Gender identities at play: children’s digital gaming in two settings in Cape Town

The thesis-monster is finally in:) Can’t share it yet, but thought I’d blog the final abstract and chapter titles. Looking for suitable journals to publish papers in – suggestions welcome!

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Thesis title: Gender identities at play: children’s digital gaming in two settings in Cape Town

Date of submission: 2 April 2013

Abstract

This thesis investigates children’s gaming relationships with peers in out-of-school settings, and explores their interpretation of digital games as gendered media texts. As an interdisciplinary study, it combines insights from Childhood Studies, Cultural Studies, Game Studies, domestication and performance theory. The concept ludic gendering is developed in order to explain how gender ‘works’ in games, as designed semiotic and ludic artefacts. Ludic gendering also helps to explain the appropriation of games through gameplay, and the interpretation of gendered rules and representations. The study expands on audience reception research to account for children’s ‘readings’ of digital games. Social Network Analysis (SNA) is used to study gaming relationships. Combining SNA with broadly ethnographic methods provided a systematic way of investigating children’s peer relationships and gendered play.  The study finds that children responded to ludic gendering, performed gender and other identities for peers, and navigated meanings of games in contextual ways.  Children preferred less-strongly-gendered games for cross-sex play in both fieldsites. They transgressed hegemonic styles of gaming associated with boys and girls during borderwork with peers, where they performed gender identities in response to the activation of gender differences during cross-sex play. Children’s gaming was also marked by their playground practices, suggesting that the domestication of games in after-school settings involves drawing on these practices while appropriating digital games for peer play. Familiar playground practices such as dramatic role-play, playground sexualities and heterosexual games were all salient in children’s gameplay. Children negotiated meanings of game rules to orchestrate their own social scripts in service of performing peer relationships and gender identities. They also learned to amuse their peers or to send up authority through ‘remix’ strategies. In some cases, children’s digital gameplay involved transgression and parody of adult discourses about childhood innocence, age and gender norms. The prevalence of meta-gaming illustrates how games were domesticated in ways unique to the fieldsites, where specific spatial arrangements, turn-taking and time constraints informed varieties of play. These kinds of ‘learning’ and domestication tactics form part of children’s peer pedagogy.

 

Chapter titles:

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Ludic gendering and gender tactics – how children perform gender identities through appropriating digital games

Chapter 3: Researching children’s digital gameplay

Chapter 4: Methodology

Chapter 5: ‘Clique’ to play – Ludic gendering and peer relationships in context

Chapter 6:  Gender games – Children’s gameplay as transgression, parody and liminal pleasure

Chapter 7: Meta-gaming – Game rules, peer relationships and identity

Chapter 8: Conclusion

Paper on children and game ratings in SA

I thought I’d share this, bearing in mind that we should go back and work on this some more. Reader comments and insights much appreciated:)

Sex, violence and harm in games: An analysis of the guidelines for classification of the Film and Publication Board of South Africa

Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town (UCT)

Marion Walton, Nicola Pallitt & Muya Koloko

Abstract

Game ratings are intended to protect children from potentially harmful experiences by defining categories for disturbing, violent or sexual material. This paper analyses assumptions about video game play as revealed in the policies and practices of South Africa’s Film and Publication Board. We focus specifically on the interpretation of guidelines used to rate games according to the presence of ‘classifiable elements’ such as violence and sexual content, the use of public input, and raters’ interpretations of the guidelines. Currently, young people have no input in this process and adult perceptions set game ratings agendas. This paper explores how young people respond to game ratings in relation to their experiences with different game genres. We identify how rating practices and policies make particular assumptions about games – what games are, the contexts in which gaming takes place and how they construct a specific narrative of childhood. This paper argues that the policies and practices of South Africa’s Film and Publication Board in regulating the distribution of games have  emphasized ‘protection’  and reinforced parental and state power to the exclusion of paying attention to the voices of young people and respecting their rights to freedom of expression.

