Elise Vist is a PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo writing about the intimate publics of fandom and how fans immerse themselves in fandom’s various spaces. In her free time (when she’s not playing Dragon Age), she rants about Supernatural on Tumblr and reblogs anything with Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes in it.
I no longer call myself a games scholar.
I do, however, play, make, talk about, write about, think about, and buy way too many games. So I don’t consider myself a games scholar in the same way that I don’t consider myself a gamer.
I look like a gamer and I quack like a gamer, but it’s just easier if I don’t call myself a gamer.
For five of the last six years, though, I did call myself a games scholar. If people asked me what I did—depending if I wanted to impress them or set them at ease—I’d answer that I was doing research in Game Studies (or that I was going to school to play video games). I was introduced to Game Studies through studying hypertext and electronic literature in an English department and was so excited to find a field that—I assumed—would be a great blend of my two passions: art and science. Since I came into my studies through a literary-theory-heavy graduate department, I saw games as simply another text that I felt my Master’s in English gave me the tools to study. I understood that games have different affordances than, say, a book, but a book has different affordances than a play, or a movie, or an ad campaign, and that never stopped me from analyzing them just as I would any other text.
To me, it was obvious: games are texts, they’re art, so they deserve the same kind of analysis that we give to Shakespeare (who I have a hard time deciding whether he’d be a AAA game developer or a showrunner for Netflix if he were alive today). I prefer, when asked which side of the narratology vs ludology debate I find myself on, to say “both, depending on the situation.” I use mechanics as the form that delivers the content—narrative, argument, message, whatever—which interests me more, but don’t begrudge people who prefer to see mechanics as the more important element (as long as they don’t ignore narrative entirely, which I do begrudge).
And as long as the people I was speaking to and reading were Lit students who’d turned their gaze towards games, this was fine. As I came to do my PhD, however, I realized that I’d been living in a bubble—I had no interest in determining whether something was really a game, or if it was worth studying Call of Duty or not. I didn’t care about trying to prove that games were an art form, because it honestly wouldn’t change how I talked about them. I didn’t feel the need to defend my object of study, or to make it seem more important. People had been making fun of me for doing an English degree since I started, so I was used to studying things that other people thought were a waste of time.
I started out feeling very sure that I was looking at games in the right way (or at least one of the right ways), but as I encountered other scholars it became harder and harder to believe it. I met people who made lists of how many games they’d bought and played and beat on nightmare difficulty. I listened to games scholars speak about how they’d been playing games for literally ever, and that they played games every day for hours as though that was the only way to engage with games. I came to realize that some game scholars could only see themselves as scholars if they were always reading about games and only ever thought about games.
I started to wonder if I was right. I hadn’t played more than 5 AAA video games by the time I started my PhD (those games were Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3 and Dragon Age: Origins and 2, so you probably wouldn’t be wrong if you corrected that to “really only two”). I’d played other games, here and there, of course, and I was a fair hand at board games, as long as they were mostly cooperative rather than competitive. I started to wonder if I had any right to write about games, and then, as time wore on, if I had any right to even talk about them.
No one ever came out and told me I didn’t belong. In fact, when I talked about my research, other games scholars (the editorial board of this publication, for starters) encouraged me and expressed their interest in what I was doing.
Feminist (in) Game Studies
But I always felt like I wasn’t enough. I hadn’t read enough games blogs. I hadn’t played enough first-person-shooters. I didn’t know the big ludologists (I honestly still can’t quite wrap my head around Manovich). I had never experienced bullying for playing games as a kid (and therefore couldn’t really get it). I wanted to talk too much about feminism (i.e. ever).
Yep. That word.
To me, feminism isn’t a topic, it’s a tool I use to analyze my text of choice. But—outside of the feminist games scholars I clung to like a lifeboat—it became clear to me that I would be expected to treat feminism as a kind of sub-topic. I could write about games as a feminist as long as I was writing, explicitly, about FEMINISM and GAMES together. If I wanted to write about a game that wasn’t making a feminist claim, or didn’t have a particularly sexist trope, I’d have to write as a Games Scholar, not as a feminist.
