Academic Vigilantism

and Middle State Publishing

Emma Vossen is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo studying gender and spaces (both online and offline) of game play and games criticism. She was the Commentaries editor of FPS from 2014-2015 and the EIC and Podcast host of FPS from 2015-2016. Her favorite game is Majora’s Mask, and right now she is attempting to watch and rank every horror movie on both Shomi and Netflix.

If you haven’t already heard, this is my last contribution to FPS as Editor-in-Chief; I’m working towards finishing my PhD and so I am therefore happily handing the reins of FPS over to the supremely talented Alexandra Orlando. Elise and Judy are also stepping down from their positions on FPS to finish their PhDs and I need to highlight here, before I start, that their contributions to the publication have been incalculable. Thanks so much to both of you.

Working at First Person Scholar has been without question the best part of my PhD. It taught me more than course work or comprehensive exams ever could and armed me with real, deployable skills that I’m sure I’ll use and build on for the rest of my life. I may have had a talent for writing, or editing, or team leading, or project management before I took my job on FPS but my time here transformed those latent skills into fucking weapons. I realized that there is so much knowledge that cannot be contained in the academic article or monograph, or that was getting lost in the mix of academic blog posts, and that alternative sites of publishing are imperative to making sure this knowledge does not go unnoticed. Furthermore, as an academic, my time at FPS took me from disgruntled but worried negotiator to assertive rebellious leader and I can not thank everyone involved with FPS over the years enough for changing my life both professionally and personally. In this exit editorial, I want to assert why FPS is so important, and how I hope it continues to inspire change in the academy for years to come by reflecting on my own experiences … with many gifs from Captain America Civil War to assist me.

 My Life as an Academic Vigilante

Having the platform of FPS at my disposal allowed me to not only discuss the need to help make games culture better, but also the need for grad students to stand up against the academy (and its publishing practices) in the short time we are still a part of it. FPS taught me that an educator is more than simply someone who has a PhD or who is assigned a class by a university. An educator is someone who wants to liberate knowledge from the institution, who wants to make change and change minds both within and beyond the walls of the academy. Before taking on the EIC role at FPS I was an academic with a lot to say, who couldn’t stop writing and I didn’t know where I fit in. I thought I would never fit in because I was in a nearly constant state of conflict with different parts of the academy throughout my PhD (financial, bureaucratic, social, cultural, logistical, personal) because I’m bad at faking, because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and enjoy myself, because I couldn’t be thankful, because I was always angry, and because I was always doing and saying things I shouldn’t. At first I thought this was a failing on my part, but now I think it’s something to be proud of. Now I know that I don’t fit in, that i’ll never fit in and I see that the flaw was in trying to fit into a system that wasn’t designed for people like me in the first place. The academy wasn’t designed as a place for outspoken, poor, queer, dyslexic feminists — but the academy also needs them, so despite thinking about leaving constantly I didn’t leave and I credit FPS for a lot of the reason I stayed. Because having a home in FPS allowed me to ask: why not do the job while not fitting in?. Why should you want to fit easily into academia as it now stands? Why would I want to be slotted in as a step on the food chain as we devour students’ earning and learning potential alive by draining them of tuition money? Why would I want teaching, or publishing, or committee work or anything else to come naturally when it’s clearly all so broken?

These realizations led me to create the video that won the SSHRC Storytellers contest and to write my article “Publish or Perish? Or Publish with Purpose?” which caused a lot of discussion in the game studies community. When I wrote that article I thought a lot about how I was potentially sabotaging my entire career by saying I didn’t want to take the traditional career path, I didn’t want to play the game of “publish or perish” or write an academic monograph for free, or for “exposure”. I thought about the people who might be mad at me, who might never want to work with me again. I was saying things you weren’t supposed to say if you wanted to succeed and I was implicating other people who worked at FPS by association. I said all those things anyway and I know It’s a privileged thing to do, but I realized (in the most millennial way possible) that if anyone doesn’t want to hire me because of something I said in that article I don’t want to work for them. I decided that if I was going to be an academic I wanted to be an academic vigilante. I wanted to be the person who was making thngs awkward by talking openly about how little money they make, the person who believed in education not universities, the person waving their $68,000 in debt around on a flag.

