Graduate Interest Group Spotlight: Keywords for Video Games Studies

Organizers Ed Chang and Theresa Horstman at a recent Keywords workshop.

Avatar. Gamer. Power. Control. Time. Altplay. Fandom. Hack. Customization. These gaming terms may be part of everyday language to those who play video games, but for the members of Keywords for Video Games Studies, a graduate student interest group funded by the Simpson Center, they are much more. When acknowledged as keywords, they become sites of critical engagement and scholarly dialogue.

Founded 2010, Keywords for Video Games Studies brings together UW graduate students to exchange and develop perspectives on and approaches to video game scholarship. Through their workshops, the group’s leader Edmond Chang (English) and other core organizers—Theresa Horstman (Education), Natascha Karlova (Information Science), Sarah Kremen-Hicks (English), and Terry Schenold (English)—collaboratively explore the cultural and social value of video games, as well as their pedagogical and political potential.

An avid player of video games himself, Chang initiated the Keywords group to enrich research discussions and agendas. “I realized that much of the intellectual work I was doing on technology, queer theory, and literature intersected nicely with gaming,” he says. “I want to move beyond discussions of just representation or whether or not games include different kinds of characters to think about how game aesthetics, mechanics, and culture can reveal alternative narratives and understandings of subjectivity and embodiment.”

Chang says his research and scholarship has greatly benefited from being a part of Keywords: “I have discovered that my work does matter, that there are people who take it seriously, and that there is support institutionally and culturally for this emerging field.”

In 2010-2011, the group assembled a series of workshops to consider the vocabulary that is used in conjunction with video gaming. What does it mean to “play” video games? What does it mean to be a “gamer”? This year, Keywords has been advancing critical engagement by exploring video game design and gaming theory. They do so through real-time demonstrations, close playings (what the group refers to as “critical gaming”), and discussion.

Many Keywords members have also become interested in video game pedagogy—how video games function as teaching tools and sites of critical inquiry in the classroom. While students may be intrigued by the idea of studying video games, Keywords members acknowledge the importance of preparing students to approach and play video games as scholars and researchers instead of as enthusiasts. Sarah Kremen-Hicks says, “Students are accustomed to thinking of video games as simply entertainment. To effectively teach with video games, you have to reframe and defamiliarize the medium to allow students to see the critical and analytic possibilities.”

Central to all Keywords meetings is group collaboration. “It can be really hard to do interdisciplinary work, but even as the group brings out differences in methodology, philosophy, even genre preferences in games, there is intentionality, a spirit of sharing and conversation,” says Chang. “It is something that I hope the group inspires in the campus and community at large.”

In fact, some of the keywords have led the group to community connections beyond campus. For example, after learning that Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience would be hosting an exhibition about video games called Asian American Arcade, Chang wanted to sync a Keywords workshop with the exhibition’s opening. He proposed the keyword “gold farming,” the accrual of in-game wealth and resources to be sold for real world money, a term that has become politically, economically, and culturally associated with Asia, particularly China and South Korea. The Keywords group is now partnering with the Wing Luke. Chang calls it “a unique and wonderful opportunity, a forum for talking about issues of race, globalization, and video games beyond campus.”

Core members have presented the work of Keywords at conferences, such as the Serious Play Conference, THATCamp PNW, and the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting. Most recently, Chang and Kremen-Hicks participated in THATCamp Games at the University of Maryland, an “unconference” that brings game designers, enthusiasts, and players, together with humanities instructors and scholars interested in gaming and pedagogy. Keywords members are also representing the Simpson Center as HASTAC Scholars.

In May, the group will host a colloquium on keywords “Research/Design.” Open to game scholars, artists, developers, designers, and enthusiasts, this one-day event takes place on Saturday, May 19, at the Simpson Center. Keywords members see the colloquium not only as an opportunity for individuals and groups to present their work, but also to collectively discuss and collaborate on what it means to study or make digital games, to network, and to play. For more information, visit: https://depts.washington.edu/critgame/wordpress/keywords/