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.

The Disappointing Lack of Female Body Diversity in Overwatch

Overwatch is a multiplayer, online, team-based game, the primary mode of which pits one team of six players against another team of six with the goal of gaining control of a map. It’s currently one of my favorite games to watch and to play. The game is engaging, because every match is different. It’s easy to hop into, play for half an hour, and hop back out. It’s also easy to play for hours at a stretch. There are lots of tricks and techniques to learn, and lots of potential for mastery. There’s also a lot of potential for hilarity when the mastery part of it just doesn’t work out. I even find it a fun game to watch – I enjoy watching my partner play, I enjoy watching streamers play on Twitch, and I enjoy watching official esports league for the game, the Overwatch League.

What really drew me to the game at the start was the design. I enjoyed watching the game and learning about the characters well before I started playing it myself. The maps are gorgeously illustrated, with so many fun, hidden details and random corridors and rooms to explore. The gameplay is smooth, colorful, and engaging to watch. The UI is surprisingly elegant and simple, and tailored to each character’s abilities, which are each impressively unique. And the characters themselves are well designed: they are cartoonish, but not overly so. They each have their own distinct personalities, with voice lines and emotes to match. They are characters designed not only for the game, but for compelling media in general – video shorts, comics, etc.

The characters in Overwatch are geographically, ethnically, and socially diverse, in a number of important ways. About half of the current roster of characters (14 out of 30) are female, or present as female. They represent different countries and cultures – India, China, the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Nigeria, Egypt, Australia – with corresponding skin colors, clothing, accents, and languages to match. Some characters even represent people in social minorities, such as gay and lesbian (Soldier 76 and Tracer), autistic (Symmetra), PTSD (D.va, Mei, Reinhardt), all of which are officially a part of their background stories, as governed by Blizzard (the game’s developer). There are elderly characters, well past their physical prime: Reinhardt, Ana, Soldier, Torbjorn. There are characters from impoverished backgrounds: Sombra, Baptiste, Lucio, probably a few more. There are even a number of characters with obvious physical disabilities: missing an eye (Ana), missing limbs (Junkrat, Torbjorn, McCree, Symmetra), or more serious damage requiring extensive cybernetic support (Genji, Reaper).

That’s a lot of diversity and representation to cram into one game. So much so that I feel almost (but not quite) guilty about pointing out one obvious deficiency in the design of the characters: believable female bodies. Among the male characters, there are plenty of obvious physical differences beyond skin color and age. There are the conventionally attractive heroes, like Hanzo, Baptiste, Lucio, and McCree. There are big, beefy, scarred, muscular characters, like Reinhardt and Doomfist. Torbjorn is short, chunky, and scarred. Junkrat is pointy-faced, thin, and wiry (and scarred). Roadhog is tall, fat, and hides his face. In fact, many of the male heroes hide their faces: Soldier, Reinhardt, Reaper, and Genji all also have masks which makes their facial features and expressions nearly or entirely impossible to discern. There are even two male characters who are not human: Winston and Hammond. Those that don’t hide their faces might be smiling, smirking, frowning, or straight-faced.

The only thing these men have in common are well-defined muscles.

And then there are the female characters. By and large, the female characters in Overwatch have attractive, smooth faces, not obscured by masks. They have few to no scars. They smile or smirk almost exclusively. And just about all them of seem to be size 0, with skinny waists and curvy hips and chests, which you can easily discern through their form-fitting clothing. They pose in painful-looking backbends, the better to show off their boobs and butts. Or they tilt their hips, to better show off their curves and legs.

And for some characters, it gets worse. I can’t look at Tracer running around the map without wondering how uncomfortable her pants must be, they’re so shoved up her buttcrack. I can’t look at Symmetra’s outfit without wondering if her legs get cold. I can’t see Widow without wondering how much double sided dress tape she had to use to keep her boobs from falling out of her extremely low cut catsuit. And do Mercy’s (and Symmetra’s and Widow’s) feet hurt after running through battle after battle in heels?

Blizzard removed this victory post from the game, but not the super obvious butt crack.
Zarya for the win.

There are a few exceptions to the rule. Zarya in particular is represented as a tall, strong, muscular woman. According to the character’s background story, Zarya is a champion athlete, probably of the track and field variety. She is one of three female tanks in the game, and the only one who isn’t significantly supported by technology. She looks both physically strong and physically feminine. Interestingly, because she doesn’t fit the same mold as most of the other female characters, a number of players assume she is gay.

As a female gamer who enjoys the game, it’s demoralizing to me to see practicality and realism fall by the wayside in favor of making eye candy for the “ideal” player of the game, which is presumed to be only straight men. It’s disappointing to think that I could never be a hero in the Overwatch world unless I became anorexic, developed a penchant for uncomfortable, form-fitting clothing, and bowed to male society’s desire to see women “smile more.” I’m tired of feeling that female characters in games (and movies and TV and any other visual media) have to sell sex in order to seem strong. Blizzard, you did such a good job with so many other forms of diversity, so why couldn’t you put more effort into this part?