(Download unpublished 2011 conference paper draft)

PhD update and DiGRA conference

Sorry for falling off the blogosphere… been crazy busy. What’s been happening since 2011? Lots and lots! My supervisor and I collaborated on a paper for a special issue of the journal Language & Education – ‘Grand Theft South Africa’: Games, literacy and inequality in consumer childhoods. A pre-publication version of this paper is available on Marion’s blog. Otherwise, I handed a second draft of my PhD thesis in today. The title has changed to “Identities at play: Exploring children’s digital gaming in two settings in Cape Town” and you can view my new abstract here. I also started working full time at the Centre for Open Learning at UCT.

I had a quick browse through the Nordic DiGRA 2012 program which looks absolutely amazing – I would love to attend next year once my thesis monster is in and I have something interesting to present in addition to sight-seeing in Finland. I wish I could have gone to the PhD workshop earlier on in my studies – there are less than 10 Game Studies scholars in SA, so PhD students, you’re sooooo lucky! I hope those of you who are going all have a great time and I wish you a very successful conference:) An added plus is that Finland is home to the best goth rock bands ever! HIM, Nightwish, Sonata Arctica… yes, I have multiple reasons I’d like to go to Nordic DiGRA:)

Nordic DiGRA 2012

Abstract

Update: Been a busy PhD (Media Studies) student – submitted my first full draft, now editing chapters, strengthening arguments, etc. I thought I’d share this for now…

Image from No Soap Box http://www.nosoapbox.com

Thesis title: Performing and configuring ludic identities: Exploring children’s digital gameplay in two settings in Cape Town

Abstract

This thesis offers new ideas about situated meanings of gameplay in the South African context by illustrating how gender, ethnicity and age play out for children in this context through domestication of gaming media within peer relationships as well as in relation to institutions that govern childhood such as the school and family.

It explores the diversity of gameplay and its various configurations, shifting it away from the focus on agonistic or conflictual play which is hegemonic in Game Studies and other dominant technicities. This contextual study of gameplay is situated in relation to Cultural Studies, Childhood Studies, Game Studies, New Media Theory and studies of digital literacies and game literacy.

The study explores how children in two Cape Town settings; an after-school Arts and Crafts club and a holiday club; construct ludic (i.e. playful) identities in various relationships. The study documents children’s identity construction through digital game play in their relationships with peers, and also in response to the gatekeeping role of adult regimes of control, such as parental rules and the regulations of ratings bodies. Children’s playground discourse mark digital games and related technologies as objects of conspicuous consumption that signify middle class assimilation. Boys and girls mark their gender identities through appropriations of particular games within same-sex and cross-gender peer groups. The children in the two research settings played a range of age-appropriate laptop and PlayStation 3 games. Fifty children participated in this study. More than 100 hours of gameplay were observed and recorded over a period of six months. Social network analysis and discourse analytic methods were used to understand children’s appropriations of digital games in relation to peers and adult authorities. The children’s interactions with the games and peers suggest that they valued particular kinds of play, interpreting game rules according to their own interests to make single-player games playable for more players at the same time.

Analyses of children’s negotiation of game rules question Game Studies definitions of ‘play’ and ‘games’. Theoretical contributions of this study include: proposing wider definitions of ‘play’ and ‘games’, challenging ‘magic circle’ (Huizinga, 1949) views of play which see such spaces as ideologically neutral, expanding on definitions of configuration in New Media Theory by considering children’s social configurations and meanings of games during play, recognising normative models of childhood and access inscribed by notions of game literacy, and how rhetorics of play (Sutton-Smith, 1997) position research on children and digital games in particular ways. It also provides a more nuanced understanding of how children navigate existing power relations with adult authorities in the process of constituting their ludic identities.

This thesis approaches children’s ludic identities as relational constructions, not residing in the minds of individual children, but rather performed and configured through discursive interactions. The children’s gaming practices in this study are treated as instances of appropriation (Silverstone 1994, Nyamnjoh 2002), which involves an assemblage of social practices and local meanings that children use to perform and configure gendered identities in relation to the platforms and games available, their peers and adult authorities. A cultural studies approach highlights the contextual nature of gameplay by drawing on Butler’s (1993) notion of gender performativity.

