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

Mitu Khandaker

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.

Khandaker is now developing a sim game called Redshirt, under her own indie label The Tiniest Shark, which will be published through Cliff Harris’ Positech Games.

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.

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19 thoughts on “A Need to Create: Mitu Khandaker

  1. “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.”

    A wonderful response, and ones that does a great job validating and justifying the importance of academia under any circumstances. Yes, I think academia can help drive improvements in a medium, but it does not need to. It is the pursuit of knowledge.

    I enjoyed this interview. Thought-provoking and, I’d bet, interesting to any students out there pondering a graduate run in game studies.

    Great one, HM! Thank you, Mitu!

  2. Reading the “third channel” question, something came to mind: it’s obviously easy to distinguish (from a player perspective) an indie game from a commercial game… but would it be possible to distinguish an academic game from an indie game just by playing it? Would they… “taste” different? I can’t pinpoint indie games I’ve played that were made by academics, but there are probably distinguishable characteristics.

  3. “…perhaps it is, rather, to push forward how we think of games, as a culture.”

    That’s something I hadn’t considered from the academic angle. Now I’m hard-pressed to think of how making a game could achieve that same goal.

    P.S. I couldn’t help but notice that Mitu is wearing red in her picture. I guess you have to promote Redshirt any way you can.

  4. @Steerpike: Thanks! I’ve been working on these interviews for such a long time – reading and re-reading – that I’ve become over-exposed and can’t figure out whether anyone will find them interesting or not any more. I’m happy, though, that every interview has brought a different perspective to the table.

    @Nicolau: That’s one of the motivations behind the third channel question. Are these “academic games” actually different to the raw prototypes, the jam games or indie games? I’m not sure we have a decisive answer.

    @Amanda: Thanks!

    @BeamSplashX: As I hinted in the comments at the start of the series, the interviews would maintain a strong defence of purely theoretical research and analysis.

    As for “I couldn’t help but notice that Mitu is wearing red in her picture. I guess you have to promote Redshirt any way you can.” – you don’t know the half of it. A Redshirt developer diary.

  5. @BeamSplashX: We’ll just assume you meant “nerdy” as a compliment.

    @BC: I’m not sure how to reply to you, or even finish this sentence, so

  6. If there were an edit function, I would change “very nerdy” to “gloriously nerdy”, as that’s what I really meant. It’s always a compliment, coming from me.

  7. “Academic games” is such a weird way to think about it… but then again, games are such a weird artform.

    Like, were there academics making “academic films”? I mean, not really, unless my former life as a film student was spent at a really bad university. I don’t know–there were certainly filmmakers working as theorists, but it seems like the game studies people making games started as theorists. It’s strange. I don’t know. I’m rambling and probably embarrassing myself.

  8. Hey Eric. I wondered what it would take to prise you out of lurker space and into the harsh light of the comment sun.

    First, I’m just using the term “academic games” to be associated with those games that are built by academics; originally I assumed they were all research-based but that turned out to be, well, an assumption. Second, movies != games and there are still shitloads of questions out there that haven’t been answered in terms of game design, delivery of narrative and algorithmic systems: I don’t see anywhere near the same number of important questions pending for film structure.

    Now, whether there is a clear line that can be drawn around “academic games” – whether the distinction is actually useful in any way – I’m going to come back to this in the final piece The Academics Are Here and try to organise what we’ve discovered through the interviews.

    I have a bunch of other arguments which also relate to that bolshy Citizen Kane comment I tweeted this week and I’m probably going to crush them into an article. (In a nutshell – I’m coming round to the idea that comparisons to “other media” are being overdone; the dissimilarities are too numerous. Frank Lantz thinks games shouldn’t even be called a medium but that’s really not quite what I’m thinking.)

  9. Oh yeah, I know, the movies/games analogies are totally played out, but it’s most recent mass artform, so of course it’s always going to be brought up. I’m personally coming around to the idea that games are more like music or dance than authored artforms like film or writing.

    That Tom Bissell piece on LA Noire from last year really messed with my mind, especially the end, and I’m not really sure that you can categorize every single videogame as part of the same medium. It’s such a diffuse form of expression.

    Then again, when someone working in a medium can produce something like Cart Life… well, what can you even say that doesn’t sound condescending? It’s not a medium? What does that even mean? Cart Life is so wholly authored and so wholly performative at the same time that it’s hard to make sense of where it came from or what it’s a part of. I know you think your Citizen Kane tweet was combative, but it was also true. I think Cart Life is probably the finest achievement in the past 10 years in whatever medium videogames are.

