In our interview with Brendan Keogh a while back, I asked him about the state of contemporary game studies. In particular, I asked him if he thought contemporary academic models were ill-suited to a medium which seems to change so rapidly, and I was a little surprised by his answer:
“at first I was very much thinking, all the interesting criticism is happening out there on blogs and alternate websites outside of the academy. But now I think that was perhaps a very naïve opinion, and I think there is a whole lot of interesting stuff still happening in the academy that really depends on that really rigorous, peer-reviewed model, and actually being aware of theories and ideas outside of just videogames.”
I was surprised not because I think he’s wrong or anything like that—he’s absolutely right that both have their places— but because over the course of my grad student career I had the inverse reaction. It might be a generational thing, as I came to the gaming blogosphere fairly late, and Twitter even later, but when I came into my Ph.D. I thought that the important discourse was mostly taking place in “real” journals with prestigious editors.
As I’ve reached the end of my doctoral studies, however, I’ve come to think the exact opposite, that the important discourse is occurring in the ephemeral spaces of personal blogs, Twitter, the occasional gaming site, and perhaps most of all, within the sphere of middle-state publishing (MSP), which tries to combine the best of both worlds. Ideally, MSP can provide the timeliness and succinctness of a blog, while retaining the rigor and context of a conventional journal article.
The academic model of course suffers from two fundamental and well-known weaknesses:
- Accessibility, and
As I’m sure you know, if you’re conducting research but aren’t affiliated with an academic institution, or if you are and your library doesn’t have access to a particular journal or site, chances are you’ll come across a paywall at some point. Articles usually run around $30, and some people simply can’t afford to shell out that kind of money for a single piece. Cost excludes a lot of people from academic discourse, and it’s also bad for authors because it means no one reads their stuff. (For any problems something like Gamestudies.org might have, it still offers its content free of charge and that’s great).
But apart from this, the fact is that most people who play games are not academics, and so if we want to engage them, then we have to do so on their turf. As Kenneth Burke puts it in A Rhetoric of Motives, “You persuade a man [sic] only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image attitude, idea, identifying your way with his” (p. 55), and I think that’s dead-on.
The trick is to construct intelligent, sophisticated discourse without relying on esoteric jargon. If our goal is to foster intelligent discourse outside of an academic environment, then we should restrict jargon as it can be off-putting. This doesn’t mean we have to “dumb-down” our material; rather, we should simply work on developing our skills as better, more lucid writers. Samantha Allen and Cameron Kunzelman are examples of writers who’ve found a great balance between intelligent discourse and accessible writing.
Speed, of course, is our biggest problem. An academic article can only ever really be a historical piece, since conventional publishing practices require anywhere from 6-24 months of time between writing and publication. This makes sense. After all, the University system was built on reading, writing, and contemplating eternal (usually theological) matters. Now the essence of being isn’t going anywhere, so it makes sense to engage in prolonged conversations about it across years, decades, and even centuries.
But this model simply doesn’t work when examining a medium as fluid as the videogame. New genres emerge, merge, and disappear rapidly. As persistent as certain themes seem to be, there are an increasing number of games that challenge them, primarily within the “indie” scene, but we’re starting to see some movement in AAA games too.
Furthermore, not only do games change rapidly, but the means for producing them do as well. New technologies pop up all the time, and so depending on how deep you want to go, game production no longer requires skill sets like programming or even art direction. We could wait to talk about the effect Twine had on gaming, but this keeps us out of the important conversations that happen alongside its evolution. It’s important that academics are given a forum for talking about these trends as they appear and morph in real-time.
For example, a great deal of the resistance to the #1reasonwhy trend can be blamed on general scumbaggery, but at least part of it has to do with education. The assertions that “gender is socially constructed” and “there is systemic misogyny in the games industry” are clear to anyone who’s done a bit of research or critical reflection, but for one reason or another many have a real difficult time with them.
