Revisiting Influential Readings from My Comprehensive Exam

I’m just about a year out from having taken my comprehensive exam, which I completed (and passed!) in June of 2022. Passing the exam was a culmination of an intense five months of reading and notetaking, including fitting reading in between classes (two I was teaching, one I was taking) and two other small research projects. I planned my time well, however, and was able to take weekends and most evenings off for most of the semester.

My comprehensive exam itself consisted of four questions, given to me by each of my four committee members, which I answered in essay format over the course of four weeks (4 days per question with a 3-day weekend in between each question). I wrote a total of 86 pages, not including citations. At the time, I found it to be stressful. Now I look back on the process with a surprising amount of fondness. Writing my comprehensive exam was probably one of the most intellectually stimulating things I’ve done to date.

I just reread my comprehensive exam essays last week in preparation for putting my dissertation proposal together. Aside from being pleased at how eloquent my stress-induced word vomit was, I was struck by how much I’ve been thinking about some of the things I read and wrote about in the year since. I want to call out a few of those articles and books, as reading them has informed the ways I think about video games and the people who play them, about doing research, about writing, and about a lot of other things I wasn’t anticipating when I added the works to my list.

See my full reading list, which I published in a post last year.

T. L. Taylor – Play Between Worlds

This book, published in 2006, is the result of a multi-year ethnographic research project that T. L. Taylor performed within and alongside the game EverQuest. EverQuest, released in 1999, was one of the first notable MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) and paved the way for others, most notably World of Warcraft. Taylor started playing the game because she was curious as to how being in a virtual space with others could inform social structures and sociality. What she ended up writing was a treatise on how the complex interactions between the software, structures of play, and the players themselves informed how players played the game.

I first read this book in spring of 2019, prior to starting my PhD program, and before I even knew if I’d be accepted into a program. I’m not sure how it came across my radar, but at the time, it seemed like an interesting example of what games research could be. And I was blown away by it. Unlike many of the other articles and books I came across at the time, Taylor’s writing style was both accessible and persuasive. T. L. Taylor was the scholar I referred to the most when writing or talking with others about the kind of work I wanted to be doing in a PhD program.

The book ended up on my comps list because I wanted to revisit it. When I initially read it, I had very little background in game studies or in the literature that Taylor pulls from throughout the book. I’d known when reading it that many of the references had gone over my head and added it to my comps list because I felt I’d get more out of it with 2+ additional years of reading, thinking, and writing about games and player communities under my belt. I’d intended to look over my notes from my first reading and skim the book, in the interest of time.

But I started reading the introduction and was immediately sucked back in. I read the entire book cover to cover for comps and I enjoyed every minute of it. Taylor is a gifted writer and does an excellent job of building nuanced, thoughtful arguments. And despite having been written 17 years ago now (which is a long, long time in the worlds of video games and game studies), pretty much everything in the book is still relevant. In one sense, the book stands as a historical document describing what EverQuest as a game and its associated player communities were like in the early 2000s. Taylor could’ve left it at that, but instead she uses the context of EverQuest as a way to ask questions about games, players, technology, and game communities more broadly. Taylor’s work exemplifies what makes ethnography compelling to me – telling stories about specific people in specific contexts which can be expanded to understand people and things more broadly. This is the kind of work I would like to produce someday.

This Bridge Called My Back – edited by Cherie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (4th Edition)

This book, originally published in the 1980s, is a collection of essays, stories, and poetry revolving around the life experiences of Black and brown women in the U.S. It includes works from folks like Audre Lorde and the Combahee River Collective. It includes stories of inclusion and exclusion from Asian American women, from Native American women, from queer women, from women who pass as white, from women who have chronic pain and illnesses, and above all, from women who used the written word as a medium to have their voices heard.

This Bridge Called My Back (or “Bridge”) originally came to my attention when reading Eli Clare’s excellent book Exile and Pride a few years ago. At some point in the book, he cited Bridge as a formative influence for how he thought about his own life and his writing. I picked up my own copy of Bridge soon after and it was one of the first books I added to my fledging comps reading list that fall. (Did I use my comprehensive exam as an excuse to read books I’d intended to read on my own anyway? Yes, yes I did.)

