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Gaming and the academic job market

Matthew Kaplan's picture

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How many lucky souls get the chance to do what they love for a living?

I love to teach. I love to write. And now I know for certain that I love to teach and write about video games. Teaching a Writing about Popular Culture course this past semester gave me my first taste of what it would be like to engage students on a topic that is truly meaningful to me, not just as a hobby, but as an intellectual interest and lifelong pursuit.

Perhaps the biggest mistake I made, however, was not settling for the off-chance to discuss games in the college classroom. No, I also made it the topic of my dissertation (specifically, environmental ethics in MMORPGs).

Long before I started my dissertation, I realized that it was risky to use the culminating experience of my doctoral degree as a last chance to transform something I love into something that could potentially generate a career. Academia has certainly warmed up to games—particularly the concept of learning through gaming—over the past several years, but that does not mean gaming is a viable specialization on which to rest one's burgeoning academic reputation. And I don't, really. I (rightfully) advertise myself as a specialist in environmental rhetoric and new media studies.

But the dissertation inevitably and justifiably comes up often during the job search, and there are few ways to put lipstick on the pig of writing a book-length document about what many scholars still consider (erroneously) to be child's play. And it's not like I'm an anthropologist, sociologist, behavioral psychologist, or someone else with a vested interest in turning play into some easily definable, observable "social phenomenon."

I'm a student of rhetoric for crying out loud. I believe in examining the social artifact in all its many shapes and roles, and we know that modern gaming and game design is nothing if not amorphous, densely layered, and interdisciplinary. Examining the rhetoric of games is something that is best done from the inside-out, equal parts close-textual and social-study... starting at the center of an immense web and feeling out the threads as they expand into multiple corners. And that is an approach that is very hard to mask when interviewing for English and Communications departments who increasingly find any non-cultural modes of interpretation useless in preparing students for careers in globalized, synergized, and particularly "non-artsy" professions. Understanding the subtleties of clever symbolism and imagery only goes so far, I guess, when you have to write a grant, design a website, or prepare an instructional document. Cultural and technological rhetoric is in. Art interpretation and appreciation is out.

And I'm the first one to admit that my dissertation, which features a close-textual analytical approach, is as much about art interpretation as it is about the tenuous promotion of real-world environmental ethics. I'm not investigating ISO 14001 standardization routines or eco-toxicological reports, after all. I'm investigating polygonal landscapes in virtual worlds.

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I know I approached this from the wrong end... as student rather than already-master. The most successful game studies academics are established professionals and scholars who first approached the subject from other disciplinary angles. James Paul Gee is first and foremost a researcher of education. Edward Castranova, economics. Henry Jenkins, media communication. Others, like Ian Bogost and Richard Bartle, start with the design or computer science angle (either as academics or professional designers) and move forward from there. Still others come from a games journalism background (a notoriously difficult industry in which to gain any kind of career momentum). It didn't hurt that their timing has been likewise splendid, getting in on the game studies movement long before blogs like mine were as common as cow turds.

Regardless of the background, it's obvious that such scholars and professionals love to write about digital entertainment. They don't just play games with their careers, so to speak; they make gaming part of their serious, scholarly pursuits.

But I took a severe risk. I "gamed" my career before it started.

Still, it's all about how one presents oneself, and God knows I've played down the gaming. I've been lucky enough to be interviewed by four universities this past year. Nothing has come of these interviews yet, although I (perhaps stupidly, given the economy) had to turn down an on-campus interview for geographical reasons.

I was extremely blessed to be interviewed for a Digital Studies position at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee... blessed because the open-rank position was written with something like a game studies scholar in mind. Having just come off a bad case of the flu and still suffering from nausea and fever, I absolutely spaced during the early-morning interview, and during the worst possible parts. A question about a possible graduate-level class in game studies threw me for a loop (and if by some chance any member of that search committee is reading this, let me take this opportunity to sincerely apologize for my seeming stupidity). It was the worst interview I have ever performed in my life, and given the dream quality of the job, I became extraordinarily depressed after it was over. I didn't want to eat or talk to anyone for days. God bless my fiance for putting up with me.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and whether I would have been a good fit for that job or not, I didn't even give myself the chance to highlight my strengths as a teacher and researcher. I saw a version of myself in some other dimension, doing what I loved for a living, waving goodbye.