  10. @Eric: I don’t want to be one of those guys who stands up and says “this medium is different to everything else ever before and more powerful!” because the signs are that it’s pretty difficult to pull off anything more than strong emotions (dance/music) – making something like social commentary seems to force you into chasing book/film structure (heavy control of narrative in RPGs, interactive fiction, graphical adventures, Twine-based CYOA). But I’m not particularly comfortable with embracing a dance or music view either because we’re still getting really interesting stuff from contained, authored decision trees like offered in Deus Ex or Cart Life. (I think the promise of the original Deus Ex can be seen more visibly in Cart Life, but I have nothing to back that up other than this very sentence.) This is all very hand-wavy and may not be precisely responding to you. That’s because…

    …because of your point. “Video games” covers everything from board games to CYOA to FPS to RTS to world explorers to toys. You can see why Raph Koster thinks the term “game” must decompose into more technical definitions in time because practically anything you say about “games” is going to be wrong. There exists an edge case to destroy every statement made about the word “game”. When I wrote “Those Hollywood Hours” last year, there’s an implicit assumption that I’m talking about “heavily authored” games in which replays offer diminishing returns and not something like Tidalis, Zaga-33 or Space Giraffe. But how do I sum that up in a pithy sentence? I am increasingly struggling with the language. Most essays referring to “games” don’t actually mean “all games” but a particular game context.

    I have no doubt this chaotic, messy comment will turn into an article in two years’ time. =)

    I can’t disagree with your Cart Life comment, of course. It’s such an important title. It should be informing game design; it contains such important lessons. I could still write so much about that game.

    @BC: Hadn’t seen it. That opening staring-direct-into-my-eyes quote from Chris Hecker was almost enough for me to close the browser tab, though. I felt like someone was behind the camera shouting “more emotion!”. I find it difficult to stomach excitable sound bites because, out of context, they sound just like PR marketspeak. Nonetheless, some of the later snippets were quite interesting. I am intrigued but wary.

  11. Deus Ex–>Cart Life? Hm. That’s interesting. I’m going to have to think on that more. (I also need to give the original Deus Ex a proper shot at a second playthrough–I tried last year after having played it last when it first came out, and found it too fiddly for me to deal with, but I’m sure if I powered through the early levels I’d get back into the groove of the game.)

    I totally get your point though–a medium that includes, Mega Man, Cart Life, and Carcossonne can’t really be considered a coherent medium.

    Then again, I’m sure we (me in particular) sound like children to the academics and there’s a paper out there somewhere that has dealt with all these issues already. But I’m not into academics… and that’s why the bulk of my work is interviewing people and finding out what they think of these issues. 🙂

  12. Any time poetry came up in my creative writing courses, the professors always made a point of asking us what defined poetry.

    The ultimate answer pretty much amounted to “because someone said so,” be it the author or the readership. If it’s good enough for something that’s been around for centuries, I think it’ll do for games.

  13. @Eric: I wrote this post two years ago (Lassie Gets Rightsized) where I responded to Laura Michet on how we shouldn’t keep on defining new terms to talk about things we already have terms for. She had problems with a word like “interactive” and preferred “agency”. I laughed. Which is strange because I use the word “agency” far more than “interactive” these days. Oops.

    It is possible that academics have plenty of useful terms which categorise a lot of this shit I have trouble articulating. I’m aware of “diegetic”, “dialogical” (this one is going to come up in a post sometime this year) and there’s Clint Hocking’s magically overlong “ludonarrative dissonance”. The trouble is, even if I learnt lots of cool terms, no one who reads Electron Dance would have any idea what I was talking about. Just like I have trouble tackling academic papers.

    @BeamSplashX: Ah, but I’m not entirely sure of that. Like I was saying, when someone makes a grand statement about game design, they don’t mean games at all. They mean a certain subclass of games which often goes undeclared. There’s no point talking about how gaming narrative needs to be shaped in a game like Tetris; the context is clear here but not always. If you’re interested in the latest discussion about ALL YOUR BASE BELONG TO MY DEFINITION go check out Amanda Lange’s opinion on Tap today (I already weighed in with an enormous essay-comment, AGAIN, well done me).

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