This was such a powerful collection and my copy is covered in sticky notes and annotations. Since reading it in early 2022, I’ve gone back to it multiples times to reread parts of essays and stories to remind myself of how deeply affecting they are. If there’s one thing I took away from this book it’s that for people who are marginalized in any way, writing and using words to express one’s own experiences – and how those experiences complicate and resist the status quo – is an act of power and activism. This book inspires me to write, even when I don’t feel I have much to say. And it inspires me to listen to and encourage stories from others about their own lives.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. Absolutely everyone.

Power, Technology and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On Being Allergic to Onions – Susan Leigh Star

My advisor, Steph Jordan, recommended this article to me. I had heard of Susan Leigh Star, but all I knew about her was that she had done some compelling work on infrastructure and classification systems. To be honest, these topics sounded rather boring to me. But looking at the boring things happens to have been Star’s approach to research. One of her primary goals was to illustrate a larger and more complex picture of how research and science get done and how constructs like categorizations come to be and are supported by a large network of people and systems. One of her particular concerns in doing this research was to highlight the people who get lost or are otherwise hidden in the larger narratives behind how science and research happen, such as secretaries and research subjects.

In this article, she attempts to wed feminist research methods and ideals with actor network theory, the latter of which is concerned with mapping the complex connections between people, systems, and things. She uses the example of her own onion allergy and her experiences eating in places like McDonald’s as a means of illustrating the potential of such a connection. I found the resulting article to be a very thoughtful and intricate examination of how systems of power and marginalization, as well as the concept of “universal”, can affect individuals.

This is one of the first things I read for my comprehensive exams last year, and I was blown away by it. From the notes I wrote after reading: “This was an excellent article. Truly excellent. Well written, easy to understand, personal, political. Would read again.”

Since reading it, I’ve been pestering people in my department to read it as well so I can reread and discuss it with someone else (no luck yet, but I’m working on it). Star packs so much detail into so few pages; I knew at the time it would take me multiple readings to unpack everything. I decided to reread the article again in preparation for writing about it, and I was surprised by how much I’d forgotten. I feel I have more context for much of the theoretical background she pulls on from this article, having since read many of the authors she’s in conversation with (e.g. Donna Harraway, Sandra Harding, etc.).

Having reread the article recently, I agree wholeheartedly with my past year’s self: this is truly an excellent article. Would read again.

Intersectional Tech – Kishonna Gray

Kishonna Gray is an academic I’ve been following for some time. Intersectional Tech is, in some senses, a culmination of the work she started while doing her PhD with a focus on Black women gamers. In this book, she pulls on many years of ethnographic work to show how people (particularly Black people) and technology interrelate through the lens of video games. She has a lot to say in this book about how the design of systems can exclude certain people, what masculinity looks like when it’s not white, how people use multiple forms of media when building and maintaining communities, and more.

What most impressed me about this book was how she approached writing about the people she worked with as part of her ethnographic research. She specifically calls out the need to go beyond narratives of violence when discussing Black people and people of color in research – too many popular narratives focus on the violence present in communities of color. Instead, she focuses on showing many aspects of people’s lives: their joys, their friendships, and their resiliency alongside their hardships. The people she writes about are real, multifaceted, and complex. Through the inclusion of some of her fieldnotes and other asides, Gray also represents herself as multifaceted, committed to both the research and to her participants and to untangling the contradictions between those two commitments.

I can only hope that my work will represent the people I work with (and myself!) with as much complexity and nuance as Gray does.

My Comprehensive Exam Reading List: Feminism, Activism, and Video Games

The PhD program that I’m currently in at Michigan State University is, fortunately for me, pretty lax when it comes to comprehensive exam reading lists. The program is diverse and interdisciplinary, and as such, there are no prescribed readings which all students in the program need to get through for their comprehensive exams. I was able to create a reading list based on what I wanted to read, as well as on the advice and recommendations of my advisor, Steph Jordan, and my committee members (Casey O’Donnell, Jean Hardy, and Kjerstin Thorson).

I made this list with the intent of reading things which I hoped would help me further down the line, and particularly with my dissertation proposal. For my dissertation project, I would like to do some kind of virtual ethnographic work with players of video games, and particularly players who a) play competitive online games with others and b) don’t identify as men. Video games, and particularly online competitive games, are frequently coded male: that is, the expectation of many players (and even many non-players) is that young men are the people playing these games. Players who aren’t male and/or don’t conform to male norms face a lot more harassment in online games because they don’t fit norm. And that sucks.

