At the occasion of the launch of IVC 30 Poetics of Play and the “Breaking Boundaries with Video Games 3” conference held at University of Rochester on April 18-19 2019, we asked VCS alumna Aubrey Anable to share with us her experience of writing a dissertation on interactive media in VCS. Aubrey Anable is Assistant Professor of Film Studies in The School for Studies in Art and Culture at Carleton University, where she is also cross-appointed with the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture. Her book Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect (University of Minnesota Press, Spring 2018) provides an account of how video games compel us to play and why they constitute a contemporary structure of feeling emerging alongside the last sixty years of computerized living. Anable is an advisory editor for the journal Camera Obscura. She is currently co-editing The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Visual Culture.
We invited Byron Fong, PhD student currently enrolled in the VCS program working on video game theory and organizer of the Breaking Boundaries conference to the conversation. The interview is moderated by Clara Auclair (PhD student, VCS).
Clara: Thank you Aubrey and thank you Byron for agreeing to do this. I guess we’ll start with a broad question. This question is for both of you: How did you become interested in games and/or interactive media?
Aubrey: I knew when I started VCS that I wanted to do something about the digital shift in relation to cinema. I came from a film studies background, and I was definitely interested in some of the debates that were going on in film theory in the 1990s around the ontological problems with digital technologies and whether or not that is actually a thing. And then as I went through the program, I ended up writing a dissertation about early hypermedia projects from the 1960s and 1970s, thinking about how early experiments with interactive digital technologies were remediating cinematic aesthetics but also creating new things. My work was influenced by people like Lev Manovich, who also came out of the VCS program, and I wanted to continue that tradition of engaging with digital media through the lens of film theory and visual studies. But as I wrote that project, I started reading some of the seminal work that began to come out in game studies, and I remember being a little annoyed with it. I was thinking about video games for my dissertation but it wasn’t the main focus. When I started to read about how people were theorizing what video games are and marking these disciplinary boundaries, it didn’t sit well with what I was thinking about through the lens of visual and cultural studies – so I became more and more interested in this emerging field of game studies – that is how I got into it.
Byron: I guess for me it is in certain ways very similar. My undergraduate background is in film and media studies, and my last year I took two very theoretical courses that shifted me more towards film theory. When I went to graduate school, I had decided that I wanted to go back to media studies for my Masters, but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I loved ‘old school’ film theory, but I didn’t think I would be able to get a job doing only that, so I was trying to figure out what else I could do. I always played video games, but at that time (this would have been in 2012) I felt that there was a shift in the medium. I started seeing a proliferation of indie games, for example. To me it was an explosion of more diverse types of games. I was always interested in video games on a critical level, but I started to think that actually there is way more for me to talk about than maybe at other points. So video games started to inspire me more in a theoretical way. I remember very specifically, as I was writing my statement of purpose, The Last of Us came out. There’s a part in The Last of Us that made me cry. So I thought, if a game can make me cry then I should investigate that: how is it operating, what is the narrative structure that would allow for such a thing to happen? So that was the beginning of it for me. But also, once I became a Masters student, and I started to read all the canonical texts in game studies, I was just frustrated, I became very frustrated. So I started to look elsewhere for methods of thinking through these questions.
Aubrey: Byron you talk about the moment around 2012 when you started seeing some kind of shift in video games – I think that also really affected me. Like I said, I didn’t write my dissertation on video games. I had a chapter that had a video game in it, but it wasn’t what I was thinking about when I started that project. Video games ended up being a part of my dissertation, but it wasn’t until I finished it and started a postdoc in 2010 that I also started seeing that shift in video games. Then I got really interested in video games as an art form. That’s why I ultimately decided to write Playing with Feelings, which wasn’t based on my dissertation but recognizes that there was something going on in gaming culture, and it was something that was related to emotions – like that you cried in The Last of Us. I became very interested in thinking about video games as a form that could seriously affect us. Playing with Feelings picked up on things that I explored in my dissertation, but it was really this entirely separate project. That’s how the book came about.
