Jason Hawreliak is an assistant professor of game studies at Brock University’s Centre for Digital Humanities. His research examines multimodality, semiotics and rhetoric in videogames. He has served as essays editor for First Person Scholar since December of 2012.
I write this with a tinge of sadness, as it’s likely my last editorial for FPS. I’m leaving as editor for the essays section, a position I’ve held since FPS began in December of 2012. It’s hard to believe it’s been two and a half years, but I’m proud of what FPS has become over that time. We’ve published high quality content every Wednesday thanks to the hard work of our editorial staff and, most of all, our contributors.
To be honest, we weren’t sure what to expect when we launched and didn’t even know if there was an audience for middle-state publishing in game studies. We knew we wanted to occupy the middle-ground between gaming blogs and academic game studies journals, but it’s never certain how a project will turn out. The idea was (and is) that traditional academic publishing models simply take too long and are too often inaccessible, either because of paywalls or because of an over-use of esoteric concepts/language unfamiliar to those outside of academia. On the other hand, we never wanted to do away with academic methodologies entirely, since games journalism and less formal venues like personal blogs can lack context, both historical and theoretical. Of course, both models are valuable and have their relative strengths, but FPS has always been about trying to combine the best of both worlds so that academics, enthusiasts, journalists, developers (and anyone else who will listen) can all be on the same page. Academics shouldn’t only talk to other academics, and we should listen very carefully to people who don’t have the privilege or desire to be heard in academic outlets.
Essays – A Year in Review
As for the essays portfolio, we’ve had an excellent year. We saw a record number of high-quality submissions and they came from a diverse range of authors. In no particular order, here are a few that I think highlight the spirit of FPS. Ansh Patel’s piece on representations of mental health in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a great example of criticism that is at once sophisticated but easy to follow. Criticism and games that examine representations of mental health are important (also see Patrick Lindsey and Kaitlin Tremblay’s work) and I hope to see more of it. Alex Layne’s essay on procedural rhetoric and ethics is a little more academic in tone, but it takes an established topic in game studies and pushes it to its limit. That’s always a useful exercise. I didn’t personally work on it, but we were thrilled to publish Adrienne Shaw’s essay on realism and historical accuracy in Assassin’s Creed III. The issue of historical accuracy doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, and Shaw’s essay is a fantastic examination of its potential problems. Shaw is one of the most important voices out there right now and this essay certainly showcases why. In a similar vein, our own Steve Wilcox’s essay on procedural realism also struck a chord with me. Why do games focus so much effort on making a machine gun sound realistic, but don’t worry about realistically depicting the consequences of gun-violence? These are the sort of questions that need asking. Finally, Luke Arnott’s essay on state-power in Mass Effect is a near perfect amalgamation of heady academic subject matter (Agamben’s Homo Sacer), lucid prose and “real-world” applicability. Games are well-suited for representing systems, and criticism like this helps us better understand the systems we’re faced with.
I’ve undergone my own changes during my time at FPS. I went from a PhD candidate unsure of his future to a professor teaching and researching games. In this job market I’m fully aware how fortunate that is, and I’m sure my work with FPS helped. (As an aside, hopefully more institutions will recognize middle-state publishing as a valuable research contribution). More than a line on my CV, however, the best thing about being an editor for FPS has been working with our contributors. Reading such a diverse range of essays written by everyone from enthusiasts to tenured professors (and everyone in between) has been truly eye-opening, even when—especially when—I don’t agree with them. In my view there’s nothing better for clarifying your own position than reading its opposite. It’s also been tremendously helpful for my own scholarship as I inevitably encounter concepts and theorists I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the many back-and-forths I’ve had with contributors and that’s probably what I’ll miss the most. Traditional peer review has its merits, but the anonymity means you can’t develop a relationship with the contributor.
There’s no way to predict where the field is going, but I can say where I’d like it to go in general terms. I hope to see a further focus on two concepts in particular, subjectivity and complexity. Subjectivity is important for the obvious reason that videogames are played by humans. A critical methodology that ignores subjectivity is, in my view, missing an important piece of the puzzle. As Stephanie Jennings puts it, “the critic’s subjectivity, experiences of playing a game, and even personal identity are… part of the game text under analysis.” The idea that objectivity is desirable or even remotely possible in criticism is absurd. Sure, we can discuss the formal characteristics of a thing, but the characteristics we choose to examine and how we interpret them is going to depend on the person. Luckily, I think we’re at the point where the push for objectivity is disappearing and more or less confined to the comments sections for AAA game reviews. Still, the examination of subjectivities is something I’d like to keep seeing.
The emphasis on subjectivity really highlights the second area I’d like to see grow in game studies – complexity. Since human beings are playing games, each play experience will differ based on the individual; we all bring our own experiences when we sit down to play something, as Michael Lutz wrote last year. Furthermore, there is so much that makes up a videogame (code, hardware, aesthetics, cultural values, conditions of production, etc.) that trying to pin down any essential quality is probably not a worthwhile pursuit. There’s more than enough space to discuss graphics and fun alongside problems with representation. Outlets like Paste Games are doing remarkable work producing this sort of criticism, and Giant Bomb’s hiring of Austin Walker gives me hope that the tide is turning.
My own work is turning towards complexity in a different way. I’m interested in how a game’s various modes of communication (text, image, music, procedurality, etc.) work together to create meaning. How does the music influence how we interpret the visuals, or how does the story influence how we interpret the rules? This multimodal approach hopefully sidesteps recurring debates about narrative/game, formalism, etc., and instead frames videogames as all of the above, all of the time. The basic point is just that videogames are a configuration of a bunch of things; which things you choose to turn your focus towards is entirely arbitrary and no more essential than any other configuration.
Speaking of multimodality, I’d like to see more criticism employing non-textual modes. Cameron Kunzelman’s “Player/Knowledge” video series is a great example of using video, speech and music to conduct engaging, intelligent analysis. I showed his GTA and nostalgia video to my first year class and it went over really well. I enjoy reading and writing, but videogames are multimodal so there’s no reason why our criticism can’t be too.
As for FPS, I’m certain it will only keep getting better. We have a wonderful new editor-in-chief taking over, Emma Vossen, and I know she’ll do a fantastic job. Emma has been a friend and colleague for years and I’m looking forward to seeing where she takes FPS next. She’s already revamped the Commentaries section and helped to bring in some brilliant articles. For the essays portfolio, our associate essays editor, Betsy Brey, will be taking over in August as the section head. Betsy has been outstanding in her duties so far and future contributors will be very lucky to have her guidance.
I’m not leaving FPS entirely. I’ll stay on as a faculty advisor, along with Neil Randall, Gerald Voorhees and Jennifer Whitson. I’m looking forward to my new role and helping out behind the scenes.
To close, I want to sincerely thank the readers and contributors of FPS; we’re all tremendously grateful for the support you’ve shown and the work you’ve put in. We wouldn’t be here without you. And finally, a big thanks to my colleagues at FPS, as they’ve made this job all the more worthwhile. It really is a wonderful group working behind the scenes. I want to particularly thank Steve Wilcox, our Editor in Chief. Steve dreamed up FPS and has put in a tremendous amount of work. Not only has he served as EiC, but webmaster, organizer, contributor, and general chaos manager. I’m very grateful to have been a part of this from the beginning and can’t wait to see what’s next.