A PhD in Mortal Kombat

Times Staff Writer

Ever since they were children, Steve Choi, Ethan Levy and Elaine Chan have been told by people who never met them that the great passion of their lives, the thing that captivated and moved them, was the enemy of intellect, emotionally damaging and quite possibly the end of civilization as we know it.

Choi, Levy and Chan are gamers. That is, they play video games with serious devotion and intensity. They are also students at the University of Southern California -- Choi and Levy, both 22, are entering their senior year, and Chan, 21, is working on her PhD. But far from merely overcoming their digital predilections to succeed in college, these three and others like them are using their knowledge of games like Mortal Kombat and the Sims to further their education. As members of USC's Computer Games project, they are the local vanguard of a new academic discipline: video game scholarship.

Choi recalls that his mother gave him a computer when he was 8 because she felt computer science was the career path of the future; she was, however, less then thrilled when her son began spending much of his on-screen time playing games.

"All our lives we've heard how terrible it is," Choi says. "I wanted to offer the other side of the question."

Created through the Annenberg School for Communication, the Annenberg Studies on Computer Games is a multidisciplinary, multigenerational, multilingual research group dedicated to the study of computer games. The year-old group is one of several game-related projects springing up at universities around the country. MIT, Stanford, the University of Michigan and Northwestern University have various projects researching different aspects of interactive media. But USC's computer games project is probably the largest and most diverse collection of professors and students studying the vast yet mysterious world of video games. The research at USC focuses on the gamer rather than game design or development, and much of what they are doing is groundbreaking.

The project is the creation of Peter Vorderer, who heads the school's entertainment studies program, and Ute Ritterfeld, a German research associate professor with a background in health sciences and psychology. "We are trying to find out not only what is bad but what is good," Ritterfeld says. "Every new technology is met with fear and criticism. When picture books first came out, people said they would ruin children's imaginations; with radio it was the same; movies, television the same. We are trying to find out what is real and what is just fear."

After years of snubbing video games as a phenomenon not worth researching, scholars are now frantically attempting to catch up with an interactive media industry that is increasingly prevalent, seemingly permanent and still so new that the people developing it are the ones who are using it.

Ritterfeld says the topic itself is polarizing. "The nongamers consistently criticize the games, the gamers defend them. They honestly can't imagine any harm in them. What's really needed is more research."

Chan knows what true gamers face -- she spent one summer doing nothing but playing the online role-playing games she favors. Over the years, though, she has learned to keep her gaming habits to herself. "Whenever I mention that I'm sort of obsessed with video games everyone is shocked and horrified and asks, 'Well, how did you make it to USC?' " she says. "Even in the computer group," she adds with a laugh.

The 20-person USC group is an international lot, including members from Germany, China, Ukraine, India and Korea as well as all over the U.S. In the past years, it's developed or launched studies into areas as diverse as the effect of violent games on brain activity, the motivation of gamers, the benefits of interactive learning, and the role of narrative and character development in the games themselves.

While two of the studies will focus on the hot-button issue of violence, most are geared toward discovering what psychological needs the games fill and what role they can have in education and mass audience entertainment.

In one study planned for this summer, researchers will test the conventional wisdom that interactive learning is more productive than rote. "Everyone assumes children will learn more if they are playing a game," Ritterfeld says. "But we do not know that because it has never been tested."

Vorderer, who has edited several books on the psychology of entertainment, is already compiling a book about gaming, which he believes is changing not just the industry but the definition of entertainment.

"When we started, we thought, 'Well, games are cool and under-researched so this will be a good area,' " Vorderer said. "But the more work we do, it is so striking how everything is connected to games. The military, the movies, education, everyone is doing games."

MUCH TO LEARN

Here is what is known about computer games: They are the fastest-growing area of the entertainment market; last year, when games sales reached $11.4 billion, which surpassed U.S. box office figures, studios all over town began opening or gearing up their interactive divisions. The median age of gamers has risen to 27, and almost half are women. Men prefer violent, combat-heavy games, women are more into role-playing. The Sims, in which players create virtual families and homes and lives, is the most popular computer game of all time with 6.3 million units sold.

Here is what is not known about computer games: Why people play them often with a dedication that borders on obsession. What effect the violence in the games has on the brain activity of the players. If gaming is a social or antisocial activity. If computer games can be more effective as learning tools than other educational games. How gaming is changing the entertainment industry and, more broadly, the cultural landscape.

Traditionalists may shudder at the thought, but it is now possible to minor in computer games at some American universities, including USC, where courses in game design and development are offered through engineering or computer science departments. Earlier this year, Redwood City-based Electronic Arts, one of the largest game developers in the country, gave the USC Cinema-Television school $8 million to help set up, among other things, an interactive entertainment design program.

But academics in the humanities are traditionally more interested in impact and motivation than design. There are some firmly held opinions about people who play video games, from the idea that violent games somehow contribute to school shooting tragedies -- after the Columbine High School massacre, the Federal Trade Commission pressured the video game industry to enforce ratings to keep violent games out of the hands of kids -- to the general fear that the game-happy Gen X, Y and Z will grow up with brains turned to mush and thumbs morphed into club-like digits by Game Boy.

