Building a Collaborative Network for Gaming Studies

Amanda Phillips, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis, is at the center of several exciting initiatives that bring together collaborative work on humanistic approaches to science and technology. From organizing events and running the meetings at ModLab, to facilitating game design workshops, and mentoring graduate students interested in the cultural studies of science and technology, Phillips is helping to make UC Davis a hub for gaming studies.

On the need for multi-disciplinary approaches to game studies, Phillips said, “video games are so complex – they are a microcosmic view of larger technoculture – and it requires multiple perspectives to understand them.”

Phillips came to Davis through an IMMERSe Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Interactive and Multi-Modal Research Syndicate funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to establish a research network for the study of video game immersion. Professor Colin Milburn in English is one of the Principal Investigators of the IMMERSe grant and among the faculty who started the ModLab.

ModLab is an experimental research laboratory for digital humanities, media operations, and postdisciplinary innovations at UC Davis. The lab is developing new tools and methods to address the challenges faced by scholars working at the intersection of the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Focusing on new media technologies and processes of modification, the lab offers a dynamic and collaborative environment for postdisciplinary modes of research.

Phillips completed her Ph.D. in English at UC Santa Barbara and wrote a dissertation that proposed a critical approach to the cultural and technological effects of video games. Her research unites platform and software studies approaches with feminist, queer, and critical race theory, investigating specific video game design practices like digital animation and avatar customization to understand how difference is produced and policed in gaming communities.

“My strengths as an English major allow me think about how the technology and the cultural content both work against one another and create new possibilities,” Phillips continued.

Engaging Interdisciplinary Projects

At UC Davis, Phillips is applying her gaming skills with English Ph.D. candidate Joseph Nguyen to a year-long series of workshops on game design. This workshop series is open to humanities students and faculty interested in learning software programs to create video games. This workshop offers participants the chance to think about games as the design of systems that work together to reflect society, or for a user to “throw a wrench in the system and see what happens,” Phillips said.

Beyond video games in particular, Phillips is interested in issues of social justice in and around technoculture, popular media, and the digital humanities. Using a cultural studies of technology approach, Phillips explores how video games work as systems of meaning and representation, and she also incorporates technological praxis into her research. She has built facial customization interfaces to consider how a computer thinks about racial and gendered differences when creating avatars.

As part of the ModLab, Phillips is engaged in a slew of projects, including a May symposium on neo-medievalism and gaming – “Considering that gamer culture is so influenced by neo-medievalism and Tolkien, I’m shocked there hasn’t been more attention to this,” Phillips added. UC Davis will be taking the lead on research and scholarship in this area.

She is also assisting with a Shakespeare karaoke-style game called “Play the Knave,” partnering with Associate Professor of English Gina Bloom and Milburn. This game uses a motion-capture camera to record players acting out Shakespearian plays using different stages, sets, characters, costuming. “Play the Knave” will debut at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Waterloo next year.

Supporting Collaboration and Mentorship

For Phillips, an important outcome of ModLab and her work with the IMMERSe network is to create a model for interdisciplinary collaboration with humanities scholars, programmers, and social scientists. She explained that collaborative work is very challenging due to institutional barriers that restrict what kinds of work counts towards career advancement.

“In the humanities, we don’t have a working model for collaboration,” Phillips said, so a co-authored paper with an English scholar and a computer scientist will be recognized differently in each department.

Despite these barriers, Phillips and others recognize that transdisciplinary collaborative work is critical to addressing difficult problems. Rather than expect a single individual to be an expert on a social problem, “it is easier and more effective to get different experts together to speak to each other and produce something worthwhile,” Phillips explained.

Phillips is working towards building infrastructure around collaborative work to encourage new modes of scholarly output and answer the question, “What happens when we bring the strengths of disciplines together and create something entirely new?”

Perhaps most rewarding for Phillips is her work with HASTAC, the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory. HASTAC is a massive network of scholars and provides a tremendous platform for innovative scholarship.

As a HASTAC mentor, Phillips is providing the same support and encouragement she received early in her career to six UC Davis graduate students. “Because HASTAC is such an established network, they have the infrastructure and authority to grant legitimacy to young scholars asking powerful questions about culture and gaming,” Phillips said. “This is risky work that could easily be trolled and dismissed in other online platforms.”

As a younger scholar, Phillips and co-facilitator Margaret Rhee ran a queer and feminist new media spaces forum on HASTAC, which pushed participants to think about gaming, online culture, and feminist/critical race studies. That forum is still the most popular online discussion of its kind, and Phillips noted that it would not have been possible without the wide-reaching, collaborative infrastructure of HASTAC.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies