Thursday, June 26, 2014

Game Research

I'm sure I've talked about this before, but it's a topic that's been on my mind of late: how to research videogames.

The problem with academic research is that it's slow. (Especially when I'm doing it. Hiyoooooooo) But not just in terms of doing the research, which is necessarily slow because it takes time for the proper methods to be employed, and for the deep thought necessary to happen. But it's also slow to publish. Part of that is again part of the proper methods; it takes time to put things through the peer review, to edit and amend, and that is also all necessary for a better end result. But there's also the delays that happen because bureaucracy is slow, because the publishing industry is a huge system that (especially with academia) can't keep up with the rate of change.

And this hits videogames harder than most; if you're very, very fast, you might be able to present on a specific videogame at a conference within four months of its release. And then it'll be about a year from the game's release before the proceedings go out, at the latest. Another six months for a journal article. A year at least to develop into a book chapter. And by that time, because of the rate of consumerism in the videogame industry, what ever you had to say is no longer relevant. That's why (or at least one of the reasons why) so much of game studies focuses on games that are clearly going to be around for a while, like World of Warcraft, or focus on general metholodogies over studying individual games. Often, I think, people don't bother to go beyond that conference or course paper, and whatever they said about an individual game never gets the audience it deserves.

(Fighting this lag, incidentally, is one of the foundational ideas behind First Person Scholar's existence.)

But that isn't to say that critical commentary on individual games doesn't happen. It does, all the time. But it happens in blogs and game sites, rather than in the hallowed halls of official academia. (Felan Parker, usefully, refers to this writing as essayatic criticism. Two FPS links in one post. I'm on a roll.)That means, sometimes, that it isn't critical in the same way, and doesn't have the same kind of research and backing. But it is timely, it is thoughtful, and it's actually happening, which puts it more than a few steps above the academic model, a lot of the time.

The problem, however, is that it's so timely that the turnover rate is very, very fast. There's commentary on a new game that came out; if it grabs people's attention, they'll talk about it for a month or so; then they turn their attention to the next game. That means that finding this research years later is a difficult task (and maybe an unethical one too, if you factor in how people think of their personal blogs, but that's an issue for another day). And at least Blogspot has automatic archiving; searching for a specific tumblr post in a prolific feed may be an exercise in futility. This ephemeral sort of writing has its advantages, especially in terms of making things feel more like an actual conversation, and giving the writer a sense they can speak freely. But it is not great for citing quality writing and giving credit to the awesome work that people have already done.

And all of this leads to my current predicament. I'm researching a bunch of 21st century games for my dissertation at the moment, and most never reached the level of popular acclaim to receive considerable academic attention (another problem with academy game studies). So to find out what people said about them critically, I need to do a lot of searching through articles that, likely, no one has seen or thought of in years. Worse, I can't just type it into Google, because if you type practically any videogame title into Google, you get thousands of commercial pages, but very little critical commentary. What I've taken to doing is using Google's custom search--a service Google offers where you can search a specific list of websites rather than all sites for your key terms. You can even weight the results, so that personal blogs are presented before
big sites, if you so desire. The problem is that I can only add the sites to the list that I'm already aware of, so there's a big bias as to what sites I'm looking at. For that purpose, Critical Distance has proven essential; I've taken to checking them weekly not for the content, but just for the list of sites they present. (Although the content of the links is very good too!)

Anyway, this was just a brief discussion of how I'm dealing with some of the vagaries of Internet-based videogame research. Tomorrow, I'll walk you through the actual results of using my custom search, for a game called Nier--and I'll deliver a paen on the value of the Wayback Machine.

Later Days.

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