Monday, April 23, 2012

The Expansion of the Geek Culture

The Expansion of Geek Culture
Alexis Zoe Waters
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Spring 2012

            I find myself in a new world, well there is no real new world in front of me, just a bunch of pixilated images enticing me to continue to explore this new environment. My avatar surveys the world I have entered and instantly I feel as though I am a newborn wanting to get into everything. I become more familiarized with how to control, alter, and explore the new world. I am unable to fight off the urge to strip myself of the generic clothing generated to get you started and begin to play dress up with my avatar. I ponder for a moment deciding whether I want my avatar to reflect myself, or be something completely spontaneous and new. After several moments of thought I decide to sport some black leggings, a nice grey top, and of course long brown hair with bangs. My avatar begins to transform from dull to having personality and life. Indeed, Lexy Frequency becomes a representation of Alexis Waters. Confidence gives me the courage to commence my second life.

            In a distant world not too much further away lives another avatar AureliaSky. She is a warrior class who fights against evil and attempts to save her warrior brothers. AureliaSky symbolizes a piece of who the user is, but she also represents something new. She is not real, but in a sense is. Gaming and the internet has enabled Lexy Frequency and AureliaSky to become more than just an avatar on a computer screen or gaming console. These characters hold value to their owners, and perhaps even become extensions of that person’s real life.

            The video game industry has grown tremendously over the last few years. Games are becoming more interactive giving gamers the ability to customize and become their own avatar. The games described above are Second Life and Forsaken World. These are both virtual communities that harbors approximately fifteen million residents. Daniel anticipates that by 2011 that number will jump to about one billion in the game Second Life. Jones (2009), tells us that this is only about a decade after the World Wide Web came into being (p. 264).  Jones discusses the way in which Second Life is meant to be understood. Second Life to Jones is a virtual reality platform which allows users to completely immerse themselves in a brand new world. This virtual environment Jones describes as “an environment that often represents a disembodied second nature” (p.26).  Bradzell & Odom (2008) explain that Second Life allows avatars to have their very own spaces and also allows them to be animated and come to life. These virtual bodies are able to come to life because of the unlimited amount of movement that they are able to have (p. 252). Jarvenppa et al. 2007 discusses how these virtual worlds have received attention because they are becoming a place where people can assume the identity of an avatar.
According to data collected by NPD market researching group, video games grossed a total of 10.5 billion dollars in 2009. This is a major increase from 4.6 billion in the 1980’s (NPD market research group). Video games have gained more revenue partly because of the rapid growth of internet and computer technology. These enable virtual worlds to exist and individuals are able to take on identities in avatar forms (Holzwarth et al. 2006). Video games are growing in popularity, but also allowing gamers to play online with friends. Games such as Gears of War 3, Borderlands, Mass Effect, Second Life and other multiplayer games give gamers the freedom to choose who they play with, expand their gaming network, and play in real time. The games also allow users to customize their characters so that they are able to be something completely new, or reflect themselves. The experience of playing with actual people, and being able to meet others with common interest has caused gamers to expand networks. Now gamers not only meet others during the game play itself, but they are also able to go on gaming forums and have youtube channels that allow them to meet others and see what the latest rage in gaming is.
            These new advancements in gaming technologies and the increased use of gaming communities allow gamers to become even more involved in the gaming world. Despite these advancements, gamers are becoming more integrated with the technology that they use. Gamers are typically classified as socially awkward individuals who spend most of their time playing video games. Many of the multiplayer games they partake in are roleplaying games, which are known to impair players abilities to distinguish reality from fiction (Abyeta & Forest, 1991). Klimmt, Hefner, & Vorderer (2009) describe how role-playing video games serve as an apparatus for changing gamers perceptions of themselves. The people playing roleplaying games also find that games have three elements: the real world, structure of games, and the imaginary world in the game. Gamers thus construct meaning on social context and relationship development (Fine, 1983).
The idea that gamers are unable to distinguish reality from fiction may not be new, but as technology advances the line continues to blur. According to Gefen and Ridings (2006) it is essential to understand why communities are built in these virtual environments. These scholars stress the main motivation behind the foundation of these communities is to promote information exchange as well as create new friendships (Gefen & Ridings, 2006; Jordan, 1999; Cui et al, 2009). While many scholars encourage these types of virtual environments, according to Rak (2009) these types of environments can even be used to solve particular crimes, it is important to understand the dangers that come from the rise of these virtual games (p. 161).
            Rak touches on some of these issues by posing the question on how one forgets their real being (p. 148). Rak describes our identities online to be separate entities than those offline. The explanation Rak provides is that in real life we are unable to alter ourselves in drastic ways. Once something is done or appears a specific way in our real lives that is how it will remain; whereas, on online formats we are able to edit and create something entirely new (p.158). This is very similar to real experiences by avatars provided by Martin & Waskul. Jason Hawking, an avatar who is 34 from New Jersey, described sex on second life to “feel more free to do things you wouldn’t normally do… things you might not do in real life” (p 27).
People feel comfortable expressing themselves on the internet. Steward (2006) describes how communication is a collaborative, but complex process that requires both verbal and non-verbal meaning-making. Gamers may not always have non-verbal communication, but through with the ability to hide behind an avatar, and manipulate their actions it becomes easier for many gamers to communication. If the purpose of communication is to create meaning with others to make sense, then the internet provides a place for those who struggle to communicate with others. This may cause users to feel more connected with their internet selves and blur the line between avatar, online persona, and offline, persona. This study aims to understand how gamers make sense of their avatar selves, online selves, and offline selves by analyzing how they communicate on each.
            Below is a helpful link that describes how internet advancements have created an online-offline identity conflict. The link below argues that we have always struggled to understand our own identities, and the internet has made our search more complex. The internet allows us to have different persona’s, and gaming community does this as well through gameplay, posting on forums, and having their own exclusive youtube channels. The article also mentions twitter and facebook, which gamers also use to keep in touch with what is going on in the video game industry, as well as marketing themselves to others as a “geek” or “gamer”.
            Another link provided, similarly touches on the same sorts of themes. The debate about online persona vs. offline persona continues to be the center of identity research. The article introduces different ideas behind internet and identity. One that I found particularly interesting was the “it’s just a game” subheading. The article discusses how people view the internet or playing games online as just being games. They believe that they are able to put the game down and forget about it. Users believe that their online and offline identity are not in tune with one another. Gamers are embedded in their virtual worlds by linking themselves with avatars, gaming twitter profiles, gaming forums, and youtube channels. It is important to understand how players view themselves in different contexts to understand the communication patterns behind this largely growing group.
            To understand my own culture I integrate personal experiences with playing games, posting on gaming forums, and interactions off mediated formats. Prior to the internet gamers spent their days playing alone or with friends physically playing games by their side. As technology has advanced gamers are now offered an array of ways to game and meet people with common interests. This has caused a rift in how gamers view themselves on and offline and how it influences gaming experiences.
            I have consistently maintained an interest in all aspects of the gaming culture throughout life. Personally, I have played games from ages 7 to present. Before I was able to find others who were fans of sega gensis, sonic the hedgehog, and have friends to play with I found myself needing to communicate with people at school, social events, and through networks. When the internet and computers became embedded in our society I was able to access forums, gaming websites, and play multiplayer games. According to Creswell (2007) the ability and access to information that I possess plays an important role in ethnography. I am a part of the communities, but I also am able to access the information because of the internet. It serves as the primary source for this study.
            Data Collection. To gather data about the gaming communication I used triangulation to understand three different elements to online persona, character persona, and offline persona. I began by searching for different gaming forums and youtube video of people describing how they act in person vs. online. There were two forums that were used as primary sources for these. One is a forum that I frequent called Destructoid. Destructoid was built by gamer Niero who felt that the gaming industry did not allow real gamers to discuss their own ideas on video games. Destructoid was founded on March 2006 in San Francisco, California. Neiro built a community where normal, everyday gamers could come and discuss ideas and upcoming games. Mr. Destructoid is the mascot and is used to symbolize the forums and community. Many users on these forums meeting one another at different gaming events, and sometimes dress as Mr. Destructoid. The thread that was used can be located here  This forum has a very distinct way of communicating amongst themselves and is geared towards a vast variety of games. The forums are open and accept all types of gamers. You do not have to pay for an account here, and there are many different places that users can communicate to feel welcome.
The next forum I used was a forum called FFXIAH. It is a forum gears towards a specific game genre called Final Fantasy. FFXIAH was founded around 2003 in California. The creators go by their online usernames of Scragg and Jareik. The link to the thread can be located here These forums are different than Destructoid because you must play the game Final Fantasy 11 to be welcomed on the forums. You are also ranked based on your level and avatar in the game.
I also used two youtube videos I found that reflect both online and offline arguments. The first video is of a girl who argues that she is the same online as offline. The video is located above.The next video is of a male who claims that he is the same online, but acknowledges that not everyone is the same online as offline, especially in the gaming community. The video is located below