Byron: That’s unusual, to not base your first book loosely on your dissertation. I am curious – what motivated you to do that?
Aubrey: I realized that some of the things that I was trying to get at in my dissertation had set me up for what I wanted to say now. And also, I was reading this work in games studies that was really making me think–sometimes it was annoying me, but sometimes it was really interesting. That’s where my energy went to. I was really engaged with those questions, and that gave me the momentum to write that book. I had published a few articles from my dissertation, but every time I had to think about it as a book, it didn’t really inspire me anymore, honestly. I think I was telling myself at the time that it was a historical project that I could return to later and the material wouldn’t be stale. But if I wanted to write about contemporary video games, I needed to write about them now, in that moment. The dissertation could wait for me, if I wanted to try to turn it into a book. I think that’s something that everyone who writes a dissertation should be prepared to do. To recognize that a dissertation is not the same thing as a book, and that sometimes that work that you do could work better as several articles but that the core ideas that you are exploring in it can move into a different project.
Clara: You both talked about the frustration you had with film studies and with the other ways you wanted to explore media. What attracted you both to VCS in the first place?
Aubrey: There was part of me that was being very practical as a graduate student. I thought “Ok how am I going to get a job? Well I should maybe think about this digital stuff, because I bet that’s going to be a field where there will be jobs.” But I am not even sure that’s true. But I was also, in an intellectual sense, frustrated with that 1990s film studies moment, which I had been educated in, where the way of dealing with digital technologies was to reassert medium specificity, and I felt that it was undoing a lot of important work in feminist theory, in critical race studies – all the loosening up of disciplinary boundaries that had started to happen in film studies. Something about digital media seemed to be compelling people to redraw those boundaries and that was frustrating so I was trying to think of a way out of that, as other people were. When I started reading work in game studies, what also did not sit well with me was that in the newness of establishing this field, people seemed to feel this need to draw boundaries around what games are and what games are not. That did not sit well with the kinds of things that I was learning in my courses in Visual and Cultural Studies, which is really about critiquing medium specificity in some ways and thinking about the ideological work that kind of boundary drawing tends to do or tends to kind of cover over.
Byron: Yeah, a follow up question on that. I am going to play devil’s advocate a little bit here, because this is something I am in the middle of thinking through. I understand where you are coming from with the critique of medium specificity, but in your book, you clearly really care about it as a medium that has its own specific qualities or affective possibilities – to use your own phrasing. I do think this department helps students think through this type of question, but I am curious to hear your thoughts on that.
Aubrey: Yes, you are totally right. When I say medium specificity, I mean a certain mode of thinking about media as discrete objects that require their own unique approaches and shouldn’t be contaminated by bringing in other fields and that’s what Visual and Cultural Studies undoes. It’s really about thinking about visual culture broadly and in relation to many other things. When I talk about the critique of medium specificity, I don’t mean that you shouldn’t think about the unique traits of particular forms. What VCS does well is balance those two things. It really gave me the tools to balance close reading – and even a type of formalism – with socio-political concerns and thinking about how media interact with a broader landscape. That’s what I mean. And of course I think video games have, as I argue, a different potential to affect our emotions than, say, a film does. They’re not entirely unrelated objects, though. The way The Last of Us made you cry is not entirely unrelated to the way a film can make you cry and that’s what I think I was trying to balance in my book. Can I ask you a question, Byron?
Aubrey: I’ve talked to you a little bit about your work, but how is VCS allowing you to think through your own project and your own relationship to video games?