As a woman-identified gamer myself, I’m particularly interested in how players who aren’t male find others to play with and practice resilience in online games and related spaces. I’m also interested in how players practice activism within these spaces. I’m not sure what direction my dissertation project will take in terms of methods yet, but I’m hoping to be able to spend a lot of time talking with and playing games with other women and queer gamers.

To that end, my reading list consists of four sections: 1) feminism, feminist theories, and technology; 2) communities as potential activist spaces; 3) game studies, with a specific focus on critical theories, gender, and communities; and 4) methodologies, with a focus on virtual ethnography and feminism. The full list consists of 30 books and 57 articles.

Feminism, feminist theories, and technology

Foundational feminism

  • Judith Butler (1990) – Gender Trouble (book)
  • This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (4th ed., 2015) (book)
  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2017) – How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (book)

Feminism and tech

  • Susan Leigh Star (1990) – Power, Technology and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On being Allergic to Onions (article)
  • Donna Haraway (1991) – A Cyborg Manifesto (essay)
  • Judy Wajcman (1991) – Feminism Confronts Technology (book)
  • Ellen van Oost (2003) – Materialized Gender: How Shavers Configure the Users’ Femininity and Masculinity (book chapter)
  • Oudshoorn, Rommes, and Stienstra (2004) – Configuring the user as everybody: Gender and design cultures in information and communication technologies (article)
  • Judy Wajcman (2007) – From Women and Technology to Gendered Technoscience (article)
  • Lisa Nakamura (2002) – Cybertypes (book)

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and feminism

  • Lucy Suchman (1993) – Working relations of technology production and use (article)
  • Shaowen Bardzell (2010) – Feminist HCI: taking stock and outlining an agenda for design (article)
  • Nancy A. Van House (2011) – Feminist HCI meets facebook: Performativity and social networking sites (article)
  • Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell (2011) – Towards a feminist HCI methodology: social science, feminism, and HCI (article)
  • Sarah Fox, Rachel Rose Ulgado, and Daniela Rosner (2015) – Hacking Culture, Not Devices: Access and Recognition in Feminist Hackerspaces (article)
  • Amanda Menking, Ingrid Erickson (2015) – The Heart Work of Wikipedia: Gendered, Emotional Labor in the World’s Largest Online Encyclopedia (article)
  • Casey Fiesler, Shannon Morrison, and Amy S. Bruckman (2016) – An Archive of Their Own: A Case Study of Feminist HCI and Values in Design (article)
  • Shaowen Bardzell (2018) – Utopias of Participation: Feminism, Design, and the Futures (article)
  • Menking, Erickson, Pratt (2019) – People Who Can Take It: How Women Wikipedians Negotiate and Navigate Safety (article)
  • Catherine D’Ignazio, Rebecca Michelson, Alexis Hope, Josephine Hoy, Jennifer Roberts, and Kate Krontiris (2020) – “The Personal is Political”: Hackathons as Feminist Consciousness Raising (article)
  • Michael Ahmadi, Rebecca Eilert, Anne Weibert, Volker Wulf, and Nicola Marsden (2020) – Feminist Living Labs as Research Infrastructures for HCI: The Case of a Video Game Company (article)

Communities as potential activist spaces

  • Paulo Freire (1968) – Pedagogy of the Oppressed (book)
  • bell hooks (1994) – Teaching to Transgress (book)
  • Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018) – Care work: dreaming disability justice (book)
  • adrienne marie brown (2017) – Emergent Strategy (book)
  • adrienne marie brown (2020) – We Will Not Cancel Us: Breaking the Cycle of Harm (short book)
  • Mariam Asad (2019) – Prefigurative Design as a Method for Research Justice (article)
  • Sciannamblo, Cohn, Lyle, Teli (2021) – Caring and Commoning as Cooperative Work: A Case Study in Europe (article)
  • Elijah Anderson (2015) – “The White Space” (article)