            Finally, I looked at various youtube channels that involved gameplay to look and see if people mentioned anything while playing games about their avatars. There were several different channels that were used to see how people spoke during gameplay. This analysis was done after themes were presented to see how this data related to the data collected on the forums, and was compared to the other youtube channels that discussed online vs. offline persona specifically.
            When analyzing all three forms of data for patterns some prevalent themes emerged. Data showed that there was a mix between gamers who believed that their character, online, and offline persona were the same and those that felt they were different. Some gamers believed that their online persona was an extension of their offline persona, and that the two could not be separated. There were also different ways that gamers felt the communicated on different platforms. Themes were categorized, using evidence found from all three sources. The themes that emerged from this study include: (1) level of how mean, (2) amount of vulgarity,   (3) shyness, (4) funniness/humor, (5) outgoing, (6) easier to communicate. How many gamers said they were the same, different, and no difference in offline and online persona were also counted. Each of these was found in how gamers communicated offline and online. Pie charts were used to represent the data graphically.
Destructoid offline vs. online  persona:
Level of how mean: users reported that they felt they were more or less mean online or offline. The data shows that on average Destructoid users were more mean offline than online. On Destructoid, thirteen users reported being meaner offline, while only 8 reported being meaner online. Below are comments regarding level of meanness perceived by forum goers.
I'm less of an ass IRL and for the most part, optimistic.”-Sam Spectre

Amount of vulgarity: users on destructoid also mentioned how many profane words they used online. Offline five users reported swearing, while online only three users reported swearing. There was not a significant difference between offline and online on these forums. There were very few who reported on this theme.
For whatever reason I don't cuss as much online as I do in real life, and I don't go for a joke as often.”-ZombiePlatypus
“I swear more in real life. Online I can get away actually making proper sentences.”-Ali D
“I also swear a lot more in real life, for whatever reason.”-Doos

Shyness: on Destructoid sixteen users reported being shy offline, while only five reported being shy online. Users who reported feeling shy also said it was easier to talk online than it was offline. Below are comments made on the forum regarding shyness.
“I am less outgoing in real life. I'm worse with words in actual discussion too.” –Dexter 345
“Around people I don't know well I tend to clam up and be shy/awkward. Not only am I a shy person by nature, but I worry about offending people.”-ZombiePlatypus
“I don't really know. I'm very outgoing, in real life, but probably more work-orientated.”-Xhumation

Funniness/Humor: four users on Destructoid forums described being funny offline, but only one user said they were funnier online. There was not a significant difference here.

Outgoing: two users said that they were more outgoing offline, while four said they were more outgoing online. People seemed to be very similar offline and online in this theme.  
“I don't really know. I'm very outgoing, in real life, but probably more work-orientated.”-Minxxx
“Maybe a bit more outgoing and vivacious IRL, but I think that's kind of normal.”-Godstars

Easier to communicate: no users on Destructoid said that they found it easier to communicate offline. This was significantly different from the twenty eight users that said it was easier for them to communicate online than it was offline.
“I'm pretty much the same only slightly less articulate and verbose.”-Technophile
“I tend to write very well online, for the most part, but in real life I'm terrible at talking, and when I get nervous or upset I stutter.”-Buddah
“I'm pretty much the same only slightly less articulate and verbose. This. It's much easier to type a well thought out response than it is to speak it. You can adjust it until it's just right.”-Intruder
“I talk a lot less IRL, but I say the exact same things, when I do.”-Phantomile
 I guess I don't even try to be myself, I hide behind my stupid avatar and a pseudonym. It's easy to be social here than in real life. “-ZombieLifeCoach
“IRL I wouldn't say I'm shy, but I just never really talk to people that much until I get more familiar with them, but since this is a forum and talking is kinda the point I'm more inclined to converse with strangers and people I barely know.”-Gatsby
"In a place like this though, we're all gamers . We don't really have to hide anything about ourselves, because one, we're more or less anonymous, and two, like I said we're all gamers here. Here I can talk about anime and RPG's that I love, but I'm too embarrassed to talk about it with my other friends."-Gatsby
"Truthfully, I wish I could be a little more like how I am on the internet, in raelity. Unless I'm with well-known friends or family or acquaintances, I'm actually rather quiet" Princess Megatron
I am less outgoing in real life. I'm worse with words in actual discussion too. Much less eloquent.”-Serpentish
“I can be a lot quieter in person, harder to get your word in when it's not being typed.”-Tarvu

Pie chart:

