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Notes on “The Word Has Become Game: Researching Religion in Digital Games” by Frank G. Bosman

Posted by Tracy Poff on January 10, 2017

Time for another entry in my widely spaced series on academic literature relating to video games. This post will just collect a few of the notes I took when reading the article; perhaps by forgoing full write-ups I can produce these posts more regularly, while still serving the purpose of drawing attention the academic side of things.

Today’s subject is “The Word Has Become Game: Researching Religion in Digital Games” by Frank G. Bosman (available here). The abstract:

In this article, the author proposes a multi-layered methodology for researching religion in video games. The author differentiates between five levels at which religion can be encountered in video games and/or video game research: material, referential, reflexive, ritual and meta level. These levels range from explicitly religious to implicitly religious, from game-immanent to game-transcendent, and from developer-intended to gamer-experienced. In this context, the author proposes a four-step methodology, which incorporates insights from both game-immanent and actor-centered approaches: internal reading (playing the game), internal research (collection of in-game information), external reading (mapping the intermedial relationships), and external research (gathering out-game information). Before doing so, the author proposes a new definition of video games as ‘digital, playable (narrative) texts’ that incorporate both ludological and narratological elements.


These are formatted as a brief quotation from the article, followed by my notes ‘in the margin’ at that point. These notes may also be viewed on the article itself (and new notes added!) via Hypothesis.

What is a video game?

It will be nice when the day comes that articles about video games needn’t spend a few pages meditating on the nature of their subjects. I don’t feel that this section contributes substantially to the main work of the article; the discussion on how to study religion in video games, and the framework for its description, would not have suffered if the details of the definition of ‘video game’ were neglected.

video games are digital systems that have the following features:

  1. an interactive and reactive nature,
  2. volatile signs and variable displays,
  3. multiple sensory and semiotic channels, and
  4. networking capabilities.

This seems to be a misreading of Ryan. She enumerates these four elements as “properties of digital systems . . . that [she regards] as the most relevant for narrative and textuality”, but does not, I think, expect that all games should exhibit every property.

Despite its interesting nature, Anthony’s typology cannot – as we will see – cover all cases of religion in video games or of scholarly research of them.

Bosman does not make explicit any examples which this typology does not cover; he does not mention it again. The statement is accurate, but beside the point. Bosman’s system is more akin to Ferdig’s than Anthony’s, describing the religious content rather than the category of game, so his categories are orthogonal to Anthony’s.

The fourth level at which religion can be found in video games, is the ritual level: players who are involved in in-game behavior that is traditionally associated with religion.

This is the most interesting idea in the article. I would frame it somewhat differently, however: this seems to conflate religious actions by the player character with religious actions by the player.

The observation that players can engage in religious behavior in the digital space is a good one. These may be sincere religious activities that take place in-game, or the semblance thereof, performed for dramatic reasons.

Sincere religious activities may be explicit, e.g. evangelism in a multiplayer game, or implicit, e.g. choosing the player character’s actions according to the player’s own religious imperative. The memorials mentioned in the article probably fall under this category, with religion broadly construed.

Anthony’s section on allopolitical games (p. 41) is relevant.

Methodology of Studying Religion in Digital Games

The approach outlined in this section seems reasonable enough, but has no specific relationship to the study of religion in games. It is also a rather obvious approach: first, study the source material (i.e. the game); next, study other primary source material from the creator of the game; last, study secondary materials.

The second step is internal research: collection of all the in-game information, for example (the list is not exhaustive), texts, audio, video, pictures, NPC stories, and such like.

It is not clear how this step is differentiated from the first step. Reading the in-game text, talking to the NPCs, and other such actions are an ordinary part of playing the game, surely. If the first step involves “playing the game multiple times (playthroughs), including main quest (mission) and side quests (missions), reaching every possible ending”, then what remains to do? This only makes sense if, in the first step, you are meant to play the game repeatedly without paying any particular attention to it, so that you miss all the little details.