How narratives mobilize protest

  • Francesca Polletta (2006) – It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics (book)
  • Dimond, Dye, Larose, Bruckman (2013) – Hollaback!: The role of storytelling online in a social movement organization (article)
  • Zizi Papacharissi (2015) – Affective publics and structures of storytelling: sentiment, events and mediality (article)

Mobilized political action in non-political spaces

  • Henry Jenkins (2015) – “Cultural acupuncture”: Fan activism and the Harry Potter Alliance (article)
  • Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (2015) – Qualitative Political Communication| From Wizards and House-Elves to Real-World Issues: Political Talk in Fan Spaces (article)
  • Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Ioana Literat (2018) – Distributed Creativity as Political Expression: Youth Responses to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election in Online Affinity Networks (article)
  • Communities of practice
  • Etienne Wegner (2011) – Communities of practice: a brief introduction (brief article)
  • Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger (1991) – Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (book, skim)
  • Stephansen, Couldry (2014) – Understanding micro-processes of community building and mutual learning on Twitter: a ‘small data’ approach (article)
  • Joe Curnow (2016) – Situated Learning, Situated Knowledge: Situating Racialization, Colonialism, and Patriarchy Within Communities of Practice (article)
  • Gabriela T. Richard (2017) – Video Games, Gender, Diversity, and Learning as Cultural Practice: Implications for Equitable Learning and Computing Participation Through Games (article)
  • Gabriela T. Richard, Kishonna L. Gray (2018) – Gendered Play, Racialized Reality: Black Cyberfeminism, Inclusive Communities of Practice, and the Intersections of Learning, Socialization, and Resilience in Online Gaming (article)
  • Komorowski, Huu, Deligiannis (2018) – Twitter data analysis for studying communities of practice in the media industry (article)

Game studies

  • T. L. Taylor (2006) – Beyond Management: Considering Participatory Design and Governance in Player Culture (article, revisit) 
  • Kishonna Gray (2012) – Deviant bodies, stigmatized identities, and racist acts: examining the experiences of African-American gamers in Xbox Live (article) 
  • Jenny Sundén (2012) – Desires at Play: On Closeness and Epistemological Uncertainty (article, revisit) 
  • Alexis Pulos (2013) – Confronting Heteronormativity in Online Games: A Critical Discourse Analysis of LGBTQ Sexuality in World of Warcraft (article)
  • Adrienne Shaw (2014) – Gaming at the Edge (book, revisit) 
  • Whitney Phillips (2015) – This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (book) 
  • Shepherd, Harvey, Jordan, Srauy, Milner (2015) – Histories of Hating (article) 
  • Salter and Blodgett (2017) – Toxic Geek Masculinity in Media: Sexism, Trolling, and Identity Policing (book) 
  • Shira Chess (2017) – Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity (book) 
  • Karen Skardzius (2018) – Playing with Pride: Claiming Space Through Community Building in World of Warcraft (book chapter, from Woke Gaming) 
  • Amanda Cote (2018) – Curate Your Culture: A Call for Social Justice-Oriented Game Development and Community Management (book chapter, from Woke Gaming, revisit) 
  • Gray, Voorhees, Vossen (2018) – Reframing Hegemonic Conceptions of Women and Feminism in Gaming Culture (book introduction, Feminism in Play) 
  • Tom Welch (2018) – The Affectively Necessary Labour of Queer Mods (article) 
  • Harvianien, Brown, Suominen (2018) – Three Waves of Awkwardness: A Meta-Analysis of Sex in Game Studies (article) 
  • Christopher Paul (2018) – The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games (book) 
  • Megan Condis (2018) – Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture (book)
  • Bonnie Ruberg (2019) – Video Games Have Always Been Queer (book) 
  • Amanda Phillips (2020) – Gamer Trouble (book) 
  • Amanda C. Cote (2020) – Gaming Sexism (book) 
  • Kishonna Gray (2020) – Intersectional Tech (book)

Evolution of Community in World of Warcraft

  • Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell, Moore (2006) – “Alone Together?”: Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (article) 
  • Mark Chen (2009) – Communication, Coordination, and Camaraderie in World of Warcraft (article) 
  • Bonnie Nardi (2010) – My Life as a Night Elf Priest (book, revisit; also in Methods section of list) 
  • Crenshaw, Nardi (2016) – “It Was More Than Just the Game, It Was the Community”: Social Affordances in Online Games (article) 
  • Crenshaw, LaMorte, Nardi (2017) – “Something We Loved That Was Taken Away”: Community and Neoliberalism in World of Warcraft (article) 
  • Amanda Braithwaite (2018) – WoWing Alone: The Evolution of “Multiplayer” in World of Warcraft (article, revisit) 

