Notes from conference on NY Games community

Following are my notes from the first panel of Friday’s min-conference, “GAME THEORY/PLAY MONEY“, sponsored by DIGRA-NY. This is a new initiative to bring together the NY games community. The conference looked fascinating, but I unfortunately had to leave after the first panel.


James Grimmelmann is Associate Professor at New York Law School and a member of its Institute for Information Law and Policy. He received his J.D. from Yale Law School, where he was Editor-in-Chief of LawMeme and a member of the Yale Law Journal. Prior to law school, he received an A.B. in computer science from Harvard College and worked as a programmer for Microsoft. He has served as a Resident Fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale, as a legal intern for Creative Commons and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and as a law clerk to the Honorable Maryanne Trump Barry of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He studies how the law governing the creation and use of computer software affects the distribution of wealth, power, and freedom in society. As a lawyer and technologist, he aims to help these two groups speak intelligibly to each other. He writes on such topics as intellectual property, virtual worlds, search engines, electronic commerce, online privacy, and the use of software as a regulator. Recent publications include The Structure of Search Engine Law, 93 Iowa L. Rev. 1 (2007), Virtual Borders, First Monday (Feb. 2006), and Regulation by Software, 114 Yale L.J. 1719 (2005). In 2007, he was named one of Interview Magazine’s “New Pop A-List: 50 To Watch (Age 30 or Under).” He has been blogging since 2000 at the Laboratorium ( His home page is at

Katherine Isbister is an Associate Professor of Digital Media at NYU-Poly, and also maintains an affiliation at the ITU Copenhagen Center for Computer Games Research. Dr. Isbister has written two books: Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach, and Game Usability: Advice from the Experts for Advancing the Player Experience. Better Game Characters was nominated for a Game Developer Magazine Frontline Award in 2006. Current research interests include emotion and gesture in games, supple interactions, design of game characters, and game usability.

Aram Sinnreich is a Visiting Professor at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication, where he teaches courses on video games, intellectual property and digital culture. He is also the Managing Partner of Radar Research, a media and technology consultancy. He has written about media, culture and technology for publications including The New York Times, Billboard, Wired News, Truthdig and American Quarterly. As a Senior Analyst at Jupiter Research in New York for over five years (1997-2002), he produced research covering the online music and media industries and provided hands-on strategic consulting to companies ranging from Time Warner to Microsoft to Heineken. Aram’s kicked World of Warcraft, and is now quasi-addicted to Spore.

Mary Flanagan investigates everyday technologies through critical writing, artwork, and activist design projects. Flanagan’s work has been exhibited internationally at museums, festivals, and galleries, including: the Guggenheim, The Whitney Museum of American Art, SIGGRAPH, The Banff Centre, The Moving Image Centre, New Zealand, Central Fine Arts Gallery NY, Artists Space NY, the University of Arizona, University of Colorado-Boulder, and venues in Brazil, France, UK, Canada, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Australia. Her projects have been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Pacific Cultural Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Please visit her site at:

Liel Liebovitz received his doctorate from Columbia University in 2007. His dissertation, titled “Thinking Inside the Box: Towards an Ontology of Video Games,” examines the personal and social processes of play. Liel also served as associate professor of communications at Barnard College, and taught at Marymount Manhattan College. He is the author of two books of non-fiction: “Aliya,” published in 2006 by St. Martin’s Press, and “Lili Marlene,” scheduled for publication by W.W. Norton in 2008.


Sinnreich: There’s a land grab going on in academe: every department wants to own games.
Flanagan: A similar land grab happened with film studies. There’s also a lot of money involved in this for grants.
Sinnreich: Growing 30-40% YOY, while film is flat and music is down. Also, military is very interested in this.

Liebovitz: Can we formally define a game?
Sinnreich: No, not possible.
Flanagan: most innovative games don’t fit within clear definitions.

Liebovitz: Why are video games compelling?
Flanagan: there are many innovative ways to define games.
Sinnreich: there is expectation of transformability.

Question: Are video games as a medium likely to have any long term sociopolitical effects? (compare with longstanding debate about argument of impact of TV on crime/politics)

Grimmelmann: TV didn’t radically change human nature. Viewers kept on living their lives.

Question: What about idea of forming guilds in Obama campaign: “yes we can?”. Does this create energy that could be used towards sociopolitical goals?

Isbister: TV was an isolationist blip. Games move us back to doing things together.

Sinnreich: I just wrote on my blog that Barack Obama is the first mashup candidate. He’s black and white, foreign and domestic. Instead of being a flat neutral candidate, he’s more than the sum of his parts. He’s like “Careless Dead” (mashup of “Careless Whispers” and “Dead or Alive”).

Isbister: Constants include: people like to be social. People have emotions.
Flanagan: We do a lot of social activist games. A game is a framework of action/agency. If we frame that so certain types of actions are allowed (e.g., certain types of communication in WoW are allowed) we impact the culture. Must think about how games create epistemological systems.

Question: What is the role of ‘glory’ in video games, e.g., the high scorers list which motivates people to join it?

Flanagan: you have the creatives, who re-skin; come up with new clothes; reengineer the structures. You also have disrupters, who like to vandalize.

