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  1.   Thanks for your nice comment.  I hope you enjoy the article and are able to relate to what others have said about what games mean to them.  While interviewing gamers, I also found that I developed a clearer idea of why I love games and what significance they had for me. 
  2. Introduction 100-Percenting It: Videogame Play Through the Eyes of Devoted Gamers examines video gaming from a cultural sociological standpoint. The paper is based on my undergraduate honors thesis, which I wrote during my senior year at Rutgers University in 2006-2007. Back then, gaming research was not as prevalent as it is today (and most of the studies I encountered involved violence in games). When I decided that I wanted to study gaming, many people told me that it was immature, stupid or that there was nothing worthwhile that anyone could learn from gaming (not surprisingly, my first chapter was a strong, 26-page defense of why one should study gaming). However, I was fortunate to find two extremely supportive advisors who were willing to indulge my interests and guide me. Neither of them were gamers, but they saw the value of studying gaming and encouraged me to produce something that would make me proud. The end result was a 260+ page thesis that received the distinction of highest honors and several awards, including the award for best thesis in the department. The publication, which appears in the December 2012 issue of Sociological Forum, is considerably shorter and significantly more polished than my original thesis. Below, I have provided a brief overview of several of the publication's topics. The full text of the article is available on the journal's website. Research Methods I relied primarily on three forms of data: one-on-one interviews, participant observation (you guessed it: watching people play video games), and a questionnaire. I interviewed 20 "devoted gamers," 17 male and 3 female, ages 18 to 27. These people were a mix of core and hardcore gamers, but they were unwilling to attach such labels to their gaming. I spent over 12 hours observing my gaming participants, four 21-year-old males, play video games. All of the quotations in this article are either from the interviews or the participant observation sessions. The 50-question questionnaire was administered to a random sample of undergraduate students at Rutgers University: 101 female and 69 male, ages 18 to 25. Defining the "Devoted" or "Hardcore" Gamer Earlier, I used the term "devoted" to describe my interviewees' gaming habits because no interviewee wanted to identify as a "hardcore gamer," fearing that it carried a negative connotation of playing too many video games or being obsessed with them. In fact, interviewees went to great lengths to distinguish themselves from the stereotypical "hardcore gamer," though they did not attempt to downplay their own dedication to video games. Thus, the interviewees did not personally think that they were too invested in gaming but believed that others could be. Because no interviewee was willing to accept the term "hardcore gamer," I relied on the term "devoted gamer," which I elicited and defined through my questionnaire data. The definition of "devoted gamer" is just as imprecise as "hardcore gamer," the former being a person who has a passion for games, plays them more often than the average casual gamer, and for whom games are meaningful. Gaming as an Immersive Experience: Atmosphere Interviewees described gaming as an immersive experience both because of the gameplay itself and through other absorbing aspects of the game. For example, many interviewees appreciated in-game music, defending it as real music, and the artistic quality of games, including the art found in game manuals. One interviewee referred to a game's immersive quality as its "atmosphere," which he explained is "something that when you play the game and when you hear the music from the game afterwards [it] sends chills down your spine" and makes each game "feel different." He described Metal Gear Solid as a game with such atmosphere -- a "masterpiece" that "works on so many levels." Gaming as a Social Activity Almost every interviewee agreed that gaming is a social activity, both online or offline and whether multiplayer or single-player. Indeed, gaming facilitates gamers in forming and solidifying their friendships, leading to a rich social experience. Gamers play games alongside one another, often discussing subjects unrelated to the game itself. And gamers discuss and reminisce over games even when they are not playing them, adding a social dimension to single-player games. One interviewee described how he became better friends with an acquaintance because they both used Xiaoyu in Tekken 4. Another interviewee explained how gamers met and played games together at her college's gaming society. Ironically, many interviewees believed that gaming made people less sociable, but every interviewee (except for one) felt that games had personally made them more sociable. Thus, the interviewees subscribed to the image of the stereotypical socially-isolated gamer -- "guy with glasses, greasy hair, Cheetos stains on his shirt . . . sitting in his mom's basement" -- but did not believe that they fit that image. If such a stereotype exists but does not apply to most gamers, then how accurate is the stereotype? While watching gamers play multiplayer games (specifically, two-on-two Super Smash Bros. Melee timed games on the