In the third step, external reading, the gamer/researcher must become less of a gamer and more of a researcher. His or her identity as a researcher takes over from his or her identity as a player.

However, those materials (e.g. novels) are intended to be experienced by the players of the game as players of the game. For games with a focus on world-building, this kind of ‘research’ is in fact an ordinary component of ‘play’.

The fourth step is external research, the gathering of all out-game information that is not provided by the developers of the game themselves

This step combines ethnography (e.g. watching playthroughs by other players) with a study of the existing literature, which seems an oddly careless combination for a process that somehow distinguished between ‘playing the game’ and ‘playing the game, but really paying attention this time’.


Frank G. Bosman, The Word Has Become Game: Researching Religion in Digital Games, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 11 (2016), 28–45.

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Super Scribblenauts Invisiclues

Posted by Tracy Poff on February 24, 2016

In lieu of a game review, I want to mention a little toy I made the other day. Back in the days of Infocom, you could get hints for the games in the form of “InvisiClues“, which were hints written in invisible ink you could reveal with a special marker. This was handy, since it meant you wouldn’t see hints for puzzles you still wanted to solve on your own. The hints were broken up into a series of several individual clues, so you could reveal only the first if you just needed a little help, or reveal them all to see the exact solution to a puzzle.

The days of Infocom games and InvisiClues are behind us, but the format was popular enough that people wrote hints for later games in the same style. The Universal Hint System is a commercial product that provides clues in this style for a large number of games, including quite a variety: there are hints for adventure games like Zork, of course, but also games of other genres, such as Civilization, Super Mario 64, and Dragon Age II.

I happen to like this style of hint, too, so I wrote a bit of javascript and HTML to display hints like this, and adapted my walkthrough of the first constellation of Super Scribblenauts as a demonstration. It uses a feature of HTML that’s not supported by the current version of Firefox (support is scheduled to be added in a few months, and it’s in the nightly versions already), so it won’t display quite correctly for Firefox users, but modern versions of Chrome, Opera, and Safari should have no trouble with it. So, if it sounds interesting, go check it out. Just click on a question to reveal the first clue, and click on the text of a clue to have the next clue in the sequence revealed. It’s not quite the same as invisible ink, but it’s my little tribute to that piece of the past.

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Gender and video games: How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games? by Xeniya Kondrat

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 8, 2015

I’ve written about game-related academic papers a couple of times in the past. I think that the general gaming public would benefit by being more aware of the academic research, and the research would benefit if it received some scrutiny and discussion from the public. If I can ever arrange my schedule to suit, I’d like to do an ongoing series looking at some of these in detail (as with my previous posts) and giving briefer commentary on others (as this post will be).

Enough navel-gazing. Today, we’re taking a brief look at a recent paper in the Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology (Compaso) by Xeniya Kondrat, titled “Gender and video games: How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games?”. The abstract:

Gender representation in video games is a current sensitive topic in entertainment media.
Gender studies in video games look at the difference between the portrayal of female and
male characters. Most video games tend to over-represent stereotypes and in general use
extensive violence and cruelty (Maietti, 2008). Some video games use wrong, disrespectful
and sometimes even violent representations of both genders. This research paper focuses
on the current representation of female gender in video games and how they are
represented, stereotyped and used as characters in games. Results show that there is a
difference between portraying women in the past and present. This research paper is
based on previous academic research and results which were achieved with online
questionnaire among game players and two interviews with professionals in the field of
game design. The results show that there is still negative stereotyping of female gender.
However, at the same time, the answers of the respondents show that the target audience
of video games desires improvements in presentation of female gender as well as male.

On accuracy

A study on the changing portrayal of female gender in video games is right up my alley, but this one sets off red flags from the word go. Compaso claims to be a peer-reviewed journal, but the “Introduction and background” section contains some errors that even the most passing familiarity with games (or the most cursory examination of the paper’s sources) would reveal.

I’ll look at just the first paragraph, sentence by sentence. Since Compaso is an open access journal (for which I am grateful, even if I’m being harsh on the paper), feel free to follow along with me, here.

