Research

Between Gaming and Gambling: investigating children and young people’s experiences and understandings of gambling style systems in digital games (funded by ESRC, value £351,903, 2019-21)

I am currently principal investigator on an ESRC project with Dr Sarah Mills (Loughborough University) that is examining gambling style systems in digital games.

The digital games industry (broadly encompassing mobile, PC and console games) is increasingly adopting gambling style systems in their games in order to increase revenue. These gambling style systems take many forms, but primarily work to encourage players to unlock digital content in games that can only be accessed through systems of chance, which are purchased with real currency.

As Griffiths and King (2015) argue, there is a number of similarities between the techniques and mechanisms involved in the design of gambling style systems such as loot boxes in digital games and regulated gambling. For instance, both are designed to exploit desires for ‘one more go’ and the hope that the next box will have the item the player is looking for, thus making up for previous ‘failed’ purchases, where no desired or valuable item was present (Schull 2012). But, unlike gambling, which is a highly regulated activity in the UK and limited to people over the age of 18, gambling style systems in digital games are unregulated and regularly targeted at children and young people under 18.

Focusing on children’s experiences and practices and also engaging families and games designers, the project seeks to understand how young people use, make sense of and respond to gambling style systems in digital games in their everyday lives. Moving beyond purely legal or formal analyses of these systems, the project addresses the key societal question of whether these systems encourage gambling like behaviour and if they do then how can these systems and services be regulated? In doing so, the project will produce evidence to inform regulatory debate and influence public policy around gambling systems in digital games and changing definitions of digital gambling more broadly.

Digital Interfaces and Debt: Understanding mediated decision making in High-Cost-Short-Term Credit (funded by ESRC, value £202,657, 2016-18)

I was principal investigator on an ESRC funded project entitled ‘Digital Interfaces and Debt: understanding mediated decision making processes in high cost short term credit products’ with co-investigators Dr Ben Anderson, Dr Paul Langley and Dr Rachel Gordon that ran between 2016-18.

This 18 month project sought to understand how consumers access HCSTC (High Cost Short Term Credit), such as cash and pay day loans through digital interfaces, on personal computers and mobile devices and in turn how these interfaces shape decision making processes regarding the purchasing of credit. The project developed a novel approach to debt as an everyday phenomenon that is mediated through the relationship between technology and embodied practice. Understanding how people become indebted through digital interfaces is critical to analyzing and explaining contemporary indebtedness because 82% of cash and pay day loans, a key form of HCSTC, are now applied for and managed via digital interfaces on laptops, tablets and smart phones (Competition and Markets Authority, 2015). Through original empirical investigation with designers and users of mobile interfaces, debt support charities and financial regulators, the research generated new evidence about everyday experiences of debt and indebtedness and contributes to important societal and academic debates about emerging forms of credit and problematic forms of economic subjectivity.

The outputs from the project are ongoing, but so far include a final report and policy recommendations, an educational smart phone app for Apple and Android devices and a range of academic publications including articles in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Cultural Geographies and Economy and Society.

Game Interfaces (funded by ESRC 1+3 PhD studentship, value £61,500, 2004-08)

My ESRC funded MSc and PhD research at Bristol University examined how videogame environments are designed to capture and hold attention and generate positive affective and emotional states for players. This research drew upon qualitative data including interviews, observant participation and video ethnography with players and games designers. Since completing my PhD in 2009 I have published a range of work on videogames and games design from the project. This concern with videogames has lead to a broader interest in the role of the digital interface in everyday life, which culminated in a monograph entitled ‘The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, Power’ published with Bloomsbury in 2015. The book develops a new theoretical model to understand how interfaces shape humans capacity to sense space and time. In doing so I argue interface designers attempt to manipulate spatio-temporal perception to generate new forms of affective value in the products they create.

Theorising Technology

Further to this, I have also become interested in theorising technology as a category of being that is distinct from either human or animal life. Drawing upon ideas from new materialist and continental philosophy I have published and am currently writing a number of papers on how a range of technologies, from mobile phones to speakers, generate and shape the spaces and times that humans find themselves in. Through this research, my work contributes to debates in media and cultural studies and human geography around the role that technology plays in everyday life as well as rethinking the status of technology in the social sciences more generally.