Session B ~ Gaming as Academic Identity

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Review by Sarah Spring

Panelists
Doug Eyman, George Mason University
Emi Bunner, UNC-Chapel Hill
Cynthia Haynes, Clemson University
Mary Karcher, Wayne State University
Jill Morris, Frostburg State University
Scott Reed, Georgia Gwinnett College
Jan Holmevik, Clemson University

During this roundtable, presenters reflected on their experiences as gamers and scholars of gaming.

Doug Eyman opened by reminiscing about his own technology autobiography. His experience with computers began in the sixth grade with floppy disks that started the operating system; he used to play a computer game in the school library, and this moment is how he came to see the connection amongst computers, games, and writing. As an undergraduate, he was a game tester for his roommate, and then during his PhD program, he was introduced to World of Warcraft (WoW), a game that introduced him to numerous ways that play can be productive. Eyman argued that the idea of “games are cool!” has evolved into a serious study of games, and he said he prefers to look at games through a rhetorical lens, specifically a cultural studies approach that views games as cultural objects or the product of a cultural environment. By using such an approach, game studies can actually be interdisciplinary, and he encouraged the audience to carve out a space for collaborative research.

Emi Bunner revealed a deeply personal story to highlight the importance of voice in life and in the gaming world. She had been in an abusive relationship where she was forbidden from speaking to people other than her partner; her recovery from this relationship was aided by player-versus-player competition. She studied this male-dominated game mechanism as she repeatedly engaged in these competitions, and she discovered ways to be successful (both as a female and as a female character) in WoW. Her numerous victories have resulted in a skill set that augments her voice and makes her a more willing and confident communicator. According to Bunner, the traits of the character have actually combined with her own personality, and this merging has helped her further develop her voice and become a guild leader; in fact, she clearly sees how leading a guild has positively impacted her teaching and academic life, specifically responding to students.

By telling the audience about the first time she cried in a game, Cynthia Haynes connected the topics of pathos, identity, and gaming; in her words, “emotion is the lynchpin.” Her presentation referred to numerous scholars whose work centers on pathos to more fully explain the essence of gaming, including Haraway’s idea of a strange pathos, Lyotard’s prosthetic pathos, and Kant’s notion of the sublime. For Haynes, gaming conjures all of these varieties of pathos, particularly when players feel connected to people they have never met. While technology might intensify these feelings, Haynes questions their authenticity due to the medium. In her opinion, artificial identities are much less complex, but barriers between minds are much weaker; therefore, there is an opportunity to bond with other people, and this is the foundation for friendship.

Mary Karcher’s narrative focused on finding your own academic identity.  Computers and games have always been a part of her identity, but when she was younger, she was told, “girls can’t do computers.” Years later, after changing her major to English, Karcher now sees the parallel between WoW and her academic career; to her, the most important aspect of gaming and of academia is the need to have a network. Since she is a mom and a graduate student, she perceives various isolating influences in the academic sphere, yet gaming provides both a source of scholarship and a place for academic work. More than mere networking, however, Karcher offered that gaming is a viable means through which the parts of the self come back together.

Jill Morris brought attention to the recent article in Forbes in which Tara Tiger Brown tells “fake geek girls” to go away. Taking issue with Brown’s definition of geek, Morris explained that she became interested in gaming studies before she played WoW, and while she also works with game theory, she doesn’t see herself as having the same academic interests as game theorists. After confessing that she is “bad” at Wow, Morris asked, “Does this matter? Do you have to be a geek?” Her answer was that it shouldn’t matter. However, both the field of game studies and the larger field of computers and writing tend to emphasize “liking the right things” and “knowing the right technology.” Morris further worried that we merely highlight things that are different in an attempt to exclude them, and she called for a look into all corners of the discipline, urging the audience to attend the caucus on gender and race at next year’s conference.

As a child, Scott Reed’s parents put the household Nintendo in their bedroom, and since then, Reed understands games as a method of organization. The problem with method, though, is its divisiveness, splitting into categories and sterilizing – clutter becomes clean. Instead, Reed argued for noise and mystory, expressing the need to invent new methods in order to survive rather than continuing to use the same ones. His preferred method is now metastasis, a concept from William Gibson’s “Rocket Radio.” Wikipedia defines the word as the spread of a disease to unrelated parts of the body, and this definition led Reed to the idea of a jump; for example, if games are identity production, how people play is connected to how people write or produce. Reed added that his own battle with disease (cancer) encouraged him to become a proponent of “messy leaps,” jumps between what he called isolated nodes or ideas.

To Jan Holmevik, the release of Diablo III is cause for celebration, and he introduced himself as both a gamer and an academic, not simply one or the other. He further reminisced about spending all of his money on games and sitting with a colleague in Norway with Diablo I. It was at that moment he thought, “wouldn’t it be awesome to have a career studying games?” But to reconcile the gamer with the academic, Holmevik stressed the importance of critical distance, although he added that distance is not something to be maintained at all costs; in other words, scholars should avoid being a fanboy or fangirl, but as Henry Jenkins advocates, there is no need to apologize for studying what they love! Holmevik then used the metaphor of a frog or amphibian to describe the gamer/academic’s ability to adapt to multiple environments, and I agree with him that this analogy is useful for combining these seemingly unrelated worlds. He revealed that he puts his gaming into his annual report, and suggested the audience do the same since it is important for game theorists and scholars to believe in what they are doing and to educate colleagues about their work.

Overall, I found this roundtable to be incredibly insightful. Though I became interested in computer games in the late 1980s, I had always seen them as part of my personal life, something I pursued in my spare time rather than something I pursued as a professional. The presenters made some compelling arguments about the legitimacy of game studies, and their stories attested to the value of combining the worlds of academia and gaming.

Sarah Spring is an Assistant Professor of English at Winthrop University. Her work includes developing the writing program, and she has research/teaching interests in first year composition, new media, professional writing, and qualitative research in the classroom.

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