Catherine Flick: Publications, Media, and Thoughts

Well, the new job has had me pretty busy! But I've been doing some media stuff which I want to just record here for posterity (and when I ultimately need to look back on what I've done this year and feel like I accomplished something).

2024-01-26 What the hell is going on with the U.K. Post Office?

2024-02-29 AIs get better at maths if you tell them to pretend to be in Star Trek

2024-03-01 Elon Musk asks court to decide if GPT-4 has human-level intelligence

2024-03-07 Why Elon Musk’s lawsuit could slow down AI 

2024-03-08 Women in Games – Level of Detail S2 EP4

2024-03-17 Letter in The Guardian, The impact of screen time on parent-child relationships

2024-03-18 Ady Dayman, BBC Radio Leicester, talking about cyber security in Leicester’s schools and Leicester City Council

2024-04-15 Educating AI, Crossed Wires Podcast

Coming soon: I’ll be doing a TEDxStaffordshireUniversity talk in May, and I’ll be rustling around for the weekend running Content and the Arcade!

#media #podcast #radio #newspaper #ai #cybersecurity #postoffice #games #screentime

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It's a new year, and tomorrow I start a new job as Professor of Ethics and Games Technology at Staffordshire University. I'm extremely excited about this but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit nervous as well!

In the UK it's a big thing to become a professor; it's the thing you strive towards when you first start your academic career. I was asked on Mastodon what it takes to become a professor, and well, if you go internally within the university, you have to fill out a lot of paperwork that shows off your achievements over your career and apply to a panel of other professors within the university to see if you are worthy of the title. Or you can apply to another university that is looking for a professorial level role, fill out a lot of paperwork to apply to the job, go through an interview process and show a panel of other professors that you are worthy of the role. I did the latter, and so I'm moving away from De Montfort University to start in a new department in a new faculty in a new university!

Things I am looking forward to:

  • Everyone I have spoken to seems to enjoy working in the department, so that's a great start!
  • I'm really looking forward to settling into the culture of the department – part of my job role will be to help nurture the research side of things so I'm quite excited about meeting all my new colleagues and finding out what excites them about research. I am also very excited to fire up the writing muscles again and get back into my own research. I have a grant lurking about that needs to be refactored and sent in as well.
  • I'm also looking forward to teaching a new set of students – I haven't taught in a games department before so this will be new and exciting. Normally I concentrate on soft skills like research methods, but here I'm also having to brush up on my programming so I can teach some of that which ... well, we'll have to see how that goes, I'm more an itch scratch programmer but I think there's some skill in being able to quickly hack stuff together as well as being super formal about it (though not perhaps for production level stuff... ;–)
  • I'll have about an hour commute each way so I'm not going in every day. I made it clear from the outset that with my two small children I want to be able to be home for them as well; I was very pleased to hear that this would be fine as I think that there's a lot to be said for having senior level mums of small children in academia. But that hour commute will also be a good time to listen to audiobooks that I've been meaning to catch up on, both fiction and non-fiction.
  • I'm also keen on keeping on with my media and science communication side of things. Critical views of technology need to be more visible, it's too easy to just take the press releases of tech companies as stated. I've become a bit lazy about updating here with my media appearances, so I hope to start that again too.

Ultimately I have a bit of imposter syndrome lurking about but my fantastic mentor Richard Hall told me to “Own it... be true, necessary and kind to all, including yourself” and I fully plan to. Thanks everyone for believing in me! I can do this!

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OK, so I am the enemy.

The enemy of all those who would design, develop, deploy and maintain systems that ride roughshod over people who are the most vulnerable.

The enemy of all those who would think only of investing in, creating, and encouraging technologies that increase their own wealth at the expense of others.

I am the enemy that wishes to protect people from online-enabled harms like eating disorders, performative violence, child sexual assault material, crypto scams.

I am the enemy that wants to bring people together to love, share, and connect over shared interests and build long lasting friendships and positive communities, not ones that spiral into mires of hate and self-loathing.