I know not everyone can do these exact things, and there are a LOT of things I can’t do, but I think we can ALL be academic vigilantes in our own ways. I think we can all, behind closed doors, over beer, or at a conference, admit that universities are broken, that institutions of education are undemocratic and commercial and corporate, that they are dominated by cis white men, and that they are incredible averse to change. We also need to admit that as university employees we are complicit in all of this even if we don’t want to be and even if we don’t feel like we can do anything about it. Admitting complicity in this system is hard because as academics we see ourselves as highly critical, but as Sara Ahmed has explained in On Being Included “the presumption of our own criticality can be a way of protecting ourselves from complicity. As Fiona Probyn-Ramsey has observed, complicity can be a starting point; if we start with complicity, we recognize our proximity to the problem we are addressing” (5-6). For these reasons I see myself as complicit; I am still making money (however little) as part of the academic system but I do think there are ways for all of us to make change from the inside by simply refusing to pretend like everything’s okay. Many people will tell you that the solution does not lay on the shoulders of grad students or others with little power to make change at an institutional level, but the fucked up part is that it is up to us to make this change happen because while administrators and higher ups have the most power they also have the least incentive to change the way things are, clearly the system has worked pretty well for them or they wouldn’t be in that position. They have the least to gain and the most to lose — sadly we have the most to gain and the least to lose.

I know I’m not the person who will rise up the ranks at the university until they are Dean of something or other and make change that way, I don’t have the fortitude for that, but you could be! I think my job, as it has long been in meetings and group discussions, is to agitate, to say things I shouldn’t say and to disrupt accepted realities. I’m proud of the way that FPS does this just by existing — it is not a journal and it is not not a journal. It is academic but it’s not academic. It is by necessity none of these things because as Ahmed has said “we need space that is not designed as institutional space to be able to talk about the problems with and in institutions” (10). In the case of FPS this is both the institution of the academy, and of the games industry and games culture. We are a place for education that is outside of those institutions which is why I can say shit like this in the first place. If we were more officially a part of the academy we would have to be all Batman about it, trying to hide what we are doing during our Bruce Wayne day jobs to turn to the real work at night. But we aren’t like that, we are full time vigilantes. Just like the Avengers work with SHIELD but aren’t run by SHIELD we at FPS have had many discussions about our position in the academy, in the ecosystem of publishing, and in the University. We are constantly working to function financially and keep our relationship with the academy strong while still being able to do something completely different and speak out when it’s needed. Being an academic when you hate the way the academy works is a perpetual dance of posturing, of negotiating; it’s like being in a civil war with yourself. You are constantly trying to find a way to be Tony Stark in the streets and Steve Rogers in the sheets.


We Need More Academic Vigilantism

We should all aspire to be academic vigilantes, working inside AND outside of the established system to reform academic publishing, teaching, training and hiring and to resist institutional inertia. This is how I see FPS functioning now, not just a middle state publication, but a liminal publication that is both inside and outside the academy, an organized space for critique and experimentation that is both respected for doing something different, but also disrespected for the same reasons. I get lauded for doing FPS on the one hand, but on the other hand there is nowhere to put my FPS articles on my Canadian Commons CV. Online and public-facing scholarship will never be taken seriously unless we demand that it is real scholarship, but we hide it in the margins of our CV because we worry it isn’t. We hide it there because we fear joblessness, we fear poverty, we fear our debt, and we fear for our futures. We are all stuck between a rock and a hard place where we WANT to “publish with purpose” as I put it in my SSHRC video, but so often for young grad students and recent PhDs our purpose is “survive another day,” “another semester,” “another contract”. Sometimes you really wish that you could silence that instinct that tells you that universities are unjust or that academia is systematically built to favor the privileged and just go with it.

But I can’t. So I just keep talking about it.