As academics in the Humanities, we’re trained to interrogate these issues at length, and so have some insights to offer those who haven’t examined them. If communicated effectively, this works best in real time, while the iron’s hot and people are listening.
A game like Hotline Miami caused a stir for a variety of reasons, and it was great that one of our contributors, Rob Parker, was able to engage in the conversation while people were still listening. Likewise, if we want to talk about how BioShock: Infinite or The Last of Us engages established trends, then it’s best to discuss them while people are interested in reading about them. The internet’s a fickle place (remember Candybox?) and we have to adapt to that.
The value of MSP is that scholars can contribute to discussions as they happen, but in a manner that is also theoretically grounded and reviewed by an editorial staff. Since most MSPs insist on relatively short articles and don’t require “finished” thoughts, turnaround can happen very quickly.
On the other hand, academic models clearly have their value. Anything to do with methodology, historical trends, quantitative studies, or what used to be called “theory” certainly benefit from the demands of the current academic model.
Something like Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games (2007) is an example of valuable work done through the conventional channels. Persuasive Games provided us with a vocabulary for talking about games in a fairly novel way, especially with the concept of “procedural rhetoric.” It provided a valuable context for situating the material within (e.g. a brief overview of rhetoric), and it employed numerous examples from a wide array of sources to illustrate his points. Likewise, anything that has to do with experiments, data, measurements, etc., all belong in an academic context, as you need knowledgeable people probing methods and results.
What blogs and gaming sites lack most of all is critical context and editorial oversight. Again, one of the benefits of an academic article is that it functions to situate a particular text or set of texts within a broader context. I see a lot of, “for the first time in gaming history, X appears,” when the truth is X had appeared many times before. Perhaps an author simply hasn’t had the time to research a subject in any real depth, or just as likely, they might not have the space to provide a sufficient literature review (as is the case here!). A knowledgeable editor can at the very least point the author and reader(s) to further resources or similarly-themed analyses.
So keeping the relative strengths and weaknesses of these two modes in mind, essays in a game studies MSP should be
- Theoretically grounded (placed in context);
- Reviewed by an editor;
- Intelligent but comprehensible;
- Grounded in actual games or play experiences.
Furthermore, if we want to influence games (apart from making them), instead of simply describing and deconstructing problematic trends or themes, we should also offer potential solutions or fixes when possible or appropriate. If, for instance, a critic is tired of one-dimensional characters in games, why not point to some examples of complex characters done well and outline the benefits therein?
State of Decay
I think State of Decay is a good analogue to MSP, as in many ways it’s a middle-state game. In terms of price, it’s only $20, but for that you get a good 20-30 hours of compelling—if occasionally repetitive and buggy—gameplay. It’s not a perfectly polished AAA title, but it’s certainly not a “casual” or quick game either.
If you’re not familiar with SoD, it’s an “open-world survival game” set in the zombie apocalypse. Your goal is to find friendly survivors, build defenses, gather resources like food, fuel, and ammo, and of course avoid getting eaten. I too am suffering from a case of zombie-fatigue, but SoD does some things different.
First, there are many playable characters that you can build up, and once they die you can’t play them anymore. This permadeath feature can be frustrating and sad (I’m sorry, Marcus!), but it works. The game is incredibly intense and there are few moments that you feel safe. SoD is also a good analogue here because its relationship to the player is similar to the relationship between the games industry and games scholarship—namely, the game doesn’t give a shit about you.
Unlike the solipsistic worlds of Mass Effect or Skyrim, the world of SoD goes on in spite of the player. Missions will pop up occasionally and they’re added to your quest list —save a distressed survivor, help clear a zombie infestation, etc.— but unlike ME or Skyrim, these quests won’t just wait on the player: If you choose to clear the infestation before saving that survivor, then that survivor might well become zombie food, and you might miss out on a strong ally or even a playable character.
