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

It’s grad school application season — but where should you apply if you want to be a game studies scholar?

Over the last few months, I have received lots of messages from 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. How inspiring.

The question I hear most often is, “Where can I go to get my Ph.D. in game studies?” Answering that 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…

With the help of some wonderful game studies colleagues, I’ve put together “Getting a Game Studies PhD: A Guide for Aspiring Video Game Scholars” — a helpful resource that includes an extensive list of Ph.D. programs that support game studies research.

To thrive, game studies needs a vibrant next generation of scholars. Whatever path you or your students take toward a career in game studies, good luck!

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“Video Games, Identity, & Diversity” class at USC

imgd logoThis semester I am teaching my last class as a postdoc at USC — which is bittersweet, because I absolutely love my students in the Interactive Media and Games Division. Luckily, my department has been wonderful about allowing me to design my own courses, so I get to go out on a great topic, “Video Games, Identity, and Diversity.” Here’s an excerpt from the class description:

There has never been a more important time to talk about diversity in video games. Even as online harassment campaigns threaten to silence those who bring change to the medium, players and games themselves are rapidly becoming more diverse. This is a turning point in the history of games – a moment when people who have long been marginalized are making some of the most amazing games and speaking with some of the most powerful voices. “Diversity” is far more than a buzzword, however. It is a complicated intersection of identity, privilege, personal experience, and social systems. It is not enough to say that games should be diverse; we need to understand what that means and why it matters.

Over the course of the semester, this class will prompt students to think about games in relation to a number of cultural and personal factors, including but not limited to: race, disability, socioeconomic class, language, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, and body type. Games, games history, game players, game cultures, and the games industry will all be topics of discussion. Even students who do not think of themselves as invested in diversity issues have a lot to gain from engaging with these topics. An awareness of how to make games more inclusive and/or how to rethink harmful stereotypes in games is important for creating socially responsible, commercially successful, and artistically compelling work.

So far the semester is off to a great start. There are definitely days when this class isn’t going to be easy, but I know my students are up for the challenge.

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My article on digital labor and amateur online pornography is out!

I have a new article hot off the presses. I’m honored to be part of the wonderful “Porn Labor” special issue of the Porn Studies journal, with editors Jiz Lee and Rebecca Sullivan. My article “Doing It for Free: Digital Labor and the Fantasy of Amateur Online Pornography” is about how many folks idealize DIY, unpaid porn performances like those found on Youtube-style sites — and how that reflects problematic cultural beliefs about the the value of sex work and the role of crowd-sourcing in digital economies. Here’s the abstract:

To date, scholars of digital labour have not turned sufficient attention to online sex work, which constitutes a sizeable portion of contemporary web-based labour. In particular, the rise of unpaid amateur pornography, circulated through YouTube-style tube sites, points toward an important shift in how adult content is being produced and distributed in digital spaces. This shift also raises questions about the cultural narratives that surround sexual labour. This article explores the labour politics that underlie the unpaid work of do-it-yourself (DIY) porn performers who are populating highly lucrative tube sites with hundreds of thousands of amateur videos. In doing so, the article argues for understanding DIY porn in relation to the increasing popularity of other digital maker movements.

As feminist scholars of digital media have noted, crowdsourcing platforms like Wikipedia are commonly idealized as empowering and democratizing, yet they often reinforce existing social biases and obfuscate conditions of difference. I assert here that a similar utopian fantasy operates around online amateur porn, which is frequently figured as ethically superior to pornography for which performers are paid. Recognizing the production of DIY porn as digital labour offers the opportunity to challenge this narrative and make the network of capitalist forces that drive free amateur online content once again visible. This also presents a valuable framework through which to critique the harmful misconception that sexual labour is superior if it is done for pleasure rather than for profit.

If you’re having trouble accessing the article (for instance, if you aren’t affiliated with a university and you’re running up against a pay-wall), here’s a PDF version of the article you can read for free. Also, here’s a nice little write-up about the piece from the Berkeley Center for New Media, where I did a lot of my doctoral work. Really great to see this out in the world!

