Some aspects are hard to explain, and the non-gaming public don’t always want to listen, but isn’t it time we had a good long talk about video games?
There can be the assumption that a PhD project is ultimately a collection of words that begins with a question (or hypothesis) but often turns into an overly drawn out monograph that no one outside of a very specialised area will find of any interest. The aim of such a project is to provide a new insight into a given subject; this needn’t be substantial either, for any new contribution is appreciated. The purpose of this long process is not actually the end result (although this is still needed for its completion) but the process itself, as one learns how to become a researcher, acquiring the tools they will require to be equipped to tackle more difficult problems in the future.
This is not to demean the focus of all PhD projects currently being undertaken (mine included) but it is a reminder that it is not a means to an end. Everyone who decides to undertake such a project will have their own motivation for doing so, and there is no correct answer for why one makes such a decision. For some this will be the pursuit of knowledge and attaining a greater understanding within their chosen field, or so that they can help improve and strengthen their field. For many, it may be a bit of both.
In the UK (with the exception of four institutions) all universities are publicly funded, as a result there can be a case brought that the research that takes place is for the benefit of the public. Whilst most of the public is unaware and/or uninterested in what is discovered – outside of perhaps the ‘big ticket’ items like curing cancer – that does not mean there shouldn’t be attempts at trying to disseminate some of what is discovered. The importance of this is gaining increased significance; this public knowledge transfer is one of the criteria for what is known as the REF (Research Excellence Framework) and this is responsible for how public funding is distributed among universities and subject areas.
Video games are unique as they are both a scientific and artistic area. Those involved with video games can be found in different faculties across a university despite clear comparisons between their research. This in part is because the overarching field of Game Studies is still relatively new, and because its remit is rather broad despite ostensibly being concerned with video games.
This can make it difficult for the public to understand what exactly it is that those involved in Game Studies are actually researching. Largely it is thought that it involves coding and in some part creating a game, though if it is stated that the research does not involve coding directly then often the topics that come to the public’s mind are those that are frequently considered newsworthy: studying the effects of violence from video games, or other psychological effects such as addiction. However there are many involved in Game Studies who approach it from a Humanities perspective, and the answers they are trying to discover are not as clear, nor are the methodologies that they use.
Opening the lines of communication
One should be able to provide a so called “elevator pitch” for their project where they are able to summarise their project. But it is not always possible to have a “pitch” that is suitable for every audience. Keep it too simple and other academics will question the methodology or even the depth of the project, but make it too jargon-heavy and the general public will be lost and will not pay it any attention.
Having been on a PhD program for just over half a year now – and coming up to the first milestone of the project – I have only just reached a point where I have been able to tailor my response as to what my project is actually about, depending on whom is asking. During the past couple of weeks I have been doing what is now even expected of a researcher just starting out: publicising your research, even though at this stage there is little work publicly available. One notable presentation was to an audience that was a mixture of students from different stages of research projects, and also included members from a course that is comprised of more senior members of the public. I hate to generalise, but it was unfortunate that those senior members were not welcoming to the focus of my project, let alone the study of video games in general. Meanwhile the research students were more interested in my specific focus; to them it was a given that video games should be studied. With the latter I was explaining my methodology and giving examples of video games that helped support my hypothesis, whereas with the former I had to defend not just the value of researching elements of video games, but also the very medium itself.
The “issue” of video game addiction came up (likely because of sensationalised stories from papers like the Daily Mail) even though my project makes no reference to it, or even matters of psychology in general, and I found myself having to fall back on the fact that there have been no conclusive evidence from the studies carried out. As well as making the case that many different things can be addictive, and that when this occurs it can be because of the individual rather than the supposed cause, with the exception of certain drugs due to the chemical reactions they generate. A possible reason for the distrust from this particular generation is that they pre-date not just the start of the mediums exposure to the general public, but the very existence of the medium. They were born in medias res for the film medium, but for the video games medium most saw it as the next toy and let it past them by.
Does anybody want to listen?
Since then I gave a guest talk at a partner College to second year students from a Games Design degree course, and whilst I was expecting it to be difficult (my background is not in games design) it ended up being the most rewarding display of my research to date. This particular course is, unsurprisingly, centred around creating video games, but there is also a focus on elements outside the actual development process, on the external aspects that can influence design and therefore allowing for a wider understanding as to what a video game can be. It was fascinating to see how the current state of my research was interpreted, but it was also interesting that the issue of age was naturally brought up in conversation. This was in relation to whether video games had breached into the cultural mainstream. Those of us who are part of the video games “community” consider the recognition of Mario to be ubiquitous, but that is still not the situation; for now.
What came out of the discussion was the issue of accessibility of video games. There needs to be concessions made in order to get those unfamiliar engaged with a new video game, or the medium as a whole, but in a way that is not at the expense of the existing audience/community. However it is the very existence of a perceived “community” that is potentially restrictive. We have created our own dialect (as video game critic Ian Bogost points out in his conclusion of How to Talk About Video games) which has the benefit of making it easier for us to talk amongst ourselves about video games, but more difficult for others to join the conversation; resulting in less of a community, and more of an inward-looking clique.
It is for that reason that it is important for me to talk about video games; both to those involved with video games to help generate discussion, and those outside to introduce them to the unique experiences that video games can provide. A more inclusive and open medium that both understands its past and welcomes change can only help strengthen it and enable it to advance in ways beyond just better graphics and bigger environments. But to do so requires us to talk and widen the discussion.