A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll [Probably] Do Again

Back in my second year of grad school, Ian Bogost encouraged me to apply to the world’s most insane sounding conference (or at least, the most insane sounding conference had ever heard of): Foundations of Digital Games 2009, which wasn’t just outside of my area in a variety of ways (my only credibility vis-à-vis “game studies” of any stripe was, of course, my time at Kotaku), but on a cruise ship. And not just any cruise ship, it was on a Disney cruise ship.  The professor who wrote me a letter of recommendation for the doctoral consortium kept saying ‘This is a boondoggle!’ When I found myself dressed up for the ship’s ‘pirate night’ – alongside some academic luminaries – I could see his point. But it was my first game studies conference & I had a really splendid time meeting a lot of people doing very interesting work (I also wrote a large swath of my Li Huiniang paper – which was eventually published in Modern Chinese Literature & Culture – on the sun deck).

Actually, FDG is a serious conference – particularly  strong in technical areas that I don’t understand – it just happens to have a unique setting. People’s response when I tell them about it is either “That sounds horrific!” or “That sounds amazing!” It’s a combination of both – I really like the fact that everyone’s trapped on a boat together, but I’m not much for cruise ships. I don’t get the appeal, and find the whole non-conference portion of events kind of traumatic (the exception this year: sitting in the cantilevered hot tubs after dinner, when the upper deck was largely deserted). There’s a wonderful essay by David Foster Wallace entitled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” which sums up my feelings on cruises-for-pleasure:

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir – especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased – I felt despair.

Despite the essay being nearly 20 years old, the mass-market Luxury Cruise seems to have changed little, and Wallace’s observations are frighteningly on point – and frighteningly funny. Further, I spent a fair amount of time sitting on Deck 4, away from the craziness of the upper decks, reading War & Peace, which also probably goes a long way in explaining why the idea of a mass “luxury” cruise for pleasure fills me with terror. Boat-induced despair aside, I really enjoy FDG, even though (or because?) it’s a conference largely outside of my wheel house .

Anyway, my professor wasn’t the only one to say “You’re going WHERE? For a CONFERENCE? And you expect me to believe this is legitimate?” (as I discovered when trying to register for this year’s conference & my university purchasing card blocked it – necessitating a call to the accounting office saying it really was a legitimate conference & I wasn’t just trying to use university money to pay for a mid-semester vacation). The past four years, FDG has been off the boat & I’ve been busy enough with other stuff that I haven’t been tempted to apply (though it was in some very nice locales), but I looked with some longing at the CFP when it came out this year: it was back on the boat (though not a Disney boat)! I haven’t been terribly productive this year research-wise & whipping up abstracts has been like pulling teeth with pliers sans anesthesia, so I forgot about FDG for a while, since it is a more technically-oriented conference & I figured my abstract on soft censorship in the PRC would probably be better received at DiGRA.

But a bit before proposals were due, Ian once again suggested I apply, though this time with a panel – something Asia-focused. I roped in William Huber (currently a lecturer at Abertay University), an old friend from grad school, who then roped in Mia Consalvo (Canada Research Chair in Game Studies & Design at Concordia University), for a panel on “game studies and area studies.” Both William & Mia have research interests in Japan, and I, of course, am a Chinese historian; Wm. and I have spent a lot of time over the years chattering about the crossover between the two fields – how can people like me do a better job with games? How can games people do a better job with topics based in (or strongly connected to) Asia? And why should we care? We each have our happy little academic homes; who cares if area studies people do a lousy job with games & game studies people often do a lousy job putting some topics in a broader context? I was grousing about putting the abstract together to a friend, also an area studies person, who said, “Well of course you’re having trouble putting together an abstract – it sounds ridiculous. What could area studies possibly learn from game studies!”  I bit my tongue from elaborating on my experiences leading students through monographs this semester that have illustrated the weakness on both sides. If nothing else, the frustration of teaching with this stuff has heightened my sense that both sides have something to learn from the other (never mind having spent a couple of years motoring around on the edges of academic fields thinking how I could combine two interests into one satisfying whole).

One thing that area studies people love to do is critique area studies. Certainly, there are a lot of problems with such a “meta-discipline” (too many to rehash here), and there’s a lot to be said for the attempts to get out of an area studies, nation-based paradigm. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the general foundation area studies at least purports to demand: linguistic competence, grounding in history, and the umbrella nature of bringing together scholars in a variety of fields to research X. Yes, the “long-term view” has often caused a lot of problems (mod theory, anyone?), but there is a long-term view.