SoD doesn’t even care if you’re playing or not. Events happen and people die even when you’re away from the game. I had to leave my game for a week and when I came back, survivors in my group were gone (left or dead), my supplies had dwindled, and a bunch of zombie infestations had popped up around my base. I wouldn’t call it a “persistent world” in the way WoW is or anything, and the “main” missions do seem to wait on the player, but in its own way SoD continually reinforces the idea that you aren’t the center of this universe.
In the same vein, the industry doesn’t seem to care much about the academic element of game studies as it currently stands. There are exceptions, as critics like Bogost, McGonigal and Anthropy certainly engage in both criticism and production, and may even have some pull, but these are still very much anomalies. AAA studios, and even the major “independents” are generally more interested in hearing from focus testers than Ph.D.s or grad students.
Conclusion: Possible Solutions
So what can we do? Well odds are if you’re writing about games, you’ve been playing them for a while. As I see it, the fact that I’ve been playing videogames regularly since the mid-80s makes me more of an “expert” than any academic degree or any number of refereed publications. We’ve been playing games for a long time, and we know what we like and what we don’t like. If we can frame scholarship in a manner that makes our suggestions at least appear to be informed or commercially viable, then we’ll have better odds of catching the ear of important players in the industry.
To return to SoD, the game takes a bunch of risks and it worked. I got attached to the default character, began identifying with him and experiencing the game world through him, and then he died. I felt guilty, like I had let him down. That wasn’t a fun experience, but it was a meaningful one.
Also, the default character, Marcus, is a person of colour, and my go-to after him is Maya Torres, a Hispanic woman whose fighting and shooting skills rival anyone’s. Unlike a game like San Andreas, Marcus and Maya aren’t jokes or harmful stereotypes; they’re just people trying to survive in bad times. There are also same-sex relationships depicted, and again, they aren’t portrayed as humorous or “wrong;” they just are.
Of course, SoD could and should go further. There aren’t any trans* characters, and given the pervasiveness of the industry/culture’s transphobia, I think videogames are uniquely suited to combating it. But SoD at least goes a bit outside conventional gaming discourses and should be applauded for that.
Like it or not, the commercial success of SoD means developers will be more likely to take similar risks in the future. Part of our job as scholars and critics should be to highlight the viability and success of games which go outside the status quo.
On the back end of things, editors need to be able to turn pieces around in rapid fashion, i.e., in days and weeks, not months and years. This, I think, is achievable. Realistically, in terms of raw hours, a middle-state essay can be edited in a matter of hours. The problem of course is finding the time and will to push aside other obligations which may seem more pressing. Since MSP pieces are relatively short and informal, we can mitigate this problem substantially.
This means we also have to adequately reward both authors and editors. The easiest way, perhaps, is monetary compensation. re/Action Zine is a great step in this direction, and I sincerely hope it will ultimately be seen as a catalyst for future trends.
The other form of compensation is a bit tougher. For academics, and young academics in particular, it means that MSPs need to hold some weight on a C.V., i.e. they need to help bolster the author/critic’s professional credentials. Again, some of the best, most critical and intelligent pieces have been written on sites like Gamasutra, Polygon, “small” blogs and self-published books; it seems a shame that such pieces don’t hold as much weight as similarly themed analyses in “real” genres like journal articles.
If we can build a middle-state eco-system which demonstrates its potential as a timely and informed mode of discourse, while also rewarding those who build it, then the middle-state may be our best chance to influence the industry and culture in a positive way. Some people can’t be saved of course, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to fight the good fight. It’s a slow, long slog, but if we can convince enough consumers that these problems are worth looking at, then hopefully publishers and developers can be shown the light as well.
Shout outs to just a few of the many sites occupying the middle-ground brilliantly:
I’d also include Keogh’s Killing is Harmless as MSP, but it’s its own animal, and I probably don’t need to tell you to consult Critical Distance on the regular.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. MIT Press, 2007.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press, 1969.
Keogh, Brendan. (Interview). First Person Scholar, 2013.