Sinnreich: Games are a model for the free agent economy.
Isbister: I tell my students that eventually on their business card, they’ll put on their business card which guild they were in; what their high scores were.
Grimmelmann: rack of medals on a uniform is just a score, in the ‘game of killing people’

Sinnreich: football, soccer are martial games.
Liebovitz: There’s a huge misnomer in games, which is the idea of interactivity. However, when you actually study the game, you learn that you’re operating within a very tiny window of what the designer allows. However, the game is designed so that you think that what YOU are doing is driving your choices.
Sinnreich: Video games are information spaces which can be explored. One of the biggest questions of the era: if you give someone the tools to explore/discover the space, are they exercising free will /agency, or are there actions being overdetermined? Jon Zittrain’s new book is about that.

The first video game I fell in love with was Atari 2600 game, called Number Crunchers. You drive your car over numbers, and whoever goes over the biggest numbers wins. However, there was a bug: if you slid on the number sideways, you got stuck on the number, and you would go to 100 very quickly. That to me was compelling; I had to buy that game.

Grimmelmann: you have to balance between being entirely passive, and giving someone too many options. It’s like dancing, and the tension between being in the lead and the follower role.
Liebovitz: Cheating has become so common in video games, and is written into the code. This is a major subindustry in the code. It’s the “invisible towrope”: you look like you’re skiing but there’s really an invisible towrope.

Sinnreich: there’s a dance going on.
Grimmelmann: one of my favorite children’s books is “There’s a Monster at the End of this Book”, in which Grover tries to stop you from flipping the pages of the book. It subverts the medium.
Flanagan: In Animal Crossing, you can stop and get coffee. There’s a pleasure of discovery in doing that. This is a machine-operated diagetic space. The computer does stuff when you’re not there, to convince you that the world is bigger than just you.
Liebovitz: nothing suggests agency in a game like the ability to stop playing. Question for Isbister:, please comment on relationship between player and character. Games enhance your own powers.

Sinnreich: When I was playing GTA 4, I had to choose whom to kill, but had 2 perspective: my own moral sense of values, and the game’s values.
Isbister: I feel the tension of wearing the narrative suit which doesn’t fit
Flanagan: In the video game “Eve” (?), you start out as a debutante in heels and a ball gown at the opera. The singer turns into an opera singer, who then turns into a monster you must high heels. There were many blog posts I saw about how this impacted game play?”I really felt like I knew what it was to be a woman.” (laughter)
Flanagan: “Values at Play” is a collaborative effort between a game philosopher and me. We’re exploring what it means to make human values the center of the design. We’re not trying to make decisions about which values are ‘better’, but to think about design issues.
Flanagan: Big theme of game developers conference was growth of independent games, which were winning a lot of the awards.
Flanagan: Values are embedded in a game whether we acknowledge it or not. I just did an interview with They asked, “Do all games have to have shooting?” I recently went to a school to look at a dance game. One of the kids said, “This isn’t a game, because you can’t kill anyone.” What a strange generation to think play=killing someone.
Isbister: bestselling games are always simulation and sports. The key values of these games are novelty and consumption. They make a new version of the sports game every season, and you can’t play the old game.
Sinnreich: Casual games are the way out of the box of ‘you have to kill someone’. There are more adult women than teenage boys playing video games in the US right now?especially Nintendo.
Sinnreich: For the first time, all the mainstream console games are truly networked, and all the major games integrate that network functionality into the games. So we’re not tied to games that are stored on little metal disks.

Question: What are challenges of ‘governing’ the economy of a game?
Grimmelmann: Eve Online has a very tolerant attitude to money changing. It’s based in Iceland. I wonder if it’s being used as a channel for currency.

Howard Bloomfield is looking at doing tests of different regulatory regimes in games.

Question: The video game Rock Band recently beat out itunes for music rights to Beatles catalog. Aram, you wrote that the music industry is shifting to getting revenues mainly from licensing.

Sinnreich: The dominant form in which people listen to music now is the playlist. It’s not a question of ‘album’ vs.’ single’. There is not an ipod user who hasn’t experimented with making his own ‘greatest hits’ record. The Beatles catalog is perfect test case for merging the interoperability of video games with a pure consumption oriented medium.

Audience questions
Question: Can a game not be Calvinball by definition?
Grimmelmann: The contextualizing of Calvinball in regular games is critical. Calvinball doesn’t make sense unless you know croquet, baseball, etc.

Question: “America’s Army” was a video game developed specifically as a recruiting tool. Comment.

L :We’ll never have a truly successful propaganda video game, because it’s too interactive a medium.
Teten: What can managers learn motivating power of video games?
Sinnreich: the Chinese gold farmers who work in WoW, they play WoW in their off-hours because they’re with their friends. When I was at a dot-com, we played Age of Empires on the company’s LAN.
Liebovitz: Heidegger said humans are different from all other animals because they know they’re mortal. Games free us of that onus.

Question: Who’s doing interesting research in games.
Flanagan: Esward Costranova
Liebovitz: JL Sherry, who’s found little correlation between games and violence.
Isbister: ‘pencil test’. Researchers asked people to study a certain interface in which you manipulated a pencil with your mouth?either clench your teeth (frown) or hold a smile. The people who had to hold a smile liked the interface much more.