And, honestly, I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to take a part of myself and set it aside in order to write (objectively??) about a text. I think it’s pretty dishonest, in fact, to claim that it’s even possible—I’d rather everyone know, when they’re reading a review I’ve written, or are listening to an argument I’m making, that I don’t have a lot of experience with “hardcore” gaming, that I consider myself a “casual” and I’m actually OK with that, that I don’t consider feminism to be a debate or “one side of the story,” that I am a woman, that I am queer, that I still have to watch my language for racism, sexism, transphobia.
Because if you don’t know those things about me, I’m not sure that you have any reason to trust me when I say anything.
I recently reviewed the book Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method for FPS and everything fell into place for me. I’d been assuming (hoping?) that all games studies were done ethnographically—even before I had the language to talk about it as ethnography—but this book made it clear that they weren’t. The book is an argument for ethnographic games scholarship, but the fact that the argument needs to be made is a pretty strong sign that it’s not the primary mode. This book made me realize that I couldn’t conceive of doing research that wasn’t at least grounded in ethnographical practices. I don’t have a sociology degree, so I’m hesitant to take the term on entirely, but the central idea—that you should immerse yourself in a culture if you wish to learn about it—informs all of my research now.
In fact, although it’s about ethnography in games studies, I credit that book with giving me the push I needed to get out of game studies. I realized that what I really wanted to do was study (and study with) people who loved something. Ethnography and Virtual Worlds made it clear that you can’t do that unless you learn to love that thing too. You need to become a part of the culture in order to be able to talk about it the way I wanted to and, unfortunately, I have never felt welcome in gaming culture. Recent events in games culture (addressed beautifully elsewhere on FPS: here, here, and here) have only made that more clear. As a games scholar, no matter how I position myself: a gamer, a feminist, a scholar, there are going to be people who tell me that I’m not enough or that I’m too much.
When I started dipping my toes into fan studies—through Henry Jenkins, Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen—I got more and more excited at what I found. No one argued whether or not such-and-such a fandom was really a fandom. No one questioned if you were really a fan if you didn’t own all the things.
More importantly, fan studies makes it clear that people are fans, so anything that people care about is worth talking about. As a fan scholar, I don’t have to jump through any hoops to discuss the politics of my text. I don’t have to make it clear that I’m talking about something as a feminist in order to talk about gender in fan studies because everyone knows you need to talk about gender in fan studies. And maybe that’s because it’s fan studies, not television studies. The fans—the people—are central in fan studies, because they are understood as producers of meaning for the core text, whether it’s a TV show, movie, or book, and I want so very much to be able to say that in game studies.
Of course, part of that comes from the fact that I’ve joined fan studies a few decades after Jenkins’ game-changing Textual Poachers, where he did a lot of the hard work needed for me to be able to write that last paragraph. Jenkins explains in his introduction to Textual Poachers that,
“This book is written on the assumption that speaking as a fan is a defensible position within the debates surrounding mass culture. Rejecting media-fostered stereotypes of fans as cultural dupes, social misfits, and mindless consumers, this book perceives fans as active producers and manipulators of meanings. Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, it proposes an alternative conception of fans as readers who appropriate popular texts and reread them in a fashion that serves different interests, as spectators who transform the experience of watching television into a rich and complex participatory culture. Viewed in this fashion, fans become a model of the type of textual “poaching” de Certeau associates with popular reading. Their activities pose important questions about the ability of media producers to constrain the creation and circulation of meanings. Fans construct their cultural and social identity through borrowing and inflecting mass culture images, articulating concerns which often go unvoiced within the dominant media” (Jenkins, 23).
With this assumption stated clearly, Jenkins goes on to examine popular texts through the eyes of its fans, the people who spend the most time interpreting it, sharing it, analysing it. This makes it possible for later fan scholars to do the same, without first having to write a book about why they should be allowed to.
But there’s no Textual Poachers for game studies and, honestly, I don’t want to be the person to write it. If someone else does, I’ll read it and share it and probably love it, but until then I am going to stick with the field that has made me feel comfortable and welcomed immediately.
Some people might respond to that last sentence and say that good scholarship requires discomfort. You should have to prove yourself in order to be accepted by the community. To be clear, I’m not arguing that I like fan studies because they have no standards. It’s just that the standards that fan studies sets are actually achievable. Fan scholars understand that you can’t possibly be a fan of everything that anyone is a fan of. Recent scholarship even makes the argument that as a fan of one thing you aren’t even expected to know everything about it. Zubernis and Larsen (and Jenkins) argue that defining a fan as someone who makes or collects things—as being active—denies the ways in which fans can participate by reading, by thinking, by sharing links (Zubernis and Larsen 16). There are as many ways to be a fan as there are fans.