Destructoid online vs. offline persona chart:
Same online as offline: Fourty-three users on destructoid said that they were the same online as they were offline.  
I'd like to think that I'm pretty similar in real life-Andrew Kauz
“I'm pretty much the same on the internet as I am in real life.”-MatthewBlake
“I am the same person irl as here”-Cole1114
“I'm basically the same here as I am offline.”-Gatsby
"I'd say I'm the same person both in reality and online. There is no other me"-Zombieplaytpus
I'm basically the same here as I am offline. “ Norm9
Like everyone else, pretty much the same, except I don't bring up the fact that I write essays on the symbolism in SNES games in real life ;P”-Scary Womanizing Pig Mask
“I'm pretty much the same IRL as I am online”-Nikmonroe
“I think I'm pretty much the same here as I am in person, but since you are usually just responding to a topic I'm more likely to give an honest response here.”-Zodiac Eclipse
“I think I'm exactly the same online & IRL”-N7
“I spend most of my time on the computer, which essentially when I'm not working IS my life. Which makes this an incredibly difficult question to answer.”-Neonie
“People pretty much say I'm the same person. I can't tell myself. I'll have to take their words for it.”-the Golden Avatar
“I don't know if I'm that much different on the net than I am on the internet.”-Godstar
Different online and offline: Only eight users on Destructoid reported being different online than offline. This shows a significant difference in how users view themselves both offline and online.
“I'm pretty different online. I tend to express myself more poorly online and I'm less interesting. I'm also less drunk online.”-Harris Bueller
“I'm the opposite of Aurain.”-Aurain

There is no difference online and offline: Some users on Destructoid described how they felt as though there was no difference between online and offline. That it was an extension and part of their identity. Thirteen users described feeling this way, or reporting that it was too difficult to answer. The idea that users are embedded with their online selves was an interesting concept and description found by users.
“Also, my avatar is me. Clearly.”-Gatorsax2010
“I am my avatar.”-Gyrael
“I'd probably go as far as saying that the internet me is more real than the real life me.”-Leiden
“Also, my avatar is me. Clearly.”-Phantomile
"My avatar is a symbol of hope, which in real life I often lack. I guess my avatar reflects more of a desire than an actual reality"-Xhumation
“I'm pretty much a sarcastic asshole IRL too. And my avatar is me. :D”-Shinryu
 “I would say that I am pretty dead on with my bad internet self.”-Mix

FFXIAH offline vs. online persona:
Level of how mean: two users on FFXIAH reported being meaner offline than they were online. Only one user reported meaner online. These results are similar to how Destructoid users reported, and were not very significant.
I mostly won't really show it if I am angry or upset online.”-Liela

Amount of vulgarity: there were no reports of vulgarity on FFXIAH

Shyness: Fourteen users on FFXIAH said that they were shyer offline than online. No users reported feeling shyer online. Users who reported feeling shy, also reported that it was easier to talk online. This is similar to what Destructoid users reported.
I have a crippling shyness, and have a hard time talking to people, especially face to face.”-Magnuss
“Im a more shy/serious person in public and like to avoid potentially embarassing situations.”-Daus
“I'm rather shy if I'm not around friends irl.”- Dameshi
“I am shy and quiet irl with most people lol few people see me rant and be lame and silly :P i tend to stutter and talk too fast so not everyone can understand me if they arent used to me lol”-Chuuuuu
“It's safe to say that It's a lot easier to come out of your shell on the internet.. Personally I find myself shy and not as out going as I'd like to be when I first meet people and I'm sure its the same for lots of people on these forums”-Kungg
 I'm quiet in real life, but it's because I have Social Anxiety Disorder. Talking to people I don't know terrifies me greatly.”-Tsuneo
“I'm a bit more shy irl, but otherwise pretty much the same person”-Kvazz

Funniness/Humor: nobody reported feeling differences in funniness online vs. offline on FFXIAH.
Outgoing: on FFXIAH three users reported being more outgoing offline and only one reported being more outgoing online. There was not a significant finding here.
I'm pretty out going myself, I don't mind talking or meeting new people.”-Skarwind

Easier to communicate: Fourteen users reported that it was easier to communicate online on FFXIAH, while only three users reported that it was easier to talk online than it was offline. There is a significant difference between users ability to communicate online vs. offline. These findings are similar to what users reported on Destructoid.
I think my only difference is that typing versus speaking allows you to plan out your words a little better.”-Zicdeh
“I'm more talkative online than I am in public.”-Raenil
“I feel like i'm much more outgoing and talkative online.”-Keyera
Biggest difference: online I talk.”-Sehachan
“I rarely talk in real life, but people say I talk too much in game.”-Tsuneo

Pie chart:

FFXIAH offline vs online persona chart:
Same online as offline: on FFXIAH, there were fifteen users who reported that they were the same both online and offline. These findings relate to Destructoid users, because they both have a significant amount of users who believe they are the same online vs. offline.
I'm basically the same online or off.”-Nightfrye
“I'm just like this in real life, but with an addendum.”-Magnuss
“With family/friends Im as loud and dorky as I am online.”-Daus
“Pretty much the same in person and online.”-Drokin
“Yeah I'm about the same.”-Zeota
“well, I suppose my internet persona is just as shy as my real life one.”CombatMojo
“Oh I'm the same, except whereas in real life I have things I say out loud and things I say in my head, online it all comes out.”-Terminus
I'm about who I am online irl.”-Sawtelle

Different online and offline: Two users on FFXIAH reported that they were different offline than they were online. Not many felt as though they were the same on both forums, showing that the two pieces of data correlate in some way.

There is no difference online and offline: There were two users who reported that their avatar was who they were or an extension of themselves.
"I think everyone, at their core, is at least similar to the way they present themselves in an impersonal forum (like this)." –Schutz
So I played upon them, even embellishing them, essentially creating a character (or caricature) of myself. Eventually, I went by this name and persona for a number of YEARS online”-Justice Reborn

Youtube channel analysis: Youtube channel gamers also reported feeling as though they were the same offline and online. There were some that reported being different, but overall they felt they were the same. Many youtube users reported that they themselves were the same, but felt that other users may not be the same online and offline. During gameplay, gamers tended to speak more about the games and less about themselves. In MMO’s users preferred to be referred to by their avatar’s names rather than their own. Many MMO players say that they are their MMO character, solidifying that argument that users feel the same or embedded in their online self. Their online self essentially reflects their offline self, making the two interchangeable and a part of one another.

            The gaming industry has grown tremendously over the last several years because of technology that allows gamers to expand their networks. As the industry continues to grow and technology advances gamers will have many more options on how they game. Gamers are able to customize avatars, play online, and be active in different communities that cater to their gaming interests. This has made the experience of gaming, online, and offline mesh into one another, blurring the lines of reality and identity. Gamers now have become so integrated in their games that they report feeling as though it is a part of who they are.
            There are clear patterns that emerged from the data. More gamers reported feeling that they were the same online and offline for both forums and gaming channels. This was significantly different from those who reported being different. This shows that gamers are becoming more connected with their games, and online persona’s. Some users even reported feeling as though their online persona is just an extension of themselves. Gamers are becoming more embedded and integrated with their games. It has become not just a game, but a part of their identity. There were some users who believed they were different, but based on the data collected most users felt as though they were the same.
            An interesting observation from the emergent data is how users reported feeling online vs. offline. Many users reported feeling as though they were the same offline vs. online, but described different qualities they possesses offline vs. online. Many users on both forums and youtube channels believed that it was easier to communicate offline vs. online, while still reporting that they were the same offline vs. online. Though they claimed that they were the same both online and offline, they still felt as though they were able to communicate more openly and freely online. This suggests that there may be some differences in the ways they communicate both offline and online. This may explain why some users believed that their online self was an extension of their offline self. They are generally the same online and offline, but their identities shift slightly depending on where they are communicating.
            The findings clearly show that patterns did emerge from that data that was collected. Though findings were strong, there are still limitations that come with the present study. There are many gaming forums that gamers are able to go on. This study found two forums that had already asked the question I was searching to answer. I was unable to find other forums asking a question similar to what I was trying to explore. If I were able to obtain IRB approval for this study I would be able to ask the question on many different forums and see if the themes still exist among a bigger sample size.  If I were to do this, the answers may not be as genuine as the ones that I found on the forums that had already asked the questions. The question becomes difficult to pose to gamers. Future study could include many forums to see if they follow the same pattern.
            Another limitation to the study is that there were many different gamers involved. The people on the youtube channels were not the same users on forums. The data collected is from a very diverse group of gamers, and it might be beneficial to follow the same people on all three platforms I have used for this study. To do this it may be beneficial to select users to answer questions about all three. Interviews thus would serve as a beneficial method for future research. For the purposes of this study demographics were not focused on. The forums and youtube channels focused on were primarily male, but demographics, such as age and gender, were not focused on. It would be beneficial for future research to look at the demographic information to see how it potentially ties in. This research has a strong foundation to help further build a growing field in media studies and video game research. It provides strong evidence that gamers often blur the lines between online and offline persona. Their avatars may be what serve as an intermediary for this. Future research should focus on looking at gamers playing and communicating with them in the actual game for more concrete evidence.

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