Yet little empirical analysis has been done on anything having to do with gaming. Video game companies regularly conduct research, but most of it is simple focus group reactions to games near completion. The relatively small number of academic studies that exist focus almost exclusively on violence, the most recent linking aggressive behavior during play to aggressive tendencies after play. But thus far the research has been done mainly through surveys set up along lines similar to television research. Which, Vorderer says, is not necessarily applicable.

"This is a completely different medium," he says. "It is proactive rather than passive, so it fills different needs, uses different portions of the brain."

One of the first studies Ritterfeld and colleague Rene Weber initiated involved doing MRI brain scans on 14 gamers while they played Atari's Tactical Ops. (Because the study was conducted by the neuroscience department at the University of Tubingen in Germany, Ritterfeld had to send for the American version of the game, the German version being markedly less violent.)

The brain impulses of the participants, all young men, were recorded for an hour, a length of time unheard of in MRI research. Typically, Weber says, people who are not being tested for a life-threatening disease can withstand the loud and claustrophobic MRI machine for a maximum of about 20 minutes. But the gamers, who were asked at regular intervals if they would like to stop, were so focused on the game that they not only made it through the requested hour but almost to a person agreed to do another hour for comparison purposes.

"It was just amazing," says Weber, who, as the group's methodologist, has been analyzing the data by comparing, in 24-second intervals, exactly what was on the computer screen with what was going on in the participants' brains. "It was like they were unaware of anything but the game."

Ritterfeld and Weber will compile their findings this summer and present them at the National Communication Assn. conference in Chicago in November. Though it's too early to draw definite conclusions, Weber says he thinks "we can see aggression-like brain activity when they play." One hypothesis, Ritterfeld says, is that some players are just trying to play the game well, while others enjoy the violence.

Vorderer and some of his PhD students are launching another study gauging players' reactions to different scenarios -- civilians versus soldiers, women versus men, animals and inanimate objects versus people, even young people versus adults (although he was not able to create targets that were children. "We had to make them look 18 or older," he said.).

About 70% of video games contain violence. And although this year's crop includes a larger number of women as protagonists and victims, the figures in most games are men in their 20s, and these, Vorderer says, appear to be the most expendable, at least in the gamer philosophy. "But that could just be because that is all there are, young men to shoot at," he says. "We want to see if changing the target sensitizes the players in any way."

'NOT ENOUGH RESPECT'

Vorderer and Ritterfeld, a married couple, came to USC in 2002, from Germany. Experimental researchers in all areas of the media, they had familiarity with video games, but like many others they were inclined toward criticism of the violence and what they considered mind-numbing repetition. Only one of the other seven professors in the group had played computer games except as a form of research. But when they began mentioning the group in undergraduate classes, gamers started introducing themselves, wanting to know what was going on. The group asked them to share their experiences, and the students were happy to do so. Which was how Levy and Choi got involved. They help design and conduct the studies, but they also serve as reality checks and translators for the academics, many of whom came of age pre-Pac-Man.

Levy says he's been playing since he was a conscious human being -- his first game experience he thinks happened when he was 3 -- and he considers himself an advocate for his generation.

"I felt like I had a spot as an expert in that I was someone who had actually played the games," Levy says. "There's not enough respect shown by academics toward games except this group and some design classes. Academics view it as a children-designated industry, but that's not true. Gamers are playing for life now."

Levy, who has also worked for the last year and a half as a game designer at Pandemic Studios in Westwood, says he is tired of arguing with people who have never even played a video game.

"Yes, it's violent," he says. "But football is violent and no one has a problem enrolling kids in Pee Wee league."

At a meeting this spring, Levy and Choi found themselves explaining various aspects of the Sims to several of the faculty who had considered the game in theoretical terms. The Sims, which has a spinoff, Urbz, due out soon, crosses gender lines. This summer and next year, Choi will be working on a survey of Sims players, looking at the game from the players' point of view. But he already has a few ideas, based on personal experience. "Girls play Sims to play house and explore relationships," he says. "Guys play it to play God. Control."

Although the undergraduate students involved in the group are gamers, many of the graduate students are more interested in video games as extensions of research on child psychology or entertainment theory. Kate Pieper is interested in how shifts in technology affect learning and whether actual violence can be triggered by digital violence. "It's a whole new area, so little is actually known," she says when asked why she joined the group.

Chan, however, is in it for the games. "I'm interested in people," she says, "but it's always been about the game. My whole application [to Annenberg] was about studying games."

The Annenberg School provided the group's initial funding, but now its members are seeking financial backing for the studies they have begun, as well as new research, from a variety of academic and industry-related sources.

Vorderer and Ritterfeld note that when they proposed a panel on video games for the recent International Communication Assn. convention held in New Orleans, they were refused. So they decided to organize a breakfast. Within a few days, they had more people signing up for the breakfast than for most of the panel discussions.

"See," Vorderer said to Choi when he announced this at a recent meeting. "Now your parents will understand how important it was that you were playing games when they thought you should be studying."

Recent coverage of video games and the E3 convention in L.A. is at latimes.com/videogames. Contact Mary McNamara at Calendar.letters@ latimes.com.

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