Since I published that video and the corresponding essay (which I hope you will read if you haven’t yet) a lot has happened. I gave a live presentation of the video at Congress of the Social Sciences and the Humanities to a packed room steps away from booths containing representatives from every major academic publisher in Canada and I saw shock in the eyes of every academic staring back at me as I nervously rolled through my memorized three minute spiel. I could see that they agreed but also that I was kind of scaring them. Some of them were aggressively nodding, some of them tweeting along, some of them just stared with their jaws on the floor. Many of them told me afterwards that they agreed with me, they shook my hand, they complimented my understanding of a system I was so new to. There was an identical reaction after the panel I did with SSHRC and CBC Ideas later that afternoon that was about public-facing scholarship. One academics even remarked that they should be paid less and “the Emma Vossen’s of the world” should be paid more! I experienced another similar reaction to the panel I was on about academic publishing at the Canadian Game Studies Association. People were into what I was saying, that was for sure. While it was so exciting to hear from people that they enjoyed my academic vigilantism, and that they love FPS, It was also a bit disheartening. Sitting at my desk back in Toronto next week I was really depressed; I remember thinking “what did that change, what did that do, a bunch of rabble rousing, but no one can afford to stop publishing traditionally, no one is going to risk their job, nothing is going to change.” The space of Congress is great for ideas and for talk of revolution, but then we all go back to our respective audiences and fill out grant and job applications and submit journal articles and book manuscripts in order to get those grants and jobs. Just taking a week away from the academic rat race left me feeling months behind. I’ve spent the rest of the summer trying to catch up on my dissertation, articles, book, and grant applications.

Because I was selected as one of the five winners of the Storytellers contest by SSHRC I will be presenting the talk again at the SSHRC Impact awards in November where Canada’s top academics will receive huge prizes and recognition for their work. There could not be a more influential audience of academics for me to present in front of. Because of the positive reaction at Congress I no longer worry that the audience will disagree with me; I now worry that they will agree with me enthusiastically and then forget about it the next day in their busy lives of publishing deadlines, committee work and grants apps. I don’t blame them because this happens to me too. In the dog-eat-dog world of academia you can’t stop working for even for a moment or you’ll perish. Lastly, professor Bart Simon at Concordia added some supportive context to my assertions stating that these debates are long standing and very little has changed. Hearing all this, like the positive reception at Congress was both heartening and disheartening. Sure, FPS was making middle state publishing a reality in game studies working  alongside other middle state publications like Memory Insufficient, open access journals like The Journal of Games Criticism and Loading… , longform entries like the Boss Fight Books series and Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, websites like Not Your Mama’s Gamer, or the Ontological Geek and personal blogs of academics. There is a whole ecosystem of alternative publishing for game studies. That is really something to be proud of, but what about other disciplines?

I had so many people see my talk at Congress, learn about middle state publishing, and then be incredibly sad that FPS only publishes scholarship about games. While game studies is the focus of FPS (and that isn’t changing) I strongly believe there should be an FPS in every discipline. A place that focuses on updating that discipline, on calling it out, on making it accessible, making it new. Essentially a back channel for every discipline for the scholarship that doesn’t easily fit into boxes but still deserves editorial attention and respect. I guess Game Studies is lucky that such a huge portion of the public already cares about video games; maybe that changes things. But I don’t think middle state publishing is only for us; I think it’s an opportunity for all academics, especially humanities scholars, to justify the relevance of our work, to demonstrate why our work is important and valid and worth reading. I hope to see middle state publications popping up that examine Canadian Literature, or Law, or poetry or Neuroscience. A place for academics to congregate, to organize, to publish the thoughts that need to be published quickly, or the thoughts that may never make it into academic manuscripts or peer reviewed articles. And, as I’ve said many times before, it is important for the public to understand what we do. Maybe you are sick of hearing me say that, maybe you don’t agree with me, but i’m going to keep saying it anyway.

Statistics – Or, my Failings as a Vigilante

All of this isn’t saying that this has been easy or that i’m even particularly good at it. I may have accomplished some of my goals as EIC of FPS but I failed miserably at some of the others, mostly my mission to create gender parity amongst FPS authors. I think it is important to talk about failures in these sort of meta-editorial-reflections because looking back now I see the ways I could have accomplished this goal, but I don’t know if it would have been the right decision. I could have turned away submissions from men when we were lacking submissions from women, or when I thought they needed a lot of work, and therefore published less. But turning away anything that could become good writing goes against so much of what I, and FPS, stands for. I could have solicited harder for submissions from women and gender non-conforming people, I could have been pushier, I could have done more cold calling, I could have done a lot of things, but this section is about how I failed, not how I could have succeeded.

