Gerald Voorhees is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Waterloo. His research is on games and new media as sites for the construction and contestation of identity and culture, and he has edited books on masculinities in games, feminism in play, role-playing games, and first-person shooter games. Gerald is co-editor of Bloomsbury’s Approaches to Game Studies book series and was managing editor of the Gender in Play trilogy in Palgrave’s Games in Context book series.
This commentary is framed as a response to an editorial in the journal Game Studies (of which I’m a member of the review board), and I hope it’s clear that it’s an agonistic one: an incitement to further discourse. A playful bite but a real bite all the same.
Since this commentary was written in December 2019, the renewed attention to sustained anti-Black violence by police and other social institutions in the U.S. and beyond, as well as the increasing prominence of violence and harassment directed at East Asians, has helped to bring public attention to how racism continues to inflect so many aspects of our social, economic, and political lives. As we ask “what can game studies do” in this moment to support meaningful social change, recall that white privilege and prejudice against Black, Indigenous, mixed-race and people of colour (BIMPOC) in game studies was already one context of this exchange, and it’s one we can continue to dismantle together.
The editorial, “How to play — Ten play-tips for the aspiring game-studies scholar,” playfully draws on and mixes the conventions of the game FAQ and the lifehack listicle. These genre conventions, and some quick wordplay peppered through the editorial, do significant work. The figures of the “game player” and the “game studies scholar” are conflated, as are the concepts of “play” and “doing scholarship” and “games” and “careers in game studies.” So the aspiring scholar is a player in the game of academia, and they play by working to produce scholarship.
These metaphors and substitutions could be a fun, productive way into thinking about and beginning conversations around professional development. But there’s another set of substitutions at work in the editorial. While not as apparent, they are significant, and represent the closing down of lines of thinking and discussion.
For one, the editorial reduces a complex whole to one of its many parts when it conflates one ideal of an academic career, i.e. tenure-line at a research-intensive university, with careers in game studies academia as a whole. Beginning players at the start of their careers might still be learning that there are multiple ways to ‘level up’ in game studies, and many ‘subclasses’ to choose from. But it seems that folks in more senior positions approaching their level caps could benefit from the reminder too. There are a range of institutions (in North America there are research intensive public and private universities, community colleges, teaching colleges, regional public universities, and research intensive private universities e.g. the “Little Ivies”) and a variety of positions available within them that tend to be distinguished by several traits (e.g. tenure-line or contract; research, teaching, or academic support oriented; wages or salary and potential employment benefits).
So the question of how to level up presupposes that the player is working on the trajectory of a tenure-line position at a research intensive university. It does this by foreclosing all the other possible routes to meaningful employment in academia: not only teaching and research positions and academic program support jobs at research intensive institutions, but every kind of meaningful job at every other kind of institution. This kind of predatory fantasy of a glamorous professoriate may bring graduate students to the lab or program, but we need to push back against this mentality that only valorizes one figure of the successful academic.
Unfortunately, this is complimented by a second, simultaneous reduction of gameplay to the activities that take place within the ‘magic circle’ of the game. It’s been more than a decade since game studies rejected this reduction, (Consalvo’s 2007 Cheating is a prominent index of that shift). To bring this back to the point at hand, it’s also important to acknowledge that a person’s access to one or another of these subclasses cannot be easily separated from the social, economic, and cultural contexts of their experience. The illusion of meritocracy prevalent in hegemonic game cultures must be acknowledged and challenged in game studies too. And since game studies is an asymmetrical game where players don’t start from the same place, the game’s complexity needs to be respected.
Like most asymmetrical games, succeeding as a professional in game studies defies capture by any one set of tips and tricks. There is no life hack for it. And there’s definitely not ‘1 sure-fire trick that your doctor (of philosophy) doesn’t want you to know about’ waiting behind that link.
So, please consider what follows as one set of annotations and response to the editorial. No doubt others could make additional points, or make them better.
Cut your teeth on the narratology and ludology debate if it is what interests you. If the substance of the debate is incidental to your point then, like all tropes, use it sparingly for maximum effect and minimal eye rolling. While tangential mentions of it have become a stale trope, we are just beginning to examine how the debate helped to establish and shape specific dimensions of the field. Emma Vossen’s (2017) thesis does some revealing work to trace how, as a field, game studies “overcompensated” for the association between games and frivolity during this exchange, and how that argument—as it was carried out in the textual record (of journal articles and conference proceedings)—created lasting structures and perceptions of gender bias. Matthew Kappell’s edited volume The Play versus Story Divide in Game Studies (2016) begins the work of determining how exactly the debate impacted the shape of narrative criticism, similar to what my Kinephanos (2019) essay tries to do for genre criticism. I’m eager to dig into my copy of Amanda Philips’ recently published Gamer Trouble, which among other things analyzes how the debate helped form the culture of game studies as a field. And looking forward to reading dissertations from Cody Mejeur, who addresses how the debate seeped out of the field and contributed to toxicity in game cultures, and Carolyn Jong, who analyses how the debate shaped the distribution of material resources in the field.
Whatever ‘really’ happened in those early conferences and in those interpersonal exchanges is, frankly, of little relevance to this problem. Because the debate is clearly legible in the textual archives of the field. It’s this public account that shapes our collective identity as a field. And we will be better able to do the work of games studies once we’ve figured out to what extent the debate still influences different dimensions of our theory and practice.
It is very important to keep audience in mind and not assume a shared background. So do introduce game studies audiences to concepts that come from your home discipline, and vice versa. This also means being attentive to the conventions of the venue; many academic disciplines have their particular styles, and the style and voice of scholarly writing is usually very distinct from public facing writing.
