Tag Archive for game studies

“No, YOU’RE a bad Marxist” – On Debates & Things

Well, the semester is well & truly underway here. I’ve been having (anxiety-ridden) fun with my seminar – a topic I’ll come back to in a few weeks – and (completely anxiety ridden) not-so-fun with my manuscript, although I have been making forward progress. On the one hand, I’ve enjoyed getting back into my sources, trawling various databases, and the like; on the other, I keep bumping into walls that remind me I’m Not Very Good at some of this stuff. By which I mean: I have a lot of talents as a scholar (I think), but I also work on a kind of weird topic that’s at the intersection of several different disciplines and sub-disciplines, which often is going to make one feel like an idiot (“Why don’t I know everything about, well, everything“). There have been tears and angry tirades – and the grownup equivalent of temper tantrums directed at one’s self, which in my case usually means stalking off to soak in the bath for a good long while & having some comforting, juvenile dinner, like beer and croutons. But it hasn’t been unproductive, and once I yank myself out of a funk, I usually realize I am making progress!

The past few weeks, I’ve been revisiting/rewriting & doing some fresh work on one of my favorite little interludes from my research – a 1951 debate on drama adaptations of the famous Chinese story, “The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid” [niulang zhinü 牛郎织女]. The story is one of two celestial lovers, who wind up so engrossed in each other & having passionate, celestial sex that they (a) stop herding the celestial cows and (b) stop weaving celestial cloth. This makes other denizens of the celestial realm pretty angry, both because the cows are wandering everywhere and they have no new fabric for clothing. So – in the interests of the greater celestial good – the lovers are forcibly separated, only allowed to meet once a year. This is the basis for the Double Seven Festival – Qixi 七夕, or Tanabata in Japan: the stars Vega and Altair “meet” on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (this does Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 11.13.43 PMactually happen – another star serves as the “bridge”). This has, as far as I know, turned into some bizarre Valentine’s Day spin-off (at least partially), but originally, it was a celebration of women’s work (one of its alternate names is the Qiqiaojie 乞巧节, the ‘Begging for Skills Festival,’ referencing domestic skills & the practice of qiqiao 乞巧, making offerings to the Weaving Girl and holding competitions related to domestic tasks, like threading needles only by the light of the moon) & also one hoping for love or celebrating bonds. Or for missing lovers who were absent – not uncommon, at least among the poetry-writing literati, when husbands were not infrequently off on far-flung bureaucratic assignments and the like. In any case, it’s always struck me as a good deal mopier than Valentine’s Day, for the coupled and singled alike.

Regardless of its mopey (or not) character, it’s an important story & one that has been rather beloved on Chinese stages. Thus, the 1951 debate: to the consternation of many people, some particularly enthusiastic playwrights had been remaking the story to better speak to contemporary events. After all, art was supposed to be drawn from and speak to the people, and that included contemporary concerns, not abstract star lovers. In 1951, this largely meant the Korean War, so there were versions where Harry S. Truman (yes, Truman) was represented in the guise of the King of Demons, supporting characters become helpmates of feudal morality & the patriarchy, the Cowherd & the Weaving Maid actually didn’t mind being separated because it left more time for work (my title for this chapter is actually “The Weaving Maid as Labor Hero”), and the like. Some intellectuals liked this: it was taking art and really making it serve the present! But many intellectuals (the winning side of this debate, actually – both in the short term, and on the whole, at least until 1963/1965) emphatically did not like the idea of Harry Truman (or much of anything else) intruding on a classic, beloved Chinese story, and objected. Loudly. Very loudly. On the pages of People’s Daily, the CCP’s print mouthpiece.

It’s a very interesting debate, and pretty fun (I take particular glee in quoting some of the more snippy parts of it) – I discovered it more or less by happenstance, but it has a lot of things to say about drama reform in this early period, as well as theoretical issues. It’s largely been read solely as a theoretical debate (one on “formulism,” “subjectivism,” and “historical materialism” – the primary concerns here being approaches to historical material). I’m more interested in the actual subject matter of a few key essays, which are fundamentally, I think, addressing questions about how best to handle China’s “traditional” culture and explicating the relationship between art and socialism. There’s theory, to be sure, but we’ve generally looked past all the rest. It’s also simply pretty fun: a spicy, snarky argument between brilliant people – and there’s a certain casualness I don’t usually associate with my sources. It really does remind me of fans debating the particulars of a plot point – just really, really smart fans, deconstructing their perceived enemies in really smart ways. I described it recently on Twitter like this:

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I had a realization at some point while writing my dissertation, while tracing these kinds of debates between 1949 and 1963. For the most part – with very few exceptions – even these pretty violent debates (the subject of the Weaving Girl debate received a serious dressing down on the pages of People’s Daily – it can seem laughable in retrospect, especially some of the words hurled from this side to that, but there was someone who had to read this stuff written about them and their work in the CCP mouthpiece) look less like hardened ideological adversaries than people who are more or less on the same side, just have some quibbles with execution, interpretation, etc. (Kirk Denton points this out regarding Hu Feng & Mao, at least on some subjects, and certainly it’s been noted in a lot of more recent scholarship). From the distance of 70 years, minor stuff: and after all, most of them – with very few exceptions – wound up on the wrong side of the Party during the Cultural Revolution. In the end, time – and Mao – were the great equalizers.

