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.

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