Video game history started in 1940 when Edward Condon designed a computer that could play a game called “Nim” with one player (Video Game History Timeline).

That’s an odd place to begin. If you’re going to include simple games like Nim, you might as well include other electromechanical games of the era. I found a patent for an electrical shooting gallery with a lightgun that was filed in 1936, for example.

I won’t split hairs, though. You can choose whatever starting point suits you–there’s not one right answer. The reason the author chose this particular starting point, I believe, was that her sole source for information on the history of video games was the Video Game History Timeline cited, and it begins there.

The first home video game, “Space Odyssey”, was created in 1972.

I don’t know what to say about this one. I can’t find any game from that year with that title. I think Kondrat is confusing Spacewar! (released in 1962), one of the earliest computer games, with the Magnavox Odyssey (patented in 1968 and first sold in 1972), the first home game console.

In 1993, a release of “Mortal Kombat” forced the US government to start rating the games based on their violence level (Video Game History Timeline).

Again, this is just not right. The ESRB was established shortly after the release of Mortal Kombat (though the way I heard it, Night Trap was more responsible for its formation), but the ESRB is not part of the US government (which isn’t in the business of rating video games, or movies or anything else, for that matter), and games had been rated prior to its establishment, though not in so organized a fashion.

The first game with a female protagonist appeared in 1996: “Tomb Raider”.

Now this is just a whopper. Not only is it incredibly false, missing even hugely popular games like Metroid (and MobyGames lists at least 400 other, earlier games with female protagonists), it even contradicts the Video Game History Timeline that Kondrat has relied upon.

For 1996, the VGHT says “Lara Croft debuts as the star of Eidos’s adventure game Tomb Raider. Players love her, but critics charge that she’s an example of sexism in video games.” No mention of ‘first game with a female protagonist.’

On the other hand, the VGHT’s entry for 1980 mentions that “Two years later [than the release of Pac-Man], Ms. Pac-Man strikes a blow for gender equality by becoming the best-selling arcade game of all time.”

It became one of the most popular games in video game history.

No complaint, Tomb Raider really was popular.

Afterwards, Will Wrights created a game called “The Sims” in 2000 which became the most popular game amongst female players.

First, the man’s name is ‘Wright’. Second, this is just repeating part of an entry on the VGHT: “Will Wright’s The Sims models real life. It is not the first simulation game . . . but it becomes the best-selling computer game ever and the most popular game with female players.”

Further comments

When I first read this paper’s abstract, I’d hoped to be able to write a post reporting on some interesting results, but the sheer density of factual errors in the introduction has quite put me off this paper.

Frankly, my skimming of the rest of the paper has left me shocked that a publication that purports to be a serious, peer-reviewed journal would print it. This paper “was a part of
[Kondrat’s] graduation project for her undergraduate study in International Communication and Media at the HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht.” Formatting or language issues I forgive easily, but the factual errors and lack of clarity and organization is more what I would expect from a high school student’s rushed term paper than a postgraduate student’s paper submitted for publication.

I’d rather build up than tear down, but it’s my policy that if I decide to review something, I follow through on negative as well as positive reviews. In the interest of fairness to the journal: it appears, from a brief look, that other articles published in that issue, if not excellent, are of far higher quality. Some, indeed, look quite interesting.


Xeniya Kondrat, Gender and video games: How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games?, Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology 6, 1 (2015), 171–193.

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Classic Nintendo Games are (NP-)Hard by Aloupis et al.

Posted by Tracy Poff on June 21, 2015

I came across an interesting paper on arXiv, “Classic Nintendo Games are (NP-)Hard” by Greg Aloupis, Erik D. Demaine, Alan Guo, and Giovanni Viglietta. The paper is originally from 2012, but it’s been updated in February of this year with additional results. It’s been mentioned a few times on the web, but I didn’t see anyone give a satisfactory explanation of what the paper is really about. I’m not an expert, but I’ll give it a go.

