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.
- 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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