions like the following:
Is a violent in-game action a morally reprehensible act? If so, when and why?
If ethical decision-making is contextually situated, then are in-game choices a reliable measure of real-world ethical behavior?
How can game designers successfully balance overt instruction with emergent lessons?
Most games feature gameplay mechanics which simulate aggressive acts of conflict solution, and ethical play is about making players reflect on the ethical nature of their in-game behavior. So, are shooters, for example, a genre in which it is impossible to feature ethical play that is also enjoyable? In other words, how can game designers craft a narrative in which the shooting mechanic is enjoyable while still positioned as unethical?
Despite the many questions that remain, we do have some answers.
For example, we know that people—at least those told that they’re being observed in an experimental setting—typically try to act in games according to their personal code of ethics. We also know that their self-reported attitudes concerning certain moral foundations do, in fact, correlate to in-game behavior which reflects those same values (Weaver & Lewis, 2012).
We also know that contextual cues impact players’ moral assessment of in-game acts and that social cues can even have a priming effect on players’ decision-making (Hartmann & Vorderer, 2010; Weaver & Matthews, in press). This seems to work the same way in games that it does in reality. For example, making organ donation the default option on driver’s license applications greatly increases the number of organ donors—which isn’t really reflection, as much as it is optimizing the environment to elicit prosocial behavior from individuals (Gigerenzer, 2010). Still, this means that it is possible to create “good barrels” for people, both in games and reality. Perhaps by experiencing this in videogames, people could begin to reflection on their own situations. Maybe we can consciously strive to build good barrels for ourselves and others.
And there it is. I have faith that people can become more ethical agents by learning reflective practice of their own morality. This post should at least indicate how and why this is possible. It certainly seems like a plausible method for promoting prosocial behavior—and, on a small scale, ethical games played in a classroom setting have been shown to foster reflection on identity and ethics. Games like Modern Prometheus task grade-school players to make ethical decisions, and the accompanying discussion sessions and writing exercises reinforce the transformational play which results from the negotiation of a real and virtual identity (Barab, Gresalfi, & Ingram-Goble, 2010).
I am interested in the potential for these lessons to be instilled into commercial game design, which is culturally pervasive and doesn’t carry the stigma of institutional learning. Recently, I presented a Well Played paper which analyzes how TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead uses principles of good learning (Gee, 2003) to teach reflective awareness of moral agency.