The Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies is aiming to advance the sustainability of culture and society by creating better, research-based understanding and promotion of constructive approaches to gaming and (e)sports, and to their relationship to physical, mental, and social well-being. In this post, we present a summary of our research and other activities conducted in this area so far.
Organizing an esports conference
In October 2018, CoE University of Jyväskylä team organized an international conference on Esports, Exergaming and Fantasy Leagues Research, jointly with the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences. It was the first event of its kind, bringing together three quite distinct fields all combining sports and digital gaming. The speciality of this event, however, lied in the wide collaboration with local actors in the esports sectors. The first day of the conference consisted of presentations by exergaming developers and actors in the esports field (education, broadcast, sport organizations), and a show tournament of Counter Strike GO with four Finnish teams, which was organized by the Jyväskylä esports association JeSSe.
Visit to South Korea
In 2018, CoE researcher Veli-Matti Karhulahti conducted a research visit to South Korea. During the visit, further collaboration was established with some of the leading companies in the area of esports, such as popular esports game League of Legends developer Riot Games and world’s largest esports company ESL’s main sponsor Intel, as well as the national research institution Korea Creative Content Agency.
Surveying children and youth on exercise habits
LIITU is a biannually conducted survey, covering youth from 7 to 19 years in Finland. The survey focuses on physical exercise habits and exercise related attitudes, values, and experiences. The collaboration between CoE researchers and LIITU researchers has led to including, for the first time, digital gaming, game stream following, and competitive gaming related questions in the questionnaire distributed during 2020.
This yields valuable and rare data over the physical exercise habits, school performance and digital (competitive) gaming in a nationally representative sample of youth. It sheds light on problem and excess gaming, as problems with gaming habits can be cross-tabulated with lifestyle issues (obesity, sedentariness etc.) and school performance. As the number of digital gamers is still increasing, this is an immensely significant issue for the society as whole.
Impact on equality and national sports policy
CoE researcher Riikka Turtiainen was requested to write a statement for the Committee for the Future at the Parliament of Finland for the 2018 report on the national sport policy. Riikka Turtiainen’s and Usva Friman’s research was used in the National Sports Council’s overview of sport research forming the research background for the Report of sport policy (Liikuntapoliittinen selonteko) by the Finnish Government in 2018.
Riikka Turtiainen has collaborated with various national actors in advancing social health through equality in sports. She was invited to participate in a panel discussion about equality in sports in the “Tasa-arvo maaliin” seminar organized in 2018 by Monaliiku – Welfare for Multicultural Women, The Making an Impact with Equality Acts program, and The Football Players Association of Finland. Turtiainen is also a member of the committee for active communication and impact in the Western Finnish section for the Football Association of Finland.
New university courses
In May 2020, the University of Turku team organized a course Playful and Gameful Exercise for students at the University Consortium of Pori and local general upper secondary education institution Porin suomalainen yhteislyseo. Fifteen university students and twelve upper secondary education students participated in the course, which dealt with the topics of playfulness and gamification of exercise, quantified self, electronic sports, embodied knowledge, and fitness expertise in social media.
In the University of Jyväskylä CoE team, the work on these themes has resulted in new courses, such as “Psychology of Play Games” and “Music and Sound in Gameplay”, which are currently being applied and integrated to their ERASMUS+ project “Higher-ed Programmes for Careers in Game Design & Development”. The synergy is used to empower future game design and development teaching in Europe.
Research on mental health and competitive play
Questions related to mental health and game cultures continue to be societally relevant, especially since the WHO’s 2019 decision to add “gaming disorder” as a diagnosable disease in the 11. revision of the International Classification of Diseases. Researchers of the CoE have been pioneering in researching these topics.
One of the key sectors of esports research has recently turned out to be the relationship between mental health and competitive play: How do the high amounts of competitive play interact with the players’ mental health?
Already before his visit to South Korea, Karhulahti had started collecting and analyzing mixed method anthropological data concerning mental health in the context of the popular esport League of Legends (Karhulahti 2020). Additionally, in South Korea, he collaborated with both Yonsei University and the Korea Creative Content Agency to finalize a large-scale meta review of “gaming disorder” studies, and after returning to Finland, with Raine Koskimaa (Karhulahti & Koskimaa 2019) they contacted the National Institute for Health and Welfare to start mapping out the local Finnish history of gaming problems via previously collected (forgotten) samples. In CoE Tampere University team, this topic is currently being extended toward gambling-related mental health issues (e.g. Macey & Hamari 2020).