First, though, the abstract:

We prove NP-hardness results for five of Nintendo’s largest video game franchises: Mario, Donkey Kong, Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Pokemon. Our results apply to Super Mario Bros. 1, 3, Lost Levels, and Super Mario World; Donkey Kong Country 1-3; all Legend of Zelda games except Zelda II: The Adventure of Link; all Metroid games; and all Pokemon role-playing games. For Mario and Donkey Kong, we show NP-completeness. In addition, we observe that several games in the Zelda series are PSPACE-complete.

What does it all mean?

I’ll go into some detail shortly, but I’d like to describe in broad strokes what this is (and isn’t).

The authors look at how hard it is to answer the question: given a particular level layout, a starting point, and a finish point, is it possible to get from the start to the finish?

This isn’t about the levels actually in the games–in fact, it isn’t really about the level design at all. What it is about is the rules of the games. Super Mario Bros., for example, has several well-known rules:

  1. Mushrooms make small Mario big.
  2. Touching enemies (or some other hazards) makes big Mario small, or kills small Mario.
  3. Mario can break bricks only if he’s big.
  4. Stars make Mario temporarily invulnerable.
  5. Mario can jump to a height of 4 tiles, or 5 when running.

There are more rules, but you see the point. Importantly, the authors specify that their results are about an idealized version of the rules. In other words, glitches don’t count. Sorry.

What the authors prove is that if you turn someone loose with a level editor, they can design a level for which it is very hard to determine whether it’s even possible to complete.

They do this by showing that you can implement a problem called the 3-satisfiability problem (or 3-SAT) in each of the games. Think of someone using redstone to make Tetris in Minecraft, and you’ve got the general idea. 3-SAT is known to be NP-complete (read as: difficult), and the game it’s implemented in must be at least as hard as 3-SAT. Those problems are called NP-hard.


The 3-satisfiability problem is to determine if, given a boolean formula of a certain form, it is possible to set the variables (which can be either true or false) in such a way that the whole formula comes out true. A two-variable example of 3-SAT might be:

(y is TRUE | x is TRUE | x is TRUE)
(x is FALSE | y is TRUE | y is TRUE)
(x is FALSE | y is FALSE | y is FALSE)

(Don’t be alarmed by the duplication. The reason for writing that way will be apparent later.)

The 3 in 3-SAT means that each clause (the parts in parentheses) can have at most 3 components. In this case, each has only two distinct components–one is repeated.

All three clauses must be true for the formula to be true, and a clause is true if any of its components (which are separated by pipes) is true. In logic-speak, it’s a conjunction of several disjunctions.

It’s pretty easy to see that this expression is true if y is true (satisfying the first part) and x is false (satisfying the other two). But what if there were fifty or a hundred or a billion sub-expressions? That would be harder to tell.

Requirements for 3-SAT

To be able to implement 3-SAT, you need a few components. You need:

  1. A starting point
  2. A finishing point
  3. A way to pick whether a variable is true or false
  4. A way for those choices to either impede or allow progress
  5. A way to let paths cross without being able to change from one path to another

That last one is so that you can build big, complex paths. Without it, you’d be able to backtrack and mess things up.

The authors implement these components in ‘gadgets’, which are basically self-contained rooms or screens that can be connected to each other. They’re the building blocks of the satisfiability puzzle.

Gadgets in Super Mario Bros.

I’ll take a brief look at how the authors build these gadgets for Super Mario Bros., as an example. This is going to be pretty much the same as what the authors say in the paper, so if you’re feeling industrious, you can look at the paper and see how they put it.


The start gadget is just where Mario starts the level–there’s nothing to it. In general, the authors want Mario to be big throughout the level, so they put a mushroom at the beginning that will be required at the finish.


Again, this is trivial. It’s just the flagpole. To make sure Mario stayed big throughout the level, you have him enter the screen with the flagpole in a corridor with a brick he must break to reach the flagpole.