Methods and methodologies

The Basics (good for citing)

  • Emerson, Fritz, Shaw (2011) – Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (book; read parts)
  • Kathy Charmaz (2014) – Constructing Grounded Theory, 2nd Ed. (book; read parts)
  • Lora Bex Lempert (2007) – Asking Questions of the Data: Memo Writing in the Grounded Theory Tradition (book chapter)

Ethnography, general

  • George Marcus (1995) – Ethnography in/out of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography (article)
  • Susan Leigh Star (1999) – The Ethnography of Infrastructure (article)
  • Virginia Eubanks (2007) – Trapped in the Digital Divide: The Distributive Paradigm in Community Informatics (article)
  • Jenna Burrell (2009) – The Field Site as a Network: A Strategy for Locating Ethnographic Research (article)
  • Kim Fortun (2011) – Figuring Out Ethnography (article)
  • Laura Nader (2011) – Ethnography as Theory (article)
  • Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015) – The Mushroom at the End of the World (book)
  • Dorothy Howard, Lilly Irani (2019) – Ways of Knowing When Research Subjects Care (article)

Ethnography, online / virtual worlds

  • Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, Taylor (2012) – Ethnography and Virtual Worlds (book, revisit)
  • Tom Boellstorff (2008) – Coming of Age in Second Life (book, revisit)
  • T. L. Taylor (2006) – Play Between Worlds (book, revisit)
  • Bonnie Nardi (2010) – My Life as a Night Elf Priest (book, revisit)
  • Jeffrey Snodgrass (2014) – Ethnography of Online Cultures (book chapter)
  • Robert Kozinets (2019) – Netnography, 3rd Ed. (book)

Feminist methodologies

  • Donna Haraway (1988) – Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective (article, in Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader)
  • Patricia Zavella (1993) – Feminist Insider Dilemmas: Constructing Ethnic Identity with “Chicana” Informants (article)
  • Lucy Suchman (1995) – Making Work Visible (article)
  • Sandra Harding (2004) – Introduction: Standpoint Theory as a Site of Political, Philosophic, and Scientific Debate (intro, in Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader)
  • Adele Clarke (2003) – Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory Mapping After the Postmodern Turn (article)
  • Barbara Lazar (2007) – Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis: Articulating a Feminist Discourse Praxis (article)
  • Christopher Le Dantec, Sarah Fox (2015) – Strangers at the Gate: Gaining Access, Building Rapport, and Co-Constructing Community-Based Research (article)

Ethical approaches for working with digital data

  • Fiesler, Young, Peyton, Bruckman, Gray, Hancock, Lutters (2015) – Ethics for Studying Online Sociotechnical Systems in a Big Data World (article)
  • Fiesler, Proferes (2018) – “Participant” Perceptions of Twitter Research Ethics (article)
  • Suomela, Chee, Berendt, Rockwell (2019) – Applying an Ethics of Care to Internet Research: Gamergate and Digital Humanities (article)
  • Michael Zimmer (2010) – “But the data is already public”: on the ethics of research in Facebook (article)

Note: I chose not to include full citations for each work on the list above, as pretty much all of them can be found easily on Google Scholar with only the title, author last name(s), and year published. And the list is much easier to read this way. But if you’re interested in reading a particular book / article / essay and can’t find it, feel free to contact me!

On Being a Positive Influence in Online Video Games

I’ve been playing a lot of video games recently, which I attribute to being home a fair bit more than usual, what with one thing and another. I’ve also been playing quite a lot of Overwatch recently, and have even been participating in the most recent competitive season. I normally avoid online play which puts me in connection with strangers like the plague, but I’ve started thinking: why should I? Unlike what’s happening in the real world right now, playing online can’t actually spread the plague. I’ve decided I deserve to be able to play this game as much as anyone else, and I’m not going to let random strangers stop me. If that means I expose myself to a bit of toxicity, well, I think now I have some of the tools I need to be able to deal with it.. 

