Panel at Harvard: Evolutionary Biology Looks at Videogames (Who Plays Games and Why)
Posted by scherlis on June 1, 2010
[Update: Added more links based on our discussion. More will follow this weekend.]
For a few years now, I’ve wanted to get a game designer (or two) into a serious discussion with an evolutionary behavioral biologist (or two). Obviously we find games — specifically videogames — fun,compelling, and sometimes badly addictive. But just what is it about those activities that is so rewarding?
I’ve finally rounded up the venue, the right scientists (Harvard’s Richard Wrangham and his colleague Joyce Benenson of Emmanuel College), and a couple esteemed colleagues (Kent and Noah). We’re on!
The event is Wednesday night. It’s at Harvard, and walk-ins are welcome. Below are the details for the event, from the Harvard page, and links to some supplementary materials. I fully expect to add more links, based on our discussion.
I can’t resist noting: as I type this, there are no google hits for “evolutionary ludology.” Here’s the vitals for the event:
Who Plays Games and Why: Evolutionary Biology Looks at Videogames
A discussion with Harvard Human Evolutionary Biology Professor Richard Wrangham, Emmanuel College Psychology Professor Joyce Benenson, and game developers Noah Falstein and Kent Quirk.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010. 5:30 -7:30 p.m. (registration begins at 5:00 p.m.)
Electronic games are competing with television for that essential resource: consumer attention. But exactly who is playing these games? And what is their appeal? Indeed, why do people find games “fun” at all, from simple board games to immersive 3D fantasy worlds? Is there a biological reason that males and females play dramatically different kinds of games?
The many genres and formats of games will be surveyed in a brief multimedia overview, with a look at the different populations that play these different games. Then, human-behavioral scientists will collaborate with game-design professionals to explore the biological roots of our attraction to these experiences.
Please join this discussion, with:
- Richard Wrangham, Harvard College Professor, Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, Director of Graduate Studies of Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, author of Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, and of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.
- Joyce Benenson, Associate Professor of Psychology at Emmanuel College, and Associate Member of Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology.
- Kent Quirk, Director of Engineering for Client Software, Linden Lab (creators of the virtual world Second Life).
- Noah Falstein, President, The Inspiracy (design and production of entertainment and serious games).
- Dan Scherlis (moderator), Principal, Scherlis.com (executive production and market strategy for online games and social media).
Alumni and friends of the Harvard community: $10. Undergraduate Students: complimentary
Supplementary materials for this session:
Articles and other online resources, general background:
- Panelist Noah Falstein’s article on “funativity” (what makes games fun).
- Game-designer and -critic Greg Costikyan’s thoughtful analysis of randomness in games. It references ancient (neolithic) games and anthopological manifestations (oracles, lots, etc), with a broad view from classic board games to videogames.
- “What Games Aren’t”, excerpt from game-designer Raph Koster’s book A Theory of Fun for Game Design. This chapter includes Raph’s own list of emotional rewards from gameplay.
- Emotion and fun in games, short summary and whitepapers by Nicole Lazzaro, authoritative researcher and consultant on games-and-emotion. (And, I hope, a panelist on one of the follow-on sessions that I want to hold.)
Items mentioned during the discussion: [more to follow]
- Does twitter reduce empathy? This much-reported bit of bad science reporting (mentioned during our discussion) was debunked soundly by my favorite blog, Language Log. As computational linguist Mark Liberman insists, “I haven’t seen such a spectacular divergence between evidence and science journalism since the infamous “email and texting lower the IQ twice as much as smoking pot” case of 2005.” And, yes, it was the university’s public relations flacks at fault.
Books mentioned during the session: [more to follow when I can review the session’s recording]
- Bowling Alone, by Harvard’s Robert Putnam, shows the decline in America’s “Social Capital” — by many measures — over recent decades. (I think this decline motivates our hunger for social engagement via online games, social media, etc.)
- What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007) by James Paul Gee. His short opinion piece in Wired speaks to educators and to game designers.
- Rainbow’s End, a novel byVernor Vinge. (Recommended by Noah and Kent as a vision of augmented reality.)
- Snow Crash, a novel by Neil Stephenson. (Mandatory reading for social-media industry participants. An early vision of virtual reality, with insight into our relationships with our avatars.)