I am the enemy that sees a future where technology is built for the good of society, and not destructive to today's and tomorrow's people in the service of a fantasy science fiction future.

I am the enemy that sees a technological future that serves society and helps it achieve its goals of equality, fairness, reconciliation, safety, peace, and all the other things that exist to make us flourish in a global community of human beings.

I am the enemy that requires trust and safety, technology ethics, social responsibility, sustainability, risk management. The things that make people pause and think about what they will do before they do it, and guide them to making a choice that will benefit society as a whole, not just themselves or their bosses.

I am the enemy of narcissistic, selfish billionaires who think that the future is just for them and their legacy.

And I'm actually pretty okay with that.

I'm also the enemy of really bad philosophy, just by the way.

Fight me.

Forgive me for a little bit of a self-indulgent outlet for frustration about a certain “manifesto”. While slightly tongue in cheek, I also mean it.

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Yesterday the UK government released its new Video Game Research Framework.

The framework establishes a structure that guides games research and development and presents exemplary research practices, and it is important to everyone in games because it represents the first time that policy makers, industry and independent researchers (academics) in a key games market (the UK) sat down and took a good, hard look at themselves, games, their work so far in the context of games, and how to realise the positive potential of games in society, while avoiding the negatives. These same stakeholders then discussed what information and knowledge is needed to achieve that positive potential, and then hashed out a plan for how to get there.

This has importance outside of the specific confines of UK-based games R&D. The framework as it exists now sets out the research priorities – it tells is what knowledge we need to build. That is relevant whether you are based in the UK or not.

Furthermore, the framework establishes a range of best practices for how to build that knowledge, and provides standard for academic and industrial research.

The recommended priorities within the framework encompass understanding the motivations behind people’s engagement with games, investigating the influence of games on both physical and mental well-being, and examining the effects of in-game elements, such as expenditures and advertising, on players’ overall experiences. Additionally, the framework proposes broader areas of concentration, including exploring the economic possibilities of the industry and investigating the role of video games in education.

But importantly, the framework moves beyond just setting research priorities, but also covers challenging topics such as ethics, data privacy, data sharing, online safety design, and the economic impact of games. These are topics that it can be challenging to deal with, but nonetheless, we must do so in an open and transparent way, informed by data sharing and collaboration, if we are to move forward in a significant way.

Data sharing is particularly important – for an industry with an estimated 4bn active users and some 225bn USD in global revenue, preciously little hard market and behavioural insights exists. We have done a lot of laboratory-based or small-scale work in games, but there is longer between the papers that work with the ultra-large scale data that the games industry holds. Similarly, it is rare to see the industry collaborating with academics to reach players. There are good reasons for this – liability issues, data protection, and other factors can make collaboration cumbersome. In this, the framework also helps, providing a strong methodological foundation to guide data sharing including suggestions on how to respect relevant law and gathering data with player consent.

The framework even considers broader research priorities, including AI and heritage, to encourage academics to think about tackling a broad variety of games-related topics.

We are among the academics who worked with the other stakeholders on the year-long process of creating the framework. As public experts, we are used to working with policy makers and with industry, but it is a bit rare to have all three in the room together in the way that it has happened here. It speaks well of the UK government (and the DCMS in particular) that it has taken up the challenge of how to realize the immense positive potential of games – learning 21st century key skills, enabling creativity, building meaningful social connections, alleviating stress, enabling new forms of learning at scale, and more besides – and is not afraid to confront the problematic aspects of games either – gambling-like experiences, well-being impacts, ethical issues, legal challenges, toxic behaviour, predatory monetization and similar challenges.

The support of UK games industry stakeholders such as UKIE and TIGA are a keystone in the process of turning this ambition into reality. The framework puts forward a socially responsible agenda regarding data sharing, ethical game monetization and ensuring player wellbeing. But it is only when industry, academics, and policy makers work together in harmony that these goals can be realised. We eagerly anticipate to a new generation of open and equitable data access and collaboration with industry in light of the framework.

