It has been some time, eighteen months in fact, since I viewed any of the materials for the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) called “Understanding Video Games”. It was hosted by Leah Hackman and Sean Gouglas through Coursera, and affiliated for credit with the University of Alberta. I say “was” because the course was removed from Coursera’s offerings at some point during that last 18 months. I’m not sure when exactly, but when Coursera changed their website some time ago, and the links were all going to change, I downloaded all the videos to make sure I didn’t lose them and I wanted to enable offline viewing anyway. However, it was fortunate I did because when the course offering disappeared, so did all the materials. Which means while I still have all the remaining videos, and they’re probably sufficient for my purposes, I don’t have the syllabus outline or the extra reading materials for the week. Sheesh, hard to believe that a course I started two years ago isn’t automatically still available to my free-loading audit viewing, right? 🙂 I don’t even have the official title for the week either, so from here on in, it is more my “estimated” title.
Week 7 started with an explanation that up until now, most of the discussion was about “what” constituted a game. And there was a surprising amount (to me) of solid academic theory in there. Actual rigour in fact. However, this week relies heavily on cultural studies approaches, trying to look at “who” plays video games, and I found the limitations of the approach is as much about the content as it is about the limitations of cultural studies in general.
I went to Trent University, and it has one of the biggest and best cultural studies programs in Canada (at least, I think it is still one of the biggest and best…at one point, it was the only REAL program that had a full offering of courses as a specialization instead of a minor). And some of my administrative and policy studies courses were cross-listed with cultural studies courses, so the cultural studies approaches were often woven into the curriculum.
So here’s the rub for me. Cultural studies, like history or anthropology, has to mainly observe from outside of the culture. The obvious rationale is that this is a good thing, an ability to see broad themes by having a more distant and objective perspective. However, for me, that is also an extreme limitation. If you aren’t part of the culture, immersed in it, and explaining things within that culture, the best you can do is an abstraction. That’s not limited to cultural studies of course, any academic study requires some abstraction to hold everything else steady while you look at a couple of key issues or variables, but I find it difficult to accept the cultural studies one as readily. Partly because interpreting another culture only works if you first understand the culture well enough to step back, and that act of stepping back hides meaning, particularly when it is then combined with a translation process to “transcode” those observations into something those not of the culture can understand.
Take for example a situation where you’re observing the interactions between genders in a village. It’s easy to misunderstand hierarchies if you assume that hearth and home are “lesser” responsibilities than breadwinning employment — it is almost impossible to avoid some bias in the interpretation process. Descriptions are easy, interpretation and translation are best guesses as to why or for what significance.
I really liked the description the hosts give to the culture at the beginning i.e. that the culture includes not only the members themselves, but a specialized language, sense of community, identity representation of self and others, and how they relate to each other. Right down to defining who is “in” and who is “out”. As well, they talked about how you might look back at the history of gaming consoles and group them or “rank” them…would it be by amount of memory, type of graphics, simplicity or complexity of controllers, addition of narratives, etc.? And thus it is incredibly important to understand something within the context.
However, I don’t think they go quite far enough in critical analysis of the tool (cultural studies). If you accept that you need to understand within a context, and that you need to speak the language to understand the context, then any translation outside that context will necessarily involve at least some loss of meaning. To me, that sometimes moves the analysis into the realm of subjectivity or simple descriptive relativism. One analyst could argue it means X, another could argue it means Y, but neither one really knows if that is an accurate translation. As with all languages, some words have no direct counterpart, and idioms / symbols / signs are the hardest to translate at all.
In the videos for the week, they had a pretty solid opening to describe the culture of first-person shooters for example. And the definition of what those who play video games would describe as a “gamer” (time spent, frequency, places, platforms).
However, there were three areas at the end that I found were lost opportunities for deeper dives. The first was the role of “modding” in the culture. How extensive is it? Does it represent 2% of the so-called gamer community or 20%? There was very little indication of scope, and so as an artifact of the culture, the modification of hardware and software, or the motives for doing so from total conversion to patches, from remakes to demakes, from cheat codes to plugins, remain just artifacts…descriptive, not analytical.
Equally, the description of the change in commercial distribution channels with the growth of Indies has some amazing parallels with the music industry, Kickstarter campaigns for inventions, and self-publication through Amazon, yet received a pretty light touch without much comparative analysis. Even more definitive mapping out some of the changes in distribution vs. new production techniques vs. simple evolution (shareware to apps) would have been helpful.
Last, but not least, I find it difficult to understand their limited analysis and coverage of COS players. If you want to understand a culture, one of the most basic tools of cultural studies is to look at ways in which they express themselves for both artistry and identity. And the physical embodiment of a video game character would seem to be the ultimate form of that expression. For some, it is simply a creative challenge — can you make a costume or do the makeup? For others, it is an opportunity for role play and to experience the game in a different way, not by actually immersing oneself into the game’s reality, but by bringing that reality into the broader world. And for some, it is simply Hallowe’en costume play. Yet there are people who can do it for a living — they’re booked and paid to attend in various costumes at ComicCons, they pose as models for photographers, they travel around the world doing it. And yet it is only a throwaway topic in this week’s videos, which I found a bit disappointing. It’s a dangerous area for mass misinterpretation, but still, I would have liked to see more on it.
I can’t help but agree with the hosts. In the end, it feels like we tend to have more of a corporate history of gaming rather than a social or cultural history of gaming.