And I know that there are games scholars who would agree with me if I said “there are as many ways to be a gamer as there are gamers,” but I’ve been trying to fit into game studies for years and I’ve never really felt comfortable saying that in a group of games scholars that I didn’t completely trust. What it comes down to is that—as any good fan scholar understands—games scholars are (should be) people who play games, so the things that are wrong with the larger gaming culture are likely to be wrong with the games scholar culture. Gate-keeping, one-upmanship, elitism, sexism, racism: there’s nothing stopping someone who studies games from engaging in those actions. And the same can be said for fan scholars: not every fan is welcoming and kind (especially people who are fans of games, amirite?) and not every fan scholar will be welcoming either.
But, and here, I think, is the real difference: as a fan scholar you are expected to make it clear what your personal biases are. You are expected to study the fandoms that you are a member of. You are required to place your argument within a larger cultural context: the things you study mean nothing if they are removed from human culture in general. You cannot limit your analysis of the text to a lexicography, to an analysis of the vocabulary used, because what matters about the words is that people are writing, reading, and sharing them. As Cornel Sandvoss explains in the fantastic Fan-Fiction Studies Reader published last year by Busse and Hellekson, “all encounters with textual structures thus require ideational activity that inherently tie the text to its reader. No text (and content) exists independently” (63, italics mine). Yet, there is still an assumption in games scholarship that if you want to you can study just the object—that the mechanics on their own are a whole text. This is despite the longstanding reliance on ideas of agency, interactivity and participation when it comes to discussing games. Games scholars like Mary Flanagan, TL Taylor and Jane McGonigal recognize and explore the impact that the player has on the narrative, but I still feel unsure saying things like “the only reason we study games is because people play them.” I know that there are many games scholars who feel this way — the editors of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds for starters, but current scholars like Samantha Allen, Katherine Cross, and Adrienne Shaw are pretty clearly positioned as feminist game scholars or cultural studies scholars who study games. They exist and they do fantastic work, but they are on the periphery of the canon, not at its center. I don’t want to be in a discipline whose central texts are hostile to the kinds of criticism I want to do.
To Fan or Not to Aca-Fan
Fan studies has had its own bumps in the road—we started out a little shaky with the anthropological eye of the early days that treated fans as the strange and incomprehensible “them” to be understood in opposition to the normative “us” (studies like Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women have since been criticized by fans and scholars alike for studying fandom from the outside), but that’s as far in the past for Fan Studies as the ludology vs narratology debate is for games scholars and it’s essentially settled. No one does fan scholarship from the outside anymore. We still have discussions about what to call ourselves—fans, acafans, aca/fans, fan scholars, scholar-fans, acascholarfan (only one of those is not actually real)—because we are all fans, but some of us are scholars within the academy who get compensated (financially, culturally, professionally) for the kinds of fannish activities that many fans do for the fun of it. It’s important that we acknowledge the privilege (and the responsibility) that comes along with that “aca,” but it’s tricky not to accidentally (or ignorantly) deploy the “aca” as power. So we ask ourselves what it means, when to deploy it, how to use it best. Henry Jenkins hosted a series called “Aca-Fandom and Beyond” that questions the term, and asks how the “aca” masks various realities (Jenkins). In the end, the series doesn’t end up either supporting or denying the validity of the term. Although I can hear people complaining that this kind of endless thinking about labels is useless navel-gazing, when the texts you study are so completely intertwined with real people’s emotional lives, I think it’s necessary to question things like how you position yourself. This is happening now in game studies — see this discussion about subjectivity in games scholarship, for example — but this type of scholarship is just developing in games studies now, and it’s already canon in fan studies. And to be honest, a PhD only lasts so long.
In contrast, Ian Bogost has this to say about aca-fandom:
“Embracing aca-fandom is a bad idea. Not because it’s immoral or crude, but because it’s too great a temptation. Those of us who make an enviable living being champions of media, particularly popular media, must also remain dissatisfied with them. We ought to challenge not only ourselves, our colleagues, and our students—but also the public and the creators of our chosen media. We ought not to be satisfied. That’s the price of getting to make a living studying television, or videogames, or even Shakespeare”.
