Electron Dance
14Aug/12Off

The Academics Are Here

This is the final article in the series The Academics Are Coming.

In the 1970s, the term “Cycle of Deprivation” entered British political nomenclature.

It was a hypothesis asserting that disadvantage was cyclical and persistent across generations. The children of “troubled families", it suggested, would be condemned to repeat their parent's mistakes and inflict the same disastrous upbringing on their own children.

The important thing to note about this hypothesis is its focus on problem families rather than poverty. This is a crucial point as researchers have shown that poverty does beget poverty but the “cycle of deprivation” hypothesis has been rejected - disadvantaged children can rise above their “troubled” origins without external support.

Yet this hypothesis is continuously regurgitated, framed to fit the political narrative of the moment. From “The Cycle of Deprivation: Myths and Misconceptions”:

This means that alongside the focus on social exclusion, child poverty, and inter-generational continuities in economic status, there is a parallel and increasing emphasis on anti-social behaviour, parenting, and problem families. Arguably what comes over most strongly from a review of the past 30 years is the persistence of dichotomies – between continuity and discontinuity; between intra-familial and extra familial factors; between social scientists and psychologists; between research and policy; and between individuals and institutions. Overall, the result of the neglect of this important part of recent intellectual history is that several wheels are being regularly reinvented.

Recently, the UK government launched an initiative to tackle “troubled families” using a report by Louise Casey as a touchstone. This report makes no reference to thirty years of research, relying instead on a series of interviews and admits “that this is not formal research… these interviews [are] not representative of the 120,000 families that are deemed as ‘troubled’”.

Being ignored and, occasionally, belittled is part of academic culture; it is not unique to game studies.

When I embarked on this project, I wasn’t looking for any great truth. I noticed a number of academics from game-related fields were making their own games and wondered if this meant anything, whether these games were made with different intentions or perhaps offered something that no other game could.

After seven interviews, I’m left with some questions.

What is an "Academic Game"?

A Theoretical War concluded with the idea that academic-made games could raise the profile of game-related research. Such “academic games” could either be used to demonstrate the fruits of research or, alternatively, be the research itself (projects that could be labelled “research-led development”).

I approached seven academics who were making games to find out what their games meant to them. The surprise was that few of their projects were directly research-related:

  • Dan Pinchbeck’s work has a strong research focus and both Dear Esther and Korsakovia were tied to research;
  • Clara Fernández-Vara’s point-and-click adventures have been research pieces, slanted towards procedurally-generated adventures more recently;
  • Little of Ian Bogost’s output is academically-minded with Persuasive Games being a commercial studio and other projects like A Slow Year being personal endeavours. Cow Clicker, however, did fall under his academic remit.

The other four academics are not producing research-related games:

  • Chaim Gingold has no intention of developing anything related to his PhD and seems likely to return to the industry once his PhD is complete;
  • Mitu Khandaker's Redshirt is a personal project as her PhD is focused on controller design;
  • Despite Doug Wilson's games making an appearance in his PhD thesis, they were developed independent of his research;
  • Pippin Barr isn't conducting research.

Should we still consider all games by academics to be special in some way? For example, Pippin Barr's rich vein of contrarian games?

I think not.

Khandaker noted that a developer's experiences and knowledge would inevitably end up in the games they create. Pippin Barr makes the games he makes because he is Pippin Barr, just like Stephen Murphy makes Space Funeral, Drill Killer and Crime Zone because he is Stephen Murphy. It does academics a disservice to consider "games by academics" to be uniquely special - it diminishes their achievements as developers.

An "academic game" should be defined in terms of subject matter rather than author. An appropriate definition would be a game which is explicitly connected with game-related research and that's the distinction I will use going forward.

Should more academics make games?

There’s definitely an argument for more academics to put their  money where their theoretical mouth is, but it is wrong to think that all research must wind up as a game.

Fernández-Vara pointed out that theory has its place and the pressure to create something commercially poignant corrupts the academic ideal - something that has haunted scientific funding for many years. Further, empirical research (experiment and observation) is not easily shoe-horned into “game-making”.

Perhaps more academics should make games - even just to gift the medium with new voices - but this is not a mandatory requirement.

Should academic games be commercial?

If academics are going to create games, can they be commercial? Perhaps a more loaded question is should they be commercial?

Bogost asserted that, in general, academics were not practitioners and did not have the time nor patience to create a commercial game. Yet both Pinchbeck and Wilson said adopting the indie mindset reaped theoretical benefits. In fact, Wilson found the indie space so intoxicating that he couldn’t pass up the chance to join it.

But there is a conflict of interest between the academic right to fail and the commercial desire for success. Commercial games cost money to produce and therefore need to earn money to keep a company afloat. The ability to “fail interestingly” is a second priority. The team must think of themselves as a business, with all that entails.

