Games Writing and Academic Institutional Authority



Hello, I am Gaines Hubbell. I am an editor and the technical editor at the Journal of Games Criticism, and I am a doctoral candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

I’m going to start with what I think is an obvious statement. Academia is stagnating.

I mean “stagnating” as a present progressive verb and as a predicative adjective. Sorry, did I mention I’m the technical editor?

Academia, especially when we’re talking about games, isn’t pushing many boundaries: Game studies isn’t publishing to game design (Yang, 2013), and games programs are seldom reading criticism alongside how-to textbooks. Academia also has a backwards, or at best, chilling effect on the people in it: It’s white, it’s male, it’s wealthy, it’s cis, it’s slow, and it’s got disciplines which, through the magic of the academic job market and ghostly power of DWMs, keep fresh knowledge out.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but change will come slowly to academia. Right now, a lot of the ground breaking work on games, their journalism, criticism, development, and design is happening in the larger, non-academic games communities. Change may be slow, but what it will look like is already available on Critical Distance, on Gamasutra, on RPS, electrondance, and Unwinnable, and a dozen other online publications and zines.

Embracing that change, especially for a newer media like games, is a big challenge for academia. Right now, a few online academic publications, like First Person Scholar and the Journal of Games Criticism, are in a middle state (Hawreliak, 2013) between traditional peer-reviewed academic publishing and online, edited publishing. It’s a form of publishing that recognizes a lot of valuable knowledge is passing by the academic conversation without attention and tries instead to appreciate that knowledge for its value. FPS and JGC, in particular, gear themselves toward a feed-forward idea of knowledge—the idea that knowledge needs to be useful, applicable, and, most importantly, free of the academic institution’s disciplinarity (Wilcox, 2013).

So, what does that really mean? In short, publications like FPS and JGC are revolutionary among academic publications—they are genuine deviations from the way the institution would have things work. To give you a better idea of what I mean, I’m going to talk some nuts and bolts of JGC’s review process to kind of flesh out how we do it. I suspect JGC has similarities to FPS—I mean, we based our model on their ideas after-all—but I can’t speak for them.

We do blind peer review, the authors don’t know who is reviewing them and the reviewers don’t know who the author is. This is typical across academic publishing. However, most academic publishing uses authority checks, i.e., there’s an unwritten rule that you need to be an academic to submit or you need to cite the appropriate academic sources to be considered knowledgeable; we don’t do that. Our reviewers are instructed to judge an article on its argument, what it says not how it says it or who says it. Most academic publishing expects authors to use the right buzzwords, the academic jargon; we don’t—we discourage jargon. Most academic publishing in games takes 6 months to over a year to complete the review process; we review in 2 months.

We also welcome work in a range of formats outside of the traditional academic essay. We publish fast, so we have a letter-to-the-editor format in an effort to capture some of the excellent games writing that happens on Twitter. JGC’s first issue had an excellent set of discussions surrounding it that most of academia wasn’t even aware—I hope those of you who were part of that send us a letter to the editor. We want to raise questions and start debates: These are important places that knowledge is created.

More than just the newspaper style letter-to-the-editor format, we welcome a range of non-essay formats, and we’re open to your ideas of what that means. Some of my favorite work in games is happening in YouTube videos and SoundCloud podcasts, and these formats are not just different forms than the old essay—they are different ways of knowing. Traditional academic publishing isn’t fast enough to capture a modern debate, and it is too print-oriented to appreciate modern essay alternatives.

The hope here is that we’re faster, so we can keep up with changes in games and the conversations around games. We discourage jargon to reach a broader audience, so academics can speak to developers, developers to critics, critics to academics, and so on. So, the audience that can benefit from the knowledge can get the knowledge. And we don’t do authority checks because they only serve to maintain the navel-gazing purity of the Ivory Tower.

Why’s a big question. Why should an academic write to a non-academic audience? There’s often a misplaced assumption of the power dynamic of knowledge, that knowledge somehow becomes real or important when it’s academic. It doesn’t. Nothing about it changes. Powerful knowledge is knowledge that is used, knowledge that has a function in society. Academia can be a prison for knowledge as much as it can be a pedestal, and it’s important to reject that part of academic publishing. Some institutions are already trying to do this [cite Princeton’s open access]. With games being a newer discipline or field, it’s better to get ahead of this than behind it.

Why should a non-academic write a peer-reviewed article? Academia is an institution, a formal and informal institution, and like all institutions, it has problems. But, it does one thing really, and sometimes unfortunately, well: It confers institutional authority. That authority isn’t valuable per se; it’s useful when it conveys power, seriousness, or legitimacy that allows you to access places or conversations that weren’t previously available.

But, this is a dichotomy that doesn’t fit the contemporary games scene. We aren’t just academics or not academics. Right now, I think we, the games communities, are the experts in this games practice, a practice that includes journalists, critics, developers, artists, and designers. I believe in 20 years, you’ll need a degree in Games to be an expert in games. But, right now, the knowledge base that I’d like to see granting degrees in Games, teaching the future games experts, and qualified as experts in games is this one, here: The people here at Critical Proximity and the GDC community.

It’s not that anyone needs academia or that academia needs anyone. It’s that institutions are part of how legitimacy and appropriate social behavior form, academia is one of many formal and informal institutions with a stake in games. But, because games are new—for academia—it’s a good time to get involved in constructing how academia should participate in this growing industry and cultural practice. And, a few outlets, like FPS and JGC, are out there right now making sure everyone gets to be a part of that formation, to keep academia from being its regular old self.

References

Hawreliak, J. (2013, July 31). Hybrid publishing: The case for the middle-state. First Person Scholar. Retrieved from http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/the-case-for-the-middle-state/

Wilcox, S. (2013, June 12). Feed-forward scholarship: Why games studies needs middle-state publishing. First Person Scholar. Retrieved from http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/feed-forward-scholarship/

Yang, R. (2013). Queering game development. Presentation at the first annual meeting of the Queerness and Games Conference. Retrieved from http://www.twitch.tv/qgcon/c/3156485.

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