Game Studies goes South: Games Panel for SA Media conference

My supervisor, Marion Walton, is putting together a games panel for one of our local communications conferences. Earlier today we were chatting, agreeing upon the need to educate local scholars about Game Studies, while at the same time being cautious about findings from elite contexts. Here is some further info:

Proposal: Games Studies goes South This panel reports ethnographic approaches to play practices and digital gameplay in different sites in Cape Town, in the context of the regulation of  the games industry in South Africa. Contributors explore the significance of games as commodities in the local context, identify digital literacies shaped by local socio-technical practices and differential levels of access, and theorize how commercial games produced in the North are being interpreted, reconfigured and appropriated in these South African contexts.

Rationale Digital games are an increasingly important part of consumer culture and feature particularly prominently in the lives of children and young people around the world. Game studies has only recently begun to address the ways in which gaming is a situated social activity (Buckingham, 2006, Burn, 2007; Pelletier, 2009) and to apply the insights of cultural and gender studies to gaming (e.g. Dovey and Kennedy, 2006; Carr et al., 2005). Nonetheless games studies researchers have not yet explored the significance of global differences in access to digital games, consoles and other consumer electronics, beyond an interest in how gaming in public access venues such as cybercafes can provide a pathway to ICT use in developing countries (Kolko & Putnam, 2009). Existing scholarship does not address the global diversity in gaming and play cultures, neither does it account for local cultural appropriations of games or explore how young people experience substantial inequalities in access to consumer goods, electricity, communicative infrastructure and bandwidth and how this shapes their play with digital games. In South Africa, basic mobile phones or public access computers are the most common digital gaming platform, while more expensive consoles and smartphones remain the preserve of a relatively small middle class. Different regimes govern access to leisure time and to spaces for leisure in these contexts, and this plays a role in shaping distinctive modes of gaming.  This panel reports ethnographic approaches to play practices and digital gameplay in different sites in Cape Town, in the context of the regulation of  the games industry in South Africa. Contributors explore the significance of games as commodities in the local context, identify digital literacies shaped by local socio-technical practices, and theorize how commercial games produced in the North are interpreted, reconfigured and appropriated in these South African contexts.

Papers:

Mobiles, games and play in South Africa

Marion Walton, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

In South Africa, sharply unequal levels of access to consumer goods, the internet and electrification all co-exist in the same country.  Studying games in this context is a reminder of the complex ensemble of material and economic resources required for digital gameplay, which are not available to all young people around the world. This paper reports ongoing research with young people in the Makhaza section of Khayelitsha, and explores the significance of mobile games in their media ecologies and orientations to consumer culture. Like the large majority of South African gamers, they play free games, often those preinstalled on basic mobile phones or downloaded from WAP sites and passed around via bluetooth in a peer-to-peer commons or proximate social network.  In their mobile gaming, a focus on local and social interactions and shorter bursts of casual gameplay reflects the fact that airtime, phone processors, screen space, memory, and electricity are often scarce resources.

Screen Play: Children configuring gender through character customization in The Sims 2TM and Little Big PlanetTM

Nicola Pallitt, Centre for Film and Media Studies: University of Cape Town

Digital games are semiotic domains that offer a variety of options for customization, which in turn allow players to personalize gameplay. It is also a common form of player  control, yet little is known about this game feature and even less about how children employ such tools and choices in their gameplay. This paper offers a multimodal analysis of children’s character customizations in two games – The Sims 2TMand Little Big PlanetTM– informed by  theories of gendered performance and interaction with configurable media. The children’s choices demonstrate that such avatar transformations are influenced by gender and wider patterns of gendered consumption. This discussion allows for a more nuanced understanding of children’s gameplay and how digital games become a stage for performing social identities. Additionally, it highlights how children engage with games as a form of digital media which challenges outdated ideas of the television as text. This paper describes how television and laptop screens become virtual playgrounds where hegemonic discourses around gendered identities are a site of struggle and play, but often reaffirmed in the process of play.

