CPD Faculty Member Dmitri Williams on Video Game Diplomacy
This feature was included in CPD's 2022–2023 Annual Report. View this and other stories here.
Dmitri Williams is a professor at USC Annenberg, where he teaches courses on technology and society, games and data analytics. His current work focuses on the study of influence among populations through the concept of “social value.”
- Why is it important for communication professionals to understand the world of video games?
I love this question. One way of thinking about it is to ask the same question of better-understood media like TV, movies, radio, or even reading: Why is it important for communication professionals to understand any of those? The answers there are obvious: Because that’s how people have their world views and values shaped and influenced.
We have decades of research showing us how mass media impact individuals and groups, whether that’s something like attitudes towards smoking or something wonkier like attitudes towards a group of people or a policy. We know this independent of how we might personally view the worth of those media. Ask a policy maker whether TV or, say reading the New York Times is “better” and you’ll get an answer that fits their values, but the savvy policy maker will understand that each is important in shaping public opinion, and that maybe only a small slice of people actually read any newspaper.
So, take that same lens to gaming, which you may or may not think of as worthwhile. It’s simply so large and so dominant that it wouldn’t make any sense to think it isn’t equally impactful. By some accounts, gaming is a larger industry than newspapers, books, music, TV and movies combined. It’s about a $200-billion/year medium globally, and it’s consumed regularly by a majority of the world’s population. Anywhere there are screens, including phones, there are games. It’s now all ages, and nearly equally gendered. That’s a lot of impressions, filled with ideas, heroes and villains, plot lines, values, and subtext. Are the effects of games stronger or weaker than older legacy media? We don’t know for sure, but there’s a decent argument made that by actively participating rather than passively consuming, a player may think or process more heavily than compared to TV.
So the short answer to the question is: You need to understand (and maybe want to impact) the ideas people consume, and this is where they do it. Meet them where they are.
- Can you talk about the globalization of video games, and regional differences?
First, forget about consoles for a moment because they are a small fraction of gaming now. Games have become a fully global phenomenon, thanks largely to the ubiquity of the smartphone and the free-to-play business model. The former is the peace dividend from wars between manufacturers and the latter is the side effect of the Chinese economy both embracing piracy as well as models to fight piracy. As a result, we now have “free” games on phones worldwide, which extract money from a relatively small minority of players, but are played by billions everywhere.
That means we can have truly global brands and IP, though many don’t translate that well. 55% of the world’s players are in Asia, though the per capita spending is vastly higher in the US and Europe. You want to ask where the games are made, where they are consumed, and what kinds of stories work across borders. We see culturally specific stories not going very far, while broader, more human stories can go everywhere. So, you might have Three Kingdoms stories in China, but few outside of China and the Chinese diaspora will relate to them. Likewise, a US Western game or context won’t make much sense outside of the US. But, giant robots or stories about love, families, or fast cars are more universal.
There are also a million translational and cultural challenges for game makers like progressive values in the West not being accepted in other regions, no blood being allowed in Germany, bones being taboo in China (try making a game with skeletons without bones…), and on and on. Then, consider who is making the games and whether they are even aware of these differences. The beauty of the world is its immense diversity, but it’s also a challenge for cultural producers and games are no exception.
- Can you describe your research into social value in the gaming word, and discuss the implications?
My recent research focuses on a phenomenon called “Social Value,” which is a measurement of how much people influence each other. We have an algorithm that can take data from a game, or from sales data or many other sources, and then be able to say “This person caused these other people to do something, or do more of it.” Without that person, the others just do less. That thing could be spending money, or spending time somewhere, or really anything there’s a record of. This works at any scale, from two people to two billion, and it’s very accurate.
That technology allows us to see two things right away. First, at the micro level, we can tell who the influencers and influencers are, and how much impact they have. We tend to find an 80/20 rule, in which about 20% of the people have about 80% of the influence. The implications there are that if you want to affect something or someone, you are smart to focus on the people who affect others. It’s about ripples on a pond, and knowing where to throw.
At the macro level, we can take all of the individuals and roll them up, which tells us how much of everyone’s behavior is caused by other people. We can then compare that to how much is caused by things that aren’t other people. What we seem to find pretty regularly is that about 25% of what people do is directly caused by other people, and so 75% is caused by anything else–how good or bad something is, the weather, or whatever. The implication there is that a system of people may have an overall social level of X today, and maybe Y tomorrow. Knowing why that is opens up the possibility of steering it. Or, it can simply be used as a benchmark.
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