Getting a Game Studies PhD: A Guide for Aspiring Video Game Scholars

Written by Bonnie Ruberg, with feedback from Dietrick “Squinky” Squinkifer, Diana Mari Pozo, Harrison Gish, Whitney Pow, and many more. Thanks to all! Last updated November 9, 2016. Suggestions for additions and amendments to this list are very welcome. See contact info at right of page.

Over the last few months, I have received messages from many aspiring game studies scholars: current undergraduate students, masters students, or other folks who are excited about approaching video games academically and want to know how to get the training and the credentials to enter the field. What inspiring messages to receive!

The question I hear most often is, “Where can I go to get my Ph.D. in game studies?” This question seems simple, but answering it is surprisingly tricky. At present, there are no Ph.D. programs in North America that grant degrees (or even official secondary emphases) in video games. But don’t despair. Below is information and recommendations for how to achieve the goal of getting a Ph.D. that will position you for a career in game studies.

Whether you yourself are an aspiring game studies scholar or an educator working with a student who is interested in pursuing game studies, I hope this handy “guide” will serve as a helpful starting point for your search. Those interested specifically in the intersection of LGBTQ issues and video games are also encouraged to check out information regarding queer game studies PhD research at UC Irvine.

What Is “Game Studies”?

Before you know which Ph.D. programs to apply to, you have to know whether game studies is right for you.

Game studies is the scholarly field dedicated to exploring digital games, analog games, and play. Though some of the early texts that have become foundational for game studies come from the early- and mid-twentieth century, game studies as an academic field got started in the 1990’s. Over the past two decades, game studies scholars have produced a rich array of work that address questions like how to define games and why players play. In another sense though, game studies is still a relatively new discipline. Many scholars from other fields are surprised to hear that there is an entire corner of academia dedicated to games.

Most recently, game studies has taken a turn away from its formalist roots and toward issues of culture and social justice. Some of the most vibrant areas of game studies today include scholarship on video games and LGBTQ issues, race, ability, identity, and diversity.

Many game studies scholars do also make games, and some of the most insightful game studies work has come out of collaborations between scholars and makers. However, for the purposes of this guide, “game studies” refers to the work of analyzing games rather than making them.

The Dilemma for Aspiring Game Studies Scholars

There has never been a more exciting time to study video games, or to make a career out of researching games and their players. The medium of games is growing and changing, calling for new voices and a wider range of critical perspectives. Game studies is poised to become an increasingly important academic field. Many universities are hiring faculty in this area, and it seems this number will continue to grow. To thrive, game studies needs a vibrant next generation of scholars.

However, for those who aspire to become game studies professionals, figuring out which educational path to take can be difficult. Though it is becoming more and more common for universities to offer courses on video games, and though institutions like USC and NYU (among others) have excellent programs dedicated to games, currently the only available graduate degrees in games focus on game making — that is, game design and development — not on the academic study of games. And, while there are doctoral programs that allow students to tailor their education toward games, there are no institutions yet that offer a dedicated, games-specific Ph.D.

At this point, maybe you’re wondering: should I get a Ph.D.? Good question. It depends what kind of job you’re looking for. Entering a doctoral program is a big commitment (most take five to seven years), so being informed before deciding whether and where to apply is important. While you don’t need a Ph.D. to do video game analysis per se, a doctorate is considered a basic requirement for most research-focused faculty positions. For better or for worse, if you’re hoping to be a full-time, tenure-track university or college professor whose focus is games scholarship (rather than game design) getting a Ph.D. is pretty much a given.

So, what do you do if you want to be a game studies scholar but you can’t get your Ph.D. in game studies?

OPTION 1: Pick a Ph.D. Program with Game Studies Faculty In It

One option is to apply to Ph.D. programs that are not specifically focused on games, but which have game studies scholars on their faculty. These should be faculty members whose work you’re familiar with (if you recognize the names but don’t know what their research is about, it’s time to do some reading) and whom you would be excited to learn from.

Some things to keep in mind: If the program you enter only has one or two games studies faculty, you’ll be working closely with these folks throughout your time in the program — so you want to make sure, as best you can, that they’re a good fit for you. If you’re seriously considering applying, I recommend sending enthusiastic but gracious (individual) emails to these potential mentors. That way you can learn more about how/if they see your interests fitting with the program. You’ll also already be on their radar when they sit down to review the pool of applications.

When you look at faculty rosters, remember that “visiting professors” and adjuncts, while they can be amazing educators, may only be working in the department for a short time. Also, think about the department you’d be applying to, not just the scholar you want to work with. Is it a media studies department, a cultural studies department, a computer science department? The discipline in which you get your Ph.D. will significantly affect the kind of scholarship you get the chance to do and what sorts of academic jobs you qualify for.

Below is a list of Ph.D. programs in North America that have game studies scholars as members of their faculty. All suggestions for additional inclusions are welcome (see contact info at right).