I believe I did very well in the other three interviews, although there were telling signs during the last two that the search committee felt my dissertation topic was problematic. The interviewers—wonderfully kind as they were—approached gaming like some kind of obscure foreign language, accessible only to their children. In both interviews I heard something along the lines of, "I don't really understand these games... but my kids do. Please walk me through this...." And these weren't exactly stodgy senior faculty members. All of the interviewers were vibrant, talkative, and warm. They used slang, told jokes.

God of War Screenshot

But gaming was obviously a bump in the road. Not exactly "beneath" them, but purposefully made to be something other than education. I'd talk through my approach to the topic, showing that I, too, am something of an outsider (e.g., that I do not personally prefer to play these sorts of games but they fascinate me as a researcher, which is absolutely true). I can't really say whether they recognized the fact that I understood and even empathized with their innate revulsion. I played it off as best and as honestly as I could.

Thinking about these interviews, I'm reminded of Ken McAllister's preface in GameWork, wherein he apologizes to his colleagues who have had to journey to far-off archives and sites to conduct research, whereas he simply sat on his computer and wrote about games. Even so, McAllister's book is about the rhetoric of game design... professional discourse. I can't even imagine how sorely he'd feel about MY apparent intellectual laziness.

It's as if to be taken seriously with regard to game studies, you either have to have already successfully undergone academic/professional trial by fire, or you have to get profoundly lucky and announce your unnecessary mea culpa for being so blessed as to talk about something fun for a living. And during my interviews, I found myself taking on that same apologetic tone... although I hadn't even come close to a job offer!

I'm not sure why I condemned myself to this sort of academic leprosy. I must have known it was going to turn out this way. And it certainly hasn't made my dissertation any easier to write; writing is writing. It's about communicating your thoughts as accessibly and interestingly as possible, and that's never an easy task. You have to have good ideas... and I'm naive enough to believe I do.

I'm certainly no longer optimistic that those ideas will have anything to do with a job in academia. Odds are if I land a teaching job, it probably won't reflect my immediate research interests. And that means I probably won't land a teaching job at all.

For better or worse, I have to be all right with that. I played this particular game and lost. The question is, am I still winning on any level? Some part of me believes there is worth in my dissertation, if only for the sake of intellectual curiosity. I keep telling myself that a Ph.D. in the Humanities isn't ONLY about a college job. It has to be about your heart and soul. It has to reflect who you have become as a thinker, not just as a professional.

But I don't always believe myself. Not in this economy. Still, work is work. If I get work, I'll be happy. If I can still afford to keep writing here, I'll be happy. In 2010, even some small smidgen of happiness is worth a metric ton. If you, the reader, can take away anything from my experiences, whether it's a lesson to play it safe with your research or what it's like out there on the academic job search, I'd be happy with that, too. Because I'm not just talking to myself here. This is no exercise in self-pity.

We're all in this game together.

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The long game

I know how you feel. I'm wrestling with the cruelties of the worst-ever job market for the humanities myself, and its easy to question your own choices. It's not just games -- my specialty in 1980s Hollywood is a little more on the beaten path, sure, but for many it still seems like a niche or novelty field. And getting three interviews is no small feat (it's actually more than anyone I know personally).

But I think it is worth remembering that academia is more like WOW than Mario 2--you don't need to pick one set of attributes, the levels aren't linear, it is as much about collaboration and experimentation than reaching one single end point or overcoming one boss. You succeed by playing the long game, not the short.

Good luck to you (and save some for me, as well).

Same boat

This article hit a chord. I am in a department moving faster and faster towards "emerging practices" which means faster and faster away from such anachronistic ideas as "film" and "video" haha. Where do I fit in?

My specialty: the long static take currently being most utilized in Asian cinema...hmmmm...

I am in a Media Study dept made famous by structuralist film and videomakers of the 70s, I want to make videos and write about film/film theory...and I feel ostracized!

Starting to think about the job market/graduating/doing something with my life...and this article was a good read.

Good luck with your endeavors, I think I'm gonna need it (and good luck to the poster above me!)

80s Hollywood huh? That's awesome. And I mean that sincerely. Do you have particular filmmakers you focus on?

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