Earlier this week I was lucky enough to return to scenic Luton once again for my second Under the Mask: Perspectives on the Gamer. I’ve enjoyed this conference both years, as it is relatively intimate but full of high quality presentations and brings together a good portion of the UK’s game studies scholars. I also appreciate how the conference has a stable theme (the “gamer”) that is broad enough not to dictate topics, but that always seems to lead to clear connections between papers. You can view my slides and download a copy of my (fairly informally written) paper here. If you’re looking for another perspective on the conference, you can also see Nicolle Lamerich‘s impressions on her blog.
For me, this year I felt like there were two main threads running through the conference as a whole.
1. Gamers do much more than just play games
Esther MacCallum-Stewart‘s keynote set the stage for this focus on the variety of stuff that gamers do, claiming that as researchers, we have tended to focus on very specific and very restricted types of player production, and that even that has been under-researched. She used the term “fan-producer” to, at least from my view, suggest that although fan activities have always been productive, now they have been legitimised to the point that their productivity is on equal ground or symbiotic with traditional media production. The main example here is that of Minecraft and the Yogscast, which both individually and together indicate the cultural and economic potential for games revolving around the fan-producer. The focus on the wide variety of gamer activities meant that Minecraft also served as the pivot for this presentation to touch on a huge number of gaming culture-related topics (that I am now very intrigued to see in full book form) including geek celebrities (who I have to imagine will be referred to as “producer-fans,” right?), the role of narrative and transmediality (no narrative in Minecraft, but improvisational narrative key for Yogscast), gaming philanthropy and funding, and the link between in-game failure and real life experimentation and perseverance. And of course, my industrially-focused brain lit up when she mentioned the correlation between changes in YouTube’s policies (making it easier to make money off videos) and the explosion in popularity of Minecraft videos and the game itself. This presentation also kicked off CrawfordCon ’12, offering the first of many, many Garry Crawford references (to which I also contributed). While the abundance of these citations could just be an confirmation that Garry’s recent book is a good one and has been out long enough for it to circulate among the scholarly community, I feel like it is also an indicator of this shift towards this expanded focus on the things people do with games rather than focusing closely on the texts, which aligns closely with Video Gamers‘ sociological basis and consideration of gamer production and the use of games in “everyday life” (another frequent term).
Richard Gough‘s presentation on spoilers emphasised the significance of information flows in gaming, suggesting that peoples’ experiences with games involve complex social acrobatics in order to avoid or attain information on game stories, systems, and strategies. Often this fundamentally impacts a player’s experience with a game, indicating that gameplay experience is crucially linked with the social communities and contexts within they are played in an informational sense.
Claudio Franco offered a very different take on this expanded frame for games, approaching from the production side. His presentation focused on transmedia production/adaptation and the aspects of the audiences for each media that need to be taken into consideration when attempting to create a product that will be translated to other media. What I found especially interesting here is the basic notion that, when a company sits down to develop a television show for instance, they already have to be thinking about gamers (or at least if we continue down this road, they’ll have to start). As such, this complicated notions of media specific audiences, as I think there is some hope at least from producers that a consistent audience will jump from medium to medium following their favourite entertainment property, but at the same time there is a recognition that there may be widely variant expectations and motivations for differing media.
Thomas Makryniotis showed off his game prototype DressCode which attempts to make a game in which clothing and dress actually matter. For me, this was an indicator of the ways in which games have failed to tap into this major part of social life in a meaningful way. I talked with Thomas afterwards and expressed my complete confusion over the way that Free-to-Play companies especially have firmly entrenched the idea of purchasable items as “cosmetic” and completely without gameplay relevance as a way to safeguard the integrity of their gameplay systems (to avoid allegations of “buy-to-win”), yet apparently feel that these irrelevant cosmetic items are important enough to serve as the basis for their economic model. As such, I think DressCode taps into something severely missing in games right now.
Finally, the Game Love panel that closed out the conference had a much broader scope than I had initially assumed. I had nothing to really base my expectations on, but when I heard “game love” my mind immediately went to in-game relationships, either between real people in virtual worlds or between game characters. While this definitely is part of the book, I was excited to hear that there is a whole lot more going on, including a whole lot of “game culture”-focused work on things like why people love the games they do and form connections with characters, places, things, and so on (also, Leigh Alexander!). I also have to say, the panel had created a game for all of us there to play which actually turned out to be a whole lot of fun (and led to some hilarious game concepts and moments, including Garry Crawford defending his team’s decision to put Lara Croft in the bottom of well as “it’s a metaphoric well that represents patriarchy”). Very Zimmerman MetaGame-ish, and I could see it actually being something fun to play more and experiment with the rules with at future events (sabotage other teams with a last minute card trade!).
2. A critical lens focused on the study of games in a reflexive attempt to push the field forward.
The introductory greeting by Mary Malcolm set the stage for this reflexivity in her defense of the word “gamer,” arguing that while the field and the medium are rapidly changing, with the majority of the population playing games and the term “gamer” wrapped up in complex and sometimes exclusionary baggage, we shouldn’t be too quick to retire a word that has built up such strong and unique associations.