Finish gadget


To pick whether a variable is true or false, Mario is given a screen with two possible paths–a vertical drop to either the left or right. Say left means “x is true” and right means “x is false”. It doesn’t matter which. The drops are long enough that Mario can’t get back up, so once a choice is made, Mario can’t go back and also take the other path.

Clause and Check

This is the most interesting (and important) gadget in Super Mario Bros. Take a look at it:

Clause and Check gadget

After making a choice and dropping from the Variable gadget, Mario will be led to a series of Clause gadgets. He enters one of the small open areas from the bottom–each one of them will have a path from a Variable gadget that leads to it.

Each block contains a star, which will be trapped in the ‘fence’ when Mario hits the block. Later, Mario will come through the top part (that’s the Check part of the gadget) and collect the star so that he can run through the Firebars. If Mario gets to the Check gadget without having hit the star block (thus satisfying the disjunction), he can’t proceed–the Firebars will kill him.

Remember our example of 3-SAT from earlier?

(y is TRUE | x is TRUE | x is TRUE)
(x is FALSE | y is TRUE | y is TRUE)
(x is FALSE | y is FALSE | y is FALSE)

Imagine that the gadget pictured corresponds to the top disjunction, (y is TRUE | x is TRUE | x is TRUE). Then Mario will reach the left star block if he picked “y is TRUE” by dropping down the left side of the corresponding Variable gadget, and the middle and right star blocks by picking “x is TRUE” by dropping down the left side of that particular Variable gadget.

But what if Mario picked “x is false” and “y is false”? Then he’d never get to the blocks and release the star, so when he got to the Check gadget, the Firebars would kill him. That means that both variables being false isn’t a solution to the expression, and (equivalently) taking the right path at both variable gadgets won’t let Mario finish the level.


This is just a utility to let paths cross without Mario backtracking and making two different choices for one Variable.

Crossover gadget

If Mario comes in from the lower path, he can break the bricks and keep going up.

If he comes in from the upper path, he can run into the Goomba to become small, head to the right, pick up the mushroom from the block, break the brick, and continue to the right.

Small Mario can’t break the bricks in the middle to go up, and big Mario can’t get through the narrow paths to go to the right. Big Mario also can’t break the bricks and then go back, because the drop on the left is too far for him to get back up.

Putting it all together

You can string together as many Variable, Clause, and Check gadgets as you need to make as big of a problem as you want. Since we know that 3-SAT is NP-complete, and we’ve just implemented 3-SAT in Super Mario Bros., we know that SMB is NP-hard.

Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far, then you’ve got the major idea of (part of) the paper. Pick up your CS degree on the way out the door.

Other games, other problems

I won’t go into detail about the other sections of the paper, but if you’ve read this far, you should be able to read the paper and see what is being done. The proofs for other Mario games just make some modifications to the gadgets we looked at above.

The proofs for the Zelda games are different. They still work by implementing an NP-hard problem, but it’s a different problem, and they implement it using the sliding blocks in the Zelda series.

If you want to know about the other games, or get more details, take look at the paper.

Caveat lector

I’ve done my best, here, but I’m not an expert. I’ve got a BS in math, not a doctorate in computer science. If I’ve made some terrible mistake, it’s all my fault (and I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know!), and I apologize for anything misleading, confusing, or dangerous that I’ve written. Always wear proper safety equipment when proving theorems.


Greg Aloupis & Erik D. Demaine & Alan Guo et al., Classic Nintendo Games are (NP-)Hard, (2012-03-08).

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Thoughts on Ferguson’s Media Violence Paper

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 9, 2014

My attention was directed to a paper by Christopher J. Ferguson, to be published in the Journal of Communication, which argues that the common belief that there is a positive correlation between media violence and societal violence is false. The abstract:

This article presents 2 studies of the association of media violence rates with societal violence rates. In the first study, movie violence and homicide rates are examined across the 20th century and into the 21st (1920–2005). Throughout the mid-20th century small-to-moderate correlational relationships can be observed between movie violence and homicide rates in the United States. This trend reversed in the early and latter 20th century, with movie violence rates inversely related to homicide rates. In the second study, videogame violence consumption is examined against youth violence rates in the previous 2 decades. Videogame consumption is associated with a decline in youth violence rates. Results suggest that societal consumption of media violence is not predictive of increased societal violence rates.