American University – Ph.D. in Communication
Game studies faculty: Lindsay Grace, Benjamin Stokes
In conjunction with the American University Game Lab

Concordia University – Individualized Program Ph.D. (INDI)
(Concordia’s INDI degree has also been included below in the section on interdisciplinary programs.)
Game studies faculty: Mia Consalvo, Sandra Gabriele, Lynn Hughes, Rilla Khaled, Bart Simon

Georgia Tech – Ph.D. in Digital Media
Game studies faculty: Ian Bogost, Janet Murray, Laine Nooney

Indiana University – Ph.D. in Media Arts and Sciences
Game studies faculty: Raiford Guins

NC State University – Ph.D. in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media
Game studies faculty: Nicholas Taylor

Old Dominion University – Ph.D. in English
Game studies faculty: Kevin Moberly

Syracuse University – Ph.D. in English
Game studies faculty: Chris Hanson

Temple University – Ph.D. in Media and Communication
Game studies faculty: Hector Postigo, Adrienne Shaw

University of Arizona – Ph.D. in Literature
Game studies faculty: Ken McAllister

UC Davis – Ph.D. in Literature, Performance Studies, Sociology, etc.
Note: game studies faculty are primarily associated with Cinema and Digital Media, which does not grant Ph.D.s. However doctoral students in the departments mentioned are currently engaged in or have recently completed games-related Ph.D. work.
Game studies faculty: Stephanie Boluk, Gina Bloom, Patrick LeMieux, Timothy Lenior, Colin Milburn

UC Irvine – Ph.D. in Informatics
Game studies faculty: Rebecca Black, Mimi Ito, Bonnie Ruberg, Kurt Squire, Constance Steinkuehler, Josh Tanenbaum, Aaron Trammell

UC Irvine – Ph.D. in Visual Studies
Game studies faculty: Peter Krapp, Braxton Soderman

UC Irvine – Ph.D. in Anthropology
Game studies faculty: Tom Boellstorff

UCLA – Ph.D. in Cinema and Media Studies
Game studies faculty: Stephen Mamber

UC Santa Barbara – Ph.D. in Film and Media Studies
Game studies faculty: Alenda Chang

University of Central Florida — Ph.D. in Texts and Technologies
Game studies faculty: Anastasia Salter

University of Chicago – Ph.D. in English
Game studies faculty: Patrick Jagoda

University of Michigan – Ph.D. in Screen Arts & Cultures or American Culture
Game studies faculty: Sheila Murphy, Lisa Nakamura

University of Toronto – Ph.D. in Information Sciences
Game studies faculty: Sara Grimes, Vicky McArthur

University of Waterloo – Ph.D. in English Language and Literature (in conjunction with the Games Institute)
Game studies faculty: see Games Institute faculty page

University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee – Ph.D. in Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies
Game studies faculty: Stuart Moulthrop

York University – Ph.D. in Education or Communication & Culture
Game studies faculty: Jen Jenson

OPTION 2: Pick a Ph.D. Program with Ties to a Game Design Program

A second option is to get your Ph.D. through a program that, while not explicitly focused on games, allows you to take classes in an adjacent games-specific graduate program. Often these related programs grant MFAs, but they usually involve some game studies classes.

Before applying to these programs, be sure to inquire with the faculty you are interested in working with about whether it is possible to combine coursework from your home department with classes from these related games programs.

University of Southern California – Ph.D. in Media Arts + Practice
Take courses in: Interactive Media and Games Division

University of Southern California – Ph.D. in Cinema and Media Studies
Take courses in: Interactive Media and Games Division

New York University – Ph.D. in Media, Culture, and Communication
Take courses in: NYU Game Center

UC Santa Cruz – Ph.D. in Film and Digital Media
Take courses in: Games and Playable Media

UCLA – Ph.D. in Cinema and Media Studies
Take courses in: Design Media Arts (UCLA Gamelab)

OPTION 3: Pick a Ph.D. Program That Supports Interdisciplinary Digital Scholarship

The third option is to make your own way by picking a Ph.D. that supports interdisciplinary research and will allow you to tailor your education toward your interest in games. Ideally, this will be a program that has an explicit link to digital media, as this will give you access to scholars and colleagues similarly committed to related concerns around contemporary technology.

The upside to this option is that you get to be the architect of your own scholarly formation. Who do you want to be? You decide! The downside is that you will need to do the extra legwork to read widely outside your coursework and build a network of mentors from other institutions.

Brown University – Ph.D. in Modern Culture and Media

Concordia University – Individualized Program Ph.D. (INDI)
(Concordia’s INDI degree has also been included above in the section on game studies faculty.)
Game studies faculty: Mia Consalvo, Sandra Gabriele, Rilla Khaled

Rutgers University – Ph.D. in Communication, Information, and Library Studies

UC Berkeley – Ph.D. in any field with Designated Emphasis in New Media
Berkeley Center for New Media

Whatever path you take toward your career in game studies, good luck! You bring an important new set of perspectives to video games, and the field is better for having you in it.

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