What about commercial academic games that are funded directly by an academic institution or through a research grant? Could such an arrangement support the ability to fail? There are legal difficulties here, some of which almost killed the reboot of Dear Esther. Pinchbeck is actively working on this problem with Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, a project that has been funded to identify how these hurdles might be negotiated. So watch this space.

Are the academics here?

So what are we to make of this? Aside from student projects, are we seeing enough academic game output to convince players and developers that game-related research is important in its own right?

We are still far from seeing the fruits of research make it out to developers and the scepticism continues. Even Bogost and Pinchbeck have lamented the inability of academics to relate their research to those in the industry. More needs to be done.

I would definitely like to see more games created with academic foundations. Dear Esther raised the public profile of Pinchbeck’s own research. I would also love to see a reboot of the GDC Game Studies Download in some form, something that tries to communicate important academic findings to the industry.

I still have a niggling concern that commercialising such projects mean the games build a brand, the academics themselves, rather than establish dialogue. Academics need to be able to fail.

Yet perhaps what will change the perception and understanding of game studies is not actually games.

Games-related courses and research have continued to gain popularity. We're actually awash with developers and writers who have game studies backgrounds, people who are creating interesting conversations outside of academia: Doug Wilson, after making his name with Johann Sebastian Joust has done GDC; Robert Yang created the Radiator series of experimental Half-Life 2 mods and now his writings on level design are followed by many; let us not forget Ian Bogost who is well-read by both games enthusiasts and developers.

These people represent the success of game studies thinking. In the end, it's the people and not the politics nor the papers. The academics are here. You just have to look.

Reference

  • Scathing critique of Louise Casey's report. “…a starting point for any serious analysis like this is what in academia is usually called the “literature review”. I personally don’t like this phrase, because what it really is (or should be) mainly is a research and evidence review – what do we already know from research that has already been done? Don’t bother looking for this in Casey’s report – there’s nothing there.”
  • History of "problem families" since 1880 and notions of underclass.
  • Enjoy the delicious irony of an opening gambit rubbishing a governmental paper that relies on interviews rather than research, leading into an essay that makes deductions based on... a bunch of interviews. Please. No need to thank me.

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Comments (19) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I like the thought that it may be something other than games studies which leads to the development of games. So often it seems that inspiration comes from the places you least expect.

  2. Hey it was a great series you put together there. It does end up being a bit mystifying as to what “academic games” could mean – and kind of funny that the people you talked to largely didn’t see things that way. Dan is really a shining beacon in terms of making games to really explore what making games is and does. I wish there were more of him. Maybe there will be!

  3. @Phill: Although I’m more concerned that academic game studies isn’t contributing to game development enough. Papers get written but how many are reading them outside of academia?

    @Pippin: This was the way I weighed it up in the end.

    The series looked at individuals entering academia (Mitu), leaving (Doug), returning (Chaim) and also those who were established (Ian, Dan, Clara and yourself). And there was far more dissimilarity between the interviewees than I initially expected. Trying to pigeon-hole everyone into “academic games” really seemed to be reaching. As the series closed out, I got the strong sense that labelling a bunch of people “academic game makers” was crass.

    You, for example, are producing games which are interesting… but you’re not the only person concocting games based on contrarian/exploratory mechanics. Just to throw out an example – Dungeon by Cactus & Arthur Lee. To say your games are rooted in academic notions either belittle your dev cred to “being an academic” or, alternatively, makes you out to be “more special” than others who are working along similar lines. I couldn’t have that. You’re Pippin Barr, the developer, who happens to be an academic.

    Doug’s work was revealing in terms of the chicken and egg thing going on: his dissertation pulls heavily from his experiences of B.U.T.T.O.N. and Joust but they weren’t built to showcase research. His games and his research come from the same place – Doug Wilson, game developer.

    The fact that more game academics are producing games now is just because game development is opening up, the “everyone is an artist” trend. But that doesn’t explicitly address the problem stated back in A Theoretical War, of game studies being ignored, unless those games are actually waving the flag of research around.

    It would have been lovely to have got a conclusion like “and this is what academic games represent” because, after all, I wanted to say something about “academic games”. But I think that would have been tying the series up in a way that wasn’t honest. I was uncomfortable in drawing out a neat conclusion for the series because it just wasn’t there.

    My real hope is that it highlights again the sluggish flow of information from research to industry. I don’t think things have moved on much since Mitu’s Kill Screen article.

    I’m quite happy to have a debate here in the comments, if people read different conclusions from the interviews. Go team!

  4. Great questions, and a great conclusion to the series. I think your answer to “Should more academics make games?” could be more affirmative, though–yes of course they should! But I’m a big proponent of the idea that more people in general should make games, the argument made most recently and most visibly in Anna Anthropy’s book.