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4th annual Queerness and Games Conference in Los Angeles spring 2017!

QGCon_Button_2in_v01Big news! After three years running as a fall event in Berkeley, the Queerness and Games Conference is moving down to Los Angeles for our fourth year. The official dates haven’t been announced yet, but we’re aiming for early April. We’re so excited to be hosting this amazing conference yet again.

Why Los Angeles? We love the Bay Area, and we’re sad to leave behind the amazing local community; making QGCon accessible to that community has always been one of our main goals. Recently though the QCGon organizers have scattered to the four winds, and there just aren’t enough us left in the Bay to make the event work there.

However, now that I work at USC (and I’m headed to UC Irvine next year), we’ve got a solid footing and lots of amazing contacts in LA. It’ll take us a bit of time to get set up in our new SoCal home, which is why the event will be happening in spring 2017 instead of fall 2016 — but we’re hoping the move will mean that the conference is accessible for a whole new local community.

Details about dates, the call for speakers, volunteering, sponsorship, and travel are all coming soon. We can’t wait to see you at QCGon 2017!

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“Queer Game Studies 101” offers an introduction to the field

In recent months, I’ve been thrilled to hear from many scholars and students interested in working in the emerging paradigm of Queer Game Studies. Yes! However, since this work is relatively new, I find folks have sometimes overlooked the great work that’s already out there.

And so, with help from my wonderful colleagues Amanda Phillips, Diana Mari Pozo, and Adrienne Shaw, I present the “Queer Game Studies 101: An Introduction to the Field (2016).” It includes basic info on this growing academic area and an extensive bibliography of existing Queer Game Studies scholarship, plus related games, events, and other resources.

If you have suggestions for other work to include in the bibliography, please feel free to get in touch. I hope you’ll find this 101 helpful and share it with your students!

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Headed to UC Irvine Informatics as assistant prof of digital games!

I am thrilled to announce that, starting in fall 2017, I will be joining the Department of Informatics at UC Irvine as an assistant professor of digital games and interactive media. I am so excited to be joining a vibrant, interdisciplinary community with wonderful colleagues and amazing students whose work is sure to challenge and inspire me. I have loved my time in USC’s Interactive Media & Games Division, and I’m very happy that I have the opportunity to complete the second year of my postdoc before starting at UCI. The job market process has been long, winding, thrilling, and exhausting. I am infinitely grateful to all those mentors and friends who have lent me their time and support along the way.

More info coming soon, but for now I’m celebrating the good news. I can’t wait!

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How to (Actually) Be an Ally at GDC

I originally posted this on Medium before the 2016 Game Developers Conference, but it offers helpful tips for allies in all types of situations, especially game and tech spaces!

We all know that games culture and the games industry can be hostile toward those who are different. Even though the Game Developers Conference is a professional setting, discrimination still runs rampant. I have been attending GDC on and off since 2007 — and, while I’ve seen definite improvements over the years, the conference can still be an immensely stressful time for people who don’t fit the model of the white, cisgender, male, straight game dev. That’s because we know, we KNOW, that we are going to have a long line of run-ins, both big and small, with folks who think we don’t belong or we have to work harder to prove our value.

I’m happy to say that, these days, there are more and more of those male game dev types who think of themselves as “allies” to causes of diversity. They support women, people of color, queer people, and people with disabilities in games — at least, they do in theory. In practice, many of the “allies” I know say and do lots of discriminatory things. They are very well-intentioned, but since they already think of themselves as “good guys,” they forget that being an ally is hard work. It means remaining self-aware, self-critical, and actively working to make games a better place for all.

