Research through video game design

Concordia’s Technoculture, Art and Games research lab brings new ideas to digital life

It is as if you were doing work is a video game that starts on a retro, Windows-like desktop computer interface. It asks you to write a bunch of seemingly productive emails and accomplish easy tasks. As you complete them, you earn points and eventually get promoted. Inspirational work-related stock photographs pop up every few minutes. It can go on forever or until you, the player, die.

This video game is a work of speculative design, a field of academia where researchers design hypothetical futures, explained Pippin Barr, the game’s creator. Barr is also the co-director of the Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) research lab at Concordia, a place for researchers, professors and eligible graduate students from diverse faculties to research video games and design them collaboratively.

According to Barr, in an automated future, computers would replace workers, and humans would be free to do whatever they please. He was left wondering: What would we be doing if we didn’t have to work anymore? Maybe we’d always be “Netflix and chilling” or spending our time creating art?

What Barr speculated, however, was that we might feel the need to play a video game where we accomplish work to feel productive again. Instead of writing an essay about the idea, he designed and programmed a game around it.

The TAG lab hosts 57 students—13 of whom joined in 2017—and 21 faculty members. But when Barr and I met on a Thursday morning, the lab was empty.

“Ten in the morning is a bit early for graduate students,” he explained. “But I’d say, on average, you might see at least 10 or 15 or 20 people in here. There is always a nice buzz around.”

Located on the 11th floor of Concordia’s EV building, the lab is a large, open, well-lit space with computer stations lining three of its four walls. A chalkboard bears the marks of a past brainstorming session, and there’s a small DIY workshop bench with a 3D printer.

In the lab’s entrance, various gaming machines are plugged into a TV. There’s even a fake fireplace to gather around. “We make games and playful things,” Barr said.

“In Quebec [and Canada], there is a thing called research creation,” said, “which is the idea that creative or artistic practice—so for instance making a videogame—can be a form of research and knowledge production. That’s a very big part of what TAG does.”

As Barr explained it, research creation involves developing ideas about the future, but “rather than writing an essay about it, […] you can convey the actual experience of that future by creating a game.”

Another game produced in the lab is a game called rustle your leaves to me softly. Created by PhD students and TAG members Jess Marcotte and Dietrich Squinkifer, the game asks players get to know a fellow living creature: a live plant. When the player touches a real plant connected to a computer through sensors and wires, the plant responds with soothing sounds and poetry. It is an attempt to let a plant communicate.

“We also have completely just straight-up scholars [in our faculty] who write these amazing books, like Mia Consalvo, for instance,” Barr said. “She is extremely well-known in the field of game studies.”

Consalvo is a professor and the research chair in game studies and design at Concordia. Her latest book, Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts, studies Japan’s video game scene and the aesthetics of Japanese video games. “She writes in this extremely scholarly mode,” Barr said.

So how can graduate students become members of the lab? According to Barr, “students who are planning on doing a graduate degree […] have to choose a supervisor, who is going to be the main person who advises them in their process. If that supervisor is a member of TAG, then as an added bonus, they become a member of the lab if they want to.”

The lab does try to make exceptions for students with special projects, Barr Said. “If it seems that being at TAG would be really good for that project and they could contribute back to TAG, then they can propose it to us.” But access is limited. “We try to have as many people as we can without accidentally completely overstraining our resources.”

Photo by Olivier Sylvestre


Break it down for me: Video games

Concordia professor says academics need to start paying attention to the growing industry

According to EEDAR, a gaming industry analytics firm, 65 per cent of the United States population played video games in 2016. In 2015, consumers spent a total of $23.5 billion on video game software, hardware and accessories.

The gaming sector is rapidly becoming a juggernaut in the media industry, and academia is starting to pay attention.

Carolyn Jong, a contract instructor and PhD student at Concordia University, designed and teaches “Video games and/as Literature,” one of the few undergraduate courses at Concordia where students look at games from a cultural perspective. The Concordian met with Jong so she could explain why academics should pay attention to the industry.

Why do games matter? Why is it important to study them?

They’re a test case, an example, for where our economy is heading and where our culture is going. You should pay attention to it for the same reason you pay attention to any major medium that plays such a significant role in both our economy and our culture.

Mainly, there are two reasons: one is economic and the other is cultural. Economics and culture are interconnected, and it is really important to look at how they interact with each other in relation to video games.

Let’s start with the economic side.

There is a shift in what we call the “First World” or western developed economies towards a focus on immaterial labour. There is a lot of focus on the cultural industries, on technology, on communications, logistics, all that sort of stuff—and the game industry is obviously part of that. From that, you’re seeing a shift in how work places are being organized and in how and where capital in our society is being invested. It’s important to pay attention to those shifts. A lot of us [in the developed world] are employed in these industries, or want to work in them, so they have big implications for all of us.

