Reproducing Reality in Fantasy-Land: Online Gaming and Offline Behaviors

Photo by Eduardo Hulshof, Flickr CC.
Photo by Eduardo Hulshof, Flickr CC.

Ubisoft has been trying to find out what makes its gamers tick. Nick Yee, a researcher fronting the company’s internal “Daedalus Project,” now has a new book, The Proteus Paradox, bringing together some of the major findings from the years of interviewing and observing gamers. Perhaps most interesting, as Bryan Alexander points out in Reason, is that, no matter how otherworldly the games might be, players tend to import their offline behavior and attitudes.

For instance, Yee explains in a chapter called “The Labor of Fun,” many gamers come to see gaming as a second job, demanding hours of boring drudgery contributing to fleeting achievements. Some even exploit other gamers to do the “grinding” work of leveling-up and repay it with racism toward those willing to do the work.

Gender figures interestingly, too:

Proteus outlines how male players denigrate, harass, and drive off female players. But Yee offers two twists to this sadly familiar story. First, women report wanting to play for the same reasons men do—achievement, social interaction, and immersion—going against essentialist expectations of gender behavior difference. And second, MMOs [massively multiplayer online games] offer a pedagogical benefit of sorts to male gamers who play under female avatars.

Males do this switching with some frequency… mostly to enjoy the eye candy of an attractive female avatar displayed in a game’s third-person perspective. That gaze is then reversed, as it were, as other players ogle the same avatar from their avatar’s perspectives. It’s a surprising opportunity to experience the kinds of sexual harassment that real-world women know to well.

Love, death, and helping others all come into play. “For all the criticisms that can be made of gamers’ behavior,” Alexander writes after reading Yee’s book, “these worlds are not bleak places entirely devoid of pleasure and fellow-feeling.” Between levels, it seems, some Putnam, Goffman, and Addams have snuck into the online realm.

For more in the Reason series on gaming, click here. For more on race in gaming, check out “The Whiteness of Warcraft,” here on TSP.

Kings of the Court

All eyes have been on LeBron James. Despite some predictions, he hasn't---yet---disappointed.
All eyes have been on LeBron James. Despite some predictions, he hasn’t—yet—disappointed.

When ESPN began broadcasting LeBron James’ high school games to a national audience some years ago, basketball fans asked, “Is he the next Michael Jordan?” Last week, James capped off the 2012-2013 NBA season with his fourth MVP award, leading the Miami Heat to a second consecutive championship (he really did “take his talents to South Beach”). It only cause more people to wonder if James could equal—or surpass—Jordan’s legacy.

Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist at Georgetown University, made a guest appearance on ESPN’s “First Take” to offer his perspective on the similarities and differences between the two basketball greats, both on and off the court.

As Dyson explained, social movements and commercialization combined when Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984. The Civil Rights Movement had passed; communication technology which could carry photos, highlights, and live games around the planet was improving; and the NBA’s new commissioner, David Stern, was intent on expanding the league’s global footprint. In Michael Jordan, Stern had found a charismatic ambassador for basketball. Dyson notes, “Jordan comes along at a time when people began to celebrate a tall, dark, handsome, physically lethal specimen who also has the ability to commodify… So when you have the marketplace joining the morality of social advance, that’s something that’s incomparable.”

While “King James” follows in Jordan’s footsteps commercially, Dyson argues that they’re different types of players on the court. Jordan was known for his legendary competitive drive and “killer instinct,” while LeBron, particularly since teaming up with fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, has earned a reputation as a facilitator who works to involve his teammates as much as possible, perhaps even to a fault.

Like MJ before him, LeBron James is now the global face of the NBA—some love him, some hate him, and most basketball fans are fascinated by him. The marketing of and commentary about the two men’s talents, bodies, and identities provide a rich source of study for social scientists interested in race, media, sport, and culture over time.

Class War in the Toy Store

A new, educational toy from Japan, Wammy. Photo by japan_style via flickr.

With the holidays bringing so much attention to our shopping habits and stores, many odd trends are bound to crop up. One recent Citing, for instance, looked at the long-standing gender-segregation of toy aisles. Now we spot another toy divide, perhaps as pervasive, but harder to notice: the New York Times argues toy stores divide kids by class, too.

The piece explains that the emergence of larger toy retailers like Toys “R” Us has made toys with a focus on enrichment or learning more rare—they’re more likely found at small, specialty stores. The problem is that these smaller, more upscale stores are mostly found in affluent areas. The article’s author, Ginia Bellafante, writes:

In the way that we have considered food deserts—those parts of the city in which stores seem to stock primarily the food groups Doritos and Pepsi—we might begin to think, in essence, about toy deserts and the implications of a commercial system in which the least-privileged children are choked off from the recreations most explicitly geared toward creativity and achievement.

Research on how much these ”high-class” toys actually help in child development is inconclusive, but it’s easy to infer the toy gap may add to both the education gap and the class divide.

Desegregating the Toy Store

Catalog image via viewer.zmags.com and rt.com

The moment they are born (and even before), children are shaped by gendered expectations: boys today are born into a world of blue and girls in pink. Boys are expected to go outside and be rough, playing war games and cops and robbers, where girls play house or tend to dolls. Even toy stores are segregated, with “girl aisles” strewn in pink and bursting with dolls, wholly separate from those for boys, which are stocked with weapons and action figures.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, however, describes a Swedish company working to eliminate such stereotypes. The Top-Toy Group has released its holiday toy catalog, and shoppers have found it breaks common gender expectations. The catalog features young boys playing house and giving make-overs, while ready for battle with their shiny toy guns.

Occidental College sociologist and Sociological Images’ co-founder Lisa Wade was interviewed by the article’s author, Anna Molin, to help explain the significance of Top-Toys’ gender neutral catalog. Wade points out that the company is doing a lot to challenge our concept of masculinity: “You may give tool toys to your daughter, [but] you don’t [usually] give the lipstick bag to your son.” That would deviate too far from society’s gender norms. Wade warns, however, that the catalog may be nothing more than a marketing stunt. As she puts it, “It’s a mistake to think that companies typically do this out of ethical belief. Most of the time they are doing it strategically.”

Whether it’s clever advertising or a real effort to change gender perceptions, Top-Toy’s lookbook is bringing a lot of attention to gendered play. Seeing girls aim their Nerf guns and boys “baking” cookies, parents might ask their tots what they really want, rather than reflexively heading for the pink or blue aisle.