Esports Research Network
CoE GameCult esports researchers have been active in local and international ecosystem development, bringing in especially research-based elements to support healthy social practices and community building. In November 2019, CoE researchers Juho Hamari and Maria Törhönen co-organised the inaugural Esports Research Network Symposium in Jönköping, Sweden (organized to coincide with the DreamHack event), which was also attended by several University of Jyväskylä CoE researchers. One of the sub-groups in the symposium focused on community building aspects in the emerging esports ecosystems. In July 2020, several CoE researchers participated in the official founding meeting of the Esports Research Network association, and CoE researcher Maria Törhönen was selected as a member of its first board.
Esports summer camp research
In Jyväskylä, the local University of Applied Sciences is leading a R&D project eSports Advancing Community and Business, where CoE researchers are contributing to the understanding of the cultural, social, physical, and mental wellbeing aspects of digital gaming, including valuable data collection from emerging esports communities. The first results of a pilot study conducted among teens attending an esports Summer Camp (June 2019) were presented at the Esports Research Conference (University of California Irvine) in October 2019. This research was done in collaboration between researchers from University of Jyväskylä and University of Turku.
Evaluation of gambling harms
Olli Sotamaa and Jani Kinnunen have worked as game studies experts in the evaluation group of gambling harms administered by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The group evaluates the risks of proposed changes in development, design, and distribution of gambling games in Finland. Evaluation reports have direct impacts on how gambling is regulated in Finland.
Finnish Player Barometer
One consistent way the research in the CoE has impacted public discussion is by disseminating information on Finnish playing behaviors. The Finnish Player Barometer is a nationally representative statistical publication of how Finnish people play. It collects data on all kinds of play in Finland, including physical sports, digital gaming, gambling, gaming related problems and attitudes towards playing. The latest, sixth study (2018) also included data on esports play. The Player Barometer is recognized as an authority on the subject both by national media and Statistics Finland (e.g. Talouselämä 2018; Yle 2019; Stat 2019).
For CoE GameCult, it has been of utmost importance to build up close connections to a set of esports organizations and teams, as this is required to gain access to materials fundamental for research. Collaboration with professional teams like SJ and KOVA Esports provides rich possibilities for research on esports athletes at professional level, but also of the larger ecosystems of media companies, sponsors, community managers, and fandom around them. With these connections, it is also, and equally importantly, possible to disseminate the research findings with the actors in the field, and support the development of socially, culturally, and economically sustainable ecosystems and practices.
The current national wide-scale sports and entertainment arena projects, such as Uros Live in Tampere and Hippos 2020 in Jyväskylä, are all looking into esports as an important element in their future activities. By participating in these projects, and through close contacts with actors in the field, CoE researchers may bring balanced data and understanding of the societal dimensions of competitive digital gaming in this emerging field with far reaching implications. As digital gaming is strongly connected to potential health risks related to e.g. sedentary lifestyle and gaming addiction, it is important to extend the research collaborations to institutions such as schools and hospitals. The LIITU survey is the first significant activity with schools, providing not only research data to CoE, but also a way to disseminate research results to educators. In Jyväskylä region, there is a large well-being center development plan, which brings together the Central Finland Regional Hospital and its research facilities, JYU Faculty of Sports and Health Sciences, the Hippos 2020 project, Jyväskylä Digi & Game Center, and many other research centers in the region. Within this framework, CoE researchers are also bringing in the understanding of physical and psychological implications of digital gaming.
All in all, CoE GameCult has a great duty in bringing the public health initiatives up to date with the increasing cultural significance of digital game cultures.
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- Turtiainen, R., Friman, U. & Ruotsalainen, M. (2020) “Not Only for a Celebration of Competitive Overwatch but Also for National Pride”: Sportificating the Overwatch World Cup 2016. Games and Culture, 15:4, 351–371.
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- Vahlo, J., Karhulahti, V. & Koponen, A. (2018) Tasavallan core-gamer: Videopelaamisen piirteet Suomessa, Kanadassa ja Japanissa. Pelitutkimuksen vuosikirja 2018, 35–60.
- Välisalo, T. & Ruotsalainen, M. (2020) Nuorten uudet urheiluidolit – E-urheilun valtavirtaistuminen ja faniuden muodot. Fanikulttuuri. Nyt – Kirjoituksia faniudesta ja nuorisosta.
- Välisalo, T. & Ruotsalainen M. (2019) “I Never Gave Up” Engagement with Playable Characters and Esports Players of Overwatch. Proceedings of FDG ’19.