frontWhen I started looking more seriously at older parts of the historiography, I realized the field had spent some time sorting many of these people into various categories. “Establishment” intellectuals, for instance, or “revolutionary” intellectuals. These divisions can be useful, to a point; but they can also obscure a larger point, which is there was frequently a lot more similarities between these people than sorting them into different “camps” would lead you to believe. I don’t mean to imply I think there weren’t differences, or that seemingly minor differences don’t have an impact. As the political trials and travails of the 1950s and early 1960s – never mind the Cultural Revolution – indicate, there were camps, and your opinion on certain matters could have deadly consequences. But at the same time, from a distance of 70 years, there are a lot more similarities than differences. All of the people in my 1951 debate, for instance, agreed that China’s traditional culture was important and should be preserved. They disagreed on what that preservation should look like (among other things). But they agreed on one of the most important things of all: that this was worth arguing about, fighting over.

Largely because I was bound up in trying to understand some of the more theoretical terms of this debate, I missed much of a more recent debate, on the subject of formalism and games. The fact that I was trying to figure out WTF subjectivism-formUlism (subjective-formulism? subjectivism & formulism?) encompassed – and fighting with autocorrect, which kept inserting “formalism” for “formulism” – while people on Twitter & in the blogosphere were viciously arguing about formAlism & games was a weird coincidence. Perhaps it was the spelling similarity in these -isms that made me ponder the similarity between the nature and shape of these debates.

I’m won’t rehash everything here – partially because I haven’t read everything (though I’ve looked at a lot), but partially because I’m less interested in the particulars than the shape of the debate – but I couldn’t help but read through everything and think that some historian, 70 years hence, would be sitting and reading the posts and laughing her head off, in much the same way that I laugh and laugh and laugh when reading my Weaving Girl debates. Not because the stakes were laughable, or the subject, or the writing, or anything else: but because that historian 70 years hence is going to know how things play out, and it’s entirely possible (likely, even) that the denouement will make what came before seem minor in comparison. But also that you’re witnessing – by virtue of being removed from it – people who more or less fall on the same side of an issue argue in a manner not entirely befitting their lack of an ideological gap. I don’t mean everyone falls on the same side of the “formalism” debate. What I mean is that everyone agrees games are important and worth talking about and studying. 

The most striking thing I read, while trying to catch up on some of this, was actually Ian’s comments on game studies as a discipline – found at the bottom of this post. Largely because it struck me as a pretty self-reflexive comment on a field that he has obviously had a large part in, and also has a lot of investment in. And it summed up why I found this all so achingly reminiscent of those “ancient” Weaving Girl debates: ultimately, if game studies is the academic joke Ian sketches it as, the people on both sides of this debate have a lot more in common with each other – at least where games are involved – than they do with the rest of the academy. This isn’t a “can’t we all get along” plea – Ian’s right, I think, in that debate is good in the long run (history hasn’t died as a discipline because we fight like cats and dogs over approach and theory, for instance. Plenty of people have serious disdain for the kind of history I do, and I have my own preferences when it comes to how to do history. That hasn’t stopped each of us from doing our thing – sometimes vicious repartee in major journals, monographs & edited volumes notwithstanding - and I daresay that kind of discussion and debate means the field’s a lot healthier than it would be if we all had the same approach to everything).

And, perhaps (well, almost certainly) ill advisedly, I’ll comment on what’s perplexed me most: the characterization of the “old guard” that says they’re involved in a “power grab” and/or some evil hegemonic power. Game studies has been, in my experience, the most open academic group I’ve been a part of. The idea that there’s essentially an evil cabal denigrating and trying to shut down points of view or research that don’t match their own really, really does not square with my own experience. Yes, I speak from a position of Privilege on multiple levels & that of course colors my perceptions. I “got into” game studies as a grad student because I wrote for Kotaku; I am now a tenure-track professor (of history). But I’m a serious outsider on a disciplinary level: my primary work is on the high socialist period of the PRC, for crying out loud. Even if I wanted to, I’m not equipped to do research on games in the way that much of the “old guard” is. And I don’t want to. And that’s been A-OK – I’ve never been cold shouldered, ignored, told to “kiss the ring” of important scholars, or belittled for being a cultural historian who doesn’t even do games as a primary subject of research. On the contrary, I’ve rubbed shoulders with a lot more luminaries – the “old guard,” I guess – at game studies conferences than I ever have in my home discipline. Doesn’t mean I always agree with them, or them with me, but it’s been a field made up of people (including the powerful and privileged) who have been really welcoming – I dare say encouraging – of different approaches. To be blunt, I’m a lot less freaked out about being a cultural historian when I go to a game studies conference than I am when interfacing with some members of my own field.

At FDG 2014, I was asked for the first time ever “What are you doing here?” (valid question, as it’s a conference where a Chinese historian is going to stick out more than at, say, DiGRA – which was the person’s point). But from that question, which I guess I could’ve taken as sign of latent hostility, flowed a really interesting, productive discussion, one that actually gave me an epiphany about my manuscript. Being in a relatively alien environment, with neither area studies nor history (nor games, for that matter) to fall back on as some kind of disciplinary common ground, I had to articulate my work in a way that made sense for someone whose academic context looks very, very different than mine. Experiences like that one are a reason I still make an effort, however small, to keep in the game studies milieu.

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 I 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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