Final Destination stage), I noticed that the players simultaneously, but separately, interacted with each other and with each other's characters. When a player spoke to his teammate in-game, he referred to his teammate by his teammate's first name. However, when a player referred to his opponents in-game, he referred to them by their characters' names (e.g., "Greg, way to just look at Yoshi!" and "Aw, fucking Bowser!"). In fact, when a player picked a female player, the other team referred to the player as a "she." Thus, allies were players but enemies were characters. Interestingly, the players referred to the opposing team by their characters' names only in-game but did not do so in between matches, i.e., while on the character selection screen ("Peter, keep Greg off of me as much as you can"). I observed the same phenomenon when the players switched teams. Gaming Status An important social dimension of gaming is a gamer's status: how good they are at a game. Getting a high score or unlocking certain in-game features are just some of the many ways that one can flaunt one's gaming ability. Several interviewees described how, as children, they would taunt their siblings by outscoring them in certain games, like Tetris. Being good at a game is not just about bragging rights, however: pro-gamers base their careers on competing in tournaments, maintaining fanbases, and signing endorsements. Thus, being good at a game commands some respect and awe. One interviewee respected a player who beat him in a tournament because it was the first time in a long time that he was so excited and nervous. Likewise, another interviewee described his admiration for the winners of a Street Fighter tournament that he attended, stating that "the admiration that I have for someone that is good at a game is usually because I also play the game [...] so that admiration is borne out of my own desire to improve and [...] knowing what it takes to be so good." In contrast, one interviewee characterized a tournament winner he watched as "precise," but noted that the player's skillfulness detracted from the game's fun because he played too mechanically. In that sense, being too good at a game can sometimes be a bad thing. Indeed, a game is more immersive and meaningful when players are competing against well-matched opponents. Obliterating your opponent (or being obliterated) can get boring; it is the back-and-forth edge-of-your-seat closeness in ability that keeps players engaged. An interviewee described this as recognizing his opponent's "play style," which allows him to adapt and learn from each encounter he has with his opponent. He explained that a truly great match is between equals who constantly keep changing the way they play, making the match uncomfortably close until the very end. For this reason, he (and many other interviewees) expressed a strong preference for playing against human, rather than computer-controlled, opponents. Of course, a human opponent provides an opportunity for social interaction that a computer cannot, but human opponents also make the gameplay more dynamic and challenging. You never really know your true skill level until you have played against other people who have invested time in mastering the game. Thoroughness and 100-Percenting It Games are not just about having fun; they also give us a sense of accomplishment. Many interviewees described a sort of duty they had towards their games, which went well beyond just playing the game for its entertainment value. Interviewees best described this as a need to "100-percent" games by playing them thoroughly and to their fullest: exploring every cave, assisting every NPC, collecting every golden coin, defeating every boss and mini-boss, beating every mini-game, and so forth. One interviewee found it "extremely satisfying" to look at the catalogue of games he had 100-percented, thereby reminding himself of what he had achieved. Another interviewee drew a distinction between his gaming habits, making sure that he had "gotten every little thing you can get," and the habits of "some people who . . . will just go on and beat it in a few hours." His comment suggested that playing a game without 100-percenting it is a less honorable method of gaming. Similarly, several interviewees touched on a common struggle that "haunts" them -- choosing between playing every game that interests them versus wanting to play every game thoroughly. The need to 100-percent games was not limited to just a desire for completeness but also extended to an obligation or way to pay homage to the game's designers. Specifically, one interviewee felt that it was important to "take the most out of the games, everything that the creators intended [...] [like] feedback or a way of showing respect for the creators of the game." If a game's designers put in the effort to include quests beyond those required to beat a game, how can you justify not completing them? The Etiquette of Gaming: Spoilsports, Cheaters, and Being Cheap What irritates a gamer more: the spoilsport (i.e., the person who does not take the game seriously) or the cheater? Interviewees generally found spoilsports to be more aggravating, which is the same kind of attitude you would probably find in competitive sports. No one wants to watch a sports game in which the other team is goofing off or losing on purpose because such behavior destroys the game's importance (and its balanced, competitive aspect, which I discussed earlier). The same goes for video