Also, video games are always pushing for technological development. It’s sort of an arms race where, between game developers, they are constantly trying to improve the technology, like graphics. The gaming industry pushes for technological improvements. Every year or so, new graphics cards, new processors, new consoles come out. That pushes for the consumption of more hardware, like fancier computers and new consoles. We need to look at how the gaming industry is driving the consumption of computers and other digital technologies and the impact it has on the environment and the people working in those industries.

Can you give us some examples?

A lot of the raw minerals used in computer chips are mined in Africa. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a really well-known supplier of coltan, which is a mineral mostly used for making electronics. The working conditions in most coltan mines are terrible. It’s pretty much slave labour. But a lot of the consumption of electronics isn’t happening in those countries. It is getting shipped out, usually to China or to other manufacturing areas, and then that gets shipped again to wealthy western nations.

Without [the exploitation of these people], there would be no game industry. We wouldn’t have the devices that we need to make video games, let alone play them.

How do video games affect us culturally?

Video games are such a big part of culture that it has an impact on people’s general sense of who we are. It does pay to pay attention to how games might be influencing the way that we think about ourselves. Often, it happens at a subconscious level—it’s not an explicit part of the message that is in the game, but it’s just part of the logic of the game or how the game works. You are not realizing that you are internalizing some of these things, but you learn to take certain things for granted or accept things as normal because you are participating in those games. For example, you can internalize through video games stereotypes about socially-constructed gender roles or racism.

Let’s talk about something we can learn from all that. You did research on “Gamergate,” when prominent female and trans game critics, developers and journalists who wanted change in the industry were harassed by a group of male gamers. There were death threats and rape threats. Is gaming part of an identity that some people are afraid of losing?

In a capitalist system, we are encouraged to identify ourselves through the clothes we wear and through the things we buy—through consumption. If you play games, you are a gamer. That’s part of your identity, right? And you start to be on the defensive if someone is being critical of the thing that you like. For example, if someone is critical of a TV show that you like, it feels almost like a personal attack on you because part of who you identify as comes from your consumption of that thing.

There was a shift in the 80s and 90s in the video game industry to find a target market; it turned out to be young men and teenage boys. It made sense, because they tend to have the most disposable income. But it shaped the culture around games. All of a sudden, publicity only showed white boys and men playing games. For decades, you had women and girls playing games who didn’t really feel it was theirs. They felt it wasn’t something they were supposed to do. It was a boy’s thing. We ended up with a video game culture that, by and large, privileges straight white middle-class cis-men.

That ended up with a toxicity in the culture. There was an understanding from these men of: “we own games” or “games are ours.” It’s not that conscious, but that’s how they think about it. They were hostile to anyone who wasn’t a straight white man. They saw them as outsiders.

You’re doing a PhD on video games at Concordia. How is it going? How is it viewed in the world of academia?

It depends. Right now, there is a lot of focus in the government about promoting video games, because it brings jobs and some other economic benefits. There are huge subsidies in Quebec that go to the major companies in the industry. That’s influencing academia as well; as government policy shifts in that direction, that also means there’s more funding for projects that look at digital stuff in general, and at games in particular.

But it’s still slow. There is a fear in academia that, if there’s money going into studying games, that means there will be less funding for studying literature or for film or for other stuff. But that is just a reflection of the way the institution works. We need to look at what is creating that lack of funding in the first place, instead of fighting each other for what gets studied at the university.

Also, academics are used to being experts. I think it can be scary to be presented with something that you might not be familiar with, and then reject it or not pay attention to it. But again, that’s institutional. In academia, you have to pretend to be an expert because, if you’re not an expert, then what value do you have for the institution?

But with younger people who want to work in the industry and who are coming into university, there is a huge demand to study games. So that change is going to happen, one way or another. I just hope the critical aspect of game studies doesn’t get left behind. A lot of people are coming into it looking for a career in games, and often the programs that are set up to cater to that aren’t about teaching you to be critical of the medium or to think about it deeply or reflect on it. They turn you into a cog inside a machine. You just learn the skills to gain a job in the game industry.

Increasingly, universities are moving in that direction. I’m a bit concerned by that. But that’s not just a problem with games, that’s a problem everywhere. It’s just very obvious with games, because it’s happening very quickly.

“Break it down for me” is a series of articles where The Concordian meets with experts from our university to learn more about pressing issues in our society.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo by Olivier Sylvestre

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