Games and Learning: a perspective on low-income, resource-constrained youth and PC gaming in a public access venue in Cape Town

Anja Venter, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

This paper reports on pilot findings from a ethnographic study of PC gaming amongst low-income, resource-constrained, urban, teenage males in a public access venue in Cape Town, South Africa.  Framing their activities using the communities of practice model as outlined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, I explore how the popular definitions of “gamer” and traditional gaming communities of practice are challenged in a resource constrained environment.  Findings include evidence of gamers re-appropriating technology and social relationships to create learning communities, exploration of the material and social limitations and challenges for successful collaborative play, and describing the socio-technical ecology currently found in this venue.  

Sex, violence and harm in games: An analysis of the guidelines for classification of the Film and Publication Board of South Africa

Marion Walton, Muya Koloko and Nicola Pallitt, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

Game ratings are intended to protect children from potentially harmful experiences of media by targeting particular categories of disturbing, violent or sexual material. This paper analyses assumptions about video game play as revealed in the policies and practices of South Africa’s Film and Publication Board. We focus specifically on the interpretation of guidelines used to rate games according to the presence of  ‘classifiable elements’ such as violence and sexual content, the use of public input, and raters’ interpretation of the guidelines. In particular, we identify how rating practices and policies make particular assumptions about games – what games are, the contexts in which gaming takes place and how they construct a specific narrative of childhood. We compare regulatory policies to some actual gaming practices in South Africa, and situate both in relation to current discussions of children, media, vulnerability and agency.

Feeling Gameful anyone?

A fellow postgrad student told me about Gameful.org created by Jane McGonigal. She created the site to connect people interested in creating games for good. She believes that if we approach real world problems via the dedication of games we can do good things.

Gameful means “to have the spirit, or mindset, of a gamer: someone who is optimistic, curious, motivated, and always up for a tough challenge. It’s like the word “playful” — but gamier.” According to the site, “Gameful is an online Secret HQ for gamers and game developers who want to help change the world and make our real lives better. Think of it as a cross between a professional network and a creative brainstorming space. The goal is to make it easy for anyone making or playing world-changing games to find collaborators, mentors, jobs, ideas, and funding. And of course, to discover fun new games to play.”

Which games count as gameful: “As long as the project has a stated goal of making our real lives, or the real world, better — and not just to entertain us — then ANY kind of game counts: computer games, videogames, mobile games and alternate reality games; commercial games and indie games; serious games and art games; board games and iPad games; crowdsourcing and innovation games; street games and new sports; education games and activist games; health games and productivity games; and just about any other kind of game you might think of!”

It’s basically for people interested in making games that are making us “happier, smarter, stronger, healthier, more collaborative, more creative, better connected to our friends and family, and better at WHATEVER we love to do when we’re not playing games”.

As a media scholar, of course I am very analytical and I don’t think that all games or particular games ‘make us’ anything – it depends on the context and people’s individual interests.

Here are some games that have been labelled as ‘gameful’: EVOKEFold It!The Epic Win AppFlowerCode of EverandSuperBetterThe MP Expenses GameBudgetballthe PokéwalkerQuest to LearnLittle Big Planet: GamechangersWorld Without OilSeek ‘n SpellGoal Mafia,and Conspiracy for Good.

I have just been packing in my games for fieldwork with the kids tomorrow – Little Big Planet and Create are in the bag! I do not necessarily choose them to be ‘gameful’, I chose them because I want to look at how children negotiate customization. I do not wish to claim anything in terms of effects, but maybe some qualitative analysis can shed some light on how ‘gameful’ these titles are for particular kids in particular contexts.

My flatmate gave me a Sims lesson so I could brush up on my Sims skills. I think it definitely qualifies as ‘gameful’ – you have to buy the most expensive, top quality items for your house (to avoid them breaking later, fires, leaky taps), have to install telephones and security alarms and monitor that your Sims are happy at all times. It’s a real domestic workout that gets you thinking about modern living in a highly self-aware way, but at the same time shows how modern belief systems impact game design. For example, your Sim couple needs to be nurtured all the time – you have to check that they’re showing appreciation, talking, flirting. Additionally, playing Sims is not always ‘gameful’ – you can create Sims just to kill them off or cause chaos just for fun. But on the other hand, even creating chaos can be gameful because it depends on knowledge of rules in society: you need to know them well to know how to break them.

DiGRA Conference 2011: Think, Design, Play