games; spoilsports break the delicate illusion of reality, that the game is meaningful and that winning is important. There are very few things more irritating than beating someone in a game and then having him or her respond, "Who cares? It's just a stupid game." We care; that's why we played it! Interviewees found spoilsports to be annoying because such behaviors made them feel as though their opponent was not taking them seriously. In contrast, the cheater was taking the game seriously, which is why they were cheating in the first place. With the cheater, winning was so important that it was worth going through the effort of cheating. One interviewee explained that dealing with a cheater is easier than dealing with a spoilsport because at least he could still try to beat the cheater or stoop to their level and "cheat back." Another interviewee used the term "bad cheating" to describe extreme cheating that could not be overcome. Other cheating, like screen cheating in FPS games, was acceptable because the opportunity was "right there in front of you." Cheating was not just limited to multiplayer games, however. Other than following the explicit rules that limit how players can play a game, gamers also imbue games with their own set of rules and norms. One common theme among interviewees was the notion that relying on walkthroughs and online guides is a form of quasi-cheating or is at least a bit shameful. Interestingly, one interviewee who looked down on the use of walkthroughs also qualified that he would instead ask a friend for help whenever he was stuck in a game. Similar to cheating, many interviewees used the term "cheap" to describe gaming that was not quite cheating, because it was still within the game's parameters, but was nonetheless unfair. Two examples of being cheap were abusing unfair tactics (e.g., "snaking" in Mario Kart DS) and using overpowered characters (e.g., "burn characters," like Cable and Iron Man in Marvel vs. Capcom 2). The Etiquette of Gaming: Trash Talking Not surprisingly, trash talking is widespread and accepted as part of what makes multiplayer gaming fun, even if the trash talk is directed at you. Most interviewees generally saw trash talking as something to do among friends, rather than when playing with strangers. However, trash talking was thought to be easiest in online settings, where one was least likely to fear reactions from other players due to the geographical distance between them. Trash talking is also a tool, which can be used to put a cheater or braggart in place or just to be funny. One interviewee explained that he even trash-talks when he is losing because it is "so ridiculous that you know I'm joking." Trash talk is also another way for players to express that they are engaged in the game -- taking it seriously -- so it is important for solidifying the competitive and cooperative nature of gaming. "The computer" can also be trash-talked or talk its own trash. During my gaming observation sessions, I observed one player trash-talk the computer when it outscored all of the human players in Donkey Konga ("Seventy-six? Kiss my ass, computer!"). One interviewee described Chipp Zanuff of Guilty Gear as engaging in "a ridiculous amont of trash talk." Trash talking can also involve sexist, racist, homophobic, and otherwise obscene language. It is important to stress that this is not unique to video gaming or gamer culture as a whole. Indeed, the analytical framework for this topic came from a 1987 study of Little League baseball players, who used homosexual epithets to taunt one another and express domination. And we observe the same type of obscene language emerge in other competitive activities, like sports (playing and watching), board games, and cards, to name a few. Like the language that emerges during these other competitive activities, the language that I observed players (unconsciously) use during their gameplay did not necessarily reflect their personal beliefs and does not mean that such language is essential to gaming. As with violence, which I discuss below, I do not think that my findings lead to the conclusion that playing video games encourages people to use obscene language or that such behavior is unique to those who play video games. Contextualizing Violence Unlike much of the early research on gaming, the causal relationship between games and violent behavior was beyond the scope of my research. Instead, I was interested in two things: how gamers rationalized and talked about the violence they encountered in games, and how gamers felt about non-gamers' attitudes towards violent games. As an initial matter, I found that whether or not a game is judged to be violent depended on the context in which the interviewee viewed the activity. One of my interviewees put it best when he described his interest in fencing and martial arts; both are non-violent activities within the context of sport but would certainly be violent if performed on innocent victims. Similarly, even non-violent game series, like Pokemon, Mario, and The Legend of Zelda, could be (albeit wrongly) viewed as violent depending on the audience's sensitivities. And some may even view a series like Grand Theft Auto to be non-violent because the animation, such as heads popping off victims' bodies, is unrealistic and almost cartoon-like. No matter how hard each interviewee tried, no interviewee could successfully argue that games were categorically non-violent. (One interviewee even went so far as to argue that she