I just recently finished my classes for the semester. As part of one of my research methods classes, I designed and executed a small research project. I chose a topic which I thought would foreshadow what I’m interested in pursuing for a dissertation – talking to female gamers about their experiences in competitive online video games with the aim of understanding why they continue to play, in spite of the toxicity that rages through those types of games. It was a fascinating project in a number of ways, not least because it confirmed for me – again – that I like doing this whole research thing. But more importantly, talking with other women who have more experience playing online than I do helped me to understand the kinds of things I can do personally which will help make me more confident playing games online.

One of the major things that came up in my research project was the idea of being a positive influence as a way to combat toxicity. One of the gamers I interviewed had been playing League of Legends for a number of years. Given how infamously toxic LoL is, it’s not surprising a lot of what she told me about her experiences with the game involved her encountering and dealing with toxicity from other players. She, of course, had numerous strategies to deal with it – muting players, ignoring what they said, justifying to herself that their comments didn’t reflect on how she was actually playing, etc. She would sometimes talk back to toxic players, in order to defend herself or to defend other players. 

Most of the things she did were simply avoidance tactics, but she did one thing that really stood out to me: she made it a point to be a positive influence in game. She would compliment other players if they did something well. She would encourage teammates. She would make it a point not to say anything negative in chat. She told me she consistently maxed out her honor points in game. I gathered from talking to her that being positive in game was something she was really proud of. Being positive was also something she did with the aim of encouraging other players to be more positive as well. 

Ultimately, the theory is that spreading positivity is a way an individual can help to reduce the amount of toxicity in game. Around the same time I was in the midst of interviewing women gamers for my project, I was spending a lot of time on the GirlGamers subreddit, which I’ve found to be a very friendly, welcoming place to talk with other women about playing video games. The subreddit actively promotes something called the Good Luck, Have Fun pledge, which I discovered through a sticky post in the subreddit. 

The pledge was started by a non-profit organization called AnyKey, which has been working for the last few years to support diversity and inclusivity in video games and gaming communities. Incidentally, one of the cofounders is T. L. Taylor, one of my academic heroes. By taking the pledge, you are essentially confirming that you believe everyone you’re playing with deserves respect. Signing the pledge also gives you a badge, which you can put on your profile on Twitch or YouTube Gaming to signal to others that you intend to abide by the terms of the pledge as you play. I don’t stream my play, but I did sign the pledge – you can use my referral link to sign the pledge, too.

Between what I learned from talking with other women players and the ideas behind the Good Luck, Have Fun pledge, I decided to come up with my own guidelines for myself so that I could not only be a more positive influence in game, but enjoy playing online more as well. 

  1. Always say “gg” (short for “good game”) at the end of a match.
  2. If one of the other players in the match makes a good play, call it out – even if they aren’t on my team.
  3. Thank teammates when they heal me or protect me.
  4. If someone compliments me, remember it and take it to heart.
  5. Make it a point to endorse players who have been positive in game.
  6. If someone is mean to me or to another player: call them out on it and report them.
  7. Give kind words of support to players who are getting targeted by toxicity, particularly when they don’t respond in kind.
  8. If I start getting angry at the game or at other players, take a break from the game and go do something else until I feel I can be positive again.

Since I’ve started thinking about this, I’ve actually been communicating more with other players during games. Sometimes it’s not been super positive, but most of the time it has. I find that being positive in game – even if no one responds to it – helps me to feel more positive about the game. But I also find that when I make it a point to say positive things, other players are more likely to say positive things to me in return. That alone is motivation for me to keep doing it. I also feel like I play better when I approach the game with a positive mindset, which is also a bonus.

Why I Want to Be a Video Games Researcher

In August, I started a PhD program. This decision seems to have come as more of a surprise to me than it has to my friends, family, and former colleagues. I swore up and down for years that I’d never be interested enough in anything to want to immerse myself in researching it for 4+ years. I haven’t exactly changed my point of view there, but I’ve come to understand that a PhD is more than just what you study.