    A final point: NYU’s Game Center’s MFA program starts up very soon, and I think that’s something to watch. They are collapsing the various disciplines into one space–theory, practice, and criticism. That might be the way forward. Then again, it might be a dead end. Only one way to find out.

  5. the question isn’t whether academics should make more games, it’s what kinds of games academics are making. here are a few really important academic games researchers/makers who are doing important work:

    katie salen, institute of play, parsons
    mary flanagan tiltfactor lab, dartmouth
    helen nissenbaum values at play, nyu
    gonzalo frasca, uruguay
    tracy fullerton interactive media, USC

  6. @Eric: You know I probably did mute the “yes make more games!!!!” a little too much, because of the shifting notion of an “academic game”. (I also deleted a big section on “what is game studies” because I got into trouble with arguing about whether the term “game studies” is representative of all game-related academia or not.)

    In response to your NYU Game Center note, I was also quite taken by Robert Yang’s piece on Parsons.

    @queerio: Welcome to the comments! Can you expand on your point? What makes their particular work important? (Most of the names are familiar to me.) Does it help establish a bridge between academia and industry?

  7. Great job on this series, HM. I think being left with open questions was the only way this could’ve ended; when it comes to academics, you never get to know everything.

    I think that games studies shares a role with film studies. It’s not just about product, but also changing how you perceive the medium and expanding what you perceive as possible for the medium.

  8. @BeamSplashX: Personally, I feel the series has missed a trick somewhere, something is lacking. There are other academics I could’ve spoken to but I think putting normal Electron Dance operations on hold for four months is long enough. Nonetheless, there are some excellent interviews in here, so I’m not upset or anything.

    But would you say, Sid, that film studies has had a beneficial effect on commercial film making?

  9. I think it pushes things forwards, because the other side of teaching establishments is that they create rules to break. So either someone gets a spark of insight from learning how film works, or they find out and say “that’s ridiculous” and try to turn it around.

    These things become new rules, of course, but even then the commercial sphere can pick up on these things and handle them well. Inception is highly commercial, but utilizes a lot of tricks that were more experimental in nature.

  10. Sid, how does the work of film studies typically make it out into the commercial world? What’s the mechanism by which this happens?

  11. Ah, that’s where it gets fuzzy. But usually it’s when a smaller budget/indie film makes a big splash. Otherwise, it’s just skilled filmmakers doing their time in the commercial world until they get a chance to experiment. You may get something uncomfortable but engaging like Drive, or you may get absolute disappearing-up-their-own-asses drivel like Dark Shadows.

  12. Not to horn in on someone else’s conversation, but I think this is where comparisons between film and games break down some… a lot of the work being done on an academic level with games is a lot more about figuring how how and why games work, whereas with film it’s more about learning to make films–we already pretty much know how and why they work.

  13. I’d say we know how films work in a general sense, but there’s more to explore on the fringes. Games, or things we define as games, encompass such a large variety of concepts (as HM said, you have to define what you mean by “games” when you study them) that it’s still premature to say what the fringes even are.

    If games were solidly defined along a line such as, say, a cinematic/scripted FPS, then I imagine we’d feel much closer to having them figured out. Modern Warfare and Half-Life 2 have achieved a lot in this regard while appealing to different mindsets, for example.

    Though you’re right in that film studies isn’t creating a lot of shocking new ideas. But is that especially because the fields differ in nature, or is it because film has just been studied and produced for a longer period of time?

  14. “I’d say we know how films work in a general sense, but there’s more to explore on the fringes. Games, or things we define as games, encompass such a large variety of concepts (as HM said, you have to define what you mean by “games” when you study them) that it’s still premature to say what the fringes even are.”

    Agreed.

    “Though you’re right in that film studies isn’t creating a lot of shocking new ideas. But is that especially because the fields differ in nature, or is it because film has just been studied and produced for a longer period of time?”

    I think it’s more the latter, but also some of the former. I’m trying vainly to recall my aborted attempt at a film studies degree from years and years ago… there wasn’t a whole lot of academic work, practical or otherwise, being done on film in 1930.

    And now I’m having flashbacks to Cecil Hepworth and Rescued by Rover.

  15. Eric/Beam, I may punching above my league and thinking out of my station, but isn’t there also a “communication mechanism” of new ideas through advertising? Don’t a lot of film studies grads take their short film skills into advertising initially? (OR FOREVER)

  16. That’s outside of my area of knowledge–it sounds right, but I couldn’t say for sure.

    But commercials have to be directed by someone, so it makes at least some sense.

  17. I don’t have anything to add to the debate, but may I just say that I am deeply satisfied by this conclusion to the series. :)

  18. Thanks Shaun! I am deeply satisfied by your comment.

  19. Having just caught up on a few weeks worth of ED reading, I wonder if I should have left the above comment on your critique of Polymorphous Perversity instead…


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