What’s the solution?

There are a number of things I think Blizzard could do to for both Overwatch and other present or future games to address this issue. First and foremost, don’t assume that all players are primarily interested in viewing female characters as sex objects and male characters as power fantasies. Characters in games often tend to be designed with the straight, male demographic in mind, and in particular, game developers assume that the people who play their games want to see sexy female characters. While some players certainly do, I would argue that players play Overwatch primarily for the gameplay. If you made the female characters less sexy and more realistic, I’m sure a number of male players would complain because Blizzard took away their eye candy. But would they stop playing as a result? Probably not.

Look at all those female fans! Photo from an article about Overwatch in the Washington Post

Secondly, get feedback on character designs from women and take it seriously. I’m making an assumption that the character designers and other people involved in design decisions at Blizzard are primarily men, because game development as a field contains way more men than women for a variety of reasons. If Blizzard did their due diligence, I’m sure they consulted people of various ethnicities when designing characters to represent different cultures around the world in order to avoid egregious stereotyping or any other faux pas that could cause offense. Obviously, Blizzard wants people around the world to play their games. But they seem to be ignoring the fact that half the world is composed of women, and that many women play and enjoy their games. The live audience for Overwatch League games often seems to be half women. So why not make an effort to include female voices in the design decisions so as not to potentially offend women like me who play the game?

Frankly, I am a bit offended that Blizzard seems to think I’m not worth the effort it would take to make how female characters look less offensive to me, and I imagine, many other players. That’s not to say I will stop playing Overwatch, or stop watching the Overwatch League. But making female characters look less sexy and more believable would make my gameplay experiences more positive. I sometimes play with my partner and his (male) friends, and it’s not uncommon for me to hear comments along the lines of “that new Mercy skin has nice boobs.” I’m told I should just ignore it, let it slide, because that’s “just how games are.” To that I say: that’s not how games have to be.

My Childhood History of Video Games

For a good chunk of my life, I’ve been fascinated by video games. I remember playing games on my dad’s computer when I was little – I can’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old. I played games while listening to the dot matrix printer underneath the computer, and then was taught how to make slinkies out of the edges of the paper so I would still be entertained when my dad needed the computer again. They were “educational” games, I’m sure, though I can’t remember which games I played back then.

“Educational” was the major theme of the games I was allowed to play as a kid. Some of these games I remember very fondly – we had several of the Super Solvers games, including Treasure Mountain and Challenge of the Ancient Empires, which my brother and I played over and over. I also played quite a lot of Oregon Trail (I particularly remember playing it both at school and at home in 3rd grade), and Sim City 2000, which remains one of my favorite games to this day. My dad may still have the 3.5 inch floppies which contained many of these games floating around somewhere.

One game that proved pivotal in my childhood was Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Not because it was a particularly exciting game – it wasn’t. But when I was in 3rd grade, my dad had promised both my brother and I that if we were able to reliably type 30 words per minute, we would each get our own computer which we could keep in our respectives rooms. I took that offer quite seriously – I really wanted my own computer – and sunk many hours into Mavis Beacon. Being older than my brother by a couple years, I was the first one to reach the goal, and had my very own computer in my room by the end of 3rd grade.

I remember that computer fondly. It was a hand-me-down from my dad’s work, and ran Windows 2.1. I wasn’t allowed to install much on it, only the pre-approved games like Sim City and Treasure Mountain. I probably spent more time playing the default Windows games that have come with Windows for decades – Solitaire, Minesweeper, Freecell and Hearts. I got to be particularly good at Freecell, to the point where it was rare that I wouldn’t be able to solve any board put in front of me.

PC games were pretty much all I had at home when I was growing up. My parents refused to buy us any consoles, even though our cousins and friends all seemed to have either a Nintendo or Sega system. When we visited family in Denver, my brother and I would spend as much time as we could playing games on one cousin’s Super Nintendo or another cousin’s Sega Genesis. I would watch more than play, but I had a particularly fondness for playing Columns on the Genesis. During the summer, we would head down the street to our neighbors, who had two kids of the same age as us, and who also had a Super Nintendo. I remember spending many afternoons trying – and failing – to beat Disney’s Aladdin, and being terrible at Street Fighter II.

The first handheld game system I remember being exposed to was the original Game Boy, which an older cousin had brought on a visit when we still lived in Denver. I remember that he had a Bugs Bunny game of some sort. I was obsessed with Bugs Bunny at the time, and wanted to play. I may or may not have monopolized that Game Boy the entire time my cousin was in town – I don’t recall. But I daydreamed for years after about having a Game Boy of my own.

This only intensified in 5th grade, when I met the girl who would remain my best friend through high school. She and her sister shared a Game Boy, as well as my favorite game at the time – Tetris. Sometimes I felt like going over to her house to hang out or spend the night was just an excuse for me to spend hours playing Tetris. I suspect she was annoyed with me more often than not in those days.