The article, briefly

Since the full article is about twenty pages, I’ll summarize it here, with a bit more detail than the abstract.

Ferguson begins by establishing that there is not general agreement in the literature as to correlation (much less causation) between media violence and societal violence. He particularly argues that that laboratory studies which show an increase in aggression (e.g. an increased tendency to fill in missing letters in words to create violent words) following consumption of violent media may not correspond to increased societal violence (e.g. homicide).

The first study analyzes the relationship between violence in movies and homicide, between 1920 and 2005. To assess violence in movies, the top five grossing movies per year were taken at five-year intervals, and graded for violent content. This data was compared to statistics for murder and (non-negligent) homicide during the same years. Ferguson concludes that:

Taken together these data suggest that perceived correlations between movie and societal violence were associated with a chance concordance during the mid-20th century. Given that these phenomena were not in concordance in either the early or latter 20th century, it appears that efforts to establish causal connections between movie and societal violence based on a select set of decades were an ecological fallacy.

The second study analyzes the relationship between violence in video games and youth violence for the years 1996 to 2011. Ferguson uses sales data from IMDb and the ESA and takes the ratings assigned by the ESRB as a proxy for violent content. He concludes that there is a “remarkably strong” inverse relationship between violent video game consumption and youth violence and that, although this is no indication of causality, “Evidence from societal data does not support claims of dramatic videogame violence effects on violence among youth.”

Finally, Ferguson argues that alternate methods should be used in the future when assessing the effect of media consumption on behavior, and that professional organizations such as the APA should “retire their policy statements on media violence as such statements tend to be misleading and may cause more harm than good.” Furthermore, “Arguably, given that the results from the effects paradigm have been weak and inconsistent, it may be time for scholars to make less rather than more conclusive statements to news media regarding media effects on society.”

Unaddressed questions and other problems

Ferguson’s conclusion in the first study (namely that positive correlation between media violence and societal violence is limited to a mid-century concordance) seems undeniable. I am not similarly satisfied with the second study.

The most obvious problem with the second study is that it addresses a period of only sixteen years, and in particular that it does not even consider whether the change in rate of youth violence differed before and after the introduction of video games. Given that Ferguson strongly criticized reliance on data from a limited time span in the first study, this is fairly damning.

Second, the second study does not argue that generally increased video game consumption corresponds to an increase in the consumption of violent video games by youths. I freely admit that it is likely that this is true, but the study makes no mention of it. In general, I am not convinced by Ferguson’s ‘just look at the top five games according to IMDb’ approach to analyzing the state of gaming.

Third, the study blithely dismisses any correlation between increased incarceration and decreased youth violence, on strength of a paper by Stahlkopf, Males, and Macallair. Based on its abstract, that paper only concludes that increased juvenile incarceration does not lead to reduced crime (specifically in California). It is possible that the full paper has more useful (for Ferguson) conclusions, but I do not have access to it.

Fourth, the graphs in the paper are unclear as to what exactly is depicted. Figure 3, “Societal videogame violence consumption and societal youth violence, 1996-2011.”, is a double chart with yearly figures for the two measures in question, with scales ranging from 0-9000 for one and 0-40 for the other. 9000 what? 40 what? I have no idea.

Fifth, without commenting on the sensibility of the suggestions Ferguson makes, I would say that his statements in the “Theoretical implications” section are not supported by the studies. Ferguson argues that different theoretical approaches should be used in studying the relationship between media violence and societal violence, essentially by mentioning a variety of alternatives without arguing for their particular effectiveness. Such arguments would be better suited to a paper which actually considers the relative merit of the various approaches.

Sixth, the “Policy implications” section reads like a conspiracy theory. Selections:

As a matter of policy, consistent with the statement by the Consortium of Scholars (2013)…

…media-based policy statements released by professional organizations have so often been revealed to be flawed (e.g., Ferguson, 2013;Magid, 2011).