could play a Grand Theft Auto game non-violently, but by the end she admitted, "it's human nature to like violence, I guess. I find it funny to run someone over, too.'') The argument is as useless as arguing that all movies are non-violent. Like movies, there are both violent and non-violent games, but that does not necessarily mean that games (or even violent, M-rated games) cause people to commit actual violence. Source: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Identifying with Characters: Good Guys, Badassness, and Morality Every interviewee identified with at least one specific game character. This sometimes involved imbuing these otherwise one-dimensional characters with certain anthropomorphic characteristics. For example, Ky Kiske from Gulity Gear was described as "a totally good person" who was "a little naive in his ideals." Two interviewees admired Ryu from the Street Fighter series, separately stating "you never get a bad vibe from him" and "what [he] embodies forms a lot of the philosophy that I consider very much close to my heart." One interviewee, in particular, spoke fondly of his affection for Kirby, who he said was "so humble and courageous and funny. [...] He never is like King Dedede where he's always showing off or something. [...] Kirby's so cool." Villains also fascinated interviewees, with many describing them as "badass" and appreciating them for their multi-dimensional qualities. For example, one interviewee spoke fondly of Pyron, a demon lord in the Darkstalkers series, stating that Pyron's goal of eliminating evil was "admirable" even though "he was obviously going about it in a bad way." Similarly, another interviewee described Big Boss in Metal Gear Solid as someone whose "intentions were good" but whose "methodology was questionable." Being a badass bad guy was almost a redeeming quality because, as one interviewee explained, it is "it is something that separates them from just [a] cardboard bad guy" and makes him or her fun to fight. Some protagonists were also described as badass, though not nearly as often as villains. Similar to identifying with video game characters, some interviewees explained that games had influenced their morals. One interviewee altered his religious beliefs after playing certain games, and another believed that playing games with others made her a more patient and persevering person. Link from the Legend of Zelda series was also cited as possible inspiration for "standing[ing] up for a kid that was getting picked on one day." For a classically silent character, that is a lot of personality! Conclusion The purpose of this study was to analyze the culture of gaming through a sociological framework, thereby exploring how gaming is meaningful to gamers. The study, of course, has its limits: a small sample size of participants drawn from limited backgrounds. Moreover, this study did not explore online and social gaming, which is much more prevalent now than it was when I conducted my research approximately six years ago. Back then, the term "gamer" was also much more limited -- and applied only to core and hardcore gamers -- than it is today thanks to the proliferation of mobile and casual games. Nonetheless, the study still offers a look at the more "devoted" gaming audience that persists.
  3. Introduction So, you are an indie game developer getting close to releasing your first game. Or maybe you are a large company that is ready to launch your next triple-A title. Perhaps your employees have already started talking about your games on Facebook, Twitter, or on their personal blogs. And maybe you are starting to wonder if your employees' online actions can impact your game's success. Now you are thinking about whether you should revise (or have?) a social media handbook policy. In the game industry, most employees are very tech savvy, so you want to have some sort of policy regulating their social media usage, right? If so, read on for guidance on how to draft your policy with federal labor law and the Federal Trade Commission's guidelines in mind. Please note that this article applies to employers in the United States (basically, where the NLRB has jurisdiction). Federal Labor Law Federal labor law applies to both unionized and non-unionized workplaces. This impacts all companies regardless of company size, with limited exceptions. Federal labor law gives employees the right to engage in activities, such as discussing their wages and criticizing their company, which could lead them to improve their working conditions or form a union. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that safeguards employees' rights to unionize, says that social media is a viable method of forming a union. Therefore, if a company's social media policy is too broad (for example, "do not disparage or damage the company online"), then the company risks violating federal labor law because its social media policy might inadvertently restrict its employees' rights to unionize. The FTC's Endorsement Guidelines Companies should also keep the FTC's endorsement guidelines in mind -- specifically, the requirement for the disclosure of "material connections" between companies and advertisers/endorsers. Being an employee of a company counts as a material connection (an "endorser") that has to be disclosed. An employee may not directly receive payment or benefits for writing about the company and its products like an advertiser would; nevertheless, the employee's job security may depend on the