I started as EIC of FPS shortly after GG became a dominant force and my main goal was to create gender parity in our submissions. I counted throughout the year and there were periods where we had gender parity between male and female authors (based on a rough count using the pronouns the author used to identify themselves in their bio, not counting interviews or podcasts), but things always tended to swing towards the dominantly male because those are the submission that tend to come to us unsolicited; many of our female authors we have sought out. The problem here is not that women aren’t submitting, but that games writing is full stop an unwelcoming place for women, and the more public facing the publication is, the more likely you will experience harassment. When women said they didn’t feel comfortable publishing things with us because of GG we did not encourage them to do anything they were not comfortable with and that I don’t regret. I don’t see GG as an excuse for my failed attempt at gender parity, I don’t think I would have reached my goal even without it, but I can’t ignore that it’s a factor because I know that at the very least I personally would have published more of my stuff if it wasn’t a factor.

Either way, our gender parity has gotten better over the years but it is nothing to brag about. Our team of 17 has gender parity, and our core editorial team is currently dominantly female as 5 of our 7 senior positions are occupied by women, but our submissions are nowhere close. Since I took over in Sept of 2015 (counting all articles including this one but not interviews and podcasts) we have had 23 female authors (40%) and 34 male authors (60%).

While this did not end up being at gender parity as I had hoped it did improve (but only slightly) over the past few years. Here for comparison is what I said about the Sept 2014-Sept 2015 year in my first editorial as EIC:

“Last year approximately 17 of our 45 (not including interviews, editorials, round tables, or podcasts) articles were written by women which has increased a lot from the approximately 11/33 or the 10/37 the years before that.  So that is 37% up from 33% up from 27% — it’s a slow but steady climb.”

So we have now made it from 27% in our first year to 40% in our current year. Our all-time stats as of this post are (roughly again) 63 female authors and 122 male authors when counting repeat authors each time they wrote for FPS. So our all-time stats are 35% female vs 65% male, proving that we still have a long way to go as a publication before meeting my goal. I think that one thing that has kept our stats closer to parity, and hopefully also led women to submit to us, is our growth of female editors and keeping female editors in senior positions at the publication. None of this is even addressing the lack of racial diversity of the FPS staff, which is predominantly white, which is a result at least in part of most of us all being from the same very white PhD program, hopefully FPS can increase its disciplinary and racial diversity of its staff in the coming years. Despite how shitty writing about games is right now for minorities I remain optimistic that FPS will be able to attain gender parity of its submission as I know that these are not just my values as the EIC stepping down, but the values that all the FPS staff holds.

The Sappy Bit – Fellow Vigilantes

If you have somehow stumbled upon this page because you were googling the names of Alexandra Orlando, Betsy Brey, or Chris Lawrence (My ABC team) because they have applied for some job with you or you are thinking of working with them — dear god hire them right now. These three section heads have been the most incredible team to work with. They are so incredibly devoted and tireless. On days when we would meet or work on something together I would sit down at my computer and then look up and suddenly 5 or 6 hours had passed like nothing, they make work fun while still being unimaginably productive. You three are my perfect balance of gifs and jokes and hard work and real talk – you made my job so easy and I can only hope to be lucky enough to work with or for all of you again some day. I need to make a special shout out to my other three core editors Elise Vist, Phil Miletic, and Judy Ehrentraut — the three of you have made such an important impact on FPS and you ability to keep up with games scholarship and game studies while writing dissertations on other topics is an incredible feat that I wasn’t capable of. You are all so smart and funny and going to achieve such incredible things! The whole FPS 2.0. team has been a goddamn dream to work with. These people are the next generation of games criticism —  so watch out world! Mostly what I am saying is that you guys are awesome and you make it very very very hard to leave. I love you!

Conclusion – Future Vigilantism

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the work being done at FPS has changed game studies. My favorite scholarship that I created this year wasn’t my book chapters or conference papers; it was the podcasts that I hosted. We recorded over 10 hours of podcasts while I was Editor-in-Chief and I’m always amazed by the impressive thoughts that come out of my editors mouths. It’s fitting then that alongside my exit editorial is my last podcast with FPS which you should go and listen to right now! I feel like the FPS editors have so much to offer games criticism and games culture at large but maybe don’t have as much time to publish as other grad students because they spend all their time editing and publishing other people’s work. I feel a bit guilty about that but these podcasts really house the brilliant things they have to say in an accessible, easily consumed package and the things they have to say are SO smart and important. Many of our podcasts get at the exact sort of things that will probably never be written about in our academic scholarship because frankly while they are important they are not easily supported, or provable, or understandable, and that is what makes them so important. I need to say here that Elise Vist has demonstrated her incredible ability to take those long, drawn out conversations and make them consumable and manageable as our podcast producer and editor, which is a time consuming and thankless job. I feel the need to emphasize that the work she is doing is academic editing, although I imagine it would be hard to explain that in an academic CV. Don’t underestimate the types of content creation we have at our disposal as academics and please feel free to submit those types of academic criticism that don’t fit into boxes easily to FPS!