Yellow MusicGames are interesting to plonk down in this context, because we treat them very differently than, say, Chinese opera: they’re global in a way a lot of other cultural products aren’t, almost from their inception. In Yellow Music, Andrew Jones discusses the circulation of jazz (and technology) in a way that’s resonated strongly with me over the years (in a monograph that has the hands-down best conceptual use of “colonial modernity” I’ve ever come across). He notes that one African- American’s account of the Chinese jazz age of 1930’s Shanghai “alerts us to the folly of trying to understand Chinese jazz as an example of Western influence on Chinese musical forms. Nor can the ‘Chinese’ in ‘Chinese jazz’ be relegated to the realm of the merely adjectival ….” He further notes that we must “look at the ways in which both (and indeed all) parties have been and continue to be inextricably bound up in a larger and infinitely more complex process.” While we sometimes append some sort of national marker to games (the ‘Japanese’ in JRPGs springs to mind here), we frequently don’t – often because national origins are obscured through translation and localization, and a rather interesting process of naturalization.

So, for those of us who came up through an area studies framework, games provide a possibility of escape from national boundaries. And if you tend towards studying things that hold, perhaps, limited enchantment for those outside a really narrow circle of academics, the idea of studying something that can find a comfortable home in multiple areas, of interest to many kinds of people, can be intriguing indeed. At the same time, the type of studies that currently exist (I think here particularly of Anne Allison’s work on Pokémon) can often look a bit off-kilter to people who play games (to say nothing of people working in game studies “proper”). So, the lessons of game studies for the stodgy old formation of area studies are two-fold, at least: (1) a way to get out of nation-state centered narratives; (2) ways to deal with games (and other “new media”).  I’ve fielded a couple of questions recently regarding histories of (analog) games in China & I’ve found myself reiterating the fact that there just isn’t much out there, even on important games like weiqi and mahjong. While we were taking in the sea air on my beloved Deck 4, Wm. asked what a ludologically-focused history of weiqi would look like – I said one probably wasn’t possible based on the written evidence left behind (the best “games” paper I’ve read on pre-20th century history of Chinese games is actually very philological in nature – requiring some serious classical Chinese chops), but it sure would be interesting to see a collaboration between a game studies scholar & someone more ensconced in literary or historical studies of area X.

Since this was a game studies(ish) conference, what game studies can get from looking towards another, older “meta-discipline” is the topic we focused more on. Mia told an interesting story about being invited to speak on Japanese videogames at a conferenced focused on Japan – not games – and being on a panel with people working on Noh drama, textile production, etc. She said she felt weird to be on a panel with these other scholars, but at the same time, it was elucidating in underscoring that all of these people – working on very diverse topics – felt part of the same fabric, so to speak.

Some of this is a question of focus – my fundamental object of study is China (how’s that for an area studies mindset?); I’m interested in games culture and games history for their own sakes, but in doing my own work, I am (at the moment) more interested in what games tell me about China, not what Chinese games tell me about games. For the majority of people working in game studies, their fundamental object of study is games. But Anne Allison’s work on Pokémon would’ve been improved had she had a better foundation in straight-up “history of videogames”; other work on the game studies side would be improved if there was a better foundation in historical, anthropological, sociological studies coming from the area studies ghetto. For me, this segues into my general wish for better cultural histories of game(s) culture(s) – I get frustrated with histories that don’t nestle themselves into the bigger fabric of non-games related subjects. 

There’s no point in talking about what the “perfect” scholar would look like – rather, the discussion to continue having is how we can bridge the gap between two sets of researchers separated by a common object of study (games). Game studies is on the whole a lot more open to collaborative research than my home discipline, and it seems a sensible place to start. I heard some scattered chatter about the problem of people coming from “outside” fields and getting rejected for conference after conference, even though they’re doing the kind of work that a lot of people in game studies would appreciate. I’ve been pretty lucky thus far in applying to game studies conferences (my first rejection came from a very properly game studies topic!), but the field can sometimes feel a little closed to outsiders. Silly sounding things like abstract formatting, or CFPs that emphasize “quantitative” research (which I’ve been told is code for “we expect some rigor!”; but for me – who does not, has never done, will never do research that could be classed as “quantitative” – it can be demoralizing, a “we don’t want your kind here” sign, even if that isn’t true) can be really off-putting for someone coming from the outside. I don’t mind learning how to write new kinds of abstracts, or present my work in a different manner; but I do mind things that seem to signal my kind of work isn’t wanted, period, full-stop.

I had just been at AAS prior to FDG, and I love having a well-feathered, comfortable nest of Asianists to flee to once a year (so I understanding being protective of one’s comfortable academic/intellectual space – it’s valuable and necessary) – but it would be really, really nice (for both fields) to see more representation of games scholars at places like AAS, and more people from boring old disciplines at places like FDG and DiGRA. I derive a certain amount of enjoyment from being a Really Odd One Out at places like FDG – I had an amazing epiphany about my dissertation/manuscript over the last dinner at FDG, and part of the reason for that is I’m forced to get out of my familiar sinological/historical happy place – but as Wm. said, “This field can feel very small at times.”

In any case, I wish I had sat down immediately following our panel to scribble down some thoughts (alas, Tolstoy’s “rollicking rom-com” & the view from Deck 4 were calling my name) – it was a nice discussion, and one I was glad to be part of (thanks, Ian). Hopefully it’s one that we can continue. Maybe even on a cruise ship.

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