This is the tenth article in the series The Academics Are Coming.
Mitu Khandaker is a PhD student conducting research into novel game controllers at the University of Portsmouth. She wrote an article in the second issue of Kill Screen (previously discussed on Electron Dance) which captured a moment of personal "career crisis", questioning the relevancy of game studies. In conclusion, Mitu suggested research-led development - games developed by academics - could address this.
How did she end up writing that article on the relevancy of game studies? And how does Redshirt connect with her research?
HM: Mitu, there is still much scepticism regarding the value of academic research so... why become a game studies academic?
It was a very pragmatic decision at the time, actually! My background is technical; I did an MEng in Computer Engineering with a view to eventually getting into game development. However, having done a final project on physiological game interfaces, I was offered a fully funded PhD position at my university to explore the topic further. Given the opportunity to spend a few years researching a topic genuinely interesting to me, I could hardly say no!
Once I really got into it, however, I realised how many interesting - and important - philosophical questions there were to be asked about our relationship with the controller - and the impact this could have on game design.
So, in summary, without commenting on the rest of games academia as such, I saw the work that I could be doing as being valuable to games.
HM: What prompted the Kill Screen article on the relevancy of game academics? It's not clear whether the article precipitated a "career crisis" or the crisis gave rise to the article.
I should explain that, although I had decided to approach my PhD from this much more theoretical perspective, I had not lost that part of myself which was just interested in creating things.
Half-way through my PhD, I took a sabbatical for most of a year to co-found a startup based on a commercial social game idea. I'd given myself that time within which to give it a shot, and, if it did not work out, I'd return to my PhD. Unfortunately, long story short, it ended up changing to a point where I was no longer interested in the project – it was no longer a game – and so I found myself trying to settle back into academia full-time.
I'd been feeling a bit dejected from the experience, though, so I ended up in a very contemplative mood about what I was really doing, given my penchant for making things. I started asking myself all these questions: Was games academia for me? And, what was my PhD even about, anyway?
HM: So is The Tiniest Shark related to your research?
My PhD research ended up taking me into the ‘player-study’ realm of academic research, rather than affording me the opportunity to build something new and experimental. However, as making games is and always has been something hugely important to me, it was really a matter of trying to resolve my inner struggle; my need to create things. To create games. The fact that I couldn’t build anything for my actual research question felt troubling to me, so I took to doing my own thing.
HM: Can you explain why you couldn't build anything as part of your research?
Honestly, it became a practical decision! After long, heartfelt chats with my brilliant PhD supervisors (Dr Brett Stevens and Dr Dan Pinchbeck), they reminded me that the point of a PhD is, really, 'to prove one's research chops'. I could either explore my research questions through a game I built myself or, more practically, I could use extant examples, saving the bigger projects for postdoctoral-level work.
In short, it became the simplest solution for now, if I ever want to graduate. It was frustrating, but made sense.
HM: Turning things around, do you think your academic knowledge will impact the games developed for The Tiniest Shark?
I think anything and everything we learn in any context informs the things we do. I have no doubt that the research I’ve been doing in academia will inform what I’ve been doing, sometimes in a more tangible way and often less so. For instance, the first title I’m working on, a sim game called Redshirt, is harder to tie to my academic work, but I’m sure anything else I work on in future may be more clear cut. Or it may not be, who knows.
Overall though, I think design – all design, not just games – is a Gestalt sort of discipline. Nothing you do, or learn, goes to waste, and makes you a better, more-informed designer.
HM: Do you think academics should be trying to sell the weight of their theories through development rather than writing papers?
Well, as I see it, there are actually three paths: there is the purely theory-based analytic stuff, there is research rooted in development, and then there is the ‘player study’ kind of research, too. The latter two are easier to glean immediate takeaways from, perhaps, so it’s easier to see the value of these kinds of research over the analytic stuff; especially when bad analysis is, arguably, easier to do than bad development which offers no lessons, for example.
But, when done well, there is absolutely value to be had in the writing-papers approach. While it may not necessarily offer immediate takeaways for devs, perhaps this is not the purpose of games academia; perhaps it is, rather, to push forward how we think of games, as a culture.
I’ll admit I am still more inclined to the way of thinking that suggests that development is the ideal, but just because something makes more sense to me, doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that makes sense.
HM: Should we consider academics to be a sort of "third channel" of game development? Mainstream churns out the crowdpleasers, indie garage bands do their thing - and now the academic experimenters are on the scene? Is it possible for academic developers to distinguish themselves from indie experimentation?
I think the biggest difference is that academia exists solely for the pursuit of knowledge - or at least, that’s the ideal. It’s an environment designed explicitly to mitigate any risks you may take.
While indies may be doing experimental stuff, presumably (unless they have some sort of unconditional grant or patron) most of them need to make a living and so, beyond any tiny projects, they are not always able to make things just for the sake of making things.
In academia, you can do just that. So yes, if you want to make games purely for the sake of doing really experimental things to advance the medium, without caring about the consequences, then I think academia is absolutely a possible third channel of game development.
However, as I’ve described above, development isn’t necessarily all games academia has to offer. An additional benefit of academia, including both the ‘development’ and ‘analytical’ paths, is the rigour that it can offer. It does not always work totally efficiently of course, but at least the processes are in place to help rigorous research get done.
HM: Having suggested that academia might be the place to devise experimental ideas, would you be concerned about academic proof-of-concepts being cloned by others and thus depriving an idea's progenitors of any kudos, commercial or otherwise?
There's little to stop the copying or cloning of ideas in the commercial sphere too, of course, but that's a wider, separate issue. I mean, there are a few ways to look at this: firstly, why shouldn't academic proof-of-concepts be talked about in the games community, as much as commercial games are? Arguably, this is something that already happens - Prom Week being the most notable, most recent example - but we need to see more of this. There's no reason that academics shouldn't be entitled to as much kudos as a commercial developer (though, there are many other motivations an academic could have besides this, of course).
Secondly, if commercial developers are inspired by academic proof-of-concepts, then isn't this sort of the point? Academia need not necessarily exist solely to give ideas to the industry, of course, but if the industry subsequently sees more experimentation and progress, then this is not a bad result.
HM: Thanks for your time, Mitu.