Also recognize that your audience will almost inevitably be more broad and diverse than intended. Knowledge flows between and across disciplines and other publics. In game studies, knowledge circulates between academics in the field, academics in other disciplines, the creators and self-taught intellectuals in the indie scene, and the gaming public consisting of game industry professionals, journalists, enthusiasts, and activists, among others.
A lot of folks have probably had the experience of really wanting to go to that one conference. That’s understandable. But it doesn’t need to be normalized. Like most desires we experience, these strong feelings aren’t innate, they’re shaped by the communities that shape us.
Of course you could write multiple papers or abstracts if the conference allows it and you have the time to spare. But you don’t have to. It will not significantly affect your career. Not only has there been a proliferation of game studies conferences, but, increasingly, papers on games and gaming are being presented at conferences representing a wide range of humanities and social sciences disciplines.
And maybe you shouldn’t write multiple papers or abstracts even if you have the time. Having a coherent research agenda is important for folks in any stage of their careers. And if not done with thorough consideration of the larger circumstances, those additional submissions may end up using up the time and mental capacity required for projects essential to your agenda. More publications and funded projects is almost always better than fewer on the academic job market, but everyone at every stage of their career benefits from being able to point to the line that ties their work together.
I don’t do work that directly interfaces with the commercial game industry, and I have no prescriptions for people who do but this one: no free labour for the industry!
The commercial game industry, like all culture industries, has a vested interest in not upsetting the values, norms, and expectations of their audiences.
Being specific and qualifying what kinds of games are being discussed is essential to clearly and effectively communicate an argument about those games, unless you’re talking about games generally.
Being specific about the identity of games discussed in a paper is essential to clearly and effectively communicate an argument about those games. Universalizing claims about games, as a whole, tend to be problematic. But some generalization is crucial to doing the work of teaching, criticizing, designing, and theorizing games. So analysis and discussion of how games share certain dimensions and patterns of form and interaction is a vital task for game studies. And it necessarily involves making claims about more than one or two games, but about entire genres and constellations of games, however conceptualized.
Research is good and “There is nothing previously published on…” is a bad trope. Not only is it so often a false statement, but it’s also a thoroughly unexciting way to establish the significance or relevance of a topic because it says nothing about the subject at hand and implicates the work in nothing. Literally. Literature reviews are an opportunity to engage. They articulate the paper to the reader’s social, theoretical and critical commitments. This trope is a missed opportunity to connect.
Open access is great. It reduces barriers to access, encourages the circulation of knowledge, and refuses the most egregious modes of commodifying research. But a lot of games scholars experience institutional and professional disincentives to open access publishing, and the struggle to change that will take commitment. However, more established scholars can work to extend the privilege of publishing in open access journals and help to make it viable for others, through involvement in policy-making at their institutions and external agencies (e.g. granting and oversight agencies, professional associations, etc). We can all work toward this by not only citing open access scholarship, but also refusing the gatekeeping cultural ideology that says good academic journal articles are found behind paywalls.
While game studies is an international field of study, norms about association with one’s home institution seem to be shaped by a number of local factors. In North America, there is a presumption that an academic who has worked in the context of different institutions will have access to more and different perspectives. But, in North America, the dismal state of the academic job market makes this kind of mobility increasingly difficult. Again, we need to work against and challenge these heuristics premised on the idea that a scholar’s mobility is an index of social and intellectual capital.
Kindness is a pleasant goal. But justice should not be held hostage to kindness.
Perhaps this context is alien to European writers, but Canada and America have troubled histories with kindness and civility. Civility has and continues to be deployed to police the political demands of populations injured by structural inequalities. Marginalized peoples cannot and should not be made responsible for confronting and dismantling the systems of power behind their own linguistic and cultural marginalization. But if and when they do, it need not be kind.
When we construe the act of crying out to avoid or mitigate harm as uncivil, as unkind, we affirm an allegiance to the conventions that cause those injuries, over and against the people those conventions have and continue to harm. In short, we affirm the tranquility of privilege over and against justice.
The responsibility to employ kindness – to make things pleasant – rests with those who hold power. And it must be actively exercised. Not using your linguistic and cultural privilege as a weapon to exclude already marginalized people is not kindness. It should be a baseline expectation to participate in the field of game studies, or any community whose enterprise depends on the mutual interchange between peers.
Game studies is an asymmetrical game. There are multiple ways to ‘level up’ and many possible subclasses. The idea that there is one way to succeed, to ‘git gud,’ is a fantasy that has so much power because game studies, like all contemporary academic enterprises, is organized around the commoditized production of knowledge. It is capitalism’s demand for efficiency that justifies the economical rationalization of our academic careers, and this neoliberal logic that insists there is a correct way to engage the field productively. Folks who experience marginalization because of their language, race, background, culture or any number of other variables know first-hand how this system is hostile to difference.
These conditions are normalized and reproduced, in part, by the discourses of our field. Particularly when we discourage systemic inquiry but encourage overproduction and deference to power.
The editorials published by Game Studies over the last eighteen years are an invaluable index of argument, advice, and sentiment in the field. But, it’s not an open discussion forum for the field that invites the submission of editorials, nor it is a soapbox that will amplify the voices of democratically elected representatives and leaders in the field. To my knowledge, there are no game studies journals that regularly publish unsolicited editorial submissions.
However, First Person Scholar is a place for some important conversations, with annual staff editorials, unsolicited monthly commentaries, and special issues that, respectably, make the case for centering queerness, disability, indigeneity, and embodied subjectivity. Sometimes, commentaries are about a single game, but sometimes they’re about the entire field, like this one.