With the conference nearly upon us, and in the spirit of the “take-away,” here are 6 easy tips for actually being an ally at GDC:

1. Assume that everyone is a games professional.

Until you learn otherwise, assume that everyone you speak to works in the games industry or game-related fields. Assume that they are competent, informed, and equally worthy of your time. When speaking to a mixed-gender group of people, i.e. a group with some men and some women, do not — I repeat, DO NOT — address only the men. Direct your comments and your eye contact to both men and non-men equally. Often people do this without thinking; due to cultural stereotypes, they have come to assume that the women in the room are less likely to work in games. This is a professional event. Everyone is here for professional reasons. There is nothing more maddening then feeling ignored and unseen. Practically speaking, you have no idea who you’re talking to. If you’re trying to build connections, don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Here are the words of Stacey Mason.

2. Never dismiss a woman as “just someone’s girlfriend.”

Tip #1 goes for parties just as much as for events at the conference proper. When you see a woman standing arm in arm with a man in a social situation, it may be especially tempting to assume that she is “just” wife or girlfriend. First off, whatever that woman’s relationship status and/or profession, she deserves your equal respect — and secondly, just because a woman is dating a man who works in games doesn’t mean she doesn’t work in games, too. I am in a relationship with a partner who is a game designer; I am a games educator, scholar, and organizer. We both work full-time in games. I cannot tell you the number of times that a well-meaning male GDC goer, someone who thinks of himself as a “feminist” or an advocate for diversity, has all but ignored me in a group conversation. When this happens, I make a mental note to avoid working with this person or promote their work — at least until they recognize their harmful behavior.

3. Respect social cues and personal boundaries.

GDC is a great chance to meet new folks and connect with people you admire. However, it’s important to recognize when someone wants to talk and when they want space. By all means, start up lots of conversations — but avoid assuming that you have a right to someone’s time. You never know what is going on with them that makes them more of less comfortable talking with you. They may have social anxiety and need a few moments to themselves. They may have been the victim of harassment within the games industry and be understandably hesitant about interacting with new people. If they represent a marginalized group, they may already be being asked by a lot of people to speak on behalf of “their people.”

Part of respecting boundaries is also respecting personal space. GDC is a crowded place; be sure to give others as much of a buffer as you can. This is especially true for people you don’t know, or who are sending you body language cues that they’d like you to back it up. Never assume you can touch someone, even in a friendly way, without asking. Also, do not take photos of anyone without first asking their permission.

4. Watch out for words that promote discrimination.

Fellow speakers, you set an example for all GDC attendees, so this is particularly important for you — but it also goes for everyone and every conversation. Lots of people who think of themselves as allies knows not to use hate speech, like blatantly offensive language about race or sexuality. But there are also lots of “smaller” mistakes of language that can make the conference environment feel hostile to those who are different. Avoid inadvertent sexism, like referring to the imagined player for your game as “he.” Also avoid ableism, i.e. using language that associates disability with something bad (like calling someone “lame” or “crazy”). It may not seem like these words would be a “big deal,” but they’re the stuff that microaggressions are made of, and when the whole conference is swimming in them, it makes a huge difference in terms of who feels welcome and who feels like they don’t belong.

5. Don’t let bad behavior slide.

Being an ally doesn’t just mean being responsible for yourself, it also means being an active advocate for better behavior. If you see someone — a friend, a new acquaintance, a presenter — doing any of the above, let them know that you see their behavior as problematic. Depending on your style and the situation, you can do that publicly or you can take them aside individually and point out the problem. Definitely avoid “white knight syndrome,” i.e. don’t try to be the “good guy” who rides in and saves the day to great applause. At the end of the day, the struggle to promote diversity in games isn’t about you. Help out whenever you can, but do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you want recognition for being an ally.

6. If you get called out, take it in stride.

Even if you’re trying your best to be a good ally, there’s a chance you’ll say or do something that is inadvertently problematic — and that’s okay. We all mess this stuff up sometimes. What’s important is to do your best to be humble and open to criticism. If someone calls you out, your first response may well be defensiveness. “Me? No way! I’m an ally!” Remember, it takes courage to tell someone they’ve done something that hurts you, so respect what this person has to say, make sure they know that you hear them, and let their comment help guide you to even better ally-ing in the future.