I wanted to write this post as a way of recording my reasoning behind wanted to pursue a PhD, and specifically, my reasons for deciding that video games are where I want to start. I am, in part, writing this for myself: I anticipate there being a time a few years down the road when I’m dead sick of being a PhD student and am wondering why I got myself into this mess to begin with. I want to have something concrete I can look back in to remind myself that I was once a (cautiously) optimistic person with a real passion for the subject and for the work involved. 

I’m also writing this for people I know (family and friends, mostly) who have wondered why video games are even important enough to study, and why I’d want to devote years of my life, and perhaps even the rest of my career, to studying games and the people who play them. To them I say: keep reading!

Why change careers?

About 10 years ago, I decided I wanted to be a user experience designer. I wanted to create things, and put them out into the world where people could use them. I wanted to spend lots of time working in Adobe Illustrator, writing CSS, and thinking about how best to arrange elements on a screen so that users would be able to find the information they needed without getting too frustrated in the process. I started a new career by taking graphic design classes, applying to schools, and moving across the country to start a masters program.

Well, it turns out that while I liked the detailed-oriented process of designing screens, I enjoyed the process of figuring out what people needed and wanted when they used a website quite a lot more. Even more than that, I enjoyed the process of defining research goals, understanding the different dynamics that came into play when making user research decisions, and the act of actually talking with users and potential users and getting a peek into how their minds worked. 

The nitty gritty of choosing colors and visual styles interested me less and less as time went on. I found I enjoyed critiquing existing designs and thinking through the possible ramifications of design choices much more than I actually enjoyed creating the designs in the first place. This tendency of mine to overanalyze, while sometimes quite helpful, often didn’t go over well when I was working in environments where decisions had to be made quickly and where profit was generally the primary factor in making decisions. 

I’ve also found that design in the software industry is often treated as a way to make something attractive, without regard for other considerations (like usability or usefulness). When that point of view is pervasive among non-designers and designers alike, user research and testing is undervalued. So when I tried to do research to better inform design decisions, I had to fight to show that I wasn’t wasting time, and fight even harder to show that the “attractive” designs that other designers were producing were deeply flawed in other, more important ways. 

In the end, I decided my values as a researcher and a designer were at odds with the values of most of the software industry, and that I wanted to get out of the industry for awhile. More than that, I realized that what I most enjoyed doing – what really made me happy at work – was performing user research. I like talking with people, I like collating interview data and survey data, and I even enjoy the process of scheduling interviews and usability tests. So I started thinking – how could I do more of that?

Why a PhD?

When I was working in the software industry, I really wanted to spend more time doing ethnographic-style research: observing people as they work, interviewing people, watching as people perform everyday tasks, understanding the context in which people live and work, etc. The small taste I’ve had of doing this kind of research have been fascinating, and really fun. But ethnographic research is hard to do in much of the software industry, because it takes a lot of time, effort, and money. When I quit my “cushy” UX designer job in 2018, my first thought was to look for other jobs at different software companies that included a focus on user research. But there were very few jobs in my area that did focus on research, and almost none that would have allowed for ethnographic research. 

So I broadened my search, and started thinking about ways I could spend more time doing ethnographic research, and also find mentors and training opportunities which could help me learn the skills and techniques I’d need. The idea of pursuing a PhD occurred to me within a few months. PhDs are all about research, and I figured if I could find a program which supported a topic I was interested in and which housed a number of professors and students who were doing the kinds of research I wanted to do, it would make for a great apprenticeship. Plus, PhDs are generally fully funded, and though I knew the pay wouldn’t be great, I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about taking out more loans in order to go back to school again.

I also decided pursuing a PhD would also give me a chance to see if academia was a place where I could enjoy working. I knew I’d likely end up assisting professors with teaching or with research in exchange for my tuition, and both seemed like good opportunities to get a feel for what being a professor would be like. I will be starting my PhD journey as a teaching assistant, and I’m looking forward to seeing what teaching at the college level is like.

If I decide academia isn’t for me, though, what next? I know I’ll at least have a decent amount of training in being a researcher by then, so I can always fall back on finding a research position in a company or organization somewhere. Though if it comes to that, I suspect I’ll need to look farther afield than metro Detroit to find something I’m truly interested in, particularly if I still want to work with video games after I graduate.

Why Video Games?