…it has been revealed that past policy statements were typically
developed by specially selected researchers heavily invested in antimedia views, with no dissenting voices (Ferguson, 2013).

That is, problems have been ‘revealed’ by the author of this paper. The ‘statement by the Consortium of Scholars’ mentioned is an open letter of which Ferguson is a signatory, and the source of which is Ferguson’s personal website.1

The reference to Magid links to a paper published in Pediatrics (by O’Keeffe and Clarke-Pearson), but the actual reference listed is to an article in Huffington Post which responds to (and disputes) the journal article. Why Ferguson would obfuscatingly link to the article in Pediatrics rather than the one in HuffPo to which he actually referred is a mystery.

Additionally, take note of “…some scholars have argued…(Males, 2013).” That reference is not to a scholarly paper, but what seems to be simply an opinion piece published by


The results of the actual studies in the paper seem fairly inoffensive, but do not support the discussion. It seems very like Ferguson wanted to pontificate about perceived problems in his field, and conducted a couple of very minor studies in order to have an excuse for publication.


First, I have not studied psychology. I studied math at uni, so except insofar as the paper uses statistical analyses, I have no formal education relevant to this paper.

Second, as I do not have access to a university library, I have not been able to review all of the paper’s references. It is possible that some or all of my objections were answered by the cited papers.

Third, I am (obviously) a gamer, and inclined to agree with the results of the studies in this paper, despite my objections to the academic rigour of the paper. It is possible that I have been too lenient with the studies for this reason.


Christopher J. Ferguson, Does Media Violence Predict Societal Violence? It Depends on What You Look at and When, Journal of Communication 65, 1 (2015), E1–E22.
Larry Magid, ‘Facebook Depression’: A Nonexistent Condition, The Huffington Post (2011-03-30).
Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe & Kathleen Clarke-Pearson & Council on Communications and Media, The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families, Pediatrics 127, 4 (2011), 800–804.
Christina Stahlkopf & Mike Males & Daniel Macallair, Testing Incapacitation Theory Youth Crime and Incarceration in California, Crime & Delinquency 56, 2 (2010), 253–268.

  1. Which, incidentally, looks more like the geocities homepage of a teenager than the website of a professional academic. 
  2. And a broken link, besides–here’s a working one

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Software in the Age of Sneakernet: A Pictorial

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 9, 2014

I’ve spent the last few weeks fighting with a screen recorder to get a good demonstration of a hypertext word processor. A power outage caused me to lose my carefully prepared sample document, so while I recover from the pain of loss, let’s take a look at something different: packaging.

These days, a lot of software is distributed digitally, and even software distributed on disk is often packaged in no more than a keep case, but it used to be that when you bought a piece of software, you really got your money’s worth. Boxes, manuals, stacks of disks–you could measure software by the pound.


Item number one: an upgrade kit for OS/2 2.0. I’ve scanned the front and back, if you’d like a better look. It’s a fairly unassuming little box, but inside…


four different manuals (“Migrating to the OS/2 Workplace Shell”, “Getting Started”, “Using the Operating System”, and “Installation Guide”), a pile of legal documentation, a rather shiny proof of license, twenty-one 3.5″ diskettes, and, to top it off, a roll of stickers.


My copy of WordPerfect 5.2 for Windows came with a catalog (Issue 4–collect them all, I suppose) full of ancillary material, including fonts and instructional videos, a heavy cardboard folder containing a license certificate, and, most importantly, one of these:


A plastic keyboard overlay! Once, keyboards had room above the function keys for one of these, and for complex software, they were very necessary, at least until you got used to the software.


Of course, you didn’t always need a hefty manual–particularly if you already owned one. This ‘additional license’ version of WordPerfect 5.1 (suggested retail price: $295 US) contains a license certificate, a keyboard overlay, and not much else. From the back of the box:

This Additional License Package is sold to you based on your certification that you are an authorized and licensed user of this version of this WordPerfect Corporation (“WPCorp”) software product.

