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Style & Culture | CULTURE

A PhD in Mortal Kombat

A pioneering USC group tries to get into the heads of players to learn if the pastime harms or can help.

June 06, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

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."


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 Contact Mary McNamara at Calendar.letters@

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