What this shows me is that he does not get fandom: he assumes that fandom means the unrestrained love of a text (he’s obviously never been into the #supernatural tag on tumblr) and that this unrestrained love makes us oblivious to the problems in the texts we study. But take this definition of fandom from Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture:
“Fandom, after all, is born of a balance between fascination and frustration: if media content didn’t fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it; but if it didn’t frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it” (Jenkins 247)
Where Bogost sees “aca-fandom” as a license to be satisfied with a text, I see it as a responsibility to the communities I speak about, because frustration—dissatisfaction—is built in to fandom in exactly the way that Bogost calls for. Perhaps this is just more obvious in fan studies, where (Jenkins and Hills aside) the big names are women: Rhiannon Bury, Anne Jamison, Francesca Coppa, Kristina Busse, Karen Hellekson, Katherine Larsen, Lynn Zubernis, and many, many more. When you’re part of a marginalized group, your fandoms are never happy heavens where everything is beautiful: you see yourself get killed off to further someone else’s storyline (the (spoilers) fan-favourite lesbian character in Supernatural just got fridged), you hear actors give non-apologies for using slurs (I see you, Jeremy Renner), you look and look to try to find yourself in a text that insists on erasing you.
What’s generally surprising to me is that the two main obstacles to my comfort in the community of games scholars are seemingly contradictory: one, there’s an obsession with proving how invested (financially, in particular) one is in videogames; and two, there is a denial of that immediate, emotional closeness to the thing being studied. On the one hand, you “can’t” be a games scholar if you aren’t spending all your time buying, reading, playing, thinking about games, but also you “can’t” be a proper games scholar if you admit that you love the very text you are studying. This breeds the worst kind of games scholar: the scholar who hates games, but spends all their time playing them and writing about them.
I made the choice a few years ago to stop calling myself a gamer because I didn’t like the values that identity symbolized. It’s a similar choice I’m making now: game studies could be like fan studies. In fact, there are some great fan scholars who work in games, but the term — the identity — is still bound up in the ideals of the early canon. That early canon shaped the discipline to be a science rather than an art—full of objectivity, positivism, and a decided lack of interest in socio-cultural elements. This is changing, and I’m so excited for game scholars coming up in the field now, as cultural criticism takes the lead, but to me “game studies” signals a certain kind of scholar, and it’s not the kind of scholar I want to be. Just as there are gamers who are fantastic people, there are games scholars who are amazing, but the word, the identity, is not for me. I am aware that the kind of research I’m looking for exists in game studies, but it was not visible to me when I was a new scholar, and the research that was appealing, visible and accessible to me was not always treated as legitimate “game studies” research. In contrast, the second I picked up a fan studies anthology, I found my questions and my inclination towards subjective methodologies represented and validated instantly.
I will not stop writing, thinking about, or playing games, but I am not a games scholar.
Betz, Stephanie. “Phdfan’s Research Blog.” Tumblr. Web. 18 May 2015.
Bogost, Ian. “Against Aca-Fandom: On Jason Mittell on Mad Men.” blog. Ian Bogost. 29 July 2010. Web.
Jenkins, Henry. “Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Jonathan Gray, Matt Hills, and Alisa Perren (Part One).” blog. Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 29 Aug. 2011. Web. 18 May 2015.
—. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge, 2004. Print.
—. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, NY: New York Univ. Press, 2008. Print.
Jennings, Stephanie. “Why We Need More Subjective Games Criticism.” Blog. Ludogabble. 7 Mar. 2015. Web. 19 May 2015.
Jennings, Stephanie, Iris Bull, and Heather Alexandra. “Critical Discourse: Subjectivity.” Critical Distance. 13 May 2015. Web. 19 May 2015.
Sandvoss, Cornel. “The Death of the Reader? Literary Theory and the Study of Texts in Popular Culture.” The Fan Fiction Studies Reader. Ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014. 61–74. Print.
Stetler, Carrie. “Junot Diaz: Man in the Mirror.” nj.com. 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 10 May 2015.
Trautman, Shawn. “Wind Waker, the ‘Reasonable Person,’ and Subjective Criticism.” Blog. Discover Games. 20 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 May 2015.
Zubernis, Lynn, and Katherine Larsen. “Lost in Space: Participatory Fandom and the Negotiation of Fan Spaces.” Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012. Print.