2018 is bringing with it a whole lot of changes for me, one of which is trying to use social media a whole lot less while still maintaining relationships and friendships and discussions online. So that partly means a return to semi-regularly blogging, hopefully. So towards that, here is an update about some of the various big changes 2018 is bringing to my life:
Less Social Media.
At the start of this year, I deleted Twitter and Facebook from my phone, and have also resisted logging into these services on my new work computer. So now I can only access Twitter and Facebook in the evening and on weekends by deliberately choosing to sit at my computer at home and engage with them.
I’ve wanted to change my relationship with Twitter in particular for quite a while now. There’s been a general sense that it is not a valuable platform for discussions for some time, yet it’s still the place where discussions keep happening. Twitter as a platform with particular affordances and constraints really encourages you to just always have an opinion straight away about the next thing, getting those faves and retweets. You think you’re there for a discussion but really you’re just trying to get the most points, to have the funniest joke about the current hot take, to perform the right amount of anger. I came to realise I was investing way too much emotional (and physical, really) labour into Twitter. Into caring about the discussions that were happening there.
And, like, it’s in Twitter’s interest for us to think those conversations on Twitter are really important, but most of them actually aren’t. I don’t actually need to know that yet another CEO hates unions or this game developer said a sexist thing. Like, those are significant instances of broader problems (CEOs hate unions, game development can be sexist), but I already know about those broader problems, right? I don’t need to perform my anger yet again and lose another half day fighting with random people online or simply being mad that there are bad people online with bad opinions. It just doesn’t feel like it is worth the intense amount of labour it requires.
Then there is also the political issues. I feel increasingly uncomfortable providing Twitter with content that allows them to continue to function as a corporation that is willingly complicit in Donald Trump’s destroying of international diplomacy, and in normalising white supremacist opinions. If Twitter is going to side with fascists and nazis, then I feel we have an obligation to not side with Twitter. But I need Twitter for my job or my networks or whatever! Do I, though? Or has Twitter just convinced us, after we’ve all been there for nearly a decade, that we couldn’t live without it? Over recent years I’ve seen more and more game industry and academic friends step away from it entirely, and I’m just recently realising how jealous I am of them.
So I’m not completely deleting Twitter just yet. I’m looking at it rarely and deliberately. I feel like for my research I still need to know what the game dev community discussions are, and those discussions still happen on Twitter. But I am actively trying to contribute less content to that website. Just dipping in and out. Facebook… well, that corporation is also messed up and I would like to use it less, but that is going to take a while longer. Behaviourally, it worries me less in terms of the emotions I am investing there, but it would still be nice to not be so dependent on a corporation for social communication.
In Twitter’s place I’m trying to get better at directly talking to friends, not just shouting into the void and see who gives me a like. Group text messages, more Slack or Discord channels, actual email discussions, half-baked but actually reflective blog posts. We’ll see how that goes.
I have a new book coming out very soon! It is called A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames and it is being published by MIT Press, which is very exciting. You can see it on MIT Press’s website here. The cover isn’t finalised yet, but I’ve seen some drafts of what it is probably going to look like and it is pretty cool. It also has a couple of very exciting and positive endorsements, from Adrienne Shaw and Miguel Sicart.
This book is an expansion on the work I did for my PhD. It presents a phenomenology of videogame play. In normal words, that essentially means I turn my focus to the aspects of videogame play that are often taken for granted to make other claims about how videogames work. For instance, instead of just assuming that videogames are good when they allow us to feel immersion or because they are interactive, I ask what it means to be immersed or to interact with a videogame in the first place. So, as an example, we are all used to the rhetoric of immersion as this feeling of actually being in another world. Sure, that’s what immersion feels like. But at the same time, it’s not like we ever really forget that we’re also staring at a television set in our lounge room, or a phone in our hand. So what is really happening there that allows us to perceive that character on the screen as ‘ourselves’ or one virtual car to ‘feel’ heavier than another?
Some other ways of positioning it that might be relevant to very particular people: it’s like Steve Swink’s Game Feel but for humanities scholars, or it’s like Vivian Sobchack’s Address of The Eye, except for videogame experience, not film experience. It’s academic, but hopefully I’ve managed to write it in a general enough way that those of you who read me for my game criticism will also enjoy it. It’s already available for pre-order on a whole bunch of book selling websites if you want to go find it.
New Job, New Research Project
After completing my PhD at the end of 2015, I spent the next two years teaching videogame development at SAE Creative Media Institute, with the long-term goal of ending up back in a research or research-and-training position. I felt like I was kind of completely done with the videogames and phenomenology and textual analysis stuff. With A Play of Bodies wrapped up I kind of feel like I don’t really have anything else to say about that (which might be a problem if the book is a success and starts a whole heap of conversations!). That’s also just a really nice feeling I never anticipated. Finishing up a project and just feeling done with it.
So around teaching in 2016 and 2017 I started trying to think of what the next thing I actually want to research would be. I realised I was less and less interested in players and how videogames are played, and more and more interested in how videogames are made. I’ve had this underlying feeling for a while that there’s just a materiality of videogames that’s not well accounted for in videogame criticism. Like, as videogame critics we’ll complain about this or that videogame having some ridiculous design decision made about it, but we wouldn’t explore what the reality was that lead to that ridiculous design decision. I’ve realised I’d rather be interested in why the bad decision was made than just angry about the bad decision. This has emerged in part from discussions with more and more developers, and from actually teaching videogame development and getting a better sense of just how all videogame development is just tricking technology into doing things using ‘hacky’ solutions. It’s all smoke and mirrors. And understanding why a game uses this smoke or those mirrors is really fascinating. It brings videogames more line with how we talk about other creative works, and further away from simply evaluating them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ commercial products.
There’s also just way more interesting development practices these days, I feel. Or, well, there always was a diverse range of development practices beyond triple-a, but more of that range is visible than ever before. I feel like we don’t fully comprehend the full extent of videogames as a ‘creative industry’ or a creative practice in the same way we seem capable of doing for, say, writing or music. I’ve touched on this a bit in my DiGRA presentation last year. We need to account for the ‘informal’ aspects of videogame development.
So long story short, I successfully applied for a Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) research grant through the Australian Research Council to study ‘skill transferability’ among Australian videogame developers. What that means is going beyond simply looking at who is employed in the Australian videogame industry and looking more broadly at who is using videogame development skills in Australia. From students, amateurs, hobbyists at one end of the spectrum, to people working beyond the entertainment sector at the other end (marketing, app development, who knows what else). So I’ve got three years and a bunch of funds to travel around Australia and some other global regions to effectively see what videogame development practices look like when triple-a isn’t in the picture. I am very excited about doing this!
I am doing this project through Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC). Which is where I work now. Really, I’m in a massively privileged position as an early career researcher. DECRAs are hugely competitive, and more than a little bit luck-based in terms of success (which is not to downplay the massive amount of work myself and my mentors at QUT did on the 50-odd page application). So to actually get one and to be able to spend the next three years just working on this massive research project is hugely exciting. (Also I’m not sure but perhaps I’m like the only Australian receiving federal funding for videogames??)
Here is a short journal article I wrote with my partner, Helen Berents, about depictions of embodiment (or lack thereof) in military-themed videogames. Helen is an international relations scholar, and we’ve been talking about combining our distinct research areas but overlapping theory for some time now, so this was fun to do. Contact me if you need access.
Here is an article I wrote with my colleague John Banks for Overland about the Australian government’s recent lacklustre response to the senate inquiry into the Australia videogame industry. In particular we focus on the shortcomings of treating videogames as solely a space of technological innovation, and not as a complex actor within the creative industries.