Since I’ve started at FPS we’ve expanded the team so much, to bring in a web editor (Rina you made my job possible), social media coordinators, podcast producers, podcast editors, swaths of copy editors, new faculty advisors, and adding more editors to our core team. I hope these changes help FPS last because we all know the longevity of student-run publications isn’t the best. I want FPS to be the exception to the rule. I hope FPS lasts a long time, I hope that it expands and grows and diversifies, and I hope that in five years we can look back through the FPS archives and see a who’s who of games criticism. So many of our writers are already climbing the ranks and have made impressive names for themselves and I feel privileged to have gotten to work with so many amazing authors early on in their careers; I can’t wait to see what they go on to accomplish.

What is next for me? I’m not totally sure. I’m applying for research intensive post-docs, I’m writing a million things, I’m finishing my dissertation, but I do worry about the hole that FPS is going to leave in life and what to fill it with. In an interview with an old friend on CKCU in April I was asked what I was up to in the future and I surprised even myself by saying “I want to take what I’ve learned and what I’ve done at FPS with middle state publishing and take that to my own website, I want to investigate middle state writing in other locations, what would a middle state game review look like for example?” I still think about this, about middle state game reviews, and what that would look like. Maybe that is my next step post-PhD, maybe it’s something else, either way I know that whatever I do and wherever I go in some way it will be because of FPS and I can’t thank all of the FPS editors, and FPS authors, and FPS readers enough for that. Thank you!




  1. I really appreciated this article. I worked as a freelance writer for 15 years, had a 20 year academic career, and now am back to freelancing. One of the key issues I see here is that the model of writing for free (or worse, paying to be published — something bizarrely termed “open” access), limits the discussion to those who are subsidized by research-oriented academic jobs or private wealth. For someone who is not subsidized by a tenure-stream job to invest 2-3 months in producing a traditional academic article in return for offprints is often just not feasible. Spaces such as FPS also open a conversation to independent scholars by allowing them to work in shorter forms. I am personally grateful for the way FPS provides an opportunity for me to continue doing scholarship while freelancing.

  2. Hey Carol! Thanks for the comment! I couldn’t agree ore that the production time on academic articles is terrible and, as I’m sure you know, so is the waiting time! It is crazy that with some journals it could take a year just to find out that they don’t want your article! It is such a huge waste of time for everyone involved. Some journals are much better about this, obviously, they reply right away and they work with their authors, but it is usually journals that aren’t considered prestigious because they have low rejection rates. The idea of bragging about how many people you have rejected really gets at the heart of what is wrong with most academic journals. I like to brag about how low our rejection rate is! I think we end up accepting (with revisions) about 99% of submissions! I’m glad you have found your place freelancing again! I hope that once my academic career inevitably hits a wall I can make that transition myself! 🙂

  3. Your article brought me to tears. Not because I found anything horrifying or sad, but because throughout the last two years I have been working toward my MFA, I thought I was alone in my own academic vigilantism. I look around the university I attend and I see a place that prides itself on being diverse and preparing its students to become “global citizens,” yet there is no welcoming space for video games on campus. It sometimes makes me feel like I’m outside of academia and outside of the English department because I talk more about games than I do classic literature. Sometimes I feel like I should stop fighting “the good fight,” but I want so badly to see games represented on my campus, at least in the form of a few classes. Your post has reinvigorated and inspired me to keep going. But more than that it has turned me on to middle-state publishing and, most importantly, FPS.

    So thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Thanks so much for your comment Joanna!! I also often feel a bit out of place being in an english department but studying games and games culture. We make it work but there isn’t the same support systems for us as for other people! I really hope you keep up the good work! And i’m so glad you are enjoying FPS! <3

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