Divergent Design Competence in the RPG Maker Community: GLS Presentation

I am thrilled to be back in Madison, if only for a few days, for the Games Learning and Society conference. Now in it’s 6th year, it is very cool to see how much the conference has grown and matured since I worked on the first two years of the conferences organizing committee. This year I am excited to be presenting a poster on some of my RPG research. Along with presenting my poster in person I wanted to put it up to share with everyone who isn’t at the conference.

I have included the brief text from my poster here too.

The RPG Maker VX Community site provides its more than 40,000 members a space to collaboratively critique and design PC role-playing games. This poster presents preliminary results from a qualitative study of this community. Analysis of interviews and discussions on the RPG Maker site, combined with information gathered through a survey suggest that the RPG Maker Community is scaffolding young game enthusiasts into a deeper understanding of game design and allied digital art perspectives. The study proposes a model for how members join, advance, and develop new literacy competencies through participation in the community.

Conceptual Context:
Online affinity communities are increasingly being explored as places where young people are acquiring new literacies (Gee, 2004). Through extensive ethnographic fieldwork Ito and others (2010) found young people “geeking out” in web based affinity communities where individuals are “learning to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participating in communities that traffic in these forms of expertise” (p. 28). Studies of Flickr (Davies, 2006), fan fiction sites (Black, 2005), and Civilization fan-sites (Squire & giovanetto 2008; Owens 2010) support the idea that young people are acquiring critical new literacy skills in these communities.

The communal and cooperative nature of these informal learning communities suggests that they be understood as communities of practice (Lave & Wenger 1991). Community members develop competence and refine their skills toward mastery through interaction and engagement, and encouragement from expert community members. The RPG Maker community offers a space to further examine these kinds of interest and affinity driven spaces.

Research Design:
This poster presents part of a larger multi-method study of the RPG Maker Community. The larger study uses a randomized survey of participants to chart general demographic information and involvement in the community, in-depth interviews with a purposeful sample of ten community members to document participant reactions and understanding, and analysis of forum discussions and rules posted on the community site to examine the actual interactions of community participants. This poster reports preliminary results from these three data sets, focusing primarily on articulating a model of community engagement and the competencies community members develop.

Model of Individual Community Engagement and Competence Development:

Snippets from Interviews:
The poster format does not really provide an extensive space to analyze data, but I did want to give a sense of the kind of materials I have been working with to develop this model. In the future I will do some more in depth analysis of these kinds of materials. With that said, this does provide a flavor for the kinds of data I am drawing on.

Analysis of the interviews and discussions on the RPG Maker site, combined with information gathered through a survey suggest that the RPG Maker Community is scaffolding game enthusiasts into a deeper understanding of game design and art and allied art and design perspectives. This work supports the following theory for engagement in the community. Members join to gain access to the resources, character sprites, maps, scripts, and other artwork. Some then engage in a cycle of critical dialog with other community members. The evidence suggests that those who persist in engaging in this dialog develop a range of critical competencies 21st century skills and new literacies in art and design.

So Who Are the RPG Makers? Preliminary Survey Results

I am excited to report that i have finished gathering data from my RPG Maker VX community survey and am well on the way toward finishing interviews with a subset of the respondents. For more information about this project see my previous post. At this point I thought I would share a cursory overview of some of the interesting preliminary survey findings. For those survey research junkies out there I should make clear that this survey is part of a qualitative research project. It was developed strictly as a means to gather descriptive data to provide a broader context for analyzing discussions on the site and interviews with community members. For details on the survey methods and response rates jump down to the last section of the post.

This is a community of young people:
Most of the community members are between the ages of 16 and 24, and of those most are between 18 and 22.  As I will document through analysis of discussions and interviews the members of this community are developing sophisticated practices for taking and giving criticism as well as working collaboratively. In this space young people are both the teachers and the learners. While critics frequently lament students motivation and hard work it is clear that this communal space is providing a place for young people to cut their teeth as artists, designers, critics, and producers of digital media.

This is a global community:
45% of the sample reports living in the United States. The rest of the group is spread across Europe, South America, and Asia. A majority of community members reported English as their native language (64%) the remaining 36% represent a smattering of other languages, including Spanish, French and Japanese.

These young people are not just playing around
Most of those surveyed have been involved for more than a year and report spending a considerable amount of time each week on writing, design, and art projects for their games. Group members show significantly different amounts of time spent on different parts of projects. Some spend the bulk of their time writing others spend the bulk of their time creating game artwork.

This is a place where young people are first exposed to programing

RPG Maker VX includes a scripting system, Ruby Game Scripting System, which extends the Ruby Computer Programing language. Nearly all (83%) of the community members report that they have used the games scripting system, and 35% of the respondents reported that working with RPG Maker was their first experience with computer code.

These young people strongly identify with hits from the “RPG Cannon”
When asked about their favorite video games participants cited a mixture of current and “classic” games. To get a quick sense of the kinds of games which appeared most frequently, scan the word frequency chart I generated with Wordle bellow. This is just the raw frequency of individual words, but it is easy to see the trends which emerge around some of the most famous super Nintendo role playing games and franchises. The Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger, Legend of Zelda, Secret of Mana, Breath of Fire, all appear prominently on respondents lists of favorite games. It is worth keeping in mind that many of these games were original released around or before the majority of these community members were born.

As RPG Maker allows players to make these kinds of games, it makes sense that these kinds of games are also part of their list of favorites. While some might think of the kinds of graphics and formats for games which RPG Maker creates are a weakness of the software, there is good reason to believe that these gamers love for SNES RPGs connects them to a kind of game and experience which they find deeply engaging.