Byron: I’ll try to be very broad and a little bit more specific. Broadly speaking I don’t know of another program where I could do this project. What I mean is a project that brings in post-structural theory and art history to a discussion of video games. I think that’s a hard sell for many media studies departments that are more interested in writing histories with maybe less meta-level questions. I am still trying to figure out how to do it, because I am interested in very medium specific questions, but the lines you’re talking about also frustrate me. The ludology/narratology debate is obviously the classic one that everyone always brings up, and it has been undone over and over again, but I think the problem with drawing those lines is to make them mutually exclusive. For example, games like The Last of Us – or to give another example, Dark Souls – intertwine the narrative and the form in such a way that, to me, you cannot undo them. I can’t think about how the narrative in The Last of Us makes me care so much about Ellie without also thinking about how it is formally constructing the player-character’s relationship with her. When you start thinking in this way, and I think if VCS doesn’t explicitly teach you to do this it certainly encourages it, then what you’re actually opening up is a much messier way of thinking about visual objects, where all these things are kind of intertwined in a messy way and the presumption is that it should be messy and that you can’t really just parse them out into discrete, separate entities. So I am trying to stay with that – to stay in that mess – and try to find a way to think about it as a mess. In general, that’s the difference in what VCS’s approach has been.
Aubrey: Yeah, I like that. Staying with the mess, basically. Staying with the disorder and not trying to in a reductive or overly simplistic way say that you can kind of tease these things apart and not do some kind of damage to them in terms of how you tease them apart. I think that’s right.
Byron: Yeah, I’ve never been taught a taxonomy in VCS, and I am pretty happy about it [laughs].
Clara: I do have one more question. I would be curious to hear you talk a little bit about the exam, because I feel that the exam is one of the strengths of this program that allows students to do work like that – staying with the mess – because they have to write a chapter and submit their own bibliography and submit their work to people that might not be experts in the field they’re working in. And they’ll be ok with that. They won’t tell you to do something – or rather not to do something – just because they feel they aren’t familiar with the subject. In your’s and Byron’s example – working with Sharon Willis – she is not an expert of interactive media and game studies, but she gladly advised both of you.
Aubrey: Yeah there is something I think really unique about VCS in the willingness of the faculty and the program to supervise and engage with projects that maybe aren’t directly related to their expertise and interests. Because it is such an interdisciplinary program, it attracts students who feel like what Byron was saying earlier, that they can’t do elsewhere. You do get these wonderfully wild and diverse projects, and no program could possibly have faculty that could be experts in all of this. So, yes, the willingness of Sharon Willis to supervise my dissertation on interfaces, interface design, and the history of hypermedia illustrates some kind of wider generosity in the program. For me I really wanted to work with Sharon because I wanted someone who would read it rigorously from a film studies perspective because that’s the field that I wanted to be speaking to mostly. And I wanted it to be legible to her, and I wanted her to ask questions that film and media scholars would ask. And that’s what she did and that’s what I needed. And I think that’s something that faculty in VCS are totally open to doing. And it’s just something about the very form of the program itself.
Byron: I can’t speak about the exam but to go back to what I was saying earlier: when I was applying to graduate programs, my writing sample was on Bloodborne and I used Benjamin’s concept of baroque allegory, and I work with Paul de Man’s essay on The Castle by Kafka as a way to think about an allegorical structure within Bloodborne. And I am pretty sure that when I sent this to more traditional film programs, they must have thought “what is this?”, you know? In more traditional art history departments, it might not even be a case of whether they think my work is good or not, but more like, we don’t have anyone in our faculty who knows anything about games or would feel comfortable working with that person. And I think in VCS – it shouldn’t be unusual but I think it is – the attitude is more like, we’re not here to be an expert on your object; we’re here to be a guide of a method – a method of critiquing and thinking about things.That’s the role they take on, more than trying to make you the next in line for a little subfield of the department.
Aubrey: Yes, exactly. And I think there is a lot to be said for that. From the start, VCS sets you up to be your own expert, to be the expert in your very own narrow thing that you are carving out. That’s useful, you know. Ultimately everyone who goes to the job market has to convince lots of other people that they are an expert. I think VCS sets you up, even through something like the exam process, to be able to convince people coming from various different disciplinary perspectives that you know what you’re talking about.