This focus on the future of the field was then reinforced (and exemplified) by MacCallum-Stewart‘s rallying call for game studies to commit to moving into a “third wave” (citing Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter) and “grow up.” She was especially emphatic that we need not continue to wallow in the same defenses and justifications around the medium and field, not feeling obligated to cover outdated territory and debates as they are only holding us back from the really complex and provocative work beyond this. I think everyone in attendance likely agreed with this sentiment, and it definitely both set the tone and offered a goal for the rest of the conference.
My Glasgow Uni colleague Anthony Reynolds, who identifies as somewhat of an “outsider” to game studies coming from a film studies background and doing cultural history work, is really entering fascinating and complex territory concerning the gaming histories of people who identify as “gamers.” Without just touting the work of a friend, I will say the survey and focus group information he is getting back questions a lot of assumptions about how and why people play games, offering a more nuanced view than many broad depictions of players (for example, that there is great variability in how much people play per week, which seems obvious, but again shifts some emphasis towards external factors and pretty much obliterates stereotypes of gamers as defined by and universally sucked into the medium alone).
Daniel Golding‘s presentation on viewing game spaces from a player’s perspective as opposed to the traditional totalising views again offered a reconfiguration of much existing game studies scholarship, even beyond that focused on game spaces. I was particularly interested in the potential here to question how gamers may aspire to these totalising views, perhaps as they merge into this fan-producer state mentioned earlier, but also about the possibility that even the game developers themselves might not be able to fully articulate a coherent view of their games anymore. The randomly/procedurally generated worlds of, say, Diablo III or roguelike variants like the Binding of Isaac, seem to correspond to Golding’s assertion that these spaces are defined and constructed based on player toolsets and possibilities, and that understanding the spaces is necessarily linked with understanding the systems behind them. I wonder how this works, too, for games like Skyrim, that are so enormous that attempting to the system is the ONLY way to understand the space, because you might not even be able to virtually walk around every inch of that space in a lifetime. And moreover, not only can the player not cover all that ground, but neither can the creators (leading, understandably, to the prevalence of bugs in those types of open-world games, and also built out of the splintered knowledge of a huge number of people working on the game who each know different parts of the world), suggesting that a totalising view is not just antithetical to the players’ experience, but also perhaps a weird academic delusion that attempts to concisely comprehend the entirety of a world that even that world’s creators can’t fully comprehend.
Richard Young‘s presentation on his undergraduate psyschology/criminology thesis concerning game violence as linked with underlying personality traits (notably “neuroticism”) seemed to me definitely falling into more of a “second wave” mentality in that it was still focused on one of the early questions about games (“do they cause violence”), but that already was starting from a position of neutrality or informed skepticism rather than the blind hostility of Anderson et al. Where perhaps third wave reflexivity can be hinted at is in Young’s subversion of Anderson’s General Aggression Model, turning it back against Anderson himself to underscore the obvious complexity of the issue that is glossed over by the traditional media effects crowd.
My own presentation, on adapting “audience” models from media studies to the games medium, fit into this strain pretty clearly. Its broad goals involved trying to get separate fields (game studies and media studies) to speak to one another in an attempt to improve both, recognizing similarities and exposing the cracks in the originals that appear when merging models. Ultimately, I suggest that we need to critically examine every time we speak about “players” or “gamers” without thinking, because those words and our understandings of them are discursively constructed by institutional and sociocultural stakeholders.
Steven Conway followed with a nostalgic presentation on our loss of losing, winning, and actually playing due to an overabundance of empowerment, gratification, and “hypo-ludic” gameplay replacement. While this bordered on a reification of a traditional definition of gaming as fundamentally play for play’s sake (contrary to the previously described expansionary strain), it also questioned if much of what we are doing today is best even being described as gaming. From my personal perspective, I was most taken with his recounting of his students’ talking about games as “consumer-players” which I think is an incredibly intriguing concept. I feel like gamers are much more linked into and aware of the systems, production, advertising, PR cycles, monetization strategies, etc behind the games the play than the consumers of a lot of other media, and the realization that gamers are often talking about their play in consumerist terms seems very fruitful indeed.
The question and answer section following Anthony and Daniel Golding’s presentation again centred on an examination of the field. There was quite a bit of discussion about how useful the term “subculture” is for describing games culture, and if it useful, how and with what possible complications? More specifically, the two were asked directly if they felt as part of a “third wave” of game studies, and the answers (basically in the negative) were telling. I think Dan hit on the heart of structural and institutional aspects of this problem, in that while we may see the complexities and advances being made in game studies, the academic departments we often fall into (Dan is one of I believe he said 3 people studying games in his, while Anthony and I are the only two at CCPR) and the other related fields we interface with still see game studies as something brand new and wholly unfamiliar. Dan gave the example of having to bring up the ludology/narratology debate in his lit reviews even though that is basically irrelevant to his research just because it is something that his supervisors feel is necessary. I know that I have a similar section in my thesis about “media effects” that, while relevant to my work, is something I really wish I didn’t have to touch. From my experience too, all too often I am at more general conferences where I am the only person, or on the only panel, that is discussing games, and the point of reference for the audiences is far different from that at UTM. This points to the absolute necessity of continuing conferences like this that bring together game studies scholars who may feel rather isolated in their own departments and are in need of a sense of scholarly community, as well as providing the motivation for and recognition of such a “third wave” of game studies scholarship.