At one point, my brother and I hatched a plan to pool all of our Christmas money in order to buy a Game Boy and hide it from our parents. It was somewhere around $90 back then to get a Game Boy and a game, though I don’t think we ever agreed on which game we wanted to get with it. I had to have been the mastermind behind this scheme, because my brother decided at some point that he’d rather spend his hard-earned Christmas money on something more immediately gratifying.

Instead, I took what money I had and secretly bought a handheld Batman game – one of those horrible Tiger games that were difficult to make any sense out of. I never made it very far in that game, but I hid it away in my room and spent too much time on it anyway. The lure of being able to illicitly play a video game overrode any other considerations. When I was in elementary school and middle school, any game was a good game.

By the time I was in late middle school, my brother and I had begun more seriously petitioning our parents to let us get new games. My dad was generally on board, though consoles were still out of the question, as were any games that involved guns or other obvious forms of violence. Caesar 3 is a game my dad picked up that was a particularly big hit with my brother and I – and my dad as well. He put as many hours into that game as my brother or I did. We all remember it fondly, too. My brother had some success in convincing my parents to let him get games that his friends were playing, like Baldur’s Gate. I also was allowed to keep a copy of Dune 2000 which had been gifted to me by a friend.

My brother and I rarely had time limits on the games we played as kids. Since we often shared the same computer, we did have to swap places every so often. Caesar 3, for example, was only installed on the family computer, despite the fact that my brother and I both had our own computers by that time. More than anything else, my parents policed for content. I was in 8th grade by the time we were first allowed on the internet (it had only been around for a couple years by that point anyway), and we had strict limits on how much time we were allowed to spend online each day. My parents had complicated the matter by subscribing to dial-up without adding a second phone line, so sometimes our allotted time was cut short when my mom needed to use the phone. I didn’t even try to play games online until college because of those restrictions.

The world of video games only really started to open up to me towards the end of high school, when my brother managed to get an emulator plus a number of NES and SNES emulations from a friend of his. We both installed the emulators somewhat illicitly – my parents caught on at some point, I know, but by that point, we were both old enough and had enough control over our own computers that they couldn’t stop us. I spent many, many hours catching up on Super Mario 3, The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, and X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse (I was really into the X-Men at the time), among others. Even though we were playing those games using mice and keyboards, we were both still able to grab pieces of the past that we felt we’d missed out on.

Looking Back

To this day, I’m still nostalgic for games in the SNES, Sega Genesis, and N64 eras. We never owned any of those systems, but through my cousins and friends, I was able to watch and even sometimes play a number of games on them. Back then, I was often resentful of my parents for not allowing us to spend our childhoods like our friends did, lost in the worlds that video games created. But I understand now why my parents made the decisions they did. Though our computer time was not limited (once we got our own computers, anyway), what we could do on them was. As a result, I probably spent a lot more time reading, writing, drawing, building with Legos, and playing outside than I would have otherwise.

I also truly think I appreciate games more now as a result of desiring them – and not being able to have them – as a kid. For lack of my own video games to play, I spent a lot of time at other people’s houses, watching as those other people played games. I still enjoy watching other people play games, and often find it more fun and less frustrating than playing those same games myself.

On the other side of that coin, I’m often more reluctant to jump into new games, for fear that I won’t be good that them because I didn’t put in all those hours of practice as a kid that my peers did. Before I bought my first system for myself – a refurbished Nintendo DS – I agonized over whether I would have too much trouble playing the games for it to be worth it. My fear was, of course, unfounded – Nintendo excels at making games with a very low barrier to entry. But still, I often keep myself from playing some games because I assume I am just bad at some types of games, and that they will only frustrate me as a result.

Which I am. My hand-eye coordination leaves much to be desired, in part because I’m not willing to put in the time needed to perfect my timing and precision. A part of me wonders how much of this comes from absorbing the tired trope that women aren’t as good at games as men. I know that’s not true, but I also know how powerful the social constructs behind those tropes really are.

Another part of it may be because… well, I’m an adult now. I know that my time has limits, and that I have other obligations. I also know what makes me frustrated, and am more apt to want to avoid becoming frustrated. I’m also conscious of how playing games can affect my mood, and how my mood can, in turn, affect how I feel about a game as I’m playing it. I have an amount of self-control and self-awareness with regard to how and why I play games which I certainly didn’t have when I was a kid.

Do I have an appreciation for games now that I may not have had, were my parents more lenient around the issues of video games when I was a kid? I honestly don’t know. I feel nostalgia for the games I encountered as a kid, but that nostalgia is based on small snatches of memories, tinged with jealousy and desire, which I was only able to start to satisfy as an adult. I felt like an outsider in the world of games then. In many ways, I feel like an outsider now – my relationship with games is still often one of looking at them from afar, rather than experiencing them firsthand.

Maybe, had I grown up with the ability to play any game, any time I wanted, I wouldn’t be so interested in them intellectually now. Perhaps having it all wouldn’t have driven me to seek out games as an adult to the extent that I have over the past 15 years. Or maybe I would’ve become much more a part of the gaming community, rather than feeling as though I can only exist on the fringes.