Geek Speak: Suzanne de Castell, education professor at Simon Fraser University

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      Suzanne de Castell doesn’t just study video games. As a professor of education at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, she also makes them.

      De Castell is part of an international team of researchers looking into the relationships between people’s activities in virtual worlds and the real world. She and her colleagues at SRI International, York University, and the University of Nottingham started working on the Virtual Environment Real User Study in October. They’re planning to use both on-line surveys and in-person interviews to gain a better understanding of how gamers and non-gamers interact with virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft.

      Born in Haddington, Scotland, de Castell is the 59-year-old co-editor of the 2007 book Worlds in Play: International Perspectives on Digital Games Research. She helped develop the serious games Contagion, Epidemic, and A Baroque Adventure: The Quest for the Arundo Donax as part of her research, which focuses on the relationship between games and learning.

      The Georgia Straight reached de Castell by phone in Toronto.

      What is the goal of the Virtual Environment Real User Study?

      To understand a lot more about, as they put it, avatars and what avatars do. So, how people choose avatars: if there are cultural differences, for example, in the selection of avatars, if there are gender differences in the selection of avatars. And then the ways that people use their avatars, not just in terms of how they look, how they customize them, all of that, but also the kinds of activities that people do on-line. And then trying to get some relationship between what people do on-line and what they do in their real lives. So, who they are and what they do in their real lives.

      Because I think that obviously, as we move more intensively into media-saturated environments, what we’re seeing is sets of abilities and capabilities and interests and dispositions become available because of their access to on-line resources. But also who they are in the real world changes and alters and modifies what they do using virtual-world resources. So, it’s really looking at the intersection of real people, virtual people, real actions, and virtual actions.

      For volunteer participants, what will the study involve?

      Everybody, we hope, will take a standardized survey. So, we’ll have a large bank of data that we can compare and contrast across different sets of users. In addition, we’re going to invite gamers to take us on what we’re calling a travelogue. So, to sit down with us and show us who their avatars are; what their favourite avatar is, the one they currently use the most and probably concentrate on; what their favourite virtual-world environment is, the one they spend the most time in; where they go in that environment; what they do; where they trade; who they hang out with; if they’re members of guilds. So, basically, kind of a travelogue of their virtual life. And then—this is another element that they would either want to agree to or not—ideally we would like to then interview them in a bit more depth about their real life. So, to look at those relations, we’d have those two sources of data.

      In addition, there’s a couple of custom-built games that are going to be instrumented, sort of adapted to collect information on users. If gamers are interested, we’ll invite them to play in a couple of these environments. One is kind of a town-square environment, so trading and entertainment and hanging out, social situations. The other is more of what they call a battle environment, kind of a shoot-’em-up kind of environment. So, we’ll ask people if they’d like to play in both of those, and explain to them the kind of information that we’re going to collect, which will be basically again tracking their choices, the avatars they use, how they customize them, how they communicate, the actions they perform, who they play with, how they play. That’ll be kind of back-end data that we’ll be able to collect from any of the players who are interested in playing in those locations.

      We’ll of course be giving people honoraria or gift cards. You know, those kinds of usual encouragements. But we’re hoping people will want to work with us just to share their understandings, their knowledge, and experiences.

      Why will you be looking for correlations between players’ virtual-world activities and their physiological states?

      That is a really experimental part of it. We’re, at SFU, I think really the only ones looking at this, and it’s just in the initial stages. I’m just really personally very interested at this time in our sort of intellectual history at how we can find bridges between social science and more what’s called hard sciences, so strict empirical sciences. Of course, if we’re going to be looking at players in lab situations playing games, then it seems pretty obvious that we might be able to learn something.

      Initially, we’re just going to track their eye movements. If there’s anything there, if we see any reason to pursue, then we’ll go to the next level and look at, for example, skin temperature—all non-invasive, observational techniques that, however, give us very solid scientific data. The question is what’s the significance of that data. So, obviously we’re looking for patterns and to see whether or not this is a productive route, because I think we’re at a time where social sciences really need to be informed by natural and hard sciences and vice versa.

      You know, we’re at a time when strict sciences have in some ways left us behind—left social conditions behind sometimes or not been as attentive as they might to some of the, for example, environmental impacts of procedures or the context in which the generalizations are likely to be applied and how that matters. So, I think it’s a personal interest of mine to try to construct some of those bridges between those two traditionally sort of twin solitudes, approaches to knowledge building.

