hc7: Bob Rehak, The Sky’s the Limit

Some weeks ago, a friend of mine – a faculty member in the Department of Communication and Culture here at Indiana University – invited me to give a guest lecture on videogames in her undergraduate course on new media. When I asked about possible topics, she replied that just anything would be fine: projects I’m working on, debates within the discipline, media “convergence,” mainstream criticism of game violence … sky’s the limit.

It was an interesting situation to be in. Not just for the internal summit meeting it prompted (what would I talk about, anyway?), but for what it suggested about how our department is evolving, how the priorities of the university have changed, and how the interests of three groups close in age and professional development are slowly, stealthily, and surely merging. One group is the undergrads who eat, sleep, and breathe media. Another is the associate and assistant professors, brand-new PhDs whose goal is to make visible the hidden logics and inner workings of that electronic, message-filled environment. And the third, to which I belong, is the graduate students who mediate between the first two groups, maintaining “classroom cred” with the young while preparing themselves for a future career whose form and focus, like the game medium itself, are by no means set in stone.

It’s the grad students that I want to talk about today. For it stands to reason that the apprentice experience of videogame scholars will profoundly influence their professional trajectories, shaping research interests, theoretical skills, collegial relationships, and overall attitude toward their chosen field. To stretch a botanical metaphor: As the twig is bent, so the tree will grow. The first wave of academic videogame studies is in full flower. What kind of crop are we raising now to replace it three to five years down the road?

My faculty friend almost counts as group three. She is a recent hire, reflecting our department’s increased focus on “new media” – not that anyone is sure how to define that term, but it looks impressive on paper and is an area of intense interest to grads and undergrads alike. Her syllabus touches only tangentially on videogaming (I am, in some ways, a token nod to the nascent field), but its primary focus, the construction of identity online and the reconfiguration of community in networked digital communication environments, certainly intersects the interests of game studies. As yet, though, there are no full-fledged videogame courses in the lineup at either the graduate or the undergraduate level. Our game-specific offerings are limited to the occasional summer class, visiting lecture, or brown-bag lunchtime discussion.

This has caused some complaint. Shouldn’t a modern communication department, proud of its interdisciplinarity (having emerged as a synthesis of speech, telecommunications, cultural and American studies, and comparative literature), offer something more “state of the art” than film classes? Undergrads don’t seem to notice the lack; accurately or not, they feel they already “know” games through direct experience. But grad students who study games are impatient with methods courses rooted in literary, rhetorical, and televisual/cinematic studies.

And to be honest, rhetoric won’t go near videogames here at Bloomington – film and TV courses are the only settings elastic, eclectic, or eccentric enough to tackle the topic. IU’s Telecommunications Department does offer courses centered on videogaming: an entire program, in fact, called the Masters in Immersive Mediated Environments, which I minored in as part of my plan of study. But I found MIME to be allergic to the kind of theorizing that is our bread and butter, dismissing it as useless egghead abstraction. Those who can’t make games, write about games – a principle that forces our most adventurous and envelope-pushing students into the either/or of narrowminded game development or the free fall of a diverse but unfocused interdisciplinary space. So where does this leave graduate students who are reluctant to confine their intellectual fun to Flash programming or drafting design docs, but hungry to acquire critical and theoretical tools relevant to the medium?

The problem is that we are still forging those tools, kludging them together like the MIT hackers who developed Spacewar. We’re figuring it out as we go along, following our instincts and passions and retrofitting readings as necessary. It is a problem, but it’s also a possibility – a promise. What’s exhilarating about doing videogame research at present is that we can take it just about anywhere we choose, applying this theory to that object with perverse abandon. There simply does not exist the kind of supervisory apparatus (courses, advisors, even a critical mass of other students to bounce ideas off of) that would provide structure and guidance for our explorations.

Which is just as it should be. Even at this stage, game studies already has its divisions and rivalries: incessant debates, like the narratology-versus-ludology shouting match, which are productive for sharpening our argumentative claws but lamentable for the way they draw off vital energy and sow seeds of discord among scholars who would be better served by getting along (and getting on with their own work). If the discipline were more organized, students would be forced to choose sides – or worse, like children of racist parents, have sides chosen for them – forever limiting the range of their questioning. Game studies needs less regulation and more “play” if it is to lead anywhere other than a group of entrenched and embittered academics hurling rocks at each other while the university’s resources are directed toward flashier and more accessible areas of study. (This would be a shame, as the best videogames are all about flashiness and accessibility.)

Not that there aren’t drawbacks. The relative lack in game studies of peer review and editorial direction, as opposed to what’s mandated in film studies, means that emerging scholars sometimes duplicate each other’s work, reinventing the wheel rather than contributing knowledgably to a collective conversation. But that will take care of itself as time goes on and we learn from our mistakes. I myself have felt the burn, from both ends: not getting cited where perhaps I should have been, and being forced to scrap a paper in progress upon learning (to my embarrassment) that I was barking up a tree somebody else climbed years ago. But that’s a matter of doing careful lit reviews.

So what I am going to talk about in the new media lecture? Probably something to do with teen violence, Grand Theft Auto, and the moral guardians on “Sixty Minutes.” An old chestnut, but one worth revisiting. (Also, my friend suggested that her students are interested in such things.) I don’t look forward to the topic as much as to engaging the undergrads in a discussion of their own curiosities. For just as I and my grad-student colleagues are building the next wave of game studies, there’s another generation – with their own games, predilections, and politics – ready to take over from us.


Bob Rehak is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. His work has appeared in The Video Game Theory Reader (Routledge, 2003) and the journal Information, Communication and Society (December 2003). He is currently writing a dissertation about special effects.

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