company's success. Therefore, a violation of these guidelines would include an employee who tweets that your game is "the best game ever" without disclosing that she works for your company. Potential Conflict? Companies cannot have policies that completely forbid their employees from posting "endorsements" of their products and services online because this could conflict with federal labor law. For example, a policy stating, "Do not use social media to discuss anything related to the company and its products/services" is too broad and may signal to employees that they cannot engage in unionization activities. At first, the NLRB rule and the FTC's guidelines seem like they conflict with each other. On one hand, the NLRB says that a company cannot have a policy that is too restrictive of its employees' social media usage, but then the FTC says that a company should regulate its employees' social media activities. So, what should a company's handbook policy regarding social media usage be? And how can an employee safely talk about their company's upcoming game or hardware via social media? Luckily, there is a way to comply with both rules: have a policy stating that employees are advised to (or must) disclose their relationship to the company when promoting and endorsing its games/hardware via social media. Such a policy is narrow enough that employees will not think that the policy intends to restrict their unionization activities, yet the policy still encourages compliance with the FTC's guidelines. How can an employee properly disclose their employment relationship? The good news is that the FTC's guidelines do not require employees to use any special language when disclosing their employment relationship as long as the disclosure is clear and conspicuous. A simple statement such as "I work for Company X and we just released [insert name of awesome new game] and it's awesome" is sufficient. And for Twitter, which limits users to just 140 characters, even a simple hashtag is sufficient (e.g., #microsoftemployee or #ad). Just make sure that the audience is aware of the employment relationship! It is probably not enough for an employee to have a general disclosure on their "about me" page (or list the company as their place of employment on Facebook/Twitter) or assume that their social media followers know whom they work for and what games/hardware their company and its affiliates produce. To be completely safe, an employee should directly disclose their employment relationship within each separate post that endorses their company's products. Additional Suggestions Based on Federal Labor Law In addition to recent NLRB cases, the NLRB has also offered extensive guidance through its Acting General Counsel's reports, which explain the NLRB's current position on social media. Unlike a regular NLRB case, not everything in these reports is the law yet. However, the reports are still very useful because they offer companies cautionary guidance and are very likely to become the law in the near future. Foremost, the reports reiterate that handbook policies must not be too broad; otherwise, employees will think that their right to engage in unionization activities is also being restricted. The reports contain additional useful advice, which I have summarized below. Give the policy some context: A policy can restrict certain social media activities if the policy provides enough context that employees know that the policy is not meant to restrict their unionization activities. Therefore, a company should try to explain the business purpose behind their policy. The examples below give their respective policies the appropriate context and are therefore lawful. "Employees may not use social media to post or display comments about coworkers or supervisors or the employer that are vulgar, obscene, threatening, intimidating, harassing, or a violation of workplace policies against discrimination, harassment, or hostility on the account of age, race, religion, sex, ethnicity, nationality, disability, or other protected class, status, or characteristic." "Employees may not use or disclose confidential/proprietary information that is necessary to ensure compliance with securities regulations and other laws." "Employees must maintain the confidentiality of company trade secrets and private or confidential information. Trades secrets may include information regarding the development of systems, processes, products, and technology. Do not post internal reports, policies, procedures or other internal business-related confidential communications online." "Promotional Content: Employees may not refer to the employer by name or publish promotional content. Promotional content is defined as content that is designed to endorse, promote, sell, advertise, or otherwise support the employer and its products and services." (Yes, this company policy was meant to comply with the FTC's endorsement guidelines, too.) Provide definitions: Be sure to define ambiguous words that employees could mistakenly believe are restricting their unionization activities. For example, the term "inappropriate communication" could refer to sexual harassment, but it could also refer to communications about wages (which the NLRB explicitly protects) if the term is not properly defined. There are many other words that also require definitions: misleading, untrue, inaccurate, sensitive, confidential, proprietary, non-public, private, personal, inflammatory, disrespectful, unprofessional, dishonest, unreasonable, objectionable, offensive, demeaning, abusive, damaging, embarrassment, harassment, and