Surveying a community without boundaries:
It is best to develop a survey with a specific population in mind. Part of the difficulty of surveying a diffuse community like the online community associated with the RPG Maker VX site is in defining the boundaries of that community. The site has over 40k members, and during any given visit to the site nearly twice as many non-members are viewing the discussion boards as members. It would be impossible to accurately sample non-members who visit the site, there is no trace of their visits. With that said, instead of setting upfront criteria for who counted as a community member (based on post count, or number of visits, or the length of time they have been involved in the community) I decided to create a sample of individuals who had logged in within the last week. While this will inherently sample more frequently involved users it would also include a sizable segment of other more infrequent visitors. To sample a cross-section of community members in a given week I used the sites member search system to sift through the total number of folks who had logged in over the proceeding week, in this case it was 1740 members.  From there I sampled a randomly selected group of 160 members. I have received 85 responses, giving me a respectable 53% response rate.

Limitations with the sample
In accordance with George Mason’s human subjects review boards requirements I did not contact anyone who either did not list their age or listed their age as less than 18. In the process of creating the sample I rejected individuals that fell into these categories. Most individuals did list their age and only 10 of the randomly selected members listed themselves a under age 18.

While the response rage is acceptable, I will note two reasons for why members may not have responded. The community message system has used as a mass emailing system for bots. In many cases potential respondents required me to offer a range if kinds of evidence to demonstrate that I was in fact a human before they would click the link to take the survey. Aside from fear of bots, in two cases I heard from individuals who were uncomfortable taking a survey in English because it was not their native language. This suggests that the survey may not fully capture the international character of the community.

Becoming Storytellers and Game Makers in the RPG Maker VX Community

A while back, I wrote a post about a very neat piece of software called RPG Maker. I never really got to building a game with it, but I have become fascinated with the community that has come together around the software.  This post begins a series of entries about a research project I have started to explore how this community is scaffolding game players into game makers. In this post I will briefly outline some of the interesting. The image below shows an screen shot from Prelude to Identity, a well received game in the community.

Image from popular RPG Maker Game Prelude of Identity

Daily Composition on the RPG Maker VX boards

Everyday several hundred members of the RPG Maker VX Community read through a new set of project development posts on the community’s forums. In each of these posts amateur game designers, primarily between the ages of 18 and 24, share 500-1000 word game proposals for community critique. These posts include elements of traditional composition, like the proposed games setting, characters, and storyline. They also include elements unique to games as new media, like the proposed game’s mechanics, artwork, and audio. Over the next few days, each of these proposed projects receives extensive feedback from the community. After substantial revision, refinement, development, and continued engagement with the community, some of the community members’ complete their games and share them with the group.

For an example of some of the thoughtful kinds of design and composition that goes into creating game maps see Mr. Moo‘s video of a follow up game Crescendo of Identity.

Short Outline of Project Methods

I have received permission from my schools human subjects review board to explore the community through a diverse set of methods. I have started conducting a survey to get a sense of community members activity, behaviors, and participation. In a few weeks I will start and a set of interviews with community members to get a deeper sense of how members understand their participation and explore some of the various roles they are taking on. My goal is to then use the survey and interviews to help add texture and context to a detailed analysis of community interactions as preserved on the message boards.

I have already started to get back survey results. I am excited to share some of the preliminary information here in the next few weeks.

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How Do We Get The Necessary Self Efficacy To Code

original image from uaeincrediable
original image from Capture Queen http://flickr.com/photos/uaeincredible/

For all the talk of read/write culture and how digital media has blurred the lines between producer and consumer, (or even prosumer if you like making up words) there is much less conversation about learning to write code. In my experience these conversations happen, almost exclusively, about tools that use graphical interfaces and wysiwyg editors for content creation. I think Marc Prensky is right in suggesting that programing itself is a new literacy, or even better yet I would suggest it’s really a deeper conception of digital literacy. In calling something a literacy were making it a fundamental, and I think the database driven programmatic nature of new media requires that folks start to take a proactive approach to making programing a part of our general education approach.

Before we can even really talk about that goal however there is something I think we need to figure out first. Many people don’t think they have it in them to work with code. I have seen people who are masters at manipulating things in complicated programs with graphical interfaces. Folks that can do amazing things in Final Cut, people who have no trouble troubleshooting issues that arise with their operating systems, but who power down when anything from HTML to C++ is mentioned. I frequently hear, “I can’t do that”, “I’m not a coder” or similar statements rooted in idenity, afinity and self-efficacy.

It is important to note that I say this, not as a confident coder but as someone who has gotten over his own fears about working through hunks of code. The things I have done, editing and tweaking Omeka and WordPress themes, hacking CSL‘s to get customized export from Zotero making a minor fix to one of Zotero’s translators, all required no training in JavaScript, or XML. Once I was comfortable with skipping chunks of stuff I did not understand I was generally able to get these things to do what I wanted to do. In these cases at least, the biggest barrier was my own lack of self efficacy with the idea of doing things with code.

There are a lot of great ways learn to code. (For a good list check out Karin Dalziel’s post, its directed at librarians but there are some great resources there.) However, I have not seen much work focusing on how we can get people over the paralysis that comes from the belief that it writing code is outside their grasp. To really break down these barriers, and get more folks to a deeper level of digital literacy, I think we need to know more about where that fear comes from and start developing stratigies for overcomming it.