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 AnzaldĂșa (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.

One thought on “Revisiting Influential Readings from My Comprehensive Exam”

  1. Very good commentary, Caitlin! Your descriptions and enthusiasm make me want to read those books/articles….especially since I know so little about the gaming world.

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