defamation. This is not an exhaustive list. When in doubt, define the word clearly. Use examples: In addition to defining ambiguous words, provide examples. For instance, explain that the term "inappropriate communications" refers to activities such as "displaying sexually-oriented material" or "revealing trade secrets." Do not require employees to be courteous and avoid conflict when using social media. Employees could interpret such "courtesy policies" as restricting their unionization activities because discussions about unionization are often heated and cause conflict. Instead, be sure to clarify what kind of conduct is not appropriate (e.g., using profanity) through proper definitions and context. Do not restrict employees from posting about certain topics that federal labor law normally allows them to discuss, such as wages and other terms and conditions of their employment. Do not restrict employees from using social media at work. Federal labor law allows employees to engage in unionization activities while on company premises as long as employees do it during non-work time (e.g., lunch) and in non-work areas (e.g., outdoor picnic area). Do not restrict employees from using the company's name, address, or other information on their online profiles (e.g., Facebook) because such profiles serve as a way for employees to find one another online and possibly communicate about unionization activities. Do not restrict employees from posting pictures of your company's logo, uniforms, etc. because this also restricts employees from posting about their union activity (e.g., posting pictures of coworkers at a union rally wearing pro-union T-shirts that depict the company's logo). Do not restrict employees' communication with the public and press via social media because federal labor law protects these kinds of communications. Do not require employees to explicitly state that whatever they post is their personal opinion every time that they post anything about the company (e.g., "Company XYZ doesn't provide us proper benefits. This is my personal opinion, not that of the company"). Do not require an employee to get approval before they can identify themselves as an employee online. But you may require employees to get the company's permission before they post something on behalf of the company or post something that people could think came from the company directly. Do not restrict employees from becoming Facebook friends with one another or communicating with one another via social media. But you may have a policy that prevents employees from pressuring their coworkers into connecting or communicating with them via social media. Just be sure that the policy clearly applies only to harassing conduct and does not restrict employees from contacting one another for the purpose of engaging in unionization activities. Do not require employees to discuss work-related concerns with their supervisors or managers before they air their frustrations online. But you may suggest that employees should first try to resolve their work-related concerns using internal company procedures. Do not rely on a disclaimer to fix an overly broad social media policy that lacks appropriate definitions and context. For example, one company had a disclaimer in their policy stating, "This policy will not be interpreted or applied so as to interfere with employee rights to self-organize, form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their choosing, or to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection." The NLRB says that this may still conflict with federal labor law because employees may not understand what this statement means and will nonetheless think that they are not allowed to engage in unionization activities. In other words, err on the side of being more specific. That is a lot to take in, so how do you begin? The NLRB has graciously included a full sample of a social media policy in its third report ("It's dangerous to go alone! Take this!"), which is available here. Search for the Operations Memorandum 12-59 published on May 30, 2012; the sample is on pages 22-24. Use this sample as a starting point and remember to also keep in mind the FTC's guidelines that I mentioned earlier. Happy drafting!
  4.   Thank you so much for your kind words!  I tried my best to make it an easy  and fun read.     And I'm so happy that you agree with that observation.  I thought it was really fascinating as it was happening because the transition was so smooth that the players never even noticed it.  In fact, I'm positive that I do it without even realizing it.  And the gender switch is even more interesting--as a female, I often get indirectly referred to as a male (e.g., "kill him!") when I choose a male character even though my fellow players know me. 
  5.   Thank you so much! I am so thrilled that you liked it--this is exactly why I wrote my thesis in the first place, so that people would connect with it.   Which version are you interested in? The reason I ask is that there is the original thesis (2007) and the academic publication (2011).  The 2007 one is 258 pages (and not as polished) and the academic publication is just 22.  Let me know which one you'd like and I'll send it over! 
  6.   Thank you for asking.  Yes, this applies to areas where the NLRB, a government agency in the USA, has jurisdiction.  I apologize for not stating this in the article.