This package includes a license and templates, but does not include manuals of disks.

A full-size software box for basically just a piece of paper. Dead tree edition, indeed.

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Finishing Games

Posted by Tracy Poff on September 7, 2012

This post is inspired by “Experience Points Podcast #1: Finishing Games“, which itself discusses Tom Endo’s article in The Escapist, “To Do: Finish Any Game“. I’m indebted to both.

Recently, I’ve been doing something I’ve put off for years: I’m trying to beat Gauntlet for the NES. It’s been a while since I made a serious effort at it, but I’ve been playing that game on and off for twenty years. Now I’m back at it, making maps and taking notes. I might even beat the thing, some time this month.

This is a common theme with me, I guess. I’ll start on games, or books, or television shows, and it may be months or years before I ever finish with them. And not because I don’t want to finish them–even games I enjoy a lot might be put down for a few months before taking them back up again.

I know I’m not alone in this. I can’t find the reference now, but I recall reading some time ago that the large majority of players of Diablo 2 never finished the second act. A story on CNN last year indicated that less than 20% of people finish games. According to my Backloggery, I’ve beaten somewhat less than half of my games, and I know that it’s missing lots of games I played years ago but never beat.

I’m not sure how I feel about all this.

I like finishing games. I enjoy searching out hidden items and trying different choices. I’m not above using a walkthrough as a checklist of things to do before calling the game ‘completed’. For me, it’s partly about succeeding at a difficult task, but mostly about experiencing everything the game has to offer. For example, it doesn’t make it any more or less challenging playing Mass Effect and taking either renegade or paragon choices, but I still want to play through it both ways. And as each character class. And as each gender. And with each possible romantic choice. But I’m not going to bother playing on the highest difficulty. The combat isn’t what it’s all about, for me.

This is what bothers me about this statistic that most people don’t finish games. Is it because most people don’t find most games to be good enough to finish? Because they don’t think the game has any more to offer? Do people find games too difficult? Do people just not want to experience everything? Playing halfway through a game and then stopping seems like eating half a slice of pizza and throwing the rest out. It’s one thing to do it occasionally, but if you’re only eating half of every pizza you buy, then either you ought to evaluate your purchases, or there’s something wrong with the pizza.

The EXP Podcast and Endo seem to come down on the side of pizzas being too large. The fault, perhaps, lies in the games for providing insufficient motivation for completion, or just taking too much time. I don’t think this is too far off base. One of the reasons I was able to finish Mass Effect fairly quickly is that the optional missions were short enough that I could play through one easily in a single session and then quit, if I chose. The story missions were longer, but they were also satisfying, and, after I finished the first one, I knew that I should expect them to take longer to complete.

Endo says that “when people sit down to play a linear game, it requires a psychological investment”, indicating that this makes people unwilling to commit to playing a game with a long story. I can sympathize with this; I know that I’m often more willing to watch 2 hours worth of television episodes than a single movie, because I know that I can more easily stop after a television episode than take a break–possibly for multiple days–in the middle of a movie.

I think that this indicates a solution to the ‘problem’ of people failing to complete games. Television episodes can be satisfying because they present both a part of a large story arc, developed over the course of many hours, and a smaller story arc, developed over the course of a single episode. If you watch just one episode, you can still feel like you got a complete, worthwhile experience; half of a movie is rarely so satisfying.

I don’t mean to imply that all games should break themselves into tiny, convenient bursts of gameplay. It works for some games, like Super Mario Galaxy, but breaking Mass Effect up into five-minute-micro-missions would be maddening.

In the end, I’m not even sure that there is any problem with people playing games without finishing them. I think it’s a shame that people don’t see the stories’ resolutions, and I worry about whether the games are really getting a fair chance, but perhaps it’s better for people to play bits and pieces of many games than to play only a few games completely. I’ve heard that the best way to learn a lot of mathematics is to read just the first chapter of a whole shelf full of books. Maybe something similar is true of games.

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