The Video Games Research Framework provides us with a roadmap for exceptional research and development, benefiting policymakers, the gaming industry, and ultimately all the billions of people who engage with games and recognize their ever-growing significance in our lives.

Anders Drachen (University of Southern Denmark/University of York, Director, SDU Metaverse Lab), David Zendle (University of York, Director, Digital Observatory, & Catherine Flick (Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, De Montfort University)

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I have a new paper out, published in the new ACM Games journal! It's about in-app purchases in mobile games so it might be of some interest to people who play or make these sorts of games.

Our paper, “The Many Faces of Monetisation: Understanding the Diversity and Extremity of Player Spending in Mobile Games via Massive-scale Transactional Analysis” uses our world-first access to Unity Analytics' in app purchase data to understand how people spend in mobile games. We have roughly 2 years of data, $4.7B of in-game spending across 69m players of 2873 mobile games, and we look at the clusters of types of revenue distribution.

What do you find when you look at billions of dollars of in-app purchases? Certainly more nuance than “minnows” and “whales”. We found 4 clusters of types of spend profiles in games. Uniform: spending is distributed equally across players; Sub-pareto: more unequal but not at top Quasi-pareto: the most populous cluster, where all percentiles of spenders contribute but higher perc. are more monetised; and Hyper-pareto: majority of revenue is generated by a small proprotion of high spending gamers. These tend to be most profitable too.

We also found when looking at the top 1% of spenders in each game that there are significant patterns of spend of these across the clusters. Top 1% in Uniform spend $19 in their lifetimes. Sub-Pareto: $138. Quasi-Pareto, $660, and Hyper-Pareto over $1700 on average.

Unsurprisingly social casino games bring in the most revenue and have the highest concentration of high spenders; in fact the more a game relies on its top 1% for revenue generation, the more these individuals tend to spend. Also, we find some games bring in ridonkulous amounts of money, and some players spend ridonkulous amounts of cash on some games. “Ridonkulous” is a new technical term I just coined for how astonished I was at the amounts involved.

Anyway, you can read the paper here: If 30 pages of stats is a bit much, you can read a shorter version with all the take home messages here:

Citation: Zendle, D., Flick, C., Deterding, S., Cutting, J., Gordon-Petrovskaya, E.and Drachen, A., (2023) The Many Faces of Monetisation: Understanding the Diversity and Extremity of Player Spending in Mobile Games via Massive-scale Transactional Analysis. ACM Games: Research and Practice, 1 (1) pp. 1–28

#publication #mobilegames #gameplay #unity #futurevirtualeconomies

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This afternoon I was interviewed by Ben Jackson at BBC Radio Leicester about the ups and downs at Twitter in the last couple of days. I love chatting with Ben because he's a great interviewer, and usually has some really interesting questions that go beyond the “explain what's happening for a lay audience” type questions I often get asked as an expert.

You can have a listen to me prattling away for a bit (and trying to avoid coughing) on the topic of where Twitter is at 3h40 min in, for a limited time only!

BBC Radio Leicester (2023). Ben Jackson, 8 March 2023. (3h40 in)

#media #radio #twitter

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This article is about how ChatGPT is being used by grifters to flood Amazon with terrible books. It was in the paper copy of The Independent as well, featuring a picture of me, which is cool!

An image of the paper version of the news article linked below.

Generally I think this is likely to shake up the grift associated with pumping out terrible self help books as brought to light by Dan Olson in his great video about this particular grift. I feel bad for publishers :(

Stokel-Walker, C. (2023) ChatGPT-generated books are flooding Amazon, and experts warn they could drown out books written by humans. The Independent, 24 February 2023. Also available online at

#media #newspaper #ai

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Another article by the most hard working tech journalist in town, Chris Stokel-Walker (, in which I rubbish greeting card messages (I mean really who reads those, apart from my husband, because he doesn't like to write his own?). Sorry greeting card writers, really :( Seriously though, I suspect the use of AI will not matter so much for these sorts of generic type messages – this and things like website copy – and we'll come to appreciate real human effort going into things more. And humans won't be stuck writing horribly boring and/or repetitive copy.