      So, I wouldn’t make too much of that. It is experimental. If it starts to show something of interest—and of course there are some people who believe that it will, that it is promising—then I think we can start to get more interested in that aspect of the study.

      But in the initial stages, it’s just going to be a couple of months of asking anybody if they’ll let us, for example, look at their eye movements. And you probably know from playing with people that don’t play games, when they initially start up a game they don’t necessarily know what to look at, they don’t know how to process information. So, I think and we think, for example, that eye movement could allow us to distinguish novice players from experienced players.

      What did you learn from developing the game Contagion?

      We learned to think about knowledge very, very differently. We learned a bunch of things. One of them is you can only push Flash so far. But really what solidified for us in that process was a really different understanding of what people call content. Usually, in education, people talk about content and curriculum and learning outcomes. At the beginning of the game, we were very pressed by some colleagues, “Okay, what are learning outcomes? Specify the learning outcomes, insert them into the game, and test at the end to see if people have learned.”

      What we ended up feeling from our work and see a lot of evidence of is that knowledge doesn’t work in games the way that it works in books. The same that you remember in the old days they used to talk about putting courses on-line and what they meant was they take the textbook and they convert it into HTML and they upload it. And that’s not necessarily the way people learn on-line. That may be the way they read books. But on-line isn’t books, and games aren’t curriculum. So, what we learned was what you need to do is you need to create a really rich and engaging environment, where inhabitation in a certain sense—just being there, spending time in that place—exposes you to, engages you with, calls up forms of thinking, forms of action, teaches you new kinds of skills, sets up challenges and problems, helps you feel differently.

      We have a little mini game within the larger game, and it’s basically where you play the role of or you take the part of in the game of actually a wild turkey infected with bird flu that breaks into a domestic flock. Your job is to try to load up on these shiny gold pellets and not be attacked by all the big, healthy domestic birds and get out of there and escape.

      So, we’re even trying to change the perspective of the user, so their first impulse isn’t, well, let’s kill all the birds like we did in B.C. that tragic time, when even people with domestic pet birds and all that—basically our health folks, agriculture folks went in and killed all the birds. One of the tragic things, by following the news, that we learned happened in some places, like in, I believe, Britain with mad cow, is that on the tire tracks of the agricultural workers coming to destroy the animals all of this stuff was spread from farm to farm.

      So, I think we’re trying to get people, to put them in situations that are really complex the way that our world is, and have them inhabit that, have them spend time there, and that the learning outcomes are not going to be an ability to write out factually correct sentences or tick off boxes. But they will be, for example, the ability to make complex decisions or to decide how best to educate someone else about what they should do in the face of various kinds of health threats. So, those kinds of things.

      So, Harper's Magazine right now has a really great ad on that says: “Warning! We’re content-free.” And I think they mean the same thing. That the way we’ve understood knowledge as really kind of mechanistic and bitty and piecemeal and really literal, it worked for a while because all we had was writing and books. But when you change media, you have to realize that there’s what we call an epistemological shift, so a shift in theories and forms of knowledge. So, what we’ve developed out of Contagion in particular is a theory of what another game designer, Raph Koster, called ludic epistemology. So, a theory of knowledge for game-based learning.

      What do you think of the depiction of gender in today’s video games?

      Well, it’s kind of the same as it ever was, pretty bad, as we all are aware. It’s not just gender either. It’s also race and ability. Really, there’s not a lot of thought given to what it is that we could be teaching people by portraying characters quite differently—sometimes more accurately, sometimes maybe not accurate to the world but something that makes people think. Like our scientist, our elite research scientist in Contagion is a First Nations woman. So, it sort of challenges people’s stereotypes. But I think there’s not nearly enough care and attention given to that. But there never has been.

      So, despite a lot of talk, I don’t think we see very much improvement, as you’ll know if you go to any game developers’ conference and just look at whatever display of not just images of game characters but just even the culture and environment with, you know, booth babes in skimpy dresses or outfits—basically just standing there to be eye candy for the largely male attendees, to have their pictures taken. So, I think that it’s not a new thing. There’s nothing to get excited about. It’s not a new thing. But nothing much has improved really either in significant ways.

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