So far, this is the question I’ve been asked the most – why would anyone bother to study video games? I suppose my answer to that is: why not? People have been studying other forms of media (like radio, television, and literature) for generations. If you have any contact with children, it’s hard to ignore the fact that they always seem to be paying attention to a screen, and often, what they’re paying attention to is a video game of some sort. Additionally, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2019 report, 65% percent of adults in the U.S. play video games. Video games are an integral part of our culture, both in the U.S. and around the world.

The second question I inevitably get: are you going to be studying how violent and/or addictive video games are? No. No, I am not. Plenty of people are already studying those two topics, and I can’t say I’m all that interested villainizing a hobby I enjoy. I’d rather spend my time focusing on topics that are personally interesting to me, if only to keep my motivation up. Really, that’s the whole reason I chose video games as a topic – I enjoy playing video games, and I enjoy watching other people play video games. I also very much enjoy thinking about how video games fit into my life, how differently a game can be viewed by different people, and what different people enjoy about games. If I’m going to be spending years studying something while learning to be a researcher, I intend to focus my research on something I’m truly interested in.

One topic that’s near and dear to my heart is why it’s so much harder for women to play – and enjoy – online games than it is for men. There’s a toxic culture surrounding video games, and a lot of men out there who seem to want gaming to be an exclusive club just for them, and that mentality has many real-world societal implications. Wikipedia’s summary of the social, political, and cultural impact of the Gamergate controversy, while a depressing read, sums it up nicely. 

In essence, what I want to do is research something that negatively affects people (like me) so that I can work with others to start making it better. Video game culture is something I’m already steeped in, and I can see very clearly that there’s room for improvement in the space. For the time being, I’ve chosen to focus on researching ways to make online gaming less horrible for women (and tangentially, other people who aren’t heterosexual white men), because dammit, I want to be able to play online games without having to deal with the inevitable harassment that comes with it.

Other Goals

So here I am, starting a PhD program with the intent to do ethnographic research around why people are such dicks to other people in online video games. I’ve got a few other goals for my time in school which I’d like to touch on here, for the sake of posterity.

Firstly, I would like to get better at writing. It’s my intent to continue this blog while I’m in school, hopefully with a new post every couple months. I’m really interested in sharing what I’m learning and researching with people out there in the world. More importantly, I’m very interested in improving my ability to write about complex topics for the average reader. I’ve read my fair share of academic books and papers over the years, and holy hell, but most academics can’t write for shit. I don’t want to be one of those academics. Fortunately for me, the School of Journalism at Michigan State is under the same umbrella as the program I was accepted into, and I will be working alongside students and professors who are interested in science journalism topics. I’m hoping to either create or join a writing group while I’m in school as well.

Secondly, I want to try my hand at teaching and see if I like it. I’m starting off as a run-of-the-mill teaching assistant, with a focus on grading, being present during classes, and holding office hours. I may or may not get a chance to create a syllabus or design class activities while at Michigan State, but I hope I do. As a PhD student, I have the option of pursuing a teaching certification through the graduate school at the university, and I’m already seriously considering it. 

Thirdly, I want to learn about and take advantage of everything Michigan State has to offer to its PhD students. This is the third time I’ll be going back to school after a sizable gap. The first two times (community college and masters program), my primary goal was to learn and improve my skills so I could get a job that paid better. I was focused on learning the skills I needed and getting out as fast as I could. This time around, I don’t want to rush it. I’m not only going back to school: I’ve gotten a new job. I’ll be learning how to teach and to research, but I’ll also be teaching and helping others with research. When I was at the University of Michigan, there were a lot of resources available that I ignored because I wanted to be out, doing bigger and better things. This time around, the bigger and better thing might end up being staying in the same place, but changing my title from “PhD student” to “Assistant Professor.” I want to evaluate Michigan State University – and other places like it – as a potential place of work. To me, that means learning about what all the university offers and taking advantage of as much as I can.

And last (but not least), I want to use this opportunity as an excuse to play more video games. I strongly feel that video games, like books and movies and radio, are a form a media that can help people learn, gain skills, relieve stress, and a host of other beneficial things. I want to challenge myself to play games that are outside of my comfort zone, just to see if I will enjoy them. I want to play more games with other people. I also want to get practiced at thinking more critically about the games I play and why I play them. And above all, I want to have fun, and to enjoy the work that I do.