Stokel-Walker, C. (2023) ChatGPT will write your Valentine’s Day cards, but we are not ready for the AI advancement. i news, 31 Jan 2023.

#media #newspaper #ai

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This article in New Scientist was written by Chris Stokel-Walker ( and featured me talking about the likelihood that Web3 would be at all great. (Of course, in my opinion it is Going Just Great.) My key quote is that people don't like to “faff about” when they want to get their work done, so it's unlikely that Web3 will be too likely to catch on in the workplace at least. Apparently you can also pick this article up in the physical edition, which I really should do before it disappears from shelves.

Stokel-Walker, C. (2023) Web3 promises to reclaim the internet from tech giants – will it work? New Scientist, 17 Jan 2023.

#media #newspaper #crypto

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I'm super excited to announce this publication, as it's the first major one from my new project I am working on with Anders Drachen (Southern Denmark University), David Zendle (University of York) and Sebastian Deterding (Imperial College London). We have teamed up with Unity Technologies, makers of the Unity game engine, gaining access to several years worth of data about where, when, for how long, and what people play, and how much they pay for In-App Purchases where these are enabled. This amounts to billions of hours of extremely valuable gameplay data; the types and amounts of data that have not been accessible before to academia.

One of the key things we want to do with this project is to showcase the value of opening up game development data (telemetry, transaction, etc. data) to research. And this first published paper sets the scene really well. There's been no real research done on mobile gameplay using anything other than self-reported data; this is notoriously unreliable compared with actual telemetry data from the games themselves – and usually confined to a small number of games. With the Unity dataset, we have access to this data for over 2 million mobile games.

We were interested in seeing what mobile gaming cultures exist across the world, i.e. what countries play in similar ways? And we were also interested in seeing whether the commonly held understanding that East Asian countries (e.g. China, Japan, South Korea) form a “monolithic bloc in terms of how they play games” compared with the rest of the world would hold true within this landscape.

Fast forward through a lot of very pretty graphics of the world and clusters that were originally named after Greek letters, then animals in the areas described, but returned to boring alphabetical identifiers in the revisions, and we found basically that there are 8 clusters of play cultures, with (largely) European countries playing similarly to China; India playing similarly to developing countries in Africa, Central and South America, Central and South Asia, and the Pacific Islands; the USA and Canada playing similarly to Russia and Japan; and a set of wealthy east Asian territories (Singapore, South Korea, Macao and Hong Kong) with a high standard of living having the highest saturation of playtime per capita and with the “most extreme” gamers – “the top 1% of players in these countries account for almost 58% of total playtime”.

What this means is that there are some surprises in how the world games – going into this I expected European countries to play similarly to the USA and Canada given a shared Western capitalistic lifestyle; this was not true, and the USA and Canada played more like Russia and Japan than European countries. Similarly we showed that East Asian countries cannot be treated like a bloc. We ended up raising more questions than we answered – why are these differences there? In charge of interpretation, I went down a lot of rabbit holes looking to see if there was anything obvious that could explain some of the clusters. Places where US military outposts lie or popular holiday destinations might explain the clustering of Caribbean countries with the USA, but other clusters are quite curious. What factors cause Guinea, Vietnam, and a series of small Pacific Islands to play mobile games similarly? Our initial forays into questions of economics, religio-cultural factors, and others showed very different contexts to these countries. We hope that further research might answer these questions.

You can access the paper for free here:

Citation: Zendle, D., Flick, C., Halgarth, D. et al. Cross-cultural patterns in mobile playtime: an analysis of 118 billion hours of human data. Sci Rep 13, 386 (2023).

#publication #mobilegames #gameplay #unity #futurevirtualeconomies

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