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WARGAME: Conflict, War, and Enemies in Narrative Computer Games

UiT-Coordinated Research Project 2014-

Project Summary

Today, computer games constitute an important branch of the global entertainment industry. Since the inception of this technology in the early 1970s, development and consumption of games and gaming platforms have been in constant growth. Presently, 'AAA' computer games require a budget similar to major Hollywood films and often reach an even wider global audience. Children and young adults often spend more time playing games than reading books, watching television, or playing outside. Presently, a significant portion of young adults' social interaction happens in the interconnected arenas of online games. Given this apparent saliency of computer games in contemporary culture and society, continued research efforts into the aesthetics, design, and potential consequences of this form of entertainment appear necessary.

Among the most successful recent 'AAA' games are war-related titles that invite players to adopt the role of soldiers or other fighters in a first or third person perspective, and guide player characters through the violent challenges posed by various virtual battlefields. Drawing on, and developing further, recent advances in game studies, media studies, cultural studies, and peace and conflict research, the WARGAME research group will focus on the aesthetics of war- and violence-themed narrative games and investigate if, and how, certain design choices and rhetoric devices are received and negotiated at an individual as well as at a group level. How do textual frames predispose player experiences? How do massively consumed computer games play into political and historical discourse? Do they, and if yes how do they, affect player attitudes, conceptualisations, and behavior? A practical component aims at designing a critical conflict-themed narrative game for education and training.

Project structure:

The WARGAME research project is comprised of expert scholars based in Norway (UiT, UiB), the UK (LSBU, Newcastle), the Czech Republic (Charles University Prague), and the Netherlands (VU Amsterdam), and is subdivided into 6 individual work packages (WPs). Each participating institution is responsible for a particular WP. The group’s modulated scholarly profile makes it possible to quickly assemble viable interdisciplinary project groups that respond to the thematic and/or financial frames of particular calls for funding. Presently, the WARGAME research group’s modulated WP-structure looks as follows:

Table 1: WP-structure of the WARGAME research group:

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Theoretical and methodological frames:

The main assumption of the research group is that the effects of computer games are neither negligible (pure entertainment), nor catastrophic (media panic), but contingent. We assume that computer games do have effects, that these effects matter, and that they are both positive and negative. The effects of games vary dependent on context of reception and individual as well as collective predispositions. Any assessment aiming at such a multi-dimensional understanding of the varying roles and impacts of computer games necessitates a well-integrated interdisciplinary framework that enables a correlation of findings from the different involved disciplines in a comparative framework.

The WARGAME research group will apply for project funding at national and international bodies to assess potential roles, effects, and impacts from such an interdisciplinary perspective. During a first project phase, we approach our subject from the distinct theoretical and methodological vantage points of 1) a combination of narratological and procedural analysis (WP 2), 2) historical and discourse analysis (WP 6), 3) media psychology (WP 3), 4) empirical social psychology (WP 3), 5) empirical social sciences and cultural studies (WP 5), and 6) experimental game design (WP 4). During a second phase, the findings of each respective component are correlated and critically reassessed and theory and methods are developed into an interdisciplinary framework. Produced results will further advance the field of game studies and lead to concrete recommendations to policy makers and game designers.

Objectives:

The primary objective of the project is to conduct a multidisciplinary analysis of a specific corpus of violence-themed narrative computer games and assess their potential individual and collective impacts combining methods from the humanities, social sciences, and practical game design.

The primary objective is realized through a set of secondary objectives:
1. An analysis and formal description of violence-themed narrative computer games' generic narrative and procedural design features,
2. the historico-political contextualisation of the meanings and forms of engagement these aesthetic features invite,
3. the measuring of possible changes in attitudes and outlook of individual players in connection to extended exposure to such features,
4. an assessment of how concrete groups of players actively negotiate and potentially subvert these features in and through the practice of play,
5. the design of a violence-themed narrative computer game that productively incorporates the findings and that critically addresses questions of war, violence, and the enemy in ambiguous moral and ethical terrain, and
6. a development of interdisciplinary approaches that combine the employed theories, models, and methods in an integrated multi-dimensional framework for computer game analysis, media studies, and peace and conflict research.

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