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Queerness and Video Games talk at Stanford’s GAIMS

I’m really looking forward to my upcoming talk at Stanford on January 5th, part of the speaker series for their GAIMS group. Thanks very much to Henry Lowood and Ingmar Riedel-Kruse for inviting me to speak. The talk is called “Queerness and Video Games: Identity, Community, & Design.” Here’s the abstract. It should be a great time!

Video games represent today’s fastest-growing and arguably most expressive digital medium, rich with the potential to tell stories of difference. Yet games, games culture, and the games industry often remain hostile to those who do not fit the profile of the traditional gamer. In the wake of recent online harassment campaigns, it is now more important than ever to turn our attention to the the power of games as a platform for expressing diversity. To this end, this talk looks at the burgeoning movement of queer games. For decades, LGBTQ people have been underrepresented in mainstream video games. In the last three years, however, we have seen a blossoming interest from mainstream game studios in increasing queer inclusivity, queer games events like GaymerX and The Queerness and Games Conference have flourished, and queer game-makers from across the country have been leading the vanguard in the new wave of small-scale, personal games. Queerness in video games is more than a matter of who we see on-screen; it’s also a matter of identity, community, and game systems. Thinking about games from the perspective of queerness offers us valuable lessons about design itself.

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Co-organizing Playthink game salon series

Playthink logoOne of the great things about working in USC’s Interactive Media and Games Division is all the opportunities to get involved in the life of the department. I’m proud to be joining the wonderful Jane Pinckard in co-organizing the Playthink salon series this academic year. At each Playthink, three speakers talk about their work in the field of game design or game scholarship. It’s a great chance for faculty, students, and visitors to come together to delve deep into challenging topics in games.

Along with my fellow USC postdoc Aaron Trammell, I had the opportunity to present (on the wacky, indie physics game Octodad and queer passing) at the first 2015-2016 Playthink on 11/9. Now the dates for the spring, 2016 Playthings are in! Next on the calendar is our salon on Monday, January 25, which will be featuring new work from UC Irvine scholars Josh Tanenbaum, Karen Tanenbaum, and Braxton Soderman. As the time get closer, you can find more info about their talks on the Playthink website. I’m already looking forward to it!

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Teaching Experimental Games this spring at USC

I was super excited to learn that, this coming spring, I’ll be temporarily taking over Richard Lemarchand‘s amazing production course on experimental games. Richard is an amazing designer and teacher, and it’s truly an honor. Plus, I get to do a lot to make the course my own — which, for me, means challenging students to tackle topics of identity and difference at the same time they find their creative voices through the rapid prototyping. Here’s the course description. It should be a rollercoaster of a semester!

At its core, creative expression is a playful process. Some of the most unique and moving video games of recent years have emerged from what might seem like the silliest or most unusual ideas. What if you played as the wind (Flower, thatgamecompany)? What if you translated a gender transition into mini-games (Dys4ia, Anna Anthropy)? What if you told a story about childhood abuse through the mechanics of a puzzle-based platformer (Papa y Yo, Minority Games)? Each of these games plays, in some way, with our expectations for what a game is and who we are as players.

The spirit of experimentation is key to imaginative innovation. Experimentation gives us the opportunity to try new things, to fail fast and fantastically, and to explore aspects of ourselves we might otherwise leave out of our games. This course provides a challenging, encouraging, and above all playful space for students to experiment with their own game-making practices. Inspired equally by the absurd, poetic games of the mid-20th-century surrealists and the growing interest among indie designers in exploring identity through games, this course is a chance to make games that are goofy, strange, serious, or deeply personal—often all at the same time.

Over the course of the semester, students will work on 8 games. These games will be informed by weekly readings, in-class discussions, and peer-to-peer critique. Some readings will introduce students to the field of avant-garde games. Others will prompt students to think in new ways about games’ potential for artistic and cultural expression. This course is fast-paced and demanding. Students will be expected to work across a variety of platforms and to reflect critically, articulately, and often on their own goals as game-makers.

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