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!