Playing has an impact on thinking, problem solving and skills
Text: Pirjo Achté
Photo: Jonne Renvall
At the beginning of 2018, Finland's first Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies (CoE) started at the University of Tampere. The Academy of Finland -funded CoE examines the transformation of culture and society through the lens of games. Both the perspective and the scale of the research project are unique.
“Digital games currently present a major transformation in both game cultures and society more widely. New games foster new cultural practices and social interaction, and have a significant impact on mental processes on several levels,” says Director of the Centre of Excellence Frans Mäyrä, professor of information studies and interactive media.
“Profound and far-reaching transformation processes are taking place in the fields of media and technology, which will have vast repercussions on the entire society. Gaming and playing are ancient, enduring and fundamental elements of culture and as they are connected to virtual worlds, characters driven by artificial intelligence, virtual currencies, and other phenomena enabled by new technology, game culture is rapidly evolving,” Mäyrä continues.
The Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies produces both theoretical knowledge, new concepts and models and investigates how to apply research knowledge in practice. The multidisciplinary group of researchers aims to understand games, players and playing in several different contexts, such as work, learning, and health promotion in addition to arts and entertainment. At the same time, they also examine how games are changing people’s attitudes and behaviour, and the entire culture.
“We want to understand how cultural agency develops and changes in the era of games,” Mäyrä says.
Games are becoming a way to participate in culture and everyday life
“We talk about ludification of culture and society, which means development where games and ludic skills become increasingly important and gradually completely natural and transparent ways to participate in culture or everyday life,” Mäyrä explains.
“Playing is essentially about creative problem solving and it has an impact on both our skills and thinking and the ways we solve problems and communicate, also outside of games,” Mäyrä says.
“Participating in a game requires motivation and meaning building, community and devotion. By examining gaming communities, we can predict what the future will also bring more widely,” Mäyrä continues.
The Centre of Excellence is based on three strong research groups at the Universities of Tampere, Jyväskylä and Turku and their approximately thirty game researchers who represent the top of their field.
The study explores the formation of meaning in game cultures and the transformation of cultural agency through four themes.
Research related to the form and meaning of games is directed by Professor Raine Koskimaa from the University of Jyväskylä. At the University of Tampere, Olli Sotamaa directs research on the creation and production of games, while Frans Mäyrä directs research on players and player communities. Research on games in society is led by Professor Jaakko Suominen from the University of Turku.
The CoE is based on more than seventy national and international research projects undertaken by the parties and a decade’s experiences of cooperating in Academy of Finland -funded projects.
The data produced in the project will be opened to both the scientific community and the general public.
Game research impacts many fields
Research conducted by a CoE must also have an impact outside the scientific community.
“The impact of a Centre of Excellence is naturally based on the fact that we produce basic scientific knowledge and understanding on the studied field. For example, our work will be of value in game and media education because teachers and parents must have reliable information. Among other things, game researchers have already created the free Game Educators’ Handbook that teachers and parents can use,” Mäyrä says.
“Research also yields a lot of other impact. A Centre of Excellence may support the creation of new innovations and promote the interaction of experts, game developers and various special groups,” Mäyrä says.
“That people play together is one of the most powerful ways of fostering the community spirit. Playing games crosses over generational, cultural and linguistic barriers. In the multicultural society that is facing global challenges, social gaming and gamified problem-solving have a significant role,” Mäyrä explains.
Games research also creates a better understanding of the ethical and sustainable practices that challenge game companies to develop their products and services. Decision-makers, experts and different authorities may utilise scientific knowledge on the development of games and game cultures, such as the time and money spent on gaming.
Game research started at UTA already in the 1990s
The fact that the first CoE in game research was launched at the University of Tampere is the result of twenty-five years of dedicated work.
The University’s Hypermedia Laboratory started already in 1992. It especially focused on the research of digital games, the open information society, and new information and media services.
Frans Mäyrä was the first professor in the field in Finland when he was appointed professor of hypermedia in 2002. He focused his work on digital culture and game research.
In 2002, Mäyrä founded Finland’s first game research group, UTA’s Game Research Lab. Among other things, the group has studied game design, gaming experiences, ubiquitous playing and other changes related to gaming, as well as various game cultures
In the same year, university-level studies in game research started. More recent milestones at the University of Tampere include appointing Olli Sotamaa as associate professor (tenure track) in the field and Pauliina Raento as the first adjunct professor in gambling studies in 2017.
Researchers at the University of Tampere have also been involved in founding Finnish Museum of Games, which was opened in Tampere at the beginning of 2017. The museum is used in both teaching and research.
UTA grants CoE the Annual Research Award
The Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies was awarded the Annual Research Award in the anniversary party organised at the University of Tampere on Wednesday. Director of CoE, Professor Frans Mäyrä and Associate Professor Olli Sotamaa, who leads the research team at Tampere, were delighted to hear about the award.
“In its current form, game research is a rather young field of science and research. However, with the ludification of culture and society, the development and expansion of the research area has been rapid in recent years, which means that we got the Finnish Academy’s CoE funding at an opportune moment,” Mäyrä says.
“The Annual Research Award also communicates a wider understanding and appreciation of our achievement - it is like the icing on the cake!,” Mäyrä adds.
“We highly appreciate this recognition,” Sotamaa says.
“The multidisciplinary tradition of the University of Tampere has provided a favourable environment for our internationally unique game research group. The CoE funding naturally raises the bar higher. At the same time, it challenges us to critically think about what game culture research has to offer to other disciplines,” Sotamaa points out.